The three men in grey SS uniforms stood in silence on top of a flak tower at sunset and watched their city burn. The uncontrolled fire produced a raging glow, allowing them to breathe in their beloved Berlin one last time.
Four months earlier, the streets were as orderly as the Nazi war machine—synchronized and disciplined. The buildings had stood tall and reflected white, guarded by a horde of golden eagles. Now soot stained everything in the city, and men and women scattered like rats in search of food and shelter. Bricks, rubble and bodies lay strewn across the city. The buildings were mere shells. Children carried rifles and women uglied themselves with ash to appear less desirable to the inevitable Soviet invaders.
The three officers were decorated with shining medals and red Swastika armbands. They’d been underground for weeks. None could find the words to describe the destruction of their capital. A week prior had been Hitler’s birthday, and the Red Army offered a full day of bombardment as a gift. Hitler was still cooped up in his bunker as the Soviets continued their march to the heart of the crumbling Nazi empire.
The men excused the anti-aircraft crew, demanding to be alone. They watched a commotion below as a man threw a woman to the ground and ran off with her sack of rations, scurrying off into a maze of debris. Sprawled out in slag, the woman screamed for help. No one came to her aid. She sobbed as flakes of fire swirled around her.
The tallest wore the uniform of Oberstgruppenführer. FullGeneral. A position held by only four others in the German armed forces. A position he had just earned when the siege of Berlin began weeks ago. Gen. Erich Von Laursen had led the Nazi invasion into the Soviet Union four years earlier, cutting through the Red Army and marching straight to Leningrad. He had initiated the deadly siege that lasted for nearly three years and starved millions. He considered it one of his finest achievements. He was being groomed by Reinhard Heydrich,before his assassination, and later was known to have Adolf Eichmann’s ear in regard to the management of the concentration camp facilities. He was hailed by the Nazi Party to be the savior of Berlinover the past few months, but Berlin was ready to be no more.
Every valiant soldier should know when it is time to take off his armor, Von Laursen’s father once told him. Within days, the war would be lost. Von Laursen removed his Swastika armband and cast it over the side of the tower, shaking his head in disbelief. He didn’t bother to watch where it fell. He lifted off his hat, tossed it to the ground, and began unbuttoning his shirt. He knew it would be the last time he would wear the only uniform that mattered.
Von Laursen’s fingers traced over the scar above his right eye that rippled down to his neck, a reminder that bombs from the sky can cripple an army that focused only on the offensive and neglected anti-air defense. There were never enough flak towers in the German production line to halt the Allied bombardments. Instead, tanks were made that couldn’t maneuver around all the craters with machine guns that dead soldiers can no longer carry.
He glanced over at Brandenburg Gate, perhaps the only structure not completely demolished by the bombardment. The nearly 100-foot structure stood intact and unaffected. On top sat the quadriga, a bronzed chariot pulled by four steeds, ridden by a goddess Victoria, parading an Iron Cross spear. The gate was constructed nearly 300 years earlier, the last standing relic of German pride.
“Look at her. Unfazed,” Von Laursen said. “The Soviets can’t knock her down.”
A portly bald man cleaned his spectacles and grinned at her magnificence. “Napoleon passed through her. She rose up and kicked him out too.”
“Quite right, Roderick. Quite Right.”
Dr. Roderick Heimzel, a possessor of a doctoral degree in physics and aeronautical engineering, never felt comfortable on a battlefield. He muttered “Russian slime” as he watched his city burn.
Master Sergeant Victor Priebenholt said nothing as he stood with his arms crossed behind his back, disciplined, puffing on his pipe and focusing on the destroyed Reichstag. The general’s bodyguard, he shadowed his every move the past two years. His typically slicked hair was knotted and tangled because he had lost his comb weeks ago.
“I heard our Führer strategizing a counter attack. Is thereany chance?”asked Roderick.
“And the Japanese?”
“They’ll keep fighting, I suppose. They served their purpose. Their alliance means nothing to us now. Leave tomorrow and tell no one of your plans. Those boys have been instructed to guard the city and shoot deserters,” Von Laursen said, pointing below at the Hitler Youth deputized to Volkssturmmilitia.
The two men nodded.
“Bombs and bullets cannot stop the true order of this world. The vaults will be opened. This war is far from over.”
“We are both very honored to be selected to assist the Blood Reich with this mission, General. Der Führer will throw petals at your feet the next time we march into Nuremberg,” said Roderick.
Victor sneered at his counterpart, saying nothing. Roderick looked away.
“Apologies, general. The sergeant does not share in our optimism. I have full confidence in the Blood Reich’s plan leading the Party to victory.”
“That’s because your fingernails are too clean,” said Victor, unbothered by the chastising.
