Was it raining or was it bright out? Does nature take mind of a tragedy? The morning felt darker than usual and it certainly felt like it would rain, but after descending the stairwell and making his way towards Zgierska Street, truth be told Viktor wasn’t focused on the weather. Despite his distaste for rumors he could no longer ignore the cause for alarm: the Astoria Café’s owner, Tomasz Surguine along with his wife, Heida, had been found dead in the café’s back alleyway. That same night, Calel and the rest of the wait-staff had been beaten in their homes and their families threatened. Viktor and Tadeusz had spent the night discussing ways out of the city, but whatever ideas they had were less convincing than what was left unsaid: the city was cordoned off and German policemen prowled the city. This was not some fantastical fiction with a clear possibility of escape, as if dashing in and out of the shadows were a schoolyard game. Lodz was a Nazi city and Viktor and Tadeusz were its enemies; even if they managed to hide somewhere, the Gestapo would simply abduct Rachel and the children. During the raid at the café, each patron had been forced with a rifle butt in the nape of the neck to provide contact information of close friends and relatives. And so the morning came as it had always come. Viktor woke up, washed his face and made a cup of tea. He met Tadeusz at the market from where they expected to march towards their death. What it would feel like, Viktor wondered?
Perhaps like nothing at all.
They didn’t speak during the short walk to the Gestapo building on Zgierska (what was there to say, anyhow?). Viktor briefly considered praying to a god he didn’t believe in, but as he rounded the corner and saw the red brick façade, the blackened windows and nondescript entrance, a strange calm fell over him. He saw the situation with equanimity. If this was The End, so be it. At least he was with his best friend. As they walked up the white marble staircase Viktor tried to make peace with the world outside. He looked at the pregnant white clouds and listened for birds singing; and if they weren’t in fact singing, he imagined it instead.
When his feet met the cold marble floor of the building’s foyer, two SS officers attacked him and Tadeusz before dragging them down into the cellar. The crypt was dimly lit by a single swinging light bulb. It swayed left and right, back and forth, to reveal besmirched stone walls. As the lightbulb’s scattered light began to reveal the cellar, Viktor could make out around twenty-five other prisoners (Calel was among them), as well as a large wooden door leading to another chamber.
“Do not move and do not speak,” a voice said from the darkness.
Viktor and Tadeusz were thrown to against the wall with the others. They huddled together.
Before ascending the staircase one of the guards flicked the light bulb with a closed fist. He imitated a boxer dodging blows and asked the prisoners to watch him. As Viktor squinted and tried to adjust to the disorienting flashing light, a bloodied man appeared in the corner whose face had been cut with something sharp. He began screaming at the top of his lungs—“I demand an explanation for my arrest!” he yelled. “I am a judge, for Christ’s sake! I want to speak to your superiors!” One of the other prisoners tried to shush the man, but this judge wouldn’t listen. A few seconds later, the boxing guard approached his prey with a metal pipe and cracked open the judge’s head, spilling its pink yoke on the ground.
How long had it been? Three hours? Five? Perhaps more. The complete darkness and lack of noise (save the sporadic thump of boots up above) was far more tormenting than the growing stench of feces, urine, and death. Still, Viktor was thankful he could smell, even if the odor was wretched. In this black place his nose had become the surest of his five senses. He could no longer feel his buttocks on the cold dusty ground. But he didn’t dare move from his position, unconvinced there wasn’t a guard watching silently from somewhere deeper within the cellar.
After a few more hours of black, silent torment, daylight appeared at the top of cellar. Viktor squinted to watch a pair of black boots slowly descend the wooden stairs and into crypt.
“Dobrozyski!” the officer yelled. “Stand up. Now.”
Viktor heard a rustling from the corner of the room and saw a teenager appear from out of the darkness. The officer grabbed the boy by the hair without a word and dragged him into the adjacent cellar.
