The language of Ruth
Herr Doktor wore a homburg hat at home; of that I had no doubt. In uniform, he dressed and behaved according to the best heel-clicking Herrenvolk Officer Corp, but had a strange malady, a sickness even; he didn’t like to be touched, or to touch. Perhaps that helped explain why he was sent to such an outpost in the East, despite being the prototypical albino-blond haired bug-eyed superman of Aryan mythology, or perhaps he had chosen such a spot himself. For he seemed to take no interest in woman’s bodies, naked or clothed. He usually wore leather gloves, even when he intimately examined us.
He was as meticulous in his use of language as his appearance and liked me to stand as gatekeeper at the door to his office and translate requests from the Gendarme. But his foot would tap and he would look straight though any Pole that had signed the Volksliste list, that made them Volksdeutch, and thereby exempted them from the labour quotas, gave them extra rations and the use of our services. He flinched as if a baboon was trying to quote Goethe at any Polish pronunciation of German words and looked studiously at my face, while holding one hand up, as if conducting, when the request was made and would wait patiently for me to translate what he already knew. Any interjections were met with a polite nod and a smile, as if he had misunderstood. ‘Perhaps my assistant will be able to make an appointment for you next month,’ he would ask me to translate to the interlocutor, with a dismissive wave of his hand. My eyes may have twinkled, but I forced my face not to smile at the puffed up angry faces of the Gentiles, learning the lesson of Pale: don’t be noticed and if you are, wait until you are asked to speak.
Herr Doktor flitted from one project, as he liked to call them, to another. He noted down the woman in his care’s weight, height and blood group and constantly updated it as if we were prize-fighters. He lifted our arms as if we were children and let them flop down again. Poked into our ears. He added an extra column detailing any distinguishing marks such as birthmarks, moles, cicatrix tissue and even noted down each tooth position as if he were a dentist. He measured our heads from point to point with callipers, while we flexed our jaws and smiled like painted clowns to aid his calculations. He drew in his notebook a detailed map of his findings for each female head, including mine. I think he would have carried it even further and included a section on phrenology, but that would have meant being too close; touch tight, perhaps leaving an oil residue of a woman’s scent, under his parchment buffed fingernails; would have meant too much digging, searching and piercing our bodies, to explain himself to himself.
Increasingly, I was forced to spend more and more time with Herr Doktor. He had come to rely on me, indeed perhaps even respected me in the way he would an Alsatian dog. So when my back was turned and he loped off a bit of my hair from the back of my head, with shearing scissors without asking, I said nothing. Just treated this abnormality as if it was perfectly normal.
I rounded up enough hair, for his research into ethnic hair typology, from each of us working girls to make a rug. Marina’s hair was light and fair as down on a child’s face and I couldn’t help but touch her under chin and cluck like a mother hen to waken her sleeping body, still tethered to her cot, shouting and shuffling and still running through her daylight nightmares. Her green eyes opened like gig lamps and she stretched out her hand from beneath the comfort of her blanket to touch me, as if I was part of her dream.
‘If I die, she said, with the high voice and a frown tattooed onto her forehead, like that of a bookish child, ‘don’t let them use my dead body for sex’.
‘I won’t,’ I said, knowing that the lie was better than the truth. ‘I need to take some of your hair,’ I added, wheeling the scissors into view and chop, chopping, in front of her face, like a pantomime villain. I smiled as I stole a soft curl.
‘No,’ she said, sitting up straight. ‘I want you to take more. I want you to cut it all off.’
She creaked her neck from side to side, as if trying on a new head, before grabbing at my arm excitedly. One of the guards at the door the gymnasium looks through our tent village to locate the noise.
‘Sssshh,’ I said. ‘I’ll cut it later.’
‘You promise?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, the word strung out, like the promise of a caress, until the frightened child's eyes, looking out of the woman’s body, settled down to sleep again. ‘Here is some ointment,’ I whispered, ‘to help the bleeding between your legs.’ I placed a strip of paper with grease on it down beside her dozy-sleepy- head.
I pushed through the curtain that was the wall, which was the crib of Marina’s house, to Eva’s next door. She was sitting on a stool smoking one of the foul smelling cigarettes that she got from god knows where. She laughed through her smoke filled nose like a dragon, for she had heard every word and knew my fool’s earn. Her hair was egg yolk yellow and her nose as straight as any fairytale princess. But that had been her undoing. Her Goyim face was captured, marked only by the papers of a Jew, and not wearing the proscribed Judenbinde, Star of David armband. And she was a Communist. All carried the death sentence.
