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Letting Go


David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited. The copyright remains the property of the author

Henry knew who it was as soon as he saw the little figure in the distance between the slender boughs of the palm trees that leaned lazily across his field of view. He watched him as he turned off the dirt-track that twisted its way across the dry cactus-sprinkled scrub-land to walk up the rocky path towards his house. It was the way the man walked that gave him away: the purposefulness, the tightness of the gait, the disregard for the hazards of the bleached dusty stones that made up the path's surface. Henry had always imagined that he would be younger, somehow. An earnest young academic from some Polish university, dripping with anger and self-righteousness. This man wasn't all that much younger than himself - twenty years his junior, perhaps, a pale-skinned European in his mid-sixties, perversely dressed for the merciless heat of Thailand in a neat dark grey business suit, his figure long and gaunt, his silvering black hair thinning to near baldness beneath the little circular brown yarmulke that clung precariously to the top of his head. In his right hand he clutched a well-made black leather briefcase, held rigid against the rhythm of his long regular strides, like a precious icon carried in a religious procession.

Now that this moment had arrived, the moment he had imagined so many times, dreamed about so often, it seemed almost an anticlimax. Henry was surprised at how little he felt. Just a dull resignation, and a sadness. He had hoped that he might have been permitted to leave the theatre before the final act, but now he could see that it was not to be, and he knew that it was an indulgence he had no right to expect. In a way it pleased him that the issues were going to be addressed. Not put right of course, that lay far beyond his gift. No atonement was possible. All that he had to offer in reparation for his crimes was his miserable eighty-five-year-old life, a trinket so insignificant in the face of what he had done that its forfeiture would be almost a further affront to his victims. But at least the matter was going to be tidied up. That was better than nothing.

The man had reached the foot of the wooden steps leading up to Henry's veranda. He stood there for a few moments without speaking, staring into Henry's face with cold grey eyes that betrayed absolutely no emotion. It was Henry who broke the silence. "Why don't you come up? Take a chair?" he entreated politely.

The man climbed the three steps and lowered himself stiffly into the more scuffed of Henry's two wicker armchairs. Still staring blankly at the older man, he paused almost a full minute before he said anything.

"Do you know why I have come here?" he said at last in a voice that was as flat and emotionless as his stare. Henry noticed that he had an American accent. He felt a momentary crazy impulse to make a joke, to answer something like: You've come to read the water-meter. Or: You've come to read the gas-meter. That would be better! Oh yes, the gas meter: that would be suitably sick! But he didn't say anything. Instead he merely nodded.

Before he said anything else the newcomer opened his briefcase and carefully withdrew several neatly labelled manila folders, which he placed on the cracked glass top of Henry's coffee-table. "My name is Saul Abrams," he said quietly, "and you are Dr. Wolfgang Heinrich Muller. Or do you intend to deny that?"

Henry exhaled heavily and felt his shoulders drop. "Wolfgang," he mumbled abstractly, "yes, I knew him once. It was a very long time ago…"

The newcomer showed a trace of emotion at last. He spat out the question: "Do you deny that you are Wolfgang Heinrich Muller, a former Major in the SS at the Experimental Medical Facility at Treblenka?"

He paused so long that Abrams was on the point of repeating the question. "'Major' was an honorary rank," he said at last, "I only held that rank for the last few months of the war."

"So… It was you…" the man with the manila folders whispered, "It really was you….." He said it in the tone of someone who had waited for this moment almost as long as Henry himself had waited. He said it as though he hardly dared allow himself to believe that it had actually happened. "It was you," he repeated, so quietly it was almost inaudible.

Henry shrugged. "Well, Wolfgang was a clever ambitious young man in his twenties with a straight back and strong arms, and bright eyes….. and a lot of bad ideas in his head. And that young man grew into me. I wouldn't even recognise him now. I wouldn't know him if I bumped into him in the street. I don't remember a great deal about him. But despite all that, it is true that I am the man that he became. What do you want me to do? Should I cut my wrists? Will that make it all right?"

"No, Dr. Muller. That will not make it all right."

"I didn't think it would. I'm going to pour myself a drink, Mr. Abrams. Do you want one?" The other shook his head. "It won't be laced with poison, by the way," the old doctor added, "I'm not a great one for dramatic gestures."

He made his way to the modest cocktail cabinet and poured a generous quantity of brandy into a glass. Then he sat down again, nursing it on his knee. Abrams had taken a document from one of the manila folders and was holding it stiffly before him, but he was still looking at Henry. "Do you remember the total number of people who passed through the facility at Treblenka during the years 1944 and 1945?" he asked in a tone that was almost conversational.

