The Amber Room



Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Austria

April 10, 1945

The prisoners called him Ears because he was the only Russian in Hut 8 who understood German. Nobody ever used his given name, Karol Borya. `Yxo-Ears-had been his label from the first day he entered the camp over a year ago. It was a tag he regarded with pride, a responsibility he took to heart.

"What do you hear?" one of the prisoners whispered to him through the dark. He was cuddled close to the window, pressed against the frigid pane, his exhales faint as gossamer in the dry sullen air.

"Do they want more amusement?" another prisoner asked.

Two nights ago the guards came for a Russian in Hut 8. He was an infantryman from Rostov near the Black Sea, relatively new to the camp. His screams were heard all night, ending only after a burst of staccato gunfire, his bloodied body hung by the main gate the next morning for all to see.

He glanced quickly away from the pane. "Quiet. The wind makes it difficult to hear." The lice-ridden bunks were three-tiered, each prisoner allocated less than one square meter of space. A hundred pairs of sunken eyes stared back at him.

All the men respected his command. None stirred, their fear long ago absorbed into the horror of Mauthausen. He suddenly turned from the window. "They're coming." An instant later the hut's door was flung open. The frozen night poured in behind Sergeant Humer, the attendant for Prisoners' Hut 8.


Claus Humer wasSchutzstaffel, SS. Two more armed SS stood behind him. All the guards in Mauthausen were SS. Humer carried no weapon. Never did. A six-foot frame and beefy limbs were all the protection he needed.

"Volunteers are required," Humer said. "You, you, you, and you."

Borya was the last selected. He wondered what was happening. Few prisoners died at night. The death chamber remained idle, the time used to flush the gas and wash the tiles for the next day's slaughter. The guards tended to stay in their barracks, huddled around iron stoves kept warm by firewood prisoners died cutting. Likewise, the doctors and their attendants slept, readying themselves for another day of experiments in which inmates were used indiscriminately as lab animals. Humer looked straight at Borya. "You understand me, don't you?"

He said nothing, staring back into the guard's black eyes. A year of terror had taught him the value of silence.

"Nothing to say?" Humer asked in German. "Good. You need to understand ... with your mouth shut."

Another guard brushed past with four wool overcoats draped across his outstretched arms.

"Coats?" muttered one of the Russians.

No prisoner wore a coat. A filthy burlap shirt and tattered pants, more rags than clothing, were issued on arrival. At death they were stripped off to be reissued, stinking and unwashed, to the next arrival. The guard tossed the coats on the floor. Humer pointed. "Mäntel anziehen. "

Borya reached down for one of the green bundles. "The sergeant says to put them on," he explained in Russian.

The other three followed his lead.

The wool chafed his skin but felt good. It had been a long time since he was last even remotely warm.

"Outside," Humer said.

The three Russians looked at Borya and he motioned toward the door. They all walked into the night.

Humer led the file across the ice and snow toward the main grounds, a frigid wind howling between rows of low wooden huts. Eighty thousand people were crammed into the surrounding buildings, more than lived in Borya's entire home province in Belarus. He'd come to think that he would never see that place again. Time had almost become irrelevant, but for his sanity he tried to maintain some sense. It was late March. No. Early April. And still freezing. Why couldn't he just die or be killed? Hundreds met that fate every day. Was his destiny to survive this hell?

But for what?

At the main grounds Humer turned left and marched into an open expanse. More prisoners' huts stood on one side. The camp's kitchen, jail, and infirmary lined the other. At the far end was the roller, a ton of steel dragged across the frozen earth each day. He hoped their task did not involve that unpleasant chore.

Humer stopped before four tall stakes.

Two days ago a detail was taken into the surrounding forest, Borya one of ten prisoners chosen then, as well. They'd felled three aspens, one prisoner breaking an arm in the effort and shot on the spot. The branches were sheared and the logs quartered, then dragged back to camp