I sit alone in the glass box, impassive to the glances frequently thrown my way by the figures I can distinctly see outside. They murmur to each other in low voices. I know this even though the box is sound proof. The way they lean in close to each other and lower their heads slightly shows that they are apprehensive no, not apprehensive, scared of disturbing me. Their movements are slight and slow, as if they don't want to attract my attention through sudden gestures. I stare straight ahead, my eyes fixed on an image only I can see. The image of freedom.
In my mind, I am not in a glass box being watched intently by what seems like hundreds of pairs of eyes. In my mind I am still lying on the sweet-scented spring grass of the gardens from where I was taken away. A feeling of exhilaration lingers on the air around me and inside of me. Then a hand takes hold of my shoulder, I turn around, and the exhilaration disappears. I am no longer free; I am imprisoned in a physical and mental box of terror.
I see a flurry of movement out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly all of the spectators turn from examining me to an identical transparent cage on the other side of the room. Their faces re-animated with shock, amazement and utter glee. They talk excitedly, their mouths opening and closing rapidly. They crowd the box and its unfortunate occupant. I cannot see what is happening, but I can guess. Sure enough, I manage to catch a glimpse of Helen being hauled out of her prison and out of the room. Her eyes arrest my own. There is a look of terror etched on her face, but also a firm defiance fiercely glittering in her dark eyes. I know, then, that whatever she did, she did it intentionally. The chattering by the observers subsides. They turn again to me.
I think over the incident carefully, scratching at the lice that plague me constantly. I suspect that Helen had made an obscene gesture or remark to the scientist who had come to check her biological statistics. Helen would not be gassed for what she did. Our kind was only executed for behaviour uncharacteristic of the jhrer.
The head wissenschaftler, or scientist, who leads the research on Jews interrupts the subdued conversation of the onlookers to give a speech. Now that no one is watching me I risk a furtive glance at the box to the right of mine. The boy inside, Edmund, is slumped on the floor in deep sleep. Pity for the boy fills me. He is the newest of Anna Hitler's captures and probably the sweetest of victories for the cruel woman, because he is the son of the great Goldbergs, the revolutionary leaders of the few remaining Jews left in hiding throughout Germany. Edmund had led Hitler and her murderous squads a merry dance all over Deutsche-Europe before finally being cornered in a factory in Poland.
I stare again at the wall directly opposite me, focusing on the pictures mounted there for my own humble reflection. The picture on the left is of Adolf Hitler, the original persecutor of the Jews fifty-odd years ago. His successor, the current Anna Hitler, looks sternly down upon me from the right picture. After Adolf's death from old age a few years ago she had risen up the ranks of the SS to take the role of der Fuhrer. Although her first name has always been Anna, it has been agreed that every leader will take the surname of Hitler, because "the name has always instilled fear in the most stubborn of non-humans." Anna is hauntingly alike to Adolf in terms of both appearance and personality, with her short dark hair, customary salute and passion for Adolf's authoritarian ways.
The scientist finishes his speech. The tourists and journalists applaud politely and move off to find their entertainment elsewhere in the institution. As the last of the middle-upper class Germans disappear out of the room I sigh and attempt to stretch my stiff limbs within the tiny confines of the box. Out of habit, I look at my wrist for the time, forgetting that my watch, like all of my possessions, was confiscated upon my arrival at the Institute for Research into Non-humans. There is no clock on the chemically white walls of the laboratory, nor are there any windows to tell whether it is day or night. Just the stark whiteness of the walls, floor and ceiling.
The steel door of the room opens. Helen walks through it, flanked by two SS guards of indeterminate rank. She is shoved into her prison unceremoniously, and the guards march out. I check that the scientist working at the lab bench is not looking my way, and turn to Helen. She is crying. After a few minutes she looks up at me. I ask her what happened using a mixture of mime and mouthing questions. Through this language developed after months (I think) of silent communication Helen tells me that she was flogged. She shows me the scars on her back by rolling up the back of her white smock carefully. I feel tears welling up inside me at Helen's punishment. But I push them back by telling myself that it could have been much, much worse. Helen might not have been here to tell me about her predicament.
