Sammy and Doctor Rhadski worked together in the small storeroom sterilising the instruments, grateful for the opportunity to huddle close to the hot water boiler. The cold northerly winds now sweeping down across the north German plain brought the first flurries of fine dry snow which blew like salt across the compound, driven by the icy gusts. They had listened stoically to the news on their illicit radio, that a German offensive had smashed the American front in the Ardennes and halted the Allied advance, adding perhaps a further six months to the war and as Christmas approached Sammy wondered how much longer he could sustain himself in these conditions. His health had suffered from the effects of the cold and poor diet and Karl had allowed him to move his bunk into the dispensary to spare him the nightly ordeal of shivering, sleepless in his freezing cell. Yet compared to the inmates of the main camp he knew he was living in comparative luxury. He looked at the doctor. His eyes gazed hopelessly out of a cadaverous face and his breathing became ever more strained. Sammy tried to share his meagre rations with him but he invariably declined.
‘It is important that you survive, my son.’ He wheezed painfully. ‘You must live to tell them about this place and what they did. Good Germans must know and understand what has been done in their name.’
‘But if you don’t eat you will die and that is foolish. The war will soon be over, Germany will need men like you.’
The old man smiled. ‘I am dying already, it would be foolish of me to take food from you and put you at risk.’
‘You are being foolish and stubborn,’ said Sammy. ‘You’re not dying, you are killing yourself.’
‘You are a good man, Sammy. You remind me of some English friends I had before the war, good people. Our two sons were as close as brothers.’
‘You were in England?’
‘I have visited England, of course, but no, these were doctors from London whom I met at the university in Heidelberg. We were post-grads there. I fell in love with the woman. We were lovers for a while, until her Englander arrived.’ He shrugged and gave his wheezy laugh.
Sammy touched his arm. ‘You will see them again, Rudi, I promise, but you must eat.’
The old man looked at Sammy affectionately. ‘No Sammy, I shall not survive the winter. I have TB.’
Sammy looked at him sadly. ‘How can you be so sure?’
‘I’m a doctor, for God’s sake, but it’s rife in the camp, and there is dysentery and pneumonia. The consequence of all this good living, I guess.’ He tried to laugh again. ‘You know it’s ironic, but the gas chambers are a merciful release for most of us.’ Sammy looked away, chastened by the old man’s suffering.
The klaxon sounded for the evening roll call. Sammy gazed through the window of the dispensary at the shivering prisoners huddled together in groups on the arctic Appellplatz. He knew the SS guards would keep them there until they almost froze, before returning them to the main camp for the night. He saw Rudi, his hands tucked under his folded arms, coughing into the icy wind and as he watched he felt the bitter tears of frustration running down his face. He turned wearily and slumped into a chair. He felt crushed by despair at his impotence in the face of such infamy. Suddenly the door burst open to admit two SS guards.
‘Komm, Englander, on your feet, the boss wants to see you, now.’
‘What for, what does he want?’
‘You don’t ask the questions here, you piece of shit, you just do as you are told. Now move it, nobody keeps Gräber waiting.’
He was taken under escort to the commandant’s office. He wondered what he had done. Perhaps Gräber had discovered he was sleeping in the dispensary instead of freezing in his cell. He determined to brazen it out.
Gräber pointed to a chair. ‘Setzen Sie sich.’ He looked at Sammy, his cold shark’s eyes expressionless. ‘Do you know what today is, Captain Parker?’
Sammy held his gaze. ‘No, and why should I care?’
Still unsmiling, Gräber said, ‘It is Weihnacht, Das Christfest, the last of the war.’
Sammy smiled broadly then said softly, ‘Geronimo.’
‘What did you say?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Gräber smiled. ‘You don’t understand, my friend, the Wehrmacht will be in Antwerp within the week. Von Ründstedt’s Panzers have smashed through the American lines in the Ardennes, the allies are in full retreat and our secret V weapons are levelling Paris, Brussels and London to the ground as we speak.’ He rose and walked to a large wall cabinet. He lifted a large stone flask and poured thick yellow Korn schnapps into two glasses and offered one to Sammy.
