Echoes (30 page)

“You can rethink it now,” he said happily, as though she had given him a gift, and then he looked thoughtful. “How Jewish are you?” She felt as though she were being interviewed as his bride. The thought of it made her feel sick.


“You don't look it.” She looked more Aryan than most of the women he knew, including his mother, who was dark. His father was tall, thin, and blond like Amadea, as was his sister. He had his mother's dark hair, and father's light eyes. But Amadea certainly didn't look Jewish to him. Nor would she to anyone else, when this was over. He had a mad moment of wanting to protect her, and keep her alive.

She went back to work then and stopped talking to him, but every day after that, he stopped to talk to her, and every day he slipped something into her pocket. A chocolate, a handkerchief, a tiny piece of dried meat, a piece of candy, something, anything, to assure her of his good intentions. He wanted her to trust him. He wasn't like the others. He wasn't going to just drag her down a dark alley or behind a bush and rape her. He wanted her to want him. Stranger things had happened, he told himself. She was beautiful, obviously intelligent, and completely pure since she'd been in a convent for her entire adult life. He wanted her more than he had ever wanted any woman. He was twenty-six years old, and if he could have, he would have spirited Amadea away then and there. But they both had to be careful. He could get in as much trouble as she could, for befriending her. They wouldn't frown on it if he raped her, he knew that most of the men would find it amusing, plenty of them had certainly done it themselves. But falling in love with her was something else. For that, he would be killed or deported himself. This was dangerous business, and he knew it. And so did she. She had far more to lose than he did. She never forgot that as she walked past him every day, and he slipped his little gifts into her pockets. If anyone saw them, she'd be shot. They were extremely dangerous gifts.

“You must not do that,” she chided him as she walked past him one afternoon. He had put several candies in her pocket that day, and much as she hated to admit it, they gave her energy. She didn't even dare give them to the children she visited, because she'd be punished for having them in the first place, and so would the children, who would be so excited to have them that they would tell somebody, and then they'd all be in trouble. So she ate them herself, and told no one. His name was Wilhelm.

“I wish I could give you other things. Like a warm jacket,” he said seriously, “and good shoes … and a warm bed.”

“I'm fine as I am,” she said, and meant it.

She was growing used to the discomforts, just as she had those of the convent. These were simply sacrifices she made for the crucified Christ. They were easier to accept that way. The one thing she hated and never got used to was seeing people die. And there were so many, for different reasons, illness as much as violence. Theresienstadt was the least violent of the camps, from what everyone said. Auschwitz was the one they all feared. Theresienstadt was child's play compared to that, and supposedly fewer people died here. They were even talking about bringing officials here to show it off as a model camp, and to show others, to demonstrate how well they treated the Jews. They had a
and an opera company, after all. What more did they need? Medicine and food. And Wilhelm knew that, just as she did.

“You shouldn't be here,” he said sadly, and she agreed. But neither should anyone else. There was nothing either of them could do about it. He no more than she. “Do you have relatives somewhere else? Christian ones?” She shook her head.

“My father died when I was ten. He was French. I never met his relatives,” she said as though it mattered now, which it didn't. But it was something to say in answer to his question. And then he lowered his voice, and spoke in a barely audible whisper.

“There are Czech partisans in the hills. We hear about them all the time. They could help you escape.” Amadea stared at him, wondering if this was a trap. Was he trying to get her to escape, and then she would be shot trying? Was it a test? Was he mad? How did he think she would escape?

“That's impossible,” she whispered back, drawn in by what he said, but suspicious nonetheless.

“No, it's not. There are often no sentries on the back gate, late at night. They keep it locked. If you ever found the keys, you could just walk away.”

“And be shot,” she said seriously.

“Not necessarily. I could meet you there. I hate it here.” She stared at him, not knowing what to answer, and not knowing what she would do if she did escape. Where would she go? She knew no one in Czechoslovakia, and she couldn't go back to Germany. All of Europe was occupied by the Nazis. It was hopeless, and she knew it. But it was an interesting idea. “I could go with you.”

“To where?” They would both be shot for what they were saying if anyone overheard them.

