“A Life to Spare” by Andra Roventa
Berthold Pfeiffer bit savagely against the inside of his cheek to keep from grimacing at the sight before him. Dozens of corpses lay strewn in the filthy, rat-infested gutters of Dresden, many of them fresh and still saturated with blood and smeared guts. Pairs of glassy, vacant eyes watched him with accusing looks, silently screaming at him to divulge why they had been thrown into the street like used garbage. Try as he might, Berthold was unable to tear his gaze away from the pile of once-breathing, once-walking Jews that were now no more than slabs of bullet-filled meat.
Some of them were alive merely ten minutes ago, he thought in bewilderment, eyeing a bearded rabbi whose mouth was still agape, rigid and distorted. He must have died screaming. The 21-year-old S.S. officer shuddered, finally averting his eyes from that haunting, empty stare the deceased rabbi managed to give him.
A portly, bald commander cleared his throat as he watched two remaining officers drag what seemed to be the last body from the demolished apartment complex the S.S. men were loitering against. The German duo dumped the lifeless body of a teenage boy onto the rest before turning to salute their commanding officer.
“Is that all of them, then?” the rotund, elderly commander known as Jorgen Fitzgerald, inquired in a voice laden with irritation. It looked like he had other business elsewhere, and this “menial” task was not one of them.
One of the Germans who had discarded the final Jew gave a half-assed shrug. “You know these Jews, Herr Fitzgerald. Sneaky little devils. There might be a couple here and there hiding about—under the floorboards, behind a secret stairwell. You can never be too sure with them.”
The fat commander gave a snort, nodding in agreement. “Disgusting vermin, the lot of them.” He bent his rhino-like head to rest on his decorated breast, pondering for a moment. “Right, then. I’m late for a dinner party as it is. Someone needs to run through the perimeters to make sure we’ve taken care of every last one of them. I don’t want any runaways or it’s going to look messy on my part.”
He clasped his hands against his bulging belly, scrutinizing the ten-or-so soldiers that encircled him. Fitzgerald scanned each of them before narrowing his beady eyes on Berthold. The latter bristled but kept his surprise in check.
“Pfeiffer. You’ve been quiet today, boy. I don’t recall you doing much when we stormed the complex,” Fitzgerald barked at the blond man, furrowing his brow in contemplation. “Give me your rifle.” His fingers, which looked more like fat sausages than digits, impatiently wiggled as he reached out for the weapon his subordinate had strapped to his shoulder.
Berthold blinked, cocking his head in confusion. What did the Herr Commandant want with his gun? “My rifle?”
Fitzgerald gave him a shrewd stare and took the thing off him anyway. The older man proceeded to check the barrel and found it to be full of unused ammunition. He sulked at the prospect, turning back to the blond with a disappointed expression plastered to his pudgy features. “The Gestapo do not sit by and simply do nothing, do you understand? They don’t ignore the orders of their superiors and waste their time when they are on duty.”
Berthold could feel his mouth constrict into a frown of his own. “I wasn’t wasting-”
“Don’t patronize me, Pfeiffer. My stomach is quaking with hunger and I honestly won’t tolerate one of my soldiers being smart with me right now. You have done absolutely nothing. Your colleagues rid the world of a few worthless Jews and what did you do? Well?”
Berthold said nothing.
The Herr Commandant clicked his tongue as he shook his head vehemently. “You’re to go and check the complex for any stragglers. If you find them, you shoot them and then you bring them down here—and I promise you, there’s at least one skulking around up there. I want to hear a gunshot, do you understand me? I want to know that you’ve done your duty for the day.”
Without another word, the Gestapo officer turned on his heels with purposeful strides and made his way back into the lobby of the ravaged building. Shards of broken glass littered in places where they had smashed in windows earlier. Fragments of wooden panels covered the concrete steps as Berthold climbed the stairs. He slowed, pausing to catch any sound of movement coming from the nearby rooms. After meticulously checking the first four stories without luck, Berthold reached the fifth story. By then he was huffing from the vertical ascent.
As he was searching for any form of life that had managed to stash itself away during the slaughter, Berthold put in his best effort to ignore the crimson smears that covered the walls and floorboards. He disregarded the messy splotches on the floor where Jews had been executed, and he overlooked the peculiar spots on the furniture that resembled brain matter. There was one thing that the German could not eradicate from his awareness: the acrid smell.
The air was so heavy with the scent of blood that the well-trained officer could not stifle the gags that came out of his throat. The proof of carnage was right there, and it was wafting about his nostrils with a sickly-sweet, decaying odor. It made his stomach turn into knots.
And then he heard it—a shuffling of feet, there, just barely. It had to have come from one of the last rooms down the hallway. Silently, Berthold took step after step through the sea of destroyed furniture and knick-knacks until he stopped directly in front of a crooked doorway. With the tip of his rifle, he pushed the damaged wood back and entered.
