MARCH 1956 BUENOS AIRES
I held my breath during the airplane's steep ascent. I'd hardly even stepped outside the capital city the entire six years I've spent in Argentina. The thought of being cooped up in such a small space for so many hours made my chest hurt, but as the plane's nose evened out, so did my breathing, and I calmed down.
When the attractive blonde came up and asked if I wanted anything to drink, I told her tea would be fine. For a second I thought about having something stronger, for my nerves, but since my stay in Auschwitz, I had snubbed alcoholic beverages. It was a disgrace to see my colleagues drunk day in and day out, and Commandant Rudolf Höss barely batting an eye. It was true that in those final months of the war, desperation had overtaken many men. Some had lost their wives and children in the barbaric Allied air raids. Still, a German soldier—and even more so a member of the SS—should remain collected regardless of the circumstances.
The stewardess carefully placed my hot tea on the tray table, and I flashed her a smile. She had perfect features. Her lips were just wide enough, her eyes a bright, intense blue, her cheeks small and rosy—the ideal Aryan face. Then I turned my eyes to my old black leather case. I had packed a couple of biology and genetics texts to make the trip go faster. I cannot explain why, but at the last minute I also decided to grab a couple of the old notebooks from the Zigeunerlager
kindergarten in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Years before I had put them with my reports on genetic studies carried out in Auschwitz, but I had never gone back to read through them. The notebooks were the diaries of a German woman I met in Auschwitz, Helene Hannemann. Frau Hannemann and her family, and the war, were now part of a distant past I preferred not to dwell in, the years when I was a young SS officer and everyone knew me as Herr Doktor
I reached over and picked up the first notebook. The cover was completely faded, the corners were stained with dried splotches, and the paper had taken on that faded yellow color of old stories no one cares about anymore. Swallowing my first sip of tea, I slowly opened to the first page. The long, slanting hand of Helene Hannemann, the director of the Gypsy nursery school at Auschwitz, took me back to Birkenau, to section BIIe, where the Roma were housed. Mud, electric fences, and the sweet smell of death—that was Auschwitz for us, what it remained in our memories.
MAY 1943 BERLIN
It was still dark when I stumbled half-asleep out of bed. Though it was starting to get warm during the day, the mornings continued to be chilly enough to give me goose bumps. I slipped into my light satin robe and, without waking Johann, headed for the bathroom. Fortunately, our apartment still had hot water, and I could take a quick shower before going to wake the children. All of them but little Adalia had school that morning. I wiped the steam off the mirror with my hand and looked at myself for a few seconds, noting how the encroaching wrinkles seemed to make my blue eyes look smaller. I had bags under my eyes, but that was not surprising for a mother with five children under the age of twelve and who worked double shifts nursing to keep the family afloat. I toweled off my hair 'til it recovered its straw-blonde color, but I stopped to examine the gray streaks that were spreading upward from my temples. I got to work curling my hair, but that only lasted until I heard the twins, Emily and Ernest, calling me. I threw my clothes on and, still barefoot, hurried to the other bedroom.
They were sitting up in bed chatting quietly when I entered the room. Their two older brothers remained curled up, grasping at the last few seconds of sleep. Adalia still slept with us, as the kids' bed was too small for all five of them to squeeze in.
"Less noise, sweeties. The others are still sleeping. I have to get breakfast ready," I whispered. They beamed at me as if the simple sight of my face were enough to make their day.
I pulled their clothes off the chair and placed them on the bed. The twins were already six years old and did not need my help getting dressed. The more people there are in a family, the more streamlined the systems have to be to help everyone get the simple tasks done as quickly and easily as possible.
I went into our tiny kitchen and started heating things up. A few minutes later, the bitter scent of cheap coffee filled the room. That weak substitute of brown-tinted water was the only way to cover the tastelessness of our watered-down milk, though by now the older kids knew they were not drinking real milk. Every now and then with a bit of luck, we could get our hands on a few cans of powdered milk, but since the beginning of the year, rations had grown even
scarcer as things got worse on the front.