JACOB’S OATH: A NOVEL by Martin Fletcher
Published by Thomas Dunne, Hardcover
ISBN: 9781250027610, ebook ISBN: 9781250027603
Copyright (c) 2013 by Martin Fletcher
***** FROM THE BOOK JACKET *****
As World War II winds to a close, Europe’s roads are clogged with twenty million exhausted refugees walking home. Among them are Jacob and Sarah, lonely Holocaust survivors who meet in Heidelberg. But Jacob is consumed with hatred and cannot rest until he has killed his brother’s murderer, a concentration camp guard nicknamed “The Rat.” Now he must choose between revenge and love, between avenging the past and building a future.
Martin Fletcher, who won the National Jewish Book Award for “Walking Israel,” proved his chops as a novelist with “The List,” which was selected as the One Book, One Jewish Community title for the city of Philadelphia. Now, Fletcher brings us another touching novel of love, loyalty, and loss, set in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
April 22, 1945
In the Human Laundry at Camp 2 they barely knew they were naked, man or woman. Laid out like corpses on shiny metal tables, washed, shaved, and disinfected by German nurses, their hips and shoulders jutted out like knives.
Murky water sloshed to the floor and drained away in the central gutter that ran between the stalls of the stable.
Nurses in white coats and white kerchiefs, shrouded in steam, ethereal, scrubbed in silence, one hand resting on an arm or a leg or a head. Helpless inmates squirmed as soap burned their sores and scabs.
Jacobs sunken eyes were screwed tight. He didnt want to open them. He didnt want to see these Nazis with their pursed lips, their frowns and busy hands. Who are you to help, now that you lost? Its a bit late, you bastards.
Gently, the nurse gestured that he turn over. She smiled and cupped his shoulder and pushed lightly with her hand. He was less bony than her others that morning. He opened his eyes and winced, scalded in the sudden heat. Through a haze of burning tears he saw her big chest, big hips, blond hair pulled back into a bun, sweat pouring from her puckered brow. Flushed cheeks. Her name must be Brunhilde, he thought, and remembered: Warrior Woman, from the old Norse. How perfect. How ironic. The cow.
His penis flopped as he turned. He lay on it. He hadnt thought about it in months and now he did. It pressed against him in the warm dampness. Whoa, he thought. Its still there.
And then he stiffened.
He raised his head, his neck muscles flexed. He looked at the back of the naked man a few tables away who had rolled onto his side, placed one leg on the floor, and stood up. Jacob had glimpsed the side of his face. He was standing now, the nurse was handing him a towel. He took it, wiped his face, pulled it across his shoulders, quickly rubbed his body, and turned again to walk away.
The nurse put her hand on Jacobs head, saying, Relax, relax. She pushed him down so that she could scrub his neck but he pushed back. Sorry, did I hurt you? the nurse asked. Now his whole back arched and he stretched to see better.
The man looked different. He didnt fit in. Not as skinny. Not skinny at all. Lean, yes. Broad. Tall. As he turned and Jacob readied to see his face, a British doctor stopped to talk to a nurse, blocking Jacobs view. The man raised his arm to rub his hair with the towel; his bare arm seemed to emerge from the doctors white sleeve.
Jacob strained his eyes, not shut this time, but to peer through the damp mist of the Laundry. The mans left armpit was black with wisps and curls, but there it was. Even at three meters, in this bad light, Jacob saw it.
A blue stain. He couldnt see what it said but he could see that it was there. A tattoo? His SS blood group?
Yes. It was him. It must be. Those ears, those stiff round ears sticking out like a rat. A shiver shook Jacob, his neck hairs stood. He opened his mouth to shout but nothing came out. His body stiffened and he tried again, but he only shuddered.
Alarmed, the nurse pushed him down, harder this time. Relax, she said, please relax, there is nothing to worry about, I just need to spray the DDT, you will come out of here nice and clean. No more itching.
Now Jacob bellowed, at least he wanted to, but all that came out were high-pitched gasps, one after another, as if he were panting, choking.
