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.
FOR HEINRICH IT WOULD SEEM as though they were done. David and Deborah convinced him that Hitler was full of lies and the ideology he’d allied himself with was equally corrupt. Now he could accept that the vast Jewish conspiracy was nonsense presented by anti-Semites with their own agendas. And while he’d always listened to Deborah, Heinrich found himself more and more willing to listen to David and Misha, even if he immediately disagreed, because he wanted to hear their side of things. He wanted their opinions. So why weren’t they done? It would take another month of arguing before they would achieve Deborah’s final goal.
This long second wave began with stories from each of the family members and friends Deborah and David brought with them from the Gate. Each story was horrifying on its own. Taken together they painted a picture of the camp system as Heinrich chose not to see it. But he saw that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, so he didn’t understand why they needed to cover each death in as much detail as the victim could stand.
During the last story, Misha abruptly changed seats to a stone on Heinrich’s right. Once seated, he was opposite the rest of the group. Heinrich found the change odd but comforting. Everyone else in that circle lay crimes at his feet that he held no personal responsibility for. With little understanding of why he needed to hear these things, it began to feel like an attack. Misha’s move to his side offered a small comfort. It was as though this man who he knew so little was empathizing with the overwhelming emotions coursing through him.
Once the stories finally ended, Misha whispered to him, “This was the hardest part for me.”
Heinrich still didn’t understand but nodded in a way that he hoped conveyed his gratitude for Misha’s gesture.
“Heinrich,” Deborah began, “we need to talk about your crimes.”
“We’ve talked about my crimes from the beginning.” Heinrich’s voice rose in response to Deborah for the first time. “I was a fool to follow Hitler. I was an anti-Semite and a conspiracy believer. For these things, I am sorry.”
Deborah looked him over. Her expression read as disappointed but determined at the same time.
“There is more to what happened in Germany than merely the anti-Semite problem. I’m worried your empathy is broken and has been for a long time.”
It took Heinrich a moment to grasp the accusation. Empathy was a concept he attributed to the sentimental and emotional souls around him. Those people, always, had easy lives. It was why they were able to sit around and worry about the emotions of others. Heinrich was a survivor and a warrior to his core. He had no room for such ideas. And he didn’t understand how Deborah could go through what she’d been through and not come out the same way.
“You want to take away from me the part of me that protects me—that helped me protect my mother. It is my strength you attack now. And it is too much a part of who I am to give it up,” he answered.
Heinrich looked to David and was surprised to see discomfort on his face. “David?” Heinrich inquired.
“This is Deborah’s area,” David explained, shaking his head. “It’s hard to have empathy for….” He sighed. “She expects us to have this empathy for everyone.” His tone implied how incredulous he found the idea.
“We can, David. And we must if we are to rise above what is done to us and what we do to others,” Deborah explained in a pointed tone.
Returning her attention to Heinrich, Deborah didn’t see David’s continued head shaking behind her. “Heinrich, we need to talk about the things you did at Dachau.”
“No.” It was the first time he’d spoken that word to Deborah, but it came out like a slap. “I’m sorry. It’s not…..” He looked to Misha. The man responsible for the destruction and enslavement of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, had his head bowed. It would appear this part of the conversation was hard for him as well.
“Each and every human being,” Deborah began, “has a right to live. And you have no right, only God has the right, to take that away.”
“Dachau contained criminals.” Every word arguing against Deborah hurt him. But Heinrich felt he had no choice. “Yes, there were false crimes that no one deserves to be imprisoned for and perhaps they were the majority. But there were murderers in those barracks as well—thieves and rapists too. You cannot possibly defend them. You cannot tell me that they deserved to roam free and risk the people around them.”
“I would not argue that a murderer or a rapist should roam free,” Deborah countered. “Only that they still deserve to be treated with compassion.”
Sitting there mute felt like the only option. Heinrich found he could not look at Deborah. In his opinion, her kindness was the most beautiful thing about her. But in this moment he felt like it had gone too far. This idea, that all of humanity should be treated with her brand of kindness, seemed insane. Suddenly her kindness seemed foolish and dangerous.
It was David who found the courage to question Deborah’s logic. “There is such a thing as justice. The murderers, who showed their victims no compassion, have proved they don’t deserve it from society.”
“They still do,” Deborah argued. “Because they are human beings.”
“The story that Hannah tells us,” Heinrich began, “proves what David and I are trying to say.”
Hannah had, before being having her head shaved and being coaxed into the gas chamber, been raped by several SS guards at Auschwitz.
“This is why I didn’t want female prisoners at Dachau,” Heinrich explained. “I fought it and lost. Finally, I told them if I have female prisoners, I need female guards. Because the presence of female prisoners attracts these men—these worthless scum. And I knew what I would do to them if I was forced to work with them.”
