Twenty Minutes of Zyklon-B: A Poem & Short Story
By Jasmine J. Fischer (2012)
“…the discovery of the Jewish virus is one of the greatest revolutions that has taken place in the world….How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! … We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew.”
- Adolf Hitler
“The human race is unimportant. It is the self that must not be betrayed.”
“I suppose one could say that Hitler didn’t betray his self.”
“You are right. He did not. But millions of Germans did betray their selves. That was the tragedy. Not that one man had the courage to be evil. But that millions had not the courage to be good.”
- John Fowles, The Magus
Are in everything.
They are a stain
Juden was a word
It gored the side
Till she added another word
Which began on the lips
Of one man
And finished on the lips
Juden raus! 
And old Mrs Stravinsky
Who cleaned houses
Later imprisoned for the name
(Because it sounded Russian
And Mr Goldstein
Who baked bread next door
Finished up in ovens
Fed with twenty minutes
Minus the gold
From their teeth.
And the eyes of the world
Splintered with shrapnel
Squinting through the smoke
Of human flesh
Still saw a word
And it was in everything
1. “Jews out!”
“Frau Mertz. You have been brought here because we have been informed by citizens loyal to the Reich that you are hiding Jews. That you have been hiding Jews in your top attic for a number of years. Frau Mertz, your husband, brother and sons are all fighting for the German cause on the front. Giving their very lives to protect the Fatherland that you have deceived all these years! Would you betray them, Frau Mertz? Betray your own blood by undermining their cause at home and harbouring the Reich’s enemies?
But because of your family’s loyalty, the Reich will be merciful. If you speak the truth.
“Frau Mertz. We ask you one last time: are you hiding Jews in your top attic?”
† † † † †
In December 1944 a bomb fell out of the sky onto the battle-axe block of dirt belonging to the preschool, flinging the bodies of two boys and a girl playing in the sandpit into the limbs of the great oak tree that had presided over the situation for more than a hundred years.
All that was left was a fleet of toy trucks, twisted chunks of metal and melted plastic, indistinguishable from bright human blood and guileless human flesh, and the network of tunnels laboriously scooped out by the older boy over a period of three consecutive recesses and two-and-a-half lunchtimes, reduced to a pitiable choke of earth. Almost a whole week of work.
A hideous microcosm of the rest of the world.
A table leg had just saved Adolf Hitler from the fifteenth lot of motley conspirators who hoped to end the war with a bomb in a briefcase. For the three dead, Hitler ended the stories of four thousand, nine hundred and eighty more; those that didn’t finish up by firing squad were hung from a long line of meat hooks in an abandoned warehouse. In the camps, twenty minutes of Zyklon-B bought the deaths of four thousand Jews at once. We didn’t know any of this til after. I swear it.
Just before Christmas, a single bomb fell out of the sky, and nobody flinched. We had more on our plate than we could stomach.
It was 1944, and to tell you that, is to tell you enough.
† † † † †
Because it’s a Thursday, she makes the bed.
There is only one proper way to make a bed, which was one of the things Rosa’s mother considered important enough to pass on to all three of her children, and subsequently attended to with the same fastidiousness she administered in large German doses to everything else; the artful arranging of a tie, the tucking in of a shirt, the proper management of her husband. Up until the day an accident on Rathausstrasse forced a detour from her routine morning walk and she saw him in the café opposite the park, with his hand over the hand of the woman across from him and his shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and the contents of his desk in a box on the seat beside him.
Everything after that her mother did with perfect automacy. She kept house for the Holtzes – who were rich and Jewish, a combination which was still legal in those days – until one day, she was suddenly too old to climb the stairs, and she would sit in the armchair on the ground floor with the feather duster, pointing out dust colonies in the curtain pleats from a good ten yards away. Her tongue and her vision outlasted everything else, and would have continued to if her heart had felt the same way.
Automacy was different to routine and habit, their close British cousins, and to ritual, that Jewish stranger. Automacy was good German efficiency and uniformity, which stretched predictably across her life and allowed her to drown out voices. In efficiency there was control, and control was a type of power. Rosa’s mother always said it was the German way of things, but when Rosa took over the housekeeping sometime between the wars, when the Fatherland was still licking its pride and the young Hitler was still drafting his struggle in a German hospital, she suspected it was more her mother’s way of doing things. And now it would be hers.
Now she only makes the bed on Thursdays, when the middle-aged woman squeezing Deutsche marks monthly from her granddaughter’s bank account comes from three blocks away to boil an egg and line her toothbrush with toothpaste, and leave the television set on bleeding smoke from another war into her clean living room.
There’s a satisfactory rebellion in the way she tugs the sheets and fluffs the pillows, and folds the bottom sheet over so that it cuts a perfect margin against the rest of the bed, all the while looking over her shoulder to the corner of Reichenstrasse and Gerstäckerstrasse where the station is, waiting for him to come home. All the hims that she has waited for: father, husband, son.