“Mine are just as dirty as yours,” countered Roderick.
“From a detention center in your labs. Not from a battlefield,” Victor said as he pounded out his pipe. “You’re so smart that you’re too stupid to realize the realities of war.”
“Never rule out the military mind of Der Führer,” countered Roderick. “I heard him strategizing with his counsel earlier…”
“I’m afraid our Führer aims to reinforce with army units that no longer exist,” said Victor. “Our great leader’s sanity is questionable.”
“How dare you insult Der Führer! He will have your head. Now I know why the soldiers once called you The Guard WhoWept behind your back. You whimper like a woman and accept defeat!”
Victor inhaled the black fumes of Berlin without a gasp. He bit slightly on his pipe. “A foolish rumor that costs insubordinate German soldiers their lives.”
“You insult the general and his great army!” yelled Roderick.
“Sergeant Priebenholt has saved our lives more than we can count,” insertedVon Laursen. “There is no need to censor his tongue or question his ferocity. And, he is unfortunately correct. Hitler’s armies are gone.”
The general took off his coat and tossed it to the ground. He tossed the boots over the side. He put on an old sweatshirt he took off a civilian corpse and shoes that were two sizes too small.
“Now, did your fathers ever tell you the tale of Ragnarok when you were children?” Von Laursen asked as he stared at the sobbing woman, still sprawled in the street.
“Vaguely,” answered Victor. “Too many years ago to forget the meaning.”
“The old gods of Valhalla devised a plan to rid themselves of the terrors of the world. Thor, Odin and the rest of the powerful gods hunted out these evils, and engaged in a massive war that shook the heavens. Every last monster was to be slain. Destruction then rebirth, so mankind could refresh itself.”
“The war between the gods and their enemies,” said Roderick. “Ragnarok was to be the world’s final battle—a reckoning for those not fit to rule the earth.”
The general spat over the side of the flak tower into the darkness. “Sometimes even the gods have to get their hands bloody,and destroy their own kingdoms,to make mankind remember their divinity.”
“We will destroy it all to see it rebuilt in Der Führer’s image,” chimed Roderick.
Victor shook his head and just smoked his pipe.
Von Laursen broke his gaze from the woman and looked at Victor.
“Take a last look at her. Our Berlin. She that once was will be again,” said the general. “You have your orders. Now, you men get back to the bunker.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Roderick, cleaning his spectacles once again. “Best get going, General Von Laursen. The Soviet shelling can begin any moment.”
The general, now dressed as a civilian, gave his final Nazi salute. The men returned the gesture.
“Best of luck to you, sir,” said Roderick as he opened the hatch door and waddled down the ladder.
Von Laursen stopped Victor with a hand on his shoulder and gestured for him to delay.
“I feel your confidence is shaken, Sergeant Priebenholt. Trust in the Party’s plan. The Blood Reich is counting on you.”
Victor began to voice concern, but was immediately cut off.
“I know it isdifficult, but you are the only one capable of completing the mission, Victor. I know you believe it to be a deplorable one.”
“I don’t feel it is deplorable, sir. Overwhelming, rather.”
“It is best for the Party. The fearless Victor Priebenholt has never let the Party down before, nor will he begin now.”
“What you must do tonight. What you must do when the Vaults are opened. It is a high honor,” the general said, motioning for him to move to the ladder. “You must make certain Operation Faith Shield is operational.”
“Understood, sir. It’s been an honor serving you,” said Victor. He put his pipe in his pocket and gave the general a small bow of respect.
“See you in twenty years when we make the heavens shake,” said Von Laursen.
“Who says the gods will allow us to live that long?” answered Victor, beginning his descent down the ladder.
“Who says the gods can stop us?”
Although the general was certain he heard him, Victor did not respond and disappeared into the blackness of the hatch.
Gen. Erich Von Laursen stayed atop the tower, inhaling the smells and sights of his capital. He glanced at his general’s patch on his coat collar, now on the ground. Three bars. It is what he had always desired, yet it was being taken from him too soon. He craved to take it with him. Yet he knew if the Allies found him with it, his escape would be compromised. He ripped the patch off regardless and stuck it in his shoe. Von Laursen picked up his cap, dusted it, and stared at. He placed it under his arm with pride before he sat it on top of the wall ledge.
The Soviets would destroy the city any day now.
He looked at his last Berlin sun, barely visible behind the fading sky. He pounded his fist into the ledge. The red and orange fire of the sky gleamed off the chariot on top of Brandenburg Gate, emitting its golden brilliance.
