“Don’t touch me, you bastards!” Albrecht spat, clawing against the hands holding him. “Scum!”
He reared back, kicking his legs at the door frame, but a moment later the two soldiers had muscled him inside with a rough shove to the spine. He collapsed over a heap of bodies and felt hands pressing against his weight. A moment later, the door slammed shut behind him, clanging and echoing through the damp cement of the basement prison.
Albrecht breathed hard and tried to make sense of his surroundings, his chest heaving with the insults he hadn’t yet hurled at his captors, a rainbow of colourful curses set at the tip of his tongue.
The singular window in the narrow cell had been pasted over with black, allowing less than a pale strip of light into the room. There were numerous black spots in his vision as Albrecht righted himself and settled onto a woefully small patch of unfilled space on the floor. “Fotze!” He swore, slamming a palm against the door.
“Watch your tongue,” a voice near him warned quietly. “They don’t take kindly to it.”
“I wouldn’t imagine so,” Albrecht replied bitterly, wiping the spittle from his mouth with the back of his hand.
It was too dark in the cell for anyone inside to make note of his face or his colouring. His eyes were as much a mystery to them as theirs were to he; though he could guess well enough at their glittering blackness, like demons peering through a tunnel from hell. The tight press of bodies around him were just shapes, smelling of sweat and blood and the tang of stale urine. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, stifling a gag. The smell was on him now, like a baptism in a tainted stream that could not be washed by any number of holy prayers. The bodies around him shifted and murmured. They were animals in a cage, grumbling over the pangs of hunger and thirst.
There was no space even to lean against the wall, so packed was the narrow room. It ought to fit a single bed and perhaps a sink, a tiny apartment in the worst of circumstances. But instead, there were two dozen stinking men inside, slowly rotting.
Albrecht pulled his knees under his arms tightly.
He heard scratching beside him. “What are you doing?” He hissed.
“Marking another one,” came the dull reply.
“Prisoner,” he said. “Cadieux was taken out, and now here you are to take his place.”
Cadieux. A Frenchman. “What did they do to him?”
“Tortured,” croaked a voice nearby.
“Shot in the yard,” said another.
“How do you know?”
Silence was the answer, but the hopelessness sifted through the room, a poisonous gas in the air. He could hardly tell any single body apart in the room. Eyes open or closed, he saw the same.
But Albrecht imagined their faces, inhuman and sallow-cheeked, their eyes sunken and shadowed, and their lips cracked and dried. These were not the faces of people. They were the faces of ghosts.
“What did he do?” Albrecht asked instead.
“Same thing any of us have done,” a man murmured.
“Absolutely nothing,” said another quietly.
Albrecht thought on how to respond. He waited, breath half held. “So, none of you are…?”
A man snorted. “We don’t need to be anything to be brought in here.”
“Except other,” said another.
“Precisely,” replied the first dryly.
The silence fell again, and Albrecht tried to shift where he sat to find a more comfortable position. The air tasted like fear. He knew the taste as well as he knew his mother’s sauerbraten on Sonntags.
“What’s your name?” The same voice, the one who’d been scratching marks into the wall, asked.
“German,” grunted a man.
“We’re all Germans in our right,” answered the first. “Citizens of a country that now hates us, even as we stood by them through the worst of it.”
“We caused the worst of it, according to some.”
A dry cough. “Whatever they need to point to.”
“And you, record keeper?” Albrecht asked, recognizing him immediately as a respected figure among the flock. “What is your name?”
The slightest hesitation. “What did you say you were brought in here for, Albrecht?”
“Same as any of you, I suppose,” Albrecht said carefully.
A pause. “I suppose so,” the man agreed. “I am Hendrik Dijkstra,” said the record keeper.
“Dutch.” Albrecht said, placing the accent where he’d suspected. “A German-speaking Dutchman.”
“Soon the whole of Europe will be speaking German,” another said bitterly.
“Watch what you say,” a voice warned. “They could be listening. That’s how they got Andersen.”
Albrecht was already sweating. The source of heat wasn’t only from the press of bodies. It came from the gurgling hot water pipes lining the outer wall of the narrow room, beneath the covered window. The pipes heated the entire building and made the already stuffy place absolutely sweltering.
There was moaning at the back of the room, and the shuddering of unspent tears. Before he could think up another question of his fellow prisoners, Hendrik addressed the sniffling person in the back. “What will you do, young Thomas, when you are released?”
“D-do?” The young voice returned in stilted breaths. A fellow German.
“Ja,” said the Dutchman, a smile in his voice. “Where will you take your sister in the summer, lad?”