Who never did.
The help comes instead, leaves the television knifing the silence while she makes Rosa a sandwich in the kitchen, and leaves twenty minutes later. Rosa sits in the only armchair she’s ever sat in in twenty years with the sandwich sitting companionably on a plate beside her. Between updates of fresh fatalities from the war, she attempts small bites of sandwich. Finally, she gets to her feet with the chair and her knees groaning in unison, pulls the plug on the television set and hauls the whole thing out on a trolley cart to the laundry. An impressive feat for an old woman, even though it takes her half an hour.
She leaves the sandwich marooned on the coffee table in the main sitting room and decides to clean the glass in the front window bay instead, because the window washer is in cohorts with the help in bleeding her granddaughter’s money dry and has left great long streaks down the glass that, together with the last dregs of sunlight straining behind it, would be enough to bring her mother up from the grave.
It is then, kneeling in the window, that she simply materialises on the street corner, gazing up at the house.
She, Lizbet. Lizbet Holtz, Lizbet. The name Rosa never mentions out loud, even though it’s been stuck on repeat in her head for twenty years.
Even though she must be near thirty, Lizbet Holtz looks like a girl separated from a school group soberly picking their way through the streets of Auschwitz. She crosses the street and sees Rosa suspended in the window. Her eyes are older than her face.
Oh, forgive me Lizbet, for I have sinned.
† † † † †
The day after they bombed the preschool was the last time I saw the Holtzes in Horrem. It was night and near Christmas, even though we wouldn’t have one that year.
The torches of the Nazis were feeling their way around corners, snagging in the gutters, trickling down the drainpipes, pooling in the wet black spaces beneath every door. The meniscus curve of the cobbled streets, sagging in the middle with snow pressed up against the bowed shoulders of houses on both sides. The shadows of the men, six in all, whip-thin on the fresh white.
They found the house and crowded together outside the door, the edges of their heavy coats cut raggedly by the soft light of the porch. The narrow strip of garden on either side was sealed and tightly pressed. Ironed out into uniformity, like everything that was good and German.
I heard voices, quiet and indistinguishable, because the wind picked them up and flung them across too much air.
In the clipped silence of the foyer, I listened to the steady cedar heartbeat of the aged grandfather as their torches flashed through the glass panels flanking the door and trickled down onto the Persian rug, which still smelled like my mother’s soap after ten years of her being interred underground.
I felt the collective holding of breath upstairs.
The Nazis, who had waited for an admirably long time considering they were elected guardians of the purity of the human race, forced their way in. I wasn’t going to open the door for them. I couldn’t look, because I knew how it would end. It had ended this way in my head every night that they were upstairs.
I turned my attention to the shadows clumped in the corner, underneath the window sills, arching themselves against the spines of the straight-backed dining chairs. The anxious twitch of the grandfather, wringing his hands as the hours sweated minutes in the dark. The slouched green velvet recliner with the springs pushing up like blunt knives through the seat. I was sunken into gloom with the rest of the house. I didn’t move, even when I heard the little girl scream.
It was a cough, that’s all. A cough from the little girl betrayed them. Not me. It wasn’t me. I promise you. A cough sent them all straight to the gas.
Only ten minutes later, the door clicked shut, and there were eight more sets of footprints on the snow outside the door.
And Horrem slept on.
† † † † †
Rosa leaves the window, crosses the foyer to the door and stands behind it, paralysed. After ten minutes she thinks Lizbet is gone, but then she hears the knock, as faint as a cough behind a false wall, three raps of a fist against solid wood. Through the glass either side of the door she sees her turn away, then turn back, then press her face against the glass. She’s discovered.
She opens the door uncertainly, breathing fast as if she’s been hurrying.
“Hello?” Guileless, as only the young and the elderly can be.
Lizbet stands awkwardly, wordlessly on the threshold.
“I’m Lizbet Holtz.”
Still Jewish, Rosa thinks.
She assumes a patient, motherly smile. Warm, but inquiring, as if she has a cup of tea waiting for her inside that’s going cold.
“Rosa,” she says back.
“Do you remember me? I’ve…I’ve come back. I think this might be the house.”
Rosa shakes her head. “I don’t think so.” She opens the door wider for her to come inside. Lizbet trembles slightly as the door clicks shut behind her. Finally, she stands in the kitchen, Rosa’s kitchen, her kitchen. She looks at the oven, where seven Holtzes finished up as wood to feed the fire that burned in the heart of Germany.
Lizbet looks at her. “Are there other people here? Upstairs?”
She has been asked this question so many times, for so many different reasons.
“No, just me.”
“You look so much like someone I knew in the war. Before the war. Someone who kept the house for us. I’m sure of it, this was the street, the very house. My family lived here. I thought…”
Does she know? Rosa asks herself.
