In life, we are plagued by the uncertainty of an afterlife, and it is often expected that when we die, everything will suddenly make sense. But when a group of strangers, similar only in their time of death, find themselves in the afterlife, they are faced with more questions than ever before. Are they in Heaven or Hell? If they’re in Heaven, why is there a Nazi wandering around? Why are there no children? If they are in Hell, what universal law did they break? Is there a way to repent and move on to a better eternity? At least one man seems to have some answers. Marcus, a Roman dead for 2,000 years, gains the group’s trust by leading them through the perils of their new reality. But soon it becomes clear that Marcus is only telling them half the story.
L. A. Barnes is public librarian in the southern US. She is a Nerdist podcast listening, South Park loving, Twin Peaks conspiracy theorizing, Stephen King reading and Joss Whedon worshiping geek. The Pit is her first novel. She plans to explore the Watchmaker’s universe through four more novels.
MISHA AGREED TO STAY, SO they waited by the fire for Deborah’s return. After an hour of stilted conversation, mostly about Deborah and Hell, Misha asked about Heinrich’s uniform.
“That’s an odd symbol, on your armband. What is it?” Misha pointed to Heinrich’s swastika.
Heinrich tried his best to explain that it was a symbol of the Aryan race, though others in Europe saw it as a good luck symbol.
“The guards at the Camp still wear it,” Misha mentioned.
“The Camps are closed now; we lost the war,” Heinrich misunderstood.
“No, the Camp here. The guards wear the same symbol; many of them have that uniform,” Misha explained. Because Misha met Deborah near the Camp, they continued to meet there for years. Misha now spent most of his time there, waiting for Deborah’s next visit.
“There are Nazis in the Camp here?” Heinrich asked. “I thought Rolf killed us all?”
“Who? Marcus?” Misha asked. “I’ve heard them call him Rolf. He’s their superior.”
Heinrich was floored. Why didn’t anyone destroy all the Nazis? Why make them guards in the Camp?
“What does it look like, this Camp?” Heinrich asked Misha.
Their conversation was interrupted by a splash. Before jumping up, Heinrich turned to see Misha’s excited expression mirroring his own.
The person emerging from the pool at the bottom of the Waterfall was not Deborah. Instead, a tall young man in brown trousers and a plaid shirt shook himself off as someone else splashed down behind him. “Well,” the stranger said once he’d seen Heinrich, “aren’t you a sight for…” he laughed to himself, “not sore eyes clearly.”
Heinrich had no idea who this was.
“I mean it’s been a while.” The accent was German. And now that Heinrich examined his face with the mirth filled brown eyes and nose that threatened to take over….
“You must be David,” Misha exclaimed. The two superior English speakers shook hands. “I’ve heard so much; it’s so nice to finally meet you.”
“Likewise I’m sure.”
Misha beat him to understanding something else, leaving Heinrich feeling like a small child in front of two would-be allies. His salvation arrived then, with a splash. Deborah had arrived.
Heinrich rushed to her, as always, to help her out of the pool.
“Oh, look at the teacher’s little German shepherd,” David teased.
Misha looked scandalized for a moment and then laughed.
Heinrich, though annoyed at the slight, was undeterred. Deborah clasped his hand as she pressed off with her feet.
“Heinrich is a good boy. The two of you shall behave,” Deborah said, cutting off their giggles. “After all, we have a purpose here.” Deborah gave Heinrich the usual hug, prompting him to wonder if Misha received hugs when Deborah arrived. A glance at Misha’s cross expression implied the answer was no. “We are going to help Heinrich,” Deborah announced.
More people splashed down as Deborah led Heinrich by the hand toward the fire.
“Oh, that’s right. We’re attempting the impossible,” David responded. “We’re reprogramming a Nazi.”
Heinrich didn’t know what the word ‘reprogramming’ meant. Deborah hadn’t covered that in their English lessons. But she had brought six members of her family and two other men to help her do it. Half of them, all men, wore the blue on blue striped uniform of concentration camp prisoners. Two of Deborah’s sisters were among the group; they wore simple dresses borrowed from the Gate because they too had died in the nude. The last two men wore mismatched trousers and shirts that looked like they belonged to different eras. Heinrich assumed this meant they too had borrowed clothes from The Gate.
