Saturday, July 28, 2012

Uprooted: Part XVII (Another Dark Day)

These Saturday blog entries have been devoted to a serial novel titled Uprooted, a story about Ralph Kand, a young crippled man from Estonia during those difficult and challenging years from 1939-1945. It's a story of alienation, of the relentless pursuit of freedom and a homeland.

Another Dark Day

The days were getting shorter and snow began to fall. The mountains were spectacular. The room where he stayed behind the resort opened onto a balcony and Ralph had put extra-long wires on the speakers that ran to his record player so that he could place them outside facing the mountainous slopes that swooped down into Schrunz. Then, he would put on Beethoven, full volume. The effect could never be reproduced in any other setting. In this manner Ralph, sipping his vodka, would escape the war, the pain, the insanities of the time and drift up into those ethereal spaces.

There had always been pressure to work longer hours, but one day an edict came that the paperwork must be fully brought up to date. This was not directly given to Ralph but Kapinsky, his supervisor, was unable to conceal his distress. "What they want is impossible."

The day came that two German officers arrived with instructions from higher ups to get the paperwork current. Kapinsky returned to the accounting offices wearing a frown. Ralph saw it immediately and asked what was going on.

"You can see how far behind we are on the paperwork."

"So, we're getting more help?" Ralph said.

"Actually, yes," Kapinsky said flatly. He then went on to say they needed to organize everything so it could be transported to another place.

Ralph looked puzzled but Kapinsky said nothing more about it other than that Ralph would have to be there early the next day, five a.m. sharp.

The following morning Ralph arrived at the accounting office where he was met by two Nazi soldiers. He was instructed to load the jeep with the boxes he had assembled with Kapinsky the day before. It was all very strange, and in the pre-dawn chill there was a special ominous quality to it.

In the back seat of the jeep, with boxes stacked behind and beside him, they wove their way down through the mountainous terrain as the sky slowly shifted from black to grey. Neither German answered when he asked where they were going. For more than two hours they drove in silence, the terrain eventually becoming rolling hills. The sun never showed its face that day but Ralph correctly guessed they had been heading north when they passed a border crossing. Roadsides indicated that they were in Bavaria.

The vehicle stopped again at another checkpoint and Ralph noticed an immense stretch of walls and barbed wire fencing. At various points along the wall there were watchtowers. The jeep bumped across a set of railroad tracks and paused at yet another barrier where the Germans had to show their papers. A guard pointed to a walled in lane into which the jeep crept slowly. Finally, they came to a small paved lot where numerous other vehicles were parked. A soldier came out to greet them.

Ralph and the soldiers carried the boxes into a brick building with numerous spacious rooms and down through a corridor to a room with a long table at which were seated gaunt men wearing striped prison garb. Ralph was shocked at their appearance, and totally unprepared for the hateful stares he received from these emaciated men. After the boxes were placed on the tables, a cart with boxes of ledger books was rolled in.

An officer entered the room and the German soldiers stood at attention. The officer then explained to Ralph that these men were Jewish bankers who were there to help him get the books in order. The project he was working on was extreme importance to der Führer. There would be a meal at noon, the men were told.

The soldiers left and Ralph presented the boxes to the men around the table. He did not know where he was and did not know how to talk about it with these men who identified him with the Nazis who brought him there.

The paperwork was sorted and by noon a fair amount of progress had been achieved when the doors opened and the food was delivered. To Ralph the portions were modest but the men assigned to help him behaved as if it were a banquet. Ralph, who was seated there amongst them as if one of them, became uncomfortable when he noticed that everyone in the room had ceased talking and was staring in his direction. He noticed their gazes were not at him, however, but at his plate. It puzzled him until he realized the plates in front of the others were licked clean and his still contained the peelings of his potato.

"Aren't you going to eat that?" one of the bankers asked.

"Potato skins are bitter. I don't eat the peelings."

The men continued to stare.

"You want this?"

The man across from Ralph stretched his arm across the table toward Ralph's plate. The man alongside pushed the arm away and a third hand reached from Ralph's left to grab the unwanted peels. Ralph let it happen and there was a rush a cursing from others at the table when that man scarfed it up without sharing.

That afternoon as the bankers helped Ralph organize the ledgers and spreadsheets, Ralph pondered the meaning of these things. It was very late that evening when the jeep returned to Schrunz. At the time, he never understood where he had been and only later learned he'd been to Dachau.


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