Reinheit by Thomas Flowers
Rebecca Moss never questioned the purchase of the strange seductive armchair. She wanted to please Frank. But the armchair has a dark purpose. Nazi officer Major Eric Schröder believed fervently in Hitler’s vision of purity. Now the chair has passed to Frank, an abusive thug who has his own twisted understanding of patriotism. There are those who want to destroy the armchair, to end its curse. But can the armchair be stopped before it completes its work?
Thomas S Flowers was born in Walter Reed Medical Center, Maryland to a military family. He grew up in RAF Chicksands, England and then later Fort Meade, and finally Roanoke, Virginia. Thomas graduated high school in 2000 and on September 11, 2001, joined the U.S. Army. From 2001-2008, Thomas served in the military police corps, with one tour in South Korea and three tours serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. While stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, between deployments, Thomas met his wife and following his third and final tour to Iraq, decided to rejoin the civilian ranks. Thomas was discharged honorably in February 2008 and moved to Houston, Texas where he found employment and attended night school. In 2014, Thomas graduated with a Bachelor in Arts in History from University of Houston-Clear Lake. Thomas blogs at www.machinemean.org, commenting and reviewing movies, books, shows, and historical content. Thomas is living a rather simple and quite life with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter, just south of Houston, Texas.
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The Eastern Front, Lithuania. July 1941.
The armchair moaned delightfully as Major Erich Schröder sat. Outside, the sun burst into the mountain ridge, filling the sky with brilliant orange and red flames. Schröder watched out the open window from his seat in front of a dormant fireplace. He poured a glass of Berentzen Doornkaat schnapps from the decanter he had brought with him from home. Helen had packed it for him, wrapped with last month’s funny pages. One of the strips discarded in the waste bin revealed a valiant rosy cheeked Dutchman named Conrad, demonstrating the power of solidarity in the factory workforce. The energetic and turbulent rhythm of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony floated into the room from some far off record player in the barracks. Love this performance. Schröder closed his eyes and sunk farther into the armchair. The cool leather and haunting harmony of Beethoven set his mind at ease, comforting his weary bones. The comfort abated his thoughts, for the moment at least, of what lay ahead and the unordinary expectations levied upon his young shoulders by high command.
Expectations? he thought. God help us. Schröder lifted his glass and took a long gulp, biting down against the burning sensation crawling in his throat. Expectations… Horrible, horrible expectations… But it must be done. Himmler has given the order, and so it must be. Ein Völk, ein Reich, ein Führer. For we are one people, one nation, of one leader…
Schröder had believed in the vision for a thousand-year Reich ever since he was a young boy, serving in the Hitler youth movement, following in the shadow of Herbert Norkus, the child martyr. Schröder believed in his führer fervently and demonstrated so by enlisting in the Waffen officer program when he became of age. And that strong belief made him stand out from among his peers to become a full party member of the Schutzstaffel order, the dreaded and feared SS. And even after receiving his first orders, being forced to follow on the boot heels of the regular army into the Eastern Front, he retained his faith in the great commission, the plan to save Germany, to bring the Fatherland into rebirth, renewal, into purification…but at what cost? he wondered.
“Major?” called a strong male voice from outside the door, interrupting Schröder’s thoughts.
“Who is it?” asked Schröder. He took another long swig before rubbing the cold glass against his temple, struggling to abate the crest of an emerging headache.
“Lieutenant Braun, sir.”
Ah, yes, Braun. The thought of the handsome lieutenant was not unpleasant. Unlike the rest of the old reservists assigned to his unit, Braun was different, younger than Schröder, which wasn’t saying much. But Braun is local, Schröder recalled, just like the other swine. Well…the lieutenant must be the exception, proving not all of Lithuania is as ghastly as it appears. Perhaps there are some redeeming qualities, he thought with a hungry smile.
“Enter,” Schröder finally answered. His face returned to its narrow coldness. He brushed his short-cropped, wavy, blond hair to the side. He crossed his legs and stared into the fireplace, as if contemplating a fire.
