Getting Breakfast
In Auschwitz
I awoke as a searchlight beam skimmed across the icy window- pane, making it sparkle like crystal. The footsteps outside told me the sentries were being relieved. I had to relieve myself, so I ran for the pail. My bare feet stuck to the cold, oiled floor. I passed the Häftling who was on night watch. He was asleep in a chair, snuggly wrapped in a blanket. Nice to see that one of us was momentarily having it better than the Nazis outside.

When I got back under the covers, Pressburger's feet were on my side of the bunk. Irritated, I pushed them away. His legs were rigid and cold. He was dead. Pressburger was gone.

Having slept next to a man while he gasped his final breaths gave me the creeps. My instinct was to run, but since there was nowhere to go I just laid there and got goose bumps. It's a depressing revelation how easy and unceremoniously life can vanish. I couldn't help thinking that if life had any value at all, then Pressburger's death wouldn't seem so completely meaningless. I thought about waking the night watchman, but he would have to wake the Stubendienst, who would have to wake a couple of the orderlies. I felt foolish that Pressburger had that much sway over me. Why rouse the whole Block for one corpse? It could wait till morning.

I took Pressburger's blanket, and was about to shove his body out so I could have the whole bed to myself, when a better idea popped into my head. In a few hours Janec would arrive with the morning rations, and if he saw that Pressburger was dead he would keep his share. Why should he get it instead of me? The big Pole didn't need the bread and jam; he got packages from home. I was the one who had taken care of Pressburger, made things easier for him in his last hours. I deserved his ration.

I dragged Pressburger to the other side of the bunk, away from the light of the corridor. The body had stiffened, and it took all my strength to move the limbs into the semblance of a normal sleeping position. I turned his face toward me. The features were contorted into a horrible scowl. I pushed on his jaw, but his mouth wouldn't close. His eyes were rolled back and his eyelids kept sliding up every time I tried to close them. I pulled the blanket so that only the top of his head showed. I went to the spot where Janec would stand while distributing the food and inspected my stage setting. It seemed perfect.

As I tried to go back to sleep, I considered what Pressburger would have done if he had known that he was going to die so forsaken. Would he have confided in me about his life, his dreams, his failures, his loves? Would he have prayed to God or cursed him for such a foul-smelling fate? Here was another man whose family, if he had one and if they were still alive, would never know where and how he died. This man suffered, laughed, thought of the future ... No, I had to stop. I wasn't strong enough. There were too many dying for me to grieve for any of them. And was Pressburger the one to be pitied? His suffering was over, but what was still in store for me? What would I have to go through till my forsaken death?

The camp's reveille brought me to consciousness with a jolt. I kept my back turned to my bunkmate and dozed back off. A little while later the Kommandos marched out as the camp's band played "Beer Barrel Polka." Every morning the band, which was made up of some of Europe's finest musicians and composers, played moronic German marching songs as we left for the plant. In my first couple of months, goose-stepping past those SS guards I wondered whether the music was for their entertainment or whether they were seriously trying to rouse us to give our all to the Reich. What I figured now is that they decorated this human slaughterhouse with the trappings of normal society so they wouldn't see the butcher in the mirror. The only music playing in the HKB was the symphonic coughing and spitting of awakening Muselmänner.

I heard baskets scraping along the floor. The orderlies were beginning to distribute the rations. My heart began to beat faster. I slipped my foot under Pressburger's body and made it move up and down to the rhythm of my own breathing. He sure seemed alive. I looked over to Janec, who was chatting away with one of the Polish patients. What are you doing? Why the morning chat? Don't keep me waiting, Janec, my leg is cramping! Finally he came over and gave me my food.

"Sleep well?"

"Oh, yes."

"Why did you change places?"

"He was falling out of bed," I said, making a gesture toward the corpse.

"Hey, Pressburger," Janec patted him on the shoulder.

I raised the body up a little, like somebody who was stirring, then let it fall back.

"Oh, let Pressburger alone," I said. "He didn't get any sleep last night."

The coughing fit of a patient on the next tier distracted Janec. He took a second ration out of the basket and handed it to me. "Promise me that you'll give it to him."

"You know that I look after him," I said.

Janec nodded and continued on his rounds.

After I had eaten my fill, I feared what the Pole would do when he discovered my trick, but Janec was in good humor. He had a voucher to soak his biscuit at the camp's bordello that he had obtained with the contents of a package sent by his family. That's how he had landed the privileged post of orderly --- by paying for it. Many German and Polish Häftlinge were able to buy a hell of a lot of favors with the packages they received. I smiled at the irony of the peasant woman who toiled and denied herself so she could send food to her imprisoned husband, which gave him the opportunity to be unfaithful to her.

After Janec left that afternoon I alerted the orderlies that Pressburger was dead. Unceremoniously, they dragged his body out to a nearby shed. The following morning a Häftling threw his body onto the bed of a truck loaded down with the camp's dead, and by that evening the only testimony to Pressburger's existence was smoke and ashes.

--- From Scheisshaus Luck
Peter Berg
© 2008 Amacom Press
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