By Steven P. Marini
Schmuel (Schmu – ELL)
From the Hebrew name שְׁמוּאֵל (Shemu’el) which could mean either “name of God” or “God has heard.” Samuel was the last of the ruling judges in the Old Testament. He anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel, and later anointed David.
APRIL 1944. AUSCHWITZ.
“I hate these men and I hate being here. Why do we always have to do what they say? I wish they were all dead.” Schmuel spoke harshly for a ten year old boy. “Why can’t I work outside, like my friend Eli? I’m always here in this hospital, working with you.”
“Keep your voice down,” his mother cautioned. “Eli is older than you and much stronger, so he can work at other things. We must do what they say and do it quickly, without error or they will do bad things to us, very bad things, just like they do to the others.”
His mother worked in the kitchen during the day in the building where the doctors did their work with the prisoners; their patients, as they were called. It was a drab building, with dull white paint and brown woodwork. There were no pictures on the walls or ornaments of any kind, except the one in the main entrance and another in the kitchen. They showed the face of a strange man with a funny little mustache and the doctors spoke of him with great respect. Mother said not to talk about that man, so Schmuel never did, but he grew to hate the face just the same. If he was the reason why Schmuel and his family were forced to leave home and live here, Schmuel would always hate him.
The building was one story, very long, with two office rooms to the left off the main entrance. There was another room passed the offices that had a long table and several chairs. Sometimes the doctors and other men sat in there and talked for hours. There was a check-in desk, like the one at the hospital where he had his leg taken care of three years ago, and there were always women working there, other prisoners of the camp. Soldiers stood inside the entrance and always watched what the women were doing. The soldiers’ guns were big and heavy looking. They also had pistols at their sides. If he ever got to use a gun, he’d use a pistol.
His mother was making a small meal of sausage and sauerkraut. She put the food on two plates and sliced some bread as well. She was average height for a woman, a little thinner than she used to be. But she wasn’t too skinny, like most of the women in the camp. Her dark, brown hair was cut short and fell lifeless down her head, just below her ears. Unlike most women here, she got to wear a little bit of eye makeup and some lipstick. Some of the other women who worked here wore the same kind of makeup, but not all. Only the good looking ones.
“Mother, will we ever get to leave this place? I don’t like it. Everybody is sad and frightened and they don’t seem to get much food. How come we get enough food?”
She never stopped working at her task as she tried to answer her son’s questions. “Yes, we will get out of here one day, I’m sure of that. God will provide for us, but we have to help ourselves, too, by doing our work without complaining. You understand that, don’t you Schmuel? It is very important that we do our work.”
“Yes, Mother, I guess I do.” Schmuel stood beside his mother as she finished preparing the meal.
She put the plates on a tray and filled two steins with beer, placing them gently on the tray, too. “Now, take these to the doctors, Schmuel, and don’t drop anything.” His mother’s voice carried a sound of caution, for she knew a slipup could be very costly to her son. But he was ordered to be the servant while she made the meals.
Schmuel worked his way along the route from the kitchen, out through a long hallway and into the entrance area of the building. A woman at the main desk called out to him. “Good afternoon, Schmuel.” He tried to smile at her and answer but he felt the movement of a beer stein as it slipped slightly on his tray.
His smile vanished and his eyes went directly to the tray and his hands. It moved only a fraction of an inch but he thought the stein was going to tumble to the floor with a deafening crash. His feet became motionless and he recovered his balance like a tightrope walker regaining control after giving the audience a sudden scare. He turned his entire body, tray and all, toward the voice. “Good afternoon, Madame.” He waited for his voice to be silent, as if it was not in his control, before he turned his body back to its original position and he resumed traveling.
When he reached the intended room, his mouth filled with saliva when he saw that the door was closed. What would he do? Did he dare put the tray down on the floor to open it? Before he could decide upon his action, the door swung open with a slight creak in the hinges and he saw a tall doctor in a long white smock holding the knob. The doctor didn’t say anything, but he smiled at Schmuel as he brought in the meal like an obedient servant. His body continued on its trek to the table even as his eyes held fast on the tall man in the white coat.
“Watch what you are doing, boy,” said the other man seated at the end of the table. The man’s voice startled Schmuel, forcing him to make a sudden stop. Again, he felt the contents of the tray shift position. His eyes opened wide and he focused on his burden, struggling with both hands to regain control. His left hand was lower than his right and he watched everything slide. He swiftly lowered his right hand and succeeded in stopping the slide before it could bring his whole world toppling to the floor. He eased it to the table and stepped back, taking a deep breath.