It had been years since Heinrich was near this many people. He wanted to dismiss his own nervousness as social anxiety, but he knew it wasn’t that alone. Deborah wanted to change him into another kind of person. When they were alone, he would have changed however she asked. And the longer he knew her, the more he felt he needed a change. The person he was on earth contributed to her death, a fact that pained him if he acknowledged it. That person—the person who would do such a thing to a good person like her—had to go. His focus on her helped him see the error of his ways. But looking around at this group, they all looked Jewish. Of course the majority were related to Deborah and therefore Jewish. But the two strangers in their grey-on-grey striped uniforms both had the yellow double triangle on their lapels, the camp designation for a Jewish person. If they were all Jewish, Heinrich was forced to assume that Deborah felt Heinrich’s attitude toward the Jews was part of the problem.
She’d asked him about his opinion of the Jews often enough; he realized he should have seen this coming. But what did she hope to accomplish? Deborah Molinsky was a good person and should not have been murdered; Heinrich would readily admit that if asked. Her death was so offensive to him, and now that he knew there were still Nazis in Hell, he was inclined to seek her murderers out and destroy them. But she was just one woman among an overall corrupt community. Deborah was honest, but according to everything Heinrich held to be true, her fellow Jews were not. As an unmarried, 48-year-old woman with no children, Deborah lacked any tangible power, and therefore manipulation on a grand scale was impossible for her. But Heinrich knew the Jews and the Marxists had interfered with the Versailles Treaty. They had an unqualified capacity for falsehood. They were dangerous. Something needed to be done. Surely, Deborah, who was good but was only one person, could not counterbalance all the evil deeds her fellow Jews were responsible for.
The lessons of listening to Deborah describe her life and death were not lost on Heinrich. These thoughts entered into Heinrich’s and never left. He could see the brick arch that met all trains entering Auschwitz, partly because he’d visited there once while Otto was in charge, and partly because he recalled the image when Deborah described her arrival, just before her death. Heinrich knew the fact that the prisoners were forced to strip on arrival at Auschwitz. The image of Deborah being forced to do so in front of a string of male guards genuinely bothered him. The lie the guards told her, that they would have a shower and then there would be tea and cake, to get her into the room where she would be gassed to death, was a lie Heinrich offered to Otto over the phone as a means of crowd control. The fact that it was used on Deborah less than a month later sickened him. He could see Auschwitz in a way he hadn’t while alive in that he could see the place through her eyes. What more did she want him to see through her eyes? And what feelings of disgust or confusion might these images hold?
While in his reverie, Heinrich ignored the talking back and forth across the group, and Deborah’s repeated attempts to get everyone to quiet down. Finally, David clasped his hands together and announced it was time to begin. The group finally stopped talking.
“Let’s start with the author of our destruction,” David explained in German. Deborah translated for Misha, a fact that made Heinrich scowl. “Let’s talk about the Fuehrer.”
Everyone looked at Heinrich. Still not fully understanding how this might play out but wanting to look cooperative in front of Deborah and (his competition for her attention) Misha, Heinrich merely nodded.
“Good,” David continued. “We may as well begin with the Big Lie, an ironic name if ever there was one. For our friend the slave ship captain, I would like you to explain, Heinrich, the Big Lie.”
Explaining the betrayal of the German people in English was an enormous task. “The Big Lie,” Heinrich began, “is about…” Heinrich didn’t know the word manipulation, “when the great war is over. There is a treaty in Versailles. At this time we are, Germany is….”
The Jews were silent, save for David, who volunteered the word Heinrich couldn’t remember. “Betrayed.”
“Yes, thank you David. Germany is betrayed. The Marxists and the Jews they blame Ludendorff, but it is them. And Germany is…we have nothing because of this.”
“Wait,” Misha stopped him. “This all started because of a treaty?” He looked to the others for confirmation.
“It started before that,” David disagreed. “Before the Great War.”
