Part I: The Author's Experience
Chapter One: Prologue
It rained a fine, cold, icy April rain; steady, relentless, and inexorable. It had rained for two days and the third night was beginning.
The train, a long line of cars grinding along the rails. slowly disappeared into the blackness. The engine, a locomotive of another era, sweated, blew and strained, coughed, and spat. slipped and back-fired. A hundred times it hesitated. and a hundred times it seemed to refuse to make the effort expected of it.
It rained unceasingly. In the gondola car open to the sky. were eighty huddled cringing bodies, intertangled, on top of each other. Were they living? Were they dead? No one could say. In the morning they woke once more, frozen in their miserable rags; they were emaciated and hollow with their eyes staring out, feverish and dazed. With a superhuman effort they shook themselves. They were aware of the daylight. They felt the rain — the stinging slashes of the rain — go through their ragged clothing, to their thin and hardened flesh. reaching to the very bone. They arched their backs with an imperceptible shudder. Perhaps, they were just beginning to make those thousands of instinctive, waking up movements, when they saw themselves reflected in each other's eyes. Through the fog of fever and the sheet of water falling from the skies, they noticed the men in uniform, armed to the teeth, planted in the four corners of the car, impassive but vigilant. Then they remembered. They realized their destiny, and with a start, dejected and overwhelmed, they fell back into that half sleep, that half life, that half death.
It rained, and rained, on and on. A heavy fetid air rose from the mass of bodies, and disappeared into the cold wetness of the night.
When they had left there were a hundred of them. They had been collected together in a hurry, with dogs at their heels and thrown pell-mell in groups into the train, under blows and shouted commands. They were horror stricken when they found themselves about to leave from the small platform, without provisions for the journey. Suddenly they understood that a great ordeal was beginning.
"Achtung, Achtung!" they were warned. "On your feet during the day; sit down during the night!… Nicht Verschwinden Any breaking of the rule, sofort erschossen ! understand?"
The open car, the cold, and the rain, that was one thing- that had been seen before. But, nothing to eat, nothing to eat!
To cap their misery, for weeks there had not been an ounce of bread in the camp, and they had had to make do with supplies from the storage pits: plain soup of rutabaga, a quart sometimes half a quart, and small potatoes, in the evening, after a long, hard day of work. Nothing to eat. Everything else vanished before this menace. The sound of the Americans seven and a half miles away barely reached them.
Standing during the day, sitting down at night…! Before the end of the first night, three or four of them who had shown too precipitately a desire to satisfy a pressing need, were seized by the collar, smacked brutally against the high wall of the car and executed point blank: Craa-ack! against the wood, craa-ack! They did it in their pants, cautiously at first, holding themselves so as to soil themselves as little as possible; then, progressively they gave up.
Three or four others who had fallen down with exhaustion during the following day, were coldly finished off with a bullet in the head. Craa-ack! against the floor, craa-ack! The bodies were tossed out, as the train rolled along, after the registration numbers were removed. At the beginning of the third night, the ranks were considerably thinned, and fear gave way to terror, and terror to complete resignation. Abandoned was any urge to escape this hell, any urge to live; they let themselves die in their own excrement.
And still it rained, on and on and on. A little breeze riffled across the convoy, and the bit of canvas, that make-shift shelter under which in each corner the guard passed his long hours of watch, was lifted. It was as if the miasma were blown away, and the S.S. man, nervous at first, fussing about although in a determined way, suddenly became concerned. For some time, fewer rifle shots were heard, and there was less machine gun chattering. The dogs themselves-oh those dogs!-barked and yelped less at the numerous stops. In 48 hours, due to the constant changing of direction from side-track to side-track, the train was less than twelve and a half miles from where it started. Late in the afternoon it set off toward the southwest, after having tried the north, the south, and east in vain. If this track was cut like the others, it would mean that we were trapped and that we would be taken. The S.S. guards frowned, and then passed the news on from car to car, throughout the length of the train. "We are trapped, we will be captured!" They were completely bowled over. They were going to be captured, and all of these half conscious prostrate bodies were going to come back to life, rise up to accuse them; they would be caught red-handed.
Still, during the morning we heard them frequently calling out questions to each other with guttural voices, cracking jokes, and laughing coarsely at the sad and disabused girls who all along the right of way gave them back only occasional and melancholy encouragement. Now they were silent, only the click of a lighter, or the red end of a cigarette, from time to time broke this death-like silence, or disturbed the thick and humid obscurity of the night.
