For ten years, 509 has been a political prisoner in a German concentration camp, persevering in the most hellish conditions. Deathly weak, he still has his wits about him and he senses that the end of the war is near. If he and the other living corpses in his barracks can hold on for liberation—or force their own—then their suffering will not have been in vain.
Now the SS who run the camp are ratcheting up the terror. But their expectations are jaded and their defenses are down. It is possible that the courageous yet terribly weak prisoners have just enough left in them to resist. And if they die fighting, they will die on their own terms, cheating the Nazis out of their devil’s contract.
“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review
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SKELETON 509 slowly raised its skull and opened its eyes. It did not know whether it had been unconscious or merely asleep. By now there was hardly any difference between the one and the other; hunger and exhaustion had long ago seen to that. Both were a sinking into boggy depths, from which there seemed to be no more rising to the surface.
509 lay still for a while and listened. This was an old camp rule; one never knew from which side danger threatened, and as long as one remained motionless there was always the chance of being overlooked or taken for dead—a simple law of nature known to any beetle.
He heard nothing suspicious. The guards on the machine-gun tower in front of him were half asleep, and behind him, too, all remained quiet. Cautiously he turned his head and glanced back.
The Mellern concentration camp dozed peacefully in the sun. The great roll-call ground, which the SS humorously called the dance ground, was empty. Only from the strong wooden posts at the right of the entrance gate hung four men, their hands tied behind their backs. They had been strung up on ropes to a height from which their feet no longer touched the ground. Their arms were dislocated. Two stokers from the crematorium were amusing themselves by throwing small lumps of coal at them from a window; but none of the four any longer moved. They had been hanging on the crosses for half an hour and were now unconscious.
The barracks of the labor camp lay deserted; the outside gangs had not yet returned. Only a few men on room duty sneaked across the roads. To the left of the entrance gate, in front of the penal-bunker, sat the SS squad leader Breuer. He’d had a round table and wicker chair put in the sun and was drinking a cup of coffee. Real bean coffee was rare in the spring of 1945; but a little while ago Breuer had strangled two Jews who had been rotting in the bunker for six weeks, and he considered this to have been a humanitarian act worthy of reward. With the coffee the kitchen kapo had sent him a plate of dough-cake. Breuer ate it slowly and with relish; he especially liked the seedless raisins with which the dough was abundantly larded. The elder Jew hadn’t given him much fun; but the younger one had been tougher; he had kicked and squawked for quite a while. Breuer grinned sleepily and listened to the scattered sounds of the camp band which was practicing behind the garden plots. The orchestra was playing the waltz “Roses from the South”—a favorite tune of the Commandant, Obersturmbannführer Neubauer.
509 lay on the opposite side facing the camp, close to a group of wooden barracks which were separated by a wire fence from the large labor camp. They were known as the Small camp. Here lived the prisoners who were too weak to work. They were there to die. Almost all of them died quickly; but new ones invariably arrived while the others were not yet quite dead, and so the barracks were constantly overcrowded. Often the dying lay piled on top of one another in the corridors, or they simply perished outside, in the open. Mellern had no gas chambers. Of this fact the Commandant was particularly proud. In Mellern, he liked to explain, one died a natural death. Officially the Small camp was called the Mercy division—though there were few inmates with sufficient resistance to withstand the Mercy for longer than one to two weeks. A small tough group of these men lived in Barrack 22. They called themselves, with a remnant of grim humor, the Veterans. 509 belonged to them. He had been brought to the Small camp four months ago. It seemed a miracle even to himself that he was still alive.
The smoke blew over from the crematorium in black clouds. The wind pressed it down on the camp and the vapors swept low over the barracks; they smelled greasy and sweetish and made one want to retch. 509 had never been able to get used to them; not even after ten years in the camp. Today the remains of two Veterans would be up there; those of the watchmaker Jan Sibelski and of the university professor Joel Buchsbaum. Both had died in Barrack 22 and had been delivered to the crematorium at noon. Buchsbaum, as a matter of fact, not quite complete: three fingers, seventeen teeth, the toenails and a part of his genitals had been missing. He had lost them while being educated to become a useful human being. The subject of the genitals had provoked much laughter at the cultural evenings in the SS quarters. It had been an idea of Squad Leader Guenther Steinbrenner, who had but recently arrived at the camp. Simple, like all great inventions—an injection containing a high percentage of hydrochloric acid, that was all. With it, Steinbrenner had earned the immediate esteem of his comrades.
