inspired by a true story*
In hell, there are pockets of places that are worse: more hell.
These are the places where the ashes fall so heavy you can’t see. The places where you’re close enough to smell the spilling blood. The places where you’re close enough to hear the fingernails scraping at the shower ledge. The places where the lice crawl so thick you would go to the barber yourself, bald yourself, burn yourself to get them off. The places where you think, How dare you vermin feed on what cannot feed itself?
Nowhere is there less hell. Only more. This is one of the vicious paradoxes of the living death of the camp: More ugliness is possible, but never less.
“Against what, then, do you locate more?” says the Guard, my friend who wants to kill me.
“Against more,” I say.
He laughs at me. We are in his house, which sits at the camp’s edge, just distant enough from more hell that I cannot smell the burning hair. Two pieces of bread sit on a china plate on his mantle. “My little pet,” he calls me. It is nice that he calls me this because pets can eat, pets can receive medicine, pets can receive favor, but pets generally cannot fuck. Those prisoners he calls his little loves, to them he is even more friendly.
My Guard goes to the mantle. I feel my heart rise, I am a hungry roadside animal and he will throw me a bite.
“What do you think of this?” he says.
He has picked up a palm-sized painting in a frame beside the plate. I hate the painting. An ugly house of a painting, matte and gray in a steel frame, a painting that is the color of more hell. What use art, if not escape.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. “Look at the character of the line.” He smiles. He gives me one half of one piece of bread. “Beautiful and powerful,” I add.
I chew, slowly; the bread is tasteless but for a spot of gray-green mold. He trusts my opinion because in a life before this I was a curator, I was a connoisseur of art, I was a star student of heroic realism. I showed young collectors from gallery to gallery in the showrooms of Berlin that popped up even in the sorrows between wars, I watched them go ooh and I said things to make them go ooh if they didn’t go ooh loud enough without my persuasion.
“And this one?” he says, holding up a second painting that would be a decent rococo were it not a knockoff, trash, my friend here has been conned by somebody to whom I would offer even a bit of this bread in gratitude and friendship.
“Ooh,” I say.
I look out the window. Outside smoke, barbed wire, a heap of leather shoes taken off the prisoners upon arrival. How do I preserve his questions for tomorrow or tonight without offending him. I want to save something I can do for him for later. I do not want the second piece of bread, not yet, because my youngest bunkmate died last night and this morning they replaced her with a sharp-eyed baker who sniffed out my hiding place in the wall within minutes. My bunk, now, has become more hell.
“That good?” he says, of the forgery. He is looking at me with the type of deference I don’t want him ever to become aware of, because the moment he becomes aware of it he will kill me. I know where his deference comes from. I have a secret which has made me a celebrity with my Guard. Though I have never confirmed or denied, he has good reason to suspect that I took art classes years ago with a very special celebrity, myself. I have direct knowledge of my guard’s God.
I must be very careful with this knowledge. When your protector’s God failed to gain entrance to classes that you passed with ease, you dispense your information in strategic, little chunks.
“Tell me,” he says, considering the fake. “What was the Führer’s favorite color?”
“Palette,” I say, to prolong the interval between feedings. “What was his favorite palette.”
He too is looking out the window. He is nervous. There have been rumors lately that liberation is coming, rumors that the guards are trying to march shoeless groups of us away to our deaths before liberation can come. But there have also been rumors that they want to march us to our deaths for fun, another form of more-hell, blisters that turn water to blood as surely as Jesus turned water to wine. There have been rumors that the rumors of liberation are just some new prisoner’s yellow-aching hope. The one thing here that is impossible to murder.
Me, I’ve killed my hope for a better existence. That is why I can sit with the Guard and chat about not-art here, in the ugliest place in the world. This is what life is, now, and I will cling to this nothing with all my heart. I will not give them the satisfaction of throwing myself too soon into the ovens. What I lack in hope I make up for in spite. I will not do them the favor of making it any easier to snuff me out.