“Nonsense,” Hannah groaned. “You can’t tell me you would harm one of your guards.”
David laughed. “He did. I saw him shoot a guard in the head.”
“He was a pervert,” Heinrich nodded. “He sodomized a male prisoner—disgusting.”
“We thought you did it out of compassion,” David explained, speaking for the other prisoners of Dachau. “That you were sparing him the grey uniform and slow starvation.”
“No,” Heinrich shouted. “I shot him in front of the other guards. They needed to see what happens to disgusting men who do disgusting things.”
“You cannot possibly argue that evil doesn’t exist.” David raised his voice to his sister. “That evil people don’t roam the earth, threatening us all. They have to be dealt with and managed.”
“They have to be destroyed?” Deborah countered. “That’s what you are really saying. It’s better if you just admit it.”
“Society would function better,” Heinrich offered, mostly to David as addressing the brother helped him feel bolder, “if we took these people out.”
“Fine then, who decides?” she demanded. “And how do we avoid letting someone like Hitler get into power and expand that definition to anyone inconvenient?”
“It is possible,” Heinrich groaned. “Maybe it is too perfect to ever exist, but I think we have to aim for that.”
“That’s your utopia, is it?” Deborah demanded. Her words left him feeling sick. “The paradise you seek to create on earth eliminates evil people automatically.”
“They influence others,” David argued. “Look at our friend Heinrich.”
Heinrich let out a small gasp at David calling him ‘friend.’ David didn’t notice. “What would his life have been like without the influence of evil people?”
“But someone else would define Heinrich as evil,” Hannah interrupted. “I might have a few years ago, before I knew how close he was to Deborah. Now talking to him, I wouldn’t see him that way. Part of me still thinks I should see him as evil because he literally murdered my brother. But knowing that he would never have let those guards touch me changes things. It forces me to think about him as an individual. It’s harder to dismiss him.”
“That’s it, Hannah, that’s exactly what I want to say. How easy is it to do anything to someone once you define them as evil? And who do we give that power? Who do we trust with the power to create the definition?”
“God made this definition for us.” David sounded exasperated. “It is in scripture.”
“Which is open for interpretation,” Misha added, as soon as Deborah finished translation.
“And is interpreted by Rabbis who are human and flawed,” Hannah finished.
“I don’t see your point,” Heinrich begged to Deborah. “I want to, I promise I do. But how can you say a thing like murder or—”
“No,” Deborah interrupted, “this is important. I don’t claim there are not evil acts. I’m arguing we must separate evil acts from the people who perform them. It is one thing to say that your murder of David was evil. It is an evil act. But I do not think it makes you evil. Because thinking so creates a separation from you and the rest of humanity. An evil act is not justified because you decree the victim to be evil. It remains an evil act. Understanding that, Heinrich, is the only way to understand your own actions.”
Heinrich began to understand but still disagreed. “You know I hate myself. I think you encouraged it. I should hate myself. After meeting David and Hannah and talking with them, how can I not? Making me understand how horrible the things I’ve done were for my victims only makes that worse. I think I might be evil. Or at least I am disgusting at my core. There is something severely wrong with me.”
Deborah stopped his speech by reaching to grasp his hand. “I have never thought of you as evil. I never wanted you to hate yourself, but I knew you might. I’ve only wanted to bring you back from the dark place you’ve gone.”
Their hands clasped over Misha’s lap. For his part, Misha looked mournful. He’d already been to this mental place. His role at the moment was to offer the only experience comparable to Heinrich’s.
Thus he began a speech that had appeared in his mind since he met Deborah, but in pieces. Misha covered the things he’d done from acquiring slaves in West Africa, loading them nearly on top of one another into the ship’s cargo hold, to selling them like animals at Market in America, plus dozens of cruel, brutal acts along the way.
“I see now, that each of those souls is on me. I think that’s why I’m in Hell. Because of each of those people I enslaved, beat, dehumanized, humiliated and murdered. That was my crime. Those are my evil acts,” Misha concluded.
“But….” David, it would appear, still had some argument left unresolved. “One of those Africans might have been the Hitler of his homeland. In that case, wouldn’t you have done the world a favor?”
“And if one of them had the cure for cancer in their head, what then? Do they deserve to be treated humanely then?” Hannah argued.
“I think,” Deborah surmised, “that is what you destroy when you kill a human being. Yes, they may have all been murderers or they may have had insight the world desperately needs because each of us is capable of both extremes even if most of us never reach either potential. When you kill a human being, you destroy infinite potential.
“Misha and Heinrich have done things that should earn them a branding as evil for the remainder of their existence. But what good would that do us? They would still be here. And we have to commit an evil act to change that. Perhaps, instead of branding, we should deal with them as they didn’t with their victims. Perhaps we should deal with them as human beings.”
In the end, Heinrich admitted to the group why he’d been at Dachau. They met his story of his mother’s stroke with polite concern.