The man was walking toward the door, rubbing his hair. Most inmates had to be carried on stretchers, others hobbled in pain or took it step by breathless step. He was striding. It flashed through Jacobs mind: He could be whistling. The marching song, the Horst Wessel song: Die Fahne hoch, die Reihen fest geschlossen
Jacobs eyes darkened, a flash of memory. Maxie. His brother, his baby brother. Murdered.
Jacob screamed with his little might: Stop!
You stop it now, the nurse said, and she called for help. Two nurses rushed to her side, the doctor too, they pushed Jacob to the table while the nurse pressed the plunger and a spray of DDT powder made him cough and his eyes water.
Thats better. Thatll kill the lice. Youll feel better, no more scratching.
Stop, you bastard, he yelled. Stop!
Hey, be quiet, the doctor said. Thats no way to talk. Shes only trying to help.
Its all right, I dont mind, after all theyve been through, the nurse said in German, stroking Jacobs head, trying to calm him. Youll feel better very soon. No typhus.
Stop, Jacob yelled, straining against them. Hans, you rat!
At the door the lean man turned. He took in the struggle on the table, the naked stringy Jew yelling, his little head straining forward like a tortoise, the nurses and doctor pushing him down. He saw into Jacobs crazed eyes. Smirked, spat, and left.
April 29, 1945
Sarah sensed it first in her bare feet, the faintest quivering of the ground. She looked up and cocked her head, her right hand rising to pull her shirt tight at the throat. Her left hand held a squashed tin bucket. She had been about to leave her shelter to see if the water pump on Dorfstrasse was working. It had been dry for two days.
The tremor grew and her body trembled with it. That’s strange, she thought, observing her own body. Is it the ground moving? Is it the cold?
It sounded like a cat’s purr.
It became louder. The cracked window-frame rattled and cement flakes shook loose and fluttered to the floor. Larger bits dislodged and fell with a thud. The rumble became a growl and then a continuous roar and the basement walls shook so much Sarah cowered in a corner in case more of the ceiling crashed down on her. Her shelter was already a pile of rubble from the bombs. She had built four low walls from loose bricks and smashed wooden rafters and for two weeks had slept and hidden in the dusty space between them. A sheet of tin on top kept in some warmth.
The mirror fell to the floor, shattering into a dozen shards.
Sarah flinched as it fell and thought, Seven years bad luck. But: How much worse can it get?
She looked at the trembling door-frame and knew it could get much worse, quickly. She understood now what it was.
It was the rumble of tanks and armored cars. The Germans pulling out or the Russians moving in. Either way, thousands of marching men. She knew, If they’re German, they’ll kill me, if they’re Russian, they’ll rape me. She had to stay hidden. She was safe underground. But for how long?
Sarah looked down at the empty bucket and her tongue flickered across her dry lips. Not a drop of water had passed them for two days.
By afternoon it was clear. She could hear loud voices with those strangled long vowels and hissing sounds, the shouted orders, the revving of engines, the dragging of equipment outside, and from upstairs, barely, the hushed voices and fearful tiptoeing of Herr and Frau Eberhardt.
Sarah thought, I should feel happy. The Russians are here, which means the war must be over, or will be soon. And she did feel a kind of relief that washed through her body and made her blood feel heavy. It weighed her down. So tired! Now what? Still she did not emerge from her hiding place.
Sarah lay behind her low wall of debris, dusty, thirsty, exhausted, too scared to move, every nerve on edge. Looking at the door, listening to the street, she was thinking of Hoppi, and the little one, who she had never had the joy of knowing. How hard it had been. And all she had done to survive. That had led her here, to now. Sarah closed her eyes and flopped against the wall, legs straight out, her head to one side, arms hanging to the floor. I’ll get up in a moment, she thought. Go outside and ask for water. Hope they don’t rape me. Maybe it’s safer in a crowd after all, they won’t touch me there. It’s more dangerous here, if someone finds me alone. Yes, it’s safer outside.
