Golem. A short story by Gary J Byrnes

GOLEM by Gary J Byrnes

Dachau, Germany – 1944

I

The moon showed her face as the wasted man looked into his killer’s eyes. He smiled, weakly. One last time, he held the page of crumpled newspaper close to his failing eyes, squinted, nodded.

‘Yes. You can kill me now.’

Strong hands closed around the old man’s neck, thumbs pressed on his throat. The killer trembled, hesitated. The old man closed his eyes.

‘God is truth. Now do it.’

The killer’s thumbs pressed harder into the windpipe. The victim struggled imperceptibly, eyes wide, but too late. The life that had been full – of happiness, the practice of medicine, family gatherings, the appreciation of poetry, the love of sunshine – slipped easily away. Since the world went crazy, the will to survive had faded to zero. The final image in his brain was of his beloved son, age six, pedalling his new red tricycle in the patio garden, the happiest child on Earth. Then nothing. The body was lowered gently into the patch of moonlight on the dirt floor and the watching grey faces all around faded back into the darkness. Prayers were whispered from the darkness. But it was too late for prayers there.

‘Goodbye, father,’ said the killer as he folded the piece of newspaper and tucked it inside his rough shirt. He was both confused and amazed by how easy it had been to kill his own father. This heap before him had given everything he had – finally his very life – for his son. Yet the hardness in the killer’s heart meant that there could be no grief. So he dragged the bony body to the rear of the draughty billet and worked on the second phase of his plan. Dawn was seven hours away and there was much forming to be done.

II

The bored police captain sat uneasily in his spacious oak-panelled office. He shuffled through a slim pile of official reports, made the occasional note. Every few minutes, he stood and gazed through the window at the rushing city below. He was stifled. In truth, he had been considering a transfer into the military. As he straightened up his desk and prepared to leave for lunch, his secretary rapped at the door. He knew her knock.

‘Enter.’

‘Captain, I have a report that requires your urgent attention,’ said the secretary, pointing towards the upstairs office suites.

‘Oh? What is it?’

‘A murder.’

‘At last. I thought I would go mad. All the definitions have changed. I honestly don’t know what constitutes a crime anymore.’

He internally reprimanded himself for showing annoyance, however slight, with his political masters. But the secretary could be trusted. Still, he shot her a hard glance. She looked to the floor. A murder! His heart leapt. Somebody important? It must be.

He took the folder from her, flicked to the case page and quickly scanned it. Confusion, then anger seized him, made his hands shake.

‘Is this some kind of joke? A Jew? What does the killing of a damned Jew matter?’

‘Read on, Sir,’ said the secretary.

He read on.

‘The body was concealed in a golem. Curious.’

‘Who better to uncover the truth?’

He scanned the wall, admired again his collection of framed press cuttings, diplomas and – in pride of place – his photo with the Great Leader.

‘Yes, that’s true. Nobody knows more about golems and Jew mysticism. But what does the formation of a supernatural saviour from clay have to do with some Jew infighting?’

‘What is a golem, sir?’

‘Adam was the first golem, mentioned in the Jew Talmud. Fashioned from dust, brought to life. In modern times, it symbolises a defender of the Jews. You make it from earth and water, make an inscription on its forehead, chant and chant some more. Then it will come to life and do your bidding. The most famous example is the Golem of Prague, believed to have defended the Jew ghetto there in the sixteenth century.’

‘Ah, the one you – ‘

‘Correct. The one I searched for in thirty-nine. According to legend, it lay in a secret room in a synagogue, awaiting the spell that would return it to life, to defend the Jews once more. I searched every synagogue, broke every wall. There was nothing. I disproved its existence, weakened the will of the Jews. The more I smashed, the more they needed the golem. And he never came.’ He glanced at the photograph, smiled. The undoing of the Golem of Prague had made his reputation. ‘Essentially, the golem is a metaphor. It represents the attainment of wisdom and holiness, the godlike ability to create life. Just another stupid religious fairytale. But why conceal an irrelevant Jew’s body in one?’

‘A religious rite?’

‘I don’t know. The victim was of no importance. I smell a disagreement over money. Still, it will be good to get out of the office. I will leave for Dachau immediately. Send a message to the camp commander. I’ll drive through the night, get there tomorrow early. Please arrange any necessary clearances.’

‘Of course. Do you need a driver?’

‘No, I need some freedom. And can you please inform my wife?’

He sat at his desk, began to write a list of items.

‘I’ll need to pack my camera, analysis equipment and probes, maybe some sausage and wine. A golem, eh? But first, lunch, something special.’ He looked at her. ‘Will you please join me? I apologise for losing my temper just now.’

He stood and went to her, put his arms around her perfect waist. She smiled as he smelled her pinned-up hair, the Chanel perfume on her neck.

‘And over a Jew!’ she said, laughing.

He said ‘A dead Jew!’ and laughed with her.

III

The workers stood – swayed – in ragged lines on the camp’s central square. Guards in winter coats circled, collars raised against the bitter January wind. Drooling Alsatians strained. The camp commander entered the square with his adjutants, addressed the workers.

