Chapter 2: Work After Dark
Peppi and Resi lived in a small house. Peppi’s father built the place with his own hands before he went off to fight in the Great War. The smithy stood in a grassy green courtyard behind the blacksmith’s house. Its large double doors faced the only entrance to the residence. Tucked in a corner between the smithy and the entrance was a deep well and next to it rested the old red bench Peppi and Max had sat on earlier in the day. Since the house did not have a front entrance, one had to walk through the front gardens and around into the courtyard through a narrow path. The kitchen was immediately through the entrance, which Peppi kept locked while they worked at night.
Max and Resi sat at the kitchen table rolling cigarettes. Piles of tobacco and empty cigarette cases were scattered all over the table. Peppi sat in between the two, in front of him was a heavy wooden cutting board and a long, sharp knife. Curtains hung in the windows blocking the light and the lamp was covered with sheets, dimming the room so that no one could see the lights from the street. Curfew rules were still in effect due to the war, but in a small village like theirs, there weren’t enough people to enforce it and less who really cared. Nevertheless, Peppi took precautions. Richerl was sleeping on a small bed that folded out from the kitchen wall, near his feet was a stack of newly stitched working pants. Max pointed to them, “Resi, you stitched all that today?”
Her concentration remained on the cigarette between her fingers. Without looking up, she corrected Max, “Ironed only. I stitch two a day, at most. I still have to tailor them.” Resi rolled another cigarette, while Peppi slid past her over to the kitchen closet where he grabbed a handful of tobacco leaves.
Max tried to make small talk. Rolling tobacco was not incredibly stimulating for him and his fat fingers were not particularly deft at it. “And you think the aircraft factories won’t be attacked at all?”
Peppi wet the tobacco by dipping his fingers into the water and flicking it at the leaves before tightly rolling and cutting them into thin slices. Like his wife, he stayed focused on his work while he responded to Max’s inquiries. “I don’t think so. That’s why they built the labor camp right in the middle of it. It acts like a shield. Otherwise they’d have bombed them by now already.”
Max ripped a cigarette as he rolled it too tightly. He tossed the broken paper aside and started over while continuing his line of questioning, “So that’s why they aren’t in a camp?”
“I think so,” Peppi said matter of factly. “And by keeping the labor on site, you also don’t have to transport them back and forth.”
“So they all work by where you work?”
“They’re spread across the entire compound. Only a few sections work near my smithy. They are digging a huge hole in the ground. Rumor has it that they eventually want to move the assembly halls underground,” Peppi said as he pushed another pile of freshly cut tobacco over to Resi, who was rolling easily twice the rate as Max.
Max leaned in closer to Peppi and lowered his voice, as if someone outside was listening in on the conversation, “Is it true they are building the new Messerschmitt there?”
“Yes, the jet plane. That’s what I heard,” Peppi responded in a normal voice, while wetting more tobacco.
Max perked up and cocked his head. “The what?” he said, loud enough that the boy stirred in his sleep.
Peppi stopped his work and shot Max a quizzing look. “Jet plane? Well, it’s a plane without a propeller. The ME 262—I think that’s what it is called.”
Max frowned skeptically, “Did you see one?”
“No. No. Of course not,” said the blacksmith as he went back to cutting leaves. “All of that is Top Secret and I am not allowed to leave my workstation, but apparently some have been flying around since December.”
“How?” The burly veteran with his crooked stained teeth leaned back in disbelief.
Resi reached for some of the freshly cut tobacco in front of Peppi and began rolling it into another paper. She had rolled three cigarettes in the time Max had finished only one. “With the jet, of course, that’s why it’s called a jet plane,” she explained, as if the answer was so obvious a child could understand it. “Peppi, isn’t that tobacco too wet?” she asked as her nimble fingers tested the fresh cut.
“No, it’s fine,” Peppi assured her, before continuing the conversation with his skeptical friend. “Yes, Max, the plane is supposed to be twice as fast as the fastest fighter.”
Max snickered as he gave Peppi a judgmental look. “C’mon Peppe, you don’t really believe all that propaganda, do you? There is no plane without a propeller. How would it stay in the air?”
The couple stopped their work simultaneously and Peppi looked over at Resi baffled, unsure how to answer such a technical question. His wife only shrugged her shoulders. “They have rockets that fly all the way to England. Those don’t have propellers either,” Peppi finally countered.
Max tilted his head with a smirk, thinking his friends were childish to easily believe Nazi propaganda. “That’s completely different,” he said. “No one is sitting inside those. You can’t tell me that there is a plane that flies like a rocket. That would change the entire course of this war!” he exclaimed, leaning on his expertise. “If that were the case, the allies would have bombed that factory into a pile of dirt long ago…labor camp and Jews included.” He exchanged an unbroken gaze with the couple.
Peppi shrugged and started driving the knife down on the tobacco again. He started cutting harder and faster. He didn’t like talking about the Jews at the factory, perhaps because he partially felt a sense of guilt despite not having a hand in their desperate situation. In either case, their mention seemed to have triggered something inside him. “Listen, Max. I don’t care what they build down there. Jet fighters, rockets, wall clocks, or paper airplanes. I just want to be left in peace, do my job and make a little money so we can keep our comfortable lives here until this thing is over. Do you understand?”
