The Buchenwald man
Their legs, white as chalk, continued to shake even as they stumbled from their shacks. The eyes were worse, though, much worse, because in their eyes was everything that had been done.
Stan Kemper didn’t sleep well for the first few weeks after the liberation. Following his division’s transfer to Southern Germany in June of 1945, he had become bored with the daily routine and role of the occupying soldier, and had time to think about the things he had seen in Buchenwald.
This was never good, though, because such things always made him angry.
It was the middle of July now, and the temperature was cool inside the barracks. He was always the first to wake up, but Stan couldn’t leave his bed just yet. The cots he and the others slept in were firm, but they creaked and groaned from any twitch or jerk. So Stan stayed put, staring up at the ceiling and thinking.
I hate them, he thought. I hate them I hate them I hate them I hate them.
And this was the idea that stayed with him, along with the memory of the bulldozers, the machines that shrugged bodies into pits as if they were mulch.
Up until April 11, Stan’s period of service with the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion had been entirely unremarkable. He had come close to actual combat in the winter of1944, when the Germans had crashed through an area of woods near his sector. However, he and the rest of the battalion were used as a rearguard and reserve force for the battle and rest of the year.
And, for a little while, Stan was perfectly content with quiet service.
The situation changed very quickly.
It began as a simple order to move along with the rest of the 6th Armored Division in its advance through Central Germany. Devastation, for the most part, had escaped this part of the country, where the population was tiny and sparse, and agrarian lifestyle had not yet embraced mass industrialization. Farms and fields made very poor targets for bombing runs, and were kept intact. The total war Stan had neared for three years simply did not reach here.
But, and Stan would learn this only by the end of the war, high command was aware that they were nearing a site of death. Just days before, the Americans had uncovered a ring of shacks and barbed wire outside the village of Gotha. They knew it then, that the heart of the place was very close, and they sent Stan as a first responder.
The front of the place was dominated by a large three-story concrete and wood structure, the doors of which were barred with iron and studded with spikes. Stan was alone as he walked; he distanced himself from the others. They did not yet seem so concerned by the sight, by the iron gates and twinkling of barbed wire that was just visible behind the building. Some of them joked. Most of them did not, but still looked fresh and young.
The sergeant asked for bolt cutters, and it took a few minutes, but they were brought up from the rear. He was a thin man, with weak hands and tiny veins, so he asked for a stronger boy to come up and do it. Stan volunteered. He didn’t know why at the time, and would continue to question it for weeks. Only until he had been stationed in Bavaria for a month and had such time to ponder, was he able to narrow down a possible reason. He wanted to see what was inside, and to not only be the first, but, even if just for a moment, the only soldier there.
In any case, he was able to achieve that. Stan took the bolt cutters and, after a good, hard hit, broke through the iron links that bound the gate, and together with the sergeant, pushed open the way to Buchenwald.
Only then did he see the crowd of sticks arranged around him.
And they really were sticks, weren’t they? Through starvation, the prisoners had become reduced to the size of children. Width-wise, it was even worse. Their ribs were actually far more visible than their guts, which had simply disappeared altogether. But what really struck Stan was their movements, and how they would almost scurry away from the gate as it swung open, as if the metal would kill them if it came in contact with skin.
The prisoners backed away, their eyes displaying their last remaining emotion, which had never been in short supply for them here. Stan had never seen fear like that. It scared him badly.
It took him a few minutes to actually walk into the camp center, but he eventually forced himself to do it.
“We’re helping to clear out bodies,” Young said.
They were eating their breakfasts outside of the barracks. The cook’s line had taken a while to get through, all for milk and chewy bread and apples that came bruised and splotchy out of a tin barrel. Both soldiers were sitting on the ground, dipping the break into the milk. They spoke as they ate.
“Yeah?” Stan asked, as if it were actual news. Jack Young was one of the very few men in the 9th Battalion who had been there longer than he. Stan, who had never really formed an army relationship or “soldier’s bond,” as it was called, found Jack to be pleasant enough company.
“Yep, and I’m sorry to say it, but that’s all they use us for anymore.”