‘There was a killing in your billet last night,’ he barked. ‘The killing of Jews is solely the right of pure-blooded German officers and guards. The act cannot and will not be tolerated. Who was responsible? Tell me now!’

Silence, every freezing man staring at the cobbled ground.

‘Very well. Take off your clothes.’

Resignedly, the two hundred and eight men of varying ages began to strip, peeling away flea-infested layers, exposing pallid, blotchy skin to the weak sun and freezing air.

‘My only regret is that I am under orders to keep you alive until an investigator makes his way here from Berlin. An expert.’

At that word, the killer’s heart lurched. His bait had worked, the trap was set. When the expert arrived, investigated the golem, then he would spring the trap. And escape from this cursed place. Switzerland just hours away.

‘But I will beat you until you explain this golem to me,’ continued the commander. ‘Why bury a Jew like that?’

Nobody told about the golem. They knew it was a rhetorical question, asked by a brute, an unaware man. So the guards went through the ranks, beat and whipped and dehumanised the workers at random.

The commander looked to the twisting pipes and chimneys that loomed nearby. This was the final solution, right here, so why should they be distracted by the killing. What matter of it? He thought. A Jew? The new ovens will see to them all soon. And this lot will be first in, he vowed. He strode to the nearest Jew, punched him hard in the stomach, kicked him, spat on him.

After twenty-seven minutes of abuse, night had fallen. So he ordered the workers to put their clothes back on and get indoors. The captain from Berlin wanted to preserve all evidence. That was all that saved them from a full night of pain. But it was alright to starve them. He watched as they trudged into their billet, to sleep four to a bunk under horsehair blankets.

‘We’ll be watching,’ he screamed. ‘Any Jew who touches the dead one shall join him instantly. Understood? Understood?’

Then he went to the ovens to supervise the first test, thankful that the dead Jew could not delay that milestone. The oven block was a low, redbrick building, which could have passed for a municipal swimming pool. It was well-lit inside and the air was noticeably warm and sweet-smelling. A steady hum throbbed through the space. Twenty naked and emaciated men stood in a ragged line, a dozen guards standing to attention as the commander entered.

The workers’ eyes darted nervously. They knew something bad would happen, they just didn’t know what. When, at last, the commander ordered them into the new showers, they smiled. They wanted to believe that, yes, they were simply being used to test the showers. This didn’t necessarily make sense, but they clung to it anyway.

On the roof, pigeons squawked, squabbled over the best perches by the chimneys.

IV

The police captain found that it was easy to get in to Dachau. Only delay was a line of trucks ahead, each filled with gas cylinders, marked IG Farben. Finally, the iron gateway greeted ironically: WORK WILL SET YOU FREE. A kind of salvation for the human waste that would work, suffer and die there. An odd smell in the air, like roasting coffee. His papers were checked casually by a guard inside the gate, for who would want to come here without good reason? A long column of workers shuffled. Just ahead. The ragged men looked at him with the eyes of ghosts.

‘What’s that? Did one just smile at me?’

‘I doubt that, sir. We kill the insane ones the day they arrive. They’re no good for anything. You may dine at the officers’ mess. Immediately to your left.’

‘Thank you. Then I need to see this dead Jew.’

‘Block four, sir.’

‘Very good. Where should I park?’

The guard indicated a space for the official car, made an entry on his report sheet and the investigation had begun. The captain was tired, should have taken a driver. Decided to get through it quickly, get away from the stink, find an inn, maybe that one he’d passed an hour before. Taking his camera and briefcase, he walked to the officer’s mess. It was a pleasant stone building standing on its own, curiously fronted by a lawn and ornamental trees.

The mess was quiet so he was given the best table, beside a huge window which looked onto the lawn with the open square beyond. The waiter brought coffee and the day’s paper, offered the menu, busied himself with a table of engineers in clean overalls nearby. They were in high spirits, discussing the oven schedule, the successful tests and the race to be the first Nazi camp to commence the actual extermination of the inferior races. Schnapps. They sent a glass to the captain, which he accepted warmly.

Then the captain read war news and ate good sausages, fried eggs, nutty bread. He drank four cups of coffee, didn’t want to leave the cosy room. He tipped the waiter generously, loaded his camera, wished the engineers luck, went to examine a golem.

The golem was partially ruined, but still an impressive sight. A bulky male figure, over two metres in length, emerged seamlessly from the ground, hands by his side, face strong and impassive. Most of the golem’s head and all the powerful body were carefully finished to a smoothness that didn’t fit the matter. An area around the neck was torn away, fragments returning to the ground from whence they came. The dead Jew’s face and upper body were exposed and starting to stink. His mouth was open, stuffed with dirt, his eyes caked. There, scratched into the dirt that formed the golem’s forehead, he read – as expected – the Hebrew word EMET. He bent down, erased the first letter with his thumb. MET remained. Truth became death.

