Chapter no 101 – Prisoners‌

All the Light We Cannot See

August 1942

dangerously underweight corporal in threadbare fatigues comes for Werner on foot. Long fingers, a thatch of thinning hair beneath his cap. One of his boots has lost its lace, and its tongue lolls cannibalistically. He says, “You’re little.”

Werner, in his new field tunic and oversize helmet and regulation Gott mit uns belt buckle, draws his shoulders back. The man squints at the huge school in the dawn, then bends and unzips Werner’s duffel and rifles through the three carefully folded NPEA uniforms. He raises a pair of trousers against the light and seems disappointed that they are not remotely his size. After he closes the bag, he throws it over his shoulder; whether to keep or merely carry it, Werner cannot guess.

“I’m Neumann. They call me Two. There’s another Neumann, the driver. He’s One. Then there’s the engineer and the sergeant and you, so for whatever it’s worth, that’s five again.”

No trumpets, no ceremony. This is Werner’s induction into the Wehrmacht. They walk the three miles from the school to the village. In a delicatessen, black flies swim over a half dozen tables. Neumann Two orders two plates of calves’ liver and eats both, using dark little bread rolls to sop the blood. His lips shine. Werner waits for explanations— where they’re going, what sort of unit he’ll be joining—but none are forthcoming. The color of the arms displayed under the corporal’s shoulder straps and collar tabs is wine-red, but Werner can’t remember what that is supposed to signify. Armored infantry? Chemical warfare? The old frau collects the plates. Neumann Two removes a small tin from his coat, dumps three round pills on the table, and gulps them down. Then he puts the tin back inside his coat and looks at Werner. “Backache pills. You have money?”

Werner shakes his head. From a pocket Neumann Two pulls some crumpled and filthy reichsmarks. Before they leave, he asks the frau to bring a dozen hard-boiled eggs and hands Werner four.

From Schulpforta they ride a train through Leipzig and disembark at a switching station west of Lodz. Soldiers from an infantry battalion lie

along the platform, all of them asleep, as though some enchantress has cast a spell over them. Their faded uniforms look spectral in the dimness, and their breathing seems synchronized, and the effect is ghostly and unnerving. Now and then a loudspeaker mutters destinations Werner has never heard of—Grimma, Wurzen, Grossenhain—though no trains come or go, and the men do not stir.

Neumann Two sits with his legs spread and eats eggs one after another, piling the shells into a tower inside his upturned cap. Dusk falls. A soft, tidal snoring issues from the sleeping company. Werner feels as though he and Neumann Two are the only souls awake in the world.

Well after dark, a whistle sounds in the east and the drowsing soldiers stir. Werner comes out of a half dream and sits up. Neumann Two is already upright beside him, palms cupped against each other, as though attempting to hold a sphere of darkness in the bowl of his hands.

Couplings rattle, brake blocks grind against wheels, and a train emerges from the gloom, moving fast. First comes a blacked-out locomotive, bolted over with armor, exhaling a thick geyser of smoke and steam. Behind the locomotive rumble a few closed cars and then a machine gun in a blister, two gunners crouching beside it.

All of the cars following the gunners’ car are flatcars loaded with people. Some stand; more kneel. Two cars pass, three, four. Each car appears to have a wall of sacks along the front to serve as windbreak.

The rails below the platform shine dully as they bounce beneath the weight. Nine flatcars, ten, eleven. All full. The sacks, as they pass, seem strange: they look as though they have been sculpted out of gray clay. Neumann Two raises his chin. “Prisoners.”

Werner tries to pick out individuals as the cars blur past: a sunken cheek, a shoulder, a glittering eye. Are they wearing uniforms? Many sit with their backs against the sacks at the front of the car: they look like scarecrows shipping west to be staked in some terrible garden. Some of the prisoners, Werner sees, are sleeping.

A face flashes past, pale and waxy, one ear pressed to the floor of the car.

Werner blinks. Those are not sacks. That is not sleep. Each car has a wall of corpses stacked in the front.

Once it becomes clear that the train will not stop, all the soldiers around them settle and close their eyes once more. Neumann Two yawns. Car after car the prisoners come, a river of human beings pouring

out of the night. Sixteen seventeen eighteen: why count? Hundreds and hundreds of men. Thousands. Eventually from the darkness rushes a final flatcar where again the living recline on the dead, followed by the shadow of another gun in a blister and four or five gunners and then the train is gone.

The sound of the axles fades; silence seals itself back over the forest. Somewhere in that direction is Schulpforta with its dark spires, its bed wetters and sleepwalkers and bullies. Somewhere beyond that the groaning leviathan that is Zollverein. The rattling windows of Children’s House. Jutta.

Werner says, “They were sitting on their dead?”

Neumann Two closes an eye and cocks his head like a rifleman aiming into the darkness where the train has receded. “Bang,” he says. “Bang, bang.”

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