by Michael C. Stanek   Klaus knew somebody had been there. The signs his commanding officer told them to look for were everywhere. Folded clothing washed to death, unsoiled, stale, scattered across the bed possibly for a midnight excursion that he and his unit had interrupted?

The room smelled of people, a dull odor with a bizarre warmth to it. Unwelcoming. Sinister. Judging by its strength, at least four people lived there at one point—maybe more. The stench clung to his skin like humidity on a hot summer day, not visible, but very much a presence devoid of comfort. Producing an agony that beckoned him to leave. But Klaus could not, there was work to be done.

Klaus’s eyes fell on a leather backpack in the coroner of the room. Half-open, revealing a small lantern, some matches, and other provisions that somebody on the run wouldn’t dare abandon. He rummaged around inside producing a picture of two smiling women, one older, the other quite young—his age in fact. A mother and daughter perhaps?

The mother had an elderly look about her, boney face, grey hair tied back, the works. But the daughter was beautiful, like the girls back in Munich. Her hair flowed in intricate dark curls over her face, which was boney but well-structured like her mother’s. On both of their necks were matching necklaces bearing the Star of David on delicate metal chains. He folded the picture and slid it into his pocket. Her face was still on his mind, he could feel the photo against his thigh. It took all his energy not to take it out for another look.

The floorboards clicked and clacked as he paced the room in his heavy combat boots. The night echoed with gun shots, broken glass, and the occasional scream. He produced a cigarette from his pocket, lit it with a click of his lighter, and sat at the edge of the bed inhaling heavily. He tried to focus, but the picture wouldn’t let him. He took it out again and examined it as he dragged on his cigarette.

Klaus had a lot on his mind without the addition of the beautiful Jewish girl. A few months ago, he’d been a student, studying the humanities at the University of Munich. One day, he received a letter from an officer clad in black leather. The moment he opened it, he found himself a member of the Wehrmacht, fighting a war that was becoming more unwinnable by the day. Jews Klaus, we are here to look for Jews! Focus, or they’ll send you to the front.  He tried to focus, but the picture wouldn’t let him. He took it out again and examined it as he dragged on his cigarette.

The house shuttered as a group of transport trucks drove by. Klaus pays them no mind. He removes his helmet and runs a hand through his blond hair, dark with sweat and clinging to his forehead. Another drag. Another look. Another feeling of creeping remorse for the countless Jews that he’d never met—that he wasn’t supposed to like. It is becoming harder and harder to get them out of his head. They linger like ghosts, silent, but present none the less. He would rather they speak—but they don’t. They just stare with melancholy looks. Haunting. Clinging to his mind’s eye with brittle fingers, cold like dead flesh.

Klaus was told he should have no remorse for these people. They were deceptive, a threat to his way of life. But deep-down he knew there was nothing threatening about the women in this photo. If he’d encountered the younger one at a beer hall back home, he would’ve tried to buy her a stein. Come to think of it, there was nothing threatening about any of the people he’d encountered. If anything, the only things that set them apart were their shabby cloths and defeated looks.

He continued to take the room in, yes, a family had been there. There wasn’t anything in this small bedroom that seemed out of the ordinary. A bed, a dresser, clothing, even the wood where people normally walked was faded just like many homes in Deutschland. You could show somebody two photos: The home of the Jew and the home of an Arian. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Really, these people were a threat to the Fatherland?

“Shit,” the photo fell to the floor. Klaus stomped his cigarette out and stood.

He bent over to retrieve the picture and almost screamed at what he saw. For a split-second there was a dark brown eye looking at him through the floorboards. When he yelled, it vanished into the darkness. He started prying at the loose floor in a panic. One, two, three, four, and there they were. Two Jews huddled together in the corner of a small makeshift crawlspace. Klaus beamed down at them in a triumph that melted away when he flashed his light into the hole. First, he saw the dark curls, then the boney face.

The girl from the photo.

Her face was puffy from crying and lack of sleep. Her startling brown eyes met his, a look of terror echoing deep within them. Her intricate dark curls were frizzled and had streaks of gray. Klaus felt weak. She had to be thirty pounds lighter than she was in the photo. Her beauty and youth were fading from lack of nutrition. He adjusted his light and saw the mother crumpled in her daughter’s arms. Her body didn’t move, it was limp—void of life. He looked back at the dark-haired girl. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes said enough: “Please don’t do this.” Her bottom lip quivered.

Klaus knelt, she recoiled. He raised his hands to show he meant no harm and held out the photo to the girl, she took it cautiously. He put one finger in front of his lips, “shh.”

He took one last look, trying to memorize the details of her face before re-sealing the floor.

He left the house and saluted his squad leader.

“Any scum in there Klaus?”

“No, Sir! No scum.”        About the Author:Michael C. StanekMichael C. Stanek was born in Omaha Nebraska and raised in Menlo Park California. He received his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and his Master of Arts from the University of Denver. He currently lives in Westminster Colorado where he works as a freelance writer.