‘Now you are deactivated, golem,’ he said as a shiver rattled his spine.

The captain took photographs, observed how the earth that formed the golem had been scraped from the ground in the billet. That task had probably taken weeks, in preparation for the killing. But why? ‘Why, golem?’ No obvious clue. He searched his memory for every reference. Nothing clicked.

He left the building, which was little warmer than outside, ordered the waiting guard to send in the suspects one at a time ‘And tell them to hold out their hands, yes?’ He connected the ultraviolet bulb to its battery and lit the golem in a purple glow. The Jews came in. He held the bulb over each man’s hands. The light sparkled off the minerals on the Jews’ skin, residue from the concrete they were using to build the gas chambers and ovens. They filed in, filed out. Finally, hands that had little glow, too much dirt in every pore and fold. This is the man who made the golem.

‘Stand there, Jew.’

To be thorough, he checked the rest of the sorry men. But there was just the one suspect. He advised the guard that the killer had been found and it would take but a little while to understand why. Just the two men in the billet now, their weak shadows falling across the golem. The captain lit a cigarette.

‘Why did you kill him and why did you bury him inside a golem?’

The man just smiled weakly. Was this the one who had smiled earlier in the square? Something about him. Something odd, intangible.

‘He wanted to die.’

‘But why the golem?’

‘What do you know of the golem?’ asked the Jew.

‘The Fuhrer has an interest in such matters. Know thine enemy, etcetera. I know that the golem is a Jewish fantasy, a desperate cry for help by a doomed race. Your god has abandoned you, so why persevere with such matters?’

The Jew studied the captain, watched his mouth, his eyes, his hand movements.

‘I did it out of respect,’ answered the Jew. He straightened his back, lost his stoop, raised himself to a height equalling the captain.

‘Are you trying to imitate my voice?’ said the policeman.

‘Are you trying to imitate my voice?’

‘What is your game here?’

Now it was dark outside. It was time. The Jew reached inside his striped jacket, brought out a piece of folded newspaper. He handed it to the captain.

The police officer – now confused – unfolded the paper. Saw the story. The story about himself. The photograph of himself and Hitler. The smiling Jew hunters. He stared at the picture, his smiling face. His brain clicked as the actor’s powerful hands closed around his throat and thumbs pressed his Adam’s apple through his windpipe. He couldn’t scream, just croaked, and his hands were too weak to break the Jew’s grip.

‘I look like you, captain. Isn’t that funny? A Jew that looks like a pure-blooded German officer.’

The Jew was strong. The captain fumbled for his pistol. Too late.

‘Too good an opportunity to pass up, captain. We’re not so different, we could be brothers. My father gave his life so that I might have a chance at mine. Thank you for being so predictable.’

The officer’s life was extinguished.

‘Enjoy hell.’

Now time was critical. The Jew undressed, removed the clothes from the body, put on the police uniform. A good fit, if a little loose around the stomach. But warmer. He smoked a cigarette and kept talking, imitating the captain’s accent and voice modulations. He put his old clothes on the captain’s body, punched his face until he bled, then set to work kicking the dead man’s head.

‘Filthy Jew!’ he cried. Maybe the guard was listening.

Happy that the face was sufficiently disfigured, he lit another cigarette, cocked his cap slightly to one side, assumed the arrogant swagger of the superior race. He checked the captain’s papers. They were not specific, allowed free travel. This was what he had prayed for most of all. Grinning, he packed up the captain’s gear and left the billet for the last time.

Stop grinning, you fool.

The guard stood to attention.

‘He admitted everything. The golem was just a stupid Jew attempt at salvation. I killed him for wasting everybody’s time.’

He rubbed the tender knuckles of his right hand.

‘Can you have the bodies cleared and burned? And advise the commander.’

The guard wasn’t sure about any of this, but didn’t dare question a captain.

‘I need to get away from here. The smell of Jews is too much. How far to Switzerland? I promised my mistress I would bring back a fat diamond.’

‘A short drive, sir. It’s well signposted.’

‘Very good. That’s all.’

He walked to the temporary parking area, looked for the car with Berlin plates. A Mercedes. The key in his pocket fitted, so he began to breathe again and drove to the gate. The guard didn’t even check his papers, lifted the barrier, waved him through. He smiled, waved back.

V

His heart painfully pounding, blood rushing through his ears, he drove away from the miserable place. A long train approached slowly, drawing up beside the entrance. He glimpsed faces and hands through the gaps in the cattle cars’ walls. He wished there was something he could do for them. Then he accepted reality, his reality, the reality of his escape. He rummaged in a basket on the passenger seat.

‘Sausage! Bread!’

The smooth glass of a bottle. He pulled off the road, just for a couple of minutes, just to calm his heart, and drank the wine greedily. As the dark towers of Dachau faded from his rear view mirror and the forest gave way to a view of moonlit snow-capped mountains, the Jew laughed.

‘Oh my earnest captain, how could you not know the modern meaning of the word golem? Fool, stupid, clueless!

 

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