Afterward, he wanted to apologize again.
“I know it is small compared to what you’ve been through. I’m sorry I burdened you with this—”
“Heinrich, I came down here because I was curious about you,” David interrupted. “It may not be the most dramatic story of the era, but I understand why you were so protective of you mother.”
“I think you were right,” Hannah added with a shrug. “Those people you call your friends would have killed her. You were right to hide her.”
This small gesture on their part meant the world to Heinrich.
The long process left Heinrich exhausted in a new way. His mind was full of images he’d once wanted nothing to do with: the images of crimes he’d committed. Mixed in with them were the images of Deborah, Hannah and the other victims at Auschwitz who died under Otto’s reign. His brutal teachings reached to crimes committed by others as well. He could no longer deny that.
Before the long reprogramming session, Heinrich was a changed man. Knowing Deborah transformed him, or so he thought. In reality, knowing Deborah had opened him up. Her humanity remained intact after a brutal death and fearless afterlife. It was the humanity in her that she hoped to spread, along with her particular brand of compassion.
Once it was all done and the others returned to the Gate, Heinrich spent a week talking things over with Deborah and Misha. The problem with knowing his crimes, was that Heinrich could do little about it. He’d apologized to David in person. David accepted without hesitation, saying simply, “The man who shot me isn’t here anymore.” And it was true. But the knowledge of how purposeless and dangerous his life had been made Heinrich all the more restless about the purposelessness of his afterlife.
“That is the question, isn’t it?” Misha responded to Heinrich’s explanation of this feeling. “We’ve thrown our humanity away with both hands, you and I. Is it possible for us to regain it? And if so, how?”
“I think you can do so by helping others,” Deborah offered.
Misha groaned, a rare sign of annoyance at Deborah. “Misha doesn’t like my new experiment,” Deborah explained.
“It’s terribly dangerous,” Misha pleaded to Heinrich. Undeterred, Deborah straightened up to present the thing she wanted the three of them to do next. “I’ve been visiting the camp.”
“No.” For once Heinrich was unrepentant about disagreeing with Deborah.
“Now, now, hear me out. I’ve been talking to the guards.”
“No,” Heinrich reiterated.
“I think I’m getting through to some of them.” She smiled, still determined.
“No,” Heinrich remained firm. “I hate this idea.”
Misha leaned in conspiratorially to Heinrich. “She’s been run off by them too. They know what she’s up to and are not happy about it. They’ve threatened her.”
“Of course they’re offering a counter-attack. That means it is working,” Deborah announced.
Feeling the need to reach his presumably mentally ill friend, Heinrich clasped Deborah’s hands in his. “You know you are very important. To more than just me or Misha. If something happened to you, I would throw myself into the Pit and let them destroy me.”
“Heinrich, you’ve crossed a line,” Deborah declared. David’s accusation that Heinrich was weird about his sister was not completely without merit. Occasionally, she had to slap him back when he overstepped the line between affection and obsession. Long visits seemed to bring this out. Also any suggestion of sex.
Heinrich let her hands go and sat back, chastised. “You are not to destroy yourself if something happens to me.” Deborah had explained this before. “You know more people in the afterlife who want you around. And now you have each other. But this is part of why I want you to accompany me to the Camp. I believe Otto is still there.
“The way you described him to me…. I’m having trouble understanding him,” Deborah concluded.
Heinrich described Otto as open and friendly, even occasionally considerate. As Deborah explained not understanding him, Heinrich was inclined to disagree. Then he thought better of it. In light of his new perspective, he saw why Otto was odd. How had such a seemingly good man allied himself with something as brutal and destructive as the National Socialist Party?
“We could reach him,” Heinrich whispered to himself.
“I’ve only ever seen guards,” Misha groaned. “Deborah tried to point out the higher ups through the fence but they are never in shouting distance.”
“It’s true,” Deborah granted. “We are going to the Camp to help the guards—some of whom are your guards, Heinrich. I think we can help them see the world differently.”
It was pushy and interfering. But Heinrich was a particularly brutal man in life. He’d never met another commandant or guard commander who’d shot one of his own guards in front of the others. The necessary assassinations of other Nazis were usually handled in private. To his right sat one of the only true equals Heinrich had ever met. The description Misha had offered included dumping slaves overboard to lighten the cargo weight and make the ship move faster. Heinrich couldn’t imagine dumping a hundred human beings into the ocean, still chained at the ankles. Even a Nazi thought that was going a bit too far. And yet Misha came around. Misha now regretted his actions and saw them as the crimes they were. If Deborah could bring these two men around, who else could she reach?
It wasn’t that Heinrich thought he himself could reach any of the guards. He agreed to go with Deborah because he accepted the possibility that she could expand her work with his and Misha’s help. If Deborah could influence more of Hell, Hell could become more bearable.