City of Women

City of Women. David R. Gillham. Berkley Books, N.Y. , 2012.

Looking on the flip side of the coin is never easy. A thousand times, I have asked “What would I have done? “ Aware of all the times I have looked the other way, or at the very least, have failed to voice my thoughts when I knew they ran against the grain of popular opinion. And sometimes, that is all that is needed for matters to proceed “as usual.”

She enters the patent office building… On the wall there is a dark bronze memorial plaque listing the names of all those patent officials killed in the last war. Across the hall, one of the building porters is tacking up a poster. A leering green face with a hooked beak and drooping, malevolent eyes wears the six-pointed star on his lapel like a boutonniere. “This is the enemy of our blood!,” the caption decries. “Show him no mercy!” She gazes at the poster blankly, then joins the queue to have her identity card checked by the aging policeman at the desk. p.40.

She is just a woman, an ordinary woman trying to survive while her husband has been drafted. She’s just a woman, totally without influence or importance who works in the patent office. Day after day, she does filing, mostly.

Long before the war, the National Socialist bureaucracy had codified its hatred of Jews into legal strictures. The Nürenberg Laws had stripped Jews of German citizenship, barred them from the professions, maligned, ridiculed, and penalized them in statutory language, and segregated them from daily German life.

Distasteful, perhaps, but laws were laws. How could a person change them?

And while there were stories of Jews subjected to beatings in the streets, or being torn from their beds and tortured in Brownshirt bunkers, such individual brutality seemed anecdotal. A story of this Jew, a story of that Jew. Terrible, perhaps, but easy to close one’s eyes and ears to during the daily routine. What, after all, could be done? p.183.

Ericha, a young woman at the office becomes Sigrid’s friend. The young woman knows that something can always be done. That something must be done.

“After the Aufmarsch,” Ericha interrupts in a contained voice, “the army was followed into the East by special murder battalions of the SS and police, whose mission, whose single mission, was to slaughter Jews. As many Jews as they could find. In Latvia, in the Ukraine, in Russia. Ten, twenty, thirty thousand people massacred at a time. Women, babies, old men. It didn’t matter. They were mowed down and their bodies dumped in mass graves.“

“Child,” Sigrid tries to say, but the girl cuts her off.

“No. Don’t interrupt. If you’re going to do this work, you should be fully educated. In Poland, they’ve set up camps. Not work camps, mind you, or ‘resettlement’ camps, or whatever they’re telling about them, but extermination factories, hidden in the marshlands, with the express purpose of manufacturing corpses by the ton. That’s the destination of the trains leaving the goods yard of the Bahnhof Grünewald. pp.197-8.

Does Sigrid decide that she must do something, anything to stop what she now knows as the full truth? Ah, you must read the book. And her husband does come home, bearing his own scars and his own truth.

When the door to the flat opens, she feels her body tense. She waits. She listens to the aimless shuffling of boots over the drone of the old woman snoring. A hinge creaks. The toilet flushes. And then the door to the bedroom squeaks open in the darkness. She hears the clump of his boots and then Kaspar’s body flops down on the bed beside her. The smell of the Schnapps is strong. A moment stretches out before either of them move. They lie like corpses beside each other.

“I am not what you expected,” he says finally.

“It seems so long,” she breathes. “It seems like many years have passed.”

“Yes, time is strange. A five minute wait before the order to attack can be an eternity. While five hours of combat will pass in a blink,” he says. And then: “I won’t ask you if you’ve been faithful. At the front, there are men who can’t stop talking about how they’re going to murder their wives for infidelity, but honestly I don’t care. We’ve all done what we have done, and there’s nothing for it.” He fumbles with a packet of field-issue cigarettes and lights one up, the sharp smoke mixing with the stink of the schnapps. “You know, the army runs field brothels for the front-liners,” he says. “Whores shipped in from the Warthegau. They set them up in tents, with blankets draped between the cots. Once we’re queued up, the company sergeant hands out small cans of disinfectant spray, and we’re required to spray the disinfectant onto the whore’s genitals before intercourse. If we don’t, and we come out with a full can, we get punishment duty.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I just want you to know the truth, Sigrid. I don’t want any lies between us.” pp.262-3.

Poor Sigrid! She must be inwardly nodding her head in agreement as Kaspar declares “We’ve all done what we have done, and there’s nothing for it.” Sigrid too, has done what she’s done, and his truth awaits her the next day.

When she enters the flat, she finds Egon heaped in a chair.

“I understand your man has returned,” he says thickly, “from the front.”

She has closed the door behind her, but the wall of Egon’s gaze keeps her from approaching him.

“Yes,” is all that she answers.

“You must be very proud.”

“Egon.”

“Have you asked him how many Jews he’s murdered?” “Please don’t.”

“Don’t?”

“Please don’t do this.”

“I’m just curious. Did he have a guess? A hundred Jews? Two hundred? Or were there just too many to keep count?”

“He is not a killer, Egon. Only a soldier.”

“Well, what do you think a soldier is, Frau Schröder, but a killer in uniform?” “He was wounded in battle. He did not murder Jews.”

“And how in hell do you know? Have you asked him? Have you said ’Excuse me, husband dear, but do you recall slaughtering any kikes while in Russia?”

She stares back at him. He drains the last drops of whatever’s in the glass he’s holding.

“The truth is, Frau Schröder, that you don’t know what your husband has done. Whom he has killed or not killed. And the still greater truth is that you don’t want to know.”

“This is not my fault,” she breathes. “You are blaming me, but this is not my fault.”

“It’s not my fault that I have a circumcised putz.” He tells her. “But the Greater German Reich still blames me for it. Life is not about what is fair.” He raises his glass again, but finding it empty, tosses it onto the carpet and watches it roll away. p.264

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