Thomas Braddock chose the bar stool next to the brunette,in the gold wing-laced cover up,at the cabana. While the dress could barely allow him to see her polka dot print top, Braddock was able to admire her long, glistening legs from across the pool at the Pierre Marquise Hotel. He tossed a hard cover book ,and his Persol Ratti sunglasses, on the bar and smiled at her as he took a seat.
“Two days in a row, I see. Are you following me, Mr. Bradley? It was Bradley, right? She was casually flipping through My 12 Years With JFKas she swirled a coconut cream margarita.
“Braddock actually, but you can call me Thomas,” he responded as he tried to get the bartender’s attention but to no avail. “And it looks like you’re almost empty, Lana.”
“Not really,” she said, smiling back. Lana wrapped her blue fingernails around the straw and took a deep, refreshing drink. “But you don’t look like a margarita man. And fortunately for you, I know the bartender.”
“Do I have competition?” Braddock joked.
“Perhaps, Thomas. Perhaps you just might.”
Typically sporting around Washington D.C. in his red, rusty brown leather overcoat over his mod grey suit,and wingtip oxfords, Braddock had settled just fine into his faded orange bathing suit and vintage sandals.
The Acapulco breeze was perfect. He wished more Nazis went into hiding there. The rains fell mostly in the summer, which made the fall climate in Mexico one to be desired. Travel usually irritated Braddock because he had done it his entire life. Argentina was too damn hot. England too damn bitter. Germany’s weather was usually unpredictable. Yet there was the night life of Paris. And the women of Brazil. How he missed that month in Brazil.
Lana smiled again and motioned to the bartender. The 20-something nodded and gestured that he would be there in a moment. Impressed, Braddock nodded.
“What makes you so popular here?” Braddock asked.
“Nothing but sitting here for four straight days, I suppose. I like sitting by the bar. You can avoid all those creeps by the pool,” she teased. “Weren’t you by the pool?”
He laughed. “Was I too forward yesterday?”
“Of course not. Although I doubt you’re rarely a perfect gentleman, Thomas Braddock,” Lana said. “Besides, I just like the stories at the bar. Charlie’s father Dominic has a million, and he’s owned this place forever.”
She pointed to the older bartender, the one who hadn’t moved in four hours. He was holding court with a crowd of ten or so hanging on his every word. Acapulco had been a destination hot-spot for the elite since the 1950s. Everyone from Frank and Dean to Elvis vacationed there. And Dominic had apparently met them all. Yesterday, Braddock overheard the sixty year-old talk about the time he made martinis for the Rat Pack at 7 a.m., and how Dominic asked Dean if this was breakfast or a nightcap. Braddock missed Dean’s retort and the punch line to the story. The current tale involved Liz Taylor’s wedding to Broadway producer Michael Todd.
Braddock pointed to the picture of JFK on the front of her book. “A reader, I see. You know, he used to vacation here himself, I believe. I’m sure Dominic has a story about him too.”
“I’m sure he does,” she said. “And what about you, Mr. Braddock. Are you a reader?”
“Oh yes. You sort of have to be in my business.”
“And what business is that?”
Braddock slid the folder off of his book and handed it to Lana. He spun the book around and tapped at the back picture. “I’m somewhat of a writer actually.”
Lana looked suspiciously at the back cover and compared the picture of the author to the man in front of her. He cleared his throat ceremoniously and then laughed.
“Now what business is lucky enough to have you writing about them?” she asked as she looked at the size of the book.
“Public relations, huh? You seem suave and strategic enough to pull that off, I bet.”
Braddock laughed but corrected her. “Not public relations. Personnel recovery.”
Lana’s face turned confused as her blue fingernails tapped on the author’s bio.
“Thomas Braddock is considered one of the premiere authorities on the topic of World War II and the Third Reich, and in particular, at-large Nazi war criminals. He is a best-sellingauthor and collegiate lecturer.”
Lana drew the book back from her gaze. “Extremely impressive, Mr. Braddock. And here I thought you were an advertising sleaze enjoying his time away from his wife. Now I see you are an educated…um…”
“Sleaze? I’ve been called worse. And I don’t have a wife anymore. Thankfully, you know?”
She smiled and flipped the book around and read the title slowly with confusion.
“Inside the Crimson Reich: Exposing The Rat Lines. Sounds intriguing, I guess.”
Braddock shrugged. “If you’re into that sort of thing.”
She spun the book back around and read the back. “Follow the capture of Denis Kruger, one of the SS’s most vicious concentration camp guards by one of America’s top Nazi hunters.” She tapped her fingernails on the bar. “Sounds like you have a very creative imagination, Tom.”
She handed the book back. “You know, this is one of the more creative pick-uplines I’ve heard in a while.”
Braddock couldn’t help but grin. Charlie approached when his father’s story concluded and the laughter died down.