“His favorite palette was blue and gold,” I say, which is the truth, he liked seascapes and beach houses, I remember this. But he was a terrible artist, completely visionless, he painted buildings like an architect draws blueprints for a municipal hall, not the way an architect dreams of impossible palaces in the sky. This is one gift I can give myself: Hitler was an awful artist. I know, I remember how he used to ache with wanting to be good at painting painter. He wanted to succeed at art with the force with which I want to cling to this gnarled-up animal life. I hope it pains him, in whatever four-poster bed he shares with Satan, that no matter how many he kills in his rage that he was not good, he will never be good. No matter how many sycophants tell him he is smart or powerful he will never make anything that is beautiful. Look at this place. Even the skeleton-scalps poking through the hair thinning off our heads are indistinct and gray.
“Blue and gold,” the Guard repeats, maybe thinking what I am thinking: and how did that transmute to black and red?
Outside, a sudden commotion. I see it as a shimmer of heat in the air, I hear it as a flurry of gunshots, I understand it as: more hell. A guard I don’t know comes running to the door. Leave, says my Guard, hastily replacing his painting above the mantle, but I have no chance to leave, the door in front of me is the door to which the guard is running. I bend over the arm of a chair to spare my Guard the embarrassment of having asked me about art, so that is how the new guard sees me and understands me in relation to my Guard, one of the many collections of bones that he calls his little loves.
“An English speaker,” says the stranger. “Now.”
“Has it happened?” says my guard.
They look at each other for a long time. The eagle, splayed in plated gold atop their helmets, looks dead. My Guard swallows.
“You,” says my Guard to me. “What did they teach you in that art school of yours?”
I straighten up. I have to decide whether to blend in or stand out. These are the choices that determine life or death, here in hell; sometimes each choice corresponds to one and sometimes the other.
I say, in German, “They taught me English.”
“Good,” says the stranger. “Come with me.”
I am told that there is a person to whom I must show the camp. I am told that this person does not want the guards to show him around; he wants a prisoner to do it. What kind of perversion, I think, what kind of more hell, in what dark corners does he want to spit on me. Standing out was death today, I chose wrong, today I will be the fingernails shrieking down the shower ledge.
But the guard leads me to the entrance of my bunk and there my eyes are overcome with green: soldiers with the flag of the United States sewn on their arm. And a man in a suit and tie, in the middle of them—how long it has been since I have seen a suit and tie and not a uniform, I had forgotten how rectangular the shoulders, how triangular the point of the tie, such geometric brutalism. The man has a long oval head and insistent ears and eyes used to being sad.
“You are the English speaker,” says the man, in American-accented English. His voice is kind.
I nod. Was standing out life today, after all? Another paradox of hell: the same choice that was death this morning is life this afternoon and can be death again this evening. Every choiceless choice is life and death, both.
“My name is Edward Murrow,” he says, and he extends his hand. I recoil. For long seconds I stand with my palm spread like a shield above my face, ready for the blow, before I remember that in another lifetime men who stood with brooding eyes and perfect poise in the entrance to my gallery used to shake my hand.
Too late, I reach toward him.
His sad eyes do not get sadder at my animal instincts; they get alert. His hand leaves the air between us and goes to the pen and notebook in his breast pocket. I understand now: I have given him an image, my bad-dog’s fear will be an image for some story he will write about his visit to this strange museum of death. He is here to make a transaction: he will give me the temporary safety of standing with the Americans, I will give him visuals. I know transaction, here in hell. Art for bread. Yet this Edward Murrow reminds me less of my Guard and more of my old buyers in the gallery: men who would talk with me, offer their hand, ask where I was from, but all the time their eyes were darting to the prints and the frames and the ways I might move to give the true value away.
Murrow says, “I am a radio reporter and I’d like to tell the world about this place.” He slides the pen behind his ear and the notebook into his pocket. “Would you show me around?”
“Of course,” I say. “Welcome,” I say. Am I free, I almost say, but the words catch in my throat.
“Wherever you want to begin,” he says.
I take him first to the entrance of my barrack. Inside: five to a bunk, cracking wooden bedframes, tattered blankets where there are blankets at all, the baker woman new this morning lying very very still at a strange angle to the wall.
I hear a muffled gagging sound beside me. I look at Murrow: his eyes are retracting inward, they are horror. But he looks back at me and adopts an even kinder voice when he says, “Tell me.”
What does he want me to say? This is not yet even more hell.
“There,” I say, pointing to the middle bunk. There a man who’d snuck into the women’s side had tried to hold me, and I bit him in the armpit where it looked like his body might have stored a little meat. “There we sleep,” I say, “and wake up every morning for roll call.”