The boy cleared his throat. “Our parents always took us to Laacher See when we were children. In June, the trees are so green it hurts your eyes. And the water is just right. Cold enough to wake you with a jolt, then warm enough to swim through the reeds for hours. We… We used to gather flat stones and make walls along the shore, pretending they were castles.”
“I saw the inside of a castle before,” another voice chimed in. “On the Rhine. Most beautiful stone architecture. I would go back there,” they said with a wistful air.
“And you will,” Hendrik promised.
“My wife and I always wanted to move to England,” another man rasped. “I’ve heard they have good schools there. We could buy a house in the countryside. My children ought to learn proper English. I think they would be happy there.”
“Happy?” Someone else chuckled. “They get more rain than Germany!”
A few weary laughs filled the stinking air. Albrecht held back his own smile. How could they be so comfortable here? How could they make jokes–make plans for a future that would never come? This cell would be the last thing most of them would ever see. To think otherwise was a fool’s dream.
“England is beautiful,” Hendrik agreed. “Rolling hills, far as the eye can see. Your family will love it there.” Will, not would.
Albrecht scratched the back of his sweating neck uncomfortably, swallowing to lubricate his already parched mouth. “You give these men hope,” Albrecht told Hendrik.
“God gives them hope,” the Dutchman replied to murmurs of agreement. “I simply remind them of our humanity. That is all one can do in a place such as this.”
“Some would not see it as such,” Albrecht said. “Why not offer what information you have to them, so you may be released?”
Someone snorted beside him.
“Is that funny?” Albrecht demanded.
Hendrik answered, his tone smooth. “We are not here because they want information from us.”
“What do you mean? Of course y–of course we are.”
There was another awkward pause, and Albrecht felt his hands clench into tight fists.
“My wife and daughter…” Hendrik began thoughtfully. “We have lived in Germany for six years. A week ago, they broke through the doors of my home–without provocation–and arrested all three of us. They invaded my home and named us spies, then dragged us away while our neighbours watched silently on.” His voice broke, but he cleared his throat and continued in a quieter, composed voice. “I was brought here, and my family… I don’t know where they were taken. My daughter is only ten, and my wife… We are expecting our second child soon.”
“They will be alright,” one promised.
“I’ve seen what they do to women…” said another.
A man offered hushed words of warning. “Don’t let them hear you.”
“Why would they suspect you to be a spy?” Albrecht asked.
Hendrik sighed. “Why did they suspect you, Albrecht?”
Albrecht rubbed the back of his neck again. “They caught me carrying a missive…” he said finally.
“A missive?” Someone asked. “From who?”
“Don’t say it,” Hendrik said sharply. “Don’t say anything else. Answer or not, they’ll have your flesh if they think you know anything.”
Albrecht lowered his voice. “Aren’t we all here for the same reasons?”
Another pregnant pause. “I’m a professor.” Hendrik said blankly. “Not a spy. I teach history. It is my blood they hate, not my secrets.”
A professor. That explained why this Hendrik fellow was able to command a room of prisoners so well. They all listened when he spoke. He was respected. He could convince them to do anything, Albrecht suspected… Even plot an escape, were it possible.
Albrecht glanced at the small sliver of light through the painted window. There were bars on that window, but perhaps there was a way through it. Could they break the pipes? Cut through the door? Had any of these foul-smelling prisoners even thought to get out, or were they content to let themselves lie and rot and wait for death to come for them? And what could they possibly want with a history professor, anyways? The man who has no sense of history is like a man who has no ears or eyes, Albrecht thought wryly: the quote of a great man. “You must have connections through the university. Or they must have seen you talking to someone they suspected, surely,” Albrecht reasoned. “They must have some reason in thinking you’re against them. How else would you find yourself in a Köln gestapo prison?”
“Reason has nothing to do with it,” someone bit back.
“I don’t stand with them,” Hendrik said gravely, and someone gave another warning hiss. He sighed, then. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing. Of course I don’t. I’m a decent and educated man. But I don’t have the resources… Godverdomme,” he swore in Dutch, “I don’t have the guts to ask for a tenure, much less head an uprising.”
“Someone must have thought you suspicious,” Albrecht pressed, keeping his tone even and reasonable.
“I don’t know who…”
“A loyal German citizen,” someone else muttered bitterly. “That’s how they want to look. It doesn’t matter if they’re right. They get praised just for turning you in, innocent or no.”
“I am innocent,” the professor said solidly, “but I suspect you speak the truth of the matter.”
“We are all innocent,” another hissed. “It doesn’t matter. We shall all be crucified.”
“Like Christ,” another whispered in agreement.
