Chamber of Horrors,
Parker sat, her hands folded and supporting her chin, and waited for Sydney
to speak. For more than twenty minutes, the two had remained silent and,
although she had been about to open her mother on several occasions, Miss
Parker had sensed that words, in this situation, would be both unnecessary
and superfluous. He would speak when he was ready. Sydney himself sat with
his hands folded on the table in front of him and his eyes now directed
to a point somewhere above Miss Parker's head. But he saw nothing of the
people that constantly moved around them like an ocean’s waves and his ears
were deaf to the conversations that were occurring on either side.
“Jacob and I used to wake up every morning and look out the window to see what the weather was like. Even once we arrived in Dachau, we still used to look out every morning. But instead of the weather, we used to look at the barbed wire. And we used to look and see which guard was on duty outside the barracks. We learnt early on which guards were nice and which weren’t. Once we learnt that one of our guards had twin boys at home in Berlin. He told us that we reminded him of them. He used to do a lot of nice things for us, like let us visit the rabbits that they kept there so that their fur could be used. But then, one day, somebody saw him taking us there and knew that it was against orders. We never saw him again.”
Sydney ran a hand through his hair, not noticing that his hands were flecked with dots of blood. Miss Parker's glance was caught by the tiny specks of red and followed them for a moment before bringing her gaze back to the wide and tormented eyes that focused on the table before her.
“One day we were walking - Jacob and I - to the rooms where the doctors were waiting for us. Our guard was somebody new but we had heard rumors about him from some of the other prisoners that he was somebody to be feared. This day we walked past a group of people, lined up in rows. The guard, walking behind us, made us stop and watch what happened next, keeping his eye on us to make sure that we didn’t close our eyes or turn away. I don’t know what pleasure he can have derived from making children - that is all we were - watch the more horrifying crimes of which people are capable. Then…” Sydney trailed off and his face paled. He winced as though in pain and a spasm constricted the corners of his mouth, yet his eyes remained dry.
“Then what?” Miss Parker's voice broke through the silence and arrested the tormented man’s attention.
“Then? Then the men in charge of the group pulled several men out of the line, made them turn and they, like we, were forced to watch. Guards went along the lines and the doomed men had to count, in German, aloud and together. One guard paced along the lines of prisoners. Every time the men reached the number ten, the guard would turn and shoot, in the nape of the neck, the man he was standing behind. Then the prisoners standing out of line would have to start again. Eins, zwei, drei, vier; it went on for nearly half an hour. And then my brother and I were beaten for being late to the tests that day.
“They liked us. We were the perfect Aryan children with only one flaw - there was the chance - at least they feared - that we would become like our parents.”
“What had they done, Syd? You never said that they had done anything except work and live for you.”
Sydney shook his head sadly. “I didn’t tell you everything.”
“I shuffled and equivocated.” Sydney looked down at his hands, his lips twisted in a half smile before he sighed and then glanced up once more before speaking again. “My father was a German burgher and my mother a Flemish farmer’s daughter. They met in Germany and married there but, when Hitler took power, my father decided that they should leave. They moved back to live with my mother’s family and Jacob and I were born several months later. It was very peaceful until 1938, when Hitler invaded Austria. My father remembered what had happened in the Great War and decided that it was likely Hitler would invade Belgium next. Having made friends with some of the people from the area who were also wary of the Nazis and everything they stood for, my family decided to leave. My father had brought his entire family out of Germany with him and they, as well as we, had lived with the parents of my mother but the four years had taken all four of them from us and now it was only the small group of I, my brother and my parents who gathered together one hot summer day and left the country of my birth.
“We arrived in Lyon and my parents bought a block of land and immediately my father built our home and established us in it. Although it seemed outwardly that we were content and peaceful - and, indeed, Jacob and I were - my parents were watching the actions of Nazi Germany with fear and gratitude that they had left the country to which my father belonged. Then Hitler invaded the Western parts of Europe.” Sydney stopped, passed his hand over his mouth to stop his lips from trembling and looked down at his hands, staring down at them as though they were in some way dissociated from him. “On that day, the 10th of May, 1940, Jacob and I had been playing in the fields near our house. We came home that night to find my parents sitting in the kitchen with the group of people who had accompanied us from Belgium. My parents had the newspaper laid out on the table in front of them. Some of the women in the room were crying. My own father was crying. I had once seen him break his arm and he didn’t cry then. But the thought of France yielding to the terrors of Nazism was enough to make him cry. However Jacob and I, as we lay in bed that night, heard them talking about whether they should join the resistance movement, as they had been invited to do. That was the day when two six-year-old boys became enemies of the National Socialist state.
