"The Rag-and-Bone Men" (1999) by Steve Duffy skates the thin ice of good taste.
Genre writers from Rod Serling to Stephen King have written about comeuppance visited upon perpetrators of Judeocide; somehow the topic still seems taboo, especially for a genre whose strengths are aesthetic, not political perspicacity or bourgeois liberal rectitude.
Protagonist Jonathan Glatzy, displaced person from Lithuania, UK school caretaker, is a Nazi-era war criminal; alone at the school campus over holiday break, he finds his past deeds closing in.
....Last night came an intruder. Around one in the morning I heard a sound from downstairs, as someone might have left ajar a door, and the wind caught it. I was not asleep, but sitting up by the window in the dark, and I took my heavy torch—unlit, I do not need it to know my way—and checked the premises. There was a back door open in the kitchens, that I had thought was shut, and there was snow blown in by the doorway, but nothing further inside. I locked the door and bolted it, and walked the empty corridors, but there was no one. Perhaps it would be best to tell the police, but this I do not wish to do—not while there are such people nearby, in the woods.
This is the first time such things have bothered me, here. Before, when I lived in East Ham, there was a synagogue and burial ground nearby, and I was obliged to be cautious. I grew a beard, and that helped, but after coming here I shaved it off. Twenty years have passed; still one never knows. I feared as much when first began my wandering. Against memory one must always remain vigilant.
The rest of the day I spent in my room up in the attic, going out only to make my customary tour of the grounds. There were footsteps in the snow on the yard; during the night someone walked all around the outside of the school, pausing at the windows where the tracks are close and crowded. In my job it is not allowed to keep a dog; and yet a dog would give me protection. I am reminded of the dogs we kept in the Schwarze Korps: wolfhounds, and the snow would gather on their coats, and their panting breath would fog in the winter air as they barked and leaped and plunged on their leashes. And cordite and blood and rough tobacco, and the burning of brandy in the throat on a cold day, and after the gunshots and the screaming the great stillness of the Northern forests . . . what good is it to remember?
....Beyond Christmas carols and brash pop songs I could find no music, but at the very end of the dial there seemed to be a play for voices. The reception was poor, and I could make out nothing distinctly, but after a while I was obliged to turn it off. I thought I heard the voice from that man in the snug, the Häftling, the rag-and-bone man: I thought he said, Padernice, though that was of course impossible.
Padernice, the impossible village. A rumor we created for good reason: it made them feel more comfortable, thinking they were being taken to a new town, a new ghetto, whose rules they could be sure of learning before long. A place in which they might hope to shelter from the storm; somewhere the furious withering wind might pass them by. Perhaps the guards would be kind, the rations more generous, perhaps there would be stoves in the barracks, and a synagogue. Is it so cruel, to give hope where none in truth exists? At any rate, it made our task, the task of the Einsatzgruppen, easier. Because I spoke their language, I would say to them, in Yiddish, Do not be afraid, nothing bad will happen to you. You are being taken to Padernice, sonderbehandlung, special treatment. Soon you will arrive at Padernice. And then the short ride out into the forest, and the pits.
Padernice was our invention. In all the Eastern lands, clear out to the chertá osédlosti, the Russian Pale of Settlement, such a place never existed. So how could the rag-and-bone man claim that he came from Padernice? He mumbled; his voice was indistinct; but I have replayed the scenario a thousand times in my mind, and I am more and more certain that was what he said, though nothing else about him is certain any more. I must analyse the situation, and think logically. Logically. From his tattoo, he was not of those we took into the forest with Einsatzgruppe B. The tattoo he could only have been given on arrival at the camps. Was it Birkenau, or Belzec, or Treblinka? Kulmhof was the closest; perhaps from Kulmhof; but there they did not tattoo . . . I was at Kulmhof only a few months, so perhaps I am safe. But it is useless to conjecture. I await the night with mounting apprehension; sleep is impossible.
Chełmno, known as Kulmhof, and the castle on the banks of the Narew; Treblinka in the forest, hard by Malkinia Junction on the Bug. Upstream, Sobibor; Belzec also. South, Oświęcim of the tall birch trees in the farmlands of the Vistula. Hundreds more; but remember these, by the rivers of Poland, strung along the black spiderweb of the railway tracks. Remember these citadels of horror and despair, these ghost towns; remember these capitals of night and fog.
....At the rear of the building, the side that faces the woods, there is a small gymnasium and a changing-room. Here if anywhere the sounds seemed to be congregated, but when I entered there was nothing, and again I was forced to ask myself what manner of thing it is that pursues me, and then eludes me at the last. Will it come to me, or must I seek it out? The faintest glimmer of light came through the small high windows, moonlight on snowfall; in the depth of the shadows I saw a coat hanging from a peg, and for a second I thought it—why cannot I say it, even to myself?
....They stood in amongst the trees, the dull stripes of their uniforms indistinguishable from the patterns of branches against the snow, from the iron railings that afford me no defense. What did the publican call them: rag-and-bone men? Rags and bones, but he could not have seen their eyes, that watched me from out of the shadows, from out of the past. Twenty years ago, and it seemed like yesterday, as if I never escaped, never left the forests of the East with my stolen identity, my dead man's papers. Since two, three days, I have not eaten, and I was dizzy—I almost slipped, the mouth of a pit, an abyss, a freezing wind . . .
....what I fear is not exposure, or a show trial in Jerusalem at the hands of the Zionist hangmen. What I now fear, I can hardly name. That which comes out of the forest does not always have a name. My grandmother knew the names of many things, but there were those of whom even she would not speak. She put salt on the window-sills as protection, and I too have done this. If I had garlic, this too would be a protection; I try to imagine the taste of garlic in my mouth, but I can taste only blood.
Steve Duffy's modest narrative compass in "The Rag-and-Bone Men" rescues it from callousness and bad taste. He is writing about a monster's aftermath, not the emotional afterlife of his victims.
30 November 2019