The door opened. Schröder listened to the marching of feet coming to a halt directly behind the armchair. He guessed there were at least two men, uniforms flat as iron, brown as earth, with burning red armbands and swastikas on each muscular biceps. The last being a fantasy, of course, most of the men under his command were police reservists from the rural portions of the country, not at all the physique of physically disciplined soldiers. Well, except for Braun. He is most certainly fit. Schröder took another gulp from his favorite schnapps, quietly fantasizing Braun’s undergarments, waiting on either of the reservists to speak, but no one did. Only silence, except for the ice cubes ringing against his crystalline glass.
“What is it?” Schröder asked impatiently, his breath on fire. His head felt dizzy.
“Sir…” began Braun, his voice boyish but prudent.
“For God’s sake, spit it out,” Schröder barked.
“The delivery, sir. It has arrived.”
“The cases of schnapps, sir.”
“Oh, yes, good,” said Schröder taking another swig, nearly killing the glass. “Assign a small detail and unload some of the boxes into one of the storage rooms. Keep the rest on the truck,” he ordered with heated breath.
“Use the quartermaster’s room, if you must. When you’re finished, have the rest of the company form up in the courtyard,” Schröder ordered. His mind began to drift between his nearly empty glass and the sound of crows squawking about outside the window, desperately searching for a place to nest before winter. A strong breeze found its way inside. The odor of pine and spruce filled his quaint personal quarters decorated with yellow flower wallpaper and a quaint single bed covered in soft linen sheets. An old quaint oak dresser and vanity sat next to the bed, and a small quaint circular kitchen table, also made of solid oak, sat on the other side of the fireplace. The burgundy leather Queen Ann high back armchair was last of the furniture.
Schröder waved his hand in his usual form of dismissal. He listened to the snapping of boot heels as the men shouted in unison, “Sieg, Heil!”
“And, lieutenant…” Schröder added.
“Yes, major?” asked Braun.
“Keep it quiet.”
“I don’t want a bunch of questions about why we have the liquor on the truck. I want this done quickly and quietly, understood?”
The men filed out, leaving Schröder alone again. He sat there and took another sip of schnapps, watching the dead untouched logs with little interest. Outside, the sun had fully disappeared behind the mountain ridge. The sky was black. His mind went to the hundreds of boxes of cheap apple liquor in the cargo truck outside in the courtyard. The men will need it, after today, he thought. After tonight, and the next night, and the night after that, and so on and so forth until this madness is over. Until the solution has been answered. When the vermin are eradicated, removed, liquidated from the purity of the Reich. The rats, the money-grubbing Jews, stabbed us in the back in Versailles, but never again. Schröder smiled weakly and took another gulp, finishing off the glass with a grimace. The ice was cold, but the liquor burned going down, warming his otherwise empty stomach. Licking his lips, he slumped deeper into the armchair. The cushions felt more than welcoming. The Queen Anne was soft, yet sturdy, dependable, and dare he say, comforting? Yes. Yes, even in a waste of a country as Lithuania, given nightmarish orders. Yes, even here, something as simple as a chair could be comforting. It whispered to him. The tall backrest shielded him from the world and told him everything was going be fine. The voice lingered with Schröder like a fat dark cloud caught in a valley before a storm. Where have you been? he wondered. Who last sat on you? Who else have you comforted? Who will you comfort when I’m gone? You’re mine, you know that? You’ll always be mine. His thoughts teased real jealousy.
Schröder recalled when the armchair had first arrived. He remembered when Himmler, the führer’s shadow, had delivered it personally from Latvia. A gift, supposedly, for Schröder’s first command. Himmler arrived in the dead of night and Schröder had thought it odd for someone of his stature to take the time to visit someone new in the order. Or perhaps that was the reason for the visit. Did he come to inspect me, my men, our resolve? Schröder waved the thought away with his empty glass. Does it matter? Was it really so strange for a man like Himmler to drop in, even unannounced? No. Schröder knew of Himmler’s obsessive reputation and the simple fact that the man commanded all of the SS, including all the Einsatzgruppen units, with the entire final solution for the Jewish question residing on his shoulders, was warrant enough for paranoid examinations. I’d do the same thing in his place, Schröder believed. How could he not? While the regular Waffen army served a purpose, driving back the vile communist filth, the Einsatzgruppen, the killing squads, as rumored to be called by some of the men, were given orders of the upmost import. On our shoulders alone sits victory for Germany. Only through us can Himmler succeed and thus Hitler’s final solution be answered. Only through us can the one-thousand-year Reich be achieved. So, when an officer like Himmler drops in unannounced, bearing a gift for your recently awarded commission, you do not turn him away, and you most certainly do not ask questions, Schröder weighed, pouring another glass of schnapps when his door thundered yet again.