“Charlie, this is Mr. Braddock. My new friend.”
“So, are you the reason why I’ve been so unsuccessful with Ms. Lana?” Charlie asked as he approached the couple. “What’s your drink?”
“No, she’s just a hard catch apparently, and a sucker for a good story. How about something local. Surprise me.”
Braddock turned to Lana. “And no, Lana, it’s far from fiction. This story is frighteningly real.”
“Really? You know, you should work for the government.”
Braddock’s face nearly soured but he recovered quickly with a laugh. “Now please, don’t insult me! Yet I do actually I help out the WCPU often.”
“The WCPU?” she asked.
“The War Crimes Processing Unit. It was formed after the war by the government. Tracking down Nazis. Returning old antiquities. All that fun stuff.”
“Can you believe that Charlie? Our new friend here is a bounty hunter,” she teased as she rubbed Braddock’s arm.
“No, I don’t like that term. I don’t chase men for money. I don’t even carry a gun.”
“Then you are a rarity, my friend. We’re all interested in money. You must have inherited a ton of it,” Charlie said as he began mixing a drink, uninterested in Braddock’s background. “Be careful of this one over here, Lana.”
“I’m trying,” she said. “I’m still waiting for some man to get me away from this tourist attraction and take me to find some local cuisine.”
“You may already have,” Braddock said as he winked at her. He took a sip of the drink and nodded in approval at Charlie. “This drink. This reminds me of a Pisco Sour in Argentina? Have you ever been to Argentina?”
“I can’t say I have,” he said as he wiped the bar.
“Argentina is a fascinating place. The reason I bring it up is because I was just there last year. That’s where a lot of the contents of this book took place. It led to the capture of Denis Kruger. A very dangerous man in the Schutzstaffel.”
“The what?” Charlie said, uninterested.
“Sounds like a funny German car,” Lana laughed. “What is it?”
“No joking manner, Lana, is what it is,” Braddock said as he grabbed her hand softly. “The SS were Hitler’s personal bodyguards and considered elite soldiers. They were not under command of the German national army.”
Charlie nodded his head to someone as he went to make a drink. “Wait,” Thomas said as he gripped Charlie’s wrist with his other hand. “Call your father over. He likes stories. He’ll want to hear this one.”
Charlie, surprised by the tight grip, eyeballed Braddock. Braddock eye balled him back. “And in regard to your statement before, I’m positive I inherited a lot less than you have.”
Braddock released his grip as Charlie called for his father. Dominic was still in great shape. His head-to-toe sunburn actually highlighted his physique. He walked over and greeted his patrons with a handshake.
“I hear a story being told over here. And this is just the bar for it. We love stories here. Hell, that’s how we survive. That and men like you who think you have a chance with a woman like this,” Dominic said, laughing with Lana as he took her hand and kissed it.
“Survive. Such an interesting word to choose,” said Braddock.
“Mr. Braddock here works for the United States government,” said Charlie.
“Is that right? I’ve never been to the States. Been stuck down here since my dad brought me here in the 1920s.”
“Well, I don’t work for the government, but I do work with them on occasion. And I’m just giving the crowd a little history lesson,” said Braddock as he finished his drink. “This is wonderful, by the way. Please, another. Anyway as I was telling Lana and your son about the SS, and how it displaced Jews from their homes, stole assets, enslaved them for labor and eventually exterminated them, along with others, including Russians and Poles.”
Lana and Charlie hung on Braddock’s words, yet he stared at Dominic, who did not seem to be overly interested in the story.
“Sounds horrible. And this man was one of those?” asked Lana.
“He held a rank similar to a squad leader in the SS. He was an officer at Buchenwald, one of the first Nazi concentration camps. Nearly 60,000 died at that camp.”
Lana, Charlie and a few others groaned at the death total. Some shifted and took a long inhale. Dominic remained silent and unmoved. Just staring. The same way Denis Kruger did when Braddock testified in front of him a year ago. Kruger was a ninety-three year-old decomposing body that used an oxygen mask to breath in that courtroom. His authority was gone. His strength had vanished. His temper seemed tranquil. But he still had the stare, and he fixed it on Braddock as he took deep, long inhales from the air mask.
Dominic had a similar stare.
“After the war, there was a network of fascist sympathizers that led Nazis through Europe into South America and the U.S. We originally thought his route was Italy but it was actually through Spain.”
“It’s a shame what men are forced to endure during war. They draft you, and never tell you what you really have to do,” a patron next to Lana commented.
“Before 1943, service in the SS was voluntary,” countered Braddock with a stare at Dominick. “As were the atrocities that men like him committed.”
“I’ve read about those camps. Frightening places. Used for murder,” Lana said.
