By Michael Posner
The house of times past is halfway covered with vines
the other half is covered with ashes.
— Carlos Drummond de Andrade
We had been there a few weeks — it’s probably best not to disclose precisely where.
It was February, the Brazilian summer, and oppressively humid. Gunther had left to buy distilled water. We were awaiting instructions. I started to read — an anthology of Brazilian poets — but fell asleep. When I woke, I suddenly felt restless. Despite the heat, I decided to go for a walk. Life is illogical.
Our furnished flat was a comfortable, otherwise nondescript two-bedroom affair in a leafy suburb, a short flight up from ground level. Gunther and I, German businessmen, were seeking trading opportunities in art and ceramics, a flourishing industry in towns up and down the Brazilian coast.
We spent part of every day visiting artisans and their studios, examining pottery, sculpture, original canvases, lithographs and the like. Sometimes we went together, but usually separately, so that one of us would be free to monitor Dr. C, the actual focus of our visit.
C lived quietly in an adjacent district, in a small bungalow with his ailing wife. An advance team, posing as electricians, had managed to install a powerful listening device in C’s kitchen. Tiny cameras on two hydro poles provided a perspective on the front and side doors. We monitored these on our laptops.
By all appearances, C seldom strayed far beyond the neighbourhood. He had planted a lovely flower garden — freesia, gloxinia, bauhinia — in front of the house, and a modest vegetable garden in the back. These endeavours occupied many of his daytime hours. Indoors, in the evening, he watched documentary films about Mother Nature. For a man of his advanced age — eighty-eight — he appeared to be in robust health: tanned, firm if not muscular, still erect.
His wife was a stroke victim confined to a wheelchair. C was himself unable or unwilling to attend to her needs, so trained nurses arrived daily, solo, in three six-hour shifts, from seven in the morning until one a.m. Another woman stayed through the night. Someone was also paying for discreet but regular security patrols. Several other cameras, not ours, had been mounted on the house and in the trees, which surveyed the property from various angles.
On Wednesday nights, it was C’s custom to walk with a younger friend or two to a German social club, the Stammtisch, not many blocks away. Gunther and I had dropped in during our third week. About two dozen men had turned up, all of a certain age. They drank imported beer and enthusiastically played skat and other German card games. Gunther had brought a chess set and we set up the board, nursed a drink or two, chatted idly with patrons about the weather and the decline of western civilization, and casually kept on eye on things. With his back to a wall, C watched as well, carefully sipping his beer. After a few hours, he returned home, again with an escort.
That night, comparing notes, we decided we had a reasonable grasp of the logistical obstacles, but no clear plan for how to overcome them.
Now, when Gunther returned, he decided to join me on my walk. It was mid-afternoon and, if I thought the city was somnolent at the best of times, it was at this point completely quiet, as if a moratorium on movement had been declared. Stray dogs and cats, a few elderly women umbrellas raised against the brutal sun, and an occasional teenager on a bicycle were the only others willing to endure the heat.
We headed toward the ocean promenade where a little breeze took the edge off the heat. Our route normally followed the side streets, to avoid traffic. But that day, we chose a commercial avenue with a pharmacy, nail salons, and other boutiques at street level, with a floor or two of apartments above. Once or twice we stopped in at a convenience store and engaged the owners, on the pretence of improving our Portuguese language skills.
We had been strolling for about twenty minutes when I noticed something peculiar: a simple door frame, its grey coat of paint badly chipped and scarred. On the right side of the frame, near the top, I saw what I took to be the faded outline of a mezuzah, the small cylindrical box containing lines of scripture from the Book of Deuteronomy which Jews are commanded by God to attach to the doorposts of their homes. The Hebrew word mezuzah literally means doorpost. The mezuzah itself was long gone, but its pale shadow remained.
“Gunther, one moment. Come here,” I said, for while I was gazing at the faded paint, he had walked ahead. “Do you see what I see?”
He peered at the doorframe and shrugged. “Okay, I get it. So?” He lowered his voice. “Jews lived here once. So what?”
“So what? It doesn’t strike you as odd?”
He shrugged again. “The universe is full of improbabilities, Erich.”
Then, on an impulse which I am trained to suppress, I raised a fist to knock on the door. Gunther put his hand on my arm.
“Are you quite sure we should do this?”
