Accountability

For Rick and Denise.

Osi was an accountant. That’s all he’d ever been. A brief stint as a bank clerk, when he was seventeen years old, but then everything changed and suddenly nobody wanted to be bank clerks anymore. They wanted to dress up in matching costumes and run around making an awful mess of everyone else’s countries. So, Osi became an accountant. He was very good, by all accounts. His boss called him ‘the counting-frame’—das Rechenbrett. To his clients, he was Herr Gröning. Osi’s current client was the German police. He had been asked to do battle with the extensive records of a particularly difficult lady named Frau Goldmann. Frau Goldmann, the paperwork told him, was from Stuttgart. A rich old widow. Her husband had, predictably, been a jeweller. Frau Goldmann owned a fortune in diamonds, pearls, silver and so forth, which she had stashed away with the cunning of a schnapps-soaked, arthritis-riddled fox. Until, rather foolishly, she got herself arrested. A thorough investigation led the police to conclude that the old harridan had shipped them overseas. She can’t have been that clever, thought Osi, else she’d have shipped herself along with them. Attempting to decipher the complex financial histories of the idle rich was arduous work—number-crunching, page-flipping, telephone-wrestling, pencil-chewing sort of work—but Osi was in his element. Frau Goldmann’s misery was his intellectual delight. ‘Guten Morgen, Osi.’ ‘Morgen, Max.’ ‘That old witch, eh?’ ‘Ja. Can’t be long now. Coffee yet?’ ‘Not for another hour.’ Max checked his watch. A beautiful piece. Perhaps by Herr Goldmann himself. ‘Komm schon, come! We can sneak a cigarette,’ he said. Outside, in the winter air, Osi and Max stood puffing away like two guilty schoolboys. Osi expected Richter to poke his ruddy balloon of a head out of the first-floor window at any moment. Max was too hysterical to care. ‘…and then—guess what? No, really, guess what?’ ‘No idea, Max.’ ‘He started singing! Singing! The fat little flea started singing! I tell you, Osi, I’ve never seen anything so funny in all my life. I could have shit myself laughing, I swear!’ ‘What did he sing?’ ‘Oh, I can’t say it!’ Max’s cheeks were bulging with half-swallowed laughter. ‘I’d lose it if I told you!’ ‘You would,’ Osi warned. ‘You know better, Max. Remember Schaffer?’ ‘Ja, everyone remembers Schaffer. Who was his last client?’ ‘It doesn’t matter. Just remember it was his last.’ ‘Roth! It was Roth! The old painter from Vienna.’ The rich ones were always old. ‘Ruhe, Max! Roth doesn’t matter anymore. This time next week, Frau Goldmann won’t matter either. You remember Schaffer.’ The missing punctuation hung in a curl of smoke. Max was quiet for a while. ‘Yes,’ he said soberly. ‘Yes, I do.’ So the two friends smoked in silence until the stubs burnt their frostbitten fingers. * ‘Will the court please stand.’ It wasn’t a request. It was an order. Delivered calmly, elegantly, but with a subtle undertone of threat. Please stand, the voice said, or we’ll break your fingers. I was used to hearing such voices. I heard them wieder und wieder, again and again, when I was an accountant. I’d always been an accountant. Herr Gröning, the accountant, das Rechenbrett. Like everybody else, I stood. The judge came in. A portly Mensch who reminded me of Richter. The court waited patiently for him to stroll the five metres from the door to the desk. He moved with the slow majesty of a glacier—lofty and inevitable, holding the court in the ice of anticipation. My breath frosted. ‘Herr Gröning,’ boomed the judge. Nobody called me Osi anymore. ‘Euer Ehren,’ I replied, in a voice much smaller than I’d hoped for. Again with the ranks and titles; was ‘Your Honour’ so different from the rest? There was a ripple around the courtroom. Cameras flashed and sniggered. ‘Herr Gröning,’ he repeated, softer this time. He’d made his grand entrance. ‘A most peculiar case.’ Was this an invitation for me to speak? His voice said yes, but his gunmetal eyes said no. I followed the eyes. Another thing I’d learnt as an accountant. ‘Most peculiar indeed.’ He was like a storybook character. Bearded, robed, and full of secrets. He was like the wise old wizard from Star Wars, from Krieg der Sterne, as they’d called it then. I’d watched it once, as a younger man. Not young enough. Good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong—it troubled me. Silly fantasy, of course, but always something more. ‘May the court request an opening statement, Herr Gröning?’ Tell us, said his voice, or we’ll break your legs. ‘For me—’ I began, and stammered. Was it really so hard? Reiss’ dich zusammen, Osi! Pull yourself together. ‘For me, there is no question that I share moral guilt.’ No cameras laughed this time. They’d stopped seeing the funny side. I’d struggled to find the humour in the first place. ‘I ask for forgiveness,’ I went on. ‘I share morally in the guilt, but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.’ I glanced at Hans. Hans Holtermann, my defence lawyer. He looked as if he were watching Germany in the Weltmeisterschaft final. His glassy gaze was fixed on the judge as he mouthed the words we’d prepared together. I’d done that myself, many times, these last few weeks. In front of the Spiegel in my old house. The same mirror in which I’d once fixed my tie and combed my hair, polished my boots and straightened my cap, when I was an accountant. I’d always been an accountant. But did that make me accountable? * Osi’s fingers were sore. The metal keys of a typewriter didn’t take well to repeated hammering. Tomorrow, he would have bruises as well as frostbite. He pitied those who had to work outdoors. Still, there was always somewhere warmer. He stood outside the main admin office. The same bland porridge-like wall, the same barrack-block lettering, the same symbol on the prison-cell door. The Firmenstempel, Richter called it—the company stamp. It had been a hard day’s work, with little to show. Coffee, then lunch, then dinner had melted into an instant. They were well-fed, of course, given plenty of cigarettes and schnapps to stave off the cold. After all, they belonged to a very prestigious company. But try as he might, Osi couldn’t make head nor tail of Frau Goldmann. He’d scribbled sheet after sheet of calculations, counted every last Pfennig, mustered his forces for the next assault. He saw it time and time again—a weak point, a chink in the armour, a hole in the walls of Babylon. With his arsenal of ink and lead, he poised for the killing blow…and, time and time again, he bounced harmlessly off the financial fortress of Frau Goldmann. He knocked sharply on the door. ‘Ja?’ came a hedgehog voice from within. ‘Gröning,’ said Osi. The door was flung open. ‘Komm’ doch rein, Osi!’ beamed a lovely young blonde. Sore thumb was inadequate. Here was a rainbow in a sky still wracked with storms, a permed peacock in a cage of hens. ‘Come in, don’t be a stranger!’ ‘Dankeschön, Fräulein Hoppe.’ He was married, she was not. Christian names simply weren’t appropriate. There were stories in the office about the last receptionist. Remember Schaffer, he told himself. Christian names would be careless. ‘Oh, bitte!’ she whined. ‘Call me Liesl. Everyone does.’ ‘I’m sorry, Fräulein Hoppe, but everyone shouldn’t. I’m here for business.’ ‘You think I’m not?’ she shot back. ‘Touché,’ Osi conceded. Leave it there, he thought. ‘Well, Herr Gröning? How can I help you?’ Osi unclipped his briefcase—tan leather with sturdy metal clasps, someone else’s name and address still faintly inked—and dug out a stack of typewritten sheets from under a copy of yesterday’s Observer. ‘I didn’t know you were moving the Zugspitze, Herr Gröning. Or are you writing War and Peace?’ ‘You’re a receptionist, Fräulein Hoppe, not the police.’ A moment passed. ‘Richter’s pigeonhole, please,’ he said hurriedly. Gone was the peacock—Liesl looked like a sparrow as she turned her back. ‘Anything else?’ Short and sharp. ‘No thank you, Fräulein Hoppe. Not today.’ She walked him to the door. Odd, thought Osi. He turned to say goodbye, but suddenly everything was wild and flailing, was thunder and lightning, was hair and perfume and shining sea-blue eyes. He fell back against the doorframe as Liesl launched herself onto him. She dug her nails into the back of his neck. More bruises—maybe even cuts. ‘I used to work in radio,’ she growled. ‘Then they sent me here. Work for the Firma, they said. Better pay, better food, better life, they said. They warned me about some of the men, of course. But they said nothing about the women and the children. Oh, Gott, I wish I’d never left!’ Osi said nothing. He was just an accountant. Liesl let him go. She looked ashamed. Terrified, even. Eagle back to sparrow in the blink of an eye. ‘I should be going, Fräulein Hoppe,’ he stammered. The sparrow folded her wings in fear. ‘We’ll say no more about it.’ From far away came the lonely whistling of a train. As she shut the door, he noticed the tears in her eyes. * ‘Would the first witness please stand?’ asked the judge. It was a question this time. I could tell. No threat of violence, not for me. I had never been an accountant. I looked at the man who had. Counting, filing, stacking and scribbling—what a life! He knew the price of everything, that man, but did he know the value? Life. What was it truly worth? Looking in Der Spiegel wouldn’t tell him. At least, not at the finance pages. He was old. White-haired and wrinkled. Large tortoiseshell glasses on his nose. Woollen vest over a pressed white shirt. He looked frail and harmless. He looked like me. I didn’t recognise him, I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up. I had never seen Herr Gröning in my life. Yet nevertheless, here I was, just a once-young girl lost in time and space, being asked to testify against a man she never knew. He was just an accountant. Wasn’t he? ‘Please state your name and nationality,’ said the judge. ‘Eva Mozes Kor,’ I said. ‘US citizen, naturalised.’ ‘And your country of birth?’ ‘Romania,’ I said. It sounded strangely foreign to me. ‘1934,’ I offered, without invitation. I didn’t feel I needed it. I remembered everything. How could I not? To forget would be treason. I looked at the accountant. He could not meet my eyes. Did he recognise me? Impossible. We had never met in our lives. We had been close, within miles of each other at most. Yards, perhaps, maybe even feet. But our paths had never crossed. It wasn’t right for us to meet in those years, in that place. The confrontation lay ahead, around the twists and turns of our snake-like lives, along the augured road that brought us both to Lüneburg Landesgericht in the April of 2015, to these plastic chairs and plywood desks of the future. My childhood world of wood and wool was gone. Consumed, eaten, swallowed whole by the demons of rubber and metal and glass. I remember the feel of them. The sight, the smell, the taste. The sounds. Hissing and humming, clattering and bubbling, the chords of a madman’s symphony. Musicians came and went, in surgical masks and spectacles. I was only young. I don’t remember the faces. But none, I am sure, was the face of the man sitting before me. Not one was the face of an accountant. Does that make it easier? Knowing there is no hatred I cannot feel, no vengeance I will be denied. Nothing is beyond me now. I am here to bring this man, finally, to account. I remember the faces of my family. So long ago. So many others, whose names I never learnt. There was no time. There was no need. They took that from us. Israel and Sarah, row upon row, name after name after name. Numbers were what Herr Gröning dealt in, and numbers were what we became. Yet his name will be remembered. Not by many, not for long. But it will. I see it now. He craves anonymity. He craves numberhood, and the silent oblivion it brings. He looks at me and wants rid of his name. He would sacrifice himself, would see himself obliterated, rather than carry his shame any longer. He bears the cross of identity willingly, perhaps even nobly. Yes, nobly is the word—like a penitent eagle. He is more than just an accountant. He is human. Brave in his flaws, innocent in his guilt, locked in mortal struggle against himself. Aren’t we all? ‘And your connection to the accused?’ I say nothing. I need time. I see before me a man who needs the same. Are we really so different? He is to redemption as a fish to his water, is to compassion as a lamb to her flock, is to forgiveness as the birds to their sky. Without them, he will fade into the night with the ink of time still wet upon his cheek. Power surges through my veins. He is the prisoner. I am the warden. The lost girl from Romania, dead at ten years old. I haven’t been that child for seven times the span of her own meagre life. History hangs upon this moment, the inertia of the unthinkable balances on a pinpoint. I can tip the needle either way… How painfully Torahic. The accountant looks at me. He takes off his spectacles. Finally. Contact as close, as truly intimate, as anything I have ever experienced. If you prick us, ask his naked eyes, do we not bleed? ‘Mrs Kor, I must repeat the question. What is your connection to the accused?’ ‘I was there,’ I say, and the key fits the lock and it turns with a creak and the rusty cell door swings open in my mind and out steps an accountant, out steps a human being, out steps SS-Unterscharführer Oskar Gröning. ‘I was at Auschwitz.’ * Porridge-like wall, barrack-block lettering, that crooked cross of a Firmenstempel. Not the receptionist’s office. This nondescript little cupboard was the lair of SS-Untersturmführer Moritz Richter, supreme overlord of the Finanzabteilung KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp’s accountancy department. Richter ruled his pen-and-paper empire with a grim passion. Under his scrupulous scrutiny, men, women and children were stripped down, split open and pulled to pieces, counted, weighed and measured, typed up, filed away and forgotten, melted into gold bullion, stamped with a swastika and loaded onto the very train they came in to go roaring into the hands of Walther Funk and the vaults of the Deutsche Reichsbank. From Berlin they were sent all over the Reich, to the black smoke-and-steel cathedrals of industry, to be made into guns and grenades, into aeroplanes, artillery and armour, into bombs and battleships and bayonets. To Moritz Richter, death begat death in an extraordinary cycle of cause and effect. To Moritz Richter, there was a beauty in the mathematics of destruction. Osi knocked three times. ‘Tritt’ ein!’ Not the hedgehog voice of Liesl Hoppe, but the staccato bark of a rifle. Osi stepped into the office. A click of the heels and a snap of the arm. Automatic. ‘Heil Hitler, Herr Untersturmführer!’ ‘Is he sick?’ grinned Richter, returning a half-hearted wave. An awful and potentially fatal joke. Protected by his authority, Richter was something of a connoisseur. Remember Schaffer. Osi laughed politely, but not so politely as to be rude. ‘Did you receive my report on the Goldmann accounts, Herr Untersturmführer?’ asked Osi. He had reluctantly handed it in almost a week ago. A disappointing result, but so it goes. ‘Ja, Gröning. I had a man from the Stuttgart Gestapo telephone. They’d just about given up—no thanks to you—when an air raid blew the old Yid’s house to shit. The clean-up team arrived, and sieh da! There was her treasure, stashed in a wall cavity. All that remained of it, anyway, smashed beyond all hope of salvage. Slippery bitch. They were pleased to know she was herself obliterated with Tuesday’s transport. Kapos said she made an awful racket.’ Osi didn’t flinch. ‘Didn’t the Gestapo search the property when she was deported, Herr Untersturmführer?’ ‘Na ja, so they did. The officer who led the search is now rotting in Sachsenhausen.’ Clever old Jew, thought Osi. Staring death in the face, the stubborn Frau Goldmann had led her captors on one last dance. If it weren’t for the British bombers, her treasure would have eluded Hitler forever. As it happened, he’d lost a considerable amount of pocket on the investigation alone, something the shattered pieces of jewellery would likely not recoup. Osi was just an accountant. He knew such things. He didn’t want to know anything else. Richter looked at him. There was something unspoken in that level stare. He knew, of course, why Osi was here. The Goldmann affair was a rare blip in the humdrum mundanity of the Finanzabteilung’s everyday existence. Osi was back to tallying and typing the particulars of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s less troublesome prisoners. Had been for a week, would be until they ran out of people to burn. Hours of finger-aching, brain-dulling, paper-scrunching boredom. But Richter knew that wasn’t the real problem. ‘Herr Untersturmführer,’ Osi began. ‘I was wondering if there had been any developments in regard to my previous request.’ He knew, and despite himself, he understood. ‘Come now, Rechenbrett,’ Richter sighed. ‘You made a pledge. To Führer und Vaterland. Don’t forget that there are always worse jobs to be had.’ Osi couldn’t forget. He was just an accountant, but he’d seen it all—the head of a wailing baby smashed off the side of a truck; the pitiful whimpers of the cripples, shot where they fell in blood and filth; the faceless gravitas of the gas-masked man as he emptied a tin of pellets into the iron hatch; the humming, the screaming, the silence most of all. He remembered the shrieking of the train-whistles, the iron tread of jackboots and the shouts of ‘Raus! Raus! Raus!’. He remembered the night, late in ‘42, when the alarm had sounded and they’d grabbed their pistols and gone hunting Jews in the woods. He remembered the pit where the bodies were burnt, the smoke and the stench and the horror. He remembered the Kapo, who had told him with grovelling pride how the whole thing worked. He remembered how the bow-legged creature with the gap-toothed grin had slaughtered his brothers and sisters for a slice of old sausage and a swig of schnapps. But Osi was just an accountant. He too received his daily bread. His family was in Germany. ‘I’m afraid it’s out of the question,’ Richter continued. ‘Not at this stage. You’re a good accountant, Gröning. The Finanzabteilung needs you. Here, you have better rations. Here, you have books to read and beer to drink and friends to play cards with. Here, you really are doing the Führer’s work. They’re only Jews, Gröning—what’s conscience got to do with it?’ ‘Nothing, Herr Untersturmführer,’ he said. * The Prozess was over. It had been nearly four months. Today came the verdict. The co-claimant, the survivor, had said her piece. So had sixty others. Sixty! All here to testify against my client. All here, so it seemed, to have their revenge. It’s a terrible thing, Rache. It burns you up like a fire from within, leaving nothing but a twisted shell of a soul, a scorch-boned skeleton with a pointing finger. Trust me, I’m a lawyer. It was always going to be a difficult case. Since ninety-year-old Demjanjuk was convicted, a precedent had been set. It was always going to be difficult, but I took it on. Oskar Gröning. Ja, he was just another fool of the times. His father was in the Stahlhelm. He joined the Hitler Youth. He went to book burnings and rallies, sang die Fahne Hoch as loud as all the other little boys. How was he to know, as a young man nursed on propaganda, where the future would take him? Auschwitz was Auschwitz. It can’t be explained or forgiven. Certainly not by Oskar, certainly not by me. But since then, he’s tried. The court ignored that. They ignored all the efforts he’s made. Meine Güte, the man’s spent years being harassed by those who would tell him he didn’t see what he saw, didn’t hear what he heard, didn’t do what he did! We’ve discussed it many times, this strange phenomenon. The rejection of truth, the bitter, reactionary denial. The obstinate perpetuation of a disgraced and inhuman ideology. I can’t understand it. Neither can Oskar. It’s hard for him to live such a life, but will they understand? Nein. To them, he’s just a Nazi. Oskar’s predicament is unique, no? Hated by Hitler’s supporters, hated by Hitler’s opponents. He can find no comfort here, with the gun-barrels of a thousand cameras spitting electric venom in his face. My client, I believe, has always fought a noble losing battle. Mrs Kor understood that. She, at least, offered him a chance. The irony. The bittersweet realisation. I don’t see it very often. I see her now, sitting, hands folded in her lap. She looks composed, elegant almost, but there is an inner turbulence which only those who can read people may notice. I notice. Oskar doesn’t. He worked with numbers, not people. ‘Will the court please stand.’ Not a question. We stand. In comes the judge, that monolith of justice. His paunch seems to drag the rest of him towards his chair. There is no glacial grandeur this time. He is brisk and assertive. Professional. ‘The jury of the Landesgericht,’ he begins, pausing for effect. The cameras conjure up a perfect storm of Blitzen. ‘Has reached a verdict.’ Mrs Kor smiles at me. A melancholy gesture, a compassionate offer to share in my anxiety. I return it shyly. Mein Gott, what a woman. ‘This court finds the defendant, Herr Oskar Gröning…’ Time stretches. Seconds become hours. Colours, sounds, smells and shapes blend into an incomprehensible mess of nonsensical reality. An abstract painting. And who is the artist? Is it me? Judge Kompisch? Oskar Gröning? Mrs Kor? Who created this scene before us? What hand sketched the figures, held the brush, and mixed the paints? Perhaps it was all of us. Perhaps we painted this picture together. Both a landscape and a portrait, sweeping in its intricacy. Both classical and modernist, capturing time itself in all its joy and horror. I would hang it in the Louvre, so everyone would understand. I would call it The Essence of Innocence. No—I would call it Accountability. ‘…schuldig…’ Guilty. The frame is shattered, the oil paint cracks and the canvas withers away. ‘...as an accessory to the murder of over 300,000 innocent persons, and receiving a sentence of four years’ imprisonment.’ Vier Jahre. Four! Oskar was 93 years old. They could be the last four years of his life. They could be an eternity. As the courtroom reeled and the earth stopped still, Mrs Kor approached my client. The Holocaust survivor stood before the former Nazi. She embraced him. She kissed him. She thanked him. Ach, mein Gott! That was fucking madness. * Osi took one last drag on his cigarette. He ground it into the dirt. He had an appointment to keep, at Lüneburg Landesgericht in just over seventy years. He couldn’t afford to be late. ‘So, you’re really leaving, eh?’ ‘Ja, Max. I’m going to the front. The Ardennes.’ ‘Gratuliere, Osi,’ laughed Max. ‘Send me a postcard, won’t you?’ The year was 1944. As Osi’s train left Auschwitz behind, another was pulling into the station. In a carriage full of filth and corpses, clinging desperately to her twin sister, was a ten-year-old girl from Romania.

Aaron Saint John