“Well, this was more of a labor camp. A labor camp where thousands dropped dead from exhaustion and hunger, or were executed when they no longer served a purpose. Denis Krueger was identified by a dozen survivors as the man who organized hangings and crucifixions in the area behind the camp that later became known as the ‘singing forest,’ due to the screams of the victims.”
“My lord, Mr. Braddock. It’s 1 p.m. and you are surrounded by beautiful women on an Acapulco beach,” interrupted Charlie, who slammed the drink in front of Braddock. “We don’t tell stories like that here. Take it elsewhere.”
Braddock picked up his drink, took a sip, and let his audience know he enjoyed it. They began to go back to their own conversations.
“Charlie, your father may be curious to find out how it ends. You see, it seems Kruger had flown to Argentina quite often to visit a doctor who was, as we’ll say, Nazi friendly. He served as a personal physician to these men who couldn’t really go elsewhere for treatment from battle wounds. When we interrogated the doctor, he gave us a few other names. You see, they always give me a few names. Because when they do, I keep them in my country for as long as possible. For when they don’t, I turn them over to the Jews, who put them on trial in Israel. Sometimes, I turn them over to the Russians. I’m not quite sure what they do with them.”
“OK. I think we’ve had enough for one afternoon,” said Charlie. “Lana, I told you, be careful of the men down here…”
Braddock pulled a cigarette out from his shirt pocket. “If no one minds,” he said as he lit a match. “Well Charlie, one of the stories the doctor told me about wasthe grandson of a German cavalry general. He was a lieutenant, I believe. Trust me.Dad will want to hear it. Wait. He already knows this one.”
Dominic didn’t answer. His eyes didn’t waiver. His hands began to scurry out of Braddock’s sight yet found nothing useful.
“Still keep one under the bar, Herr Eckert? Or did you think you wouldn’t need a pistol after all these years?”
The Nazi shook his head.
“Not here. Not in front of my son. I’ll go anywhere you want to go. Please. A special arrangement.”
Braddock understood the plea. His father had made a similar one fifteen years ago when the FBI arrested him at their Westchester, New York home.
Don’t watch, son. Please don’t watch.
Yet Thomas Braddock watched, and the FBI made no special arrangements. There would be no special arrangements for engineers who sell nuclear secrets to the Soviets.
And there would be no special arrangements for Nazis.
“I can’t do that, Klaus.”
The smile on Lana’s facehad faded long ago. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. What exactly are you two talking about? Is this a story from your book?”
“Oh, I’m sorry Lana., this story hasn’t been published yet. You see, the Argentinian doctor told us abouta lieutenant who had had some shrapnel removed from his shoulder, maybe twenty years ago. That doctor helped this same lieutenant sell a painting he stole from an art dealer, Bernard Delacroix, in Paris in 1941. Apparently, Dominic often frequents Argentina. That’s where he sold the Albert Gleizes painting he stole from Delacroix in 1952.”
“Please. I beg you,” Dominic pressed.
“Lieutenant Klaus Eckert begs for forgiveness. The man who shot the mother of Bernard Delacroix in the face and ordered her mouth searched for gold teeth wants forgiveness. I wonder, what did you do with that painting for eleven years? Where are the other ones?”
“What do you want from me?”
“It’s time for you to come with me, Klaus. Time for you to share some stories with me. Or you know the alternative.”
“Since when does the American government work with the Soviets?”
“I’m not government. And I never said Soviets. I deal with Russians. Old money. Those who never forgave the Germans for 30 million dead comrades.”
“And if I am who you say I am, where is your gun? Why not read me my rights?”
“I don’t carry a gun. And who in the hell says you should have any rights after what you’ve done?”
“Dad?” Charlie asked silently. Dominic ignored him.
“A drink first, then,” he said. “But first, the boy goes away.”
Dominic put four shot glasses on the bar. He told Charlie to fetch him more ice, for the beers need to be kept cold, and the sun was not going to set for at least another six hours.
Charlie did so unwillingly. He slammed the bar’s swivel door and headed to the walk-in freezer, which was inside the hotel. Dominic waited for him to leave before he poured the tequila.
“To fathers and sons,” toasted Dominic.
“May they be able to understand each other one day in the afterlife,” said Braddock.
They clinked shot glasses. As Braddock downed the tequila, Dominic buried his hands deep in the mount of ice cubes in the freezer at his waist. He produced a weatherproof lock box that he quickly opened. His face went pale when his right hand found nothing inside.
In a fury, Braddock reached across the bar and grabbed Dominic’s thick wrist and turned it palm up. A skin deformity on his wrist was on display to everyone who was watching.