Sarah made to move, but couldn’t. A few moments more, she thought, close your eyes, think of Hoppi. Her lips moved with her thoughts. She was used to talking to herself.
Their first year or two on the run hadn’t been too bad, thanks to their friends. Gunther. Sasha. Elinora. The old lady who they hadn’t even known, who had just offered, what was her name, with white hair? Can’t remember. Peter and his wife. The ones who listened to the BBC on the wireless. They’d all risked their lives to help her and Hoppi, given them shelter.
In the early days they could even take off the yellow star, walk across town, go to a cafe. It was strange, it didn’t weigh anything, that little bit of yellow cloth, but they both felt lighter without it. They didn’t have ration cards, so their hosts shared their food and helped them find ways to earn money. They had risked their lives for two terrified Jews. There were enough good Germans, in the beginning at least. They went from safe house to safe house, leaving each before Nazi neighbors could become suspicious; a week here, if they were lucky a month there. Not that it was easy. Creeping in their apartments like mice, using the toilet only when their friends did, never running water from the tap, always terrified of the nosy concierge, of a rap on the door at four in the morning. Still. A little smile of thanks played on Sarah’s lips. She licked them with her dry tongue. She’d have to get up in a minute though, find some water.
“U-boats.” Submarines. That’s what we are, she was thinking, as she lay in the dust, there were thousands of us. Once. Jews, submerged. Living underground, out of sight. Others, too: Gypsies, Communists. So-called enemies of the Reich, a subterranean subculture, hunted by the Gestapo, with no papers, no homes, where one false step, one miscalculation, one nasty neighbor, meant torture and death. It was worst in the winter, it was so cold. By day they rode the subway, the S-bahn or U-bahn, changing all the time so that inspectors wouldn’t notice them and ask for their ID cards, which had J for Jew stamped on them. By night they slept in the station toilets, locking the door, and had to wake early to leave before the cleaners came. In the summer it wasn’t so bad. They could sleep under bushes in the woods or the parks.
Hoppi, remember in the Tierpark? Jews weren’t allowed but we sat on a bench without our yellow stars. And then we walked along the flower bed and your shoelace was untied and you kept treading on it and tripping up but you didn’t dare stop and bend down to tie it up in case people looked at us. And then, remember the new rule that the warden had to take the names of everybody in the bomb shelters, that was in Holzstrasse, with Peter and his wife, remember?
So during the air raids we had to stay in the apartment, and we prayed. Oh, and remember that time we made love during the raid. Oh, it was so beautiful. As if it were our last time. We were mad. But what else was there to do? We could have been dead at any moment. And I know that was the time. As you finished, oh how you shouted in my ear, I said quiet! they’ll hear us. And you said, Don’t worry, there are too many bombs. We were on the floor, under the bed, I said to you, right then and there, We just made a baby.
Our baby. Tears rolled down Sarah’s cheeks. Oh, our baby. So long ago, so very long ago. Hoppi, we were so young then, you and I.
I was twenty-three and I loved you so.
Sarah talked to Hoppi every day. Could he hear? Who was she to say no?
She heard footsteps above. The lighter ones of Frau Eberhardt, who was the only neighbor to ever ask how she was; the heavier, more plodding steps of her older, frail husband. They aren’t so scared anymore, she thought. They’ve stopped tip-toeing. With so much of the ceiling missing, Sarah could make out their tiniest movement. She hoped they wouldn’t fall through the floor. Sarah wondered: Did they hang white flags? The Russians are right outside. Will they come in? They’ll have to. They’ll check the buildings for fighters, for guns.
But she was too tired to move. She had survived. But what for? What’s left? Who’s left?
It had been Hoppi’s idea. Right after the transport of…when? November? Was it 1941? It had been cold and raining; when they still had their papers and lived in their apartment on Flemsburgergasse. She’d been sewing uniforms at the tailor’s. The Gestapo and police had knocked on all the doors to give notice to the Jews: “You and your family are to report at eight a.m. Thursday to the Grunewald train station to go on labor assignment to the east.”