It rained endlessly, on and on. On top of this, the wind had become stronger. It began to whistle sharply between the boards, and the water came down in torrents. The canvas cover over one S.S. guard ballooned up, and its props gave way. Suddenly, the tent cloth began to flutter like a flag and to flap against the wall of the car. The S.S. swore. Then, grumbling and swearing, he tried in vain to repair the damage. If he got it attached on one side, the wind tore it off on the other! "Gott Verdammt ! "
After two futile attempts he gave up. Suddenly, he turned toward the nearest of the miserable creatures, and gave a few shoves with his knee. "Du," he cried. "du… Du. blöder Hund!" Blöder Hund? The man heard, understood where the cry came from, automatically collected all the strength left in him, and got up frightened. When he saw what he was expected to do, he felt a little reassured. He raised himself onto the top of the wooden side of the car where he balanced on his hands and knees. Then, very carefully so as not to fall over the other side onto the road bed, he brought in the canvas, and helped the guard to fix the corners onto the supports.
"Fertig?" (Finished? ) "Ja, Herr S. S. "
And, then an extraordinary thing happened. He came to his senses all of a sudden. All of a sudden the thought came to him that he was on his knees on the top edge of the wall, that his two legs were turned toward the outside, that the train was not moving very fast, that it was raining, that the night was black, and that the Americans were perhaps seven or so miles away, that freedom… Freedom, oh liberty! With that evocation, a sudden madness filled him who just a little while before was afraid of falling-oh irony-a light filled his brain, flooded his whole being: "Ja… " he repeated; then cried, "Ja! Ja! Ja!…a…a… ah!"
Before the S.S. guard even had time to register surprise, the man, the half-dead skeleton, tightened his muscles in one supreme effort, propped his poor thin arms on the edge of the board, and threw himself backward. He heard the crackling of gunfire ringing in his head, and he still found the strength, the astonishing lucidity, to realize that he had fallen into a spot, that was out of the line of fire. He felt himself caught there, body and soul, and he collapsed into the nothingness of unconsciousness. A machine gun continued to fire: Tch!… Tch!… Clac! Tcheretchstche !… Clac !… Tch !… Clac ! Taratatata !… Tche!… Tche!… Tche!… Tche!… The locomotive sweated and blew, hesitated, slid and back-fired, and the train moved on. The guns stopped spitting death. Little by little the great indifferent silence of nature asleep closed over the drama going on, disturbed only by the hissing of the rain that now became steady with the dying of the wind. It rained on and on and on.
It was no longer raining. Hours had gone by, two, three, four, perhaps. The heavens had finally given up. In the thick and spongey night something next to the iron rail moved.
First, two eyes tried to open, but the heavy eyelids sank down in a sudden reflex, as though the head were under water.
His dry throat contracted to salivate and brought up the taste of earth on his tongue. An arm sketched a movement which was paralyzed in mid air by a sharp pain in the elbow, dull at the shoulder. Then, nothing more; the man lost himself again in a strange sense of well-being, and actually thought that he was falling asleep.
Suddenly, a shiver came over him and enveloped him. His chest was bared of its wet covering, brrr!… He wanted to curl himself up to get warm. Then, he tried to wake up. his eyelids fluttered nervously, and he forced them to stay open. He stared into the opaque blackness.
A desire to cough rose up from his lungs and shattered him. He had the feeling that his body was acting in sections, independently and aching, in the dripping grass, and on the muddy ground.
He tried to think. Like a knock in his head came the thought "The dogs." This time he did wake up. He reviewed everything. A flood of experiences assailed him, one after the other: the loading, the train, the hell of the railroad car, the cold, the hunger, the canvas, the wind, the jump into the night. The train; what if it should come back over the same way once again? The dogs! Oh! Any death but that.
He wanted to flee; there was nothing else to do, but the pieces of his body were riveted there. He wanted to gather himself together, he heard his bones grating against each other. But, he had to get away from there, at any cost.
His reasoning took another turn: a railway line was a military objective for the attackers and a defensible breastwork for those attacked The Germans would return to make use of it as a defensive line, and they would find him.