“Be thankful,” Stan said, smiling as well as he could. “We could be in actual danger. Instead, we’re just dickering around with civilians.”
“Can I say something?”
“You look awful, Stan,” Jack said. “You getting enough sleep?”
For a moment, Stan considered lying. And, for whatever reason, then went for the truth.
“No. I wake up too early every day.”
“Yeah, but why?”
Then he evened things out with a lie.
“Sleep schedule’s all fucked up, you know? They’re running us ragged, man.”
“You should do something about that,” Jack said. “I gotta get ready.” And he left with that.
You should do something about that.
Stan gritted his teeth.
I wish I could, Jack, you fucking faggot. I wish I could do something right now.
But he wasn’t mad at Jack, of course he wasn’t.
He was mad at them. At what they had done and made him see.
They went into town that afternoon, everyone in the company. It was a long trek, about three miles, and they did it all on foot. Stan supposed the place had been beautiful before. No, of course it had. This was either Bavaria or near Bavaria, and while he was poor with German geography, Stan knew enough to recall pictures he’d seen in grade school, pictures of white-stone castles, mountains that went with the sky, not against it. It was springtime, and Bavarian spring was apparently lovely.
Today they were working near Diedorf. It was a tiny community a few miles east of Augsburg, where most of the rebuilding was actually being done.
They unloaded near a medium-sized redbrick shack, one of the very few untouched buildings in town. It took a while, but Stan took his pack down and took from it all the essentials of retrieval: a tiny shovel, a tiny pick, a few rags, a canteen of rust-water, and whistle. The whistle was to alert the commander and company to a live person; a semi-humorous joke when referring to people twisted under ten feet of shattered concrete and metal. The commander, different from the one who had led Stan into Buchenwald (this one was a corporal), shared the opinion that almost everyone held when he said to them: “Alright, let’s go clear some rubble and bury a body or two.”
If it was meant as a joke, no one laughed. The entire town had to be cleared of dust and scrap and torn metal; soon, a new city would be built. New homes, new life. Old occupants, all bodies, would be cleared out for the new.
They were walked down the main street of Diedorf, and here none of the houses were left recognizable. This place, unlike the farmland, was just industrial enough to constitute a thousand bombs and deaths. It was just important enough for its own special destruction. Each building in sight was devoid of an interior. All the windows were cleared of glass, and some of the panes had melted inward, like outstretched fingers. Only the fingers were all—
Skinny skinny just like them of course they were skinny not a single crumb was thrown in five years.
Stan shook his head. Like he needed to think about that now. There was enough to deal with here. These people had been hurt, too.
Don’t believe that shit. This happened for a day. That happened for—
“Alright, clear that out!” the corporal said, gesturing to twenty-foot pile of cinderblock and glass. It was the remains of what appeared to be a church, what looked like a pharmacy, and a one-story house. All were now mixed together, all now trampled over by Stan and the others.
“Pile it up on the side of this street,” the corporal said as he pulled his own tools out of his belt. “Truck’ll come soon to pile it off and away.”
After about two hours of lifting, slamming, grinding, and pulling, a body was found under the rocks. Stan was near the soldier who found it. The soldier had seen bodies before, they all had, and quite calmly yelled out to the corporal: “Yeah, there’s a foot here!”
Twenty men, including Stan and the corporal, immediately rushed over to oversee the excavation. There was a twisted, bleached white foot sticking out from the rubble. No one said anything about it. Instead, a few men jumped forward and grabbed the leg, while others used picks to tear away at stone that held the rest of the body down. Soon enough, and all at once, the bricks gave way and the body came free and into clear view.
It was a girl, about seventeen. It was a little difficult to tell, however, because her face had caved in quite badly. A few broken shards of teeth were lodged in her forehead, and both eye sockets were empty. Dust caked up inside the holes. The girl had been a blonde, and her hair was still tied into a fishtail. As they pulled it out, the body twisted and flopped loosely, allowing some of the dust and gravel to spill out of the eye sockets.
