MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Escaping was extraordinarily simple.
In the Dachau concentration camp I was part of the crew assigned to clean out the waste pipes for the metropolis of Munich. Each morning we set out for the city with sticks and scrubbing brushes; they loaded us onto trucks in platoons of twenty people.
Cleaning out sewers is a more varied job than it may appear at first: there are assorted chores involved.
Sometimes you have to lift a metal manhole cover on a sidewalk and lower yourself into the depths below. There’s a huge pipe down there with a short, closed neck that protrudes vertically from it. You uncover this neck and jab your stick in, swirling it around to dislodge the amassed feces. You have to scrape and stir them until they slide down again.
At other times we cleaned the toilets and drainpipes in factories and public buildings. Or they took us to the huge drainage conduit where, using the long sticks, we pushed at the encrusted feces from the grated openings and sloshed corrosive acids and water on them; then all that noxious decomposition flowed away rapidly like an infernal torrent. After that we attached scrubbing brushes to our sticks and scoured the walls of the conduit.
But the worst was when they brought us to rural villages to empty the cesspools: out there, there are no sewer pipes. When the black holes fill up, you have to empty them with buckets and eventually climb in yourself. Only then did they give us masks and rubber boots, and we worked covered in shit until we finished.
A lot of people got sick and there were some who died from toxicity.
There were also good days, when the pipes were not blocked by excrement, when the public toilets functioned efficiently and the “grand canal” flowed without obstruction; on those days we were promoted to the grade of manure spreaders, called Mistbreiter.
We were sent out to farms. We went behind the stables and, with the pitchforks they gave us, loaded the manure onto wagons. Then we followed the wagons, on foot, to outlying fields. Once we reached our destination, the wagons would stop every ten yards or so and the farmer would dump out a pile of manure that we had to spread around.
I’d sink the pitchfork into the pile and, tensing my muscles, lift with a swift, violent wrench until it emerged with an excessive load of manure; then, as I was about to scatter it around, my muscles would give way, and the fork wavered and tipped its load. So I jabbed the fork in again, trying to pull it out slowly and steadily, but just when I was congratulating myself for how easily I’d lifted it up, I noticed the long, bare prongs draped with only a few strands of dripping manure.
The ideal time to escape was during one of the air raids that would hit while we were at work, without warning, the enemy bombardment sudden enough to surprise the guards, who had a hard time rounding us up.
So that’s what I did.
I’d looked into it for some time, cautiously, because the Nazis managed to make us suspicious of one another. The internees do not look favorably upon those who want to escape from the camp, because every runaway doubles the surveillance and results in additional punishments and penalties for those who remain; nor do the prospective escapees ever make themselves known, because they are afraid of being informed on by fellow prisoners unable to endure torture or resist promises of reward.
Under pressure I was able to learn that in the city of Munich, about ten miles away, right near the Labor Bureau, there is a so-called Durchgangslager, a transit camp where fugitives hide out while waiting to find a more secure accommodation. The camp is commonly referred to by us as Thomasbräu, after the nearby Thomas brewery. I treasured that reference as if it were a reliable friend whose first name was Thomas and whose last name was Bräu.
At Dachau they told me:
“Kiss the ground and be thankful they didn’t throw you into one of their brothels. Nineteen years old, female, what were you expecting … freedom in the Third Reich?”
But one afternoon when we’d been transported to Munich, as we were working on the sidewalk sewers in a downtown neighborhood, the siren sounded, immediately followed by explosive thuds; people were fleeing. I flatten myself in a doorway, dash into the next doorway … a narrow alley, I squeeze into a niche amid the uproar of the bombs, eyes darting all around me, I throw off the rubber gear. No one is pursuing me. Still running, I reach the station, where I think I’ll be safer from any snitches, since no one takes refuge there during bombings.
In the snow, which falls unsteadily, I head for the dead-end sidings where debris piles up, the scraps emerging from the snow to testify to their need, and drawing me to them like sad old friends. I move among the torn-up metal that juts out in twisted hunks and sit behind a shed on a rusty shaft that protrudes sideways from a pile of rubble.
The bombs follow one another compulsively and crash like waves in a stormy sea. I’m not afraid because every boom is my accomplice.
When I see the planes move on to the other side of the city, I get up and go in search of an air-raid shelter, to hide and mix in with the people.
I walk through deserted streets in the dithering snow until I come across the opening of an underground shelter that looks like a subway under construction; I go down the stairs and come out into a long, wide corridor full of pitiable indigents, so it must be a bunker for foreigners. I look at them avidly as if to trace the face of freedom: they have sagging mouths, jaws, and a vague mask of defiance on their faces. No one pays any attention to me.
When the all-clear sounds, I ask an Italian who seems friendly and more welcoming where the Labor Bureau is.
“At this hour?” He looks at his watch.
“What time is it?”
“It’s eight o’clock, the Bureau is closed.”
“It doesn’t matter. Where is it?”
The man picks a crumpled piece of yellow paper off the ground, smooths it out meticulously with his hands, flattening it against the wall, and with a pencil, under the dim glow of a dangling light bulb, sketches a map of the streets I need to take.