To flee! To get a few hundred yards from the railway right of way and wait there would be a little safer. The Americans would eventually come. "But, first, stand up! First, stand up." He was thinking out loud and the murmur from his lips brought forth from his mouth gritty bits of earth. He sputtered.
With infinite carefulness he moved his arms one after the other; the left seemed all right, but from the right came that pain in the elbow and shoulder. "Well, well, it seems to be going away." He repeated the motion, and it was true; the pain grew less as he moved his muscles and joints. Nothing was broken. He breathed easier. Now the legs. Gently he moved his muscles. He felt no pain; nothing was broken there either-at least it did not seem so. He became calmer.
He managed to sit up. His bruises became more painful, and his wet sticking clothes became more icy. He shivered. In the pit of his stomach he felt a round ache. He was hungry, and that was a good sign. He was surprised that he had not felt this hunger before. He put his hand to his head, his prison beret was still in place. This fact made him laugh. He thought of his clogs which he had lost during his jump; never mind. He felt all over himself: he was covered with mud and was rolled up in a tangle of wire from which he at once tried to extricate himself. He turned and got on all fours; one more effort and he would be standing up ….
On his feet; he was standing; he would get away; the Germans could double back, cling to the railway… not so fast; his head was spinning. He felt like vomiting. He felt himself tottering, about to fall. He stiffened, held himself upright as long as he could. and saw that he was going to collapse and that he might hurt himself in the fall. So, gently and very carefully, he crouched down. If he could not walk, he would drag himself, but he would not stay there; no, he would not stay there. He thought of the train, the dogs, and the Germans who would be coming back. And, he thought of the Americans… "To think that they are there seven miles away. No, it would be too stupid."
On his hands and knees, crawling like a huge tormented worm, he managed to go down a slope, to cross what seemed to be a ditch, full of gluey water, and to slither along a newly ploughed section of an adjacent field where the earth came up in hunks and stuck to his knees, his legs and his elbows. He stopped and got his breath back.
Meanwhile the night had become less black. and the sky was higher. Already the shapes of the hedges and the single trees around him could be made out in the thinning fog. Day was about to break and that was another danger. A few hundred yards away on a little rise of ground he made out a dark mass: woods, no doubt.
He made it his first objective to reach them before dawn. He started to move again. The struggle had warmed his body, had loosened his muscles and his joints, and had localized the pain down the whole length of his right side. He succeeded in standing up, in staying up, in putting one foot before the other, and in walking. He walked slowly because his right leg pulled and his shoulder was very painful. But, he was walking, and he made progress. Bent over, dead beat, broken, twisted, he pulled himself toward the woods. He straightened up, forced himself, and kept hold of himself. He would be there before dawn, and would take cover there; the Americans would come, and he would be saved. The rest took place in a dream a long, dead tired, slow-motion dream.
When he arrived at the edge of the woods, he gave up the idea of hiding deep inside, which could prove treacherous, and decided it was wiser to sit down there. partially concealed in the low brush from which he could observe all sides.
Day broke. The ground which sloped down from his feet gradually appeared out of the darkness; the indistinct checkerboard pattern of fields and meadows became more outlined: the railroad tracks down below stood out like a long ribbon. In between two distant hills, a church spire rose among little wisps of smoke rising straight up from invisible chimneys. Very quickly the radiant spot in the still grey sky. which announced the sun piercing the clouds, was high in the sky. The country-side was animated here and there with yokes of oxen peacefully going and coming. A man, a civilian too, but whose brassard could be distinguished, had nonchalantly begun to do his stint along the tracks.
The sight evoked in him the image of a similar corner of the earth in similar weather, under the same sky, and with the same checkerboard of fields and meadows, the same woods, the same isolated trees, the same church steeple, and the same railroad somewhere in the vicinity of Alsace and Franche-Comté.
It occurred to him that if his mother could see this scene at this very hour, she would certainly have commented that the sky was "washing itself" or that the weather was "drying itself off." For a long time he watched two horses about five hundred yards away who were pulling a sort of harrow, over a square of meadow, to "scatter" the mole hills; the old man guiding them, surely that was father Tourdot, and that good little girl pulling on a rope attached to the back of the harrow that was his granddaughter, whose father, Tony, was a prisoner in Germany! In an association of ideas he saw the worried face of his wife bending over a little bit of a fellow two years old… Then, the reality of his present situation came to him with a start of anxiety.
