[tsat home] [#3 #11] [stories: 3 11]

by Jeffrey M. Mahr
Artwork by David Aronson
©1999 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved

Out of hate let there be love,
Out of evil let there be good,
Out of the morass let there be miracles.

-- Jeffrey M. Mahr

Chiam awoke to the false dawn. There were the usual mewling sounds of starving babies and the wails of those who had recently lost loved ones, but it was comparatively quiet. Even the guards were still off snoozing somewhere warm, while their officers slept in their warm beds. When the officers woke the next day of hell would begin.

If ever there was a hell on Earth, this was it; the stench of burning flesh, the faint wisps of poisonous gas, the filth, the overcrowding that would long ago have triggered the fight reflex in rats were constant reminders. Even the dogs, those huge slavering beasts, ate better than the human chattels they guarded.

The real horror was the systematic degradation of the humanity of both guards and guarded. Chiam benShoh had the dubious distinction of being the longest living resident. Once a handsome dark haired man of average height and a small but obvious potbelly, he was now emaciated from his eleven months at "camp" as the guards tauntingly called it. Chiam was an expert, an expert at remaining alive. He had made it through the first cut, the one where the guards decided who to kill in the gas chambers they called "mass delousing showers," by sheer luck. The woman in front of him and the barely teenaged boy behind him had been selected and died within an hour of their arrival while he had been one of the brigade to haul the bodies off to a huge bulldozed pit where they were set afire and then buried. He had been one of the strong ones, not retching when the bodies were moved from the rickety shower building in wheelbarrows to the pit, nor when the gasoline was poured over the jumbled mass of humanity, nor even when the now so recognizable stench of burning flesh rose from the pit. No, Chiam had not retched until he watched several of the guards standing at the edge of the flame-filled pit laughing as they took turns betting on who could urinate furthest into the inferno of humanity.

In the days that followed Chiam had often lay squeezed into his wooden slat bed and wondered if those that had died might have been the lucky ones. He had lived, but to what purpose? He had lived to see depravity become a way of life. It was not even the obvious brutality, as the guards worked the starving masses beyond endurance while providing less than subsistence levels of food, water, clothing, heating fuel, or anything else he had once considered essential to life. Nor was it the medical experiments, if you could call them that, where prisoners were forcefully volunteered to accept surgical procedures such as removal of body parts like kidneys and sex organs and surgical transplantation of these same organs onto others, not always in the expected places.

The depravity came from the desperate attempts of the living to remain that way. Theft of clothes from the dead and dying was commonplace. So was whoring for the guards for a second plate of what they called food. Chiam was never quite sure what was sadder, the mothers who starved to death in order to permit their children a couple of extra morsels or what happened to those children if they lived beyond their parents.

Nothing was wasted: gold fillings, jewelry, even human flesh. Suitcases and clothes were resold to the general public. Gold fillings were melted down for bullion. Skin was tanned and used for lamp shades and book covers. Flesh was ground up and fed to the guard dogs. Everything was organized, categorized, sorted, and counted; even the people. Chiam was 9427756 and had the tattoo to prove it.

At the camp Chiam single-mindedly concentrated on surviving. He knew his place, knew that he lived or died at the whim of an uncaring and inimical bureaucracy. He did what he could to retain his humanity, his ability to care about others, but to be an expert at survival at the camp it was necessary for him to be a coward. Cowards lived where the brave, the compassionate, the moral, died. Chiam was an expert.

A light snow fell, mostly outside the barracks, but there were enough gaps that Chiam shivered from the cold and also the occasional flake to blow onto his face a he lay abed. As he woke the preceding night's pleasurable dreams faded to be replaced by the reality of the camp. Last night he had managed to be placed in the one barracks with firewood so there was some heat, and he had a newer, thicker blanket than most due to some propitious trading. He had even bartered for a cot near one of the heaters. Of course he was not always that lucky. For some reason one of the doctors kept giving him injections of different colored fluids in various parts of his body, but whatever the shots were supposed to do he couldn't tell and he had not noticed any untoward effects, yet.