Nothing seemed out of place. The room was a complete mess of post-violence like all the rest of them. His leaf-green eyes swept over the couch and peered into the bathroom before stopping abruptly. His body became as still as stone when he saw the person who had shuffled about moments before. Fitzgerald was right, the bastard.
Cowering before him was a girl who looked to be no older than eighteen. She stared up at him with wide brown eyes, watching him with absolute terror. Her coppery hair was curled at the edges and gathered into a silk bow tied at the back of her head. If the modest dress she wore weren’t covered in grime and blood, it might have been dainty and pretty, ideas that seemed out of place here, in the ruin, just like the girl herself.
Berthold’s gaze softened the moment he laid his eyes on the trembling girl before him. His muscles slackened, and he raised his palms up to show her that he meant no harm. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Her face stayed pallid and ghostly white, and he could see her shivering.
Pity flooded him. He couldn’t even begin to understand the trauma she had just experienced not an hour before. Her family, most likely, was heaped on the street below. “What’s your name?” he heard himself ask her, keeping his voice in the most calming tone he could manage, though he was shaking too.
The copper-haired girl stared at him, perplexed, as she got to her feet. “E-Emily. Emily Krantz.” Her voice was a broken whisper.
Her name. There was now a name to go with her face. He shouldn’t have asked her that. Berthold lifted his black cap off his head and ran his fingers through his oiled-back blond hair, a sigh escaping from his lips. Damn.
Her brown orbs glanced fearfully at the rifle he had rested on the bed before jerking her head in his direction. Her lower lip quivered and she choked out a sob. “P-Please don’t kill me.”
Without thinking he said, “I’m not going to kill you.”
Pure disbelief marred her beautiful features, and the German couldn’t blame her. He wouldn’t believe himself if he were in her position. She didn’t drop her guard, even when it was clear that he wouldn’t attempt to try anything conspicuous.
Berthold’s shoulders sagged visibly, and in that moment, everything hit him like a ton of bricks. Here was this innocent person, this girl whose parents had been brutally executed. It was likely she’d been tucked away behind a panel where she wouldn’t have been seen. He could only imagine how she had strangled her cries to keep from giving her position away when she heard her parents die.
If any of the other Gestapo men were the ones to have come across her, she would’ve been shot dead on the spot. He was the one Fitzgerald sent, however. He was the one who had found her. That had to mean something, right?
This girl, Emily, shouldn’t have had to look at him with petrified, doe-like eyes as if he were some three-headed beast. She didn’t deserve to be orphaned by the hands of the state. She had lost her loved ones, her household, and her right to live. This girl had no one. She was abandoned in the desolate country he called home, one that she had called home not too long ago. A home that Germany had deemed her unworthy of because of her “race”. What kind of people found it in themselves to repudiate someone who was evidently without blame? Someone who had no choice being who they were; a Jew? What did this child do to deserve such extreme hate? What did her people do to be put down like worthless dogs? He didn’t know. Berthold couldn’t come up with anything to convince himself otherwise.
He felt absolutely weak and useless. He had allowed himself to listen to his superiors without question, without a second thought because his whole life, he was taught to follow the directions of those who knew better.
No. He swallowed painfully, focusing on the blackened points of his scuffed-up boots. He had known better. He refused to acknowledge the atrocities taking place around him because he was a coward—he knew that whenever he pulled that trigger, he was committing a horrible crime. The other Nazis, they didn’t see the error in their ways. They were brainwashed into truly believing that they were doing the Aryan race a favor when it came to the elimination of the Jewish people. But Berthold knew better. And yet he did nothing. He’d looked away when his colleagues mercilessly blew Jews’ heads clean off. He’d stood silently in his place when families were separated and torn apart, and he’d squeezed his eyes shut when weeping Jews reached out to him in an attempt to diplomatically change their predicament.
He’d done nothing. The German government was getting away with murder by the thousands. No matter how many times his conscience screamed at him to speak up, to lay down his firearm, to take down his mask he wore as an S.S. and act like a human again, he’d stifle it.
Feigning ignorance was easier than swallowing a truth edged and thorny with awfulness.
The Gestapo had robbed him of the humanity he knew he was supposed to express. It had forced him to hide behind a sick, careless façade that he so desperately wanted to shed. No matter how much Berthold wanted to be free of them, he was aware of the shackles that kept him in place. There was no going back, now that he was a part of them. The moment those monsters tied a blood-red swastika to his forearm, the metaphorical knife was also placed behind his back, ever prodding him, daring him to step away from his duties and slide right into its pointed blade. No, Berthold couldn’t be free of it.
Shame bubbled up his throat in relentless waves. As he watched the caramel-haired girl who stood rooted to her spot, he could feel the corners of his eyes water. “I-I’m so s-sorry, Emily. For your parents’ end. For e-everything that has come to pass.”