“No, no,” Heinrich countered. There was no way the roots of this struggle began before that war caused darkness and pain to settle over Europe. Before the Great War there were flowers and happiness and puppies. “Before then it is good. After everything is bad.”
An older man, one of the ones in the blue on blue striped uniforms, interrupted. “The problems began before Versailles,” he told them in German. “We were hated long before then.”
Heinrich thought about the discussion he had with Deborah over his mama’s reaction to the Jewish woman down the street. “Not hated.”
“Hated,” the man countered. “In Poland—”
“Oh that’s Poland,” Heinrich dismissed. “They are like that. The Poles have to be shown how to behave.”
“It was true in Germany as well,” Deborah countered. Heinrich’s naturally argumentative attitude left him like a ghost confronted with a ray of light. “There were many neighborhoods in Berlin that I couldn’t enter. I wasn’t safe there. Some mornings we would wake up to find a stone on our rug and the front window broken. Our synagogue was defaced; someone tore the bushes out in the front and tore the Star of David off from over the door.”
The whole description made Heinrich uncomfortable. Again he was seeing these actions in Deborah’s vision; again it threw everything he knew out of whack.
“Hitler told you we were responsible for the fall of the Fatherland,” David continued.
“And the war,” Heinrich added.
“And the war, yes. I remember the posters of the big hand pointing down on the evil Jew,” David answered. “Does nothing about that strike you as odd?”
With ten pairs of eyes on him, Heinrich wanted to offer an intelligent answer. But he didn’t see the point of the question, making it harder to answer back. With no other options, he just shrugged.
“There were five other nations attending that treaty, all coming down on Germany,” Deborah explained in German and then in English for Misha. “Why would one group, who wasn’t even invited, be responsible for what happened?”
The sheer logic of the question left Heinrich spinning. The Jews were responsible; this was a fact repeated so often he was amazed there could be a counter argument.
“Wait,” Misha intervened, “all of this happened because of a single treaty? The nation that lost was humiliated and then blamed it on some ethnic group that happened to be in Europe at the time?”
The others agreed with Misha’s interpretation.
“But the nation that loses is always treated this way. That is the privilege of the victor. That is why you must win any war you engage in,” Misha laughed. “Do you know how I got half the Africans on my ship?”
No one knew: shrugs and shaking heads all around. “They were prisoners of an opposing tribe. They fought, they lost, and then their suppressor sold them to me,” Misha explained. “This is how war has played out for centuries. Heinrich, why would these little insignificant—”
“Excuse me,” David interrupted.
“Well honestly, the Jews are a bit backward. They’re still waiting for a messiah and pretending Jesus wasn’t him,” Misha declared in response. “As I was saying, why would these people be responsible for anything?”
“Oh good,” David groaned. “It’s time to talk about the vast bullshit Zionist conspiracy.”
“And I’m glad Misha is here,” Deborah added.
Misha straightened up, misinterpreting this as a compliment. “I’m glad to be here.”
It would appear Heinrich had an unexpected ally in the slave ship captain.
“No, no, no,” was the only counter Heinrich could come up with in the face of David’s logic.
“I’m telling you Heinrich, I met the man who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He said he meant it as this theory of what could happen if the Jews really put themselves toward world domination, not an actual plan that was already in motion.”
“If this is true,” Heinrich argued, “why is it so important to so many people? Why would the Fuehrer use it?”
“Because it suited what he already wanted to do,” Deborah explained.
Heinrich wished the argument would remain between himself and the men, principally David. Every time Deborah spoke, it threw his logic for a spin.
“Hitler talked about the Big Lie,” Deborah elaborated, “That if you tell a lie big enough and repeat it often enough then people will believe it. He was right about that. Except the lie in question was not that Germany was responsible for what happened to them after the Great War but that one group, no matter how powerless they seemed, could control the world.”
“But this has been going on for centuries.” Misha’s counter argument against Deborah’s statement barely rose above a whisper. It seemed he too hated to argue with her. “You can’t argue that the Jews were powerless if they killed Jesus.”
Deborah, David, their family members and the two guests all groaned. Arguing Christian scripture was outside of their expertise and a useless exercise.
