The putrid stench of vomit and decomposing flesh hung rancid in the hot afternoon air. Guards paced the barbed wire perimeter of the compound, staring ahead as if completely oblivious to our presence. Mehler held his gun at his side as he strutted, nonchalant amongst the prisoners in the yard.
Weakened from thirst and hunger we trudged through the endless hours.
“Erhalten sie bewegliche, faule ungläubige,” the young officer commanded.
I prayed in silence.
The lesions on Nahum’s back seeped milky white and red fluid. Encrusting as they drained down his gaunt body, the wounds seemed only to accentuate the ribs and atrophied muscles protruding through his diaphanous skin. His shallow breaths, now jagged from the excruciating pain, grew frantic.
I ran to his side, dropping to my knees. “Be still, my friend.”
He muttered in his native tongue; I did not understand.
Nahum trembled as he grasped my hand, his eyes distant and glazed. His pupils dilated, the hint of a tear traced a line across his dirt-caked face. A gasp and a slight tremor and it was done; his final terror remained etched on his face.
“Erhalten sie hierhin, jetzt.” The guard’s angry voice called from a short distance. “Jeder erhalten beweglich.” He jogged to our location, two other sentries in close pursuit.
A small throng of inmates gathered around the fallen body.
“Remoof dis piece uff Jewish garbage.” Mehler’s thick German accent draped every spiteful word. He kicked our fallen comrade. “Schnell. Schnell.”
We grabbed the cadaver, careful not to antagonize our captors, fearful that we could be next.
The cold steel of a rifle pressed against the back of my neck. “Bewegen sie nicht,” Mehler hissed. “You, stay here.”
The group hauled the corpse away, the two other guards followed close behind. They stacked him, like cordwood with the others.
I did not speak.
The parched ground crunched under Mehler’s boots as he walked a tight circle, coming to a stop in front of me. “Wer sie sind?” he mumbled. He pressed the barrel of his gun under my chin, lifting my face upward.
I winced at the blinding sun.
Stepping closer, the guard grabbed my dog tags. He yanked upward, dragging me to my feet. “You are not a Jew.”
I remained silent.
“American.” His cold stare pierced into my consciousness. “Vhy do you care about such a shvine?” He flicked my tags off his finger.
A tiny wooden crucifix entangled in the chain fell into view. “We’re all made in God’s image.” A single drop of sweat trickled down the bridge of my nose, leaving a tiny mark on my antagonist’s boot.
“Do I frighten you?”
I stood rigid, resisting the urge to speak.
He tugged the cross off my neck and dropped it to the ground. “You know vhat I can do to you?”
“This pain … this life is only temporary. It doesn’t matter…”
He thrust the butt of his rifle into my face. “Unreine halbe brut.”
I fell backward. The warm stream of blood clouded the vision in my right eye. I propped myself into a sitting position.
“Your god has forgotten you.” He spat at me.
I wiped the blood and spittle from my cheek. “He promises to never fail me or forsake…”
“And you tink dis protects you?” Mehler kicked at the small crucifix on the ground.
“It’s merely a symbol.” The lingering dust forced me to cough. “A symbol of Jesus.” I looked up at my captor.
His eyes narrowed.
“How He died for our sins.” I reached for the pendant. “All of our sins.”
Mehler’s boot stomped down onto the cross, inches from my fingertips. He raised his firearm, pointing it at my head. “Are you villing to die for dis?” A sneer crept across his face.
My heart raced. “More than you could understand.” Nausea welled up in the pit of my stomach.
His body shook with rage. “Hierhin gekommen.”
The sound of running boots grew louder behind me.
“I grow tired uff you.” Mehler motioned with his hand. “Erhalten Sie ihn weg von mir.”
Soldiers grabbed my arms and tugged me backward, dragging me toward the barracks.
I did not resist.
I blinked my bleary eyes as I stared back through the rising dust. Mehler dragged his foot along the ground as he surveyed the compound. He glanced back at me as he picked up the crucifix and slid it into his pocket.
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