The place had smelled relatively good until the last five minutes or so when a distinctive smell began to scent the air. Our tour guide looked at us with slitted eyes. Damn, I know that smell. We all did. It was Bialystok all over again. I wondered how they did it here. I doubted they burned a building down every day with Jews inside. He stopped. Ahead of was a red brick building with stacks that went up quite a distance. The stacks all looked like they were built as part of the roof and one was smoking, the smoke was getting darker as we watched, illuminated in the camp lights which kept the place lit up. Then it belched fire.
He pointed the building out to us. “That’s where we have been processing most of the people you brought in today.” Dieter looked at him quizzically, and the little shit let lose with another high pitched giggle. “We gas them, then we toast them.” He started spewing out statistics “You see we lead them into the chamber in groups of a hundred. Come on I will show you. Dieter was not looking well and surprisingly neither was Hans. Sarge looked at them, and then me. I shrugged. He grinned.
We followed him towards the chamber. “Oh look! They are cleaning it out for the next batch. We walked closer and looked in the door. The room faintly smelled of shit, urine and a faint hint of almonds or something very close to it. The bodies were everywhere, lying on the floor. Women, children, and old people, all together, all blue in the face, and very dead.
There were more blue stripes working here. They were busy opening and examining the mouths of the dead and extracting any gold teeth. “Damn just like Poland back in 1940,” I said. Dieter was wide eyed. I was surprised. He had seen something like this before, and more than once. Why would this bother him now? Our tour guide continued “We tell them they are coming here to take showers for delousing purposes and then we shut the doors and gas them. Then they go up in the elevator and into the crematoria." No maniacal chuckle this time. I noticed while he was talking to us his eyes had not strayed from the lithesome nude body of a young Jewish girl of perhaps eighteen who was laid out ten feet in front of us. The evil little shit unconsciously licked his lips, twice. I just shook my head.
Dieter had already walked out and was staring at the chimney stack which was steadily smoking. With the smoke came that unmistakable odor along with little flecks of ash falling like snow. I had walked out behind him. The rest had joined us followed by our tour guide. In a dreamy distracted voice he continued his spiel “Yes, we cremate them. Most of the Jews you brought in will be gone by the time we eat dinner. You are going to eat dinner aren’t you?” Dieter just stared at him. “Yeah sure, what’s on the menu.” said Hans. Dietrich was clearly disappointed. He curtly told us to follow him and lead us back to the barracks. “Dinner is at five, listen for the bell to ring. It’s three buildings down from you on the right” and briskly walked out.
“Alright now that was fun.” Hans said.
“Yeah right” was Sarges reply. “Stay here, I will be back in a few minutes,” and disappeared.
“Damn Lothar, what’s up with him?”
Lothar just shrugged “Dunno, probably going to see what else is available.”
“Skat anyone?” I asked. My answer was groans from everyone. “Damn Willi, you owe me at least a million marks by now.”
“Yeah right, try turning that around Hans.”
We settled in, figuring to play a couple hands, eat, then clean our weapons and call it a night. At least that was what I figured the plan was going to be. I was idly considering slipping out and finding that Corporal later on. Perhaps he would be more interesting as he died. No, I really doubted that, his type was to shallow to understand, let alone give back any energy in a meaningful way. All though, at this point the idea of killing just for the hell of it was beginning to have some appeal. Especially when I felt like I was going to be doing the world a favor by removing people like him from it.
We had run through a couple hands when to everyone’s amazement Sarge reappeared with a burlap bag that clinked as it dangled from his hand and a couple loves of bread in another bag. Hans face instantly let up. “Yeah lads, I figure we owe ourselves a good drunk. I bet the Lieutenant is already telling everyone who will listen how tough combat is. First we clean our weapons, we eat, and then we drink.” He pointed at me, “Since you don’t drink, you get to answer any calls for shit details. Which I don’t think are going to get anymore shittier than what we already have drawn.” We played until we heard the bell.
Dinner was good. These guys definitely ate well. When we entered we were welcomed by the men eating and they were very adamant in having us join them. We sat down at a large bench style table covered in white cloth that had enough room for most of us. The rest of the squad found places to sit at the other tables. Our new hosts were all in their late thirties or older which was not surprising as camp guard was not considered physically strenuous duty.
None of them had any decorations. I keep empathizing this for a reason. By 1942, a mans ribbons and medals provided you with an instant resume of his background and competency in the practice of war. You could also determine if they were National Socialists by the wearing of the SA Sports Badge which was different than the regular Sports Badge. If you had been in Russia for the winter of 1941 you had the “Frozen meat award of the eastern front medal” also known as the ‘Ostfront’ award. Most men wore the long ribbon that came with the award sewn to the lapel of the tunic and threaded into a button hole. The Iron Cross Second Class was worn the same way, and often you would see both, with the frozen meat ribbon the most prominently displayed. Many considered it a more prestigious award than the Iron Cross Second Class, even though millions were given out. If you were wearing it in 1944 it let everyone know that not only were you a veteran, but a lucky one, because most of those who had qualified for the award were now under the ground. The Iron Cross First Class was the desired bravery award. Pinned to your left pocket it made a definite statement. We also had the Infantry Assault badge.
Then there was the Close Combat Badge which came in bronze, silver, and gold. Each color corresponded to how many days you had been in close combat. With the gold got you a leave back in the old Reich, the Iron Cross First Class and the fried egg or German Cross. Of course if you got too loaded up on medals you became a target for every sniper in the vicinity. Then there was the Knights Cross which also came in several flavors. This award also came with a leave and a handshake from Adolf himself.
Our group all had the Iron Cross Second Class, the Ostfront, and the Infantry Assault, and all of us old timers had the Wound Badge in black for more than one wound but less than three. Since frostbite counted as a wound it was relatively easy to be awarded one if you had spent the previous winter in Russia. I was hoping to make it all the way to victory with out collecting the next highest grade. Sarge and the officers also had the War Merit with Swords award which was given for shooting a lot of civilians at close range.
We sat down and ate like kings. We had sauerbraten, cabbage, potato dumplings, bread, and beer. It was real German beer too which impressed Hans as he considered any beer not made in Germany to be horse piss. Even as we ate I was wondering how to grab some bread to put in my bread bag for later without attracting any notice. We didn’t talk much at first as we were too busy stuffing our faces. Mostly we answered questions with a muffled grunt which seemed to amuse them. I think they actually enjoyed watching us pack it away.
I could hear snatches of conversation from other tables along with the questions our new comrades were asking us. It was when we finished and the beer began to flow that it became interesting. The snatches I heard where mostly about problems with the burn rate on crematoria three, and the usual bitching about how they were working too much, and how someone else’s group had it easy. The rest was about music, the war, and the usual questions about what we had seen, and where we had been. One of them mentioned that the group we had brought in had mostly gone up in smoke or “poof” as he put it which everyone thought was very funny. I heard someone else talking about how worthless the last loads of Russians had been for labor as they had died too quickly. I excused myself. I didn’t drink, so hanging out with a group of guys who were obviously dedicated to getting themselves shitfaced was not anything I was interested in