“I have to think about it,” he said, as his commanding officer appeared and called him. Amadea was terrified he would get into trouble for talking to her. But the commanding officer showed him some papers and laughed uproariously, and Wilhelm grinned. Obviously, all was well. But she couldn't get his words out of her head. She had heard stories of men escaping, but never women. A group of them had walked out a while ago, appearing to be a work gang going somewhere, the sentries hadn't been paying attention, and assumed they were authorized to work outside the camp. They said they were going to the nearby fortress to work in the prison, and then they escaped. They had just walked out of camp. Most of them had been caught and shot. But some had escaped. Into the hills, as Wilhelm said. It was an extraordinary idea. And of course it entailed leaving with him, which was a whole other problem. She had no intention of becoming his mistress, or his wife, even if he helped her escape. And if he turned her in, she could be sent to Auschwitz or killed right here. She could trust no one, not even him, although he did seem like a decent person, and he was obviously crazy about her. She had never before had a sense that she could have power over men just by the way she looked.

It was more than that in his case. He thought that she was not only beautiful but intelligent and a good person. She was the kind of woman he had wanted to find for years, and couldn't. And he had found her here. A half Jewess at Theresienstadt concentration camp, and a nun on top of it. Nothing in life was easy.

Lying on her mattress that night, all Amadea could think about was escaping, but once beyond the gates, then what? There was no way for it to work. He had spoken of Czech partisans in the hills, and how were they supposed to find them? Just walk into the hills and start waving a white flag? It made no sense. But the thought of it kept her going for days. And each day Wilhelm was kinder and spent more time with her. What he was trying to start was an innocent romance, and this wasn't the time or place, nor was she the right woman. But she no longer said that to him. Perhaps they could leave together, as friends. It was an extraordinary idea. Yet she also knew that there was nowhere in the world where they could be safe. He would be a deserter and she a Jew. And together, they would be doubly at risk.

There were rumors in the camp about something happening at the end of May. At first, the inmates didn't know what it was, but there were whispers among the guards. Two Czech patriots, serving with the British forces, had been parachuted into the countryside near Prague. On May 27 they had attempted to assassinate Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector. All hell had broken loose in Prague as a result. Fatally wounded, he died on the fourth of June. Within the next few days 3,188 Czech citizens were arrested, of whom 1,357 were shot. Another 657 died during interrogation. The repercussions were massive, and the reprisals by the Nazis severe. Everyone in the camps waited to hear what was happening day by day.

On the afternoon of June 9 Wilhelm came to her in the garden, walked by her slowly without looking at her, and said a single word. “Tonight.” She turned and stared. He couldn't mean what he had just said. Maybe he was propositioning her. But as she was finishing work, he stopped as though inspecting what she'd done and explained in a rapid whisper. “They are taking over the town of Lidice tonight. It's twenty miles from here, and they need our men. They're going to deport all the women and kill all the men, and burn the town to the ground, as an example to others. Two-thirds of our men are going there. They leave at eight o'clock. Nine at the latest, with most of the trucks and cars. Meet me at the back gate at midnight. I'll find the key.”

“If anyone sees me leaving, I'll be shot.”

“There'll be no one left to shoot you. Stay close to the barracks, no one will see you, and if they stop you, tell them you are going to the sick.” He looked at her meaningfully then, and nodded, as though approving her work, and then he left. She knew what he had said was insane. It was a crazy plan, but there was no question that if there was ever going to be an opportunity, this was the night. And then what would they do? What would she do? But she knew that whatever happened, she had to try it.

She was thinking of the people in the town of Lidice as she walked home. They were going to kill the men and deport the women and children, burn the town down. It was a horrifying thought. But so was staying at Theresienstadt until the end of the war, or getting deported to another camp. She had been there for five months, and she was lucky. She wasn't as sick as most. They had never tattooed her. There were too many new arrivals, too much construction to organize, too much to do. She had slipped through the cracks. And now they were going to slip right out the gate. If they were caught, she would be killed or sent to Auschwitz, and he might be killed as well. She had much to lose. But perhaps more to lose by staying here. She might be sent to Auschwitz anyway. She knew she had to try, even if they killed her. She could not stay here, and they would never get another chance like this. This was the perfect opportunity.