“My parents had moved to Lyon believing that the Nazis would be less likely to go there than anywhere else, if they invaded. The Resistance - the Free French movement headed, for a long time, by Charles De Gaulle - was created almost as soon as France was invaded and my parents were co-opted. The area around Lyon managed to hold out for a long time against the ravages of Nazism. For two and a half years, until November 1942, Lyon was able to continue, pretty much as usual. But we couldn’t help hearing what was happening in the world outside. One day a man, battered and bruised, came stumbling into town. He had escaped, he told my parents and the other members of the group, from a camp away to the west - a place called Dachau. He told us terrible stories about the things that went on there; the fact that people were beaten and even killed for no reason and that people were shipped in cattle trucks with no food or water for days. I didn’t want to believe that people and things like that even existed. Jacob tried to make me listen to the things that he heard this man telling our parents but I refused to hear what he said. It’s ironic, really.”
“Ironic?” Miss Parker's voice sounded strange in her own ears, strained and hoarse.
“Ironic that, in 1942, I should not want to hear what he told me about the things that the Nazis were doing, only to have to face it only months later. And then, exactly twenty-five years later, to have an identical situation exist when we argued about the Centre. I never wanted to face the truth.”
Sydney fell silent, emotions no longer able to be kept at bay. His head sank down so that he was looking at his feet, tucked under his seat, and two tears dropped down to sit, glistening like diamonds, on the table in front of him.
“In 1942, on the 11th of November, Germany took over Lyon and incorporated it into ‘the Greater German Reich’. Almost a year before, in December 1941, Hitler had issued a decree he called ‘Nacht und Nebel’ or ‘Night and Fog’. It was a method by which those people who opposed the system of National Socialism could be gathered up from occupied territories and sent to one of the many camps that were springing up all over Europe. When Lyon was finally occupied, the process of collecting the opponents of the regime swung into action. Because of the fact that they had two small children, Greta and Jean-Michael had never been permitted to play a large part in the process. De Gaulle had already fled to England by the time that Klaus Barbie, the head of the ‘Nacht und Nebel’ program, came to the small farmhouse outside of Lyon, on the 14th of April, 1943.” Sydney stopped for a moment and then continued, unaware of the fact that his narration was changing from the first to the third person and back again. “We were at dinner the night that they came; a special dinner - it was our ninth birthday. My father had just said grace when the door burst open and a group of men with guns entered the room. Without protest, my parents stood up. Mother took a chance to grab jackets from hooks near the door and, on a whim, Klaus Barbie actually let her do so. I learned later that somebody was shot when they tried to do the same thing elsewhere. We were marched out of the house and I remember that my father took one look backwards over his shoulder to see the building he had constructed himself. I have often since wondered whether he knew that he would never see it again.”
Sydney buried his face in his hands and a small groan escaped from his lips. A third tear slipped from between his fingers and dropped onto his jacket but its mate was hidden in the palm of one hand. “We were loaded into the back of a truck that was parked down the street. As we got used to the darkness, we could see that some of the other occupants were, like us, people who had fled from Belgium. My father was about to say something but one of the other men surreptitiously placed a finger on his lips and nodded in the direction of a man who sat with his hands pressed between his knees, looking out of the back of the truck and into the darkness. The man mouthed the word ‘spy’ and my father nodded. After that, we all sat silent and unmoving.”
