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The Violinist of Auschwitz
Author: Ellie Midwood

 

Prologue

 

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau, April 4, 1944

 

 

There would be no curtain call tonight. Not for her, at any rate. Her eyes staring fixedly at the crack in the opposite wall, Alma’s fingers played with a small, glass vial full of clear liquid. It had taken her a month to secure it from one of the Kanada detail inmates. For weeks, he had stalled and grimaced and invented all sorts of excuses—he’d be glad to help but what she was asking for was nowhere to be had, only the German doctors had it and not their local ones and he didn’t know which one of the Germans to bribe; he wasn’t quite friendly with them, as she could very well imagine—in the hope that she would change her mind. Alma had listened and nodded and obstinately replied that it was all right and she was ready to wait for as long as needed until she wore him down and he had surrendered at last.

“Here’s your goods. The best around, I’ve been told. Works best as an injection, but you can swallow it if you like. It’ll just take a little longer.”

“Thank you. You’ll get my violin as a payment after—”

“I don’t want anything.” A categorical shake of the head and a gaze directed at the ground, flattened by the feet of thousands of inmates, most of them now gone and forgotten. “It’s mixed with something, so there’ll be very little pain before…” He didn’t finish, simply staring at her tragically, with his pleading blue eyes, hands thrust in pockets.

Smiling faintly, Alma reached out and gave his wrist a slight pressure, in gratitude for his help.

Pain. If only he’d known the extent of the pain she’d been living with for the past few weeks, he wouldn’t have tormented her for so long with this unnecessary wait. This—this would end the pain, not inflict it.

An urgent knock on the door brought Alma out of her reverie. Quickly dropping the vial inside the pocket of her black dress, she clasped her hands and squared her shoulders. “Yes?”

Zippy, a mandolinist, Alma’s confidante and a friend she’d grown to love as a sister, stuck her head inside. “Lagerführerin Mandl is here! We’re ready to start.”

Acknowledging the girl with a nod, Alma gathered her violin case, a conductor’s baton, and sheet music from the table. On her way out, she threw a last, appraising glance in the mirror.

The women’s orchestra was considered among the privileged prisoners. The so-called camp elite, who wore civilian clothes and were allowed to keep their hair intact. The fortunate ones, who didn’t have to break their backs in the quarries or fear the dreaded selections. Nazis’ pets, well-fed, and spared the abuse that the others had to endure daily. “A swell arrangement; whatever is there to complain about?” Zippy’s words, exactly. But there was little dignity in such a humiliating existence, when one’s very reason to live was taken away. Not just taken but snatched, in the middle of the night, in the cruelest of manners; suffocated, burned, dumped into a lake, in a pile of ashes, until nothing remained of it but the memory.

The memory and the pain—dull, never-ending, slowly poisoning her very blood.

Aware of the vial sitting snuggly in her pocket, Alma smoothed her dark locks with one hand and fixed her white lace collar. Tonight, she was giving her last performance. She might as well look the part.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Auschwitz, July 1943

 

 

In the hazy afternoon, Block 10 stood silent and hot. From time to time, an inmate nurse made her unhurried rounds, checking for fresh corpses. Every other day, there were always a few new ones. Not that Alma counted—she had her own fever to worry about—but she heard the nurses pull them from the beds, through her broken sleep, now and then. Some had already been sick when they’d been herded along with Alma onto the train in Drancy, the French transit camp. Some got ill during their journey and no wonder, either, for they’d been packed like sardines, sixty persons per cattle car. Some had died from botched experiments already here, in Auschwitz.

Slowly, Alma roved her gaze over the room. It was rather big, with beds standing so close to each other the nurses had trouble walking between them. But worst of all was the stench, the atrocious, overpowering stench of stale sweat, thick breath, gangrenous flesh, and soiled clothes that made one want to retch.

Unlike the others, Alma’s group hadn’t been sent to quarantine upon arrival. Neither were they marched straight to gas; instead, they had the doubtful fortune to land here, in the Experimental block—a two-story brick building with windows shuttered closed to guard its sinister secrets from any curious outsiders.

Sometimes, the nurses took pity on them and opened the windows for a few precious moments to ventilate the premises. Though, most of the time, that did more harm than good. Attracted by the smell, swarms of flies and mosquitoes rushed inside and attacked the emaciated bodies with ravenous hunger, spreading more disease and torturing the moaning women with their incessant buzzing and biting. More infected wounds, more corpses taken away by the shaven-headed attendants, one of them invariably marking down the numbers of the deceased in her papers to present them later to their superior, SS Dr. Clauberg. The infamous German order, enforced by the Jewish inmates. Alma was quick to see the irony of such a sad state of affairs.

On her first day in the block, she had naively tried asking for some medication for her fever but was only laughed at. Gathering as much dignity as was possible given the circumstances—a rather difficult undertaking when one had just been shorn like a sheep and given a number instead of her name—she inquired about the X-ray machines she had noticed in two ground-floor rooms, but that question was also ignored by the inmate nurses.

“Mind your own affairs.” That was the most she got from Blockälteste Hellinger, a blond woman with a severe face and an armband of a block elder on her left bicep. It appeared that the nurses, even though prisoners themselves, weren’t in any rush to make friends with the new arrivals.

“I understand that this is not the Hotel Ritz, but hospitality leaves a lot to be desired here,” Alma had noted coolly to her.

Caught off guard, the nurse had looked up from her clipboard and blinked at the new inmate. The entire block had hushed itself instantly. All eyes were suddenly on her. It occurred to Alma that talking back must have been a rare occasion here.

“French transport?” Hellinger measured Alma icily. She spoke German correctly but with a strong Hungarian accent. “I should have guessed. The most stuck-up broads always arrive from there.”

“I’m Austrian.” Alma smiled.

“Better still. Old Empire ambitions. The SS will adjust your attitude quickly enough, Your Highness.”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

Much to her surprise, Hellinger shrugged indifferently. “Makes no difference to me. I was appointed as a block elder to mind the order, not bother my head about you lot. Half of you will croak by the end of next week and the other half will be chased through the chimney in the next three months and that’s if you’re lucky to last that long after the procedure.”

The procedure.

Alma was aware of the post-op ward next to theirs, but the access to it had been restricted.

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