No, no, it was a trap! The Americans couldn't be seven miles away because everything was too quiet. Nothing in these fields and meadows and these woods gave a sign of war, much less of a complete collapse. He was crushed; what was going to become of him? He could not approach those people in his prisoner's clothing! He was hungry, very hungry, and thirsty, and he picked up a twig which he put into his mouth that was another remedy of his mother's, when he had cried into her skirts with thirst in the hot afternoons during the harvest. It took his mind off it.
The hours went by; the sun managed to pierce the greyness and to clear up the sky. A church bell rang; noon it was. The afternoon went by in the same way. The teams of animals became more numerous under a hotter sun which completely dried his garments. A man went by near him, a hoe over his shoulder, and almost brushed against him. He didn't move a muscle, but he realized that he couldn't stay there much longer without being discovered. The next day was Sunday, he had no trouble deciding that since they had left the camp on a Wednesday evening. So, in the morning he would be all right, but in the afternoon he would have a lot to worry about, since the Germans, large and small, liked to walk in the woods
Evening came, then the night. The moon, a huge moon, the color of embers, shed its strange light over the country. The guard on the tracks was still going back and forth. There had been no alert; in fact, there had not been the least little noise of an airplane motor in the sky during all day long. But, now he heard heavy thuds sounding in the distance. He thought, "They are still twenty-five or thirty miles away. The dogs, if they are set after me, will find me before the Americans get here. I must go, go toward them, but which way first?"
He was about to despair of everything when the sound of aircraft gave him back his courage. Airplanes wheeled above him and dropped their bombs in the immediate vicinity, without in the least being disturbed by anti-aircraft fire. Then they went away, and others came; a continual coming and going until dawn.
Daylight came, and the fog quickly broke up under a bright sun. All at once the day became clear. It was a beautiful springtime Sunday morning that gave no hint of what was to come. It might have been ten o'clock when the great upheaval finally came. Tac! …. Tac! …. Tacatacatacatac!…. Tac! He estimated the distance: two to three miles at the most. It came from the direction of the church and a little beyond . Tac ! Tac!…. tac tac tac!…. Tac!
The machine gun persisted, and another replied. Toc! Toc! …. toc toc! Toc toc!
Then a great uproar: Boom! boom! Boom!… Boom! The projectiles did not fall far away, but still on the other side of the village. Boom ! Boom ! … boom, boom …. A pause, Boom ! … boom !… Another pause . Boom ! Boom ! Boom !… Boom ! Boom!… Boom! They came right at him; the discharge was regular, sharp, ringing. It would soon be time to do something, but what? A formidable explosion tore the air behind him; a shell had almost fallen on top of him. Brr… oom ! Then another. Brr… oom! His ear drums were bursting with it! Brr… oom! Br… oom! It didn't stop, and was echoed from behind. Boom!… Boom!… Boom!… Boom!… The countryside was deserted, and the man with the brassard had disappeared. He was alone. Brr… oom!… Boom, boom, boom, Brou… Brr… oom !
He was on the axis of a trajectory that was cut almost at right angles by the rail tracks, along which the Germans were doubling back. They would try to defend it, but they could not hold out for long in the face of the artillery fire; they would then retreat into the woods, where they would find him. "No, he must not stay there!"
He got up. He went down the slope, veering toward the left to get out of the line of the trajectory. His leg hardly dragged any more, the earth was dry, the ground was hard, and he was in possession of all his faculties. The last act of the tragedy was about to be played, and no false step must be made. "Not too near the tracks, not too near the forest," he decided.
The artillery duel continued: Boom! … Boom! … Boom! … Boom!… The shells came down again; the were hitting the tracks. He saw the earth explode in a long line which cut obliquely across the tracks. He could smell the burning explosives. "The Devil! Get Down!" He would have liked to go farther on, but …. He saw a single bush that was near by: a poor shelter. He preferred a deep trough which separated two farm plots; he threw himself down in it.
ZZ… . Boom! … . ZZ… . Boom! Just in time! The shell whistled over his head and fell near him. The thunder behind him, which had ceased, began again, the sounds were heavier and farther away. They were drawing back !
While the American lengthened their fire, the Germans shortened theirs, following their withdrawal step by step. Suddenly, he found himself in the very center of a terrifying earthquake, a cloud of smoke, iron, earth. He was almost buried in earth and wondered what miracle had saved him from being pulverized.