“Did I mention, Lana, that for years in Argentina they have been experimenting with tattoo removal? That doctor I was telling you about. It was one of his specialties,” Braddock said as he traced the scarring with a cigarette. “You see this right here. This used to be a tattoo. Nothing fancy. Not like the movies tell you. No skulls or swastikas. Instead, they would get a tattoo of their blood type on their arm in case they were wounded. A wise battlefield strategy that turned into a blunder for many Nazis arrested after the war. A mark that clearly our friend here had removed.”
Braddock forced his face into Dominic’s. “It’s funny how Holocaust survivors wear their tattoos as a badge of honor while you hide yours in shame. Understand that men like you cannot erase their past. It cannot be removed. It seeps into the blood and stains the soul.”
Braddock lightly let his cigarette burn Dominic’s arm. He then threw his hand back at him and sat down and made a gesture above his head. “We removed the pistol from the lock box last night. No easy way outs, Klaus.”
Five men who were observing casually around the bar brandished pistols and pointed them at Dominic. Braddock put his hand on Lana and told her not be alarmed.
“I kept my bargain. Not in front of your son. Sadly, he’ll have to suffer through the shame of the rest of it when he reads the book about your capture. That’s not on me. That’s on you.”
Dominic shoulders slumped as he was escorted away by the WCPU agents, but his eyes never left Braddock.
“See you shortly, Klaus. We have a lot to talk about. Unless you want to experience Russian winters.”
“Had enough of the dramatics, Braddock?” asked a man in a tropical shirt with a high and tight haircut. He began pointing and shouting out instructions to the arresting officerswalking next to Klaus.
“You look good in orange, Agent Dolan. Probably sweating in those cheap khakis though,” Braddock responded. “Enjoy the rest of your vacation and send everybody down at WCPU a postcard for me.”
“Be thankful we let you create these performances. Good for the dramatic angle of your books,I suppose. But one of these days, you’re going to push me too far,” Dolan said as he walked off.
“And one of these days, you are going to do your own research.”
“Is that your friend?” asked Lana as she watched Dolan begin to confer with other agents.
“Heaven’s no, my sweet Lana. Agent Dolan doesn’t have friends. The government forbids any human emotion from its employees.”
Braddock checked his watch and finished his drink. Twelve hours. He had twelve hours until his plane left and took him back to Washington. He rolled his eyes at the thought. The Acapulco ocean raged a few feet from him, and he’d forever regret it if he didn’t get to sink his toes into that perfect sand.
“Now Lana, I remember you mentioning something about local cuisine. Let’s say we head out of here, grab a bite, and then spend a day under that sun.”
Wide eyed, she left her book on the bar as she grabbed his arm. “Thomas Braddock. Oh the great lengths you’ll travel to impress a woman.”
“You have no idea,” answered Braddock as he put his Persol Ratti sunglasses on,as the two strolled away, Lana’s legs still glistening under the Mexican sun.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
August 1943, Occupied Poland
Mahks Bohle and Erich Von Laursen walked the grounds of Treblinka. No executions had taken place for a week. Instead, the remaining prisoners were ordered to clear the debris from the remnants of the chaotic revolt that had damaged most of the camp.
Bohle showed Von Laursen the compound where the children of the camp had smuggled munitions and small arms in their sacks. He showed him where the first shots were fired on two mercenary Ukrainian guards. He showed him where hundreds of fleeing Jews had been killed by Germans in the machine gun turrets.
And he showed him the various points on the barb-wire fences that the prisoners had torn their flesh on. And escaped.
“How many?” said Von Laursen.
“Initial reports were 300. I’m afraid it could be as many as 600,” said Bohle. “They scattered in a hundred different directions like cockroaches.”
“Major, am I to tell Reichsführer Himmler that we don’t have an exact number?”
“My apologies, General. They burned our records office, and the officer in charge of registration was murdered during the uprising.”
Von Laursen shook his head. He touched the fence and ripped off a piece of clothing that was still dangling from the revolt. He smelled it and inhaled its stench. He did not gag nor flinch. Instead, he choked it in his fist and then threw it back against the fence.
A week earlier he’d received the telegram /TRANSPORTATION OF JEWS FROM EASTERN PROVINCES SUSPENDED/PROCESSING THROUGH RESETTLMENT CAMPS HALTED/SEEKS YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION/
He knew what it meant—Jews had escaped. Itwaswhat the Reich always dreaded. The Nazis feared information about the camp leaking out to the public. The Allies knew about the slave labor camps. But Treblinka was different. There was no work. It was simply a death camp. Very few had an extended stay. Jews arriving at Treblinka were often gassed the same day. Sometimes moments after being unloaded from the train.