The door to my box opens suddenly, and I fall out into the lab. The low droning sounds of the lab machinery are a shock to my ears after the suffocating silence of the box. The scientist picks me up roughly and barks at me to stand up straight. Certain that I have been caught engaging in illegal communication with another prisoner I obey. My muscles ache with the unaccustomed exercise. The scientist, a youngish blond German with a long scar snaking down the left side of his face, orders me to stay still while he examines me. I almost sigh in relief that it is only a medical check, but I manage to curb this impulse. Ten minutes later the scientist signs my stats sheet, which affirms that I still have lice and weigh six stones, satisfactory for a Jew of nineteen.
Back in my cage I mentally shake my head in disbelief at the procedures of the institution. In preparation for the daily visits of tourists to the labs we always have to meet the medical requirements that deem us suitable for public viewing. This ranges from lice to full-blown typhus, which the scientists sometimes inject into the occasional Jew, especially just before Hitler and her associates visit. Even after months of imprisonment I still wonder at the cruelty of these "Christians" who claim to be human while Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses are labeled as non-humans.
We are given our daily ration. When the lights go out, the scientist on guard walks out of the room and locks the door. This is our cue to talk properly. It amazes me that when the scientists set up this lab they overlooked the fact that we prisoners can communicate via the air tubes that link the three glass boxes to the labs air supply. The tubes link the prisons together so we can talk through them in relative safety. There is the risk that the room is bugged, but if it is, no one listens in on our conversations because we have not been punished yet.
We speak quietly together in the pitch darkness. Edmund is frightened that the SS may have caught his parents after an informer revealed the whereabouts of his parents hideout in Hamburg. It was this leak of information that had forced Edmund to run away at the will of his parents. I wrest him for information about the active Jews' plans but he is depressed now and will not talk. I converse with Helen. She tells me that she was beaten in the gas chamber where David had been executed. The guard who had flogged her told her inadvertently that not even the Americans can save you scum from your deaths. This excites me. Surely this means that the Americans are in Deutsche-Europe right now! Hope stirs within me. The Americans, together with the British and the French, before they were taken over by Hitler's hordes, used to be the only opponents of Germany who were in with a chance of actually defeating them in battle. Now, the Americans are not as powerful as they used to be due to the extent of the German Empire, but their armies are better equipped than most. Helen, however, is skeptical. The guard could have been talking about how much more powerful the Germans are now, she says. I see the truth of this but the other possibility lights a secret fire of hope inside me.
When the scientists awake us, I sense a change in the way they are going about their daily routines. They seem more hurried, more urgent in their activities. I remember what Helen told me before and hope that is the reason behind the changed behaviour.
After we have endured the experiments and tests that are part of Doctor Einzelhoff's research into the differences between humans and non-humans, we are taken not back to the laboratory where we are kept, but to the shower rooms. There we are ordered to get clean and dress in normal clothes, which are provided for us. An SS soldier keeps guard over us so we cannot talk but we exchange mystified looks. Edmund looks at the shower nozzles warily, but Helen assures him that they are not the ones used to kill prisoners with gas. Still, we are all relieved when the ice-cold water springs from the nozzles. While I shower I wonder where are the other prisoners who are kept in other labs in the building. Why are we the only three prisoners present?
The answer soon becomes obvious. We are marched to the offices of Doctor Schreiber, the former SS general turned scientist. As we walk through the eerily-echoing corridors, passers by glance at us and look away quickly.
The doctor is a tall, imposing man. He is about seventy years old but still cuts an overwhelming figure. He turns from the huge window of his office towards us as we enter. His grey hair is slicked back, and his face is a peculiar map of scars and wrinkles. I dare not move my head to look around the room, but, from what I can see, it is richly and tastefully furnished with a mahogany desk and a leather chair. Doctor Schreiber nods at the guards who brought us and they go out of the room.
The doctor appraises us with his cold blue eyes. We stand absolutely still, not twitching a muscle. After a long silence he finally speaks, "You three are the newest of our subjects. You have had extensive contact with the scum who consider themselves your leaders."
At this Edmund starts and the doctor stares at him long and hard. He leans forward menacingly, resting his weathered hands on the desk. "Tell me every detail of every plan those Goldbergs have made against our superior race. You can choose not to tell me, but if you take that option you will be executed for withholding military information pertinent to the interests of the human race."
