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Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Birthday Party in #Neuengamme (Part 2, Final) by John von Daler


                 The many bunk beds had been moved aside and a large, wooden table had been set up in the middle of the room. On this the boys had arranged all sorts of smorgasbord, sandwiches of ham, liver paste, marinated herring, fish fillets and cheese. These open-faced sandwiches were decorated with peppers, tomatoes, fresh onion, capers and pickles of all kinds.
                The scruffily clad guests, about twenty in all, shuffled around the table as if this were one of many receptions they had been to that week. In truth they had not seen food like this for years; they were skinny, sickly and depressed. Somehow, though, they managed with shaking hands to establish a kind of polite, withdrawn posture: No, you first. Oh, well, of course I think I could eat one more piece. No, you take it, I've already tried the fillet...
                On the other side of the wall was a Gestapo office that had been paid to disregard the small, polite sounds coming from their prisoners.
                Soon the guests stood eating their sandwiches and drinking some beer, talking quietly in the broken German that was the lingua franca of the camp. The small boys waited politely for the guests to eat a few sandwiches and then they, too, approached the table and took the few pieces that were left.
                When everyone had eaten, the Russian host asked his guests to sit cross-legged in a large circle on the floor. No sooner had they all bent and pressed their sore limbs into place then a guitar started to play pieces by Tjajkovskij and Prokofiev and Skryabin. After a quarter of an hour of music, suddenly the lights went out. J felt a hand grip his shoulder and with a rush four dancers sprang over the heads of the guests and into the middle of the circle as spot lights followed them from above.
                The Germans had been indiscriminate in the prisoners they had taken in Russia. The dancers in the middle of the circle were professional and exceptionally good. They knew the classic Russian repertoire and proceeded to dance famous sequences from Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and The Nutcracker. They sprang so gracefully and so powerfully that sometimes they would come dangerously close to the beams that crisscrossed the rectangular room. J, who knew the ballet in Copenhagen well, sat with chills in his spine and tears in his eyes.
                When the Russians had danced for half an hour and afterwards had given four or five encores, each guest was again approached by his small guide. It was time to go home before the watch changed to the new Gestapo who had not been bribed. The guests formed a line and thanked their host and wished him one hundred more years of life. Then their tiny guides ran through the darkness with them to their quarters and saw them all safely to their beds.
                Years later when he told this story in his little worker's apartment in the old cobble-stoned part of Copenhagen, J would stop here and stroke his long, gray beard. He would raise his glass. How can I ever describe the beauty of it, he would say, the light and the dark, the good and the evil, the pain and the joy? It's just too much! Then he would look silently around his little wooden table at whatever good guests had heard his story, his glass in mid-air, as if to say, Words cannot tell more.
                And then he would ask his guests for their stories: Say something! Now it's you. Tell! But we could hardly speak.



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