“Why would the Nazis have put a spy in there with you? I mean, they knew you were working against them…”
“Of course they knew, but they wanted as much information to use against any members of the Resistance as they possibly could. Any details they could get might help them to destroy the movement itself. We often had such people with us when we were traveling, but they never learned anything from my parents. You have to understand, Parker, just how comprehensive the whole anti-Resistance system was. They had spent years refining and improving on their existing processes and, by 1943, they were experts. Their expertise extended to the regular use of normal citizens, sympathetic to their cause, to denounce other citizens. The only way that people could avoid being found out and captured was to do what De Gaulle did - flee to England.
“We spent a night in the truck outside the railway station. The next morning we, along with the occupants of other trucks that had pulled up during the night, were ordered out and into the station. I will never know,” Sydney continued softly and thoughtfully, “why we didn’t cry out or make a sound. There were people passing that station all the time. Only twenty-one members of the SS guarded us, a group of almost 100 people! If we had stood up to them, we might have had a chance to get away. But we would never truly have escaped.”
Sydney looked up, his mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “Where would we go? The Nazi spider with the crooked legs - or so we learned to call it in the camp - had stretched all over Europe. How would we know who to trust?”
Miss Parker nodded, silently acknowledging the truth of his statement. For a moment they both remained silent, feeling the power of the words that were coming from Sydney's mouth.
“In a way, we were lucky. The ride to the camp was only a short one. We were only in the cattle car, all 100 of us, for two hours.”
“Surely it takes longer than that to get to Dachau.”
Sydney shook his head. “Our first camp wasn’t Dachau. We were sent originally to a camp called Natzweiler-Struthof, a camp close to Strasbourg. There were a few children there and, for some reason, they never gave us numbers while we were there. I suppose they didn’t think it was worthwhile. In fact, all of the children lived in one barracks together. There weren’t too many of us and so we had a bed shared between only two of us. It was comfortable, too, with a clean straw mattress in each bed. We had the chance to clean our clothes and ourselves quite often. Also, bread and other food was allocated per barrack and not for each occupant, so we received more than the other prisoners. It really didn’t seem that bad to us but both Jacob and I could see that our parents were suffering. They never told us what happened to them during the time in that camp but often they would be hiding bruises or trying not to limp when we saw them. Within the first month at the camp, my father’s hair became almost completely white and my mother’s went gray. Whenever we could, Jacob or I would give them some of our bread. That situation of near-bliss - especially compared to what came next - lasted for five months.
“One morning, just as the first rains were beginning to fall after a hot summer, all of the children were gathered up in a group and marched back to the railway station near the camp. Most of the children ran to parents, including Jacob and I, but I saw that one of children, a little boy of only three, had no one that he knew. I suppose now that his parents had been killed but then, in my innocence, I asked my mother if he could come with us as, obviously, his parents would be coming later. Possibly having some idea of what would come next and not wanting to make either of us upset, she agreed. I picked him - a child by the name of Josef - up and brought him over to where we were waiting for the train. Only a few seconds later the group, accompanied by the yelling and shouting that we had almost become accustomed to, were herded into the wagons. That journey was terrible.” Sydney stopped for a moment. “The roof leaked and there was only one bucket for everyone in the whole wagon to use. After only a few hours it was already full and we were unable to empty it in any way. Puddles had begun to appear on the floor and gradually increased until almost the entire base was covered and most people were standing in several inches of cold, filth-ridden water. Although we spent several days in that wagon, most people never lay down to sleep. A few did, and most of those never got up again.
“I forgot to mention earlier that there were two trains waiting at the station. One was for the men and the other for women and children. Jacob and I were considered old enough to travel with the other men. My mother and Josef went in the other. I was picked up and shoved into the cattle car and ended up near a window. My father picked up first myself and then Jacob, allowing us to see through the small space that my mother was also able to look out. I waved at her frantically for a few seconds and then was put down. That was the last time…” Sydney swallowed painfully and stared at his hands, unable for a moment to continue. Miss Parker could see that what he had to say next was worse than anything else and that had already been bad enough. “That was the last time I ever saw her. She and Josef were sent to Mauthausen and, so I was later told, gassed immediately because of the fact that she was carrying a child. I sent my own mother to her death by insisting that we bring Josef with us.” Sydney's voice shook and the last words came out as a harsh whisper but his eyes remained dry. “The other train, ours, arrived at Dachau several days later. We stumbled out of the carriages and stood around on the platform for some seconds. We were being divided up into groups when I saw a man in a clean and neatly pressed uniform come striding towards us. My father had made sure that Jacob and I stayed with him and, by chance, we were dressed in identical outfits. He came over and asked my father if we were twins. Without hesitating, Father said that we were. Turning to a man who stood behind him with a board, on which he was taking notes, this SS officer read aloud my father’s prisoner number and then took each of us by the hand. As he started to lead us away, we both fought to get away. I think we both heard the last word that our father ever said to us. Nein. No. He wanted us to go because he thought that it would be the best chance for us to survive, and he knew that he probably wasn’t going to.