He sits down on his chair and folds his arms expectantly. I stare out of the window behind Schreiber, to all appearances totally immersed in the bleak landscape of the Chemnitz wasteland. I know from the lack of movement beside me that Helen and Edmund are doing the same. I vaguely wonder why we are being interrogated now instead of when we first arrived. Then I remember the rumours of an American invasion.
After a silence that seems to last forever the doctor stands up. "Very well. You have made it abundantly clear that you do not want to impart the information we know you have. Therefore, you will die for your disobedience." He pauses, letting the sentence sink in. I do not feel anything. I am numb with detachment from the whole scene in the office. "However, you will not die in the gas chambers. You will be moved to the radiation research department. Doctor Krieg tells me that they have become short of suitable subjects. I will send you to him so he can carry on with his important research. During your time in the department you will have the opportunity to speak to either General Ostenstadt or myself on the matter I have mentioned. If anyone does, that person will be extricated from the experiments and receive appropriate reward."
Schreiber sits back and smiles coldly. The smile does not reach his eyes, giving him the look of a portrait that is not quite right.
"That will be all. Unless one of you has something to say to me now?"
Silence. The doctor nods, and reaches under his desk. A buzzer sounds, and the guards march in.
"Take these subjects to Block X. Report to Doctor Krieg." He flashes another smile at us. "I hope I will see you again."
As we walk out I realise the full implications of the punishment. The radiation research department examines the effects of radiation on various objects, including people, and possible cures for radiation sickness. This is usually tested by exposing subjects to varying degrees of radiation and then regularly checking them for side effects and speed of death. Subjects allocated to the radiation research department did not expect to live. For Helen, Edmund and I the experiments would be a twisted form of torture, probably lasting over several weeks or even months. The reward for breaking our silence would be death. Unless we are needed for other experiments.
We arrive at Block X. It is a huge, gothic-style building which fits its name and purpose. Doctor Krieg, a small dark-haired man with a sour expression on his face is there at the entrance to meet us. He takes us inside without saying a single word. We follow the doctor into a room off a long corridor where there is a lab similar to the one we previously stayed in. The same machinery, the same windowless walls, the same transparent traps. We are instructed to take off the clothes we wore to our interview with Doctor Schreiber and put on the white smocks again. Krieg then starts to talk.
"I have been informed of what is to happen to you here. You will be put through a series of tests designed to research possible medical treatment for radiation illness. Any findings will contribute towards the recuperation of those people exposed to radiation by the bombing of Munich."
At this the doctor looks pointedly at Edmund. I remember that the Jewish revolutionaries had been blamed for the bombing. In fact it had been the American military that had dropped the H-bomb about six months ago, just before the SS caught me. According to long-gone history lessons and rumours in the underground press, the bomb had originally been intended for a military base in Japan during World War II, before Hitler succeeded in his invasion of Western Europe.
Apparently the doctor sees no reason why he should explain the actual tests to us. We are medically checked and then sent straight to the research centre. The centre is an enormous room, which is divided into various work spaces, probably for the different areas of research. Several scientists are working there, and I manage to catch glimpses of other prisoners. I do not recognise any of them. We are separated and led to different parts of the centre.
The scientist who will be using me is Doctor Erztlich. I remember her from the first time I was brought to the institution. She was the one who tested me for disease that first day. She seemed kindly at the time, or at least less inhuman than the other doctors. I hope that she is still the same now. She has dark red hair and wears spectacles. She gives me a cursory nod as I walk into her office, which consists of a small table heaped with papers, a computer and a kind of hospital bed next to the desk. Erztlich is bent over her desk rummaging through the papers. She finally finds what she is looking for and turns to me.
I give her my name. She tells me to sit on the bed. I do so, relishing the soft, spongy feel of the mattress. The doctor looks me over and asks me my age. When I tell her, she frowns, and murmurs something under her breath. Out loud she describes the experiment I am to take part in. I will be exposed to small doses of radiation over several weeks. During that time the doses will get larger, until my death. She doesn't actually say the last part but we both know that is what is intended for me.
The first experiment is conducted the next day. I am put in a chamber, which reminds me of the pictures of the gas chambers used in Auschwitz all those years ago. I remember the day that I saw those pictures. My parents had shown them to me, explaining that was where the rest of my family, my grand uncles and grand aunts had died. My grandparents had fortunately escaped this fate.