Faint stomping noises carried with the wind and Chiam knew it was time to get up. Swallowing hard and praying for the horror to end, he quietly got up and hid his second blanket below a loose floor board. With a sigh Chiam prepared to do whatever he had to do to survive another day.

Moving quietly he placed himself near the door. As one of those awake and available he knew he had a good chance of being selected to prepare the morning meal and that meant a chance to slip a few extra crumbs into his mouth. Moments later the door slammed open bringing with it an icy breeze and shiny black leather boots.

"You. You. You. You and you. Form a line. Come." Chiam shivered with the others and hoped he'd guessed correctly one more time. Heads bent and staring fixedly at the ground, they marched with a slow somnambulistic shuffle out into the frigid weather and Chiam held his breath as he waited to see if they turned right towards the death pits or left towards the mess hall. It was left and Chiam breathed again although he was careful not to smile and risk a beating for insolence.

Breakfast was potato soup. His job was to peel the soft and rotting spuds and he worked quickly to remove as many spoiled parts as he could without being beaten for wasting "good food." When the guards where otherwise occupied he snuck small bites of some of the healthier looking pieces. That was a good thing, as before he was allowed to obtain his portion of the completed liquid concoction a soldier marched up to the raised guard booth in the center of the mess hall and yelled out through the booth's open windows, "9427756, step forward."

Chiam quickly shambled around the service counter and past the hushed prisoners to stand, head bowed, before the uniformed soldier. "Follow me."

They left the hall and headed off towards the death pits and with each step Chiam's fears grew. They passed the latrines, but Chiam expected that; guards rarely, if ever, offered to escort prisoners to the bathroom. When they passed the barracks Chiam began to sweat despite the chill wind. Then they passed the Administration Building and Chiam began to really worry. There had been a slim hope that he was being called to see the Kommandant, maybe to be questioned about something although he could not guess what. That left the Motor Pool, the Hospital, and the death pits.

When they failed to turn off at the Motor Pool Chiam knew he was in deep trouble. Either he was being marched off to his grave or he was about to be an experimental subject again. Realizing his luck as an experimental subject could not last forever, Chiam wondered if he might not be marching off to his death either way.

"Good morning 9427756. Roll up your sleeve." It was Dr. Teufel, the polite one, the one that gave Chiam all the injections. This time he had something purple. As usual it hurt like hell when he stuck Chiam, and as usual the doctor told him nothing. As he waited for the guard to bring him back to the mess hall he fantasized, as he often did, of being somewhere, anywhere but in the camp, of soaring like a huge bird through the skies as he escaped, but his reveries were interrupted when he overheard Teufel, and what he assumed was one of the other doctors, talking. "We'll know by this time tomorrow if our experiment worked. If it doesn't work that one is no longer valuable as an experimental subject."

"Then you should dispose of the subject if he is no longer useful."

In moments he was being marched out of the hospital and back to the mess hall, just in time to join the clean-up crew. At least the snow had stopped.


Chiam lay shivering in his bunk, but it was not just the cold, he was afraid. Eleven months of suppressing his humanity, of lying, of cheating, of closing away his emotions in the deepest recess of his being was going to be for naught. If their damn experiment did not work he would be dead tomorrow. But what did they want to happen? They would not tell him what was supposed to happen and he had no clues from anything he had heard there, or from the other experimental subjects he spoke to during the remainder of the day. The only good news was the sound of heavy artillery not far from the camp. The pessimists felt that the government was just testing out some new weapons but the optimists felt it meant that their captors were losing the war and that the Allies, were getting close. Speculation from those who had served as soldiers was that they could be as little as two days away. Two days, but Chiam might only have one more day to live. Sleep was long in coming and his normal dreams of escape were replaced with horrible images of the morrow.