“This SS officer told us that his name was Dr. Werner Krieg and that we would be very helpful to him. Neither of us understood at the time what he meant. He led us from the main entrance gate and down the middle of a tree-lined street between rows of buildings. We were taken into a building with a large number eight written above each of the two doors. We passed a room where the walls were lined with toilets and then through a room that contained lockers and then into a room containing rows of three-tiered bunks. The men in the room were all standing at attention while several members of the SS looked at all of the beds and the floor and windows. One of the SS men came over to the doctor and asked, very respectfully, if there was anything he could do. Dr. Krieg said that he had finally managed to get a set of twins but, at the time, there was no room in the building where he was working. Thus, he wanted to find a bed for us. One of the prisoners, when ordered, stepped forward and said that there was space on one of the top bunks. The doctor ordered him to make sure that we were given the things that we needed and then left us there. This man kept us beside him until the SS men left and then, almost kindly, showed us where we were to sleep and, in the other room, which locker we could put our things into, explaining, as he did so, that there would not usually be an inspection at that hour but rather in the morning instead. Almost half an hour later, when the lights were turned off, Jacob and I spent the night clinging to each other, wondering where we were and what would happen to us.
“The next morning we met the person who would be kindest to us during our time at the camp. His name was Henri. On that first morning, he gave us a package containing what seemed at the time like a small amount of bread. Of course, later, we would discover that that had been a very substantial amount, but it was only about half the size of the palm of my hand. At six o’clock that morning we were called out to the Appellplatz for roll call.” There was a moment of silence. “Can you imagine it, Parker?” Sydney's voice became soft with an expression almost of wonder. “There were almost 100,000 prisoners at Dachau by September 1944. Can you imagine a square filled with 100,000 men, all wearing prisoner’s rags and standing at attention? And those 100,000 men were crammed into a space meant only for 5,000. It was amazing and I had plenty of time to admire it. That morning, the count was two people short. We had to stand on that square for almost three hours until finally two SS guards went into one of the barracks and dragged out the two missing men. Both were dead. They had died in the night and the block leader hadn’t noticed. We continued to stand there while one of the guards pulled the block leader out of the line. He was set upon by a group of seven SS men. They only stopped when he was lying, unconscious and bloody, on the ground. Next, as though nothing had happened, they allocated various people to work in different areas and a guard came and led Jacob and I away from the square.
“We were taken into a building. Dr. Krieg was standing there with another man, both of them dressed in white coats. He turned and angrily demanded to know why we were so late. The guard explained that roll call had taken longer than normal and the doctor declared that, from now on, we were exempt from roll call. He explained to us that, when everybody else went out, we should stay and wait for a man to come and collect us and bring us to block 5. Next, he explained that, so the doctors could tell us apart, we would have to be numbered. We were, he said, the only children in the camp and, for this reason, very important. The fact that we were twins made us even more special. Despite the fact that our parents had attempted to betray the Reich, he hoped that we would never try to do such a thing and had been brought to Dachau to make certain of the fact. It meant, also, that we would hopefully atone for the crimes of our parents by helping the Reich to create perfect people. He picked up to white pieces of material, on each of which was written a number. Calling in a prisoner from another room, Dr. Krieg watched as this man gently sewed the numbers onto the backs of our jackets. Then, sending the first man out of the room, Dr. Krieg called in another, who pulled up the right sleeve of our jackets and tattooed the same number onto our arms. I still remember that I hardly felt the pain. I was more shocked by the fact that it could happen at all. A third man came in and attached a red chevron - an upside-down triangle - to our jackets and, above that, another white patch containing the number that was engraved on our arms. Then another guard was called. He came and led us back to the block. It seemed that they weren’t ready for us and had to set things up before we could be beneficial to the Reich.” Sydney's voice was bitter as he finished the sentence.