As the dust settled, he risked taking a look around him. He could see forms in field grey who were crossing the tracks, one after the other, in rapid spurts between bursts of machine gun fire. They flattened themselves against the embankment; a burst of fire! They were up and moving again. Down again, another burst of fire! They retreated toward him, trying to get out of the open, to make it to the woods. Down … a burst of fire; fifteen steps backs, a burst of fire … . down again. "Let's hope that one of them doesn't throw himself down next to me!" he thought. A shot rang less than fifteen feet on his left, another less than five on his right. He could not see anyone. "What are they shooting at, Good Lord?"
The exploding artillery shells, little by little, reached the woods, and the chattering of machine gun fire raked it. More grey forms climbed up over the tracks and withdrew into the woods from which they directed their fire: Clac! … Clac! … Clac! … Clac … Clac! But in the face of the brisk artillery fire, the reports from the forest grew weaker, and finally stopped altogether.
Suddenly there was a great clamor. It came from all corners of the horizon and echoed nearer and nearer, never ending. Suddenly, a host of men began to appear with rifles and machine guns in hand. While those who, a short while ago, had crossed the tracks amounted to a few dozen men, a hundred at the most, there were at least a thousand of these. They all seemed to be converging on the same point. Soon they were everywhere, walking and running. Not one of them saw him, which was just as well since one never knew what might happen at moments like these. He was careful not to make his presence known too soon. He waited for the excitement to subside. Finally he dared to move.
He sat up. About three hundred yards away some fifteen very nervous men, with their hands above their heads, were slowly emerging from the woods under the watchful eyes of guards, with their machine guns on the alert. In front of them, their backs to the woods, other men were already lined up, their hands resting on their heads, rigid. Finally others with their arms raised high appeared one by one; they threw their guns to the ground, took off their equipment, and took their places in the lineup.
"Jump to it!" One of them, too slow, was reminded of his new status with a well placed kick. Another received a blow with a gun-butt. A third tried to argue; Cra-a-ac! A machine gun was fired point blank at his chest. A few more blows, kicks, and slugs with the gun-butt, and the column was ready. "Get marching, toward the church!"
The group passed him at a distance of about seventy-five yards. The prisoners, in rows of five, completely stripped of equipment, jackets unbuttoned, and hands behind their heads shuffled by, awkward, silent and docile. On both sides an armed cordon of seven or eight men showered them with insults and warnings. He decided that it was time to show himself, and he rose up with a leap. "Hey! … Hey! … " he shouted, and he raised one arm in a gesture of appeal.
Without delay, the group halted, four men detached themselves on the run, and before he had time to realize what was happening to him, the barrels of four machine guns were pressed against his chest and back. "Like this, at least, I know they won't shoot ! " he thought. The questions all came at once, menacing and in a language that he did not understand.
''French man," he said. It was all the English that he knew and he wasn't sure that was right. They looked at him round-eyed, astonished and mistrustful. He was obviously not understood. Then, he said, "Francaise!" This was not understood either. He tried his last resource: "Franzoesische Häftling! Franzous!" This time it worked; one of the machine guns was lowered.
"Was?" He briefly explained, in broken phrases, and he saw that he was in the presence of a German, two Spaniards and a Yugoslav, whose lingua franca was Italian. They had understood, all the machine guns were lowered, and a canteen was offered to him. He drank a bitter cold drink, which he wanted to spit out. He grimaced. "Koffé," said the German, "gut Koffe." They got out dry biscuits, hard, hard, oh how hard, chocolate, tins, cigarettes …. Cigarettes! First a cigarette …. But, they must not waste time. "Schnell," said the German, "Wir müssen… " (Hurry …. we have to …. ) They saw what condition he was in. Two of them hoisted him onto their shoulders, and like a living trophy took him, laughing, to the group which was waiting. "Sin-Sin?" asked one of the fellows of the escort. "Yes," he answered. But, the others said nothing. There was only one Englishman-or an American-in the company… which was a kind of international brigade, and he thought of the Spanish War.
