In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Jacob’s work unit was assigned latrine duty today. Each man carried two pails full and sloshing with the wastes of people barely alive on bitter brown bread and pale green soup. The ground is frozen too hard to dig a new pit, so the one that now overflows must be emptied, pail by pail, into a deep gulch on the far edge of Auschwitz.
Three-quarters of the way to the gulch, the guards commanded the men in Jacob’s unit to stop and dunk their heads in the pails. Anyone too delicate to obey felt the heavy heel of a Nazi boot press hard on the back of his neck, holding his head long and deep in the pail’s dark contents.
It was not acid, Jacob, not any poison, I try to tell him. It was human excrement, that’s all. You’re still alive.
Jacob sits flat and unmoving on the splintered floor of our barracks, a statue whose open eyes see nothing. Filth clings to his hair, his eyelashes, his nostrils, his lips. His long, gaunt legs stick out in front of him like useless twigs. In our youth his swift, muscled limbs led our school to the Kraków Soccer Championships three years in a row.
Jacob and I are cousins, friends — and all either of us has left of family. We are only a year apart in age, but when we were boys I thought of him as much older and wiser. Jacob was sure of everything: women, soccer, life. But he wasn’t boastful or rude. Instead he shared his secrets with me, took me into his confidence, and nurtured my belief in myself. He taught me how to head a soccer ball without flinching, and how to stand on the bima and read the haphtara for my bar mitzvah without shaking. And it was he who convinced me to let Inge know I loved her. He was sure she would marry me, long before she considered it or I dared dream it.
Jacob had been in Auschwitz a few months already by the time I arrived. Inge and the children had been torn from me, and I was a crazed, lost man. Jacob made me live. When I swore I’d kill the bastards or die trying, he grabbed me by the shirt collar and commanded in a harsh voice I didn’t recognize: I never taught you to be stupid! At the bottom of hell all we can do is survive! Survive! His eyes burned like hot coals.
Now his eyes are dull, like a once bright windowpane covered with grime and soot. I kneel, facing him. Even in this barracks, where the very boards reek of sickness and filth, I am almost overpowered by the smell that clings to Jacob. I move closer to him. I beg him to return from where he has been. He drops his head to his chest, the bone of his chin and the bone of his breast separated by tissue-paper skin. On the back of his neck, a pear-sized bruise is yellowing.
I take the scrap of cloth I save to clean my teeth, soak it in my cup of cold soup, and try to wipe the stink from Jacob’s eyebrows and the hollows of his cheeks. I put my hand under his chin and raise his head. He seems not to see me. Don’t, I say to him. Don’t let them win. I bunch his tattered woolen shirt in my fist. I slap him, first on the left cheek, then on the right. He looks at me with eyes that are dead. He is looking through me, beyond me to a place that does not smell of shit.
I am desperate for something to bring Jacob back. Then it happens. Rain! Like fingers drumming on a table, rain taps our thin roof. The other men in Jacob’s work unit tear at their clothes and run out of the barracks. Rain! The answer to an undelivered prayer.
Jacob does not move. I pick him up by the armpits and drag him outside. We are surrounded by shirtless men holding their heads to the sky like children playing in a summer shower. The rain is cold — the temperature outside just above freezing — but Jacob shows no sign of noticing. A man from Jacob’s unit, water dripping from the tip of his nose, helps me hold Jacob and turn his face up to catch the rain. I take off my shirt and use it to clean inside Jacob’s ears and nose, around his eyes and neck, the way Inge would bathe our children.
Then the guards are upon us. Furious at having to come out in the cold, pouring rain, they shout curses and slam at us with their rifle butts. I am hit hard in the spine, the other man gets it in the jaw, but we manage to protect Jacob and carry him safely inside.
You’re clean now, Jacob, I tell him. It’s all gone.
But his eyes say it is too late. God’s only visit to Auschwitz, too late. The next day Jacob is marched off with the group that does not return.
My work unit is assigned latrine duty. The first day I tremble as I carry the pails at awkward angles to my body, careful not to spill them or call attention to myself. A cold terror enters me like a vapor. What if they command us to dunk our heads?
The second day is worse. My breath is short; I stumble but am saved from falling by the man behind me. The guard turns and eyes me suspiciously as I recover my balance. I focus on the heels of his gleaming black boots.
On the third day, nothing is different. The same guards, the same men in the work unit. The same cold, gray metal pails with their same foul, brown contents. The sky gray, the earth brown: gray and brown the only colors of Auschwitz. Light snow falls, swirls in the ash belching from the ovens, and settles gray on the ground.
The gulch comes into view; a guard commands us to stop. Maybe he wants a smoke, I think, but I know better. Watch this, he says to the others. The order is given. A heavy black boot on the necks of the timid, a drowning in dung for anyone who refuses. Do it or die. Resist, speak, fall down, get sick, scream out your anguish, give up, and you are dead. I sink my head into the pail, eyes and mouth clenched, and I see Jacob swift and sure on the soccer field of our youth. I hear his voice: survive.
The guard orders us back to work and sneers in disgust. Even a dog would die before he’d wallow in his own shit, he says. Of course a dog is superior to a Jew. He laughs and the others join him, their white teeth and clean faces bright against the smoke-filled sky.
I wipe my face on one sleeve, clearing my eyes and nose and mouth. I pick up my heavy pails and continue.