To hear one human being reduce another to a squealing piglet is a terrifying and strangely mesmerizing thing. To hear strong, kind men cry out for their mothers in agony is a lesson in something—of what Viktor wasn’t yet aware. In many ways, hearing the others succumb was worse than facing his own fate. For many hours the names were called—“Wilnowski!” “Brzoza!” “Lipek!” “Zdanowicz!”—and the thuds and slaps and “please no’s” and “have-mercy’s” conjured fantastical machinations of torture in Viktor’s mind. He’d studied the history of torture and was familiar with the most obvious instruments—the Pear of Anguish, the Wheel, the Judas and German Chairs— but the Gestapo was nothing if not innovative in its ability to inflict terror. But what terrified Viktor than the screams was the silence that followed. Some of the men were dragged out unconscious, only to receive a bucket of frigid water atop the head. Other men, although bruised and bleeding, exited the room on their own two feet. These men told Viktor and the others to stay strong. A third category of prisoners exited the room without so much as a bloody nose. This was the greatest torment for those still waiting, for why had these men been spared? Calel was amongst this third category of victims and although he showed no scars his eyes were somewhere blacker than the darkness. He didn’t speak to Viktor or Tadeusz following his torture session and avoided eye contact altogether.
The minutes passed. It must be my turn soon, he thought. On the advice of a fellow prisoner—“They’ll try and drown you in it otherwise”—Viktor stood up and urinated against the wall, too afraid to venture elsewhere. Viktor sat down next to a puddle of his own urine and was overcome with extreme lethargy. There was more waiting and more shrieking, but somehow Viktor slept.
He dreamt of himself and Tadeusz walking through a forest. Something in the earth was heaving beneath them.
“Bauman! Viktor Bauman!”
In the dream, Viktor looked past the trees and into the forest’s depths. Who was beckoning him?
“BAUMAN! VIKTOR BAUMAN!”
He was yanked like an animal from his slumber, though it took him a few seconds for reality to click.
Tadeusz took Viktor’s face in his hands and said, “Be strong, Viktor. You can bear it,” and before Viktor could tell Tadeusz that he loved him, that everything would be alright, he found himself beneath a different swinging light bulb in the adjacent cellar.
His eyes soon adjusted to the brown room and its earthen walls. A blinding floodlight illuminated the torture chamber. There were three guards, a wooden desk and two small wooden chairs on either side. On the table was a rather tame collection of medieval instruments—rusty pliers, a spatula, a thumbscrew, a few knives, tools used in the kitchen. How unoriginal, Viktor thought. A spatula? This is it?
The command was pointless. Viktor was already sitting in the chair.
“Wie heiSen Sie?” asked a spindly man with a high-pitched voiced. Viktor couldn’t make out the torturer’s face on account of the blinding floodlight, but whoever this man was, he was filing his fingernails.
“My name is Professor Viktor Bauman,” Viktor responded.
Out of the white light careened a hot palm into the right side of Viktor’s face.
“You will answer in German,” the faceless voice screamed from the flaming abyss.
“Ich bin Viktor Bauman,” Viktor replied.
Another palm pummeled his ear from the left. The room was spinning now, accompanied by a high-pitched ringing. Viktor was tackled off of the chair and so began the assault.
At some point during the initial stages of the beating, Viktor had a ridiculous thought: They want to squash me like a bug. But I’m not Gregor Samsa—they’re the insects.
Viktor laughed at himself, if not in reality than in his mind. Even here, in a torture chamber, he was thinking like an academic. What possible use could the former professor find for The Metamorphosis in this cellar?
“You are a Jew, are you not?”
They stopped kicking him so that he might answer the question.
“Depends on who you ask,” Viktor said.
