Jacob's Oath

A Novel

Martin Fletcher

Thomas Dunne Books


April 22, 1945

In the Human Laundry at Camp 2 they barely knew they were naked, man or woman. Laid out like corpses on shiny metal tables, washed, shaved, and disinfected by German nurses, their hips and shoulders jutted out like knives.
Murky water sloshed to the floor and drained away in the central gutter that ran between the stalls of the stable.
Nurses in white coats and white kerchiefs, shrouded in steam, ethereal, scrubbed in silence, one hand resting on an arm or a leg or a head. Helpless inmates squirmed as soap burned their sores and scabs.
Jacobs sunken eyes were screwed tight. He didnt want to open them. He didnt want to see these Nazis with their pursed lips, their frowns and busy hands. Who are you to help, now that you lost? Its a bit late, you bastards.
Gently, the nurse gestured that he turn over. She smiled and cupped his shoulder and pushed lightly with her hand. He was less bony than her others that morning. He opened his eyes and winced, scalded in the sudden heat. Through a haze of burning tears he saw her big chest, big hips, blond hair pulled back into a bun, sweat pouring from her puckered brow. Flushed cheeks. Her name must be Brunhilde, he thought, and remembered: Warrior Woman, from the old Norse. How perfect. How ironic. The cow.
His penis flopped as he turned. He lay on it. He hadnt thought about it in months and now he did. It pressed against him in the warm dampness. Whoa, he thought. Its still there.
And then he stiffened.
He raised his head, his neck muscles flexed. He looked at the back of the naked man a few tables away who had rolled onto his side, placed one leg on the floor, and stood up. Jacob had glimpsed the side of his face. He was standing now, the nurse was handing him a towel. He took it, wiped his face, pulled it across his shoulders, quickly rubbed his body, and turned again to walk away.
The nurse put her hand on Jacobs head, saying, Relax, relax. She pushed him down so that she could scrub his neck but he pushed back. Sorry, did I hurt you? the nurse asked. Now his whole back arched and he stretched to see better.
The man looked different. He didnt fit in. Not as skinny. Not skinny at all. Lean, yes. Broad. Tall. As he turned and Jacob readied to see his face, a British doctor stopped to talk to a nurse, blocking Jacobs view. The man raised his arm to rub his hair with the towel; his bare arm seemed to emerge from the doctors white sleeve.
Jacob strained his eyes, not shut this time, but to peer through the damp mist of the Laundry. The mans left armpit was black with wisps and curls, but there it was. Even at three meters, in this bad light, Jacob saw it.
A blue stain. He couldnt see what it said but he could see that it was there. A tattoo? His SS blood group?
Yes. It was him. It must be. Those ears, those stiff round ears sticking out like a rat. A shiver shook Jacob, his neck hairs stood. He opened his mouth to shout but nothing came out. His body stiffened and he tried again, but he only shuddered.
Alarmed, the nurse pushed him down, harder this time. Relax, she said, please relax, there is nothing to worry about, I just need to spray the DDT, you will come out of here nice and clean. No more itching.
Now Jacob bellowed, at least he wanted to, but all that came out were high-pitched gasps, one after another, as if he were panting, choking.
The man was walking toward the door, rubbing his hair. Most inmates had to be carried on stretchers, others hobbled in pain or took it step by breathless step. He was striding. It flashed through Jacobs mind: He could be whistling. The marching song, the Horst Wessel song: Die Fahne hoch, die Reihen fest geschlossen
Jacobs eyes darkened, a flash of memory. Maxie. His brother, his baby brother. Murdered.
Jacob screamed with his little might: Stop!
You stop it now, the nurse said, and she called for help. Two nurses rushed to her side, the doctor too, they pushed Jacob to the table while the nurse pressed the plunger and a spray of DDT powder made him cough and his eyes water.
Thats better. Thatll kill the lice. Youll feel better, no more scratching.
Stop, you bastard, he yelled. Stop!
Hey, be quiet, the doctor said. Thats no way to talk. Shes only trying to help.
Its all right, I dont mind, after all theyve been through, the nurse said in German, stroking Jacobs head, trying to calm him. Youll feel better very soon. No typhus.
Stop, Jacob yelled, straining against them. Hans, you rat!
At the door the lean man turned. He took in the struggle on the table, the naked stringy Jew yelling, his little head straining forward like a tortoise, the nurses and doctor pushing him down. He saw into Jacobs crazed eyes. Smirked, spat, and left.

Copyright 2013 by Martin Fletcher