“Back in the barracks, we found Henri. To this day, I don’t know why he wasn’t at work with the others but it was possible that he had to stay behind so that we wouldn’t have a chance to escape. We didn’t have to wait too long until the same guard reappeared and, dragging us down off the bunk where we were waiting, brought us back to block 5. Dr. Krieg was there again. He gave our names to another man who stood there, also in a white coat. Then, turning, he walked out. The other doctor nodded at the guard and then picked us up and placed us on a long table. He explained that his name was Dr. Wolfram Leiden and that we were going to be his special subjects. He said that we would play games with him and that the results of those games would be of great importance. Of course, the games weren’t quite what boys of ten imagine that they are going to be.” Sydney fell silent, opened his mouth as though he was going to say something else but evidently thought better of it and closed his mouth again without further explanation.
“I suppose, eventually, we started to get used to the pain. They continually took blood from us, trying, as I once heard, to work out what made us to special, both being twins and having Aryan blood in us. We had been in Dachau four months - tests day in and day out - when a flood of people began to arrive. In the weeks prior to their appearance, rumors had been circulating of two great events: the defeat of the German army in Russia, with its associated rush of the Russian army towards Germany itself; and also the landing of troops on the coast of France. Then, one day, we began to see lines of figures appearing on the hills, marching in the direction of Dachau. People who left the camp daily to go out and work, either in the gravel pits, or the moor express, or, and this was the most preferred option, in the munitions factories began to tell stories about these people - that they came from other camps further east and west, that the lines had been ten or twenty times longer when they had started but that many hundreds had died or exhaustion or had been shot when they couldn’t keep up with the others, or that the lines had been strafed by American and English planes. It was also about this time that Jacob fell ill.” The color had drained from Sydney's face and, as he made this last statement, he stopped speaking and bit his lip. Slowly a red drop began to grow between his teeth, swelling slowly and eventually slipping down his chin and dropping onto the table where it shone like a ruby on the dark wood.
“With so many newcomers to the camp, the beds were filled with ten or more people at once. It made sleep impossible, no matter how exhausted people were after working all day. And with these people came vermin - lice and rats. So many lice, in fact, that when newcomers took off their clothes, the items would move of their own accord. The SS tried to disinfect the blocks - after all, they didn’t want to get sick themselves - and ironically they used Zyclon B; the same gas that they had been aiming to use to the prisoners of the camp. Not that it worked, though. The numbers of vermin continued to grow as the numbers in the camp grew. Thousands arrived every day but thousands died every day too. Finally there reached a stalemate. Bunks were filled to maximum capacity - and the food rations we received every day started to decline. By now, of course, it was more obvious every day that the German army was going to be beaten. Still the work went on. The crematoria burned day and night. And Jacob and I managed to escape from the overcrowded blocks.
“I told you that he was sick. At the end of March, he developed typhoid. We were almost immediately separated. Jacob was send to the infirmary barracks and I stayed in Block 5. It was also about now that the tests stopped, too. One morning, the day after my 11th birthday, I waited to be brought from the room that had been set-aside for the two of us - now occupied only by myself - to the testing room. Nobody came.” Sydney smiled reminiscently. “I waited for two whole hours in that place.”
“How did you know that it was so long?”