"Strip off your clothes. Put them in the basket in the corner." Dr. Teufel was less polite than normal.

"Turn around. Again. Stand there. Don't move." The doctor left the room. Several minutes later he returned with a uniformed officer, a Colonel, trailed by the Private who had brought Chiam there.

"Turn around." The Colonel's voice was harsh. "It didn't work, did it?"

"No Colonel."

"Very well. Do you have any other use for this subject?"

"No Colonel."

The officer turned to the Private. "Dispose of this."

"Yes sir." The Private saluted smartly and turned to Chiam. "Come." He turned and left the examination room without waiting to be sure Chiam was following. The Colonel and Dr. Teufel began talking again, ignoring the others.

"Doctor, please. I beg of you." Even through he knew it was a mistake he could not help himself. Chiam was down on his knees before Teufel tugging at the tails of his lab coat as he beseeched the doctor. "Please, tell me what you expected. I'm sure it will happen. Just give it a few more moments. Please!"

Chiam fell to the floor from the force of the slap. "Filth. How dare you touch me. Take him out and shoot him." This last was to the Private. Glancing at the Colonel who nodded his agreement, the Private grabbed Chiam and dragged him out of the room. When they were outside, he released Chiam and removed his rifle from his shoulder and aimed it at Chiam who began to pray as he blubbered and begged.

"Wait, Private."

"Yes sir." He snapped to attention before the officer who had followed him out of the hospital.

"Don't waste a bullet. Just take him to the showers."

"Yes sir." The Private gestured and three others joined him to carry Chiam off. He was too scared to even struggle, but his mind was racing as fast as it could. He had to escape. He just had to. But how? Think. Concentrate. Make escape possible.

He was dropped unceremoniously at the front of the line for the showers and the Private spoke briefly to the Sergeant in charge. Chiam knew that they were making sure that he would be selected for the showers and lay crumpled on the ground shivering in fear. Could he call out to the other prisoners for help? No, that would just result in an immediate shot to the head. Could he get the new arrivals to panic and scatter. No, they never believed the horror that was this place until they had actually seen it. What could he do?

The line started moving, and some of the new arrivals were instructed to help Chiam into the showers. In the first chamber they were instructed to undress. Clothes were neatly folded and placed in wicker baskets for later, as if there would ever be a later. Soft hands gently undressed Chiam and placed his worn and ratty clothes in a basket. His name was placed on the basket as was everyone else's and they were passed through a half door to a waiting soldier.

The line started moving again and approximately two hundred naked souls of all ages and both sexes moved forward into the showers. Chiam was gently moved along with the rest despite his protests. One older woman even chastised him for not doing as the nice soldiers told him.

The second room was as rickety as the first, but with no windows. There was a barn type door at each end and about twenty feet up was a walkway with soldiers placed every ten feet or so. When everyone was crowded into the small space the wooden slat doors were closed and barred which finally resulted in a worried murmur.

On the catwalk above a Sergeant called out and the other soldiers began pouring buckets of a white fuming substance over the railings onto the huddled mass below. The murmur grew louder and there was some coughing. As the coughing grew more prevalent the first screams of terror could be heard. Chiam knew he had just minutes to live he had to do something now. He had to concentrate, but the fear was overwhelming. Huddled like a scared rabbit against the outer door where there was a slight breeze of fresh air, he noticed a small broken section of wood at the bottom where the doors met and kicked at it hoping to enlarge it, but knowing that he could not kick too hard or the soldiers above would shoot him as a troublemaker.

He needed a miracle. He needed to think. If only he were small enough to fit through the opening he could escape. But that wasn't possible, only something the size of a rabbit could squeeze through the gap. A rabbit. A scared timid rabbit, just like he had been. If he had been a rabbit he would have been able to escape long ago. He would have been free. Free.

The gas was getting to him. He felt light headed, dizzy, nauseated. People around him were already gagging and vomiting. He could not remain standing and slumped to the ground staring at the hole; his life pouring away, pouring away through that hole.