“How many have you rounded up and questioned?”
“We’ve killed around fifty. They would not be taken alive, General.”
“What about them?” Von Laursen asked, pointing toward the prisoners who were knocking down the charred remains of the SS offices.
“Some did not join in the escape. Too weak I suppose. Maybe too scared. Some just put their faces in the mud and didn’t get involved. I’m told they are hoping that their loyalty will be rewarded.”
Von Laursen grunted. He was continually amazed at the Jew’s sense of false hope. “In a month this camp will be closed. They’ve damaged too much to continue. Everyone goes. No witnesses. Shut it all down. Especially that.”
He pointed to the concrete building that had served as the gas chamber. The fences that blocked the horrors from plain sight had been burnt and torn down. Nearly 800,000 had passed through the doors to the windowless concrete barracks. Those who somehow survived the seven minutes of torture would be shot if they were lucky. The rest were left to rot in the sun. Some had been buried alive. The Allies must not be allowed to know of its existence.
Von Laursen observed a guard circling the compound, observing it. Studying it.
“That man over there, Major Bohle. Who is he? Why has he wandered from his post?”
“That is Sgt. Priebenholt, sir. He is not on duty today. Yet he always walks the grounds regardless. He is the man who saved my life,” said Bohle. “And not the first time either.”
Von Laursen stared at the sergeant, who was scanning the chamber. Never stopping. Just looking. Von Laursen had heard the name many times and had even sent orders to him, yet had never met the man.
“Splendid,” Von Laursen finally said. “The status of our guards?”
“The Jews killed forty Germans. Wounded another thirty, sir.”
Von Laursen turned and headed back towards the medical wing. It was pristine and untouched.
“You did a fine job of protecting our research, Major Bohle. I spoke with Dr. Heimzel upon arrival. He informed me that your guards followed your emergency procedures perfectly. You made it clear that protecting that specific compound was of the utmost importance.”
“Thank you, General.”
“Reichsführer Himmler has instructed me to inform you that you are to be commended for quelling the rebellion. I’m sure it will not take long before you recapture the prisoners hiding in the woods with their pistols and stones.”
“Again, thank you, General. And no, it will not take long. I have already commissioned local men to assist in their recapture.”
“Excellent,” said Von Laursen, staring back at the figure inspecting the gas chamber. “Arrange for the sergeant to meet me in the medical wing after dinner. I wish to meet him.”
“Yes, sir. Heil Hitler!”
Sgt. Victor Priebenholt stood at attention in the makeshift office created for the general. Unaware why he had been summoned, he assumed he would take the blame for the escape as one of the middle ranking guards of the camp. Stagl and Bohle were experienced veterans with connections. Victor had no political ties, and therefore, no allies.
Someone would have to pay for the camp’s failure. Someone always did.
He thought he would be more worried. Instead, all he could concentrate on was the gas chamber. He thought about the two steel doors that couldn’t be pried open by the strength of a hundred men. The water lines that were not really water lines, but exhaust fumes that choked and suffocated men, women and children. Infants as young as two or three would just be thrown in. The women would make their best efforts to catch them and squeeze them tight. Typically they weren’t their mothers. It didn’t matter to them anymore. The women wanted someone to hold. To feel loved for just one last moment. Others who suspected what was to come just wanted to embrace someone at their end.
The exhaust fumes were not as potent as the poison gases used at the other camps. Sometimes the Jews would still be alive. That’s when Victor would have to order his men to shoot those gasping for oxygen.
He hated the building. And yet his revulsion drew him to it. He was appalled yet amazed. He wondered what type of scientific mind, with all the possibilities of creation that exist, could come up with the idea for a gas chamber? An unadulterated mechanism of death.
“Sgt. Priebenholt, would you tell me your interpretation of the events that occurred on Aug. 2?”
Victor repeated everything he had already written in his report five days ago. The revolt was a chaotic free-for-all. Clearly, there was organization and ringleaders. It had started with the small children, who polished the shoes of the SS men in a small hut. In that hut was an armory. For weeks, the children had been stealing grenades and ammunition. Victor deduced that at some point they must have stolen or copied a key to the building, and the Jews entered it an hour before the revolt. The stolen small arms were then smuggled around the camp in buckets and potato sacks, and then hidden in dirt piles or the workshops.
“Did the attacks commence simultaneously?”
“Initially. The prisoners began luring SS men into the workshops and the motor factory. There, the prisoners attacked and killed them.”
“Were you aware of these actions?”
“No, sir. No one was. It took Ukrainian guards finding two Jews in an unauthorized building to bring it to light. The guards were disciplining the trespassers when a man fired his pistol, killing the guards. That’s when the prisoners started setting fire to buildings and throwing grenades. Then they rushed the fences.”
