O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm;
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
‘… Of the 100 prisoners you despatched to me, 18 died in transit. Only 12 are in a fit state for my experiments. Therefore I require you to send me a further 100 prisoners between 20 and 40 years old who are in good health and in a state comparable to able-bodied soldiers.
Dr. E. Haagen
15 November 1943
From the papers of Professor Felix Mittelberg, 29th April 1945
I found the couple as I made my way out of the battered western edges of Berlin on roads choked with people, traffic and rubble, towards the oncoming American or British armies, whichever came first. I had taken off my SS colonel’s uniform and was wearing the armband of a Reserved Occupation medic. An SS officer would not have been a popular travelling companion at that stage of the war.
Somewhere, stray remnants of our troops were straggling, sometimes fighting, their way westward to try to reach the Allies before the Russians overtook them. Every now and then detachments of diehard fanatics were firing on them, and on civilians too, trying to stop them.
I carried papers on which I had not changed my name or qualifications, since it would only arouse suspicion among my captors. I was a professor with various medical (especially psychiatric), psychological and scientific degrees. I was a behaviourist - as you would expect a psychiatrist to be at that time - though recently I had begun to feel that one could not exclude the influences of early childhood. You only had to look at some of our leaders. I was specialising in the new sciences of aviation physiology and psychiatry (survival under extreme stress, high altitude, speed of sound, extremes of uncertainty, heat and cold etc.) in which we had recently achieved significant breakthroughs in research - the development of drugs and strategies through experimentations - some of it dangerous but urgently necessary, at the edge of physical toleration. It was something the Yankees would almost certainly want to hear about. They would not want it to fall into the hands of the Ivans.
The couple were young and good-looking, dark-haired, possibly Jewish though they had to be the last Jews living in the Third Reich, or what was left of it. What were they doing here? How had they escaped? There was no point in asking questions like that any more. It was now each man for himself.
They had a baby with them - young, only months old - which they wheeled in a big old-fashioned pram like an antique Daimler. It made me think how lucky I was to have no family. Every so often there would be trouble on the road, a truck blocking the path, a broken down Opel; and now and then a rifle or machine gun would open up. There were still crazed gangs of Hitler Youth about who were fighting beyond the bitter end, and were now infuriated to see the unending stream of Germans leaving the country like rats, to avoid falling into the hands of the Ivans.
It was in one of these mindless acts of rage that the couple were hit. The man died immediately. The girl, mortally wounded, was still conscious. The baby, however, was gurgling merrily. I did not want to waste time. The Russians were not far away, and the sounds of distant fighting seemed to be gaining on us as we fled. But in all conscience, and I have to admit, curiosity - I could not leave the girl and her child. Even then an idea was flickering through my head. It was quite unbidden; I had never thought of it before. In these dire circumstances - unexpected, unpredictable - all manner of new ideas were flooding in, like particles into a vacuum. The notion vanished as quickly as it had arrived when the girl groaned. She had been shot through the stomach and the lung.
‘Please, sir,’ she said, painfully through a bloody mouth. ‘I am dying, aren’t I?’
I was moved by the ‘sir’. It would be interesting to do a paper on the habit of formality, even at the extreme edges of life. I suppose I do have a medical look; you take it on with the white coat at university. I felt her pulse and looked at her wounds.
‘Yes, my dear,’ I said. ‘It does look that way. I am sorry.’
People jostled and flooded past us as we stopped there, like rocks in a torrent. Behind us, the sounds of warfare were growing.
‘Please,’ she said again, speaking with a great effort, but almost sibylline in the way that the imminence of death sometimes promotes, ‘I will bless you and give you good luck in this life if you look after my child. Don’t let her go. Watch over her. Guard her. Make sure she is educated. She will be clever and beautiful. Will you do that for me? Her name is…’
Her breath failed her and I leant forward to catch a sound softer than a moth’s wing, a name she whispered into my ear. I readily agreed, as one does when faced with someone leaving this world. How could I not? Naturally, I had no idea about babies or how to make them happy, or not unhappy. We have all been babies, but it is one of the few things that personal experience does not teach us.
I gathered up the baby, and the woman gave me the most beautiful smile you ever saw.
‘God bless you,’ she said, and died.
There was no time to be lost. The baby immediately became a kind of talisman as its mother had predicted. Wherever I went with the child, I seemed to prosper. We hitched a lift on a passing lorry. That in itself, to stop and help a walking refugee, was unheard of, but there it was.
‘I thought I’d stop, mate,’ said the driver, a little, wizened fellow in his fifties, ‘seeing as you had a baby with you.’
‘Thank you very much,’ I told him. It’s good to know in this troubled time that someone has a kind heart. You’re a good man. I hope you find what you want when you get out of this.’
‘This is my wife Ilse. She was the one who spotted you.’
He indicated the sad-faced, younger woman who sat next to him. She smiled at me and the baby.
‘We lost ours,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘What terrible times!’
Babies had been dying like flies - no, no, not like flies, since flies were thriving in Berlin - like our soldiers on the Russian front, but it was the same problem. Too little food, too little medicine, too few doctors.
‘Where’d you get the truck?’ I asked him. ‘They’re like hen’s teeth.’
‘I just finished a job, medical supplies, when my boss says turn round and get out. I put my family in the back and we hoofed it. We’re making for the American army ‘cos they have more food than anyone else.’
‘Good plan,’ I said.
And in due course I found myself being interviewed by an over-worked American army captain who wanted to know all about me before sending me on to someone else. I was overcome with sudden rage that it had come to this, a rage I was careful to dissemble to the captain, but I cast about in my mind to find something, someone, anything - life itself - from which I could exact compensation. It gets to you in moments like this. Not a quick solution, you understand; it did not appeal to my academic instincts. No, something more like a project that I could still pursue many years from now, its heat not dissipated by time but growing quietly from within like silage, or cancer. A project to make up, in its small way, for everything I had lost.
The baby started crying. The idea that had crossed my mind when I was tending the woman on the road now came back to me. Yes, that might to very well; very well indeed.
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