Jedem das Seine.
He had hunger for breakfast every morning. His shoes were made of hunger. Hunger was his alarm clock and his only friend. Hunger was his skin. Soon it became his name. Though it had only been a few years, he couldn't allow himself to remember the before time, when there was family, and community, and hope. The calendar was broken. There was only now, and now was only hunger, fear, and survival.
Another disconnected morning, not tied to yesterday or tomorrow, began, with the pounding on the door by guards, made of shadows and steel, as they shouted "Raus. Raus."
Hunger was already awake, no need to dress, as he slept in the same gray-on-gray striped uniform he spent his days in. Bernard Spitzer scurried about, trying to organize all the prisoners and herd them off to a breakfast consisting of a thin soup that tasted of rotten turnip and bad water, before the day's work began. Spitzer, a small cockroach of a man, moved in quick bursts of motion followed by a quivering stillness. As the liaison between the Jewish prisoners and the officers who ran the camp, he was a little better fed than the rest, and never did any hard labor. Hunger hated him.
Hatred hadn't always come naturally to Hunger. He'd been a studious and thoughtful boy, excelling in math, at the center of his cadre of friends. His father, a shopkeeper in Lodz, hoped he would be an engineer someday (The irony of his being a forced laborer constructing buildings, instead of starting his studies in Engineering at the university, was not lost on Hunger). He followed the international news religiously, and understood the threat of looming war, even at the age of 13. He vividly remembered that 1939 morning, sitting in their well-appointed family flat, adoring his sister Leja, as she sat at the piano, practicing pieces from Die Zauberflote, when he heard planes flying low, overhead. Leja was 19 years old, with a distracted sort of beauty; her piano playing had attracted the interest of the National Symphony. Outside the window, he saw Old Pawelek, his tattered Polish Cavalry jacket fluttering wildly, (except one pocket, weighed down by a half-flask of vodka), run out into the streets, shouting, "It's our boys, it's our boys." That was when the bombs began to fall.
Even when they ran from Lodz to rural Dzialoszyce and the home of cousins, to escape the ghetto, he wasn't yet hateful. Then selection came to the small towns. The blur of motion and fear, which began with Nazi troops rolling into the village in transport trucks, didn't end until he was standing in a field with a few hundred others who had been rounded up that morning. He didn't see his father, or his cousins anywhere, and wondered where they had been taken to. He stood there, 15 years old, huddled between his mother and Leja. He knew if he could stay with them everything would work out. Very quickly, however, soldiers appeared through the crowd, dividing them into two long lines, one of men and boys, the other the women and girls. He was pulled away, screaming for them, until he was slapped into line, under the gaping barrel of a soldier's rifle. He went quiet, and the first seed of anger was planted.
As the selection process was slow, he was able to take careful note of what he saw, how the youngest and oldest were gathered up and sent to one side of the field, and the rest sent into waiting trucks. He kept looking for anyone he knew, but couldn't seem to focus on any one face in the crowd. Suddenly, Leja came running up to him. After a breathless hug she shoved some money in his hands and whispered, "Bribe the guards, say you're sixteen, we'll be reunited soon." Then, with a quick look around her, she disappeared back into the women's line, back to their mother, back to death. Somewhere, Mozart wept.
Later, as he was loaded into the fetid maw of the transport truck, overcrowded, reeking of piss and fear, nearly smothered by the wailing of those within, he could see the crowd of old men and young boys still waiting in the field. He could make out a few he recognized from his own class at school, and was about to shout to them, when an advancing line of gray and black blocked his view. The sharp cracks, like the sound of branches snapping in a winter freeze, made him jump. He closed his eyes so as not to watch the bodies fall.