Henry shook his head. "It's a long time ago, Mr. Abrams. A very long time ago."

"We have estimated about seven hundred and fifty. Does that sound to you like the right kind of figure?"

"If you say so." Henry's voice had become very quiet and his eyes, almost unblinking, were fixed on those of his guest.

"It's the best estimate we have been able to arrive at. And of those seven hundred and fifty people, or thereabouts, all ages, both sexes…… how many, would you like to estimate, are still surviving at this time?"

Henry shook his head. "I have no idea."

"Six, Dr. Muller. Just six, that we know of. Five women and one man." Abrams handed Henry the document that he had been holding. "These are signed and sworn statements from each of the six. You will notice that they have been translated into English. If you prefer I can let you see them in German or in the original Polish. Would you prefer one of those other languages?"

"It makes no difference," he said almost inaudibly, "I am acquainted with all of those languages. Although my Polish may be a little rusty." He fumbled around in his inside pocket to find his reading glasses and put them on. Such a cosy little scene, he thought to himself. For all the world like two old friends seated on the veranda, one showing his holiday snapshots to the other. How very civilised it all was.

"The allegations contained in these statements," Abrams continued in that same impenetrable monotone, "are of two kinds. There are specific allegations against you, and descriptions of the regime that these people witnessed at the Treblenka facility. The witnesses describe experiments in which human subjects were deliberately infected with life-threatening diseases, including typhoid fever, syphilis and hepatitis, and then used as guinea-pigs for the testing of novel drugs and treatment regimes. They allege that the percentage of subjects who survived these experiments was of the order of two or three per cent. Three of the women witnesses have also made allegations against you personally of repeated sexual assault. Are these allegations true, Dr. Muller?"

"Would it make any difference if I said no?"

"Not a great deal." He put the piece of paper down on the table and Henry picked it up and held it carefully, moving it in and out in front of his face to find the best distance.

Abrams watched him read the first sheet, turn the page, watched his head nod very slightly as he hurried to the end. "I suppose you want me to sign this?" he asked passively.

"These statements are legal documents," Abrams continued quietly, "I shall witness your signature. After you have attested to the truth of each statement it shall be lodged in the War Crimes section of the Holocaust Museum and Archive at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It shall become a public document and shall be admissible in evidence if any of your surviving victims or the families of the dead should wish to bring criminal proceedings against you. And the State of Israel shall support them fully in any such prosecution."

"I see." Henry fixed the other's eyes once again. "So the State of Israel does not intend to bring any proceedings itself?"

"Not if you sign. You are no longer young, and, frankly, not all that important. It's the truth that we are primarily interested in in your case, Dr. Muller. Nothing more."

"That's all you want of me? The truth? A small thing like that?"

Abrams did not reply. He merely produced an expensive-looking grey fountain-pen and handed it to Henry. "How very….. thoughtful of you," the other mumbled.

It took Henry about five minutes to read and sign each document. As each one was completed Abrams silently took it, carefully countersigned with the same pen, and placed it back in the manila folder. When they were all done, the two men's eyes met once again. Henry tried to read Abrams' expression but found that he still couldn't.

"Is there nothing that you want to say, Dr. Muller?" Abrams asked at last. It was some time before Henry replied.

"You're a good man, Mr. Abrams," he said at last, "a man who fights for justice. A man who has devoted his life to…. finding out the truth. You can't understand somebody like me, can you?" Abrams said nothing. "And you're young! You weren't even born when these things were going on, were you?"

"Barely," Abrams admitted.

"It was a strange time. More strange than you can even imagine. A time of certainties, Mr. Abrams. No shades of grey. National Socialism or Communism. Jew or Aryan. German or foreigner. Comrade or enemy. Men marching, drums beating, flags waving, organisations you had to belong to, slogans you had to chant when everybody else did, anthems you had to sing, things you had to believe, things you had to agree to. There was no middle path. Nobody could hold out against it. Nobody could get away from it…… I was a young medical graduate, with a new wife. I needed a job. I needed to eat. I needed security. Do you think I could have held out against all that? What was I supposed to do, for God's sake?"

Abrams studied him like a specimen under a microscope. He waited for the old man to continue. "I was weak, Mr. Abrams. I was frightened. I was a coward. I took the path of least resistance. Maybe I could have done something else. I don't know."