For once Heinrich had a meaningful response to offer. The one book he had read was the Bible. Being raised Lutheran, he firmly believed he could understand and interpret it without interference from a priest or without a formal education above the age of 14. And every sad apartment or farm he and his mother stayed in or at had a Bible. In fact, it was the only book they all had. One of the only constants in his wayward and surprisingly churchless boyhood was his access to the cornerstone Christian scripture.
“The Jews don’t kill Jesus,” Heinrich explained in English. “It is Pontius Pilot. He orders the…um….”
Heinrich did a pantomime of being hung by one’s hands from something.
“The crucifixion?” Misha clarified. Heinrich nodded.
“But the Jewish priests were really responsible,” Misha argued.
“Why?” Heinrich asked. “They do not order it. Bible does not say this.”
“But that’s the interpretation,” Misha answered. “The priests handed him over to Pilot because they knew Pilot would execute him.”
“Why they don’t execute him?” Heinrich crossed the line between legitimate argument and open defiance.
“They had no law that allowed executions,” Misha explained, his patience clearly wearing thin.
“They have law. They want to do a thing. They make new law. We make law in Germany to kill Jews. Why the priests don’t make law to kill Jesus?”
“Because they are sneaky,” Misha whispered mostly to Heinrich. “That’s what everyone says. That’s what the scholars say when they interpret that passage in the bible.”
“It is not what God says.” Heinrich threw up his hands. “Why do you need the scholars to tell you something that is not there? If is so true, then why God not say?”
That one stumped Misha.
Five hours later, they were still arguing the possibility of a single group dominating the world.
“Look at the Catholic church,” Misha offered. “They dominate everything. In America we have to fight against their interference constantly.”
“The Catholic church is not all powerful,” Heinrich answered in German. He found this was his best bet for offering an intelligent answer. As Deborah finished the translation, Heinrich continued. “If the Catholic Church is so powerful, why are there Lutherans?”
Misha laughed at the idea. “And Baptists I suppose.” He shrugged.
“Heinrich,” David intervened, “do you think you are unique?”
“Yes, I am especially rude and blunt and defiant,” was the answer.
“So in the whole world, there is only one person who is rude and blunt and defiant?” David asked.
“Well,” Heinrich grimaced, “the whole world? There must be others, if you put it that way.”
“If we acknowledge that there are defiant individuals, how does one group take over everything?” When Heinrich didn’t offer a response, David continued. “The world can’t agree on anything. Even the Nazis must have argued.”
Heinrich let out a stunned snort. “Of course.”
“I’m amazed humanity gets anything done. We are all spinning off in a thousand directions. Even at Synagogue, I promise you, the arguing can go on for days. So how would a single group get themselves together enough to reach out into everything? And avoid the eyes of the defiant individuals like yourself? And carry this out while facing open, occasionally violent, retribution from the larger communities they live in? And use this power for domination and not meaningful self-preservation?”
Heinrich had no immediate answer, but David waited. Every counter argument Heinrich could think of had already been countered. The idea that one group would enact a worldwide conspiracy became more and more like a fairytale.
After giving Heinrich time to think, David finally offered the most important counter argument of the day.
“How convenient is it when we can blame all our problems on someone else? Because if it is someone else causing our unhappiness then we eliminate them and we are happy again. But the truth is rarely that simple.”
“You were unhappy at Dachau,” Deborah added. “Who was responsible for that?”
Heinrich sighed. “My time at the camp covers six years of my life. A great many things happened in that time. My superiors are responsible for why I was stuck there long after the job held any meaning for me. But I was there in the beginning because I wanted to be. And then I was there because I needed to be. I had to….” Heinrich almost admitted hiding his mother’s disability from the other Nazis and then thought better of it. “I had reasons it made sense. And my wife wanted to be away from Berlin and I agreed. That limited our options of where to go next.” He paused to think for a moment and then added. “It was complicated. There were several reasons I was there.”
“Was all your pain and unhappiness caused by one person?” Deborah asked.
“Of course not,” Heinrich answered.
“We can’t blame all our problems on others,” Deborah concluded. “It’s childish, too simple, and will never get us to the root of any problem.”
