Lilac Girls Chapter 9 – horses in a barn

CHAPTER 9

 

1940

I WAS ASTOUNDED TO SEE my room in the newly built high-ranking wardresses’ cottage just steps from the entry gate.  It was bigger than our whole apartment at home, outfitted with a shared bath complete with shower and tub, a comfortable bed with white eiderdown, and a vanity table.  I wore no makeup, per regulations, but the table would make a nice desk. Best of all, the cottage was entirely heated.  Such clean, elegant quarters with my own balcony.  Mutti would just shake her head in wonder to see me in such a place.

I walked into the main camp for lunch, through the personnel entrance, and found the officers’ dining hall.  The noise level was high, for the small building was packed with SS doctors and guards, including many of the fifty SS doctors assigned to Ravensbruck, all male and all enjoying a lunch of pork roast, buttered potatoes, and various cuts of beef.  I hoped to become acquainted with the top-flight doctors Koegel had promised.  Though I was in no hurry, the male-female physician ratio was a promising forty-nine to one.

As I stepped closer to the table where Fritz held court, groups of men stopped their conversations and stared as I passed.  I was used to being among men from medical school, but one woman colleague would have been nice.  I found Fritz and his three companions sitting, bellies extended, sharing what seemed like postcoital cigarettes.

“Ah, Herta,” Fritz said.  “Care for lunch?” He motioned to a plate piled with fatty pork chops, and I stemmed a wave of nausea.

“I am a vegetation.”

The man next to him stifled a laugh.

Fritz stood. “Where are my manners? Let me introduce you.  At the end of the table there, we have Dr. Martin Hellinger, toast of the SS dental world.”

Dr. Hellinger was a beetle-browed fellow, with wire-rimmed glasses and an endorphin body type whose blood sugar had apparently dipped so low he could barely acknowledge me.  He penciled in answers to a crossword puzzle from a newspaper.

“Next, Dr. Adolf Winkelmann, visiting from Auschwitz.”

Winkelmann sat in his chair as if poured there.  He was rotund, with skin like wormholed wood.

“And this is the famous Rolf Rosenthal,” Fritz said, indicating the weasel, dark-aired fellow sprawled out in the chair at his left.  “Former navy surgeon and our gynecological wunderkind.”  Rosenthal leaned forward into his cigarette and looked at me as a cow merchant considers a purchase.

The slam of a screen door caused the doctors to turn, and the blond guard I’d seen from Koegel’s window stepped into the dining hall.  She was taller than she’d appeared from above. Finally, a fellow female.

She ambled over to our table, her steps heavy on the wooden floor, riding crop tucked in one boot, cap off, hair rolled up off her forehead per the fashion of the time.  Though a young woman, nineteen years old or so, her complexion already hosted a colony of sunspots and freckles.  Perhaps the result of farm labor?

Fritz draped one arm over the back of his chair.

“If it isn’t the lovely Fraulein Binz.  Pride of the Ravensbruck charm school.”

Fritz did not stand to greet her and the other doctors shifted in their chairs as if suffering a cold wind.

“Hello, Fritz,” Binz said.

“Don’t you know you’re not allowed in the officers’ canteen without permission?”  Fritz said.  He lit a cigarette with a gold lighter, his hands white and almost incandescent, as if dipped in milk.  Hands you might expect to see on famous pianist.  Hands that had never touched a spade.

“Koegel wants me to get your medical staff and my girls together.”

“Not another picnic,” Rosenthal said.

“He suggested a dance…” Binz said.

A dance?  A great fan of dancing, I was interested in that.

Rosenthal groaned.

“Only if Koegel throws in a case of French claret,” Fritz said.  “And only if you staff it with some attractive Poles. Those Bible girls barely speak.”

“And only bring the Aufseherinnen under one hundred kilos,” Rosen than said.

“You will come, Fritz?” Binz lit a cigarette.

