The ceiling rumbles, weary with the weight of desperate men. Their hatred is powerful, focused with such ferocity I wonder if it alone will be enough to tear through the roof of the bunker. They serve a Meshugener’s dream. This war has taught me it’s become harder to separate the mad from the wise. I should be terrified, but how much death can be faced before even the scent of burnt carcasses leaves behind nothing but jadedness? All the terror I’ve left to spare is for my people, huddling in the bunker, relying on me to see them through until the morning. But we will find freedom, we’ll never surrender to the likes of men who would turn us into animals.
“A girl is asking for you Mordechai.” I open my eyes, see Mira standing above me. Beautiful, fervent hearted Mira, soot speckling her cheeks. Her mouth is angled in determination, as strong and uncompromising as any other fighter in the Jewish Combat Organisation.
“Show me.” I rise from the chair, pick up my handgun and follow her up the ladder. The size of the bunker is impressive, full of wide spaces in which to hide away. It is one of many beneath the Warsaw Ghetto, a world within a world I did not think to reach below the ruins of Mila 18. Beds and food baskets are stationed in every room.
Crates and books are piled against the walls, supplies for the months ahead. Wires and pipes form a network, tapped into the electrical and sewage systems. These bunkers have become the city. Some would call the world above a place of ghosts and monsters, but monsters only exist in stories. This is a war of men who follow orders, who maim and kill for a poisonous ideal.
I crawl through the passage at the top of the ladder, scraping my knees on cold stone. The adjacent room is packed with cripples, children, the infirm and innocent. They aren’t warriors, they don’t know what its like to hold a gun, to thrust molotov cocktails into the heat of German oppression. Yet still they are a part of it, herded as cattle towards the camps masquerading as slaughterhouses. There is no distinction in the Führer’s mind, we are meat, offered up and butchered to his war machine.
My eyes fall on the thick neck of the thief who owns the bunker. Schmuel Asher turns, pot belly testing the seams of his shirt.
“There you are, my friend. My men are doing their best to watch over the innocent. Our liquor supply makes for good distraction.” His smile is twice the size of his bulk. Despite our new acquaintance I feel as if I’ve known him much longer.
“Mira tells me there’s a girl in pain.”
Asher strokes his double chins. “We try to give her vodka. Ease the pain but she refuses. Won’t be long until Death claims her.”
Mira leads me through the throng. I find the girl lying on a bunk with a woman I take to be her mother dabbing her forehead with a wet cloth. She cannot be much older than twelve. Her face resembles Warsaw in a whiteout, all the colour pooling through the bandage made out of fabric wrapped over her side. She wears the Star of David around her neck, glimmering against the backdrop of broken youth.
Mira speaks to the mother in a gentle voice, while all I can do is stare at the girl. As much as I want to, I cannot take away her pain, my hands are not made for healing. They are forged into a fist, stained with the blood of SS soldiers I will never wipe clean. The girl grunts and her mother says my name.
Her lips tremble but the knowledge seems to soothe her. For a moment she’s tethered to this world again, head tilting to look at me. I feel the twinge of a memory from of a foolish boy who once believed he could raise a family in Vilnius.
She calls for her mother and asks to have her necklace removed. Her mother offers it to me. I start to refuse but the flicker in the girl’s eye stops me. It is one of quiet acceptance: All that she is, all she will be will live on through the passing of the things that mean the most to her. I accept the gift and close my hand, singeing the star into my palm.
Another tremour knocks the books from a crate. I signal for the girl to be covered and leave the mother to her grief. Mira’s hand brushes over my shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
I turn to her. “When we’re free, perhaps.”
In the next room I find Jurek Wilner, a man who has bled for the cause more than any other I know. His efforts with the Polish Resistance has been vital to keeping our people armed and supplied. He hides a storm beneath an unassuming face. Wilner sits with his back straight, speaking to the fighters who take refuge in the bowels of the earth. He’s scribbling in a small notepad, and when I come over he closes it.
“The fighters haven’t lost their nerve, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Wilner says.
“I was thinking about what you were writing down.” I manage a rare smile. They’re becoming harder to muster. But Wilner’s stone-faced assurance helps me remember why I used to like smiling.
“It’s nothing really. But given the situation I felt it appropriate to remind myself of the power of words.”
“What is it?”
Wilner opens the notebook. “It’s a poem. Nothing grandiose. We may be stuck under a mountain of rubble but I’m not about to bleed all over the page or shed a tear for what may come. I’ll save my fire for them.”
“None of us have ever lacked for that.” Part of me wonders what the world will remember when we’re done. Will poets put it to verse, spin stories of the rebels who fought and died for what they believe in? I do not know if anyone will shed tears for us. And truthfully, I do not care. Only our actions resonate, and only history will decide upon our legacies.
“Did you manage to stash that last shipment from Waclaw?” The thought of being trapped is nothing compared to the thought of my brothers and sisters being unable to defend themselves.
“Waclaw is a reliable man. The convent on Wolska Street had plenty of room. He and the Resistance will ensure we continue to have what we need.”
Silence drifts through the bunker. I turn for the ladder but I’m too slow. Terrible coughing sounds come from behind me. Wilner is already shouting for the fighters to prepare themselves.
I back into the shadows, calling for Mira. She’s up the ladder before the gas clouds can envelop her. I grab her hand and tug her to the opposite ladder. Wilner is down first and we follow, holing up into a space shared by several fighters.
“They’re trying to smoke us out. Bring us to the surface.” I snarl. Typical German tactics. They see us as rats to be chased out of hiding. From the level above I hear the wheezing intensify and Mira puts pressure on my hand.
“We need to protect our intel at all costs.” Wilner says. “To surrender is a fate worse than the slowest death.”
I agree with him. Life as a captive is no life at all. To spend your days knowing you are too weak to stand firm, to give the enemy the satisfaction of knowing you are beaten. I think about my people, the ones in the camps, the ones who are hoping for a better future. I cannot give it to them. I cannot free them. But I can provide hope, an example that defiance may be the greatest victory in a world where there is no justice anymore. One day, perhaps it will return and our children and their children will know what it’s like to be free.
I look to the faces of the men I have fought beside. I see their resolve and know this is the right thing to do. I look to Mira. “Are you ready?”
“I’ll see you on the other side.” She smiles, and I have no reason to doubt her.
“May God judge us favourably for the work we have done.”
I remove the tablet from my pocket and bite down. Acid spreads through my mouth, into the veins and slows my heart. The world is out of formation. I expected blackness, but instead I see colours, red and blue flashes blinking on and off. And I hear the strange sound of hooves crashing across a barren landscape, the pounding of a drum that cracks my head in half. If I’d known death would be so noisy I might have considered shooting myself instead.
The colours grow brighter, harsher, like I’m watching birds flying into the sun and their wings disappear in an orange glow. The hooves are louder, trampling the bunker into dust. I want to yell, but my voice has been taken.
Above me, a man straddles a giant horse. Its mane swirls in great wisps, merging with the white hair of its rider. I see no heavenly instrument in his hand, only a hood to cover a face with one eye. There’s other horsemen around him, blackened apparitions I cannot make sense of.
The one-eyed rider opens his mouth and a voice that sounds like thunder speaks my name.
“Are you God?” If I could move my legs I would back away.
A rumble answers.
“Have you come to judge me?”
The horse stomps and grunts.
“Chosen for what?”
My limbs have lost their heaviness. The cawing of ravens fills my ears.
“I don’t understand.”
The rider extends his hand, caked in blood turned black by the marring of time. I reach for it and the bunker evaporates, rain cooling on the homes of a burning populace.