After scraping his bowl clean of gruel, and a quick splash of water over his face, he was assigned to a group finishing Ilse's zoo. Ilse Koch was the wife of the camp commandant. She would come to be known as "The Witch (or Bitch) of Buchenwald." She'd had a zoo built just outside the gate, for the amusement of the camp staff and their children. The zoo was placed in full view of the prisoners, and a child only had to turn her head to change the view from caged animals to caged people. Hunger feared her more than any guard or SS man. Her power in the camp, like her cruelty, was boundless. She was known to whip pregnant inmates with a razor-studded whip, and there were disturbing rumors as to what sort of leather the whip was made of. Hunger had seen her ride a horse through the camp looking for prisoners with interesting tattoos, whom she would then point out to the guards who would take them, never to be seen again. Hunger had heard that they were executed and skinned, and the skin was then tanned to make handbags, book covers, and lampshades, for Ilse's amusement. She also took prisoners for her twisted sex games, or so it was said, as there were no living witnesses to give details. Hunger preferred not to know, and hoped when his time came, it was not for her pleasure.
It was early fall in the beech forest surrounding Buchenwald, and the deep green of summer was speckled with orange and gold, as the group of 20 were shepherded out under the gate reading "Jedem das Seine," and into the zoo grounds by a group of guards and Spitzer. The day's work was digging, as it so often was.
"OK. Four groups of five. Hunger, get shovels from the storeroom. The guards will take you to your work sites," Spitzer said, in Yiddish. "Let's work hard and fast today, and no bullshit from any of you."
Hunger thought that the less real power a man has, the harder he wields it. Hunger switched to Polish, hoping it would be harder for the guards to understand than the Germanic Yiddish.
"Why should I struggle for these German assholes, or for you, their little lapdog?" he asked. "They don't feed me enough for hard labor, anyway."
"You should struggle, so you can survive. Life is struggle. God will provide, but you have to make the effort. If you don't dig, you get shot, and probably, I and the rest of your work crew get shot as well. Is that a good enough reason?"
"It may be worth it, if you come with me, lapdog."
Spitzer viciously slapped the back of Hunger's head. The guards moved in a step, waiting to see how this played out, amused and condescending.
"Idiot, is that what you think? My job here is to see how many of you I can bring through this hell alive. If that means smiling at the momzers I will smile. Hear me, your attitude will kill every Jew in this camp. Thank Ha Shem you are working in the sun, digging paths and foundations instead of mass graves."
"Whatever we dig, it leads to mass graves, Spitzer." Hunger walked away towards the storeroom. "You will end up in the same pile as the rest of us, perhaps a little fatter is all, just wait."
Hunger was in a crew with four others. Two were older men, from another barrack he didn't really know. They looked far too frail for this sort of work, or this sort of life, so Hunger ignored them. No point getting to know the already dead. The other two were Aaron, the closest thing Hunger had to a friend, who kept insisting that as a communist, he should be with the better kept political prisoners, instead of with the other Jews, whose religion he had long ago rejected, and a Hungarian named Pityu. The Hungarians had just arrived in camp recently, and Pityu was still muscular and handsome. It couldn't last long. They spent that day digging next to the bear pit, just outside the camp walls. In front of the pit, there was a new cage, completely enclosed, with a black bear circling endlessly, and incongruously, an eagle perched in a nest built near the top of the structure. Hunger assumed this was some obscure symbolism from the tales of the Teutonic Knights, which the Nazis seemed to love so much, and had appropriated as their own mythos. He wondered how much food it took to keep these bears fed. He was sure it was more than a soup made from rancid turnips. Hunger dug in silence, listening to Aaron and Pityu, trying not to think of food, trying not to think of hatred, only to feel the steady rhythm of digging in the autumn sun. No before and no after. Aaron was extolling the virtues of communism to Pityu, how a stateless and race-less society would eliminate the possibility of such atrocities in the future, while Pityu was extolling the virtues of different kinds of women to Aaron. It was more like two monologues running in parallel than a real conversation.
"There will be no difference between a Jew and Czech, a German and a Serb. No master race or chosen people."
"The Czech women swoon for poetry, and slow languorous lovemaking. The Slovaks have dark hair and dark eyes, like coals after the fire has died down."
"....no one will want or hunger...."
"....Austrians dance like making love, Hungarians make love like it's a dance...."
