The Violinist of Auschwitz - Ellie Midwood

Chapter 1

Auschwitz, July 1943

In the hazy afternoon, Block 10 stood silent and hot. From time to time, an inmate nurse made her unhurried rounds, checking for fresh corpses. Every other day, there were always a few new ones. Not that Alma counted—she had her own fever to worry about—but she heard the nurses pull them from the beds, through her broken sleep, now and then. Some had already been sick when they’d been herded along with Alma onto the train in Drancy, the French transit camp. Some got ill during their journey and no wonder, either, for they’d been packed like sardines, sixty persons per cattle car. Some had died from botched experiments already here, in Auschwitz.

Slowly, Alma roved her gaze over the room. It was rather big, with beds standing so close to each other the nurses had trouble walking between them. But worst of all was the stench, the atrocious, overpowering stench of stale sweat, thick breath, gangrenous flesh, and soiled clothes that made one want to retch.

Unlike the others, Alma’s group hadn’t been sent to quarantine upon arrival. Neither were they marched straight to gas; instead, they had the doubtful fortune to land here, in the Experimental block—a two-story brick building with windows shuttered closed to guard its sinister secrets from any curious outsiders.

Sometimes, the nurses took pity on them and opened the windows for a few precious moments to ventilate the premises. Though, most of the time, that did more harm than good. Attracted by the smell, swarms of flies and mosquitoes rushed inside and attacked the emaciated bodies with ravenous hunger, spreading more disease and torturing the moaning women with their incessant buzzing and biting. More infected wounds, more corpses taken away by the shaven-headed attendants, one of them invariably marking down the numbers of the deceased in her papers to present them later to their superior, SS Dr. Clauberg. The infamous German order, enforced by the Jewish inmates. Alma was quick to see the irony of such a sad state of affairs.

On her first day in the block, she had naively tried asking for some medication for her fever but was only laughed at. Gathering as much dignity as was possible given the circumstances—a rather difficult undertaking when one had just been shorn like a sheep and given a number instead of her name—she inquired about the X-ray machines she had noticed in two ground-floor rooms, but that question was also ignored by the inmate nurses.

“Mind your own affairs.” That was the most she got from Blockälteste Hellinger, a blond woman with a severe face and an armband of a block elder on her left bicep. It appeared that the nurses, even though prisoners themselves, weren’t in any rush to make friends with the new arrivals.

“I understand that this is not the Hotel Ritz, but hospitality leaves a lot to be desired here,” Alma had noted coolly to her.

Caught off guard, the nurse had looked up from her clipboard and blinked at the new inmate. The entire block had hushed itself instantly. All eyes were suddenly on her. It occurred to Alma that talking back must have been a rare occasion here.

“French transport?” Hellinger measured Alma icily. She spoke German correctly but with a strong Hungarian accent. “I should have guessed. The most stuck-up broads always arrive from there.”

“I’m Austrian.” Alma smiled.

“Better still. Old Empire ambitions. The SS will adjust your attitude quickly enough, Your Highness.”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

Much to her surprise, Hellinger shrugged indifferently. “Makes no difference to me. I was appointed as a block elder to mind the order, not bother my head about you lot. Half of you will croak by the end of next week and the other half will be chased through the chimney in the next three months and that’s if you’re lucky to last that long after the procedure.”

The procedure.

Alma was aware of the post-op ward next to theirs, but the access to it had been restricted.

“Sign me up as a volunteer then,” she said out of pure spite. Like a cornered animal, she was snapping her teeth in a last attempt at useless self-deception—not so much to injure the enemy, but to persuade herself that she wasn’t afraid. “It’s all the same to me. The sooner it’s all over, the better.”

Alma had expected the eruption to follow—the inmates were beaten on the slightest of provocations here—but the block elder remained oddly silent. Hellinger appeared to consider something for some time, then motioned Alma after herself.