“You little idiot,” said the man in his seat. “You almost spoiled my lunch. You know what I would do to you if you dropped my food on the floor?”
The boy shivered but kept silent.
“Answer me, you dumb one.”
“No sir,” said Schmuel. “I don’t know.”
The man blurted out a laugh. “NOTHING. That’s what I would do to you, absolutely nothing. But I would cut off one of your mother’s hands. That’s what I would do.”
“Really, Dr. Rauf,” said the man in the coat.
“Oh well, alright,” said the other. “Maybe just a finger, eh?”
Both doctors laughed, although the one in the white coat tried to stifle it with his hand, as if sneezing. He took a seat across from his colleague and dismissed Schmuel. The boy started to exit, but the doctor stopped him. Reaching into his coat pocket, he produced a piece of hard candy and offered it to Schmuel. The young boy hesitated momentarily.
“Go ahead, Schmuel, you can take it. Go ahead.” The doctor’s voice was soft and comforting. Schmuel took the candy and backed out of the room after giving a soft “thank you” to the man. “And Schmuel, send your mother in here,” said the doctor. “I just need to talk to her for a moment, so please, send her in.”
“Why do we bother with that one, Josef?” said Dr. Rauf. “He’s lame and pathetic.”
“Then why waste good gas on him, Doctor?” Both men laughed. “Besides, he makes his mother happy and she makes me happy when I want it. That is a workable arrangement for me.”
“Personally, I don’t know how you can touch these Jews, Josef. They are repugnant to me.”
“War time is tough time, Doctor. We must all make sacrifices. Forget that she is Jewish for a moment and you must admit that she has all the right parts in a most appealing way. You’ll come around some day. Wait and see.”
When Schmuel returned to the kitchen, he unwrapped the candy and looked at it as it rested in his palm. He studied it, as if it were a rare jewel he had discovered.
“What is that, Schmuel?” asked his mother, who was wiping off the table where she had been working.
“Just a piece of candy,” he replied before popping it into his mouth. He was puzzled how anything in this sad, bitter place could produce such a sweetness.
“Mother, the tall doctor said he wants you to go see him right away.”
She stopped wiping the table and straightened up. “What does he want, Schmuel?”
“I don’t know, Mother. He said he wants to talk to you, that’s all.”
She dropped her towel onto the table top and looked at Schmuel. He looked back and saw the worry in her eyes as she untied her apron and dropped it onto the towel. “Finish cleaning the sink for me, Schmuel. Be sure to do a good job. Then take the trash out, too.” She walked passed her son without looking at him, resigned to her task.
When she walked into the conference room, she stood at the end of the table, away from the two men who enjoyed the meal she prepared for them. Neither of them rose when she entered. “Ah, Sadie, you look wonderful today,” said the tall doctor in the white coat. “There is something we want you to do for us. We know there are several pairs of identical twins in the camp but we also know there are a few fraternal twins as well.”
Sadie’s face became drawn and her lips taut, as if she could not speak.
“Yes, we are very thorough in our work, Sadie. We know you are a twin, although your sister is not here in this camp. But there is a new woman here, she came in yesterday. She is also a fraternal twin, separated from her sister.”
“We think you should meet her, now,” said the other man. “Go tell your son to fetch her from the barracks. She was told to expect a boy to come for her, that he will lead her to you because you have something in common. Do this, now, woman.”
The man in the white coat stood and approached the puzzled woman. “This is not your sister, Sadie. We know that, so don’t look so nervous.” He placed his hand on her back and caressed her shoulder, then ran his hand down her spine and slowly back up. “So, go tell your son to go to building number seven and bring her here to the front desk.”
Sadie’s head turned toward the tall doctor, glimpsing his deceptively warm smile. She knew this woman was in trouble. Her crime was to be a Jew and a twin. She heard the doctor was doing research about twins. Many of those who came into this building were never the same when they left, if they left at all.
“You don’t have a problem with this simple assignment, Sadie, do you?”
“No, no, of course not,” she answered. “I’ll tell him to do it right now, just as you want…Dr. Mengele.”
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 1974. HENNIKER, N.H.
There were worse ways to start employment at a college. Sam had been on the job since June, but this September afternoon was the kickoff for the academic calendar. A cocktail party put the entire faculty and staff in a good mood.
Sam poured himself a glass of red wine at the makeshift bar set up in the lobby of the administration building, also called The Inn. The beautiful, old wooden structure, set on the north side of Main Street in the center of town, had once been a New Hampshire country inn before it was rescued from demolition by the New Sussex College in 1946, its inaugural year. The vast lobby and its colonial décor was a perfect setting for college president Seth Walpole to use for a welcoming cocktail reception for faculty and staff at the end of the first Monday of the semester. The white wainscoting adorned every wall and provided nice contrast to the blue wallpaper above it. White crown molding ran along each wall at the ceiling.
