Jon Clinch @ Work

where the author of finn and kings of the earth posts bits of the thief of auschwitz, his forthcoming novel. Visit him at Jon

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The Thief of Auschwitz arrives on January 15, 2013.

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Chaim ducks under the carton and Jacob ducks around it and together they go in, down a little hallway with more gas lamps mounted on the walls, and along past a low and dimly lit room where the piano player entertains a mixed audience of SS officers and young women from the auxiliary. There are tables with tablecloths and candles and there’s a jammed dance floor down at the far end, but they don’t look closely. They just scurry past. Some singing starts up behind them, the chorus of that folk song with everyone raising up his voice on cue, and the surprising assault of it makes them jump. One of the officers laughs to spy their terror. “Afraid of a little singing?” he calls, as amused as if he’d shot them himself. “I’m not surprised,” he hollers. “It’s a German number, after all.” They pretend not to hear, and he barks another laugh and returns to his music.

The card room is at the end of the hall. It’s a little quieter than the music room but no more inviting, humming with low argument, dense with an air of gaiety lost and recrimination begun. A gray pall of tobacco smoke covers everything, mingling with the smells of alcohol and desperate men. Jacob knows these individuals, he knows their lowered faces and he knows the backs of their necks, but he’s never seen them like this. He’s never seen them exposed this way, vulnerable to one another, more like animals than ever. He pauses at the door, reluctant to set foot among them, but Chaim goes first and drags him in.

The dining room still smells of breakfast. Grilled sausages, omelettes stuffed with cheese and peppers and onions, hot yeasty breads with butter. Each scent in the densely charged air stands out, like a pin stuck into the map of Eidel’s deprivation. Even the dregs in the coffee cup that the sturmbannführer has just set down reach out to her. She dips her head and sits in the wobbly chair and takes up her sketch pad, daring at last to look at them.

It’s bad enough if you happen to see another survivor’s serial number by accident, in a coffee shop or in line at the grocery store or wherever. Imagine the memories that come back, the things that you remember and the things that you picture. I wear long sleeves regardless of the weather.

Soon we’ll all be dead, and we won’t be able to frighten each other anymore.

Chaim bites his tongue until they’re safely inside, well away from the guards. “Those wagons say Red Cross,” he says, “but that’s not what they are. They’re full of bug powder. Only they don’t use it on bugs.”

“Information has a price, too,” says the man in white. But before he has a chance to suggest what that price might be, the capo has come back and is shooing him out the door. Seriously this time. Vehemently. Her fat face is red and she has a rag wrapped around her fist and a piece of ice from the icebox is melting inside the rag. She’s injured her hand in some way. Eidel can guess how. That stray prisoner she’d been running down. And sure enough, as the capo stands rubbing her fist and watching water trail along her arm and drip from her elbow onto the dusting of flour that the deliveryman has tracked in, she vows that next time she’ll use a stick of kindling or maybe a poker. One of those big rusty soup ladles if nothing else. Letting it be known. Next time.

Vollmer leaves off conferring with the other officer and steps down from the platform and takes a stroll along the lines of assembled men, almost as if he has overheard Max’s challenge and seeks to draw him out. Down here on ground level he seems even smaller. Just a little man in a gray-green uniform among this ragged assembly of dust-brown stick figures, assessing them like crops. He looks satisfied, even happy, with what he sees. Down the line he goes toward Jacob and Max, strutting in the way of his superiors, and the father hears the son draw breath. Jacob draws breath too, shifting his weight and turning his chin toward Max so very slightly that no one other than his own flesh and blood could possibly begin to perceive it. But it’s enough. Max exhales. They both exhale. Vollmer nears and moves on without noticing either one of them. They’re just two more scarecrows, neither one of whom dares to look at Vollmer’s face. No one does.

The clock built high into the station wall is painted on, a clumsy and heartless trompe-l’oeil that under ordinary circumstances wouldn’t fool a soul, but those who pass beneath it have too much on their minds to look closely. If any one of them so much as glances up, some mother raising her eyes above the scuffle and the crowd for just an instant, she sees an ordinary railroad station clock and is reassured by it—reassured the same way that she is reassured by the crisply lettered signs hanging overhead and by the gaily painted flower boxes bursting with pansies beneath each station window. Reassured that all is well. That the train has stopped at an ordinary station and that she and her family have arrived at an ordinary village. That the rumors she has heard can’t possibly be true.

More years had gone by and the old man had passed away and the barber shop was in Jacob’s hands when Eidel arrived, Eidel Mankowicz from Warsaw, here for a month’s skiing with her parents and her three younger sisters. She’d never seen a place even half so beautiful. She couldn’t get enough of it. The truth was that she could barely bring herself to come indoors, and late one afternoon she waited outside the shop as Jacob trimmed her father’s hair, utterly rapt and completely indifferent to what was going on inside, caught up in the gathering of clouds over the high peaks, her face illuminated by the last rays of the fading light. Jacob slipped and nicked her father’s cheek and Mankowicz said, “Perhaps you ought to turn a light on, the evening comes so early here in the mountains.” He was a hard man by the look of him, worldly but tough-minded, a lawyer perhaps. Someone with the means to bring a large family here to the limits of the Carpathians on an extended holiday. He was a hard man but he could see that this barber wasn’t going to turn on a lamp until the last possible minute, not while pretty young Eidel was standing outside his window with her face tilted up into the dying light. Not as long as he could still see her. Mankowicz was a man who understood the world, and he resigned himself to enduring another nick or two.

What was the harm? They were children. They wouldn’t be young forever.

Partly indoors and partly out, Canada is a great open-air bazaar of the lost and the stolen. Treasures lurk everywhere: rare gems and glittering costume jewelry, wedding rings and coins of all nations; dark Belgian chocolates and rich French cheeses and fat fragrant sausages from every corner of Europe. The first lesson that Jacob learns is that you never know where you’ll find such things, and the second lesson is that the first lesson is an illusion. There are, after all, only a limited number of places where desperate people might have hidden their valuables upon reaching the end of the line. The hems of coats and dresses. The toes of boots. False bottoms and secret compartments in trunks and suitcases.