The chamber is, like the labs, windowless. The walls are made of some strange smooth and glossy material, which is a dull grey. A red light on the ceiling goes on. Doctor Erztlich had told me that the procedure would take about five minutes. After this time period the door opens and the doctor beckons me out. I am thoroughly examined by another female doctor and I am allowed to go back to the lab where we are staying.
That night the three of us talk for the first time since our arrival at the appropriately named Block X. Edmund is being tested for the effects of radiation on the heart and lungs. He went through the same procedure as I did today. Helen is quiet. When I ask her why, she tells me in a strained voice. She has been selected for the experiments that all female prisoners over the age of twelve dread the most. Today Helen was impregnated with sperm from the institutions supplies. She is to take part in tests that examine the effects of radiation on a pregnant woman and her baby.
The next two weeks pass swiftly in a blur of experiments, medical tests and sleepless nights. Helen suffers from onstant morning sickness. Edmund begins to have pains in his chest. I start to feel ill all over as the doses of radiation increase from one-hundred rads to two-hundred. I am not treated for this. Neither are Edmund or Helen. However, unlike Edmund and Helen, Doctor Erztlich updates me on my condition. I know now that my bone marrow is becoming infected, and I am expected to die in a months time, unless a miraculous medical discovery occurs. I take this news quietly. The end is nearing, but I still do not give up hope of a rescue. It is becoming harder to keep up Helen's spirits, and one day she attempts suicide. During an experiment she was left unattended with a tray of surgery equipment and she tried to kill her baby first by stabbing herself with a surgical knife. She was stopped, but she is now imprisoned in a high security lab where she is guarded every hour of every day.
Doctor Schreiber comes to question us regularly. I still do not impart the little information I have, but, Edmund is breaking under the constant strain of his pain. When the doctor notices this he orders the dosages to be increased further. Within another week Edmund is dying from lung cancer. Like me he harbours hopes of an American rescue. He once told me that he wanted to be alive when they arrived. Because of this he tells Schreiber everything he knows. I do not know what he tells him, because the next day Edmund is executed in the gas chambers.
Alone in my box I reflect on the events of the past month. I have three weeks left to live. Recently a treatment for the side effects of radiation poisoning was developed. Schreiber is still suspicious of my knowledge, but he seems to know that the information will die with me if I am not treated. I am administered the medicine after much deliberation. It is as if he thinks that if I am given a chance to live I will give the information out of gratitude or something equally ridiculous. Either that or he is just prolonging my torture. Despite the medicine I am weakening with every day that passes. I can feel the destruction that passes through my bones. I am sick all the time, and I frequently cough up blood. I cannot move any part of my body due to the extreme pain I experience every time I try. Erztlich is even kinder to me nowadays, but it is useless. I can only think of my family, and of Helen. I heard two SS lieutenants discussing the death of a number of subjects in the radiation research centre. Helen's name was not mentioned, but they mention a pregnant girl, who didn't look any younger than seventeen and I know that she has somehow escaped the torture of her baby and herself into the realm of God.
I will die soon. The pain has become so immense I cannot sleep or eat. I simply lie in my
box, waiting for the dark figure of death to come and end my imprisonment. The
Americans did come in the end, but their forces were overwhelmed by Hitler's efficiently
trained troops on the border of France. Their planes were bombed out of the sky over
the mountains near Chemnitz. I heard the explosions, and knew there was no hope. I can
only endure my pain and anticipate the moment when I will be free.
© 1999 Dipika Patel, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
I originally got the idea for writing this story after reading the brilliant novel Schindler's Ark (or Schindler's List as you may know it) by Thomas Keneally. I have always been fascinated by this aspect of World War Two, and after reading the book I wondered, "what would have happened if Hitler had won the war?" I plunged straight into writing it, with only the vague idea of a Jewish girl captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in an exhibition case. By the time I had written the first page I really got into my stride and let the characters and storyline do the writing for me. My main aim really was to make the reader think about the war from a different angle. It took quite a bit of research to get my facts right, particularly the information regarding radiation, etc, as I am not very good at anything to do with science. I chose not to give the main character a name, partly because I wanted the readers to feel that this could have happened to any one of Hitler's victims, even themselves, and partly because I couldn't think of an appropriate name. I rejected quite a few names before settling for no name at all. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the story, although I was rather depressed by the end of it, and I hope everyone who reads it enjoys it, too.