by Christopher Eller
J. C. Ellerman [Christopher Eller/Jeremy Gendelman]
Einsatzgruppe B, Gomel Oblast, Western Belarus,
June 1941 The Wehrmacht sweeps across Western Belarus sometimes facing stiff resistance and battles alternating with no resistance in small villages. Traveling with the regular German army are special groups, Einsatzgruppen. These are the brigades of men assigned to terminate the local Jewish and Polish intelligentsia, religious and political leaders, and other inferior races.
In the beginning, these special groups made public announcements of trumped-up illegal acts the victims had done and lined them up on walls and shot them in public squares. In very little time they realized this was inefficient and began shooting the Untermensch wherever they stood or knelt.
Himmler discouraged the use of alcohol except for bonding socialization once a month. However, the Einsatzgruppen men were given extra rations of vodka and schnapps. Perhaps as a reward, perhaps as compensation.
Schmidt hands a schnapps filled glass to me first then one to Fischer. Once again, I’ll be drinking with the blacksmith’s and fisherman’s progeny, beneath my family, but these times bring us together in our ancient holy endeavor. Communists and Jews cannot continue to threaten our lives and families, and their time in this world has passed.
They force us to… cleanse… to do these things.
The liquor? Yes, it is forbidden except for social bonding, Himmler you know.
Why would I want to bond with these men? Himmler, Heinrich Himmler midget demi-god who makes us do these things. We do these things though. We create the future. So, of course, we earn the special rations of alcohol others are not allowed to use. And we need it.
I don’t need it… I want it need it. I must have it to forget to dull my memory. Dull my thinking about me and life and… there are no answers in schnapps. Just a brief freedom from the pain–why does it… why is there pain when I do these things? I hunted in forests and took the lives of deer, rabbits and birds. Why this? I shouldn’t feel anything except the pistol popping in my hand. But I do. Too often.
Ninety-seven was it? No, today I’m going to be honest. I feel this every time.
I’m suddenly aware of the schnapps glass in my hand. Schmidt and Fischer are both waiting for me, my rank of course, but they don’t respect my wisdom.
Do they feel these things? Think about what we do? If I ask them directly, they will not admit it. Especially Fischer. He relishes this work; the special treatments. Too enthusiastic like many of the newest SS troops sent to our special group. They seem to revel in their killing… like an orgy; little gods taking lives these new ones. Did they do it for show? Maybe at first but after killing the second, third, and–oh, they’re looking at me. How long was I gone? How long were they waiting?
I raise my glass and they follow, unaware of what it is like to live with existential depression since childhood. Schmidt perhaps a little. But, Fischer, so simple and unburdened by any contemplation. I give them both a serious face and smile at the one good thing in my day.
“Special Rations,” I toast to our rare allotment of liquor they give us either as a gratitude for our actions, or liquid courage to do these things, or… or some sick compensation to offset the… feelings after these moments. Yes, good alcohol is expensive. But more than the lives? Yes, they know what we do and what it does to us else these rations wouldn’t be here.
Why are we here? Not here; I know why we’re here, in Lebensraum, Germany’s future living space, but the Why we are here this Here, this life, this thing we call living. My glass reaches my lips, and Schmidt smiles as he tastes the schnapps, too sweet for me but the warmth in my mouth, my throat, and now my chest helps me do this thing.
Fischer, so young and already an SS Assault Junior Leader in our Special Group, swallows the schnapps and makes his bitter face as usual. The warmth in my chest fades and I only can feel the burn in my throat. Is that what makes Fischer’s face? The burning? His burning drinking face shows what I feel at this life now. The burning doesn’t help me forget, it reminds me of my pistol and the old Jew lover and his woman.
“Jews?” I ask them not looking at her. I only look at him kneeling in front of us with his hands together at his chest like he’s praying, praying to us, to me.
“No. Not Jews.” He replies in a paltry attempt at German probably using the only words he knows. Every Slav, Gypsy, and Pole has learned this phrase.
He seems to press his hands harder together and harder into his chest like he is praying with everything and then adding more. He glances at his wife and she looks at him.
Do they know what is happening? Do they still hold onto some hope of reprieve like they’re never going to die anyway? Is this what God feels like before he kills a man? When a man is on his knees praying to God asking for help with work, food and the house, and sick child? So, God kills him. His poor wife awakens after his heart attack next to the cold body of her husband the way these two Jew lovers will become cold now.
“No,” he answers with his village dialect in Russian.
“No,” his wife echoes using German.
No, they’re not Jews. Not now. Even if they were, the bodies of Jews on the bricks of this street would make anyone forget their religion to save their lives, deny their gods, and damn their souls under their god’s eyes. No. Of course not. Not Jews. But Slavs; so… I feel the small empty space and then the tension on the trigger…
As I look at the old man, I can imagine Schmidt’s blank expression and Fischer’s smile even behind me. Always like this. Schmidt feelingless–or was he? Did he drown in feelings like me? And Fischer only like he was opening a gift from someone he loved–seemed to feel joy at these things we do. That’s what he showed anyway. Soon enough he wouldn’t.
The Walther in my hand shouts, telling me this thing I’ve just done, and the woman sees her husband collapse forward with his face in the dry grass and dirt at her side. She falls on him face down in his back sobbing. I point my pistol to the back of her neck for her special treatment.