“He can’t have lied about everything,” Heinrich reasoned.
They’d returned to Hitler and argued about him for over a day.
“He was a master manipulator,” David argued. “I have this theory that people tell you who they are in their insults of others. They see in others something of themselves and then point it out to anyone who will listen to keep attention off them or to claim their version is moderate and that person’s is extreme.
“For myself, I tend to look at others and think they are know-it-alls. And I think they think they are insightful but are clearly just guessing,” David further explained.
Deborah laughed at David’s moment of self-awareness.
“I do tend to meet people,” Deborah offered, “who seem pushy and interfering.”
“Are you calling yourself pushy and interfering?” Heinrich answered back. “Because that’s not true. You help people. You helped me and Misha.”
“We know, Heinrich, you worship my sister,” David joked. “But what do you see in others? Not her, but people you react against.”
After translation, Misha asked in English, “What did you think upon meeting me?”
“I think you are clinging to Deborah and you have no right,” Heinrich admitted, and then he watched for a reaction from his competition for Deborah’s affection.
Misha shrugged. “That’s what I thought.”
“Your worshipfulness of my sister becomes the thing you accuse Misha of doing,” David reasoned. “Also, you clearly have a weird thing with women.”
“It’s not a weird thing,” Deborah interrupted.
“Women are better people. Not all of them,” Heinrich granted, “but Deborah is a superior human being.”
“I actually agree with both statements.” Misha crossed his arms and leaned back, having made his point.
“So strange,” David groaned.
“It’s not strange,” Deborah countered. “Misha and Heinrich were both close to female relatives growing up. Heinrich was close to his mother. Misha was raised by an older sister. Both of them were close, if admittedly intense, with their female lovers: in Heinrich’s case his wife and in Misha’s a female slave. As a result, they listen to me and treat me with respect.”
“They revere you,” David answered with a slight sneer.
“We respect her,” Heinrich interrupted. “Because she is deserving of respect.”
“That respect is what brings us here,” Deborah added. “My hope is that we can expand that respect to include the rest of humanity.”
“All of humanity!” Heinrich demanded, shocked.
At this point Deborah spent twenty minutes explaining in detail how Misha and Heinrich were both her super special little snowflakes who should not listen to David on the subject of women because David was, on this topic especially, a massive pain in the ass.
“We’ve wandered off my original point,” David interjected. “Which was, when I look at Hitler, at the lies he told and the accusations he made against my people, I think he is telling us who he really is. Even The Big Lie was something he claimed was being done to the German people by someone else—not a thing he was doing to the German people. He claimed the Jews were manipulative and untrustworthy and that we wanted war. I don’t see that at all. We took no action that prompted him to take over Austria. The excuses for taking Poland were flimsy at best. He was the one bent on world domination. Not the Jews.”
Heinrich took a minute to think about what David had said. Back when he was recruited for the army at the age of 22, the size of Germany’s army was limited by the Versailles treaty. The commandant who recruited him from the farm he’d been hired to work on explained this. If they could only have 100,000 men, then obviously they wanted the biggest and the strongest. Since Heinrich was 6’4 and built like a brick wall, he had a guaranteed career that many men in his generation would not have. During his first seven years, rising in the ranks, he saw proof of how few men the German army held and how few vehicles and arms they possessed. But in the last two years, from 1933-1935, he watched as the army abruptly began to grow. Suddenly there were new tanks and new rifles everywhere. Otto shared an assumption with Heinrich at that time that the new Fuhrer found a way around the Versailles Treaty. Heinrich trusted Otto’s instincts and assumed he would soon hear about the new political situation that allowed Germany to finally arm itself again. Then he was recruited for the SS and promptly forgot about the army’s sudden growth. It wasn’t until David mentioned Hitler’s clear war causing actions that Heinrich put it together.
“He prepared us,” Heinrich whispered, shocked. “I thought he had found a loophole to expand the Army but maybe he didn’t. He just expanded the army and armed it because he wanted to go to war.”
“That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said in the last two days,” David responded, relaxing back.
“Dear God, what did that man do to us?” Heinrich wondered aloud.