As evening fell, the little column resumed its march toward the church, with the emaciated figure keeping his balance with difficulty on the shoulders of the two men, while nibbling slowly, his mouth watering copiously, on the biscuits and the chocolate. The sarcastic comments, the warnings, and the oaths, continued to rain on the prisoners, who, always docile, moved along, awkwardly in the unlaced shoes, their heads hung down their two hands crossed at the nape of their necks. "Porco Dio… Gott Verdammt!!" From time to time the German spoke up: "Du! Bloder Hund!… Du!!" And, he pointed to a prisoner. Then, taking his revolver out of its holster, he asked him, "Muss ich erschiessen?" (Shall I shoot?) The prisoner rolled his frightened and pleading eyes, waiting for the answer a neutral, resigned smile. "Du hast Glück! Mensch! Blöder Hund!" (You're lucky … stupid dog …) he said and spat contemptuously, "tt!… Lumpe." The roles were reversed.
From insult to insult, gibe to gibe, and threat to threat, the column of triumphant conquerors and disappointed losers made their entrance into the village just before midnight. They were past a station, very small, just like others that he knew, in Franche-Comté and Alsace. On the front he read "Munschof' in Gothic lettering. They set him down on the ground and the column rested. Then, slowly they started up again, amidst the deafening noise of the imposing war machines which at full speed went through the deserted but intact village on to new positions. Sometime later, the column reached the headquarters encampment.
An odd little fellow was the Commanding Officer: English, German, Italian, French; he seemed to be familiar with all languages. And, then there was that tone, that manner:
"First, find a place to stay, my friend, eat, get your strength back, rest, a good bed. Then, we will see …. Knock at the first door that strikes you as a good place …. No, no, not with my men, they haven't the time, the hell with them now. Knock; if they open the door to you, ask for something to eat, hot, you need something hot. You will get a little something extra, from us, cold of course …. If they don't open, go in just the same, whether there is someone there or not; make yourself at home; all these people are our servants, it is their turn …. All they have to do is behave properly. No, no, don't be afraid, at the slightest lack of respect …. Come back to see me tomorrow. Until then …. Not wounded? Not sick? … Yes, of course, weak, just weak. Until tomorrow then. And try to find another pair of shoes there… and another dinner jacket!"
The next day he went back. The Commanding Officer was sitting in an armchair on the porch, playing around with two very pretty persons, laughing out loud, who seemed to be quite ready "to behave properly" in the military sense of the phrase as applied to civilians of the opposite sex. "The female always submits to the conqueror with smiles," he thought. In France, in 1940 …. All of them, girls from Colas Breugnon.
But, the Commanding Officer said at once: "Ah, there you are! You know, since last evening I have been handed quite a lot of people like you. Since dawn my men haven't stopped bringing them to the Arbeitsdienst camp. What am I going to do with them, Good Lord? There is a train load of them, a train! And me, I haven't any way to transport them to the rear! They are all going to die; they'll all die! What sort of a place was it that you were in. Ah! the skunks! Well, don't worry about it, old boy, these two girls …."
"Good," he began again, "You can walk?… Then, don't go to the Arbeitsdienst camp Go West, my friend, toward the West. Escapee, get there on your own, on friendly ground Hague Convention, deportee, priority …. Signal the first ambulance you run into. In eight days you'll be in Paris. All the laws, I'm telling you We'll see that you have something to eat to take with you. Really, is that all you have found since last evening? You'll give a fright to the girls all the way, old boy. Wasn't there anything where you spent the night? We won the war, in God's name!… She's pretty good that one! Ah, these French, you can't ever teach them anything Frantz!"
Then he added in a few words in Anglo-German lingo:
"Also, bye, bye! Follow the guide, he's going to give you something to take along. Good luck, but… try to do better the next time!"
Well weighed down with canned food, sugar, chocolate, biscuits and cigarettes, among other things… which he didn't know where to put, he found himself outside. He wanted to see the train from which he had escaped, and he turned toward the station.
People, civilians and soldiers, were busily going back and forth along the platforms. They made room for him as he came along: the clothes that he wore gave him a sort of respect. Gangs of men were pulling from the cars, the half clothed bodies, in rags, lank, dirty, bearded, and muddy! Some civilians were helping and watching them, full of pity, horrified. The dead bodies were lined up along the edge of the tracks, after their numbers, if there were any on their rags, were taken down. He looked to see if he could find anyone he knew among the dead …. Two men, two German civilians, arrived carrying a big thin body. "Kaput?!" one of them said. "Nein," answered the other, "atmet noch…. " (Finished …. No, he's still breathing.) He recognized Barray; Barray!