Suddenly Chiam shook his head, his lungs gasping for the fresh air around him, his heart beating faster than it had ever beat before. He blinked and looked about. He was just outside the shower's barn doors. He was free, but how -- and why did the doors look so large?

His nose twitched. He could still smell the cloying, choking odor of the gas and hopped a few feet away, to where the air was fresher. Above the screams from the showers he heard several other people calling out, "Hey look. It's a rabbit. Someone catch it before it gets away."

Chiam looked about, wondering where the rabbit was. Unexpectedly a rock bounced against the ground just a foot from him and he found himself bounding in a zigzag pattern as fast as he could. Bullets crashed into the ground about him as he flew past giant feet and even larger buildings, past the latest smoldering pit of charred flesh, past the guard posts and into the fields beyond. Finally, in a small stand of stunted trees he stopped, chest heaving as he gasped for air and tried to collect his thoughts. He was free. He had survived. But -- he was -- furry? With long ears? Whiskers? Paws? He was -- a rabbit? He was a rabbit! But -- he was free!


It took an additional several hours of panicky thinking to discover how to change back to human. When he found it, the solution was obvious in its simplicity. Concentration; visualize the desired form and concentrate on it, concentrate as hard as he could.

When he realized he was human he was jubilant. He was exactly as he visualized himself; tall, dark, handsome, with understated muscles, and goose bumps. As the sun finished setting he realized he was naked and freezing in the middle of a clump of snow covered shrubs that he had thought to be trees when he had been a rabbit.

Looking about he realized he was in a plowed field and that there was a farm house in the distance. Shivering as he ran, Chiam headed for the back of the house and a clothes line with an assortment of clothes flapping in the breeze. Quickly grabbing what he could he headed for the barn at a run, and did not stop when he heard the woman's yell.

He was still struggling into the stiff and icy clothes when the barn door opened. Standing in the entrance, face shadowed by the glaring March sun was a woman carrying a rifle. In the silence the snick of the bolt being drawn seemed deafening. "Who's in there?"

Chiam was silent. "I said 'Who's in there?' I've got a gun and I'm not afraid to use it."

"P-please. I'm freezing."

"Stand where I can see you." He moved slowly out of the stall hands held in plain sight above his head, still holding a wool shirt.

"Who are you?"

"Chiam benShoh."

"What are you doing in our barn, wearing my husband's clothes?"

"I'm sorry. I was freezing."

"Come closer. What's that on your arm?" The gun snapped up to aim at his chest. "Those numbers. You're from the camp aren't you?"

"Yes ma'am."

"You escaped?"

"Yes ma'am. They were going to kill me."

"Why? What did you do?"


"They don't lock people away for nothing. What did you do?"

"Nothing. I swear. I am a loyal German."

"And a Jew?"

"Yes. I am a German and a Jew. What are you going to do with me?" Chiam expected the worst, but prayed for compassion.

There was a long silence during which the gun never wavered from his chest. Finally, she spoke, "It will be Easter Sunday shortly. Put the shirt on and come inside the house."


Chiam awoke to the false dawn. There were the usual mewling sounds of starving babies and the wails of those who had recently lost loved ones, but it was comparatively quiet. Even the guards were still off snoozing somewhere warm, while their officers slept in their warm beds. When the officers woke the next day of hell would begin.


About the Author

Jeff Mahr is the happily married father of three plus one very furry cat, a parakeet, and a constantly varying number of hamsters. He has been reading science fiction since eight years of age and first became interested in transformations reading Heinlein's "I Will Fear No Evil." He has several others stories in the archives of TSA-Talk.


About this Story

The current story, "Concentration," came out of stories about how people were denying that the Holocaust, an event resulting in the deaths of more than six million people during World War II, had ever occurred. To find out more about the Holocaust check out the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[tsat home] [#3 #11] [stories: 3 11]