‘This war can't last much longer now,’ she said, holding a glint of gold hair, like an offering for me to cut.
Tusia had perhaps more hair than all the other women put together, but she was in a Bolshevik mood. She had set her defences, her back straight, her feet underneath her plump bottom and breasts. Unwashed, semen stuck to her from groin to calves, as stiff as scabs, I didn’t want to go much closer than I had to. Even as we could hear a man mounting her she talked and talked and talked. She had been here when I’d first arrived, but she had given birth lately to a big mouth, that no one keep quiet. Two Panda black eyes and a cut lip did not deter her. Some of the men complained that she scissored her legs open and shut. And the other woman complained because the queue for their services grew as hers decreased and stopped.
‘I’m not a thing, I’m a woman, with little boy and a little girl,’ she said in a conversation tone, as if she had been rehearsing an argument. ‘These bastards invaded our country, took my body, what more can I give? I’ll not let you cut my hair,’ she growled at me.
‘Fine,’ I said, clipping a locket of hair from my own head, adding it to my pile and pencilling in Tulsia’s name next to it.
‘You can’t do that,’ she shrieked, ‘I’m not even a Jew.
‘Is there a problem?’ said Herr Doktor, making me jump by suddenly appearing at my back.
I quickly put the hair samples and scissors down.
‘No Herr Doktor,’ I said looking at my feet.
I heard the low keening of what sounded like a wounded animal. I looked up to see Tusia launch herself across the bed, grabbing Herr Doktor and pulling him down onto her fetid swamp of a bed.
‘Doctor, Doctor,’ she cried, pulling him in close to her maternal breasts, ‘help me get home, help me get home’.
A guard came alerted by his boredom, or her shrieks, I wasn't sure, and helped deliver Herr Doktor, kicking and screaming in outrage, from her tigerish grasp. Herr Doktor said nothing, his silence hanging in the air, waiting for loud words or explanation, or even condemnation, but he just ran his fingers through his hair and walked quickly and quietly to his office.
Some Ukrainians that were used as Werkschutz, workshop guards, came for her later. They dragged her nude-waiting to go home- body to the washroom. We could hear the everyday clang of the trams, a church bell peeling and the slap of the cauterised rubber from cut down car tyres, which they used for bullwhips. Her sharp clean cries for mercy echoed through the air and found space only in our hearts.
I stood before Herr Doktor’s open door, my head down, my hands as in prayer.
‘Please Herr Doktor. Please do something?’ I asked.
He did not look up from the papers neatly arraigned on his desk, but with one hand waved me away, dismissed my plea for mercy. The cries stopped and we could hear the far away sound of a hammer beating against iron.
‘Thank you Herr Doktor,’ I said.
Then we heard a choking noise, as plainly as someone sneezing in the room next door. I knew they had put a noose around Tusia’s neck and hanged her from the water pipes running along the washroom.
Gott will ihr stroffen, I said.
‘There is no God and my punishment is to be here with you,’ he said.
Herr Doktor looked up at me, expecting an apology.
I looked into his eyes for what seemed the first time. My tongue could not frame the words.
‘I’m sorry Herr Doktor,’ I finally stuttered out, growing into my hatred, like a well-worn frock coat, but holding onto my life.
We watched from the window as the Ukranian’s wheeled the shell of Tusia’s used body away. Drunken Wehrmacht soldiers pushed and jostled each other, like adolescent boys, mocking her nakedness. There was no one to mourn. No one to say Kaddish for a Christian. No one to cut her nails and lay her out in all her finery to meet her judgement. My forehead rested against a square of the cool windowpane, like I was wearing lay tefillin. I was determined to hold a service for her, hold her tenderly inside me and remember her in my blood and bones. No longer would I think or talk in German, unless I had to. And I would survive to tell her tale. That would be my revenge.
Another two trucks came into the quadrangle, filled with even more drunken soldiers. They jumped out. The Ukranian’s waited and casually flung her carcass inside.
Eve leaned lightly against me, smoking another of her foul cigarettes, looking over my shoulder:
‘Jesus,’ she said, ‘that’s another two truckloads, with Tusia gone that’ll be about 50 bodies each tonight. ‘Fuck,’ she said, lighting another cigarette off the one she was putting out.