Stan did not shudder at this, and was surprised to see the same reaction in the others. Had he really thought he was alone in this chill? No, he was different from the others. They all had been inside the camp; to them, this was nothing. They had seen ten-year-olds, even babies, piled in heaps like charcoal. This was nothing.
6 o’clock, it was beginning to get colder, and the amount of work being done by tired soldiers was levelling off. So when the corporal ordered everyone to stop and pack up for “home,” no one objected.
As they piled past the three military trucks, a few soldiers of the company tossed their last pieces of cinderblock into the beds. The trucks would drive off to the outskirts of town to lighten their load and add to the ever-increasing landfill. The bodies, however, would be put someplace else.
“They’ll be dug up and put in a cemetery at some point,” a soldier, the one who discovered the girl, said.
“That’s only if they’re recognized by family,” another chimed in. Everyone seemed to agree with him.
“The families are probably dead, too,” Stan said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Everyone also agreed with this. It seemed that, out here, the idea that anyone could have walked away from such rubble after the bombs came was almost silly.
And then Stan said: “I hope they’re dead.”
The men walking in front of him stopped for a moment, and turned. They didn’t seem surprised; just confused.
“Why’s that?” they asked.
“Just seems right, you know?” he said. His arms were very tired but began to tremble all the same. “Why should these people deserve to live?”
“Why not?” another asked.
Are you all nuts?!
“B-because they killed those people,” Stan finally said. He felt free and ashamed at the same time. He knew he was right, but no one would ever agree. No one would see it the way he saw it.
“At the camp?” the corporal said. He had come up to Stan’s from the side. “These people didn’t have a thing to do with that, Stan. Not a thing.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Trust me, I’m sure.”
“Alright,” Stan said, and that was the end of it.
That night, while the others were in bed, Stan again stayed awake. He was worried about something, and was now certain he knew what it was.
The others were too trusting of these people. The others in the company had seen what he had seen, they had smelled the rot and decay of skin and meat in Buchenwald, but it fell shallow on them. They hadn’t understood it. To the others, Buchenwald was nothing but a place, and the prisoners nothing but worse-off civilians.
But Stan had held one of them. He had felt the woman’s collarbone jut into his stomach, her unsteady cold breath fall on him weakly. She had felt like a cold rock held behind a piece of tissue paper; one bad step and her ribs would rip straight through the skin.
But perhaps the real problem was that Stan did not enter Buchenwald as a soldier. He did not even really enter as a liberator, a man bent on saving a terrorized people from a tyrannical foe.
He entered as a Jew, and knew from the moment he learned of the camp’s reason for existing that he, too, in another life could have been sent there. He could have been the old woman. He could have been the ten-year-old piled into a heap like so many rag dolls.
Stan didn’t blame his friends; he blamed them.
So when he returned the next day and saw a woman sifting through what had once been a home, he almost killed her.
They had been given their breakfast and afternoon’s rations, and began to wander through the town doing the same work as yesterday. The trucks drove them into the center of the rubble, they got out, withdrew the tools, and got to work carrying away the metal and the rock. They found more bodies, but no one crowded around them this time. Few even stopped to look at the corpses. Stan did, however. In a way, he almost felt it would be wrong of him not to look. It was his duty to clear them out, but it was his right to see them dead.
He worked along with the others in the combined ruins of a barbershop and perhaps a candy store. Combs and twisted razors were found lying next to glass jars that somehow remained both intact and filled with licorice. Stan broke one open and chewed on the contents as he pulled and heaved. The candy was stale, of course; it had been where Stan found it for quite a long time, perhaps weeks. He ate much of it anyway and stuffed the remainders into his pockets without telling anyone.
By the time he saw the woman, it was late noon and Stan was very tired. He had gotten scrapes, bad ones, throughout his work. He was worried they’d become infected, but no one seemed too concerned. The corporal gave him nothing and told him to try and keep the rocks and power dust out of the cut. Stan said he hadn’t thought of that.
