A brutal knock on the door. When I opened it, three German soldiers with rifles barged in and grabbed me. I didn't resist; it's not my way. I only looked, oddly, it seems in thinking back, at my world, the bookcase. I had made it by hand. I'm a good carpenter. In my mind as I was tousled and man-handled, I bid farewell to my sturdy friend whom I had constructed out of good oak, whose corners I made smooth by plane and carefully dovetailed. I was hit with a rifle butt in my kidney and smacked about before the soldiers dragged me off to a waiting lorry filled with other men from my shtetl.
I'm no longer the person I was. Living my life as a carpenter, I made the bema for our shul, led the raising of a barn, made kitchen utensils and cutting boards for the village women. I lived my life without living my life. Who really does? Who really goes about constructing a life to be led? If we're so inclined, we're often past our prime before we get started. My secret delight was my reading. Having been a good enough student in cheder, I wanted to read everything. I was a good Jew with a good mind, I suppose, looking back. I just didn't need a god. One father, bless his soul, was more than enough. The real epiphany of my life was outside and behind the schoolroom with my friend, Moishe. We had gone to pee before Hebrew class.
I had my writing tablet and siddur beneath my left arm and began to pee. Moishe was undoing his fly. The siddur slipped from my grasp and fell into the urine drenched soil, landing on the back cover. I was stunned. The piss saturated the cover and half of the siddur's creamy pages. I began to cry a young boy's weeping. Moishe was laughing about my predicament, but he didn't expect tears.
"Why are you crying over that?"
"I can't pick up the book and kiss it. You know that. Piss is all over it."
Moishe put his penis back into his pants and buttoned his fly while all the time giggling.
"Why are you laughing?"
"Watch, Sol." With that Moishe retrieved the book gingerly, spread open the siddur's pages to a pee-free page and offered it up as a sacrament for me to kiss. I kissed the page and realized Moishe's brilliance. I had been terrified by god's possible wrath, as a biblical bolt of blue lightning might fly up my ass because I didn't kiss the book as I'd been taught to do in cheder.
Ever after, whatever I sought out to read served to affirm a growing atheism. Moishe indirectly helped me to be free!
Some people say living is hard. How can that be if one is not alive? When I entered the camp I had no idea who I was or if I had ever really lived as a young man. And what I was to "live" in the camp was a life of a different kind.
I'm spent. I cannot give its equivalent. No image comes to mind. My mind, I know, doesn't respond as quickly as before. It's no longer agile, or spry. As I dig I try to focus on unearthing, always dimly aware of the worm or two. For a second I compare myself to the glistening worm. I reach no weighty conclusion about the comparison, man and worm is an old analogy.
In many ways and the many dull things I'm ordered to do, my mind comes to a halt like a locomotive creeping into a depot. My very body works in slow motion. Rarely do I have energy as I work, for digging depletes all of us. And when we're too slow we're kicked, whipped, hit with a rifle butt depending upon each guard's personal repertoire, idiosyncratic whim or caprice. Some are shot on the spot. The guard decides how much pain we're to receive and with what measured dose, a minor art not to be dismissed, for we suffer its consequence. He determines his choice of weapons. He completely decides our destiny not fully realizing he is a prisoner as much as we are, for his imprisonment is based on the Reich's conviction and not solely his own. He's a very conditioned human being if that's what he is.
No words are exchanged between the guard and me when he goes about punishing. I just take his blows. We cannot converse with one another, it's disallowed. He almost kills me and I cannot speak to him, how hysterically and cosmically insane all this is. Silence reigns between us although he does much harm to me. I'm inanimate to him, the worm in the soil.
Two Jews speaking to one another in muffled tones about their mutual agonies and physical pain equal a conspiracy against the Reich. To the day I die either here in the camp or if I survive, whatever that might be, I'll teethe on the finest thought—insight? I have had of late: that man uses ideas to order, rule and strangulate individual expression; that man, in effect, is damned by his very idea-making, self-imposed heavy chains; that man gives abstractions—such as the Reich itself—more personal allegiance and fidelity than he does to the individual worth of each of us.
Consequently stupid guards don't talk with us except to give orders. It's a state imposed injunction that admonishes human contact with Jew vermin. Rather complex, very perplexing, my atheistic mind mulls all this over—covertly—as I turn over earth.
While I dig at a pace too hurried for my abilities but satisfying to the guard, I've come to realizations—abstract, philosophical and personal which is my way. I used to be a reflective carpenter. I turn my work without the guard's knowledge into a personal "salve" for the wounds I receive on a daily basis.