Fritz waved one hand in my direction.  “Binz, say hello to your new roommate.  Dr. Herta Oberheuser, may I present Dorothea Binz, head of the punishment bunker. Also trains most of the Aufseherinnen for the entire Reich right here.”

“Woman doctor?” Binz said.  She sucked her cigarette and looked me over.  “That’s a new one.  Happy to meet you, Doctor.  Good luck with this group.”

She addressed me informally, using the word du instead of Sie, which struck me as inappropriate, but no one else noted this.

“Thank you, Fraulein Binz,” I said, walking her to the canteen door.

“Never thank an Aufseherinnen, Doctor,” Fritz said. “Bad precedent.”

Binz let the door slam behind her and strode out onto the platz.  She discarded her cigarette, not even half-smoked, flicking it onto the cobblestones with her thumb and forefinger.  It was clear Binz was not the friend I was seeking.

After lunch, I walked with Fritz and Dr. Hellinger toward the utility block, where new prisoners were processed.  On the way I saw every Haftling in uniform wore a colorful triangle on her sleeves, just below her number.

“What do the colored badges mean, Fritz?” I asked.

“Green triangle is a convicted criminal—mostly from Berlin, rough sorts, though some are here for breaking insignificant rules.  Many Blockovas wear this.  Purple is Bible girl—Jehovah’s Witness.  All they have to do is sign a paper saying they put Hitler above all else and they can walk free, but they won’t—crazy.  Red triangle is political prisoner. Mostly Poles.  Black is asocials: Prostitutes. Alcoholics. Pacifists.  The letter sewn inside the triangle indicates nationality.  Jews get two triangles to make a star. Himmler’s idea.”

We walked to the utility block, along a line of naked women waiting outside. The women all appeared to be Slavs of some sort, of all ages and body types. Some were visibly pregnant.  When they saw the male doctors, some shrieked, and all tried to cover themselves.

“These women need clothes, Fritz,” I said.

Once inside, we stood in a quiet corner to talk. “Here’s how we do our selections,” Fritz said.  “First, Hellinger looks for and records all silver or gold fillings and bridgework.  Then we choose those least fit to work. If those two things line up, the prisoner is chosen.  A prisoner too sick to work with a mouthful of metal goes on this list.  We tell them anything but the truth.”

“And the truth is?” I ask.

“Express bus to heaven, either the gas van or Evipan.  Gasoline if we run out. After that, Hellinger extracts the Reich’s payment.  We’ll do Evipan today.”

I hugged my waist.  “I thought the prisoners needed to work.”

“Old ladies can’t pull a concrete roller, Herta.”

“Few of them are that old and the ones that are can be put to work knitting.  And the pregnant ones need to be off their feet.”

“It’s German law.  No children can be born at a camp.  And a certain percentage needs special handling.  Otherwise this place will be too crowded, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about typhus.  And besides, some of them are Jews.”

The reeducation-camp label was a front.  How could I have been so naive?  My nausea returned.

“I need to go to my room and unpack,” I said.

“You were fine with the cadaver lab at school.”

“They weren’t breathing, Fritz. I’d rather not be involved.”

“Rather not?  You won’t be here long with that attitude.”

“I’m just not comfortable with all this. It’s so, well, personal.”

The thought of administering a lethal injection was too abhorrent to dwell on. Would we inject into the arm?  Lethal injections were barbaric and bound to be psychologically damaging for those administering them.

I touched Fritz’s hand. “But cyanide is quick and quiet.  Mixed with orange juice—”

“You think I like this?” Fritz asked, drawing me closer. “You do what you have to here.  The alternative for them is Vernichtung durch Arbeit.”

Death by labor.  Planned starvation.

“It’s orders. Direct from Himmler.  They all get just enough calories to keep them alive to work for three months. Slow extermination.”

“I can’t …”

He shrugged.  “They’ll die anyway.  Just don’t think about it.”

Fritz approached the line of naked women and clapped his hands, and they huddled together like horses in a barn.

(Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, pages pages 115-119, emphasis added)