The March afternoon was mild and the sun already had some warmth. Even so, 509 felt cold—although he wore, apart from his own clothes, the garments of three other people: the jacket of Joseph Bucher; the overcoat of Lebenthal, a former secondhand dealer; and the torn sweater of Joel Buchsbaum which the barrack had saved before the corpse had been delivered. But to a man less than six feet tall and weighing less than eighty pounds, furs would probably not have given much warmth.
509 had the right to lie half an hour in the sun. Then he had to return to the barrack, hand over the borrowed clothes as well as his own jacket, and it was another man’s turn. This was how the Veterans had arranged it among themselves since the cold weather had passed. Some of them had no longer wanted it. They were too exhausted and after the sufferings of the winter had wanted only to die quietly in the barrack; but Berger, the room senior, had insisted that everyone still able to crawl should spend some time in the fresh air. The next one was Westhof; then came Bucher. Lebenthal had refused; he had better things to do.
509 turned back. The camp was situated on a hill and now he could see the town through the barbed wire. It lay in a valley, far beneath the camp, in the clear light of spring. Over the mass of roofs rose the towers of the churches. It was an old town with many churches and ramparts, with avenues of lime trees and winding alleys. To the north lay the modern section with wider streets, the main railroad station, tenement buildings, factories and copper and iron foundries where the camp’s labor gangs worked. A river wound through it in a wide curve and reflected sleepily the bridges and the clouds.
509 let his head droop. He could hold it up for only a short while. A skull was heavy when the muscles of the neck had shrunk to threads—and the sight of the smoking chimneys in the valley made a man only hungrier than usual. It made him hungry in the brain—not just in the stomach. The stomach had been used to it for years and was capable of no other sensation than a dull, permanent greed. Hunger in the brain was worse. It awoke hallucinations and never grew tired. It even gnawed into sleep. In winter it had taken 509 three months to rid himself of the vision of fried potatoes. He had smelled them everywhere, even in the stench of the latrine shed. Now it was bacon. Bacon and eggs.
He glanced at the nickel watch that lay close to him on the ground. Lebenthal had lent it to him. It was a precious possession of the barrack; the Pole, Julius Silber, long since dead, had smuggled it years ago into the camp. 509 saw that he still had ten minutes left; he decided, nevertheless, to crawl back to the barrack. He didn’t want to fall asleep again. One never knew if one would wake up. Once more he cautiously sent a searching glance down the main camp road. He still saw nothing that could mean danger. He didn’t really expect it, either. The caution was rather more the routine of the old camp hares than real fear.
The Small camp was under a moderate kind of quarantine because of dysentery, and the SS seldom entered it. Besides, during the war years supervision in the whole camp had grown considerably less strict. The war had kept making itself more noticeable, and part of the SS guard—which until then had done nothing but heroically torture and murder defenseless prisoners—had been sent to the front. Now, in the spring of 1945, the camp held only a third of its former number of SS troops. For a long time now the internal administration had been handled almost exclusively by the inmates. Each barrack had one block senior and several room seniors; the labor gangs were subordinate to the kapos and the foremen, the whole camp to the camp seniors. All were prisoners. They were controlled by camp leaders, block leaders and labor-gang leaders. These were SS men. In the early days the camp had held only political prisoners; then, over the years, hordes of common criminals from the overcrowded jails of the town and the surrounding country had been added. The groups were distinguished by the color of the triangular patches of cloth which were sewn above the numbers on all prisoners’ clothes. Those of the political prisoners were red; those of the criminals green. Jews wore a yellow patch as well, so that both triangles together formed a Star of David.
509 took Lebenthal’s overcoat and Joseph Bucher’s jacket, hung them over his shoulders and started crawling towards the barrack. He realized that he was more tired than usual. Even crawling he found difficult. Soon the ground beneath him began to turn. He stopped short, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. At the same moment he heard the sirens from the town.