Franz

 

It was August, 1943; the war was grinding onward, but…

Franz paused, looking at the single sheet of white paper, its crisp top edge jutting out from the typewriter, while those words, stamped in black, looked back at him. He couldn’t start it that way, he couldn’t tell it that way. Everyone already knew what was going on in 1943, some two decades past now. Everyone knew about the war, with its fronts and maneuvers, with its bombs and bullets, with its death and desolation. He couldn’t start this out like every other memoir about the war, as if it were some sort of history book. There was history in it, maybe, but not that kind.

 

The Krakow of 1939 was a cultural center, a hub of universities nestled in the southern part of Poland, with a temperate climate and a strong Zionist movement. Franz’s parents had been drawn to the area for a combination of those reasons a few years earlier, but by the end of 1939 it was proving to be a mistake. The Germans had occupied, and made it clear with ‘Sonderaktion Krakau’ that their intentions were far from pleasant. Rumors whispered thru the streets of anti-Jewish regulations, but most turned a deaf ear or a blind eye. No one wanted to believe.

Franz’s parents suspected the worst, and instead of hoping for the best, they quickly made preparations for the worst. They would flee the country, and make arrangements elsewhere, Palestine perhaps; they had certainly talked about it plenty of times, but anywhere would do. Anywhere would have to do. Franz would stay with friends, German immigrants who would likely be treated relatively well during the occupation, and who could use the help of a young man. If any asked, he would be theirs, Franz Kiel.

 

Franz tore the paper from the typewriter, balled it up, and tossed it towards the trashcan. Holding a fresh sheet, he carefully fed the typewriter once more, rolling the blank slate into place. Releasing the wheel, he moved his hands back into position, letting them hover over the keys for a moment before springing into action.

War, war is a terrible thing. It’s never peaceful, never pretty…

            His fingers fired rapidly against the keys, catching each in a rapid staccato fashion, click-clacking out the words, letting them tumble forth almost.

            …never the thing of honor or glory who? makes it out to be. People do things they though(incorrect verb) they would never do. People become things they…

            He stopped.

            Looking at the paper, Franz slowly turned his head from side to side. No, no. It wasn’t an excuse, it wasn’t a justification. In the years following the war, there would be some who would try to make amends. Some who would want to forget, but never could. Some who would want to know, but never could. Scholars would debate the how and the why. But they really couldn’t know, they couldn’t know the way those who were there knew. They couldn’t know like Franz knew.

 

            The occupation was as horrid as Franz’s parents believed it would be, with the deportation of leading scholars being only a sliver compared to what would come. The Jews were rounded up like cattle and forced into ghettos, too cramped for comfort, even without the specter of fear hanging over them. Still, some tried to console themselves. This wasn’t so bad, was it? Surely the war wouldn’t last too long, and then they would be free once more. Besides, they still had each other, and they still had God.

            Outside of the ghettos, things were tense as well. The German war machine demanded parts, both of metal and flesh. Resources were devoted to the war in ever increasing numbers, and with those resources went people; some as soldiers and some as workers. The German’s did not request. They demanded. And when they demanded that the young German boy be conscripted, who was to argue? Certainly not the Kiels, certainly not Franz.

            Many would be sent to the front, or spend their days and nights working as little more than slaves, but Franz would be spared that fate. He would instead be working nearby, less than 50 kilometers from his childhood home, where the Germans had need of someone both physical capable, as he was, and also familiar with handling chemicals. It seemed they had some use for a scholar from Krakow after all.

 

            Another sheet was ripped from the type-writer, tossed aside. It floated to the ground, it’s once crisp form wrinkled and bent, indented with the two dozen words Franz had managed to spill onto it. Grasping a clean sheet, he repeated the loading act once more. Sheet in, turn the roller, feed it up to the line, and set.  And then, he began again. Fresh.

            I was still a boy then, in the fall of 1943, drawn from home, or the place I had come to call home. Drawn away to do what the Germans wanted. There was no resistance, no reason. You would do as you were told, or you would pay dearly. If I ever hoped to see my freedom again, let alone my mother and father, I would…

            No, no, no! It couldn’t be about him. It couldn’t be about his suffering. He ripped the paper from the typewriter once more and threw it, threw it against the wall, his free hand slamming down on the desk. It shouldn’t have been about him – or his safety. It never should have been. Never!

 

            When he had seen the crates coming in, with the stamp of IG Farben blazed on the crates, Franz should have guessed. But even then, he tried to deny it. His whole world was becoming one great big farce, one great big lie that he told himself to keep from falling into some sort of never ending spiral towards madness. He knew the crystals, the chemical used in the gas chambers, would be dropped thru holes to poison those who came. And they knew it as well, he could see on the faces that they knew their fate as often as not. He could see despair  in their eyes sometimes when they filed by. This was no shower. There was no hot coffee. Just a large room – and Zylon B.

            He watched them file in, young and old. Anyone not fit for slave labor, filed in. He watched at first because he feared his parents might be amongst them, but in time he watched because he had to. Whatever part of his soul that was allowing him to do this thing also had plans for reconciliation. Or perhaps vengeance, but whatever the case, it required that he meet every gaze he could, that he see every form shuffle into the massive building. That he watch the door swing shut.

            And then he would do his part for the Final Solution. He would drop a few crystals thru a hole.

            Tink, tink, they would go, smashing on the concrete floor within.

            And then they would die. Not quietly, not quickly. Not at all. They would scream and fight to get thru the massive metal doors, but in vain. It was all in vain.

 

            Breathing deeply, in and out, Franz grasped another sheet of paper. He loaded it into the machine once more. Crooked. He rolled the paper into position, and one by one he found the keys, typed out the words.         

            Ich bin traurig. Verzeihen sie mir nicht.

            “I am sorry. Do not forgive me” it read.

He pressed the return key once, then twice, then again and again, leaving white space on the page. White space for all that he had seen, all that he had heard, all that he had done. White space for the mother whose child had clung to her, cooing as they walked in. White space for the man who had ten gold teeth, and whose smile Franz knew would make someone happy after death. White space for the old woman, who staggered and fell outside the door, and whom looked much like Franz’s aunt, up until the moment the SS had fired a bullet thru her head. White space for the screams to God, and men, and everything else for mercy and release. White space for father and son, supporting each other, who whispered of hope even as they went inward. White space for David Segev, who died there as well, and who would forever shame that name. White space for all that could not be said, but had to be.

            And at the end, beyond the white space, he wrote again.

            I am sorry. (I have a friend who is going to give me the Hebrew phrase for this in the final Draft)

 


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