“Major?” called Lieutenant Braun in his usual vigor manner.
“Yes?” answered Schröder.
“The detail is done and the men have begun to form up, sir.”
Schröder peeled himself begrudgingly from the armchair. His skin felt as if it were being ripped away from the leather. It was difficult, more than it should have been, for Schröder to get to his feet. It was as if gravity were working against him. The more he moved, the more he didn’t want to move. He hesitated to leave the warm comfort of the high-back armchair, or the warm breeze from the window, or the bottle of schnapps, or even his lonely late-night fantasies of a bare-backed Lieutenant Braun in his chambers. Schröder pictured the young lieutenant naked, erect, pulsating with heat, and smelling of plums. But Schröder knew he had no time for fantasies such as those, not now. Now he had a job to complete, the commission, and until then he would not be able to return home to Munich, to his beloved Helen, and their faux marriage, and her ravenous breasts and plump lips he absolutely had no desire for. But, despite his pretentious social mask, of which he so often hid, that fairy tale existence was more enjoyable and pleasing than the cold nothingness of Lithuania. At least in Munich he could have something more than fantasy. Full moons he could sink his teeth into and lustful adventures out on Blumenstraße’s dark avenue, where men and boys overfilled his cup. A place where names were never asked, never given. Or at least not real names.
God help me if anyone ever found out. He shuddered. They’d stich a pink badge on a pair of rags and send me on the midnight train to Dachau, or worse. Auschwitz-Birkenau. And what would poor Helen think of the charade? That her husband loved the taste of cock? She would be absolutely abashed! Schröder let loose a faint dry laugh despite the remnant fear of being caught lumped heavily in his heart.
There was another soft knock at the door. “Sir?” asked Braun. “Is everything okay?”
“I’ll be out in a moment,” the major barked.
Schröder pulled himself from the comfortable armchair and smoothed out the wrinkles in his black uniform. He noticed a scuff mark on the toe of his otherwise perfectly gloss black boots. Frowning, he crossed over to the small table, set down his empty glass, and picked up a rag. Kneeling, he polished out the blemish in quick sweeps. He stood and looked himself over in the vanity. Satisfied with his appearance, Schröder opened the door to his room. Lieutenant Braun was just outside, alone, and snapping to attention. One hand shot down to his side while the other flew upward, palm down, fingers held firm together and straight, as one might imagine how the Romans may have saluted Caesar.
“Sieg, Heil,” shouted Braun.
Schröder returned the salute, smiling on the inside. Licking his lips. At least there was more than just the lieutenant’s physique and beautiful bright blue eyes that he admired. Braun was, if anything else, dedicated, loyal, and obedient. Qualities one should always surround themselves with.
“Sir,” Braun’s arm returned to his side, “If I may, why have we assembled the men at such an hour?” he asked, nodding toward the dark sky outside the hallway window.
“Judenfrei,” replied Schröder.
Braun did not mask his confusion.
“Do you believe it is possible?” Schröder added, almost singing.
“To be free of Jews? Yes, major.” Braun still looked confused.
Major Schröder knew the young lieutenant could not answer. How could he? He had only the slightest idea. A rumor, at best…as for the particulars in how the Reich would free themselves of Jews. Only the higher echelons knew. Most assumed the same fate the POWs met, when the Communist sympathizers and partisan survivors had been gathered to the labor camps, and would think this seemed a possible solution for the Jews as well. Made sense. To collect them and then transport them off to the camps as well. But how can that be? Schröder thought. Of all the camps, certainly they could not hold all the Jews in Lithuania, nor all the POWs, gypsies, criminals, or homosexuals, all of the Reich’s undesirables. There were too many enemies and simply not enough room for them all. Certainly, Braun has mulled through all this.