Resi saw Max squinting at Peppi’s overreaction and immediately tried to intervene in the conversation. “Max, he is just upset because he sees them murder Jews every day. It’s really affecting him,” she said, hoping that Max didn’t take Peppi’s reaction too personally. After all, she knew Max carried his own burden of what he had seen and done at the front. Perhaps he was able to deal with it better than her husband though.
Peppi was still cutting vigorously and spoke in a choppy rhythm in tune with his cuts. “They work, day and night. They use heavy tools, carts, wheelbarrows, wooden boards. They bring all the dirt up a steep ramp, steeper than any hill you’ve ever walked. All at a running pace, all the time…” Peppi stopped his cutting to look Max straight in the eye, almost burning a hole through him with his endless stare. His face was tense, making Max slightly uneasy. “And if one collapses…” he said, pointing the knife at Max, “they shoot him on the spot. Right there.” He turned the knife towards his own head, pointing it directly between his bright blue eyes. “No questions asked.”
Peppi made one final cut and pushed the tobacco leaves aside. Resi looked over at her husband with grave concern. She gently put her hand on his arm. The blacksmith looked at her, forced a smile and slid past her again as he got up to grab more leaves from the closet, even though there were still plenty left on the table.
Max halfheartedly began rolling another cigarette, regretting he had asked his friend so many questions. Resi too started rolling again before breaking the silence. “They are being exterminated. That much is clear, no matter what people say. I don’t much like hearing him talk about it anymore when he comes home,” she said in a melancholy tone.
Peppi slid past Resi again, sat down and continued cutting the last of the tobacco. His slow and consistent cuts revealed that he had recovered from his temporary spell of guilt infused anger. While he worked, he continued to tell his friend about the conditions at work. Peppi found that it was almost liberating for him to speak to Max about it. Resi preferred to forget there was a war on and didn’t want to hear it, but Max had been there, had seen friends die, and killed men he didn’t know. If there was anyone in this village that could sympathize with Peppi’s internal struggle he was trying to hide behind his manly exterior, in order to shield his family, it was Max—his old friend. “It looks like the SS has taken over command,” Peppi said. “Every soldier is allowed to kill at will without having to answer to anyone. Of course I feel horrible, of course I want to help them, but what can I do? Most of them have never done any manual labor in their life. Doctors, professors…they are the first to collapse. They don’t last very long.”
“I give him some things to bring them some days. Potatoes, cigarettes, bread…whatever we have at the time,” Resi explained.
Max nodded in understanding, took a handful of rolled cigarettes and carefully stuffed them into an empty box. On the front, he didn’t hear much about what happened to the Jews back home, just rumors. It didn’t affect him until he returned home and missed them as customers at his cobbler shop. But he did have plenty of encounters with the SS and knew better than to cross that organization. “Isn’t that too risky?” he inquired. “Is that worth it?”
Peppi nodded his head in agreement. Of course it was risky. He often wondered if he did it because he liked to think he was a good person, or because not doing anything to help innocent human beings would eventually drive him insane. “It’s not easy. There are guards everywhere and they are suspicious of everyone. I just lose some stuff on my way to the smithy at work.” He pushed a small pile of tobacco towards Max. “Things just…accidentally, fall off my motorcycle when I drive past the excavation site.”
Resi reached across the table for Max’s partially filled box and stuffed it full with the rolled cigarettes in front of her, then sat it on top of a stack of about a dozen finished boxes. “There is one Jew that visits him at work. Peppi bakes potatoes for him at the smithy,” she said, reaching over for some of Max’s pile of tobacco. At Max’s pace they’d never finish the pile by midnight.
“Herr Bienenfeld,” Peppi added. “When he picks up the tools I turn my back and let him steal some, when I’m not looking. He brings them to the weak and injured, under penalty of death. He is...” Peppi paused, then corrected himself, “...was, a math professor.” Peppi always had tremendous respect for academics. He himself would have liked to study at a university, like the one where Dr. Bienenfeld used to teach, but Peppi’s father had different plans for him. He needed his son at the forge to help provide for the family and Peppi obliged his old man. All these years later, the thirst for knowledge and his curiosity had never left him.
Max tore another cigarette as he tried to roll it too tightly, the tobacco spilling out of it, adding to the slowly shrinking pile on the table. The old soldier cursed under his breath showing his crooked teeth in displeasure, tossed the ripped paper aside and started anew. “They’ll shoot him over a bunch of potatoes?” he asked.
“No. No Max. They’ll hang him, and make everyone watch,” Peppi corrected.
“Hopefully this is all over soon,” Resi prayed, as she stuffed another box full of cigarettes and placed it on the growing pile.
Peppi pointed to the pile of boxes, which was an assortment of containers from a variety of recycled cigarette brands. “How many have we done?”
“Eins…drei…fuenf…zehn – twelve,” Resi confirmed.
Peppi looked up at the old clock mounted high on the wall opposite him, above where the boy was sleeping. It was a relic passed down from his father before he died in the last war. It was his most prized possession. With Roman numerals and a bronze frame, it was mostly unimpressive and ordinary. Perhaps the only truly remarkable feature about the old clock was that it never seemed to stop ticking, the ticks only got louder every year.