For a while, they fell into uncomfortable silence. Albrecht picked through Hendrik’s words carefully, trying to make sense of the matter. Hendrik Dijkstra, a Dutch professor living in Köln. The name didn’t strike him as particularly relevant, but then again, conspirators would be wise to use false identities. Hendrik seemed on the surface to be genuine, but Albrecht had seen a number of good actors in his line of work. A face–as much as he could see of it–did little to reveal what shadows lurked beneath.
Soon, there was a bang at the door that made Albrecht nearly jump out of his skin. He felt the men around him shuffle back out of the way and Albrecht quickly scrambled from the door as it was shoved open. Something landed on the stone floor near his feet and he held his breath. There was a grunt, and the door slammed shut with a metallic clang as the lock fell back into place.
“Water,” someone croaked.
Excited murmurs filled the cramped cell and Albrecht felt something being pressed into his hands. “Take a sip and pass it along,” Hendrik said gently.
Albrecht obeyed, taking more than a sip as he felt the refreshing liquid hit his lips and cool his throat. It was a small canteen. Hardly enough to satisfy a man at full health, much less a roomful of sickly and underfed creatures huddled in the sweating, piss-scented dark. Albrecht had expected them all to leap at the canteen like ravaging animals, but instead they shared it like a ritual of Christ’s communion. Blood, there would be. But no bread for these hopeless few.
They all drank their measly portion, the canteen passed lastly to Hendrik, who seemed to swallow nothing but a few droplets. Then the professor spoke, his voice clear and soft despite the tragic little water he’d had. “Prost, my fellow men.”
“Prost!” They all answered quietly. Albrecht found himself muttering the sentiment a moment later than the others.
“Our bodies may falter,” Hendrik continued, “but our minds must ever onwards in thought and hope.”
“Hope,” a few men returned solemnly.
“They do not fight over what little they are given,” Albrecht commented, the disbelief plain in his voice.
The words had been meant for himself, but Hendrik answered. “To them, we are naught but livestock. We must maintain our humanity, because they will not do it for us.”
Somehow, the day faded–at least he suspected so–and sleep took most of them with soft snores and some rattling breaths of the near-dying. Albrecht managed to position himself in the corner against the wall, shoving back from the doorway as much as he could to avoid the next time it opened. He heard more scratching through the night of other saddened souls, cracking fingernails on the plaster as they wrote the names of loved ones, or recited prayers into the stone as if those might reach the Lord more than whispered words of countenance.
Albrecht’s prayers were for his grumbling belly at the first of many more missed meals. His stomach turned at the thought of food in such a place, and eventually he curled into a restless sleep bordered with nightmares of gunshots and splattered blood on slate walls, peppering shined black boots.
The weight of a body was more easily managed by two men. Drag it by the arms and you would meet too much resistance, leaving a bloodied trail to clean up afterwards. Raise it up, one on each end. You were counted lucky to hold the legs. The head always had it the worst, slopping out its contents in pink and grey fluids. A nightmare to scrub out of grey-green wool…
Within the narrow cell where death lingered in the air, mingled with sweat from the pores of every prisoner, Hendrik and the other men spoke of hopeful matters amongst the shit and vomit. They spoke of vacation plans and houses they wanted to build. Hendrik thought to name his son after his grandfather: Johan Dijkstra. The young boy with the German accent, the one named Thomas, spoke of the dog he would get once he was out. He would name it Kämpfer for fighter.
Albrecht asked if they had thought of escape. Had they tried the window? Was there loose concrete on the floor? What of the pipes? Overrunning the soldiers? No, Hendrik said, and told them all about the history of Roman trade over the Rhine as if teaching a regular lesson to a group of assembled students. Anything to keep their minds off the hunger. Albrecht held his tongue against his frustration. When water came, they would all take their meager sips and praise God on high. Albrecht cursed all of it.
The door opened several times. A name would be called–German, sometimes French or English, Dutch and Italian–and a man would be dragged out by rough hands. Most didn’t even fight. They hadn’t the will to stand, much less throw a punch or scream out for help they knew wouldn’t come. Their families were long dead, and they would follow soon enough. The surrender of their souls–should they have such a thing–happened the moment they first entered the stone walls of their prison.
Hours later, the tortured ones would be returned to the cell smelling of blood and tears, sobbing or groaning in pain. There would be no tending wounds in the darkness. There would be no point to it, only a delay of the inevitable end.
Albrecht said little, but listened much in the following days. Then he confided in the men of his mission to move messages between the allied forces. They said little, then. They warned him to stay quiet. They were all weak-minded. All except Hendrik. He seemed no fool. Whatever secrets the keen minded Dutchman carried would be brought to his grave. Of that, Albrecht was certain.
