Firstly, many apologies for not having given more regular updates on the project I’ve been working on – a novel set in 1945 Germany – although, the truth is, it’s been a bit of a struggle. The good news, however, is that it’s now largely written and from here on it will be mostly tweaking. It will be published next year by Macmillan in the UK and, as for other countries – I’ll update you when I hear.
What is it about? Well, a few years ago I came across some photographs which were collected together by an SS officer called Karl Hoecker in late 1944/early 1945. Hoecker was an adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz and the photographs, taken between June 1944 and January 1945, feature some of the worst of the Nazi War criminals, including Mengele, Baer and Hoess, in relaxed social situations. Many of the photographs were taken at the Sola Hut in a village about 20 kilometers away from Auschwitz where, it seems, the SS officers went for weekends or short leaves. The hut overlooks a lake in the Sola mountains in what is now Poland but was then, albeit temporarily, Germany. It’s a beautiful location and the people in the photographs often seem to be having a good time – which is quite shocking given that hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered nearby during this period. And the people in the photographs are the murderers.
I found two photographs in particular interesting – this one of Hoecker lighting the candles on a Christmas tree in December 1944 and this one of him at a driven shoot in January 1945. The reason I found them fascinating was because this world was about to come to a very abrupt end. The Russians who had stopped at the Vistula river since the middle of 1944, attacked on January 12th and reached Auschwitz and the Sola Hut on the 24th. The photographs very strongly suggested to me the imminence of the attack – and something in them suggested to me that Hoecker, at least, was coming to terms with his likely fate. There are ghosts in the photographs, it seems to me.
As it turned out, Hoecker didn’t fare too badly – he was arrested by the Americans in 1945 and spent 18 months in a prisoner of war camp, although they weren’t aware of his role at Auschwitz. In 1952 he turned himself in for denazification and was sentenced to 9 months for his membership of the SS but he didn’t have to serve any of it because of a 1954 law of freedom of punishment. In 1963 however, Hoecker was was a defendant at the Frankfurt trial and was sentenced to 7 years for aiding and abetting the murder of 1000 people. Even then, he was released early.
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with the photographs but I began to think about them. To my surprise, my publisher encouraged me when I said I wanted to write a novel about the last few weeks before the Russians came – about the shift in power. It turned out to be a very different novel to the one I originally anticipated but it is still about that expectation of change. It’s told from four different perspectives: Brandt – a disabled war veteran who was born in the valley in which the hut stands, Neumann – an SS officer very loosely based on Hoecker, Agneta – a prisoner who works in the hut – and Polya – a female tank driver in the approaching Russian army. Very early on, I decided I had to take the novel out of the specific historical context – so Auschwitz is only referred to as “the Camp”. I did this because I wanted to leave that history intact as it so important. Also the novel never goes to the camp – it is set almost entirely in and around the rest hut. There is no character and no place in the novel that is real – but they echo real people and real history.
It was an extraordinarily difficult novel to write – and even more so to research. The question that kept coming to mind was “why?”. How did ordinary Germans, mostly, come to kill millions of people on the say so of a failed artist and a chicken farmer? That is the central question for me. I’m not sure I answered it – but I did want to remind myself, and anyone who reads it, that when confronted with evil we always have a choice. There have been other genocides since 1945 and there are genocides happening at this very moment in the Middle East – so I wanted to put into words how inexcusable they always are and how it is up to individuals to resist evil of this nature. Something very few individuals did during the Holocaust.
Here, anyway, are the first two chapters – in which Brandt is making his way back from the front after having been seriously injured. I hope you enjoy them.
He felt as if he were surrounded by his mother’s arms – as if he were still a child. Her embrace was soft. He could feel her breath against his forehead. He could even smell her –milk and warm bread. How he’d ended up back here, in her arms, small and incapable of movement, he didn’t know.
He opened his eyes, expecting to see hers looking down at him, her cheeks curved by her smile, her lips full and rose red – but instead a stretcher swayed barely an arm’s length above him, its mottled canvas stretched taut by the outline of a man’s body. The body jerked from side to side as they moved along a rough road. Close by he could hear someone swearing repeatedly, their voice shrill.