This triggered a much more violent blow, which took him by surprise—as did the fourth, fifth, and sixth. Then came a blunt object to the head. But still, was this it? For the time being he was bearing it. A few wallops to the head weren’t so bad, but then they began to use the instruments. After the thirteenth blow—he counted them—with what felt like a baseball bat, Viktor pleaded with his captors to let him sit in the chair, but they didn’t relent. As Viktor curled himself into a ball in order to protect his being (incredible how automatic the body contorts into this position when in distress, Viktor thought), he no longer felt or heard much of anything. He saw himself from an external perspective. The assault became a series of dull thuds, nothing more. Yes, the wallops were spectacularly painful, but they were also bearable. Perhaps these men didn’t want him dead, not yet. At some point he found himself sitting in the chair again. The man with the high-pitched voice told him to place his hands on the desk.
As he would later tell Martin, it was useless to try and describe what occurred. It was what it was. It happened. The scars were more than enough proof and any future attempt to describe what it felt like not only eluded Viktor, but more to the point, an explanation of torture only served to relive the experience. There was a leather belt and a wooden spatula. This he remembered. There was also a frying pan and a metallic rod. Of course it hurt. Fantastically. But pain was just a byproduct of what Viktor experienced down below. For even as steeled himself for the pliers, the hammer and nails, Viktor didn’t believe a fellow human being who held no personal animus towards him could in face treat him like an insect.
Occluded within Viktor’s academic, unexamined humanism was the firm conviction that human beings, as a rule, were basically decent. When he first entered the cellar, he still believed he would be spared. One of his torturers had wrinkles forged from smiles—this, among many other things, Viktor wished he could forget. Because at the moment Viktor felt this man’s hand violate the illusion that he was fundamentally safe in his own skin, Viktor changed in a way that no degree or lecture on the human condition had yet been able to affect him. Viktor’s brain triggered his vocal chords to scream and yell, yes, but this was a mechanical reaction, not an active decision. Viktor really was being turned into an insect. And what Viktor would remember most about that day, morning, evening or night had nothing to do with pain and everything to do with the supposed social contracts and rules that bind us together. With the flick of a fist, so too went the illusion of personal safety—and this in a matter of seconds! A single punch to the groin from an “officer of the law”—for that’s what these men were now, legally speaking—shed this most human of delusions like snakeskin. How beautifully childish he had been to blindly place his faith in humanism. These torturers were not human, were they? Not according to Viktor’s previous definition. Because if they’d been human, they would have respected him—or at least Viktor wanted to believe this.
All men are created equal. The Declaration of the Rights of Man . How ridiculous. And what of the myth that the law is meant to protect average citizens and not the powers that be? But something more: that it is possible to feel trapped inside the most familiar of places, one’s own skin. But was it still his body? He was their prisoner, after all. So perhaps he really had become a bug, cowering on the ground, trapped in a shell. If he was still human, where was Grete, Gregor Samsa’s loving sister, proof of his true identity? Where was she, the protector? On the other side of the door? When would she burst in? At some point during the beating (whether it was before or after he lost consciousness, or perhaps in a dream, Viktor was unaware) Viktor realized that Grete wasn’t there. And if Viktor was the only person who believed in his own humanity in this cellar—“I am not a bug, despite what you say. You are the real insects”—was he not simply a schizophrenic?
When the body experiences pain, there is an expectation of salvation. It is only natural to expect assistance—this is why we cry out for help. Such assurance that someone or some thing will save us is fundamental to the human condition, and while Viktor’s best friend and a few dozen others were just next door, Viktor knew he was helpless. Still, he screamed for help. Perhaps it was stubbornness, a human rebellion. In the beginning he believe it, that someone would burst through the door. He believed this because it is what we all expect, but as the spindly man now wearing a gas mask tried to transform Viktor into a ball of broken flesh, Viktor realized there was no point in intellectualizing the situation. He would simply have to bear it. This was a test. And what followed was a strange, almost anesthetic quality to each blow or crank of the thumbscrew. With each punch to the face Viktor realized this was not unbearable (after all, his body was bearing it) and after some time he began to experience the dull thuds on his person as affirmations, not attacks. The professor’s loss of trust in other human beings was one thing, but the violence upon his encasing? It was only a shell. They think I am a collection of bones and organs, Viktor smiled (if not in reality than in his mind): my body is nothing more than a vehicle, an appendage. My head and my legs and my ears and my testicles are part of me, yes, but they aren’t my essence. And to experience the attack as something other, as an affront to his body but not his being, well this gave Viktor a peculiar comfort as he disappeared into himself. He remained unconscious for some time on account of the noxious gas. This fugue state was welcome. Viktor claimed victory over his tormentors. They had only conquered his flesh.