Four, perhaps five days ebbed by in near-darkness. Albrecht had grown numb to the smell, and the heat, and even the feeling of the floor beneath him and the voices around him. Hendrik murmured encouragements even then. Albrecht hated the professor more than he hated the devil, and yet he found himself stirred by the Dutchman’s words.
Finally, it was Albrecht’s name on the lips of the captors.
The door flew open. A strict, German accent broke through. “Albrecht Fuchß.”
Albrecht felt a hand in his, gripping it with a tight squeeze. Hendrik, he knew. And then it slipped away. Albrecht felt the hand after it was released, a momentary warmth on his palm. He was grabbed around the shirt collar and forced into the hallway. The door’s echoing boom rang through the space. Albrecht felt his legs slip out from under him. He would have collapsed if not for the hands hoisting him up.
“Easy now, soldier,” A familiar voice muttered as Albrecht was half-dragged down the hallway. He felt himself collapse onto a cold metal chair and blinked the dizziness and exhaustion from his eyes, slowly adjusting to the singular bare bulb dangling from a chain overhead. He squinted, feeling near to vomiting. The floor was stained brown with old blood they hadn’t managed to scrub from the stone. “Scheiße, you smell!” said the voice.
Albrecht’s face broke into a weak grin despite himself. “I’ve been in a cell for… how many days was it? What’s your excuse?”
The soldier shook his shoulder and chuckled. “How was it?”
“Hell,” Albrecht admitted. “Water, please. And bread. Verdammt. And a change of clothes.”
He felt a pile of fabric hit him in the face. He stripped down and dressed in the fresh clothing. He would scrub clean later, though he felt it would take days to rid himself of the stench. A plate of bread and mug of wine were tossed onto a table in front of him and he dug into it immediately, devouring every crumb.
The General arrived a moment later, straight-backed and assured. He had pale hair and eyes and pockmarked skin that made him look younger than he was. He dragged another chair across the room and seated himself in front of Albrecht. “Tell me everything, soldier.”
Albrecht swallowed the chunk of bread he’d been chewing on. He’d gone into that cell desperate to please. The task was less than desirable, but the outcome, should it be successful, would have immeasurable rewards to one such as he, who had much to prove. He couldn’t admit that he’d found nothing about the men to suggest they were spies or traitors. These men wouldn’t be released–couldn’t be–or they would be assured future spies and traitors. Execution was their only fate from the beginning. Judgment day had come the moment those names were on the lips of their neighbours.
Albrecht took a deep breath and launched into his description of each prisoner in detail, stripping them down to their barest self. He saved the tale of the Dutch professor for last. Saved, or perhaps delayed. He couldn’t be sure. But the story of Hendrik Dijkstra came out all the same, the details solidifying into a new story as it was retold. The greatest mercy he could offer was a quick death, spared from further tortures. That was his humanitarian offering.
When his words were spent, the general nodded his approval and sent the wardens into the cell to retrieve their bounties. Albrecht was soon sitting alone.
He stayed behind in the room with the stained floors, turning to his reflection in the dusty mirror. He touched his face, where the blond stubble of a weeklong beard poked from his jaw. His blond hair was streaked brown with dirt and his face looked gaunt and sallow-cheeked from lack of food and sunlight. His clear blue eyes stared back, now shadowed so he looked less than human, his lips cracked and swollen with dryness.
His was no longer the face of a man. It was the face of a ghost.
He flinched as he heard the first crack of a gunshot in the yard, followed by the rattling of a dozen more. Abbeförderung. The word they’d taken to using for the removal of undesirables.
Albrecht took a lantern from the table and lit it. He walked down the short hallway, turning left at the cell door. It was open now. He covered his nose with his arm and raised the lantern light over the walls, crouching to where he remembered Hendrik’s voice. He touched a finger to the scratches in the faded green plaster, and saw his own name beneath that of the Frenchman:
Bertrand Lockley – An Avid Reader.
Louis Cadieux – A Beloved Brother.
Albrecht Fuchß – A Loyal Soldier.
Albrecht squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head, forgetting the smell and the heat for that moment.
When he opened them again, the words were just scratching’s on a wall. He stood and stepped out of the cell.
They would paint over the names and the cell would be filled with a new batch soon enough. More fodder for the stories, which required the constant churning of new villains.
Albrecht sighed. The world would turn, the Rhine would flow on, and the sunlight would never cease to shine over the greatest empire ever to have been born.
“If you want to shine like sun first you have to burn like it.” – Adolf Hitler.
This is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this book are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.