There were worse ways, indeed.
It didn’t take long for the room to fill with college employees, many of whom worked in this fine building. Sam knew many colleges were known for partying, rather than academics, but that reputation usually focused on student behavior. Employees didn’t waste time getting to a party at this institution.
“Sam, let me introduce you to Arthur Vasile and his wife, Carol. Arthur is a Biology professor and Carol works in the Business Office,” said Bob Hill, the Director of the Danton Library and Sam’s new boss.
Sam extended his hand toward the man, who sported a salt and pepper goatee and was a husky six-footer with a full head of graying hair. “Nice to meet you, Professor Vasile, and you, too, Carol,” said Sam. The woman looked much younger than her husband.
“Oh please, call me Arthur. We’re usually very informal here and don’t bother with academic titles. I think they’re a bit stuffy, don’t you agree Carol?” The man’s accent was European, but Sam couldn’t place it.
“Absolutely,” his wife replied. She reached out to Sam, who took her hand gently, giving it a slight squeeze without shaking it. Something about her face anchored his eyes on her, as if a flash of light had gone off. He scanned her figure as rapidly as possible, trying not to be noticed. He didn’t know much about perfume, but whatever it was she was wearing, he liked it. Her light, brown hair was long and straight, reaching well below her shoulders. He liked that, too.
“Sam runs our Educational Technology Department on the second floor of the library. He has a wonderful collection of films and other teaching aids,” said Hill. “What we don’t have, he can rent for you, but you know that, Arthur.”
“Yes, I do. Thank goodness, Sam, for Time-Life Films,” said Arthur. “I make my selection of films to rent. You type up the requisition and bring it to Carol and she processes the order. Very neat and tidy. It’s a process that will enable the three of us to get to know each other, one of the benefits of working at a small college. It’s a rather intimate setting, not like those diploma factories in Boston.”
Sam listened to Arthur but his eyes fixed on Carol. He figured her to be in her mid-thirties. Her light blue dress was simple but fit her well in the right places, stopping a few inches above the knee, flattering her beautiful legs. She looked at Arthur as he spoke, but her expression was empty.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend, Carol?” The voice came from behind Sam at the same time he felt an arm encircle his. She stood between Carol and Sam, smiling as if she’d won a prize. “Hi, I’m Martha Sanborn. I’m also on the library staff and I’ve seen you around, but the boss didn’t bother to introduce us.” She shot a scowl at Bob.
“Hi, Martha,” said Sam, unpleasantly surprised by the grab on his arm, despite the obvious pressure of her full breast against him. He noticed Arthur and Carol making disapproving expressions simultaneously. Bob Hill simply walked away. “I’m Sam Miller. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, as she inched closer to him.
“The pleasure is mine,” she replied. “Where’s your wife, Sam?” asked Martha.
The real intent of her question was obvious to Sam and the others. The Vasiles shrugged and Sam looked at his feet, avoiding eye contact with Martha. “She’s where she likes to be,” said Sam, “in the arms of another man. I’m divorced.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I understand,” she said. “ I’m divorced myself, twice, in fact. Oh, it was a long time ago. I married young, too young. But that’s a boring story. I’d rather talk about you. Sam, I couldn’t help notice that you have a slight limp. What’s that, an old football injury?” she laughed.
“Actually, I was about to ask Prof…Arthur, about his homeland.” Sam shifted his head to meet the professor’s gaze. “I can’t place the accent.”
“I’m originally from Romania, Sam, but I’ve been in the United States for nearly thirty years. The war caused many of us to flee Europe, you know. I had started medical school, but wasn’t able to finish my studies. When I arrived here I had no money but I worked my way through a Ph. D. program at Boston University and began my academic career. It’s been most rewarding.” Arthur glanced at Carol as he said “rewarding,” a move not lost on Sam.
Sam knew all too well about fleeing Europe because of the war. He hoped to avoid lengthy conversations about it.
“Oh, Sam, look at this,” said Martha. “My wine glass is empty. Would you get me a refill, white, please?”
“Ah, sure, Martha.” Sam took the empty plastic party glass and wove his way through the crowd to the bar. A tall, heavyset man stood there, plopping ice cubes into a glass while eyeballing the bourbon bottle on the table. “Going for the strong stuff, eh, Ian?”