Sydney shook his head, amazed at himself. “I thought I would have mentioned it before. There were days when Dr. Leiden would be in an absolutely terrible mood and would beat us or knock us around. On other days, he would be like a father to us. He knew, for instance, that the 14th of April was our birthday. On that day he gave me a present and told me that he also had one for Jacob. When I opened it, I found a watch. It wasn’t only that, though. Often, before he would inject us with something or take blood, he would give us chocolate or bread. It was wonderful to have things like that. Before we got moved out of the barracks, we could use it to buy other things like warm socks or a toothbrush. And we were, as Henri told us on the first morning in Dachau, under good protection. It happened, of course, that one morning one of the guards founds the things that we had ‘bought’. You have to understand that having extra things, other than that handed out at the start of time in the camp, was forbidden. Still, the guards knew that barter with items from the camp stores went on. It was completely understood and, oddly enough, welcomed. Often, during the morning, a search would be conducted. Guards knew of any places that people could hide things in the barracks and went to these places to find the treasures that prisoners had for themselves. Well, one morning a guard had just managed to find the hiding place that Jacob and I had created for ourselves, hiding the soap and other items that we had ‘bought’ with the extra food we got from Dr. Leiden. He had just gathered up the items in his hand when the doctor himself appeared in the doorway, with several other guards behind him.
“Dr. Leiden rounded on this guard and demanded that he give back the items that he had taken from us. I remember seeing several of the other prisoners, who had been jealous of the ‘special attentions’ we received and who had been thrilled at seeing our hoard uncovered - who had, in fact, probably been the ones who told the guard where it was - stand with their mouths open and a look of shock on their faces. It was usual for anybody to be allowed to keep their illegally gained property and they couldn’t believe that a Nazi doctor was standing up for us. To be quite honest, neither could we. I’m certain to this day that Leiden knew what was going on. There wasn’t a great deal that he missed and I think that was the reason that the room in Block 5 ‘suddenly’ became available for us. But Jacob only had a few weeks to enjoy it with me. As soon as he got sick, Dr. Leiden insisted that he be moved. They used to test me every day to see if I would catch it. When I didn’t, I remember once hearing them mention ‘innate immunity’. The tests redoubled after that day until they stopped the day after we both turned 11.
“That morning, after I had waited for a long time, I opened the door to my room and stepped out into the hallway. Through one of the windows, I could see snow lying on the ground and I remember looking down at my shoes - given to me on the order of Dr. Krieg soon after we arrived - and seeing that they were held together by means of string that I had ‘organized’ just before leaving the barracks. The only person that I could see was a guard I had got to know very well. In fact, as the only children still at the camp in 1945, we were often treated exceptionally well by the guards. I went up to this person and asked, in my best German, if I could go and see my brother. He was hesitant and said that he didn’t want me to get sick as well. I reminded him that I had been sleeping in the same room as Jacob when he got sick. The guard said that that was true and then, quickly, escorted me the few hundred meters to the block where he was. There were no SS men in the block at all, or any nurses taking care of the sick. Actually, I should say, the dying. Most of the bed I passed contained not people but bodies. When I found Jacob, he begged me to help him get out of there. I still don’t know whether what I did was right or not but I agreed to help him. We snuck out of the block together and, somehow, managed to run over the deserted ‘street’ together. When we finally got back to our room, Jacob fell onto his bed and coughed so much that I thought he was going to die then and there. I pulled the blankets off my bed and covered him with them. Then I wandered through the deserted block for most of the rest of the day. There wasn’t much left. Fortunately for me, the other doctors that remained were not in the building. I never knew where they went but they managed to mingle with other SS guards until the Americans arrived, twelve days later.”
Sydney's eyes filled with tears and he swallowed several times before he was able to speak again. “That was such a great day. We had been living, especially in the last few days, on rumors and gossip - that the camp would be destroyed, that the Americans would bomb it before they arrived or that the SS would blow it all sky-high as they left - and then, finally, the Americans came. The camp’s resistance movement had secretly been making flags from each of the more than twenty-five nations represented among the camps inmates.” Sydney's voice lost some of his excitement and lapsed back into sadness. “I didn’t think that Jacob would live to see it. After he came back to our room, he got worse and worse. When one of the American doctors came to see him, the day after liberation when the medical teams arrived, I could tell that he expected him to die.”
“But he didn’t.”
“No. We were lucky, in a lot of ways. The extra food that we had been given by Dr. Leiden gave him enough strength to fight the disease. Perhaps, if the Americans had taken longer to get there, he might have died anyway. However, thanks to God, he survived. We left Dachau in July, after finally being given the all clear by the Americans after the quarantine for the many illnesses suffered by people in the camps was finished, and made our way back to our house in Lyon. You know what we found when we got there.”
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