Permitted to take one small bag of clothes and ten marks.
Hoppi was so smart. They hid in the basement and as soon as the transport was over they came out of hiding and walked to the lake, the Grosser Wannsee, left a neat pile of clothes with a suicide note, and called the police, pretending to be shocked walkers out for a stroll. The police opened a file at the Kriminalpolizei, who hated the Gestapo, and sure enough, no questions, no search, the police simply wrote a report that two corpses had been found and buried. Josef Farber, Jewish male, aged 27, of Haspelgasse 12. Sarah Kaufman, Jewish female, aged 22, of Schlosstrasse 97. File opened and closed: Deceased. Suicide. The Gestapo stopped looking for them, and that’s when they became submarines.
But it didn’t last long. Oh, Hoppi. Why did you go out that day? Wilhelm, yes that was who, Wilhelm Gruber. He saw it, he was hiding in a doorway. He told me. You ran, you fought, they beat you, and that was it. Once they have you, nobody gets away.
Three years. Alone. It was almost a blessing to lose the baby. To be honest. What would I have done with a baby? Scurry through the streets at night with my yellow star and a bundle of tiny arms and legs? We’d both be dead. Sarah’s tears had stopped, and her body stiffened. And what life would he have had? Or was it a she? What life?
For years she had choked at the thought, wept as she still felt the kick of her baby, as one feels a lost limb.
Eyes closed, almost asleep now, Sarah went back to that place, the worst of all, when she wanted to die, when her baby had dropped, alone in the cemetery, where she had been living, she was doubled up in pain and anguish, unable to cry or make a sound because of the curfew for Jews. There was blood and pain and mess and above all, pure terror. Terror at what was happening to her body, terror that someone would pass by, terror at what would happen if she was caught.
Sarah froze. Each nerve screamed. She heard the scrape of material brushing against the door-frame, the crunch of a heavy foot settling on plaster, crackling as if treading on paper, followed by another. Even the air moved. Or was that her imagination?
Someone is coming.
Someone is here.
Sarah tried to dissolve into the ground. Could he hear the thud in her chest? Her wall, maybe a meter high, separated her from the door of the basement room. She heard another crunch, lighter, like biting into a cookie, as a man shifted the weight of his feet. Her hair stood on end.
One strange word, softly spoken, an inquiring kind of sound, came from the doorway. Russian.
A soldier. She must not surprise him. He may be scared too. He may shoot. Sarah forced out a little sound, a weak baby sound, a whimper of fear, high-pitched, as nonthreatening as possible. There was an answering word in Russian, and another, louder, it pierced the little room, and Sarah whimpered a little more. Slowly she raised a hand so that he could see it, her little hand, and she whimpered again. She raised her head, bit by bit, and looked at the door.
All she could see was dim light glinting on metal, long and sharp. A bayonet poked into the room. Behind it, a barrel and then a hand as the soldier leaned forward, followed now by his nose and his hair and his face. His cap perched to the side, covering curly blond hair, he was just a boy. She whimpered again, and now the soldier was standing above her as she sat up by the wall of debris.
She looked at him and their eyes met. He stared at her, his mouth opening. He glanced around, taking in the room. It wasn’t really a room, just some kind of abandoned storage space with a partially collapsed ceiling. It was tiny and dim, barely lit by daylight through a small grill at street level. His gaze settled on Sarah.
What did he see? A young woman with gray smudges of dirt on her face, and arms covered in dust like camouflage. From beneath a faded kerchief, her brown hair fell in knotted curls, with white plaster flakes clinging to them, as if trying to age her, to conceal her beauty. Wearing a ripped heavy wool dress, a man’s brown shirt, and a torn, stained jacket. Hands pulling her shirt closed at the neck, her eyes wide with fear.
He saw it all but all he noticed was a young woman with bare legs.
He looked around, keeping his gun on Sarah as he turned. And they were alone.
