Old Ventures 2, Ch. 17

Seventeen, Goethe

Jack was alone inside a warehouse, crates stacked to the ceiling with the personal effects of prisoners. He couldn’t stop staring at the intricately interlaced filigree on the ring, and the way that it raised into prongs holding the single round-edged sapphire in its center.

He heard someone open the door behind him, and slipped the ring into his pocket. “I was hoping I’d find you here,” Fleming said. “This is Heshell. I wanted him to tell you how he ended up here.”

“I hear the Kristallnacht was widely reported,” Heshell said. “Maybe you know more about that night than I do, about what happened all over Europe. I only know what happened to my family, my synagogue, my home, my family’s business.

“I was up late, unable to sleep. My wife, Genana, and I, we were having troubles, though it’s hard to even remember what they were now. I was at the shul, talking to Rabbi Yiftach in his office. I remember it was bad enough that I thought my wife might bed some other man, and thought perhaps I should leave, that we both might be happier that way. But we didn’t finish the conversation.

“Smoke was billowing in from the sanctuary. We thought maybe a candle had fallen, and I went with the Rabbi to help him. The entire shul, the synagogue, was on fire. The Sturmabteilung, Nazi stormtroopers, were smashing everything inside. The Rabbi watched in horror as they tore down the parochet. I had to hold him back when they opened the Aron Kodesh, and took out the Torah scrolls, and put them, too, to the torch. He wept in my arms, as the fight went out of him, and still, we had to wait for them to leave to sneak away. I left him with the family that tended the grounds; I can’t remember their names. 

“The entire city was on fire, being broken or smashed. It was the end, the end many of us knew would come; my wife insisted we keep cash enough to run away with, and I humored her. I always thought, if that day came, that it’d come during the day, when I was at work, so we stashed our money there. My father was a successful stonemason. He worked until he could barely grip a hammer, and then, he hired me. He would tie string, around his hand,” he pantomimed circling his hand with yarn, “so he could still hold a pen, so he could keep the books, or annotate my designs.

“I ran, to our shop, crying, thinking of the Rabbi. I had known him my entire life. I thought of his faith as almost quaint. I was a modern Jew, a business-minded, cosmopolitan man. But he, he loved his shul, the Torah, his study, he loved them the way my father loved stone work. I think, in that moment, I found a faith like the Rabbi’s, or at least an appreciation for someone else loving something so thoroughly, and losing it, and I knew how every second I was closer to losing the things I loved if I couldn’t flee with them.

“Every business on the block had its windows smashed in. Some were on fire, others were being looted. My father’s shop was near the end of the street, an alley closed with a wall. I snuck inside, under cover of the dark.

“The shop had been ransacked. Anything that could be taken had been, including all our tools, and even several slabs of an expensive ornate marble. Many of the tables had been broken or charred. I ran into my office, unable to breathe; my desk looked untouched from the door, but as I rounded I saw that the drawers had been painstakingly smashed one at a time. The secret latch, unlocking my private drawer, had been gouged out, the small metal that secured the latch in place had been nearly torn from the surrounding oak. Our money was gone, and along with it any real hope at escaping.    

“I wasn’t crying any longer when I reached home. I thought if I could move faster, maybe think clearer, maybe we could escape. I burst through the front door panting like a madman. Security forces were a few steps behind, though I couldn’t know if it was just my poor luck, or if they followed from the shop.

“It didn’t matter. They arrested me. When my father protested, they beat him. They didn’t take my wife, or my father, then, just young men, ones who might fight against the Nazis.

“They threatened them, that if they fled, they would kill me. But eventually they knew that whether they killed me or not had little to do with them, and tried to run, but were caught.

“By then I had made myself useful here, as a foreman. Stonework and masonry made me invaluable in building out the camp. I wrestled with that, that I was helping make more space for prisoners, but making space with prisoners as workmen meant I could help save some.” His hand shook. “But never enough,” his voice broke, “never as many as I needed to. Never every man who had been kind to me, or who took ill.

“But the Nazis saw the danger, too. They gave me privileges, but needed to also have a stick. So when they caught my father and wife, they brought them here, for leverage. My father took ill, and medicine was scarce. Rather than risk the spread of disease, they shot him. They did it in front of me, not because I had transgressed, but so I knew that I lived at their pleasure- and how difficult they were to please.

“It had the opposite of the desired effect on me, and even my wife. It made us more angry, more defiant. We sought out ways to undermine; we organized laborers to smuggle out supplies, built holes in the foundations for us to hide valuable materials, and started stashing away guns- the ones we used to take the camp. We were careful, and we were smart. But it didn’t matter.

“The Oberst’s cousin was killed, fighting on the Eastern Front, though I didn’t find that out until later. He called me into his office, and a guard dragged my Genana in. He accused us of undermining morale, of plotting; his ‘proof’ may as well have been a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He was drunk, nearly weeping. And then he smiled. Told me how much it all reminded him of killing my father. His guard pushed her down, to her knees, and he shot her in the head. I was numb. I didn’t cry, or scream. I just remember thinking that her name, it meant ‘grandmother,’ or ‘old woman’ and now she would never be either.

“She talked about dying, more sometimes than I could stand. But it meant she had told me that when she died, and it broke my heart because it was always when, that I had to make them pay. But not with vengeance, not with violence, but by living, by standing over the grave of Nazism and pissing on it. Not that that precluded violence, you understand- she was the one who pushed me to stockpile stolen weapons- but she wanted, more than anything, for me to outlive them. All I wanted for myself was not to outlive her,” he said, his voice catching as he latched onto Fleming, as the nearest of them.

Jack hadn’t realized, during Heshell’s story, that his muscles were tense, his fists balled so tightly they hurt. “Bring me the biggest goddamn Nazi you can find,” Jack said, anger flattening his voice.

“Surely you’d prefer to punch a free man rather than a prisoner,” Fleming said, patting the crying man’s back.

“You get on my nerves, but not that much.”

“I wasn’t offering myself. But fighting is still ongoing at a neighboring camp, where they met with extraordinary resistance, perhaps even… transhuman.”

“And you let me sit down for story time?”

“Edwards’ superior didn’t want to ask for help. Thought it would damage morale, and once that decision gets made, it’s difficult to reverse. But if you were to surreptitiously hear about the stalemate, and intervene unilaterally…”

“Edwards asked you to get me…”

“York, actually.”

“And Heshell?”

“Was my idea. I think, sometimes, in modern warfare, because of the way we compartmentalize, we forget what we’re fighting, and what we’re fighting for. In the Resistance, and in intelligence, we baste in the reasons to fight, and who our enemies our. But soldiers, most are just told where to go, and who to hit. It can be numbing, if you don’t remind yourself from time to time the evil we stand against; we can’t resist it properly if we forget the great cruelty it’s capable of.”

“Consider me reminded,” Jack said, and pulled Heshell to his chest. “I’m sorry,” Jack said. “For everything that’s happened to you, for failing to prevent it, for not intervening sooner.”

“My wife,” Heshell said, “was a wiser person than I. No regrets,” he said, and clapped Jack on the cheek, “just live to piss on their graves.”

Jack put his hand on Heshell’s shoulder and squeezed it, and let his forehead touch Heshell’s. “We will.”

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