Death Behind Barbed Wire
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Commandant’s office at Altkirche Concentration Camp occupies a surprisingly
pretty building on one side of the Appel ground, opposite the path from
the main gates. Its walls are made of thick wooden logs, weathered and
polished, and the roof slopes almost like a Swiss chalet. In summer, ivy crawls
over the walls, so that it looked more out of place than ever.
It was a day in early summer, and hot, as I walked down past
the nearest line of barracks and on to the Appel ground, so that I
paused to take off my cap and wipe my face. The yellow dust of the square
blasted heat and light back at me, so that I had to squint, and I didn’t envy
the guards in the watchtowers and at the gates.
A work party of inmates was smoothing the dust of the
square, pulling a heavy roller under the supervision of a Kapo. I paused for a
moment to watch. The Kapo – a huge man, with a scarred face, thick neck and
muscled shoulders – didn’t notice me at first. A couple of his men, though,
did, and looked up. The Kapo turned to see what they were looking at, saw me,
and whipped off his cap.
"Attention," he yelled at his squad. "Take off your caps!"
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask them to carry on –
I’ve never enjoyed being saluted by the inmates, knowing that they did it only
because they were forced to. But I was right opposite the Commandant’s office,
and ten to one the Old Man would be watching me through the window. Being
"slack" with inmates wasn’t something I needed to be accused of.
"Everything all right?" I asked the Kapo, while his squad
stood rigidly at attention. "Any problems?"
"No, Herr Untersturmführer," he said. I watched a
drop of sweat roll down his forehead, along the groove of the scar on his
cheek, and drip off his chin, and wondered if it were from the heat or from
fear. A Kapo who was found to be too easygoing didn’t last long as a Kapo.
"Good," I said, not very loudly, and turning my face away
from the office. "You’re doing an excellent job." I looked past him at the
others. "All of you."
The Kapo heaved a visible sigh of relief. "Get back to
work," he yelled. "Quickly!"
As the prisoners bent over their roller handle, I walked up
the steps to the front door of the Commandant’s office. His assistant, a very
young Schütze with a thin, face, glanced up, saw me, and jumped to his
"Heil Hitler, Herr Untersturmführer."
"Heil Hitler," I told him. "The Old...the Commandant sent a
message saying he wants to see me."
"Yes, sir." He looked down at a diary on his desk. The Old
Man insisted on diaries, as though he were still running his old lawyer’s
practice in Hamburg. "You can go right in."
"Thanks." I had a sudden urge to laugh. He was so pale that
he seemed to be all of a colour with the diary page he was studying – skin,
hair, even his eyelashes, were translucent, like frosted glass. "What’s your
"Wunsch, Herr Untersturmführer. Johann Wunsch."
"Well, Schütze Johann Wunsch – do you like working
here, in this camp?"
"Yes, of course. I’m happy working in whatever capacity the
This time I actually had to choke back a snort of laughter.
He was like a marionette hooked up to a gramophone. "Do you know what this is
about – the Commandant’s summons?"
"No, sir. He’ll tell you, I’m sure."
"Hmm. Yes." I walked past him and knocked on the door to the
inner office. It was already ajar.
The Old Man was reading a document. He glanced up at me and
quickly turned the paper over so I couldn’t see what was on it. Either it was
something secret or he was doing it for effect. Probably the latter, since he
was well aware that I was coming.
"Ah," he said. "Stadlbauer."
"You asked to see me, Herr Commandant."
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