THE NAME OF THE PLACE
The train clanked slowly over the bridge across the Vistula and came to a halt with a long squeal of brakes. For a few moments the station was silent, except for the gentle hiss of the engine, half-hidden in a cloud of its own steam, and seeming to breathe its relief at the thought of the long journey done. Then, one by one, the motors of the waiting ambulances whirred into life, and doors began to open along the curving length of the train.
The feldwebel, awakened from a fitful doze, became aware of a face in the doorway. A boy‘s face, a white face, with eyes that seemed fearful of what they might see in the next few minutes.
Eisner‘s voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
‘Where are we ?‘
The boy started, and seemed for a moment about to flee. Then a hint of resolution appeared in his eyes, and he leaned forward into the carriage.
‘End of the line, mein Herr ! You‘re here. The ambulances are waiting.‘
Eisner licked his dry lips.
‘Berlin ?‘ he managed to say at last.
The boy shook his head.
‘I don‘t think there are any hospital trains going to Berlin, mein Herr. We‘re taking you to hospital here !‘
Eisner scarcely heard the last words. He had been sleeping on and off for what seemed a hundred years, ever since they had swung him, none too gently, aboard this train, or perhaps some other, at the Russian frontier. Now, as the morphine claimed him once more, he drifted to sleep again.
When he next swam up from oblivion, it was through a deep blue sea. Then, as the pain made itself known again, he saw that it was a painted ceiling, and that he was now lying in a bed, a cool bed with white sheets.
A face appeared above him. A girl. A nurse, perhaps.
‘Good morning, Feldwebel ! Open your mouth, please !‘
His response was automatic. The next moment his wrist was taken between cool fingers, and he closed his eyes once more. The first civilized woman in many months, he thought, and it‘s too much trouble to stay awake.
When he next awoke, the girl was gone, and the ward lay in darkness except for one faint blue light at the end by the door. Somewhere to his left someone was snoring and, farther off still, he thought he could hear the sound of weeping. A boy‘s weeping.
His leg was in plaster now, and raised above the bed. But at least there was less pain. He half-smiled at the incongruous sight of the cast, and slipped into sleep again.
He awoke to a touch on his shoulder. An orderly this time, a boy, as young as another he seemed to remember having seen in a doorway of a train in some other town in some other year.
‘Breakfast, Feldwebel ! Can you manage by yourself ?‘
Suddenly he was aware of ravenous hunger, and struggled to sit up. He felt an arm beneath his shoulders, and his pillows being arranged so that he could reach the tray.
He began to eat, greedily at first and then with more deliberation as the hunger was appeased. Only when all the food was gone and he had swallowed the last dregs of the dreadful acorn coffee did he lift his head and begin to take stock of his surroundings.
His first glance told him that, after all, this was no hospital. The long windows and the finely-carved cornices spoke of wealth and elegance, of a world far removed from wars and rumours of wars. A gracious house, with a dignity born of age and care.
His eye was caught by a figure in the doorway at the far end of the long room. A girl, with a face he seemed to recall having seen before. A good face, and a trim figure, and his gaze dwelt on both with quiet satisfaction. She seemed to become aware of his eyes upon her and came down the room towards him, her heels beating a tattoo on the polished floor. Not a nurse after all, he noticed. A nursing sister. He would need to watch his step. In here a nursing sister outranked a mere feldwebel.
‘Ah, you‘re awake !‘ she said. ‘How do you feel now ?‘
He had all but lost the habit of talking to girls in those endless months of the Russian winter, and his reply was mumbled. She tucked in the corners of his bed with a practised hand.
‘Good ! You‘ve eaten all your breakfast. That‘s splendid ! Now, is there anything else you need ? Books ? Writing materials ?‘
Books ? That was another habit he had all but forgotten. As for writing materials, there was no one left now to write to, after the English raids on Cologne.