No. There was always too much self-doubt in Lizbet.
“I don’t think so, Fräulein Holtz. I came from Cologne to settle here. Everything in that beautiful city, burned to the ground.” Rosa let her gaze settle onto the tops of her slippers, light as dust.
Lizbet nods. “Except for the Cathedral.”
Rosa nods along with her. “God looks after His property.” And then she bites her tongue.
Lizbet’s head drops; she sees the foolishness of an old woman, she isn’t angry.
“It’s late,” Rosa says kindly. “You are welcome to stay here.”
But Lizbet shakes her head. “No, I have a place. I just thought…” She stands suddenly, and her boots on the kitchen floor sound like lids falling onto wooden coffins. “Here’s my address, in case you remember anything.”
Does she know? Rosa asks herself again.
Rosa shows her to the door, and this time she flinches as it closes behind her.
And for a long time afterwards as she lies in bed, she clutches at the cold outline of the cross beneath her nightgown and prays at the feet of the still-standing Cathedral in Cologne.
Oh, forgive me, Lizbet, for I have sinned.
† † † † †
It was a cough, is her first thought on waking. A cough betrayed them.
Frau Mertz, said other voices. We will be merciful, if you tell us the truth.
Are you hiding Jews in your top attic?
And even though it is a Friday, she makes the bed. And she thinks to herself that human civilisation must have been a natural consequence of learning how to make a bed. The essence of life was really distraction: obsessing with the corners, tugging the sheets till they lay flat, plumping the pillows, then lying back down again at night and messing it all up again. Life, her life, was perfect harmony. Beautiful, useless, cut up into bite-sized arbitrary intervals she could watch on her wrist, in the park, on the grandfather in the hallway. For all it was her life, it could be the life of any one of a thousand others who never lived. Running like clockwork. All the minutes of her day indistinguishable from the minutes of everyone else’s.
Lizbet’s father and Lizbet’s mother and Lizbet’s brothers, tangled and indistinguishable from somebody else’s father and mother and brothers, and they would both wait for people who were never going to come home.
That’s what efficiency did to you.
That’s what war was.
† † † † †
“Your husband, brother and sons are giving their very lives to protect the Fatherland. Would you betray them? But because of your family’s loyalty, the Reich will be merciful. If you speak the truth…”
She gets dressed carefully. Her pearls, Frau Holtz’s pearls, go on over the freshly starched and ironed front of her dress. She runs Frau Holtz’s comb through greying hair and secures Frau Holtz’s best hairclip to the once graceful curve of her upper neck. She tucks Lizbet’s card into Frau Holtz’s smallest handbag and goes out to meet the staircase rising up to meet the second floor. She leans heavily on the polished banisters, her feet feeling for one slippery curve of timber at a time until she feels the sturdier floorboards at the bottom. She ignores the evidence of an emerging dust colony on the north-facing bay window curtains and makes for the door, snatching up one of Herr Holtz’s canes from the hatstand.
She turns back to look at the house, a beautiful distraction. And she imagines dust flurries in the attic which sorely needs airing, mould growing thick in the damp bathrooms, streaks on the windows and dust on the mantelpieces, and the seats of the lounges falling down the backs and the blades pushing up through the velvet to knife unsuspecting recliners.
“Frau Mertz. We ask you one last time: did you hide Jews in your top attic?”
“Frau Mertz. Do you remember me? Me, Lizbet? I think you knew me before the war… You kept the house for us…”
This is truth.
I did, Lizbet. I kept the house.
And Rosa knows at last that this is her ghetto, her false wall, her beautiful distraction. A place that kept the past contained, and hidden, so this place, so the rest of her, could be kept clean. Outside the house, she stands on the threshold. A flicker of indecision, quickly gone. She weaves her way through a clutch of boys playing on the corner and crosses the road. The hotel where Lizbet is staying is a couple of streets away, but as it turns out, she doesn’t have to go far. She is there, on the corner, buying coffee from a stallholder. She turns, cradling it, her face too young for her eyes. She sees Rosa. Suddenly, they are face-to-face on the footpath.
And the silence between them is broken by a cough.
Fumbling for her handkerchief, Rosa reaches for the address. She looks into Lizbet’s eyes and knows she recognises the pearls, the clip, the dress, the handbag. There is no anger, no condemnation. Only relief.
Rosa swallows her past and speaks.
“I kept the house for you, Lizbet Holtz.”
And in her mind, where the war has always been, she lines up her interrogators, all at once. And she faces the questions, all of them.
Yes, German, there are Jews in my top attic.
Yes, German, there have always been Jews in my top attic, and I hear them through the walls. For twenty-three years I heard them in the walls, but no more.
Yes, German, but they will flee Europe for other places. And transplant their dreams to a better land.