“Well, lieutenant?” prodded Schröder. “Let’s hear it.” The Major smiled foxily.
Braun looked white, befuddled in his confusion. He almost seemed to laugh. Perhaps a sudden idea had sprung to mind? A terrible idea? Whatever the cause, the lieutenant remained silent. Is he thinking of what I’ve been ordered? Of mass extermination? All of them? Schröder could sense the lieutenant’s unease. He looked flushed and short of breath. He knows. He simply doesn’t want to say it out loud. It would be too horrible, unfathomable to say out loud, the major thought. He understood because he felt the same unease within himself, the unease of exterminating an entire people. The annihilation of European Jewry. The weight of killing not just the men, but women and the children, both the very young and the infirm. But we must, for the nation. For the purity of the Reich.
“Lieutenant, I am going to tell you something that will not be easy to hear. In fact, it’ll be damn near impossible to hear,” Schröder began. “But we must. Such courage will be needed if we are to succeed in our mission…for the purity of the Reich.” Yes, Erich, keep telling yourself that. But at what cost? How much are you willing to pay? At the cost of your own soul? Your sanity? Schröder pushed his weakness away. “Our goal will require the strongest will. Tonight, we will march toward Kovno, arriving at the break of dawn.” Schröder paused. He took a deep breath. “We will then begin the process of eradicating the vermin from the Kovno ghetto. For the purity of the Reich, the infestation must be absolutely eradicated. There can to be no survivors, lieutenant. Do you understand what I am saying?” Schröder watched. Waited.
Braun was a ghost, as white as death. “We are to…kill them, major? All?”
“Is it villainess to put down a diseased dog? Or is it an act of mercy?” asked Schröder.
Braun was silent. He nodded quietly.
Schröder nodded as well, but said nothing. They said nothing for some time. Neither would look at each other. In the silence, Schröder could hear voices stirring from outside through the second floor hallway window. In the courtyard below, Bravo Company was beginning to wonder, no doubt, why they had been ordered into formation at such a late hour in the night. Schröder oddly began to wonder himself what Helen was doing back home. Meeting up with a friend for dinner, perhaps? A male escort? That would be something, he thought numbly. Finally, Schröder looked at Braun, who stood as a specter in the hallway. Schröder wanted to embrace him, to hold his firm chest against his own, to feel the panicked and disturbed heartbeat in rhythm with his. Schröder wanted to brush Braun’s slicked black hair, to part his lips and pull Braun close, and feel his large bulge and well-manicured hands. But Schröder pushed away the fantasy. Instead, he told Braun of Himmler’s orders, the commission of the Einsatzgruppen units. That they were to enter the Eastern Front, in four separate commands. In Kovno, Bravo would herd the Jews into the town square, dividing the men fit for labor from the rest.
The laborers would be ushered to the train yard, destined for Höss’ newly operational Auschwitz camp, while the others would be marched into the nearby forest. They would dig graves deep enough for a city municipal bus and then the Jews would strip. And the brave, ordinary men of Bravo Company would aim their shot with bayonet and fire into the base of the skulls of countless girls, boys, hags, gimps, and the sick. The infants would be bashed against the side of walls to make quick use of their time. One round per Jew… God forgive us, but this is how the Reich will be judenfrei. This is how the Reich will become pure again, Schröder thought, his hands quaking terribly. He gave one last longing look into his bedroom, his gaze settling upon his high-back armchair.
‘I can do this, I have to do this, and so it must be done,’ a strong whispering voice reassured him. With his eyes still on the chair, tracing the elegant blemishes were blotches of brown grew darker and then lighter, Schröder exhaled, “Ein Völk, ein Reich, ein Führer,” just audible enough for Braun to hear him.
Braun snapped to attention, still ghostly, and threw out his right arm, “Sieg, Heil!”
Schröder returned the salute vigorously. And then the two abandoned the hall to join the men of Bravo Company outside in the courtyard. Nearing the tall pine door entrance, Major Schröder stopped and turned.
“Have my armchair loaded into one of the cargo trucks,” Schröder said. “The Queen Anne will accompany us to Kovno.”
Braun did not question the order.
Schröder did not explain.