At five o’clock in the morning on Friday, January 12, 1945, the silence along the Vistula River in Poland was broken by loud commands of "Fire!" Thousands of Russian officers cried, "Ogon," the wind sent their words to the Russian gunners’ ears, and in seconds the earth seemed to split apart as twenty thousand cannon, rocket and mortar shells exploded over the sleeping soldiers of Hitler’s army. "Lock! Load! Fire!" the thunder of twenty thousand more, "Fire!" "Fire!" "Fire!" one hundred thousand now, and the shells rained down on the Germans for one hour, forty-five minutes. When the noise stopped, the Germans who weren’t dead were like punch-drunk people, the blood coming out of their ears, noses, and open mouths as Russia’s three million soldiers rolled over them. On the Russian tanks were the painted words na berlin! to berlin!
Six days later, the Russians had rolled a hundred miles west, and now their shells shook the windows of the House of the Armed SS in the willow-filled town of Oswiecim, or Auschwitz. Inside were the men and women of Hitler’s private army, the SS, who for years had been feasting on pork, pike, duck, roasted hare, and red cabbage, washing them down with Bulgarian wine and Yugoslavian schnapps. After dinner the SS men had pulled out the chairs from under the SS women’s popos, the women plopping onto the floor, roaring, the men vomiting onto the Persian rugs, betting that the next vomiter would be Hans, whoever, the fat and red-fleshed women roaring along with the men. As the Russians got closer, though, the SS had rolled from the House moaning, "Hitler kaput," swilling its Yugoslavian schnapps. "Alles ist aus! Everything’s lost!"
And tonight the SS was panic-stricken by Russia’s guns. God in His heaven! What clemency could an SS man or, worse, an SS woman in Nuit de Paris perfume expect from the Russian infantry? Nor was the SS soothed by the orders of Himmler, its Hitler-mustached leader in Berlin, to flee to Gross Rosen, Germany, two hundred miles west, and to bring along the 64,438 murderers, robbers and Jews who for years had been doing slave labor at Auschwitz. What worse impediment to any hell-bent retreat than the slow, stumbling feet of its sixty thousand slaves? But cursing them, the SS snapped on its hats with the jolly-roger insignias and by boot, bike and motorcycle descended on the vast stables where the sixty thousand lived, two or three dozen to every stall.
"Aufstehen! Get up!" the SS shouted, as the rats that were snuggling by the men and women scooted away. "Stinkende schweine! You stinking pigs! Heraus! Get out!" the SS continued, stomping down the wet aisles, stepping in the wet diarrhea, swearing, wiping its boots on the sack-of-straw mattresses, booting the half-asleep prisoners. To avoid their lice, the SS didn’t touch anyone except with a boot, strap, bullwhip, or, in one woman’s hand, a whip with a bead-encrusted handle. "Schneller! Faster!" the SS shouted, shooting its Lugers at all who were tired or had typhus, killing them, then it watched as the sixty thousand snatched up their only possessions, their shoes, and ran to the red-tinted open air. "Aufstellen! Line up!" an SS sergeant shouted. "Appell! Appell! Head count!" he shouted, laying about with a wooden club. "No, there isn’t time!" the others shouted. "Wir marschieren jetzt! We’re marching!" they cried, and the prisoners went past the wires, the whine of 6000 volts, the gates of Auschwitz, and the inscription of arbeit macht frei, work makes you free, to the cadence of "Links! Links! Links! To your left!"
One of them that winter night was Lola Potok, a Jewish girl from Poland. She was not quite twenty-four.