Barray was an engineer from St. Etienne. In camp they had slept together on the same straw mat for three weeks and had become friends. They had promised to write to each other if they got out. He learned from one of the survivors that the poor man had gone down under the blows of some German prisoners for having, in the delirium of hunger, cold and fever, begun to sing the Marseillaise. The S.S. guards had stood by unconcerned during the show. "Barray ! " …. "It's all over," he said to himself.
And, he went away thinking that there was a fatality in things that some premonitions did come about in life: for fifteen days, at least, Barray had been swearing by all the Gods that they would be freed on Quasimodo (Low) Monday He promised himself to write to his widow and two children about whom they had so often talked before they went to sleep.
A survivor told him what had happened to the convoy. A mile and a quarter beyond the station, it had been brought to a halt, very early Saturday morning. The S.S. guards had hurriedly made all of the able-bodied men get down from the cars and had formed them into a long endless line, which trailed away into the landscape, accompanied by the howling of the dogs and the sound of gun shots. The S.S. had left-on the train-the dead, the dying, and all of those who, taking advantage of the general confusion, were lucky enough to pass for dead, Obviously, there were too many of them, and there wasn't time to kill them one by one-nor was there the desire to do so. (Since this was written, it has been determined that there was no order to kill the prisoners, either.)
He continued his inspection. In one wide open car that no one was paying any attention to, the surviving prisoners shivered in spite of the full sun; they crawled out from under the pile of dead bodies; they huddled together to protect themselves from a cold that they alone felt. "What are you waiting for?" "Well… waiting to die, can't you see?" "What?" "There are still fourteen of us living; all the rest are dead; we are waiting our turn…. " He could not understand how they could be so little concerned with the saving of their lives. "They have given up," he thought; "It is not worthwhile to bother with them. They are already 'dead' and are satisfied. To force them back to life would be to inflict a kind of punishment on them …. "
And, he went on, with a feeling of indifference. He had known many prisoners in the camp who had been burdened with a sort of "death wish" and whom one could never meet without thinking that they were already dead, but that their bodies, in some manner, had survived them …. They were the ones who never missed a chance to announce, to drum it into one, that the war would be over in two months, that the Americans were here, that the Russians were there, that Germany was in revolution, and so forth. They were irritating, and they exhausted one's patience. Then, one fine day they were seen no more. The two months-or whatever-had gone by, and, since nothing had happened, they had just "let go of the railing," as it was said, and had let themselves die on the appointed date. These prisoners had let go of the railing right at the winning post; the two months had ended there, and the day of liberation had arrived ! He knew from experience that there was nothing to do. But, two steps farther on a feeling of remorse overcame him. "Don't stay like that; get out of there; the Americans are here; they are emptying the next car, and they will get to you soon. They will give you something to eat; there is a hospital in the village." They did not believe him, but he had made peace with himself.
At the end of the train was a boxcar that was filled with supplies; sacks of peas, flour, canned goods, packages of every sort of ersatz goods imaginable, liquor, beer, liqueurs, suits of clothes, shoes, accessories, and equipment. He took a soldier's nap sack and a pair of Italian shoes, with cloth sides and low-heels, which fitted his feet wonderfully. Then he left, eager to leave behind all that misery.
But, he still wanted to see the Arbeitsdienst camp where the Commanding Officer had told him that the Americans were taking those inmates who were still living. On the mustering grounds, surrounded by wooden buildings, living skeletons were coming and going, and corpses lay crumpled here and there… There were some five or six hundred men milling about. Well-wishing nurses — attached to the American army — busied themselves among them, running from one to another. The nurses did their utmost in vain to try to get the inmates to understand that they should stay inside the barracks and rest on the straw mattresses. Few among them had in their hearts any desire to live. Those who might have been saved began to die of dysentery because they had, disregarding all warnings, stuffed themselves too greedily with all of the food that was so profusely distributed among them. They ate, then felt a great need for air, and then went outside to die in the yard. No, no, this was no place for him. In the first place, he was too near the front lines; one could still hear the cannon fire all too sharply. He thought of Ulysses' return.
He made his way toward the villa where he had slept the night before and where another tug at his heart awaited him. On the way, he found an American soldier who wanted to shave him, amused.