Of course, it was entirely plausible that Viktor was delusional; entirely possible that the torturer was turning him into an insect. He was an intellectual and so he sought refuge in his only defense, and when it ended he was thrown back against the wall with all of the others. But still he resisted: these scars will become souvenirs, Viktor thought, but they won’t dictate what I remember. And so Viktor proceeded to touch his face and survey his fingers, arms, and legs. He was amazed that he still had a forehead; that his nostrils could still expand and contract; that he still had a mouth with teeth inside of it; that his testicles were still there; that his throat could still produce sounds—even laughter, perhaps; that his anus had not ruptured; that his fingernails would grow back. A few years ago, Viktor had sprained his ankle and screamed in agony in the city center. Thinking back on the moment, now, he couldn’t help but laugh. And while he was afraid of being called back to the room (which he would be, three more times in the next twelve hours), what became truly memorable about the torture had little to do with the physical experience.
His friend’s last name brought Viktor out of this pensive reverie. Viktor said what he believed—“Don’t worry, Tadeusz. You can bear it”—and sometime later, after much screaming, Viktor’s friend returned bloodied and battered. One of Tadeusz’s front teeth had been knocked out and his cheekbone had been shattered; three fingernails were missing; and whether it was because Tadeusz had forgotten to urinate prior to the attack, or because he had a wife and children, or because he received one more beating than the rest of them, or for any other number of reasons that cannot be intellectualized or dissected, when Tadeusz finally left that place, he wouldn’t be able to sleep, or think about laughter. This had nothing to do with strength or courage or lack of wisdom, for there is no nobility in enduring pain. What worked for Viktor, his ability to detach himself from the experience, didn’t work for his friend. Any future attempt to qualify or intellectualize the violence invariably ended in absurdity.
Viktor hugged Tadeusz and consoled him while he wept.
One of their captors exited the torture chamber and turned on the light. The prisoners squinted.
“You think this is easy for us?” the young soldier’s voice was filled with venom and the slightest hint of regret. “It’d be much easier for us to just shoot you, you know. We’re clean before the bar of history—we have to do this, understand? Future generations will congratulate us for our strength. It’s not like we enjoy it, okay?”
Viktor looked into the eyes of the young soldier and finally realized what it meant to be a humanist. He hated himself for it, but he felt pity. It was something innate. To feel empathy for his torturer—this was his punishment. This was the crushing blow, for in spite of it all, Viktor wasn’t filled with hatred. As tears welled up in Viktor’s eyes, he realized that this monstrous human being standing in front of him wasn’t in fact a monster at all. This boy of nineteen years old was just as human as the rest of them. And to hear the honest truth, that this guard resented the prisoners for existing; that this guard was upset but not ashamed; that it was true, he would be forgiven, Viktor now felt everything from his bloodied temple to his broken toes. He thought of Shakespeare and the Merchant of Venice and suddenly experienced the true terror of the experience: the young soldier’s teeth would also crack under the weight of a brass knuckle; his fingers would also snap when pressed to the back of his hand. Despite Viktor’s sincerest hope that his torturers were something other, he knew it wasn’t true. This young soldier standing in front of him would also cower under the threat of a spatula. This young soldier standing in front of him also believed in the basic decency of humanity, for neither the tortured nor the torturer can be reduced to an insect.