Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we all prayed. It was the last day of the Jewish year and there wasn’t one soul amongst us who didn’t think that this would be the last New Year we would ever see. Hope of rescue by the Allies had long gone, and each day was a battle against the elements, starvation, illness and the boredom of the guards. How could anyone survive this?
Traditionally, the first day of the New Year is marked by the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn that welcomes the beginning of ten days of penitence. ‘Why should we be repentant?’ I asked my bunk companion, Gerhard. ‘What have we done to feel remorseful about?’
From his bunk opposite, Abraham stuttered, ‘It’s a time to reflect on the good and evil that man commits because of one lapse. Had Adam and Eve not been tricked into eating the fruit from the tree of all knowledge by the serpent, they would have known only good and lived like angels.’
Strangely, that night, we did hear the horn of shofar. It was the sound someone made by cupping their hands and blowing through them like a child imitating the hoot of an owl, and it poignantly signalled roll call for that evening.
Gerhard improved a little in the days that followed over Yom Kippur, and that in itself might have been a gesture of God’s good will, because ordinarily any illness was a death knell. He told me that he and a few other workmates had buried a bottle containing a note with their names, dates of birth and tattooed serial numbers written on it in a wall they had been building. ‘How long do you think it will take for such a wall to come down?’ I asked him. ‘It could be there for hundreds of years, who will give a damn then?’
‘Benjamin,’ he said and coughed, ‘once we are all gone, Auschwitz will be demolished, the barracks and crematorium blown up, but a wall, who cares about a wall? One day someone will want to take that wall down and then they’ll learn about us; they’ll speak our names and they’ll wonder who we were and what on earth went on here. They might even bring to justice those who committed the crime.’
‘If they see the crime, it should be God they try. It was Him who sent our neighbours and loved ones straight to the gas chambers. God is not on our side.’
‘If He was, He wouldn’t let this happen to us,’ rumbled Meshenberg. We looked about the barracks at the piteous rabble.
‘What would you say to God, then, Meshenberg, if He was here?’ I asked him.
‘Firstly I’d demand to know where the Messiah He has promised us is hiding, then I’d hire the best lawyer I could find who would see to it that He could not use as an excuse that He was just following orders.’
‘God cannot control the actions of men, least of all in war. We all have choices – moral choices, choices of conduct, the choice to stand up and be heard or to turn a blind eye,’ said Fulksman.
‘What about the Devil? Surely he is the prime suspect?’ said Gerhard.
‘I – I don’t believe this is the work of any greater power other than the sickened minds of powerful men. This is the work of insanity, not humanity or God,’ stuttered Abraham.
‘Why does He not try to save us?’ I asked.
‘Perhaps there is One who will,’ Gerhard wheezed.
‘How come so many believe that, even with all the evidence. There is no hope yet still they cling to this fairy story,’ boomed Meshenberg.
‘If God were to let the Messiah fall into the hands of His enemy, He would be denying the legitimacy of His Saviour and the whole Jewish faith. God cannot allow this to happen and so He has abandoned us because He believes we are no longer worthy,’ I said.
‘No, no. You’re wrong,’ stammered Abraham. ‘What you’re saying is God has lost the final battle and that Evil has won. How can this be? We are the perpetrators of our sins: it is up to mankind to fight for truth and righteousness.’
‘Look around you, Abraham, where is the clue to say that we are the Chosen Ones?’ said Meshenberg. ‘In a courtroom, where this could be decided, we would at least have a say in the matter. At the moment we don’t even have that.’
‘You’ve been inside a court of law before, Meshenberg, you must know that it’s not all as straightforward as you might imagine – it is not so clear cut as black and white, night and day, or good and evil where the law is concerned,’ said Fulksman.
‘What about the laws they made that allowed for the mass evacuations and murders of Jews?’ Meshenberg asked, getting up and pointing at Fulksman accusingly. ‘Laws are written to keep men down. They have the guns: that’s the only law they abide by.’
‘Once you start thinking of people as better or less so than others, you have lost your argument, even if you create laws to substantiate that idea,’ said Fulksman.
‘Are we not men, able to use our brains and hands?’ I asked. ‘We shouldn’t walk blindly to the edge of the cliff in the hope that we might be saved at the last moment.’
‘Men? You call us men when we’ve been reduced to this,’ shouted Meshenberg, lifting the sleeve of his tunic to reveal his tattooed number.
‘It’s what’s in here that keeps us alive,’ I said, thumping my chest.
‘But without God’s promised intervention, we’re doomed,’ Gerhard coughed.
‘Where is the defendant?’ bellowed Meshenberg.