"I have spoken to people whose circumstances were just as difficult as yours," said Abrams very quietly, "who did do something. I have spoken to people who were not Jews, who had no part in the fight, and yet risked their lives and suffered ruin and torture and imprisonment because they did something. I have spoken to people whose husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, parents, friends lost their lives because they did something. Lost their lives because they would rather die than do nothing."

"I told you, Mr. Abrams, I was not a hero. I…. Cannot change things that have happened in the past." He paused. "Would you like to see what my wife looked like, Mr. Abrams?" Without waiting for an answer he got up and went to a little shelf above a display cabinet in the lounge. He took down a yellow-tinted framed photograph of an attractive young woman with long dark hair. He returned with the picture and handed it to Abrams.

The girl in the photograph wore an embroidered dress of a light colour with a low square neckline, and she was smiling and lifting a hand towards her face, as though embarrassed at the idea of having her picture taken. Behind her were trees, and just visible behind them what looked like a wooden tower of some kind raised into the air on four rigid stilts.

"She was very beautiful, was she not, Mr. Abrams?"

Abrams nodded. "Yes, Dr. Muller. She was very beautiful. Where was she standing when this was taken?"

"Where…? I don't think I can recall…"

"No? Perhaps I can help you. That is one of the Treblenka look-out towers in the background." He turned towards Henry but the old man made no response. "What became of your wife, Dr. Muller?"

Henry took the picture back and laid it on the table before answering. "Near the end… when I knew it was all about to end… I sent her to Switzerland with false papers. We were to meet in America."

"And did you meet?"

"I never went to America. I came here instead. They.. you… would have found me too easily in America."

"So you lied to her. You deserted her."

"Don't you think she was better off without me? Don't you think I did her a favour?"

Abrams shrugged. "So you've been here all this time? Did you practice medicine?"


"Any particular reason?"

"I…. Lost the stomach for it, I suppose." He thought for a moment. "Have you ever heard the legend of the dogwood tree, Mr. Abrams? No, I don't suppose you would have. It's a bit of Christian mythology - folklore. The dogwood tree grows in North America. It's one of the most twisted-up, deformed little things you can imagine. The branches turn around, twist back on themselves. But the legend says that the dogwood tree was once tall and straight. It was the tree they used to make the cross to crucify Jesus. And when the tree saw what it had done, how its virtues had been misused, it decided that it would never grow tall and straight again. It would twist itself up into a little wooden knot, so that it could never be used to make another cross. That's what I have done, Mr. Abrams. I have twisted myself up into a little knot and hidden myself away so that…… Forgive me, I'm talking nonsense. An old man, rambling." He stood up and carefully carried the picture back to its place above the cabinet.

Abrams waited for him to return. When he had sat down again he looked quizzically at his guest. "You've studied my case for a long time, haven't you, Mr. Abrams?"

Abrams nodded.

"Do you know anything about my wife? Anything about what happened to her? Anything at all?"

Abrams was silent for a long time. At last he decided to speak. "She reached America," he said very quietly. "In fact she claimed to be a Jew fleeing persecution. Was that your idea?" Henry did not reply but his expression answered the question for Abrams.

"There's more, isn't there, Mr. Abrams?" Henry urged.

Abrams watched him fixedly. "Did you know that she was pregnant?" he asked very quietly. Again Henry's face answered the question. His eyes widened in startled disbelief.

"Pregnant….. no, I never knew…"

"Would it have changed anything?"

"Well….. yes…. Of course…… A child…. changes everything. What happened to the child…..?"

Abrams shrugged. "We never traced the child. Frankly, it wasn't your wife we were interested in. It was you."

"So… I might have a child… grandchildren even… in America?"

"Dr. Muller, you might even have a wife in America. That isn't our concern. Your wife has committed no crime, as far as we are aware. To bear a child for a….. a man like you is not a criminal act. To love a man like you….. no crime. A mistake, but not a crime, Dr. Muller."

Henry's head sunk a little lower into his chest. "All that," he said weakly, "was part of the price I paid. Part of curling myself up into that little knot. I know it isn't much, weighed against what I did, but if you think about it, it was all that I had. I've given everything that I had, Mr. Abrams…"

"I apologise for stating the obvious, but you are alive, Dr. Muller. You have good health for a man of your age. Your body is undefiled and whole. You have all of your limbs, you have not been castrated, your internal organs have not been mutilated, and you have apparently retained your sanity. Please spare me your self-pity."

It was the nearest that Abrams had come to a display of emotion. He said it coldly, without raising his voice, but the contempt and the condemnation sent a shiver down Henry's spine.

Abrams collected his papers off the table, gathered them neatly into the briefcase, and left without another word.