It didn’t matter though. He knew she was still close by, cradling him, her skin warm against his. The sunshine turning her hair golden.
All he had to do to see her was close his eyes.
The first time he woke properly, he was sure he’d slipped into a dream – rather than out of it. This waking reality wasn’t much to his liking. The world he visited in his unconscious state, it seemed to him, was reality as it should be.
He only knew he was awake because the borders of his world were no longer flexible, something he’d become accustomed to. Instead, now, the edges and surfaces that surrounded him had become hard and rigid. He was lying down. His body ached. His head was covered with something that was wrapped tight around his face. A bandage of some sort he thought.
He was on a train, by the sound of it, the wheels revolving to a slow rhythm, each length of track causing a small jolt that made the carriage sway slightly.
He opened his eyes and remembered the canvas above him from some time in the past – when he couldn’t say. It was more vivid than he remembered. A splash of brown dots marked the bottom of it. It looked like blood. Old blood.
Someone was talking to themselves nearby, a conversation with someone else in which they played both parts.
“I won’t do it. I won’t.”
“You will. You have to.”
“I don’t want to. I can’t.”
“You have no choice.”
“Why? Such a stupid question. Don’t be a child. It’s not why but how. How you are going to do it. And that’s been decided.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“You already have. You just have to do it again.”
The voice was coming from above him, he thought. He tried to move, to lean out and look up at the person, but none of him wanted to move. Even blinking his eyes was hard. He shut them, tired of this unpleasant unreality.
It was around then that the ache turned to pain. Extreme pain.
He was thirsty – it seemed to him he’d been thirsty for a long time.
His voice – cracked and distorted. He was still on the train – although it was stationery now. It was dark in the carriage and it was hot. Footsteps approached. A young woman, a nurse it seemed. Her eyes seemed to glow, despite the lack of light, and her lips were an unnatural, luminous red.
“What is it?” she whispered, as if, should someone overhear them, they might be in danger. He said nothing.
“What do you want?” she said.
Maybe the Russians were close by.
“Water,” he said, as quietly as he could.
“All right. I’ll get some.”
He watched her walk away – wishing she would move more lightly on the wooden floor. She was making too much noise. Didn’t she understand that? What if the Russians heard her?
He was in a cafe, waiting. On the table in front of him stood a cup of coffee and its aroma was so rich he could taste it on his tongue. It seemed too much, and it occurred to him that his nervousness must, in some way, have distorted his senses. The conversations around him in the long room sounded as though they were coming to him down a tunnel and the colour of the walls, the carpet, even the lips and eyes of the cafe’s customers – all seemed impossibly vibrant.
She would arrive soon and it was important that he should be relaxed when she did. In the meantime, however, his fingers trembled when he reached for his cup. It was white with a silver rim and the shaking caused it to tap gently against the saucer like a drumstick on a cymbal. He pulled it up to his mouth and forced it against his lips, drinking it, startled by the intensity of its taste. He was ashamed of himself. Not only for his inability to control himself.
He was always nervous around her so perhaps she wouldn’t notice anything unusual. He thought it must be impossible that anyone else could see her the way he saw her. She brought her own light with her, as far as he was concerned. A glow that made each detail of her shimmer. She was both fierce and fragile. Each time he saw her he wanted to wrap his arms around her – not to hold her but to protect her. But she was unattainable to him. When he was close enough to her to catch her scent it pushed all the air from his lungs. And yet she knew nothing of this. And yet it had all come to this.
He tried to empty his mind of any misgivings he might have. Of any regret. It was difficult. He felt hollowed out by what had happened, by the consequences of what was about to happen. And then she came through to the room he sat in, not seeing anyone else but him. Not seeing the men that sat in the corner, watching and waiting as well.
The pain woke him up. The train had stopped and somewhere, up above them, bombers were flying in the night sky. It wasn’t physical pain.
He could, almost, remember her smile. It must be the morphine – he had managed not to think about her for months now.