“Where were you throughout all this?”
“By chance I happened to be walking the grounds near Major Bohle’s office. I heard gunfire and ran to the front of the building. There I witnessed two men throw firebombs—bottles of alcohol set on fire—through his window. I shot both of them, killing one and wounding another. Then I rushed inside and dragged Major Bohle out.”
“What were Major Bohle’s orders?”
“He informed me to search the rest of the office for survivors, then head to the medical wing.”
“Your report stated you saved another two lives in Major Bohle’s building, is that correct?”
“And what did you find at the medical lab?”
“It was well-protected, as Major Bohle had ordered it to be guarded 24 hours a day. Several prisoners who tried to enter it were dead. Only one doctor of ours was killed. He ignored the order to stay inside the compound and was beaten to death with a shovel by a prisoner.”
“And how was the revolt suppressed?”
“Thousands tried to flee, but Major Bohle, while wounded, took control of one of the machine-gun turrets that was left abandoned by a Ukrainian guard and began to fire at the mob. This slowed down the escape and allowed other guards to do the same. There were some skirmishes outside the compoundI’m told, but I have no knowledge of their exact location or outcome, sir.”
Von Laursen said nothing. Victor sensed that he was awaiting further response. Instead he gazed at the wall in front of him, over the general’s head.
“Bohle tells me you’re a real cold heart, Priebenholt,” Von Laursen finally said, dropping formalities.
Victor fumbled for words.
“At ease, Sergeant. He speaks very highly of you. He told me you saved his life twice. He says you are a fine solider, brave in battle and afraid of nothing.”
“The highest of compliments, sir.” He looked at the general but didn’t break posture.
“He also told me you are colder than most. That your own men are scared of you. And that you killed some of your own men. We all have heard the stories about feared Sgt. Priebenholt, the cold-hearted Nazi whowould kill his own men if they did not follow the orders of the Reich.”
Thoughts of that day raced in his mind. Not of the soldiers that he killed, but of that young girl running through the field. He dreamt about her often. He even gave her a name: Delilah.
Victor snapped out of it. “They endangered the camp, sir. They were undisciplined,” he said. “I admit my actions were excessive and I accept any punishment you see fit.”
Von Laursen stood up. “At ease. I agree with your methods that day. Undisciplined soldiers must be made examples of. I assume you never had a problem with the rest of the guards, did you?”
“And you never will again, I wager.” Von Laursen opened up his desk drawer and pulled out tobacco. “I was told you enjoy a pipe. Will you smoke with me?”
Victor nodded and the two sat down and puffed away at the fine taste of
“Victor, I understand you don’t enjoy this type of duty.”
“Duty is duty. I understand that, General. But if you’re asking if I prefer life on the battlefield, then my answer is yes.”
“That’s where soldiers belong,” said Von Laursen. “I need a man like you. Fearless. Willing to perform his duty. Eager to get back on the battlefield.”
Victor puffed. He was waiting for an opportunity out of this hell hole. This could be his chance.
“Since Heydrich’s death, SS generals in the battlefield have been encouraged to have a personal bodyguard. I find it tough to trust a man I just met, but Major Bohle has endorsed you.”
“Are you headed back to the battle, General?”
“Hopefully. These camps have a limited lifespan, especially after incidents like this. There’s no need for you to be reassigned to another camp. I want you with me as my head of personal security. I’m taking the medical team with me, and you will also be in charge of those men’s lives. To make sure nothing disrupts their research.”
“An honor, sir.”
“Who would dare plot a coup against Sgt. Priebenholt, the most feared Nazi officer in the SS? The man who would kill dozens off his own men if they did not obey?”
“General, dozens is far from true.”
“No matter. Sometimes the story is better than the truth,” said Von Laursen. And with you behind me, I shall only have to worry about my enemies from the front.”
“I assure you, I’ll be back on the battlefield soon. They need me there. The war is changing. You will be by my side.”
Victor was relieved to be leaving Treblinka behind. No more railroad car unloading. No more burning pyres of bodies that would blaze for hours and stink for days. No more seeing Delilah every time his gaze wandered to the fields. She was the reason why he wept. She was the reason those soldiers mocked him. She was the reason why he murdered them.
Hopefully, she would stay behind at Treblinka.
The next morning he took one more walk around the complex, not saying a goodbye to anyone except Major Bohle. He thanked him for the recommendation, while Major Bohle thanked Victor for saving his life.
Victor wanted to examine the concrete building one more time, and strolled around it in a morbid curiosity, wondering how in the hell someone could think of building a gas chamber.
He touched the metal doors and expected them to be cold and chilling. Instead, they felt warm and angry.