In the parlance of our trade, Gunther and I are modedim, Hebrew for surveyors. People tend to think espionage is glamorous, but frankly it’s mostly tedium. We are idle much of the time, usually in a strange town in a strange country where the food is mediocre, if not worse. We observe, make notes, mental and otherwise, send files, play chess, speculate ad nauseum, go for long walks, talk to people. We do a lot of waiting. There are worse occupations, of course.
The C assignment was more boring than most. Our task was to document his movements, but he seldom moved. He tilled the garden. He entertained the occasional visitor, usually a neighbour. He had a doctor appointment every Monday afternoon, to which he was driven, there and back, by Helga, a lady friend at least twenty years younger. Despite his age, we wondered if the relationship was sexual; as far as we could discern — discreet inquiries were made — it was not.
After some discussion, we concluded that the registered nurse option might be the best, perhaps only, opportunity for innocuous access.
Elena was a lively sprite of a thing. She must have been about seventeen, not more. She opened the door as if she were welcoming long-lost cousins. When I pointed to the outline on the frame, she seemed puzzled at first but then said in Portuguese, “Oh, yes. There used to be something. My grandmother mentioned it once. A…” Then she laughed, slightly embarrassed. “I can’t remember what it’s called.”
“Mezuzah,” I said.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“When did your grandmother live here?” I asked.
“Oh, she still does,” she said. “She’s upstairs. Would you like to meet her?”
One evening, Gunther composed and sent a message to our office in Hanover. The German text read, Urgently require manufacturer for custom-made packing cases for precious ceramic vases. Decoded in Tel Aviv, it said simply, RN.
Technically, the mere suggestion of tactics was beyond our mandate. But it was one of the few bureaucratic virtues of the agency that it had never been marked by adherence to guidelines and formalities. The message came back the next morning: Empfagen. Received. Es soll getan werden. It shall be done.
We climbed a dilapidated flight of stairs to a simple flat. Inside, an old, rather obese woman, Raquel, was sitting on a floral-patterned chair, knitting. She had to cock her head to see us and, when she did, she burst spontaneously and convulsively into tears, and continued to sob uncontrollably. I could not fathom how or why our arrival had precipitated that response. Elana tried to calm her, but the sobbing went on for several long minutes, and only gradually subsided. When she had finally collected herself, she said in Portuguese, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. I thought, when I saw you, it was my two brothers. Returned from the dead.”
“Brothers?” asked Elana. “Avo, I never knew you had two brothers.”
She stared at the girl and sighed deeply. “My dear, my precious one, there is a great deal about me that you do not know. Now, please, Elana. It's a very warm day. Bring our guests some lemonade.”
At Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis had conducted so-called hypothermia experiments. Naked prisoners were forced to sit or stand exposed, for hours, in sub-zero temperatures, while medics monitored their vital signs. It’s estimated that hundreds of prisoners died in the process — men, women and children. Ostensibly, the Nazis sought to apply whatever knowledge was gleaned to assist their troops mired in the snows of the Russian steppes. Dr. C was in charge of these experiments, reporting to the infamous Fritz Klein.
It was all horrible, by definition. But there was one case in this grim catalogue of horrors that stood out for me. I will tell you his name because names matter. Dovid Gold, son of Eliezer, son of Baruch — a boy of fifteen, from Propoisk. Rounded up in the winter of 1941 and shipped to Majdanek, and later to Bergen-Belsen.
The story was that C had designed the experiment himself. It was the following winter. Camp functionaries lifted Dovid, naked, into a wooden barrel and filled it with chips of ice. Someone thought — perhaps it was C, but it scarcely matters — to make a spectacle of the experiment, a macabre show for the prisoners. They were all summoned to the appelplatz, the parade ground, and made to stand and watch. Two minutes, four, eight, twelve. I don’t now how long the human body can survive exposure to freezing cold temperatures. Eventually, they dragged him from the barrel — eyewitnesses said he appeared to be dead — and threw him into a vat of boiling water, this for science, of course — to observe how a body might respond to sudden warming. If Dovid was not dead before, he certainly was afterward.
It’s not a motto or anything like that, but we recognize no statute of limitations. The passage of time, age, illness, contrition, penance — these are irrelevant considerations. Even if you’re ninety-seven and can’t remember your own name, we will find you. Justice will be served.
I knew the rough outline of Raquel’s story before she began. I’d heard it too many times before.
She’d been raised by observant Jews in Kolbuszowa, in southeastern Poland. The Nazis seized control of her village one week after the war began, the terrified cadre of Polish troops fleeing before the enemy advance. By then, the town’s Jewish population had swelled, as Jews from the West sought refuge from the Wehrmacht.