He could turn his head now and so had taken his time to examine his surroundings. He was on a hospital train, its length filled with injured men on stretchers, racked in rows on either side of the central aisle. He must have been wounded as well. That was good news, wasn’t it? He was alive, at least.
He wondered how he’d got here. He wondered how long he’d been here. He asked the young nurse when she passed by.
“You were wounded. At the front. Several days ago. We’re taking you home. You’re going to be fine, don’t worry.”
She smiled – as if she were giving him a gift. She was anticipating his gratitude.
“Yes,” she said, her smile patient. “Home.”
He could hear another patient calling for her and caught her glance shift towards the voice, deciding the other man could wait.
“Haven’t you a mother and father? A place you grew up?” She asked him, smiling.
He was as surprised as she was at the tears that filled his eyes. He wanted to explain – about his mother cradling him. About the woman in the cafe. Where to begin though? It all seemed so complicated. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was too late. The nurse had already turned to go to the other man.
When she’d gone, he tried to remember what she looked like – whether she’d been the same nurse as the night before. It was difficult – his memory seemed very liquid. Where there should be something solid, such as a fact, an image or a sensation, there were less substantial versions of what he sought – and the versions of the nurse seemed to merge and then disintegrate whenever he tried to fix them.
Could it be that she was also woman in the cafe/ Her smile seemed to have been just like hers.
He was lucky, it turned out – they’d put his stretcher beside a window and sometimes, despite the cold, they’d open it and there would be a breeze that would, for a second or two, cut through the fug that filled the carriage – the fetid mixture of disinfectant, corruption and bodily stench.
The train travelled through snow-heavy forests and glassy tunnels, across ice-decorated bridges and alongside frozen rivers – it passed white fields that stretched as far as the eye could see, for days on end it seemed. At one stage it slowly picked its way through a bombed out train station – the buildings still smouldering, the snow melted in a circle around them. The smell reminded him of where he’d come from – burned flesh, smoke and dust.
He didn’t see many people – but that didn’t surprise him. There were just less of them these days. The war had taken so many.
The good news was that they were going west. Each morning the sun rose behind them and each evening it set ahead of them. And that was good. He’d had enough of the east.
During the day they’d sometimes have to wait while other trains passed them – going towards the front – and he’d see boys looking at the train with round eyes, their uniforms still stiff and new it seemed to him. Their faces were framed by ice and fog. They were so young now – they were calling up sixteen year olds, someone had told him and these must be some of them – their faces had never seen a razor, he was sure.
The older men, the men who had been to the front before, paid no attention to the hospital train – they concentrated on their cigarettes instead or just looked away. He didn’t mind – he would have done the same.
The last day, not long before they arrived at a yard filled with ambulances and efficient women, they saw another train. It was a long line of white-roofed cattle trucks, halted in a siding to allow them to pass slowly by. The stationery wagons had no windows, only small slits high in its wooden sides from which steam rose into the frozen air. The slits were blocked by rusted iron bars, garlanded with barbed wire. Thin blood-streaked hands ignored the wire to reach out as if looking for something their owners couldn’t see. They moved like weeds in a stagnant sea, slowly, back and forth. And even over the sound of their own train’s rolling wheels he could hear the music of the people inside – a groaning, wailing dissonance. Unnatural, chilling.
On top of one of the cars a guard stood, his rifle slung over his shoulder, his chin buried into a fur lined coat. He was smoking a cigarette that poked out from the collar of the greatcoat, its glowing tip bright against the snow fields behind him.
At first he didn’t seem aware of the train as it slowly passed. But then he looked across, squinting against the flat sun – examining it. His chin coming out of its hiding pace so that Brandt could see the kindly eyes and the plump red cheeks.
Somehow, they caught each other’s eye.
The guard looked across the small space between them and smiled. His teeth were broken and yellow. His eyes glittered. He seemed to be on the point of laughing merrily. The guard’s smile grew even wider and then he inclined his head towards the truck beneath him, as if inviting Brandt to look for himself.
Then he winked.
And then he was gone.