I've learned religion itself is one of the great conditioners of mind; that I truly dig this trench as a consequence of 2,000 years of Christianity's belief that it's the truest of all faiths, singular and special, divinely denoted—perhaps chosen? I chuckle in mind about that. Christianity believes no others shall preside here on earth within such a divine aura; and that, in this instance, Jews are a perfidious annoyance, excrement; that Christianity will prevail incrementally and then totally when Jews become fossils.
I don't excuse Judaism as well, for it has conditioned me, even down to the fear God would punish me for dropping my siddur into a pool of piss. Control is a human need—even if I were on a speeding planet about a sun with other planets whirling alongside me and the whole solar system whizzing as an entity into the universe I'd want to hold on fast, grab the post, stand firm on the ground. Control is an idea. The fucking Reich is an idea. And religion is the "strongest" idea of all. I'm free in this slag of human shit. I'm part of it all but I'm free of all that. I'm the freest slave here.
Grateful the guards don't know all this, I fear only one thing. I don't want my face or stance to reveal my freedom. I cannot share this freedom with my comrades for it contains too much risk and resistance. It's a self freedom I cannot give to anyone else. It's my very I AMness. If the guards detected my personal emancipation they would flay me alive—as I've seen that in the camp. Since they don't interact with me, I'm free interiorly. Perhaps freedom from the known has kept me alive—at least up to this moment.
Understand ideas control and affect man—and death can die, for it is an idea as well. I can "die" to death. I reel at how free I am. Now I must bend with shovel and struggle to endure—another issue at that.
I just came to the thought, I'm already a survivor. Think on that.
"Solly, the bastard almost killed me today."
"I saw Heinz work you over."
"He kept at my inner thighs, over and over. He doesn't want me to be able to dig tomorrow. He wants to have his cheap reasons to kill me."
"When you're dead, Ezra, I'll tenderly throw you into the pit and say a few words over you."
"You could be next, Solly. Show some compassion. It could be you tomorrow. You sound like Heinz, that killer."
"I am Heinz and so are you."
"What are you talking about?"
"I know you're not ready to die—are we ever, my friend? My body doesn't want to die either although my mind wishes it. I don't have the nerve to run into the fences. My mind tells me in every way, death as an idea is not all that frightening. What is horrible here is how we will exit."
"You are full of shit. You cannot "idea" yourself over losing your self—without choice. I cannot even allow a cancer or pneumonia to kill me in its own time, part of who we are in this world. Even that is taken away from us."
"I have no answers for you, Ezra. You may not like this but my memory of you if I survive you probably will have more worth to me than your present existence."
"Are you a sick Jew? How did we ever allow you in?"
"The difference between a gentile and a Jew, Ezra, is not the ideas or their quality; the difference is Jews view ideas as dice—we throw them every which way. We are not beholden to them as much although in some ways Jewish traditions are as arthritic and rigid as any cross. Gentiles use ideas as instruments, to impale; Jews view them as cooking utensils."
Exposing his tooth free mouth, Ezra laughed.
"So the idea of a good roasted chicken carries more weight than a communion wafer."
"We say as Jews "to life" when we celebrate. The idea contained in that says very much more about us. The Torah tells us we should make merry. We play with ideas creatively and we can become enslaved by them as well. Look around you. Some Jews came to the camp already enslaved. Christianity is much too serious about its gospel. They feel compelled to spread their "good news." Jews are more concerned with spreading cream cheese over pumpernickel. Ezra, is there any comparison to be made?"
"Ideas sicken you, Sol?"
"Very much so. When I die if you're alive, tell a good joke about me to my brethren in the barrack here. And late that night—if you have the wherewithal—turn over on your side, expose your ass and fart all the while thinking of me, much the same thing."
Heinz murdered Ezra this morning. He put the spade into the back of Ezra's skull much like unearthing a boulder. Gratefully, in his rage, he had knocked out Ezra beforehand. Merciful, in that Ezra might not have felt the death blow. I was assigned to dispose of Ezra. I put each of my arms past his bony armpits so Ezra jangled on my back like a street placard, his head bobbing here and there as I trudged to the pit being readied for the next firing. I backed up to the pit with Ezra as my human "cape" and released him and turned to see his frail body slip down into the mangled welter below filled with soiled pajamas, exposed pubic areas, asses and turtle-withdrawn penises. As I said a few words to my self I turned away and returned to the trench, the world I knew and understood.
Shoveling for hours, I helped extend the trench almost to the electrified barbed wire fence. I was too weary to throw myself against it. I didn't feel I wanted to be toast, not yet. It's odd to me how suicide—an idea—creates all kinds of problems: to dispose of my body is not difficult whatsoever for the camp cremates us daily. For some so fucked up with despair like a suppository up their asses, to run into the fence would be an "offense." Imagine one's death as an offense. The idea of loss has vanished from this camp, for we are not persons. To disobey the camp's injunction against sizzling on the fence seemed paramount for a few slaves, as if to break a rule or offense or authority was much more insulting than suicide itself. Thinking had become crazed. The rulers took choice away from the ruled, historically it works all the time.