To tell the truth, it was not a villa but the modest house of an engineer or a retired person just like so many in France- with an iron fence and a garden all around. The evening before he had found it empty with all the doors open. In the kitchen, the table had not even been cleared; a white cheese was on one plate, and jam was on another. In the dining room, the doors of a cupboard were swung open, and the linen and various other things were piled up on the sofa, on the table, and on the chairs, without thought. A trunk with its top gaping open sat waiting. The bedroom was in perfect order. He felt there the pressing distress of a comfortably well-off family who had hoped to the end and had waited until the last minute before leaving. "They aren't far away," he had thought, "They will come back any minute ."
He had slept in the big bed in the bedroom; he had laid there lazily in the morning smoking a cigarette. He had stretched himself out under the warmth of the covers, under a wide beam of sunshine which shone on the polished furniture. Leaving this house, to go to the Commanding Officer's about ten o'clock in the morning, he had thought of what had happened to him in 1940 when, turning back into Alsace, he had wanted to go home one last time. He had caught himself holding a pencil to write a note which he would have stuck on the door if at the last moment a sort of pride, which he had always felt was misplaced, had not restrained him: "Make use of everything, steal nothing, break nothing. Do not take vengeance on things for what you reproach people for. Do not make individuals pay for what you believe is the error of the whole community." And so he had taken out of the linen cupboard only what was indispensable: a shirt a pair of under shorts, a handkerchief, and from under the kitchen sideboard the pair of imitation leather sandals that had made the Commanding Officer laugh so much… He had even resisted the very strong temptation, when passing in front of the garage, to borrow the magnificent Opel that was parked there.
Now everything had disappeared, the magnificent Opel was gone, the cupboards were emptied, the linen was stolen, and the dishes were broken. "And I who was so conscientious," he thought "The war, ah the war!" On the night table, an alarm clock that he had noticed the night before was still there by some miracle It pointed to 6:30. He threw himself. still all dressed, onto the bed and went to sleep.
Early the next morning, when the sun was already high, he set off. The thunder of cannon was still rumbling in the distance, and behind him the mighty war machines rolled toward the front. At the edge of the village, in front of a house a little apart, some civilians were cooking something in a kettle balanced on two stones; there were about half a dozen of them, badly clothed, unwashed, unshaved, dirty, and he noticed that one of them kept the fire going with books which he picked up in bundles. He approached, curious. They were Belgian and Dutch laborers — volunteers who had worked in the factories in the area. The books were those from the Hitler-Jugend-Bucherei of the village.
He glanced at the titles: Kritik über Feuerbach; Die Räuber of Schiller; Kant und der Moral. Goethe, Hölderlin, Fichte, Nietzsche, and others, were all there as if at a tragic rendez-vous, and they were waiting for their fate to be decided by less noble lords, the Goebbeles and the Streichers. The paper was fine, the bindings were unpretentious, and the workmanship was good. He had always had a weakness for books of any kind. He spotted one, Du und die Kunst by one of National Socialism's leaders. He opened it mechanically, and he saw a colored reproduction of "La Liberté guidant le peuple," by Delacroix. He leafed through it more attentively: Monet's flowers, a detail from Renoir, la Joconde, Mme. Recamier, le Martyr de Saint Sebastien. This sharp contrast with the hell out of which he had just come made him ill. He asked if he could take this book away with him, as a souvenir of that civilization that had been so cruel to him, and which would astonish and shock the world for years to come. Permission to take the book was given with a smirk and a sneer. Of course it was difficult for them to understand .
He turned west again, with the feeling that he would never come upon an ambulance and that he would continue to the end on foot All of a sudden, he felt that he was on the threshold of a new adventure, and that he would have liked to have it resemble, although in other times and under a different sky, that of Ulysses of whom he had thought the day before.
Before him he saw roads, the peasants in the fields, the hedges in bloom, the trees budding, the farms, the people who asked about him and to whom he gladly told his story, and the never ending roads. And, there at the end of this mirage-like horizon a small house with arbor vitae, on the outskirts of a small village. In the little yard, a little boy always two years old playing in the sand, who raised astonished eyes at seeing him arrive in his prison clothes … On the tip of his tongue he was about to ask, "What's your name? Little fellow? Where is your mama?" He wept.