‘Music, then ?‘ she said, as he began to shake his head. ‘We don‘t have music in here, of course.‘ She glanced along the line of beds. ‘But I could have your bed wheeled out into the day-room.‘
The mere prospect of music was like water on a parched tongue. He couldn‘t remember the last time he had heard real music, and now the need for it was like a longing for home. She must have seen the response in his eyes for she nodded and smiled.
‘I‘ll get an orderly to wheel you out, as soon as the doctors have finished their rounds !‘
The smile she gave him as she moved on to another bed was as warm as the thought of music to come.
The doctors, he noticed, were cast in different moulds. The one looked harried and weary; the other lingered at each bedside, talking to the soldier, and occasionally nodding vigorously. The sister seemed to be having some difficulty in catering to the needs of both doctors as the distance between them grew.
The first eventually arrived at Eisner‘s bed, and established with a couple of curt questions that the occupant was feeling better, and no longer in pain. He touched the cast briefly, gave a final nod, and moved on to the next bed. Eisner wondered idly whether, five minutes on, he would remember his patient‘s face or his name.
When the second doctor stopped at his bed, Eisner realized with a sense of shock why the sister had attended him more closely than the other. Where the first doctor had avoided his eyes, this one would never be guilty of that offence. He was blind.
The doctor bent his head towards the sister as she outlined Eisner‘s case. His fingers began to explore the cast, but this time not perfunctorily,
‘Ah, yes. Multiple fracture of the femur . . . Hmm, nasty. Let us see . . .‘
When at last he had finished his examination, he grunted.
"Well, someone‘s done a splendid job. You realize, Feldwebel, that this may take some time ? And you may have some – some discomfort from the steel pins ? But do be patient, and give the doctor every chance, hein ?‘
Then he smiled.
‘And now let us turn to the patient. My daughter tells me you‘re fond of music, yes ?‘
Eisner‘s eyes went from the doctor to the sister. She smiled at his evident bewilderment.
‘Of course. The feldwebel couldn‘t know. This house is our home.‘
Eisner turned back to the doctor.
‘Yes. Yes, Herr Doktor, thank you. I — I should like that very much !‘
The doctor raised a hand.
‘A small thing, Feldwebel. Do you play yourself ?‘
‘Not for a long time, Herr Doktor. There — well, there haven‘t been too many opportunities.‘
The doctor threw back his head and laughed aloud.
‘No, no. I imagine not ! What instrument ?‘
The ‘cello, Herr Doktor !‘
The doctor turned towards his daughter, with evident delight in his face.
‘You hear that, Gerda ? The feldwebel plays the ‘cello !‘
She placed a hand on her father‘s arm.
‘Yes, I hear. But later, or you‘ll never finish your round !‘
Eisner‘s bed was not the only one to be wheeled into the day-room later that day, but it soon became evident to him that this was not the music he had missed, or hoped for. He was debating with himself whether to ask the orderly to wheel him back again, when the doctor‘s voice behind him said,
‘Not quite your sort of music, Feldwebel ?‘
The next moment his bed was being wheeled back towards the long room. But, instead of returning him to his place, the orderly wheeled him into a smaller room at the other end. Here the music stands, the cabinets and the grand piano told him that this was much more the kind of thing he had had in mind and had hoped for.
The bed stopped with the doctor alongside. In this room, Eisner noticed, he moved with an assurance that said as plainly as words, ‘Here I am no longer blind.‘ He turned towards Eisner, and only the fact that his eyes were not on target betrayed his affliction.
‘Quite comfortable, Feldwebel ?‘
Then he sat down and reached for a ‘cello case. The instrument he took out was worthy of a master, and Eisner felt a twinge of envy, mingled with a tremor of inward anticipation,
A few moments to check the tuning, and the doctor looked towards Eisner, as though to assure himself that his audience was ready. Then he began to play.
A few moments only served to convince Eisner that here was no ordinary ‘cellist. The playing had the ease, the sureness of touch, and an individuality of interpretation which was unmistakable, so that the listener forgot the medium under the spell of the music. When at last the old man laid aside the bow, Eisner, quite incapable of speech, was aware that the tears were coursing down his cheeks.