Her family was all she thought of. Born twenty miles away in Bedzin to a father and mother versed in the Torah, Lola had had ten older brothers and sisters: a boxer, a foreman, a CPA, a couturier, a pop band leader whose hottest song was Blue Skies (Smiling at Me), a philologist and a pilot among them. But when, in 1943, the Germans smashed in her family’s door shouting, "Schmutzige Juden! You dirty Jews! Heraus! Get out!" and cattle-carred many of these brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and Lola’s mother and Lola’s daughter to Auschwitz, the only one who the Germans considered able-bodied was Lola, then twenty-one. The rest were selected by Mengele, the SS’s whistling doctor, to be gassed (or in one case hanged) and be cremated in the ovens whose sickening smell had the SS sneering at Auschwitz as Anus Mundi. Among the condemned was Lola’s daughter, age one.
And now, one-and-one-half years later, as sixty thousand people moved like the Doomed, as SS in black woolen cloaks cried, "Weiter! Go on!" as SS dogs in black woolen blankets snarled, as SS in pell-mell retreat shot the people who, for any reason, stopped, as waste matter ran down the other people’s legs, and as Lola shuffled by one, two, three hundred corpses—now, Lola just thought of Ada, of Zlata. Straggling beside her, Ada and Zlata, the wives of two of her brothers, were to her knowledge her only surviving relatives. She had kept them alive at Auschwitz by spooning the ill-smelling soup (was it turnip? nettle? rutabaga? the Jews believed it was poison ivy) into their mouths saying in Yiddish, "Eat it," Ada and Zlata crying, "I can’t," Lola yelling, "Swallow it!" and Ada and Zlata downing it, holding their noses. At Auschwitz, Lola had yelled like a drill instructor in her determination that the Potok family should survive. And now she sneaked from the slow-moving column to dig up four frozen potatoes to pass to Ada and Zlata, who put them under their armpits to thaw before wolfing them down. They need me, Lola told herself, for her will to live depended on her two sisters-in-law.
At dawn the black became gray. The air and the earth were the same cardboard color, and the homes by the road were just darker blotches. It was so cold that some firing pins cracked as the SS shot hundreds of Jews. At noon Ada cried, "I see some meat!" and ran to a snow-covered meadow where a dead animal lay, but before the SS could shoot her, she ran back saying, "No, it’s human." At twilight the SS finally said, "Stehen bleiben! Stop!" and as Zlata slumped to the snow, starting to eat it, Lola knocked on a German’s door saying in German, "We need some bread." What she got, she shared with Zlata—just Zlata, for Ada had disappeared. Ada’s shoes had fallen apart and had fallen off.
Lola’s shoes tortured her. She sat in a roadside shed with Zlata and pulled them off. Her feet were blue and, on being released, started to swell up. Zlata cried, "Put your shoes on! Or you’ll never be able to!"
"Zlata, I’ll get gangrene. . . ."
"No, put them back on!" Zlata cried, and she almost held Lola down as she jammed her in. All night Lola lay in agony, attributing this to Zlata. In the morning the SS said, "We’re moving on," and the sixty or fifty or forty thousand resumed the funeral march.
By twilight Lola couldn’t take it. She was in Germany, somewhere south of Gleiwitz. It was fifteen below, and her feet seemed to be in iron torture devices. She weighed sixty-six pounds. Despite surviving at Auschwitz, the SS women maiming her, her back surviving sciatica, her hand surviving gangrene, her body surviving typhus of 104 degrees, and Mengele even condemning her to the cyanide chamber—despite this, the will to live wasn’t there anymore and Lola gave up. She whispered to Zlata in Yiddish, "I’m not walking another step."
"What else can you do?"
"I’ve had it, I’m walking away."
"They’ll kill you!"
"If that’s what my destiny is, it will happen right here."
"No, I’ll never see you!"
"Whatever will be. . . ."
"Don’t do it! They’ll kill you!" said Zlata. "Be careful!" she cried, as Lola moved off from the Hosts of Hell.