All the usual indignities were inflicted: arson, curfews, rape, beatings, theft, exile, forced labour, yellow stars, the appointment of a Judenrat, not to mention summary execution.
Improbably, Raquel”s family remained intact for more than a year. Then her two brothers, still teenagers, were dispatched to a forced labour camp in Pustkow, overseen by a sadistic SS officer named Klaus Schmidt. His sporting custom, each morning, was to fire randomly into the work force — death by roulette. Every evening, at roll call, he”d arbitrarily choose another victim. One brother died exactly this way: executed at a public hanging, during which the other Jews were ordered to sing Jewish songs. The other died as well; the circumstances were never known. Raquel survived the war in hiding, spending four years in a subterranean cavern on a farm owned by sympathetic and courageous, Catholics.
In the living room, the shutters were closed against the heat. We sipped our lemonade.
“The mezuzah,” I said. “Do you know what happened to it?”
“No. There was once a Jewish community here. Small. A dozen families. The old ones died. The young went to the cities. Only a few of us left now. I had planned to replace it, but...”
It was time to go. We thanked her and made our goodbyes.
“Verdadeiramente,” Raquel said, “Eu pensei que vocês fossem meus irmãos.” Truly, I thought you were my brothers.
“Avo,” said Elana. “Como é que você nunca falou sobre isso antes?” How is that you never spoke of this before? Your brothers. The war.
“O enterrou,” she said. “Fundo. Escuro.” She had buried it in darkness.
“Eu deixei naquela caverna na Polônia.” I left it in that cave in Poland. “Eu precisava de um terremoto.” It needed an earthquake.
She looked at us once more. “Você foi meu terremoto.”You were my earthquake.
We never met Beatriz. That was the name later appended to the file. Ostensibly, she came from Brasilia. I’m not at liberty to reveal how all of it was done — use your imagination. But we are very good at this. After almost seven decades of practice.
She would have been assigned to the rotation of nurses who administered to Dr. C’s wife. A security agent would have checked her thoroughly, of course, at least on the first few visits. Thereafter, in a more cursory fashion. It would have been done at the end of her shift. An injection, I presume. We’re never told. She would have left with her satchel, walked briskly down the block and around the corner to a waiting car, and been in Miami by the next day. We stayed long enough to read the flowery obituary notice for C published in the Stammisch newsletter.
These events occurred a few years ago. I am largely retired from the service now. I live quietly in Ashdod, running a small currency exchange kiosk. Occasionally I get a telephone call with instructions and, soon after, a young man on a motorcycle delivers an envelope with a passport, cash, and a photograph of a very old man. The address might be in Cleveland or Winnipeg or Nairobi. It scarcely matters. Justice must be done.
I am not easily surprised but last month I received another call.
“Excuse me,” a woman’s voice said in Hebrew, “but are you Erich, the gentleman who was in Brazil not long ago and came to see my grandmother?”
It was Elana, the young woman we had met. She was now living in Jerusalem. Our visit, she said, had precipitated a second earthquake. Hearing her grandmother’s story had awakened something within her — she could not quite explain it. Soon after our visit, she began reading books about Judaism and the Holocaust. She started to learn Hebrew online, then decided to continue studying in Israel. She was now enrolled in a yeshiva, had met a young man, and had recently become engaged. She was phoning to invite me — and, through me, Gunther — to the wedding. She had only found me with great difficulty. A rabbi in Rio had referred her to a commercial attaché at the Israeli embassy, who had consulted an unnamed colleague, who had liaised with an associate in Tel Aviv; in time, my telephone number was provided.
Gunther was unable to attend, but I hired a car. On the radio, driving to Jerusalem for the simcha, there was a report of a trial for a Nazi war criminal in Chicago that was about to begin.
I found a seat near the door. During the ceremony I found my thoughts drifting back to Brazil, to that stroll Gunther and I had taken under the hot sun — why that street and not the other? — and how my eyes had been strangely drawn to the pale grey shadow on a door frame, the mezuzah that was no longer there.
That afternoon, on pure impulse, I had acted in a way that we are expressly enjoined from acting. Now, thousands of miles away, decades after the Shoah, I watched a young woman who had known nothing of her past, nothing of her identity, circle her groom for the seventh time. I don’t mind admitting there were tears.