He walked briskly down the path to the road without looking back at Henry's house. Exercise was what he needed, a bit of brisk physical exertion to clear his system of the bottled-up anger and the tension that was making his heart pound, his head throb in time to his furious strides. As he made his way down the narrow road between the overhanging coconut palms towards the harbour, the tension gradually seeped out of him and he began to regain control of his seething emotions. He slowed his walking pace and began to look around. The hills were dotted with little ornate, gaudily-painted farmhouses whose steep-pitched roofs ended in flamboyant twists and scrolls that existed for no other purpose than to express something of the joy of existence. A gaily painted pick-up truck swept by him, its two occupants waving cheerily and shouting a Thai greeting as they passed. It was a happy, warm, friendly place, but Abrams had armoured his spirit against it and none of it made contact with his troubled psyche.

In the distance, near the village and the harbour, he saw a thin sloping ribbon of white smoke rising from somewhere behind the local Buddhist temple to vanish among the wispy grey clouds that drifted ponderously across the sky. As he drew a little nearer he could make out the sound of men's voices chanting: there was a ceremony of some kind in progress. He glanced at his watch. The ferry did not leave for almost two hours. There was no point in hurrying. He slowed his pace to a gentle stroll and, for want of something to do, made his way towards the temple and the rising plume of smoke at the far end of the village. The temple was a long, low, highly-decorated building, red and gold being the dominant colours of the scroll-work on the outside walls. Above the structure was a traditional highly ornate orange-tiled Thai roof of a dizzy pitch, ending in decorative coils at its four corners. Rising from the centre of this to dominate it all was a high silver chedi like an elongated metal cone standing on its base, the equivalent of the steeple on a Western church, a shape that he knew was repeated on Thai ceremonial headwear to symbolise the god-quality that the Buddhist faithful believed to reside to at least some degree in everyone.

The chanting was quite loud now, and as he entered the gate and circled around towards the rear of the building he came upon the outdoor service that was in progress in the field behind. He approached slowly and respectfully, sitting down near a small family group who were gathered around a rug on the grass. The rug was spread with food and some small vessels containing flowers, as though in preparation for a very formal picnic. Other similar groups were scattered among the tall carved burial stones that dotted the space between the temple and a crackling funeral pyre that had been built at the far end of the burial ground. Atop the neatly stacked firewood was a woven wooden burial basket, in which the body of a very slightly-built man reclined, draped with a vivid yellow shroud. Young Buddhist monks, their heads shaven, their bodies cloaked in robes of the same bright striking yellow stood solemnly in a semicircle around the base of the pyre, chanting their prayers with a calm dignity and rocking very gently in time to the rhythm of their chant. Every few moments someone would slowly approach, bowing low as they walked, and place something within the smouldering sticks. Abrams strained to see more clearly but it was a bit too far away for him to make out exactly what the offerings were.

"Welcome to this holy place," said a very quiet voice by Abrams' left ear, causing him to start despite its calmness. He turned to find a very old, wizened Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged by his side, smiling serenely, his fingers entwined on the lap of his yellow robes.

"Thank you," he replied in a similar hushed tone, "I hope I'm not intruding…"

"It is I who am intruding. I am an old man and very inquisitive. It is a dreadful vice."

Abrams found himself smiling. "There are worse vices," he assured the old man. "Who is the…. deceased?"

"Khun Chaub. A very kind and good man. A farmer who worked hard for all of his long life, who loved his wife and his children and gave food and garments to the poor. It is a happy day for him, I hope I can meet my own death with so great a store of merit."

Abrams nodded. "And the things they are putting in the fire. What are those?"

"All kinds of things. Flowers. Food. Things that Khun Chaub may need in his next life. And messages for the souls of other dead people. And things that… that belong with the dead and not the living."

"What do you mean?"

The old monk seemed to find this a difficult question. "In this life," he began ponderously, "we form attachments. We cling to things. Especially to evil things. Things that are not good for us. Do you agree?"

Abrams nodded.

"And when someone dies… moves on to another life… that can be a good time for the people who are left behind to stop clinging to things that are no longer good for them. Things that are hurtful, damaging, things that put limits on the growth of the human spirit. Do you understand?"

Abrams was not sure that he did. The monk seemed to pick up his hesitation.

"Take yourself, Mr. ….?"


"Mr. Abrams. You carry a case made out of leather. I observe the way you hold it. The case is black but your knuckles are white with the strain of the grip with which you hold that case. Is it not so?"

Abrams grinned somewhat sheepishly. "What's in there is very important," he said defensively.