Murrow does not take out his pen. If I am not helpful to him, if I do not give him the images he wants, then maybe he will leave and the guards will be angry that I volunteered to see him and standing out will have been death after all.
“There,” I say again, and I move my finger up an inch, I point to the wall that abuts the middle bunk. “There is the crevice where I hide some extra bread, when I can find it.”
This seems to stir him.
“You must be hungry,” he says, and he withdraws a small sucking candy from that glorious breast pocket. The crinkling of the wrapper is the loudest thing I’ve heard in years. The crystal is sweet on my tongue.
Murrow watches me as though he might cry. This man who has given me candy for so little work. Please don’t be sad, I want to say. I am a tour guide of hell, my dear friend, you are with me, I know every crevice of this place. Here is where they beat us. Here is where they burn us. Here is where they count us.
“Here is where I found a place to write,” I say, pointing now to the underside of the bunk above mine, not saying I stole a stub of pencil from the desk of my Guard once when he wasn’t looking. “I drew a game of hangman.”
Murrow narrows his eyes at the plank of wood where I used up every half-centimeter of lead. I do not want him to be horrified. I want him to notice the perfect circle of the head I have drawn, I want him to notice the perfect proportions of the squeezed-shut eyes, the heroic realism of the hanging man I drew because my youngest bunkmate couldn’t guess my word because I never picked one. “I followed the grains of the wood to draw a straight line to the gallows,” I say.
Murrow doesn’t look at me; he makes a note in his little pad. I have impressed him. A stab of something wonderful and dormant in my chest. The feeling I once had when I knew a buyer would leave and tell his friends, send Christmas cards, stock the back room with the most filling beer. I vow to impress him again.
“Come,” I say, and I lead Murrow outside, where the American soldiers close in tight as lice around us. From behind my Guard’s house I hear explosions, I hear shouting too robust to be the meek final protests of the starving. “I will show you something that will really,” I say, and I pause, trying to remember a phrase I read once in an English primer, “knock your shoes off.”
“How did you live here,” Murrow murmurs, and again I want to tell him: this is a place of paradox. The only way to live is to give up on life, if you love life too much, if you find it too beautiful then you cannot survive such ugliness; if you invest too much in beauty that is denied you, then to live you must embrace ugliness.
And with this something monstrous comes over me, another stab from that dormant place in my chest, I feel tears rise from a place long dry. This time I can recognize the feeing: hope. Maybe after all I will emerge from this place, human again, how strangely easy to slip back into my human form, to find a place within me that is less-hell.
I want to show Murrow the barrack from the front, because I think I can impress him with the ease of the architecture, the clean line. Along the way I see a very skinny woman lying on her back, gazing unblinking at the airplanes that are clouding in the sky. I didn’t know her. I notice the deep, saturated red of her blood.
Beside me, Murrow moans.
“What am I looking at?” he asks me.
“The form,” I say, astonished still by that hope stabbing me again now, with more frequency and force. I close my eyes, not even looking, remembering truly for the first time what it was like to lead a lover of art through a profusion of beauty. “Below the neck,” I say, “where you expect a breast to protrude, we have here intaglio.” It has been lifetimes since I have spoken the beautiful Italian words of art in a tone of sincerity. “A sculpture sunken in,” I explain.
I open my eyes. Murrow is staring at me very strangely, his mouth partly open, his pen unmoving above his notebook. I have come alive again, my friend, I want to tell him, out of hell I have reclaimed my life, I am a docent again my friend, I have escaped this hell of paradox.
“Intaglio,” says Murrow, as though in a trance, as though the soft roll of the language is impossible to fathom. “And the thing there’s not? Protrusion?”
I struggle for the word in English. “Relief.”
At this he exchanges a raised eyebrow with one of the soldiers. Will he give me another sucking candy, I wonder, have I yet given him the perfect image.
“Hitler is a devil,” he says. But it is me he is looking at as he begins to weep.
“Hitler,” I say, and I wonder how my Guard will fare with the Americans, and I look up to a sky of blue and a sun glinting gold off the spread wings of the airplanes, “is a very great artist.”
*Loosely inspired by the true story of Paul Heller, a Jewish prisoner of Buchenwald who gave Edward Murrow a tour of the camp, as recounted in Caroline Heller’s Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts (New York: The Dial Press, 2015).