‘Here, here,’ someone shouted and proceeded to manhandle Abraham over something he was holding close to him. It was a small piece of cloth upon which he’d written a few lines of the Hebrew prayer Sh’ma. They forced the scrap of material from him and placed it, not in the wood burner as he’d feared, but on a plate on top and with careful ceremony.
Abraham was distraught. He sat back down with his face in his hands, mumbling that God would triumph, how could He not?
Fulksman took it upon himself to be the judge in this strange courthouse and said, ‘The defendant known as God is hereby charged with indiscriminate cruelty, kidnap, incarceration and murder, and rescinding on His promise to send a Messiah to save His people. How does the defendant plead?’
‘Not guilty, Your Honour,’ replied Meshenberg with great humour. The barracks erupted into laughter. The elders looked stony-faced.
‘Let Benjamin and I take the stand, for and against God,’ he said. ‘I shall say that there is no God: we are here because of men and therefore plead for the defence.’
‘Do you have someone you can call as a witness?’ asked Fulksman of Meshenberg.
He looked about him. Who would dare to speak for God the Almighty? ‘I shall take on that role myself,’ he said grandly in his baritone voice. ‘It is for the prosecution to convince the court of my client’s guilt, not for me to prove His innocence or that he even exists. It is the men in power who should be on trial here not your God.’
‘Your first witness then Benjamin,’ Fulksman signalled to me.
I looked around the barracks at the faces peering at me through the dim light.
‘I call Gerhard Teck to take the stand.’
‘What!’ he exclaimed, coughing.
‘Come on, boy!’ they called out after him, waving their arms like a rabble.
He got down from the bunk, pulling up his trousers over his bony hips, clearing his throat. He looked at me.
‘Tell the court your story, Gerhard. Remember you are speaking on behalf of us all.’
He was nervous and shuffled in the dirt in his clogs.
‘Where should I begin?’ he said in a faint, hoarse voice. ‘I did what my mother asked, always. She shouted for my sister and me to run, so we ran with all the others.’
‘Try to speak up a bit louder. What happened exactly, Gerhard?’ I encouraged him.
‘We were on the transport from Berlin. I shouldn’t have been there at all. There was confusion, but I argued that I couldn’t leave my family.’
‘Human choice, you see,’ said Meshenberg. ‘This was not God’s doing.’
‘Quiet! Let him continue,’ Fulksman protested judicially.
‘We travelled all through the night until we stopped somewhere in the middle of the countryside. It was early morning. There was no sign of a station or village, just fields and some trees. We waited and waited, and some of the men in our carriage began tearing up the floorboards to make an escape hatch. Finally they did, and one by one they started disappearing down the hole onto the tracks below and made a run for it towards the trees. We crowded around the hole. My father pushed me and my sister forward. “Go!” he said. I protested, I didn’t want to leave him and my mother, but he lifted me down onto the tracks. My sister soon followed and we stepped out from under the train wheels and ran.
‘By now the guards had noticed what was going on and they were shooting. First shots picking out individuals, who dropped to the ground around me as I ran. I could hear my mother’s cry from inside the carriage: “Run, Gerhard! Run, Margaretha!” I looked over my shoulder and saw Margaretha panting and galloping behind me as fast as she could, but she couldn’t keep up and I knew she was an easy target. The Germans were shouting: then the single shots turned into a stream of machine-gun fire and I found myself pushed into a ditch at the edge of the field by the body of a man falling on top of me. I felt the warmth of his blood on my face. I struggled to get free, but he was too heavy. I couldn’t think what had happened to my sister, but I couldn’t move either, as more bodies fell into the ditch.
‘After a while the noise stopped, then came the terrible sound of screaming as the door to the cattle car was thrown open and everyone inside ordered to get out. I could hear the commotion going on from the ditch, and in my mind’s eye I could see the terrified face of my mother among them. They were made to walk across the field, strip naked, then lined up along the ditch; first the men, then the women and children. They were all shot. They fell in, groaning and twitching. I thought I was going to suffocate in the blood and gore. After minutes there was quiet: then the carriage door was slammed shut and the train shunted away.’
‘So God turned a blind eye that day,’ I said. ‘So many things could have happened to avoid that massacre, any number of divine interventions. The train might not have stopped for one, but why did it? The machine-gun could have jammed, but it didn’t. It might have been raining hard and the whole scenario could have turned out entirely different, but no.’
‘It was a combination of things,’ said Meshenberg, ‘that built one by one on top of each other to enable this atrocity, just as many quirks of fate allow any moment in time to occur. We live a never-ending story of incidents that stretch back to the dawn of time. This is what has brought each and every one of us to this very spot. It is fate, not faith that crashes into itself to produce reality. If He exists, it is as a teacher not a mother. He cannot prevent us from falling over, catching a cold or ending up in a gas chamber, for that matter.’