Now, alongside the road observing the passing parade were some German civilians, and Zlata saw Lola move towards them. In the dim light, the Germans didn’t see the red cross on Lola’s coat, but as Zlata looked on in horror, an SS man with a Luger, a leash with a snarling dog, and a jolly-roger, skull-and-bones, head-of-death insignia—an SS man charged up to Lola shouting, "Sie, gehören Sie dazu? You! Do you belong with the Jews?" Zlata couldn’t hear what Lola replied. As she moved on, Zlata heard the crack of a Luger and Zlata thought, Lola’s dead, but Zlata was wrong.
"Yes, from Bedzin."
"It couldn’t be," Zlata said. But she and the others walked past the German parade ground, where, in the war, the horses had caracoled every day, and turned onto Lange Reihe. A ways down this cobblestone street was a pretty red tulip bed and a "25" on a tile-gabled house. In the door was a small square window, and the lace curtain parted almost as soon as Zlata knocked. In its place were the peering eyes of a German woman, thirty years old, who opened the Tudor door saying in German, "You must be Zlata." She led the mystified girls to the living room and, as they stared at the paneled walls, the oil portraits, and the baby grand piano, made a telephone call in German. Soon there was a roar outside, a German motorcycle pulled up, and a man in a uniform jumped off. He wore a Luger, hurried into the living room, and, as the girls watched, astonished, whipped off his goggles and eagle-insignia hat. A shower of dark blonde hair came down, and Zlata gasped in Yiddish, "Lola! It’s you!"
"Zlata! You’re alive!"
The girls were stunned. Lola, for that’s who the "man" was, was half again heavier than in January, weighing about a hundred pounds. She was almost robust, and her face even showed some baby fat. Her jacket of olive drab had a row of brass eagle-insignia buttons, and on her high collar were what the Americans called scrambled eggs: a splatter of silver embroidery. On each of her shoulders were two silver embroidered stars. On her chest was a sam-browne belt, on her hip was the holster and gun, and her skirt, olive drab, came down to her gleaming black cavalry boots, like General Patton’s. Still striding, Lola reached out but Zlata shrank back, for she’d never known a man or woman in uniform who’d tried to embrace her.
"Lola, your clothes—"
Lola shrugged. She half-turned to her right and left as though modeling them. Her hand, which was on her hip, pulled out her Luger, displaying it like some trophy.
"Lola! I’m scared!" said Zlata. "Put that away!"
"Don’t worry about it," Lola said. She put her Luger back and she turned to the German woman saying in German, "Gertrude! Get them some food!" Gertrude went out.
"Lola, what are you in? The Russian Army?" Zlata said.
"No, I’m an officer in—" and Lola rolled off some initials that Zlata didn’t know the meaning of. But then Lola rolled off the names of some other officers in the olive-clothed organization, and Zlata recognized them. So-and-So from Auschwitz. So-and-So also from Auschwitz. So-and-So from school in Bedzin. Even as Gertrude was coming back with some German sausages, Zlata detected a pattern among those names.
"Eat something. Yes."
All that hour, the girls ate and Lola told them about the olive-clothed people. To listen to Lola, hundreds of Jews were operating in all of Poland and Poland-administered Germany. Their leaders were Jewish generals in Warsaw, to listen to Lola. Their mission was to hunt for SS, Nazis, and Nazi collaborators, to punish them and, if appropriate, kill them, and in this way to take revenge against the Jew-killers of Germany. Or so Lola said.
Zlata couldn’t buy it. She knew that at Auschwitz everyone’s dream was to do what the Germans did: to force the Germans to stand in the wind, rain and snow, hour after hour, naked, their hands overhead in a "Saxon greeting," beating them, whipping them as they cried, "No!" and to march them to cyanide to the cadence of "Links! To your left!" But the dream disappeared every day at the call of "Aufstellen! Line up!" and now Zlata wondered if wish and reality weren’t mixed up in Lola’s mind. "Lola," said Zlata. "Are you in charge of any Germans?"
"A thousand. About a mile from here."
"Well, what do you actually do?"
"The same things the Germans did to us."
"Lola, what does that mean?"
"Do you want to see it? Come," Lola said.