Sarah pointed to her mouth, touched her lower lip with her right index finger. With her baby voice, her cowering voice, her nonthreatening voice, she said, “Wasser? Bitte. Haben Sie ‘was zum trinken? Ich hab’ ein solcher Durst. Bitte. Wasser?” He lowered his rifle. Looked around again as if he couldn’t believe his luck. He smiled shyly. She almost smiled back. He can’t be more than sixteen. “Please. Water?”
Now she heard heavy steps, confident steps. More crunching of plaster and another soldier elbowed by the first. He had a flashlight that he shone in Sarah’s face. His eyes lingered on her, looked her up and down. Sarah pointed to her lips and licked them. The second soldier gave an order and the younger one left.
The older man lashed out with a black leather boot. The wall of debris, Sarah’s shelter, collapsed in a cloud of dust and white plaster. He jerked his weapon. In Russian: Stand up. Against the wall.
Now with a true whimper, Sarah, still holding her shirt closed with both hands, scrambled to her feet and obeyed, without understanding the words. The soldier slowly raised his gun and pointed it at her and kept it pointing at her stomach. Again, his eyes wandered across her body. He said something to her. It seemed that he was sneering. Sarah didn’t answer, her shoulders sank, she cradled her belly with her hands. Tears welled in her eyes. She felt naked.
The soldier was a big older man, with graying hair and large hands, like a farmer. He stood with legs apart, relaxed, staring at her. He put a finger under a dirty field dressing over his left ear and scratched, keeping his eyes on her body.
The young soldier returned, holding out a bottle and an olive-green water canteen. He handed them to the older soldier, who said something. The boy looked at Sarah, shrugged as if there were nothing he could do, turned and left.
The soldier unscrewed the bottle and with a smile that showed broken yellow teeth handed it to Sarah. “Danke schoen, danke schoen,” she said as she lifted the bottle to her lips. The soldier acknowledged her thanks by showing his teeth again and with an upward jerk gestured with his rifle: drink.
Sarah breathed out and took a deep swallow. It took a moment before she gasped and spat and shouted in surprise and disgust. The soldier threw his head back and roared with laughter till his body shook. “Vodka, vodka,” he said. His eyes sparkled, his stupid face was creased in a broad grin as he gestured as if to say, Funny, yes?
He handed Sarah the olive-green canteen. She raised it and let a drop fall into her mouth. She tasted it, licked her lips, took a bit more, and then gulped down half the contents. She poured a little water onto her hand and wiped her eyes. Dirt smudged her forehead more, she looked as if she hadn’t washed in a week, which was true. She breathed in and out, a long draw of satisfaction, and drank another long swallow.
“Danke schoen,” she said, passing the canteen back to the soldier, who remained, legs apart, gun up, contemplating Sarah.
Now what? she thought, looking down.
He said something in Russian, laughed, and gave the canteen back to Sarah with a gesture: Drink, it’s yours.
He turned and left.
Sarah sank against the wall. She put the canteen to her lips, sipped and sipped again. No point in hiding anymore, she thought, I must get out of here. He’ll be back. But where to go? The Russians are everywhere. And if not them, the Germans. Oh, where are the Americans? That’s what everybody had hoped. That the Americans or the British would get here first. That’s where I must go, she thought. To the Americans.
But I’m so tired, she thought, surrendering herself to the weight of her head, her arms, her back, which pulled her down. Hoppi. Her eyes closed as she laid herself flat on the floor and a drowsy cloud descended. “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter, Wenn er fallt da schreit er…” The nursery rhyme. Parents put their children on their knees and jiggled them up and down and said: “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter”–Hup Hup Rider–and the rhyme ended with a loud “Macht der Reiter Plumps”–the rider goes plumps–and the parents opened their legs and the baby fell through them with a happy shriek. Every German knew the rhyme.