Hunger's head pulled up as a new sound cut through the drone of conversation. Horse's hooves. Ilse Koch came galloping into view, eyes afire as she scattered workers from her path. As she approached their group four heads dropped, eyes to the dirt. Only Pityu met her gaze. Hunger didn't know if all his talk of women had deprived him of his senses or he was just too new to camp life to know any better. Aaron tried pulling at his arm and hissing a warning, but it was too late. With one sharp motion she smacked across Pityu's face with her riding crop. The two old men started muttering prayers softly below their breath.
"You," she said to one guard, "drag this insolent Jew to my rooms."
"No," slipped from Aaron's lips before he could stop himself. She glared at him.
"Gather these other scum here, and shut those two up."
Quickly all 19 were herded together in front of the bear's cage.
"Now you will see the futility of praying to your degenerate god. I want you to watch very carefully, and never forget this moment, in what remains of your pitiful lives. Be thankful we are generous enough to let you live and work for the glory of the Reich." She pointed to Aaron. "Throw him in."
Two guards quickly grabbed him, and a third clubbed him in the back of the head to stop his struggling. They dragged him to the cage.
"Frau Koch...." started Spitzer.
"Do you wish to join him?"
Spitzer skittered back in silence.
"Force them to watch. If any look away shoot them. Aim for their heads. Try not to ruin their skin."
The bear rumbled across the cage like a black blur, with a flash of claw and tooth. His roar could not drown out the scream ripped from Aaron. In a shockingly quick time, it was over. The bear was contentedly curled over his prize in the comer, and the eagle dropped down to pick the remains dean. Someone was well fed in the camp that day. Hunger still thought Aaron had probably suffered a more benign fate than awaited Pityu, whom he never saw again. With a bark and a shove from the shadow and steel, they all went back to their digging.
There were other kinds of moments. Rarely. One day while slaving in Weimar, building a munitions plant (labor and death being Buchenwald s primary products), a Polish girl, a political prisoner, snuck Hunger's work crew an iron pail filled with boiled potatoes. It was near the end of the war. Hunger figured he would have already turned 18, had time still existed; one could set a watch to the Allies' bombing runs. Hunger watched the Polish gift walk away. Her white dress swaying around her hips with a delicate rustle, the animal grace of muscles moving, the quick smile and spark of eye. The simple pleasure of a woman's motions was almost alien to him. He sat, back to the wall in the afternoon sun, eating potatoes as bombs fell all around him, leveling the German city. That was a good day.
Another head count. Another bowl of rotten soup. Another hungry day. When prisoners died, Hunger was usually able to completely excise them from his mind, as if they never existed; it was a near-autonomous response. There was no other way to survive the mounting count intact. But yesterday had been different. Aaron had been different.
He was sent to expand the latrines in the P.O.W. area of the camp. There had been a growing influx of Soviet soldiers, and it was taxing the camp's resources. He marveled at how much cleaner the grounds were, how much better kept the barracks, and most of all, how much better fed these prisoners looked. They did not seem decimated by typhus and TB, as if they weren't just on the other side of a barbed wire fence from Hunger's world. He was part of a large crew, mostly Gypsies, most of whom he didn't know at all. It didn't matter; all he could see, eyes open or closed, was Aaron, the bear, and the eagle. Every meaty shovel hit in the dirt sounded like the grumble of the bear. Every time the dirt flew to the pile, it flew on eagle's wings. The stench of death and shit enrobed him. It went like that for empty hours: chunk--bear, swish--eagle, chunk--bear, swish--eagle. It consumed Hunger so darkly that it took him a moment to register the siren howling across the yard.
There. Smoke. Could it be the crematoria, or the medical labs? Hunger almost ran in the same direction as everyone else. Then it dawned on him--everyone else was running in the same direction. He didn't realize he'd come to a decision until he was already skirting the side fence along the last line of barracks. There were still guards moving against the red-tinged sky. He needed a few minutes to be sure the fire had caught everyone's attention. He ducked into a barrack.
