The combined actions of these two men are instrumental in saving Esther’s life: Kurt Gerstein, an SS Officer for the Third Reich, is disillusioned with Hitler’s “Final Solution” as he calls it, and seeks to save lives in any way possible. Historically, he did bury canisters of the Zyclon-B chemical which was used in the gas chambers. Fictionally, he rescued young girls from the usual barracks where so many died of starvation, disease or the gas chambers by placing them in a situation none of them would choose.
The following is one of my favorite glimpses of Kurt Gerstein. The first excerpt takes place right after Esther arrives at Auschwitz, where she is chosen by Kurt along with several other girls. They are taken to another building, showered, and then tattooed. Their hair is not shaven due to the “profession” which they will be involved with; and until now, she has been able to keep her precious locket hidden:
Esther was ordered to stand by the door and wait for the other girls to finish, pain shooting up and down her arm from the tattoo. Finally, the last of the girls were finished, most of them whimpering from the pain and fear of what was happening. What next? Who cares, Esther thought morbidly.
As she leaned against the wall, to her horror, she felt her locket give way. She frantically clutched at it, but before she could grab it, it clattered to the floor at her feet. All eyes were upon her as the woman officer, who seemed to be in charge, looked at her with eyes of menacing steel.
She coolly and slowly walked over to Esther, standing inches from her; the woman’s hot breath blew from her nostrils into Esther’s face as she coldly stared into her eyes— pools of terror. Without warning, the woman struck a hard blow across Esther’s face, sending her reeling to the floor. She felt a shoe on her neck as the woman reached down to pick up the necklace.
“You little fool,” the woman spat at her. “Take her out of here!”
“You forget whose she is, Frau Stedder,” a voice as calm and cool as an Arctic breeze spoke. Esther could not see him, but she knew it was the officer who had taken her from the platform.
“But Officer Gerstein, you know the rules! She tried to hide this from us,” the woman whined, waving the locket in his direction.
Gerstein casually glanced at the locket and then back at the woman. “And are you more concerned with the rules or with keeping the trinket?” Kurt knew much of the Jewish jewelry never made it to the official stockpile.
Stedder would keep quiet, for she knew that he too would keep her secrets. She vehemently dropped the locket into his outstretched hand, spun on her heels, and returned to her desk for the tattoo order form. She curtly placed it in his hand and, without a word, continued her duties, dismissing him by her silence.
He turned to the girls, his eyes locking with Esther’s for just a moment. “Follow me.” Esther scrambled to her feet. As they all reached for their satchels, Gerstein simply stated, “Leave them.”
Later, while in Kurt’s room, she gets another glimpse of her Captor-Savior:
She could hear him locking the door. She walked to the other room and looked furtively out the window. There weren’t many people out on the walkway. She saw him hurrying down the road toward a building across a lawn, set back away from all the other buildings. She could see the brick building with the giant smokestack across the way. It looked ominous. At the moment, there was no smoke spewing forth. All seemed at rest. What time is it anyway? Esther wondered.
She had no way of knowing. The sun had long since set behind the western wall. Had it been a beautiful sunset? Somehow, she couldn’t imagine any beauty in this place. She turned back to her room. It was more pleasant than she would have expected. In the back room was a bed complete with sheets and a cover. A small table stood between the bed and the outer wall, which held a small lamp and a book.
Curious, she walked over and cautiously picked it up. It was a Bible. Her first reaction was to throw it down. It was a forbidden book to her. She would read her Ketuvim*. Then she remembered that her Ketuvim was gone— along with everything she held dear. Gabriel’s letters! The thought of them in a stranger’s hands made her heart ache.
(* A Jewish sacred book containing Esther through Song of Solomon.)
The book in her hand brought her back to reality. Had she not heard that part of this book was like her own sacred writings? She hesitantly opened the front cover. The first page bore an inscription:
To Kurt, With love, Father and Mother
Strange! As she continued to turn the pages, she realized that it was indeed the same as the Torah. With hope in her heart, she continued fanning the pages. The familiar books were all there— First and Second Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah— even Esther. Pulling the book to her chest, she fell to her knees and wept tears of joy. Oh Jehovah, how great thou art! She could speak no more; she simply allowed the tears to wash away all the horror of the day…
(several days later)
She was so absorbed in her reading that the rattling of keys in the lock startled her. She found herself holding her breath, hoping that it was Kurt Gerstein. He entered, quickly locking the door behind him. As he looked at her, his eyes fell again to the Bible. She awkwardly laid it beside her, absentmindedly smoothing the wrinkles from her dress. He walked to her and knelt before her, gazing directly into her eyes. They were brimming with emotions, but Esther couldn’t discern which ones. Not anger. Not pity. Perhaps just sadness.
“Esther, I don’t know what is going to happen to any of us, but while you are here, in this room, please know that it is your room. You may look at anything, read anything. I have no secrets— nothing too personal that I would not want to you see it.”
He picked up the Bible, and placed it back into her hands. “But especially this Book.” He hesitated, not wanting to startle her by his forwardness. “At Auschwitz, there is no time. We just continue blindly in our routines as if moving through a nightmare. We forget what real life is like.”
Again, he halted, and the silence in the room was stifling. His closeness made the hairs on the back of Esther’s neck rise; she could hear his labored breathing, as though his next words were costing him a great deal. “I used to read the Bible every night. Perhaps we could do that together.” There was a subtle pleading in his voice.
Before Esther could respond, he continued on in a different tone. “When we are outside these doors, I must treat you as if you are no different than the other girls. During the day, you will eat with them and work with them, but at night you will be protected. If the other girls talk about … their situation, it would be wise if you did not reveal yours.”
He was visibly shaken. He absently massaged his forehead between his thumb and fingers, seeking to drive away the pounding headache that had started at the office. “When you are finished for the day, you may visit with the other girls or come here, but do not have any of the girls come to this room. Lock the door behind you. And I would suggest that once you are in here, stay in here.”
He stood to his feet and walked to the door. He held the knob for a moment and then turned to face her. “Tonight will be very difficult for the girls. You may hear things. If I am not here, please do not open the door for any reason. Even if someone knocks and demands you to open, just ignore it. I cannot stress that enough.”
He was so urgent. He turned back to the door and paused, taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly. The drooping shoulders squared, transforming his entire appearance. He looked like the SS officer his uniform portrayed. Esther would find herself wondering at his dual image: the stern SS officer and the kind gentleman caught in a web spun by the Third Reich called the Final Solution.
MacAvoy, Wanda. Twelve Smooth Stones (Kindle Locations 1130-1138). Kirkdale Press.
Twelve Smooth Stones is also a love story… 🙂