‘Then why, tell me this, do we even bother with the notion that God exists at all if we are convinced that everything that happens is just the result of domino tiles knocking into one another and falling chaotically,’ I turned and spoke to the men in their bunks, ‘if all we get for worshipping Him is fear and a constant struggle towards a lonely agonising death? If you do believe in God, you must surely believe that He thinks our punishment is deserved, that as a people we have not come up to His expectations, and death, even the worst that can be devised, is probably no less than we deserve. If you believe in Him, you must find Him guilty of this crime Gerhard has told us about, or do we simply have to accept everything He allows to happen, does so without even the smallest requirement for penitence, as He demands of us daily? Why does He not send us the Messiah He’s promised? Surely that would redress everything?’
‘God gave you grace, did He not, Gerhard? He let you live that day in the ditch, why did you not take that gift and r-run?’ asked Abraham.
‘I did run. I was covered in blood and I ran as far away as I could. I knew my sister had to be among the dead somewhere, my mother and father too, but I ran. I cannot forgive myself for not finding them. I came upon a stream and swam along it until I came to a small hamlet, it was then that I discovered I wasn’t in Germany anymore, but in Poland. The villagers were very poor and very old. They took me in and a week or so later an army truck came and they shot everyone except the ones who looked like they could work.’
Meshenberg turned and asked Gerhard the question: ‘Why did you not escape or hide in the village?’
‘I didn’t have the strength. I’d lost my sister.’ Then he said faintly, ‘If I were God, we would have got away.’
There was a long and grievous pause.
‘Gerhard has told a story that could have come from any one of us. There is nothing more that can be said in God’s defence,’ I said. ‘It is patently clear that He has made no attempt to alter the course of this war or to supply us with one single extra scrap of bread that might have made the difference. He has not sent His Son to save us, and even if He did now, how could He answer for the deaths of so many before?’
‘It is because we have given men the power of Gods,’ stammered Abraham. ‘We have staged a battle here on earth between the God of humanity and God the Almighty, and we shall not prevail. God will conquer the Evil of mankind. It is written.’
‘Yes, and each of us has a choice in that struggle. This is the point you are all missing,’ exclaimed Meshenberg. ‘I am not a madman: I have the mind to make rational choices. If I make the wrong ones or if those around me make bad ones for me – those in charge – it is not the power of some force in the sky that has led me here, it is you, you, you,’ he shouted, marching up and down, picking men out.
‘Order in the court!’ Fulksman demanded. ‘Order! Do you have any final words you wish to add for the defence or the prosecution?’
‘I will leave it to the judgement of the men,’ I said. ‘But, there cannot be one among you who has not battled with this complex issue before today. If we have lost faith entirely, then we must accept the consequences of the world we find ourselves in and the awful power of those who control it. I cannot say with my hand on my heart that I believe in the existence of God, but to those of you who do, I ask you, do we not have the right to His protection?’
There were despairing nods from the bunks. ‘Are you all in agreement?’ Fulksman asked. ‘What say you, then, is God guilty or not of the crimes of duplicitous murder and abandonment of the Jews and forsaking His promise to save us?’
‘Not guilty!’ Meshenberg bellowed in that voice of his that could floor a man.
When it came to Abraham, he too said firmly, ‘Not guilty! Who knows the mysteries of God’s ways? Who are we to judge Him?’
But as Fulksman went round from one bunk to the next, the voices proclaimed that God was indeed guilty, and grew louder and louder. ‘Guilty!’, ‘Guilty!’, ‘Guilty!’ they called, clapping their hands and waving their fists in the air.
‘Quiet! Quiet!’ shouted Fulksman above the din. ‘So, it seems we have reached a verdict. I hereby pronounce God guilty of the charges made against Him.’
The barrack roof almost came off in the furore, as the men banged their bunks and crashed their tin bowls together, shouting wildly, ‘God is guilty! Guilty!’
But what next?
A candle was produced and handed to Fulksman, who stepped forward with it, and in the ebbing din we all began to see the consequences of our judgement. He picked up the piece of cloth from the top of the wood burner where it had been placed, then dangled it over the flame.
‘No!’ cried Abraham.
Solemnly, Fulksman lit it: then he opened the iron door and threw it in, slamming it shut with such a bang that it reverberated up and down the barracks. We realised then what we had done and the implications of it. If God had thought to abandon us because of our sins against Him, now, surely, He would have been convinced of it.
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