Ian Barnstead was a History professor whom Sam met several days earlier. He was a pleasant, jovial man with a strong voice and a broad smile, the kind of guy who you felt you’d known for years. “Oh hi, Sam. Yeah, time for the heavy artillery. I get to sneak one or two of these when the wife’s not around. Fortunately for me, she’s at home.” He followed his comments with a hearty laugh. “I see you’ve met the Vasiles,” said Ian. “Something about Arthur, though. Maybe it’s the cultural difference, I don’t know, but whenever I’ve tried to talk to him about the war in Europe, strictly from a historic perspective, mind you, he usually talks about Germany’s positive contributions, technologically. He’s from Romania, so why such cheerleading for Germany? I don’t know.”
“Well, he’s a science-oriented guy, maybe that’s why,” said Sam. “Maybe that’s what he thinks of instinctively.”
“Well, yeah Sam, but I don’t know. If you talk about the air attacks on London, you know, with V2 rockets, he starts telling you how important those rockets were in contributing to our space program. Oh, and he can’t say enough about the Autobahn and how it’s the model for our interstate highways. I don’t know.” Ian shook his head and eased some bourbon into his mouth. “I guess he’s got a point. The Germans were technological innovators, for sure. I once read somewhere that the American and Russian space race was all about which country had the best German scientists. I don’t know.”
“That’s one way to look at it, Ian. What about his wife, Carol? What’s she like?”
“She’s a top shelf gal, Sam. I guess he met her at Boston University about ten years ago. They got married and moved up here a few years later. They both like the things most of us like about this place: small, quiet, out of the way, no hustle and bustle. She’s very bright and likeable. But he’s a bit stiff. They seem like an odd fit to me. I don’t know.” Ian swigged his drink again.
Sam peered in her direction but his gaze was interrupted by Martha looking back at him, raising her hand to her mouth as if drinking. Sam came back to Earth, recalling his mission, and reached for the white wine.
“I see you’ve met Martha,” said Ian. “She’s a trip.”
“How so?” asked Sam.
“She gets along with everyone, especially the guys. The life-of-the-party kind of gal, she is. She flirts with anything with a dick and has been known to get pretty schnockered at social engagements. But I guess she’s harmless. I don’t know.”
Sam delivered a freshly poured glass of wine to Martha, who eased both hands around it as if cradling a baby bird. “Thanks, Sam. I was afraid you were going to let me die of thirst.”
“I’m sure that would never happen, Martha,” said Arthur. His remark struck her sharply and her smile vanished. “If you will please excuse me, I’ve made my obligatory appearance and now must go home to assume my role as kitchen slave,” he said.
“Oh, yes,” interjected Carol. “Soon I hope to have him doing the laundry and scrubbing the floors. Cooking has become one of Arthur’s hobbies and I’m happy to yield the kitchen when he offers to cook dinner, such as tonight.”
Arthur smiled. “Actually, tonight looks like a good night for using the outdoor grill. I just love to build a fire.” He laughed and nodded to the group, a light clicking sound emanating from his shoes as his heals touched quickly.
“I think I need a refill, myself,” said Sam and he scurried over to the bar. As he finished refreshing his drink, he looked back to see an unknown man trying to start a conversation with Martha. It seemed like a great opportunity to make his way to the front door and step out onto the vast porch that ran the entire length of the building. He found an inviting bench to his left and settled onto it. He sipped from his glass after exhaling a sigh of relief. He wasn’t in the mood for Martha.
“Nice move, Houdini.” A woman’s voice surprised him. It was Carol Vasile, emerging through the door. “That’s the slickest escape I’ve seen in a long time.”
“Oh, please, I didn’t mean to be rude to you,” said Sam.
“Don’t apologize. I saw the predicament you were in. She comes on pretty strong sometimes, not very subtle. Of course, I could be insulted. First my husband abandons me and then you do a disappearing act. Swoosh, the men are gone.”
Sam peeked at Carol with guilty eyes.
“Maybe I should go inside,” she said.
“No, no, don’t do that. Please, have a seat,” he said, motioning to one half of the bench.
“Okay, Mr. Houdini, but no vanishing act this time.” Carol slid onto the bench, folded her bare arms across her chest and crossed her legs, causing her skirt to rise up a bit further on her thighs. She looked straight ahead onto Main Street, nearly the entire commercial center within view. “This is really a pretty little town, Sam. I believe you’ll like it. We’re all country mice up here, each and every one of us turning away from city life, except an occasional trip to Boston or New York for the Pops or a Broadway play. We’re not altogether without culture, after all.”
Sam focused on her as she continued to gaze upon the small town’s Main Street. She was a class act, alright, with subtle beauty, bright blue eyes, intelligent and well spoken. He felt at ease in her presence, a sharp contrast to Martha.