by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
It was now 1961.
MAD magazine proclaimed it the first Upside-Down Year since 1881. If you looked at 1961 upside-down it still read the same. A cause for celebration – there wouldn’t be another year like it until 6119.
It was to live up to its MAD reputation. Many things got up-ended that year.
In February, Adolf Eichmann, Himmler’s henchman, was put on trial in Jerusalem, having been snatched by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires the previous May. It raked over the coals of the Nazi era, upsetting a simmering Two Germanies. Alan had no Jewish connections, no relatives killed in the Holocaust. But it touched him deeply, via something so easy to dismiss as the most trivial news-item of all.
From Sunday the First of January the farthing coin had been demonetised.
As Alan arrived for duty on Saturday the Eleventh of February, the day the Eichmann trial began, he’d felt the small change in his pocket and pulled out a farthing – he always carried one about with him. From being the lowest denomination, used in change for a loaf of bread, or awarded in court for derisory damages, it was now reduced to being worth precisely nothing.
He looked up and down the two rows of beds. Did anyone care? Did it matter if you were worth nothing, as opposed to very little? Would it make much difference to you? The inmates of Hadamar mental hospital, site of the Nazi euthanasia programme, had been worth at least the gas to gas them, the fuel to cremate them, the urn to return their ashes to their relatives, plus postage and packing. Of course the urn never contained the ashes of the patient named. Down in the basement they just took a scoop from a big pile of ash raked from the two crematorium ovens.
It’s the thought that counts.
Did anyone care? He looked again at his farthing. They used to tell him at infant school that if he paid it into the bank, he wouldn’t be able to get the same farthing out again. That had appalled him. But at least they’d repay you the sum of one farthing whenever you asked for it. Now, he supposed, they’d just drop it on the floor and leave it for the cleaners to sweep up.
Whatever was said of the Nazis – they didn’t demonetise people. They accounted for them most carefully – even the least – though people were just numbers to them. Yes, you could lodge your crazy daughter with the Bank of Hadamar and in due course you’d receive her back – or at least a quantity of ashes representing her net amount. The Bank of Hadamar could no longer afford to pay you interest in terms of food and clothing on the loan you’d made of her. Everyone knew that the Reich in wartime couldn’t be expected to support unproductive individuals in full-time care. So they dehydrated her and refunded her. You were supposed to thank them for that because now she had no need of food or clothing, so you didn’t need to fork out any longer either.
Nobody paid a great deal of attention to what was going on. Some even considered it a humane act. No one realised that what they were witnessing was the trial of a prototype for the industrial processing of 10,000-20,000 individuals a day, as each major extermination camp was routinely to achieve.
Heydrich’s 1942 Wannsee Conference to seek a final solution to the “Jewish Question”, which Eichmann attended, had fluffed the practicalities of mass disposal. They’d considered shipping the rounded-up Jews to Madagascar, but the plan was dismissed as impractical. So let’s organise them into work-gangs, the report ran, and they’d disappear by “natural wastage” if conditions weren’t too luxurious, as was likely to be the case. They would be shipped-off by moonlight – bei Nacht und Nebel. No explicit instructions for cruelties to be perpetrated – none of that sort of thing! They simply didn’t want the empties back because they had no residual value.
Hadamar was a sheer gift – and at the time they didn’t realise it. But very soon they did. A few months after Wannsee, the euthanasia programme at Hadamar was suspended and its personnel transferred east, to employ their skills in the new camps being set up under the top-secret Aktion Reinhard project, named for Wannsee convener Reinhard Heydrich.
Camps like Belzec… Treblinka… Auschwitz.
Changing into uniform, but before going on-duty, Alan went into the Babies’ Ward and picked up little Paul out of his cot. The baby smiled – or was it a grimace? If you read psychology textbooks you’d know congenitally blind babies don’t smile. Smiling, like language, is socially acquired behaviour, not innate. It is “learnt” not “instinctive”. Babies, so the theory ran, saw little for the first few months but smiling faces peering in their cots.
Paul had been born blind and deaf. Nobody had smiled at him through the bars of his cot. So how could he have learnt to smile? When he drew back his lips it had simply got to be a grimace – an innate response to a bad feeling.
Why not a good feeling too – if it was strong enough? What is a smile, after all, if not just that? – a grimace at a good feeling? Is the knowledge itself of good and bad something socially acquired? Adam and Eve weren’t created with it, or so the Good Book says. To claim it, was to cost them the right of residence in Eden. And when their son Cain advanced from feeling bad to doing bad, he was branded on the brow – the Mark of Cain – and thus became a refugee, dwelling in the land of Nod.
Once you know good and evil, there’s no way back to the Garden of Eden from the Land of Nod. There’s no way out of hell.
Alan kissed baby Paul on the forehead, thinking of the brand-mark of his ancestor Cain, and laid him back in his cot. It chilled him when he heard “shouldn’t be alive” pronounced over a child in pain. What people meant was “this individual is worthless, therefore he has no business giving me bad feelings by manifesting distress.”
But surely every baby is worth a smile from you at the very least – not a grimace?
Else Hadamar peers grinning at you through the bars. And you grin back.
…to be continued.