It was dark inside, but it felt empty. How much time did he have? Hunger looked around. There were real beds in here. He almost broke down and cried seeing them; too much of what he had locked away rushed in at the sight of pillows and feather beds. He knew he couldn't give in to them. Shaking off the vertigo, he noticed a Russian officer's coat, slung on the end of a bed. Just the thing, it would keep him warm, and cover his prisoner's stripes. As he lifted it from the mattress there was a click loud enough to be heard over the deafening lub-dub in his chest. He couldn't make out the figure silhouetted against the dusk-lit doorway, but he was big. He froze in terror. The man stepped in and closed the door. In the sudden gloom Hunger could see he wasn't armed, and it dawned on him that this was a prisoner, too. A Russian.
The Russian jumped, his eyes were barely adjusting to the dim light.
"Pozhaluista?" It was the only word in Russian Hunger knew and he hoped it would be enough. The Russian started to speak, and moved towards Hunger, but Hunger interrupted.
The Russian took a long look at him, horrified by Hunger's shrunken desperation. He gave a slow nod, and gestured to the door with his head, as if to tell Hunger to hurry. Hunger grabbed the coat and started to run, but the Russian switched to heavily accented German.
"Halt." Hunger turned. "Wait. Here. Take." He reached into a footlocker and handed Hunger a slab of bread and a chunk of hard cheese. "Now. Go." Hunger went.
The sun had already set. He didn't have much time; order was never far from re-asserting itself in a German camp. He hurried out the main gate. "Jedem das Seine"--"to each his due." It was almost laughable. He started down the road.
Almost immediately he saw the swinging cones of flashlights a few hundred meters away. They couldn't be looking for him yet. Maybe one of the young Roma from the work-crew had had the same idea he'd had. He ducked into the zoo. The animal smells and sounds brought yesterday's events back into focus, and Hunger swooned for a moment. He needed to hide. The storeroom where the shovels were. He didn't think they kept it locked--why bother? He scrambled there as quickly as he dared. It was open. He let himself in, closed the door, and tamed the lock. The dark dosed in immediately. Shit. How long to wait? He had plenty of time before sunrise, but how long until they knew he was missing? He wished he knew what they were looking for; then he could guess how long they'd be at it. He slid down the wall and tried not to eat the bread and cheese too quickly.
Time passed, but in the dark it was hard to say how much. Less than he imagined, he would guess. He couldn't tell if he heard people searching or just animal noises. Fear was doing funny things to his perceptions. He couldn't wait much longer.
He felt a momentary pang of guilt when he was relieved by the sound of a rifle and shouting in the distance. He told himself if he ever prayed again, he would pray for the unknown Gypsy. And then came the pounding on the door. First hands, then rifle butts. They were shouting for him to come out, but he saw no reason to make this easy for them. He heard a guard run toward the camp headquarters, presumably to get the key. He had a few minutes of life left.
He jumped at the crack of the lock, and the door swung open. Two guards raised their rifles and took aim. With a shout that turned the guard's heads, in scurried Spitzer.
"You complete idiot, schmuck, what are you trying to do get us all killed?" Spitzer yelled, as he stepped in front of the guns and grabbed Hunger by his collar. "Every Jew in this camp will be on your head, if you don't change the way you act, you little pisher, you putz." He turned to the guards, as he pulled Hunger out of the storeroom, into the night air. He started slapping Hunger. "He will be severely punished, I promise you. C'mon you little momzer, no food for you tonight, and nothing tomorrow morning either. I should beat you now, to save the rest of us, later." He didn't stop his harangue or the hitting until they were far out of earshot, safely back at the barracks.
Many years later and many miles away, after time had resumed, and his name was no longer Hunger, but Father, he said, "The first thing was deciding you wanted to survive. Without that, you didn't have a chance. But that alone was not enough. Once you had decided, the rest was luck."
MATTHEW HUPERT is a multimedia artist, poet, and author. As a 1st generation American and the son of holocaust survivors, his work is strongly informed and shaped by the mores, philosophy, and radicalism of Jewish culture, reflecting the semi-outsider status of immigrants in general, and Jewish immigrants specifically. His work has appeared in several journals and anthologies, and he is a regular feature in the spoken word performance community in New York, as well as elsewhere.