Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2014, 296 pages
A white plain as far as the eye can see. Here and there, a crooked tree, a dog’s bark falling from the sky, black blotches glimpsed on the snow: frozen crows? pieces of coal? The convoy advances like a prehistoric beetle. Amid so much white, every other colour looks black. All that can be heard are the shouts of the gendarmes at the side, in their grey overcoats, their fur caps pulled low over their foreheads, the ribbons of the earflaps knotted beneath their chins. Poshli! Poshli! Bystro, bystro! Whither? Nothing is visible in the furious whirl of swishing snow, not one fence, not one house, not one chimney from which smoke might rise. Feet advance without moving. And pain advances without hurting. Here, there is nothing more to be felt, no thought, only fear. Whither? The gendarmes have raised their rifles. From time to time they shout unfamiliar words, to unclench their frozen jaws. Some kill the time whistling. And all of a sudden the outline of something begins to take shape. A squat grey apparition, like the lid of a pot. Like a hen sitting on her eggs. The closer the column comes, the deeper we sink. Those red walls, broken like rotten teeth, have breasted the blizzard: a sign reads “Berezina”. Is this mine or whatever the hell it is called Berezina? The fallen snow is two metres deep; it has blocked the entrance. The trucks cannot get through, not even with those triangular wooden ploughs at the front to uproot the snow. Yob tvoyu mat’! yell the guards and spit. Some of them piss wherever they are standing, the snow turns as yellow as roasted pumpkin when you take it from the oven, it steams, you feel a fleeting warmth. In the trucks are picks and shovels. The guards distribute them to the men; they roar something in their own language, which sounds like swearwords or a threat. Nem ertek semit, we know only that we have to clear a path for ourselves, lest we be left standing here. As it is, we only have sensation from the knees up. The stronger of the women lend a hand. If you don’t move, you die and the German is strong, he knows that Arbeit macht frei! Finally, in front of us there appears something like an entrance. The guards bang on the iron gates with their rifle butts. After a while, the creaking of boots on snow can be heard, coming from behind the gates, and the sound of keys. Then, a large bolt is drawn, as large as Hermann’s knife, the Metzger who slaughtered pigs in Gottlob, praise the Lord. We enter, stamping our feet, which we can no longer feel, and shaking off the snow. But rather than Wilkommen: yob tvoyu mat’! A canteen. You can see that long ago somebody decided to sand the tables. But he gave up. Wooden boards scored here and there with a razor, clumsy drawings made by hands that have not been taught to hold a pencil. A large cock with a gaping mouth that cries “Vera!” in capital letters. Two fat, parted thighs with a swastika in the middle. And names, countless names of women, of men, inside hearts pierced by arrows. Ya tebya lyublyu! We don’t feel like taking off our overcoats, fur hats, gloves, and nor are we able. We no longer have hands. Some women come, with tits and headscarves; each has a dangling blond pigtail the thickness of a snake. We crowd onto some narrow wooden benches. Hands inside woollen gloves with separate fingers ladle a yellow, murky liquid into mugs with chipped enamel. Next to Ottoschatzi, as if out of the blue, the skinny, swarthy man has appeared, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and suddenly, a read hand poking from a padded jacket hits him over the head with a ladle, causing his cigarette to fall in his tea. The swarthy man wanted to fling that dishwater in her face, but a Stenka Razin burst from nowhere, pointing the barrel of his gun at him, and forced him to drink every last drop of the filth in his mug and to lick up what he had spilled on the floor. Ottoschatzi watched the scene, vaguely amused. The truth is that the swarthy man got on his nerves and his repugnance for Bolsheviks would have changed to admiration on the spot if they had rid him of that interloper. After the wretch obeyed without so much as flinching, the Stenka Razin took his chemical pencil from behind his ear, moistened it on his tongue and wrote on his palm the name of the wretch, who was about to puke and had forgotten that Deutschland was über alles. Ottoschatzi turned to the man on his left, an albino as beardless as a baby’s bottom, and asked him: “What do they call the bloke that got hit?” “Schlosser Aurica.” “Echt Deutsch, nicht wahr?” The albino bared his horsey teeth and gave a choked laugh. He gave his crust of bread to Ottoschatzi, because some of his teeth were missing and he couldn’t eat it. The guards began to blow their whistles. The whole company rose to their feet. They lined up to form a column, in no particular order. The women on the left, the men on the right, like in church, and the guards, the whistles dangling around their necks, thrust them with their rifle butts down a long corridor, lit in places by dim bulbs. They were thrust towards some shower stalls. On the peeling doors were written words in letters they could not read. Alongside Stenka Razin there was a short guard wearing glasses. For an instant it crossed Ottoschatzi’s mind that they looked like Laurel and Hardy, but he didn’t laugh. Duschen! Duschen! shouted the little guard in a reedy voice. They entered ten at a time. The women through one of the doors, the men through the other. After a few seconds, there came the sound of streaming water. The ones left in the corridor were trembling from every limb. They were stamping their feet and rubbing their arms. In each stall there were three showerheads. The water was boiling. The naked bodies were barely visible through the thick steam. Three huddled under a showerhead and passed each other a bar of laundry soap as big as a brick, which smelled of glue. Another thought crossed Ottoschatzi’s mind: the showers at Auschwitz probably smelled better. Maybe because he had ended up under the same shower as Schlosser Aurica, who would have fitted in better at Auschwitz than here. And when he gave him the bar of soap, instead of putting it in his hand, he touched his huge, bumptious tool, like he had seen in Lugoj, that time the circus came to town and the fakir made the snake dance, and the snake slowly rose and swayed, and it had a large head, ganz wie der Schwanz dieses armen Teufels . But there were a few who, rather than washing, crowded together to peer through the holes made in the wooden walls with a razor, at the women in the adjacent shower stall. They grunted in pleasure. All they could make our were chunks of flesh, bellies, tits, buttocks, like in the butcher’s shop in Gottlob, when he was a child and Katineni used to send him on errands to the Metzger. Most of all they looked at the hair-covered mounds. Some black, some blond, some long and straggling down the thighs, some curly. It was like a fur coat in which they wrapped themselves up to the throat and got warm at last.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth