Rudolph gasped as the door opened and light from the outer hallway split his darkened and wretched little room in two, freezing him in place with terror.
Sometimes knowing something is coming only makes it worse, Rudolph thought as he stared at the tiny little troll of a man who now stood in the doorway. But that’s probably just what that sawed off little kike wants.
The small man entered the room, gave its desperate squalor a disapproving and not entirely unsympathetic glance, then smiled. “Hello Rudy. Long time no see. ”
Rudolph tried to laugh, but all that came out was a strangled sob, more of a honk than a laugh. “Not long enough, old friend. ”
“Quite long enough for me, thank you. Maybe not for you. Or maybe… maybe too long for both of us, eh?”
Rudolph tried to summon up all the lofty Aryan contempt he had ever felt for this genetically defective little monster, but hate is a young man’s game and he was just a tired old man now. All Rudolph could manage was to sneer slightly when saying “I don’t want your fucking pity, you goddamned troll. ”
The little man’s face was a picture of offense. “Why Rudy, you don’t look happy to see me!”
This time Rudolph did laugh. “You people and your little fucking jokes. You think you are so goddamned intellectual and hilarious but you are nothing but monkeys taught a few clever tricks! You hear that? Just shit eating MONKEYS!”
And then Rudolph pushed his luck too far. He tried to laugh a rich, hearty, contemptuous laugh, but it soon become wracking, spasmodic sobs as all the fear and stress of a life lived on the run finally caught up with him.
The little man sat next to Rudolph on the bag of wires and splinters that constituted a “bed” in this hellhole, and put a sympathetic arm around Rudolph’s shoulders as Rudolph sobbed and coughed and spat and then sobbed still more.
Eventually, the storm passed, and Rudolph shivered in the aftereffects of his emotional release, and found himself absurdly grateful for the warmth of the little man’s arm on his back, and his closeness in this time of crisis.
Him, the great SS commander Rudolph Straeder, grateful to a Jew! He wished he could find the energy to heap contempt upon himself. But it had been so long, so long.
“I didn’t come here to argue, Rudy. You know why I am here. ” said the little man.
“To bring me to justice. ” Rudolph replied hollowly.
“To bring you home, Rudy. ”
Rudolph looked up at the little man. “Home… to Germany?”
The little man smiled. “Yes. To Germany. To the old Bavaria that we both knew and loved, Rudy. I have arranged for you to there to await your turn in The Hague. ”
Rudolph blinked and stared at the little man. “Why… why would you do this for me?”
“Consider it a gift from one old friend to another. I have known you longer than I have known any of my wives and most of my children, Rudy. It was the least I could do. ”
Rudolph was flooded with gratitude for this gesture. “Oh, to see Bavaria again…. but surely it has changed since the days of my… of our childhoods, hasn’t it David?”
David shrugged, and said “Not as much as you would think. Not everywhere. There is still much of Old Bavaria left, if you know where to look. ”
Rudolph tried to imagine this but could not. He had abandoned all hope of ever seeing Germany again so long ago that the rebirth of this hope was almost painful. It was too bright a light to look upon.
But then Rudolph began to weep. “But what comes after, old friend… I cannot face that. To have all those people looking at me, hating me, judging me for things done a million lifetimes ago… it is too much for a tired old man to bear. ”
“I know, Rudy. And believe me, I would spare you if I could. But we both knew this day had to happen, and there is much more at stake here than the wishes of two broken down old men. ”
Rudolph nodded sadly. “But…. you could spare me… couldn’t you? Just… just walk away?”
David shook his head. “We both know that could never happen. Justice must be serves, Besides, at this point, I think starting up the chase again would kill the both of us. ”
They both laughed. God it feels good to laugh again, thought Rudolph. It has been so long since I laughed. What kind of Bavarian am I that I forgot how to laugh?
“Okay, then don’t let me go. But you can still spare me, old friend. You have a gun… I know you do. Use it on me. Say I was trying to escape. Spare me the humiliation to come. ”
“I admit, I am tempted. But I think we both know that duty is more important that pity, yes? And we both know that I, for one, am not a killer. ”
Rudolph nodded. He had known it was a faint hope. “So this is it, then. I go on trial. And I will tell the truth as I remember it, the whole thing. ” He squared his jaw. “But I will not lie to make myself the victim! When I did what I did, I was no helpless cog in the Nazi machine. I was not “just following orders”. I believed in our mission. To me, the slaughter of Jews and Gypsies and all the rest was nothing more than the burning of old leaves and branches to make way for a new, glorious Spring!” He thumped his chest and said “And I enjoyed it!”
“Believe me, I know, Rudy. You forget, I know everything about you. ”
Rudolph tried to resist what he knew he had to do next. But there was such a thing as honor, and honor was more important than pride. “Yes, you know me, David. But I have a confession to make : I do not remember you. Believe me, over the years I have tried, but I just can’t remember you from the camps. ”
David smiled a clever smile. “That’s because you never met me in the camps, Rudy. I am no survivor. I have no tattoo, no traumas, no marks on my bones from the starvation. I was never in one of your camps, Rudy. ”
“But… but… you have hunted me for so long…. I thought surely you were one of the… ”
“I was never in your camps, Rudy. But both my parents and three of my uncles were… and two of my children. And none of them survived to haunt you as I have. ”
“Ah. I see. But… maybe I am just a foolish old man, but I always thought that we knew each other, somehow.. that we had met long ago. ”
“You are correct, my friend, although do not feel bad, because we met as children. And even then, I knew a lot more about you than you did about me, because back then everybody knew you. You were Rudolph Straeder, wunderkind, boy genius, the one who spoke eight languages and devoured math textbooks like they were dime novels and who was so beautiful, they said, that old people would cover their mouths when they saw you for fear of eating you alive! ”
Rudolph smiled, and said “Those were good days. ”
“It was better time. ” David agreed. “And because you were so famous and well-liked, I am sure that our brief meeting meant a lot more to me than it did to you. I was, after all, just a sickly boy who loved detective stories and had to walk with a cane.”
Recognition dawned for Rudolph. “You… you were the boy with the cane! The cane that turned into an umbrella! And you walked me home in that terrible rain. I always wondered why you held on to my arm. At the time I thought it was just to keep from losing track of me in the rain.”
“It was that…. but it was also because with my cane turned into an umbrella, I could barely walk a single step without falling on my side like a colicky horse!”
Once more, they both laughed. “But you were… I never knew we had any… I mean, you seemed so.. ”
“Normal? Just like all your friends, just another German kid? It meant a great deal to me that you treated me that way. Most of the other children saw my cane and my limp and my strangely pale skin and steered well clear of me. Their mothers would pull them back when I walked by. But that day, you, the golden child, accepted my help and accepted me. I will never forget that. ”
“If only I had known…. maybe things would have been…. different. ”
David smiled. “Now we both know that’s not true, don’t we?” He stood up, and offered Rudolph his hand. “I think it is time to go, my old friend Rudy. ”
Rudolph nodded. “It’s… it’s really over, isn’t it?” He spoke like a man waking from a dream. “At long last, it’s finally over. ”
David smiled, and said “Yes, old friend. It is over. It is out of both our hands now. Finally, both of us can get some rest. ”
Rudolph took David’s hand, and rose. “Rest…. yes I think I’d like that. ” He smiled at David, feeling as if the man he had been before today had been washed away.
“You know what, David? I think I am glad to see you, after all. ”