The doctor smiled.
‘Either the silence speaks of satisfaction, or my audience has fallen asleep.‘
Eisner was about to protest when he felt, rather than saw, a movement beside him, He turned, saw the sister, and hastily brushed a hand across his eyes.
‘Much more than satisfaction, father. The feldwebel is clearly a lover of music !‘
The old man slapped his knee.
‘Didn‘t I tell you ? I have a nose for such things. A pity about your leg, Feldwebel. I should have liked to hear you play.‘
Eisner, still not quite coherent, said that he had not held a ‘cello in many months.
‘Then you shall play this one !‘ said the doctor. ‘Just as soon as the plaster comes off. I shall hold you to that, Feldwebel !‘
Over the long weeks that followed, the thought of the ‘cello became a beacon at the end of a long journey. Every small set-back was infuriating, every small improvement a triumph. And, slowly, the leg healed, the steel pins were removed, and the day arrived for the orderly to remove the cast.
As the last shard of plaster fell to the ground, Eisner looked at the white, shrunken limb and all but wept with frustration. But Sister Lindt brushed his fears aside.
‘Of course, you will need crutches at first. But you will walk again. Be patient, Feldwebel !‘
And now the desire to walk became a compulsion as strong as the desire to make music again. The doctor seemed to find this amusing.
‘You must learn to accept, young man ! As I did in another war . . . There are some things worth all your striving, and some not worth the effort. You could play the ‘cello, you know, even if you went on crutches for the rest of your life !‘
‘No, Herr Doktor, I will not accept that ! I will walk again, and I will play the ‘cello !‘
He looked round for something to confirm his sense of purpose, and his eye lighted on a distant chimney, just visible above the dark pine forest.
‘I promise you that I will not play the ‘cello until I have walked as far as that chimney, and back again !‘
The doctor shook his head and groped for his daughter‘s hand.
‘What can age say to headstrong youth, Gerda ? I repeat, Feldwebel, there are some things not worth striving for. Not every goal we set for ourselves is good, you know !‘
But Eisner was not to be moved. He set himself to follow a régime designed to toughen the wasted limb, trying to force life and vigour into it. Unknown to the doctor or the sister, he would put aside the crutches and take two or three faltering steps, only to fall sweating and panting across his bed.
The day came when he walked the length of the ward, not once but ten times. Now, he said to himself, now is the time to show them.
The search-party found him lying by the road not half a kilometre from the house, white with anger and frustration, and cursing his stupid leg. The doctor shook his head sadly.
‘You are a young fool, Feldwebel ! It‘s possible that you have put your recovery back by several weeks. Think of the ‘cello, and forget the stupid chimney !‘
But now the decision was taken out of his hands. He awoke the next morning to signs of feverish activity in the ward. The bed-patients were being transferred to stretchers, those fit to walk were already dressing. He stopped a passing orderly to ask the cause. The orderly brushed his hand aside, and said over his shoulder.
‘Get dressed quickly, Feldwebel ! The Russians are coming !‘
Thirty minutes later, he was being helped into a truck. The sister and the doctor stood below. Yes, yes, they assured him, they would be following by car, just as soon as the last patient left.
The doctor reached out a hand in his direction,
‘Goodbye, Feldwebel ! Enjoy your music ! I‘m sorry you were never able to play for us !‘
The driver started the engine and revved it, anxious to be gone. Eisner took the sister‘s hand.
‘Thank you, thank you for — for everything ! Perhaps — who knows ? — we shall meet again. But I will do that walk, and I will play the ‘cello again. I hope it may be for you !‘
There was a grinding of gears, and he leaned forward again.
‘I never asked . . . The name of that place ? The chimney in the forest ?‘
There was a sudden stillness in the faces of father and daughter. It was the doctor who spoke,
‘I thought you knew ! The name of the place is Auschwitz !‘