Sleep was taking her. A smile played on her lips as she remembered how Hoppi loved to hold her. With Sarah on his knees, her legs straddling him, he deep, deep inside her, hugging each other so they could hardly breathe, kissing for as long as it took, as they moved and slid and cupped each other’s bottom, it was so warm and loving and beautiful. Oh, Hoppi. He would jiggle her up and down and look into her eyes and with a wicked smile, just before he came, he would say, he was always such a joker, he would shout, “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter!” That made her the rider. So that made him Hoppi.
And now he’s gone. Or is he? Could he have survived, somehow? Escaped? No, they killed everyone, don’t fool yourself. It’s been three years. Still, we promised each other. If ever we were separated, we would go home, find each other there. On the bench at the bottom of the steps by the river. We promised.
Home. Sweet Heidelberg. Sweet Hoppi. Sweet dreams.
Sprawled on the floor, with a sheen of perspiration on her face like a translucent death mask, drool escaping from the corner of her open mouth, Sarah slipped into a deep sleep.
The rumble now was Sarah snoring.
Fields of flowers glow in the early sun, a haze of pink and yellow, and rustle in the gentle breeze like a sea of glinting sun-washed waves. Lush low green hills with meadows of golden wheat rise and fall like the sea breaking on a yellow sandy beach. It is harvest time and boys and girls in Lederhosen are working hand in hand and humming and singing, and the sound of youth and joy is a low murmur across the bountiful land gifting hay and sunflowers and trees laden with heavy fruit. Shafts of light through the dense branches make the white almond and apple blossoms that smell so sweet and dainty and fragrant explode in luminescence. It is a farm, a farm of love. There, over there. See? The tall boy with long brown hair flopping over his eyes, laughing so gayly. Is that Hoppi leaning down, picking the red flower, putting it to his nose, breathing deeply, smiling and handing it to a baby, who laughs and tries to eat it? A baby? Lying on the ground, cooing, waving its little fists? Now the picture is fading, receding, like a street drawing in chalk washed away in the rain, storm, hail. Now the delicate fragrance is changing, it is stained with a different aroma, edgy, sickly, becoming bitter. Are the almond blossoms already rotting? Is the wheat old and dry? Is the sun going down? It is dark, and chilly. The smell. It is sharp, yet suffocating. What is it?
Sarah’s eyes fluttered as she moaned and drifted out of her dream and sniffed. Beer. Alcohol. She opened her eyes and could barely see in the gloom. She heard breathing. Not her own.
Sarah looked up.
His few teeth glinted in the dim light. He smiled and said something. A whiff of alcoholic stink, like rotting potatoes, made her snap her head aside and gasp.
“Viktor,” he said, stabbing his finger into his chest. “Viktor.” He said something else and stuck out a bottle. “Wasser?”
He gave her his canteen. Bleary and giddy, she sat up and took a tiny sip as if tasting a fine wine, and when she was sure it was water all but drained it.
Feeling pressure on her bladder, she rose to her feet. Viktor stood with her. He didn’t have his rifle with the bayonet. He had his bottle with a pistol. He pulled the gun from its holster, pressed it sharply into the back of Sarah’s head, behind her right ear, prodded her to the door and into the corridor. With his free hand he pointed to the doorway leading to the yard.
Sarah was pale, trembling and nauseated. But she had to pee. Unable to communicate beyond simple gestures, humiliated, she went behind a wooden crate in the yard. She gathered her dress about her, squatted, pulled down her knickers, and felt release and heard the flow and sensed the warmth as her urine flowed into the earth around her.
The soldier faced the door with his pistol raised, as if protecting his spoils. He looked like an ogre guarding its cave. As she finished she looked up. His body half faced her but his head was to the other side. As she pulled up her knickers and began to stand her heart raced. She was thinking, This is my chance, it’s now or never. She prepared to spring, to run. But the yard was sealed on all sides, it was an inner courtyard at the back of the building with rows of earth once used to grow vegetables and flowers. These had been pulled out by the roots long ago, replaced by grass and weeds, which would soon also go into a pot of soup. Now she was standing. Maybe I can push him aside and run, she thought. But where to? The street is full of Russian soldiers. They’ve put up a roadblock. And he’s so big and strong.