Chapter XXXVIII

THE SPRING OF 1945 CAME EARLY. IT was now the beginning of April, and the trees that rose from the ditches lining the barbed-wire fences of Melk were already green. On the banks of the Danube a green carpet replaced the snow, only patches of which remained to remind us of the severe winter through which we had just passed.

I had been living in the KZ for eight weeks, through good days and bad, but the experience had sapped my strength and left me tired and weak. Only the hope of an early liberation kept me from slipping into a state of utter lethargy and indifference.

Here everything was disintegrating. The final phases of the Third Reich’s collapse were unfolding before our eyes. Defeated armies passed in interminable columns towards the interior of a country already reduced to smoking ruins. On the Danube, whose waters were swollen from the melting snows, hundreds of boats and barges transported the inhabitants of evacuated cities. The Third Reich’s dream of a millennium was crumbling. The conviction of a people born to rule, of a Master Race, was giving way to bitter disillusionment. The peoples of Europe, avid for freedom, no longer lived in the fear that their town or city might, by a simple, arbitrary stroke of the conqueror’s pen, be wiped off the map; there was no longer any danger of seeing their homes plundered, of having themselves stripped of all they owned, of feeling the needlepoint tattoo numbers on their arms, of being shipped to forced labor camps and guarded by police dogs and SS troops whose badge was the death’s head.

The pyromaniacs of the Third Reich were now playing their final scene on the stage of the world: they who had set the world aflame were now perishing in their own fires. The raucous-voiced corporal, whose words, “Deutschland Über Alles” had been heard on the wavelengths of the entire world for over a decade, was now trembling in his underground bunker. The uncompromising pride of the Third Reich had been broken by the world-wide collaboration of people not avid of conquest, but of freedom.

On April 7th, 1945, the string of arc lights set on top of the poles to which the barbed wires were fastened did not come on. Darkness and silence closed in on the abandoned spot. The camp was empty, the gate closed. The 7,000 prisoners had been taken farther inland, first by boat, then along the roads swarming with refugees. For seven long days and nights we traveled, till at last we reached our new destination, the Ebensee concentration camp, the fourth KZ through whose yawning gates I had passed.

Upon arrival, the inevitable and interminable roll call. Then the bath. And then again the quarantine camp, with its filthy barracks, its guards armed with rubber clubs, its hard floor. I blindly submitted to these three customary phases. During roll call a cold wind was blowing and a driving rain soaked my clothes. Bitterness overwhelmed me. I knew that it could only be a matter of days before we were liberated, but for the moment we were still living in a world of confusion and indecision. And yet, when the moment for decision finally arrived, perhaps it would be an ill-starred one for us all. The end of our captivity could quite conceivably turn into a bloody tragedy: they might kill us all before the impending moment of liberation arrived.

After twelve months of imprisonment, at a time when all law had ceased to exist, such an end would indeed be in keeping with the customs of the Third Reich.

But such was not the case. On May 5th a white flag flew from the Ebensee watch tower. It was finished. They had laid down their arms. The sun was shining brightly when, at nine o’clock, an American light tank, with three soldiers aboard, arrived and took possession of the camp.

We were free.

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