And so as the light began to dwindle, through a few standing limbs of wire that poked out of the mound of shattered brick he was standing on, Stan saw a woman with a black scarf wrapped around her head digging nearby. She was clearly old, as she had a hunched back and a quivering way about her that could’ve only been a disease of some sort. Her hands twitched as if she were conducting something, and as Stan stood watching her, the woman began to sing softly to herself. He couldn’t understand the words, it was all garbled German, but he knew the tune was very sad.
He stopped working, and began to move closer to her. She was kneeling down at the edge of the mound, stuffing her twisted hands as far into the rock as they could go. Stan heard cracking, and couldn’t tell if it was pebbles or bones. He couldn’t get a good look at the woman’s face, either. Her headscarf, tattered and drooping along the base of her neck, obscured everything. Her mouth was only seen as it puckered forth to deliver the words of her song.
“What are you doing here?” Stan asked. He didn’t know if anyone but the soldiers were allowed here, but he assumed she was out of place.
The woman didn’t answer. Now her arms, up to the elbows in sharp rock and glass and metal weeds, began to quiver, too. Stan could imagine how the arms looked. He pushed the image out of his head and came closer.
“Get up,” he said. He was surprised to hear his voice so clearly, as if he were someone else listening in. His tone had no warmth, but it was loud all the same. The woman was definitely hearing him, and yet she remained in the pile.
He was getting angry now. Stan trotted down the uneven slope and came behind the woman. The song had become quieter, and he could no longer hear the butchered German.
And now he saw that this creature had no socks or shoes. She had a coat on, but whatever fake fur it may have once contained was now torn out and left only patches of white cloth in its place. Her dress, it may have once been red, was torn all the way down to the hem. Loose strands of string and fiber hung about the tear, as if she were wearing a grass skirt. It was ridiculous, but it did not make Stan smile.
He did not give her a chance to rise. Instead, he knelt down, put his hands on her shoulders, and pulled her around to him.
The woman’s arms pulled free from their rock and Stan saw that her hands contained hair, blonde hair. At first he thought it was fabric from a couch, because it no longer looked like anything that had once belonged to a person.
Then he saw her face and realized she was insane.
It was not really a face, because it conveyed no emotion. There were wrinkles here, and deep cuts in the cheeks that had just begun to turn white with infection. There were clumps of white hair that hung around her forehead and nowhere else. But her eyes stared off indifferent direction, always to his left or right. Stan knew there was nothing behind him but hollowed out buildings and dead trees.
Her lips started to quiver, as if she were forming words, but he never gave her the chance. Stan began to beat her hard with his hands, first around the cheeks, then around the forehead. And as he did so, he thought about how her weak flesh felt against his hands. It was like trying to smash water.
In an instant he lost all his drive, but continued anyway. He continued until someone jumped on his back and someone else grabbed his hands.
They’re going to kill me, they’re going to drag me away and kill me.
But when he heard the American voices and his corporal ordering them to pull him away, to pull him away for God’s sake before he kills her, Stan knew he had gone too far.
He did not sleep in the barracks that night. That night, he stayed in the redbrick shack inside the broken town. Some people were with him, holding guns and watching him from time to time. But they usually just talked amongst themselves about nonsense, and never him.
He still didn’t blame them, though. They hadn’t seen what he had. There was no connection for them as there had been for him. Stan had felt the connection strongly until now. Until he felt the softness of that cheek. It held no victory for him, and victory was all he craved.
But still he remembered the trucks filled with bodies, and the little old skeleton woman who looked not unlike the thing he’d seen today. They both had the stare, the mindless broken gaze.
Their legs, white as chalk, continued to shake even as they stumbled from their shacks. The eyes were worse, though, much worse, because in their eyes was everything that had been done.
BENJAMIN SONNENBERG is from Severna Park, Maryland. An eighteen-year-old sophomore at the University of Maryland and two-time finalist in the Laura Thomas Communications Junior Authors Short Story Contest, Benjamin is a writer for the University honors newsletter (ranked second best student-run newsletter in U.S), The Saunterer. His writing has been published and podcasted on Pseudopod.org, has been featured in Impulse Literary Magazine, and he was a finalist in the “Whall Essay Award” Contest (out of 125 essays, five were chosen.)