Her eyebrows raised at his shaken apology. “I don’t think you were the one who hurt them,” she replied delicately with a confidence that sent the blond on edge. Why did she sound so sure?
He shook his head, taking wary steps towards the smaller girl. “Just because I didn’t point a gun in their direction doesn’t make me any less guilty. I stood by while the rest of them slew those Jews. Not attempting to prevent it still makes me a bad man.”
Emily unexpectedly reached out for Berthold, clutching his gloved hand without giving it much thought. “I’m still here. That’s proof that you’re not bad, right? An evil man wouldn’t have batted an eyelash once he saw me. All you are is…trapped…”
Trapped. She couldn’t have phrased it any better. He was trapped with no way out.
I want to hear a gunshot, do you understand me? I want to know that you’ve done your duty for the day.
Fitzgerald’s words hit him like a slap on the cheek. Berthold’s duty. He was supposed to shoot any survivors. Goddamn it. Emily immediately noticed his hand tense up within her slender one, and panic swept over her previously relaxed eyes.
“Get back in the panel, the one you were hiding behind. Do it now. And please, for the love of all things holy, don’t you dare move from that spot. I can’t be certain if anyone will come in later tonight to scavenge around. Wait out the night, and then try to see if you can sneak back out through the basement passage.” He tried to use his Gestapo “authoritative” voice to get her to comply at once.
It worked. Emily squeezed his hand before letting go and crawling back into a hidden square space behind the main headboard of the bed. When he crouched, he caught one final glimpse of her chocolate-brown eyes and what he saw froze him to the bone. They were glistening…with…tears? She mouthed a soft “thank-you” before disappearing completely behind the wood.
The blond German had to fight his own tears from slipping out as he threw a broken piece of furniture across the panel where she was concealed for good measure. She wasn’t going to get caught. He wouldn’t allow it. Dear God, he wouldn’t allow another soul to suffer.
The disheveled officer threw on his mask of cool indifference the moment he stepped back outside to meet the others. Despite his level of experience in the military, he wasn’t expecting the rant that would ensue.
Fitzgerald’s cheeks were a beet-red. “Did you take a nap while you were up there, Pfeiffer? And there was no blasted gunshot! I heard nothing!” he shouted, glaring angry daggers up at the younger inferior.
“I took extra time to check every possible hiding spot. There’s no one left.”
“What do you mean, no one left? You know damn well that some Jews manage to fit themselves inside the wall, o-or under the bed support–”
Berthold ground his words when he repeated, “There’s no one left.” On the outside, he kept his face stern and convincing. Inside, his heart was rattling against his ribs. He prayed Fitzgerald was hungry enough to want to leave already. He needed to get the Gestapo away from her.
For a long moment, the Herr Commandant didn’t say anything. He scrutinized the taller blond with such a ferocity that Berthold was sure he would spontaneously combust into flames. Finally, the heavyset commander grunted and turned to make his way back to his car, motioning for the rest of the S.S. to do the same.
A held-in breath pushed out of Berthold’s lips as he watched his comrades trudge off into the night. Thank God. Thank God they didn’t question his words.
With knowing, heavy eyes, Berthold cast them up the building’s front until they landed on the upmost story. Emily Krantz was holed away in one of those slapdash walls, cold and frightened and lonely. But she was alive. He had managed to keep the poor girl alive. But for how long?
He trembled at the thought, flickering his gaze to the bodies that continued to lay in that bloodied trench.
The hour was late as it was and the German knew he couldn’t linger any longer before someone began to notice his absence. With strenuous effort, he slowly backed away from the ruined apartments.
Emily was alive. She had not been killed. He had saved her. He had done something right for once in his miserable life as a man of the “law.” Would it last, though? Did he give her a day, a week, a month more? Would the Nazis ever catch up with her in the end? He paled considerably at that morbid thought. Would his efforts fall apart?
No, it couldn’t. Somehow, some way, he would make sure that Emily Krantz would make it through the war. Finding her so forlorn and vulnerable had been a cold bucket of water to his face. It had woken him up to the reality he had been denying for so long in order to salvage his crushed integrity. He wouldn’t allow another Jew to die because of him.
At least, he desperately didn’t want it to be so. But the truth smacked him upside the head, and Berthold cringed. No matter what he thought, he was a foreigner to his own body. It would do as his superiors commanded of him, wouldn’t it? And besides, he couldn’t speak out against them like a traitor. After all, the Third Reich had ripped out his tongue and free will long before he ever realized it.
Andra Roventa is a freshman at DePaul majoring in English and minoring in Pre-Law and Political Thought. She is from Grand Haven, MI but was born in NYC. She is a trilingual fraternal twin with an affinity for Harry Potter.