The loud snap in my hand ensures she’ll lay with him for eternity as their lives bleed out. As she dies her torso convulses and her head rotates. Her open eyes stare up at an angle into the bright summer sun as she chokes one last half-breath drowning in her own blood. She’s free. They’re free. I hope they’re together. It’s all I can do to hold myself is to think I’ve set them free from this existence. She didn’t drown. They taught us it’s merciful to shoot the back of the neck below the skull and cut the brain from the body, so the pain stops. Ninety-nine. Why did it work out this way? Exactly ninety-nine today, at this moment.
Drowning. That is the word… for eternity I’m drowning. If God cares about our cause my own death will be the end of this drowning. The freedom. Maybe light. Certainly relief. Each time I shoot another man, his wife, their children I sink deeper when I’m trying to come up for air. I count them for sanity. I count them so I can answer the number of my sins in front of God.
God, why did that woman look like my mother? Mama. Do you see these things? These things we do. The pistol is warm in my hand. Mama, will you hold my hand with your warm hand? Will you be there when I’m the last count?
I look up from the old man and woman’s bodies. Schmidt and Fischer have already lit cigarettes–another luxury frowned upon by Himmler and his staff–but yet another special ration distributed to us for these things we do.
Schmidt looks in my eyes like he can see my pain. But I don’t see any acknowledgment that he feels the pain, that he understands. I shake my head lying to him that nothing is bothering me.
Fischer leans forward, taps the middle of his cigarette knee-high, over the woman’s head aiming ashes at the eyes of the woman who looks like my mother laying there. I almost lunge to stop him but I catch myself and make it look like I lost my balance as he laughs, and some ash makes it into her open eyes, and she does not blink.
“I have to pee,” I lie to them as I nod to the house on the left.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” I could have gone to the old people’s house, but it would only make me think more to be in there. Photos, food, paintings, musical instruments, things to remind me of these things we do and my mother. I’d only see more of my mother in the photos, furnishings in the house.
My papa wouldn’t care. Papa used to tell me about the things they did to us, to our family and country in the last war and centuries before this time. Papa would do these things and never even blink. No Papa Meier would smile angrily when the pistol spoke in his hand. Mama… my warm, beloved mother would never, and she would know how I feel. She must be there to greet me.
I could have gone to the old house, but I nodded to the neighbor’s house because there was nothing about the old man and woman there. This other house with its bushes near the door and small flowers where berries might appear at the end of this summer. The door opens smoothly, and the dark interior of the small home welcomes me. A threshold leading me to my beloved Mama.
Inside, the home is dark in corners, but light across from windows. Something small moves across the room. It goes through dark spaces quickly, then slows and stops in a dark corner. A large rat? Hmmm, ‘fitting,’ I think as I lean back against a wall and slide to land with my butt on the floor and knees in front of me, pistol still in hand. Fitting I should leave this… leave this existence with a rat as my companion. The pistol suddenly felt heavier than a rifle.
My other hand reaches into my breast pocket and pulls out my handkerchief. It’s not used you know. I’ve been saving it for this time. This time when I’ll leave. When these things we do force me to do this thing. The cloth looks odd as I wrap it around the end of my pistol. I don’t want to taste the barrel. The smell alone is disgusting. I must be decisive once I put the cloth-covered end of this pistol into my mouth the saliva will soak the cloth and in seconds I’ll taste this thing.
I look at my ridiculous bandaged pistol and see movement in my peripheral vision as the rat across the room moves toward– it is coming toward me. I can’t let it touch me. The rifle weighted pistol in my hand makes it difficult to lift. But I feel the cloth on my lips as the barrel enters my mouth. The taste of the cloth, the texture, and a rat will be the last sensations as I leave these things we do.
I close my eyes and feel the warmth of my breath and my saliva softening the cloth as my fingertip gently presses the trigger until the loose pull is gone and I can feel the pressure of the trigger catching and the pressure on my thigh as the rat brushes against me I see my Mama and the rat purrs, and meows and is a scrawny, boney cat that hasn’t eaten in what looks like years the taste isn’t there anymore and Mama’s face is gone as the cat turns and rubs against my thigh again and I feel the loose space in the trigger as my fingertip backs off the pressure and I set the pistol down on the opposite side from the cat and look at it looking at me and I begin to feel pressure in my bladder. I do need to pee.
“Thank you, Mr. Cat Bones,” I tell him as I lean back against the wall, pressing my back and legs at the same time as I push myself to my feet. Damn, that was stupid. The pressure of my right hand with the pistol in it, pushing against the ground hurt my fingers.
I slip my pistol back into the too-tight holster, snap it and look down at Cat Bones rubbing against my leg. As I look for a corner to pee in, Cat Bones jumps onto a chair and then a wood stove, turns and looks at me as if he is telling me something with his mind as I unbutton my pants and begin to pee on a stack of blankets in a basket so the splattering is absorbed and won’t get spots on my uniform or boots.
I nod and tip my hat to Cat Bones. “Thank you.” He remains expressionless looking at me as I leave the house. How did that cat save me?
At the road, Fischer is in the driver’s seat. Schmidt still stands near the two bodies, smoking perhaps a third cigarette. As I go from the house toward the Kubelwagen, Schmidt looks up at me.
“One hundred? Meier?” He smiles, nodding his head and looks down at the bodies of the old man and woman, then turns and heads to the road.
Schmidt, always organized, everything perfect. But he couldn’t get this one right.
It was almost 100.