Sections from the novels "Land Without God" and "The Painted Wall" by Otto B. Kraus (1921-2000) are posted here in his memory.
LAND WITHOUT GOD
Belzebub himself arrived from the scorching furnace of hell to lend a hand to the task. No doubt that it was the devil with his red fiery eyes. Just look around and notice the warp and the weft of barbed wire, the wire is the cobweb of a hellish spider on which every ten paces glows a devil's red eye. And through these eyes the devil looks, sees and his glee makes him chortle, roar with laughter, split with terrible merriment and pull his tail.
Ho, how did I trick you, Lord God, when I ground your commandments to dust on a hellish mill. My kingdom has arrived on earth. And Lord God dismally turns away his face from this piece of earth because his merciful heart can't bear the pity he feels for the people he created in his image.
And so it is a land without God.
A dimly glittering winter drags through a Polish night while a train dully ploughs the endless plain. The train slowly undulates, only here and there flickers a small light and the fifty wagons meant to transport cattle heave with the un-restful breath of the damned. They are packed in the guts of the train, for a third day and third night without a ray of hope, they sit and recline, crowd at the tiny barred window to taste a drop of freedom and silently listen to the steely refrain of the wheels, towards hell, towards hell, towards hell.
A six-year old curly child with sad Sepharadic eyes pulls at his father's sleeve. Daddy, give me some water. Haven't got any, child, wait until we arrive. And strangely, the boy understands and stops asking. You would expect at least one childish why, you would feel easier if that dark, grimy, curly kid whined, whimpered or complained. Yet the boy sagely nods his head and falls silent. Daniel crouches close to the window on a heap of ragged bundles. He is cold but he sees the snowy landscape and when he pushes close to the bars he glimpses a piece of sky. His heart is heavy, darling Eva cried when they parted. She said bless you but meant good-bye forever. She gave him her picture and a small coin for luck. In the corner in a skein of bodies stands his mother. She presses her mouth so firmly that her lips disappear and become a cramped scar. The wagon is silent and the silence is an oppressive question mark. The eyes, enlarged by terror and darkness, are asking:
And the wheels answer: Towards hell, towards hell, towards hell.
Around the train grow patches of lights, they arrange themselves into angular patterns and fade in the distance like a sound in an open field. The guts of the wagon swell and people awake from their terrified lethargy. The train snorts, twitches three times like a dying animal, then emits a last long sigh. The ramp quivers with expectation and a sharp command cuts the uncertainty into fear and hope. Finally the door opens. Daniel holds a bundle with food and mother carries a cloth bag. Strange men in loose blue and white striped coats and ridiculous berets throw out luggage from the wagons. Leave it, leave it, it'll arrive later, shout the strange men and suddenly they hold canes intheir hands, terrible threatening sticks, dad grows scared and steps back. They'll bring it later, says Daniel. At least if I had a blanket, complains dad, how will I sleep?
Out of the mist arrive huge gray lorries which eat away from the thousand-headed crowd. The strange blue white men shout hoarsely and swing their sticks above their heads. Here and there stands a lazy uniform and smokes a cigarette. To Daniel it seems like a confused dream, faces and bodies merge into one and vanish in the hungry mouths of the lorries. People are so crowded that they can't move an arm. Daniel feels utterly helpless, he is sorry for mother, for brother Jani, for dad and for the bearded old man who has lost his hat and whimpers, he is also sorry for himself. What is darling Eva doing now? And he makes up his mind that he would marry her when they meet after the war. A winter rain starts. Daniel hears the drops falling on the canvas roof and, because the lorry doesn't move, he is gripped by dispair. Outside somebody curses in German and beats metal against metal. People wonder wearily where they are, so wearily that they start arguing, voices ebb and rise, somebody from outside hits the tarpaulin and spits out a curse. The seconds pulse like the stabbing in a festering wound
and dawn begins to rise. After several vain attempts the engines awaken and he hears another German curse. At last the lorry moves.
On the wooden floor human limbs lie like snakes in a strange tangle. Daniel has sunk into an oaken sleep, tiredness has transformed somebody's nailed shoe into a feather pillow and sealed his eyes so fast that even a pair of horses wouldn't pry them open. The bloated clouds spatter the tin roof with drops that patter over the silence like feet of mice. Evening waddles in and settles at a table where some time ago the day played cards with the devil. The day left but the devil stayed and his eyes glow mischievously in the darkness.
The door bursts open and the canes wake the sleepers. Daniel holds brother Jani's and dad's hand and squints uncomprehendingly with sleepy eyes. The canes chase them over a muddy yard to a brick shed called sauna. In a windowless room stands a long table over which bend bald- headed scribes with a black number on their hearts. The line of naked men form a repulsive queue. You feel awkward being naked, you don't know what to do with your arms, you have lost the last vestige of self-confidence and security. And the touch of naked male bodies is strangely offensive, you want to puke in disgust or wake up. Can this be true? And does it hurt when the scrofulous scribe pricks a number on your forearm? Eh, it doesn't, you are a man, you laugh at your own fear, you laugh with relief because it is already behind you. Only boys, with hairless private parts cry a bit, but their whimper is lost in the hum of the crowd.
After three days the door of the shed opens and releases a herd of ragged, desperate, unshaven wretches. In their eyes there is resignation because they know...
We are in Auschwitz December 23, 1943