I had told Ezra how ideas are evilly manipulated and to survive he had to surrender his ideas and see only what is.
Did he know he had one day to "live"? I worked on keeping ideas, those who control self and other from my mind that day. Beset by thoughts and the hardest to sense—feelings (what became of that?), from my mind, I worked diligently in the trenches, with dispatch, to the dismay of my fellow slaves. Fearful by setting a faster pace I might threaten their very lives by their failure to keep up, they subtly signaled—using the spades to tap codes—and when I heard their pleas I eased up, all signaling and registering unknown to the guards.
As we had "soup" that night, the passing of a turnip through water, I ate mechanically. Ezra was gone. I memorized one thing about him, among the other memories of those gone up in ashes. For each loss one acute memory stays fixed, for I choose not to clutter my mind, a library of loss, for I have no time to "read" all that. I have to fix on each hour in order to stay alive. So as I told Ezra, I'll have no more time for him until he is dead. And now he looms large in my mind—good man, good soul. I am his sconce. I hold his memory. Grotesquely sad, perverse, is I am forced to cherish a memory and demanded to neglect a living presence other than my own to survive—the gift of the Nazis, the most conditioned of us all.
Heinz smashed the back of the shovel against my back just below my neck. The barbed wire crooned as the wind brushed against it. I saw the wired rosettes seemingly burst into flower, all colors and shades, especially a deep rust-red. Colors exploded in my mind. All was vivid and enlarged as I fell forward. The earth in the drench subtly overlapped itself, like waves coming ashore. Droplets of blood were before me on the ends of my shoes as I moved lethargically in space. No breeze crossed my face, but I did feel my face locked still and rigid in space, as if I had broken off a larger thing. With no feeling in my arms as if they were "asleep," I looked at them curiously, hanging limply by my sides. I was outside myself, looking in. Within my body I felt movements as if my kidneys and other organ meats were reassembling themselves in an attempt to go on after such a blow to the body. I was moving incrementally in time toward the trench as if were sized to hold me in a grave.
As I moved forward, the trench appeared to rise up to greet me in its embrace. I made a mild thump as I crashed into the trench. I couldn't move. I didn't think. I just sensed things about me. I felt a boot on the back of my neck. And it bore down on me as if to drive my face deeper into the earth. Soil moved quickly into my mouth and past the few teeth I had. I swallowed dirt. I was quiet and still. Even now I knew biologically not to resist. I took in. I absorbed. I was no longer a thinking creature. I was dead to me and dead to the world other than body parts responding to applied pain or involuntary reactions such as the warm piss creeping down my left leg.
I saw strange things as my face groveled in the trench dirt. An optician's eye chart floated about in my mind. I actually saw the world through Heinz's eyeballs as he looked upon me from above, the shovel trembling in his right hand. I smelled a cockroach. I became the roach. I scurried up a wall all disgusting-legged with my human head attached to it. I saw my roach body and I threw up on myself, hundreds of smaller roaches pouring out past my lips. All this was awhirl within me. I became the spaces between my own fingers, odd and unsettling. The spaces made me reel.
As these images came at me, flew away from me and at moments became part of myself, I didn't feel but sensed. I'm not sure what the difference was. And what I did feel was a mere awareness, dimly present. Some sense of being struck down flesh became knowable to myself. I didn't move—could not. I did stir and when I did, Heinz said aloud to all to hear, "I thought I killed the dumb yid."
Well, they dragged me off to the barrack to die—recover, whatever. I am lucky Heinz didn't order me to be thrown into the fire pit. He has done that with others who were alive. The three I had seen that done to shouted ghastly screams as they burned. One didn't, however. I often wondered if he was obeisant even to his end. I had one night to recuperate from the blow on my back which included part of my neck as well. That was a folly. Brethren brought me a little water, always hard to come by. One man gave me his bread crust which I devoured. In the morning I ached considerably but managed to stand up for roll call and then off to the trenches. Heinz saw me. I didn't look back as is the way. I felt his stare. He could let it ride this morning or finish me off. I was his to do with as he wished.
I decided as I went about my work to accept today as the last one of my life. It didn't take long. Heinz called out my number, ordering me to come to him. Standing in a trench, Heinz above, he looked at me. I felt that. My head was bowed. I saw the swing, the back of the shovel coming at my face. As it crashed into my cheek and the side of my nose, crackling bone, smashing tissue, I wished it do away with me at last.