Other Italians gather around me.
“Are you Italian?”
“Where are you from?”
“For a long time?”
“So, what else is new.”
They don’t ask me any more questions. They go out of their way to explain to me where I have to go.
One says, “At Sendicatorplatz you can ask.” (Later I’ll find out that the real name is Sendlinger Tor Platz, which no foreigner has ever been able to pronounce correctly.)
Someone else shrugs. “Don’t you understand that she can’t ask?”
They look at me indifferently. I wonder if they can help me? I take a chance:
“Where are you staying?”
“At Siemens. Today is a day off.”
“Some day off!” one of them remarks, spitting on the floor. “Stuck in here.”
“If you need anything, come on over.”
“We’re in barrack eighteen, in the first camp.”
“But be careful.”
They say goodbye. They go away.
I don’t know what to do and I hide in a corner. People leave, no German guard appears. The dim light bulbs go out. I wait in the uncertain silence.
I wake up terrified because I fell asleep without meaning to and I’m afraid it’s gotten late. I go outside: it’s the dead of night. It’s still snowing; occasional streetlamps, their glass obscured, cast a mysterious light on the harsh houses, on streets made even more immaculate by the snow.
I walk along following the route on the yellow paper; undisturbed, I wander through streets smoothed over by whiteness, in dazzling solitude, caressed by the snow that lulls me. The Labor Bureau must be here, though I can’t make out any Lager, I don’t see any barracks, or barbed wire, no guards walking around. Only uniform houses, their white roofs lowered over gray facades like inhospitable visors, continually barring my way.
I’m exhausted from the cold, tired and hungry. A furtive shadow slinks in front of me, sees me, stops, watches me.
It’s a blond young man, thin, tense, eyes like two slits. He looks like a foreigner. I wish he’d say something, but he remains silent. Maybe he’s waiting for me to speak first. I raise my hand slowly and nod at him. He repeats my gesture. I’d like to call out, but I’m afraid of the sound of my voice in the soft silence. I raise my hand again to motion him over to me.
He approaches, his right hand in his pocket.
“What do you want?” he asks me in French, looking me up and down. His voice is as peaceful as the snow and doesn’t disturb anything.
“Are you French?” I ask in turn in his language.
“Yes. And you?”
“I’m Italian, but born and raised in France.”
“What are you looking for?”
Suddenly I feel very trustful. “Thomasbräu,” I tell him.
A quick smile, affectionate and patronizing, flickers over his gaunt, impassive face.
“Come with me.”
He walks briskly, without a sound, on the unspoiled snow, and I can barely keep up.
When we come to a corner, he turns to me: “Hurry up.”
“Okay.” I nod fervently and move faster; I have the impression that my steps alone are making a terrible racket, while his are muffled.
We arrive in front of a wall. The young Frenchman moves closer and stands facing it.
“Climb on me and scramble over.”
I start to climb, but am left awkwardly straddling his back, unable to go any farther.
The boy sighs. “Get down,” he says brusquely.
I slide off. He picks me up; I barely have time to marvel at his strength (it comes from freedom, I think joyfully).
“Grab on to the edge of the wall, watch out for the glass shards.” I do what he says and cut my hand.
“Put your feet on my shoulders. Now climb over.”
A thud and I find myself sitting on the ground, on the other side of the wall. With an agile leap the Frenchman joins me, pulls me up, takes my hand, and pulls me along.
We’re in a spacious courtyard, occupied by massive silhouettes of vehicles camouflaged by the snow. On the ground shiny white tracks left by tires trace diamond patterns and arabesques.
The young man stops. “Beautiful,” he says, his eyes indicating the tracks: “It looks like they’re trying to tell us something.” He looks at me and smiles again like he did earlier.
“What’s your name?”
He starts walking again, unhurriedly, lighting a cigarette. I’m worried that someone will pop out from behind a truck, but I don’t dare tell him that.
“Is it far?” I ask as we leisurely make our way across the courtyard, as if we were out for a stroll.
“There.” He points to a small door that I hadn’t noticed in the wall in front of us, which is not actually a wall, but the side of a house without windows.
A pang of dismay stops me dead. “Louis.”
“What is it?”
“I was looking for the Thomasbräu Lager.”
We reach the door. He shoves it open with his hip. He goes in, stamps his feet vigorously to shake off the snow, pulls me inside, and kicks the door shut. He switches the light on.
We’re in a clammy corridor full of gobs of spit and dirt; a pipe runs along a wall, bending abruptly into the hall and ending at a thunderous faucet, which noisily spills water into a bucket. The water splashes out onto the floor and races toward the door in rivulets.
Louis grabs the bucket, tosses the water into a corner, sets it upside down.
“Have a seat,” he says.
He crouches on his calves in front of me.
“What, don’t you like the place?” he asks with mock innocence.
“Oh yes, very much.”
“Where did you come from?”
Copyright © 2012 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore S.r.l. Translation copyright © 2018 by Anne Milano Appel