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Der Onheib

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Erik doesn’t remember life before the ghetto. He’s aware that it existed, that he was born in Germany to German parents, that his first language was German, that he had German-speaking playmates and, briefly, lived a life that bore some relation to other German children. But he doesn’t remember any of it anymore, not names or faces or streets. It’s probably for the best; he might be tempted to follow those memories back to their sources and ask uncomfortable questions and he might react poorly to the uncomfortable answers.

He remembers Lodz, but never when he intends to. (He never intends to.) It comes back to him in lightning flashes of sense-memory -- a smell, a taste, a half-overheard word that could be Polish-inflected Yiddish but usually isn’t -- that makes the metal around him shudder and warp until he remembers himself again. Remembers who he is now.

Lodz, when it is forced to appear in his memories, is always dark and dirty and full of privation and, most of all, fear. Fear that what they were producing wouldn’t be enough. Fear that the food would run out again, this time for good. Fear that the Nazis would require another human sacrifice to keep the rest alive until the next time, or until disease or despair took them first.

(He knows from transcribed biographies and histories that he’s read that there was a reason the ghetto lasted as long as it did, that there were so many of them left over for the Nazis to murder so late in the campaign. He knows that there were times of laughter, of joy even, and that he had friends there and it was not always dark. But those memories are harder to find, impossible to bring to the surface past all of the pain, and he’s long ago stopped looking.)

His complete memories begin with Schmidt. He’s tried to bury those, too, but not for the same reasons. These memories are weapons and should be treated as such, honed and kept clean and not touched except when they’re to be used. But he himself is an imperfect weapon and can’t always obey his own commands. He doesn’t dwell on them ever, doesn’t need to when they are as much a part of him as his bones and his blood and his abilities, but the sense memories are harder to control. They come to him through Ovaltine, a certain brand of brilliantine he’s never been able to name, or Wagner’s Faust Overture playing quietly on someone else’s radio.

This is the part of him that has been kept, cultivated, nurtured. He didn’t plant the seeds, but he has dutifully watered and tended what has grown.

Schmidt moved them around as the Reich began to implode, although Erik did not understand it at the time. First to a place Erik never saw enough of to identify and never got a chance to ask about, then to Bergen-Belsen. The adult Erik has spent time and energy and resources trying to figure out how and where and then why, when Schmidt decided it was all over, he had everyone but Erik killed.

The adult Erik has no plans to return the favor of mercy.

By the time the Allies showed up with their good intentions and eyes unused to the horrors that awaited them, there was nobody but Erik to tell them what had gone on in the basement of the unnumbered building in the corner behind the medical facilities. And Erik, aware of how much he had left to lose even when all he had was his life, said not a word. His scars and his unfeigned elemental terror at being led back there for routine processing and examination was apparently enough for the Canadian soldiers to classify him as a survivor of experimentation without prodding him for details in their pidgin German. A well-meaning soldier tried to calm his hysterics with a square of chocolate; he threw up for three days straight and woke up in a hospital bed in the British section.

From there to Palestine, it’s an indirect journey. He arrives in time to fight and bleed for what’s left of his people, to take some tiny part in the creation of a Jewish state that is nothing like the ghetto while being so much like it all he wants to do is leave. But he doesn’t. Instead, he stays because he is promised the one thing he wants: revenge.

(Most want to forget, some cannot help but remember, others are still deciding. Erik never had any choice and never chooses to fight his fate.)

It’s not that he doesn’t understand when he is told that he is still so young, that he can still have the life his parents wished for him, that he can find a nice girl and settle down and help populate the new nation of Israel with Jewish sons and daughters and put the horrors he’s experienced behind him. He does understand. And a part of him wishes for these things exactly, especially as his nascent network of friends (unit mates from the war, roommates from the barracks and communal housing, classmates at the immigration centers) finds exactly that. He goes to weddings, to a briss even, and accepts with good-enough grace everyone’s prediction that soon it will be his turn.

But it won’t be. The restlessness, the fire burning under his skin, the nightmares that wake him screaming and covered in sweat... these things are not leftovers from a past chapter of his life. They are signs pointing toward his future.

He’s not the only one who notices, even if the full measure of his uniqueness remain hidden.

Instead of learning a trade and how to put his experiences behind him, he learns tradecraft. He learns to be afraid of new things and to stop being afraid of the old ones. He learns English and French and maths and literature. He learns Hebrew beyond the words in the prayers even as he stops praying. He learns history and politics and how to manipulate and ignore both as is needed.

Away from everyone else, he learns the lessons Schmidt is no longer around to teach him, to be put to a use Schmidt never intended. It will be the end of him, it may be the end of them both, but Erik is willing to make the exchange.