It wasn’t certain how he’d come to be injured. No one else from his unit had been on the train and no one seemed to know how he had ended up at the field hospital he’d come from. That wasn’t so unusual – the entire front had collapsed and all was chaos, even here, a thousand kilometres away.
He’d no memories of the Soviet attack – the one which the other men from the train remembered so clearly – but it seemed he’d been blown up – by a shell or a bomb or a rocket. Or maybe all three. Certainly the doctors spent quite some time picking shrapnel out of him, taking him apart, putting him back together. He spent months lying on his back, seeing the frozen steppe in the cracked white ceiling above him.
He supposed he was lucky – from what he could gather. It seemed he was one of the few to make it out, even if it had been on a stretcher. He supposed he’d find out what happened to the others in due course – although these days it was possible for whole units to just disappear and never be heard of again.
When he was well enough to sit outside, and it was warm enough, the nurses found a uniform for him – it wasn’t new but it didn’t worry him that it might have belonged to a dead man. He was long past being squeamish about such things. They ordered duplicates of his combat badges and his medals and a nurse with a permanent frown was kind enough to sew the badges on – so that everyone could see he’d done his duty. He would have thought his missing arm was sign enough of that.
But perhaps it was so he’d have something to wear for the victory parade.
Brandt wrote to his father. His father was a medical man, so he spared him none of the details – after all, there was little chance of him being shocked by the injuries themselves. Obviously no one liked to have such things happen to their own son but Brandt was alive, more or less. His father could take comfort from that.
The act of writing to his father brought to mind the pressing dilemma of what to do when he was discharged. The army no longer needed him– they only wanted healthy flesh to feed their meat grinder, it seemed. He considered picking up his life where it had abruptly ended six years before. But the thought of returning to Vienna and the university brought with it so many complex emotions that he soon discarded the idea. There was nothing for him there now – even if it was the only place he’d lived in peacetime, apart from the village, of course. He thought about going somewhere else – a different university – but he was much older now, it seemed to him. Not so much in years – twenty seven was still young enough, he supposed – but in other ways. In the end he decided he had no enthusiasm for the prospect. Although it had to be said he hadn’t much enthusiasm for anything, these days. The mere thought of another day’s life had him swallowing bile sometimes. That wasn’t that unusual it seemed – to judge from the other men in the ward at least.
He considered alternatives but he kept finding there were inconveniences and challenges that would be difficult to overcome. Even if he could find a job or some worthwhile activity to pass his time, he wasn’t sure he had the strength or desire to move to somewhere he didn’t know. Not least because it seemed the American and British had bombed the larger cities to rubble – and were now moving on to the smaller ones. The closer the allies advanced the worse it would become, he expected. They’d be bombing hamlets by the time the war had ended. Aside from the danger, the bombing meant that finding a place to live would be almost impossible – so many houses had been bombed out that people were camping in the parks in some places, or sleeping in air raid shelters. Not the way to spend a German winter, and certainly not in his condition. And then there was the food problem, the soldiers who knew better told him. The ration wasn’t enough and in the cities it was hard to supplement it from other sources. Finally, and most persuasively, it became clear that his soldier’s pension wouldn’t go that far. And then there were the bombs on top of that.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of bombs or being machine-gunned from the air. He was afraid of the pain that preceded it, he supposed – but to a large extent he was past the point of fearing death itself. If he were to die tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter to him. He’d been living with the expectation of imminent death for so long now, he wondered whether, now that he was safe, a part of him missed it.
Living, he’d discovered, was the hard thing. Dying, in his experience, was easy enough. And after you were gone, few people cared that much. Not after the first week or so anyway. They just carried on with their own existence. Now, if he was realistic, he couldn’t see that his life in the future would have much joy in it. At best, it would be bearable. Although the likelihood was, when the Russians came, that they’d shoot people like him – if he was lucky that was. He wasn’t surprised to discover he wasn’t much concerned about that possibility. Anyway, one thing the war had convinced him of was that any thinking about the future was probably a waste of time.
So, in the end, he decided he’d go back to the village.