Sunday, May 15, 2011

"The Man Who Was Set Free"

The old man sat down at the table. It was a large table made of solid wood. The light overhead was bright, but not blinding. Around him, there was darkness. He put his hands, old and wrinkled, on the table in front of him.

"My name is Silvester Plahke," he said to the darkness. "I was...I was a guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942 to 1944. I wasn't high up, I wasn't part of the command. I was just a guard. That doesn't excuse it though. There are no excuses. No excuses, no reasons, no answers. There is nothing I can say or do to make what was done undone." He looked upward into the light and then down again at his fingers, each wrinkle time had made laid bare.

"I was there when they were carting them in. The trains that came up each day filled to the brim with people. Was I one of the ones who divided them up, separated them into lines of who will live and who will die? I think so. I think I did that. I'm not memory isn't as good as it used to be.

"Anyway, I was lucky. I was transferred to away before the end came. I wasn't there for the marches. And then the war ended. And I decided I couldn't be myself anymore. I decided to go away. Away from Germany, away from everything. I moved to America.

"It was different. I had trouble adjusting. But eventually I did. I found a wife, I had children. I have grandchildren now.

"Then...last week, I saw a man. He was tall and thin and wore a black suit and tie. I remembered him. I remembered him from the camp. I remembered sometimes prisoners would talk of a tall man in a suit that walked outside the gates. I remembered how my commandant had told me to stop such talk. It couldn't be the same man, but in my heart and in my soul, I knew it was.

"I decided to go back. If I could go back, I could meet him, tell him I was just a guard. I flew on a plane and went back to Poland, back to the hard and cold ground that I had left behind so many years ago. As I walked back through those gates, so many memories rushed into my head, I thought I would collapse.

"I walked through the first camp and then the second, passing through each building. But I didn't see him. He wasn't there.

"I thought of myself as silly. Of course he wasn't there. It wasn't the same man. In fact, there probably was no man back then. Something the prisoners just made up so they could hope.

"I went back to America, back to my home. The woman on the plane next to me was coughing all throughout the trip. At home, I greeted each of my children and grandchildren with a visit. They each looked so thin. I asked them if they were eating much and even took out a few for large lunches, but it didn't seem to help. They ate so little, even with so much food piled on their plates.

"When I visited my eldest daughter, I could hear her cough and it shook me. It wasn't the cough of a person with a cold. It was the cough of a dying person. I had heard many coughs like that back in Auschwitz. I tried to take her to the doctor, but she refused. She said she was fine, it was just a small cough.

"More and more, I noticed the people around me were sick. They coughed harshly into their hands. They were thin and weak. Some of them had black splotches on their hands or arms. When I visited my family again, they were sicker. Some of the children had their ribs showing, their skin stretched tightly over their bones.

"I dragged them to the doctor, despite protests. He found nothing wrong with them. I noticed him coughing, too, and there was a long black and yellow spot on his arm. I knew what it was: gangrene.

"As I continued visiting my family, they got sicker and sicker. I came to my oldest daughter's house one day to find her dead body, a crowd of flies surrounding it, lying in her bed. I wept at her bedside.

"My grandchildren died of starvation the next week. They had simply refused to eat. The people on the bus, the people in the market, they looked like stick figures. They looked like they had given up on life and were simply going through the motions, buying food they would never eat.

"I woke up one morning to find that my neighbors were all dead. The smell was overpowering and unbearable. I walked outside to find empty streets and silent houses. There were no more buses running, no more boys on bicycles, no more people. As I walked the soundless streets, I saw men and women dead in their houses, their bodies emaciated, looking so much like skeletons with thin coverings of skin. Some had their whole arms turned black and yellow.

"Everyone was dead. The whole city, the whole country, the whole world. So now the question was: why was I unaffected? Why was I alive? I thought this as I dug plots for my family. I could not bury everyone, but I could bury them.

"The work was hard, but I needed to feel alive. I laid them to rest, each one, and said a prayer. I didn't believe anyone was listening, but I said it anyway. Then I walked back to my home and I saw it. Three words, just three words, written above my door. I knew then.

"I was still in Auschwitz. I had never left.

"I walked through the door and I was back in the camp. I was back where I had been before all those years ago. And there was the man in the black suit.

"He had seen me, all those years ago, executing the prisoners. Executing the ones who had seen him. He had seen me push them on their knees and put my gun to their heads.

"He didn't speak. When I looked into his face, a saw a thousand faces. A saw the faces of the men I killed. I saw the faces of people I had led into the gas line. I saw the faces of men and women and children. And finally, I saw my own face. It was young and smooth and I just wanted so much to make it go away. I yelled and pleaded and cried for him to go away.

"He held out both arms and there was a moment where his arms grew thin and long, like the branches of a tree, and I let myself be entwined in them.

"And then I found myself here. In this place." There was a sound outside and the old man stood up, revealing his striped fatigues. "That was the reveille. It's time to work."

Then the old man walked outside and through the camp gates and went to work.

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