By Vincent Czyz
Heinrich sat amidst the hum of washing machines. He enjoyed the laundromat on Saturday mornings. He brought a book and read while his clothes churned behind circular glass.
The laundromat’s window was beaded with rain. He looked up from his novel and saw pigeons the color of wet cement flap past the building across the street. Drops along telephone wires fattened and fell. Street lamps flickered on and off as though unable to decide whether or not it was dusk.
The door opened and six or seven policemen, led by two men in civilian clothing, filed into the laundromat. The only other customer at this hour, an elderly woman, fixed her startled gaze on Heinrich.
The police officers crowded the front of the narrow room. Their uniforms and insignia did not belong to the Berlin police.
Heinrich closed his book and glanced at his sudsy clothes. He would not be bringing them home.
The manager of the laundromat pointed at Heinrich. “That is the man.”
Heinrich stood up.
One of the men in plain clothes stood in front of him, his shoulders squared as if they were part of a wall.
“You are under arrest.”
Two men in uniform pulled his arms roughly behind him. He did not resist. He had been waiting for this day for nearly three decades.
The courtroom was small, as if he were there to protest a traffic violation. A single judge would determine the outcome of the proceedings.
Heinrich did not attempt to dispute the evidence the prosecutor brought against him until he was given a chance to speak. “Yes, I was a guard at Dachau, but I did not participate in the slaughter of Jews.”
“Your name is Franz Haas. Why did you hide under the name Heinrich Hiller?”
“Who would believe my story?”
“What is your story?”
“I had two choices: fight on the Eastern Front or guard prisoners at Dachau. I am a coward but not a murderer. Unless you want to prosecute me for shooting Ingrid Habermann.”
The prosecutor looked confused. “You admit to killing Ingrid Habermann?”
Franz smiled weakly; it felt like a facial tic that lasted too long. “You probably never heard of Ingrid Habermann. I shot her in the head because Helga, who ran the women’s camp, wanted her thrown into the crematorium—alive. Ingrid had been caught attempting to escape.”
“This makes you innocent?”
Franz shrugged. “The prisoners could count on me for small things…a cigarette, an extra bread ration, an apple.”
“And this is compensation for standing by while thousands of Jews a day were murdered?”
“I was issued a Luger pistol with an 8-round clip. How many of my fellow Germans could I kill before I was shot to death by someone with a Sten gun?”
“Why didn’t you resign your position?”
“I told you, I am a coward. I would have been sent to die somewhere in Russia. No apples, no bread, no mercy bullets.”
The prosecution brought a few witnesses against Franz, old Jews who recognized his face, which he had been forced to shave to look more like his youthful self. But no one remembered much about him, bad or good.
He recognized none of them. There had been so many. So, so many.
The judge’s face during the trial was like an outcropping of rock.
“Why is it no one recalls your small kindnesses?”
The prosecutor was a young man with fresh looks, no doubt ambitious.
“Do you think I could advertise my sympathies without being shot for treason?”
“The cleverest lies I ever heard,” the prosecutor said, “were the defenses recorded at Nuremberg.”
On the final day of the trial, two more witnesses were brought forward. One had no recollection of Franz. He felt the scrutiny of the other boring into his skin. For a long time she paced in front of him. His armpits became slippery. She leaned over the table to put her face almost in his. Did he know her? He could not remember. But it had been twenty-eight years, if not more. Younger than he, she must have been a girl when she was sent to Dachau. Her hair was short, black, curly. Not so many grays. A thin woman with severe cheekbones.
“Will you take the stand?” the prosecutor asked.
“I will.” She strode with purpose.
She’s going to lie. He was sure this woman had never seen him before.
The judge peered at him through steel-rimmed glasses. He knew something damning.
Letti Kestenbaum testified that she had been brought to Dachau at the age of fourteen. The train reached the camp at night. Guards segregated men and women. They ordered the women to strip naked. The women were bewildered, but they obeyed. One prisoner refused. A dignified woman, a ballet dancer. Letti had spoken with her on the train. Instead of taking off her clothes, the ballerina snatched a gun out of its holster. She killed one of the guards and managed to wound another. Everyone was shouting or running or frozen with fear. Soldiers opened fire.
“I was naked,” Letti testified. “Do you understand what that means?”
The prosecutor nodded. “You were to be gassed. Clothes were not discarded in the camps and it is difficult to undress a corpse. Please…continue.”
“A dog attacked someone—maybe the ballerina. I heard screams. I think I was one of the women screaming. Then someone—a guard—threw a prison uniform in my face.” Letti’s right arm straightened, and her finger singled out Franz. “That is the man.”