She heard the trucks and cars roar out that night. Others noticed it, too. And even the guards roaming around the barracks were sparse. There was hardly anyone there. But Theresienstadt was a peaceful place. They were “good” Jews. They did as they were told. They worked. They built what they were meant to. They worked in their jobs. They played music. They did as the guards said. It was a peaceful night. And at midnight, Amadea got off her mattress, still wearing her clothes. Almost everyone slept in their clothes. If you didn't, they disappeared. Or got lost. She told the guard she was going to the bathroom, and wanted to check on a friend on the upper floor, in the attic, where the sickest ones were kept. He smiled and moved on. She had never given him any trouble, and he knew she wouldn't now. He knew she was a nun, and was always ministering to someone, either old people or children, or the sick, of which there were thousands. They were all sick to some degree.

“Goodnight,” the guard said politely, as he moved on to the next barracks. It was going to be a quiet night with the others gone. There was no sign of unrest here. Just peaceful Jews. The better weather put everyone in a good mood, inmates and guards alike. The winter had been brutal, but the summer was gentle and warm. Someone was playing a harmonica as Amadea left. She stopped at the bathroom, and then just walked out of the barracks. There was no one there, and it was a short distance from where she was staying to the back gate. It was remarkable. There was absolutely no one around. The main square was a ghost town tonight. And he was there. Waiting for her. He had the key in his hand and showed it to her with a smile. With a single brief gesture, he put the enormous metal key in the lock, the same one that had been used for nearly two hundred years. The gate squeaked open, just enough to let them both through, and he closed it again, reached back inside to lock it, and then tossed the key away. If they found it, they would think a sentry had dropped it inadvertently and be relieved that no one had found it and unlocked the gate. And then they ran. They ran like the wind, both of them. Amadea never knew she could run so fast. Every moment, every second, she waited to hear shots, to feel a knifelike pain in her back or heart or her arm or her leg. She felt nothing. She heard nothing except Wilhelm's breath and hers. Until they reached the trees. There was a forest near Theresienstadt, and they plunged into it like two lost children, gasping for breath. They had done it! They were safe! She was free!

“Oh my God!” she whispered in the moonlight. “Oh my God! Wilhelm, we did it!” It was impossible to believe. She was beaming at him, as he smiled at her. And she had never seen so much love in a man's eyes.

“My darling, I love you,” he whispered, and pulled her into his arms, as she suddenly wondered if this was just a plot to rape her. But it couldn't be. He had taken as much risk as she. Although he could always say that she had escaped and he had followed her, and then he would bring her back, after he raped her. She trusted no one now and looked at him suspiciously. He kissed her hard on the mouth, and she pushed him away. “Wilhelm, don't… please …” She was still out of breath and so was he.

“Don't be stupid,” he said, sounding annoyed. “I didn't risk my life for you, so you could play nun. I'm going to marry you when we get back to Germany. Or before that.” This was no time to be arguing about his illusions or her vows. “I love you.”

“I love you for helping me, but not the way you mean,” she said honestly, as he fondled her breast and then grabbed her. He wanted to make love to her right there. “Wilhelm, don't.” She stood up, to get away from him, and he stood up with her, and grabbed her with powerful hands. He was trying to force her to the ground, as she pushed him away from her as hard as she could, and he lost his footing on a tree root, and pitched backward with a sharp sound and a stunned look on his face. His head hit the ground with a thud and instantly cracked.

There was blood everywhere as Amadea knelt next to him in shock and horror. She hadn't meant to hurt him, only to push him off. She had been afraid he was going to rape her in his enthusiasm and fervor, and now his eyes were open in a dead stare. He had no pulse. Wilhelm was dead, as she bowed her head in grief over what she'd done. She had killed a man. The man who had helped her escape. His death was on her soul. She looked at him, closed his eyes, and made the sign of the cross. And then, gingerly, she took his gun, and held it in her hand. He had a small canteen of water, and she took that, too. She found money, although very little, some candies, and bullets that she had no idea what to do with. She assumed the gun was loaded, but she had no notion of how to use it, and then she stood up.

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