He raised his glass. ‘Sieg Heil. To victory.’
Sammy smiled. ‘I’ll drink to that.’
Gräber laughed aloud. ‘Come, my friend, let us go and eat.’
‘Eat?’ Sammy echoed with some surprise and followed as the SS man made off into a connecting room.
Several SS officers were standing round a table laden with a dazzling variety of delicacies looted from the occupied countries. Polish ham, Norwegian herring, smoked salmon and pâté de foie gras from France, lobster and langoustine and Viennese pastries. Sammy’s gaze fell upon a woman dressed in the uniform of the SS. It was clear she had been beautiful once. Her thick blonde hair framed a finely boned face which was now growing plump. She had a dissolute appearance, her expression vacant. He thought she was probably drunk. ‘Be careful, Liebchen,’ Gräber laughed, ‘I think our guest fancies you.’ Turning to Sammy he said, ‘Allow me to introduce my adjutant, Leutnant Höchst, but watch yourself Captain, die schöne Gisele eats men like you for breakfast, don’t you, meine Süss?’ He bent to kiss her. She gazed up at Sammy, leering stupidly. ‘Meine Kameraden!’ Gräber addressed the gathering. ‘It is Christmas, the last of this war, for Germany is on its way to final victory. So in the spirit of magnanimity to a gallant enemy, I have invited our gallant British Bulldog and...’ He tapped his nose with his finger, winking suggestively. ‘...friend of Churchill’s daughter, to celebrate with us.’ He paused, grinning. ‘Before we return him to his kennel, that is.’ They all laughed heartily and sycophantically. ‘Come, Captain Parker, eat.’
Sammy looked at the assembled company. They stood around, arrogant, loud and contemptuously self-assured in their leather and steel. He looked at the repast laid out before them and thought of the conditions barely a kilometre away in the compound. The cold, the hunger, the disease, the hopelessness and the assurance of a painful, unjust and premature death at the hands of these philistines. He turned his gaze finally to Gräber. Slowly and deliberately he turned his glass over, causing the yellow liquor to patter noisily onto the carpet. ‘I don’t think I care to,’ he hissed. ‘It is enough that I have to witness your sickening barbarities every day, listen to the cries of children and see the hopelessness in the faces of their elders as they try to ease what’s left of their short miserable lives, to watch the casual beatings and murder of people who have done no more than try to survive this hell. What I will not do is share any of this loot with you.’ He flicked his hand contemptuously at the assembled officers. ‘Or these shitbags.’ He placed the glass on the table and wiped his hands on his jacket as though trying to remove all witness of contact with his captors. He scowled at them. ‘If I live through this, Gräber, I swear to God I shall see you pay for all you have done here, you bastards. Now, I have no doubt that you will arrange for a couple of your simians to beat the shit out of me before I go to sleep tonight, so let’s get it over with, shall we?’ He turned and walked from the room.
Gräber shouted after him. ‘But I can’t have you beaten, Parker. You are protected by the Geneva Convention, remember. And Germany is a civilised country.’
He heard their laughter as he made his way out of the officer’s block. Trying to understand why Gräber had not immediately placed him under arrest or had him beaten, he hurried to the dispensary hoping they would not look for him there, but he found the administration block empty. Then faintly, drifting across the icy Appellplatz from the guard’s quarters, he heard singing and carousing. He sat on his bunk. ‘You’re OK, Sammy my son, at least until Boxing Day. They are all having a good old Christmas piss up.’
He smiled and lying back, pulled the thin blanket over himself. The fire had died in the stove and he knew he would not be able to fetch more fuel until morning. As he lay, weary from hunger, he felt the cold gradually begin to eat into his limbs and he wondered how much more he could take.
Labels: Christmas, Cypress Branches, Pegasus Falling, Sammy Parker, Weihnachten, William E. Thomas, winter 1944