"Is it? Is it something that makes you happy?"

"Well, no, not really."

"Is it something that makes other people happy? Something that makes the world a better place? That adds to the total sum of human happiness?"

Abrams looked at him strangely. "I'm not sure," he whispered.

"But you said it was very important?"

"Yes," Abrams agreed hesitantly, "that much I know. It is very important."

The old monk smiled. "Have you any knowledge of the South Indian monkey trap?" he asked with a mischievous sparkle in his eye. Abrams' blank expression told him that he had not. "Well," the monk began, obviously pleased to have Abrams for an audience, "I always think that it completely proves that the Lord Buddha passed that way, because it could only have been invented by a person of our faith. You see, the trap is nothing more than an empty coconut shell that is fixed to a branch by a strong rope. There is a small opening into the shell, and inside is placed a small piece of fruit, let us say a lychee. Can you see how the trap works?"

Abrams thought for a moment but was baffled.

"Oh, it's amazingly simple, Mr. Abrams. The monkey puts its hand into the coconut shell for the lychee, and grabs it - like that!" The old monk made a fist to show Abrams what he meant. "Now can you see how the trap works?"

"Oh yes. Of course. When he has the fruit in his hand, he can't get his hand out any more."

"Exactly, Mr. Abrams! The monkey wants that lychee very badly, and he will not let go. Because he will not let go, he is a trapped monkey. He has lost his freedom. He has given up everything that life has to offer a monkey, because he can not bring himself to let go of that lychee. Don't you think that he is a very foolish monkey, Mr. Abrams?"

Abrams sat very still and looked into the face of the monk. Minutes passed. "May I ask you what you are thinking, Mr. Abrams?" said the monk, no longer able to contain his curiosity.

"Oh, just about the monkey. It's a very sad story, isn't it. When all he has to do to get free is just….." Abram's voice faded out. The monk held up his hand which was still in a fist and slowly and gently opened it. Abrams said nothing but a calmness and a serenity seemed to spread slowly through his body. He felt himself relax, felt the tension drain from his features. He sat for several minutes in silence and complete peace. He suddenly realised that he was no longer holding the briefcase, it was lying on the grass by his feet.

"Would you… would you put that on the fire for me?" he whispered so quietly that he was surprised the other heard.

"Oh no, Mr. Abrams. You have to put it on the fire yourself."

* * * * *

Abrams tapped gently on the hotel-room door. It was opened by his wife, an elegantly dressed slightly overweight American lady of late middle age. She seemed mildly surprised at his appearance but greeted him warmly and ushered him in.

"You're back early, Saul. You look pleased. Did you get a result?"

He took off his jacket and threw it over the back of a chair before he replied. "What do you think?" was his laconic answer.

She looked him straight in the eye: "I don't know. I thought you looked… different some way, when you came in. That was the last lead, wasn't it, Saul?"

"The very last one," he confirmed, lowering himself on to the wide soft bedspread as he said it. He held out his two hands and his wife took them and allowed herself to be drawn down to sit beside him on the bed.

"Why do you look so pleased then?" she demanded, still eyeing him strangely.

"Ruth, I've wasted too much of my life on this search. Too much of yours as well. I want to apologise."

"Don't be silly, Saul. Of course you had to look for him. For your mother's sake." As she spoke she lifted the framed picture from the bedside table and handed it to Abrams. He took it and stared at it, an expression on his face that Ruth had never seen there before.

"I… I suppose he must have died then?" she probed, still convinced that there was more to the affair than Saul was willing to say.

"Ruth, we've got to stop talking about this thing. Stop thinking about it. Our grandson gets married in four days' time. We've got to get out of here. Back to the 'States. This isn't where we belong. We've got to start thinking about the future, not this stuff. Not what's over and done with…"

Ruth could hardly credit the change in her husband. "You've finally admitted it then. That he's dead. That you're not going to find him?"

He put his arm around her waist and pulled her towards him in a gentle embrace. "He died a long time ago. I know that now."

Ruth smiled and kissed him on the cheek, which embarrassed her as soon as she had done it. "I think I've got myself a brand new husband today, " she laughed.

"I think you have, Ruth," he smiled, "I think you have." He looked down at the yellowing picture of his mother. It showed a young attractive woman with long dark hair, and she wore an embroidered dress of a light colour with a low square neckline. She was smiling and lifting a hand towards her face, as though embarrassed at the idea of having her picture taken. Behind her were trees, and just visible behind them what looked like a wooden tower of some kind raised into the air on four rigid stilts…............