Julia Martin, newly-divorced but still reeling from her husband’s infidelity, takes a much needed vacation to visit old college friends in Germany. While touring a little-known concentration camp and museum, she spontaneously experiences a violent past life memory of being murdered in this very camp during the Holocaust. Efforts to understand her memories only lead to more questions, the largest being: is her killer still alive? Supported by her friends and comforted in the arms of a handsome doctor, Julia attempts to uncover the mysteries of her past life and find justice for the person she used to be.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A friend of mine told me had toured a concentration camp in Germany and had seen a vision of people hanging. That idea rolled around in my brain for many months before I began to shape it into a story.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The characters always seem to evolve gradually over writing the book. When I begin, they have a spare structure, but as the story gains momentum, they become more solid and fleshed out. I rarely base characters on people I know; they must match the story.
The bucolic German countryside breezed by, wandering sheep and a few lazy cows in direct contrast to the racing bike Julia propelled over the dirt lane. Her blonde hair flying in the late July breeze, she couldn’t get over how clear the air was here, how sharp everything looked. It was as if she’d been living under water all her life and now suddenly she’d been thrust up out of the bleary depths into startling clarity. She couldn’t seem to get enough of it.
“Jules,” her friend Maggie laughed from her own bike, “you’d better watch the road. This isn’t Venice Beach. If you hit a rock or a pothole while you’re gawking around, you’ll go flying.”
Chagrinned, Julia dragged her green eyes from the thickly forested hillsides and the rolling pastures. “I can see why you love it here,” she said. “It really is gorgeous. I thought you were nuts when you said you and Denis were moving here.”
“Well, if you’ll remember, I wasn’t completely crazy about the idea at first, but I have certainly come to love it,” Maggie said. “Like any born and bred Californian, I thought this was the back of beyond, but after a while I realized I enjoyed the peace and quiet, the lack of malls and freeways. It really is almost a fairy-tale existence.”
“Complete with Prince Charming,” Julia noted. “I think you’d be happy living on a pig farm if you had Denis there with you.”
“Well,” Maggie allowed cheerfully, “that helps.”
Julia fell silent, her friend’s quiet happiness in sharp relief against her own new emptiness. It still pained her to remember that gaping hole in her life where her own husband used to be. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the loss of him or the fact that he had wandered so blithely, hardly even considering what his infidelity would do to her. She supposed that lack of consideration had actually underscored their entire married life, but she’d never been forced to arm wrestle with it until he confessed to the affair. Why hadn’t she seen it coming? Try as she might, she could not see the signs, even in the rear-view mirror. Had she been too naïve? Had he been too smooth?
“I’m so sorry,” Maggie said softly. Julia looked over to see the concern in her friend’s blue eyes and realized she’d sunken into the now familiar silent reverie that seemed to occupy her every day.
“Shit, Mags, I’m the one who’s sorry,” she said forcefully. “Why my brain insists on climbing back onto that hamster wheel and rehashing the whole thing over and over again, I’ll never know. I go over the same ground every time and it never changes, it never resolves, it never reduces down to an equation I can understand, accept and walk away from. I just keep going through it again and again.”
“It’s only been a few months,” Maggie reminded her gently. “You don’t undo eight years of life in six months.”
“I know,” she sighed. “But you know what the worst part is? I feel like I don’t know what’s real anymore, what’s true. Hell, I thought we had a pretty good thing going, better than most. I mean, sure, there were days we weren’t on the same page, things we disagreed on, but all in all I thought we were pretty happy. To find out it wasn’t that way at all … well, it just makes me wonder what else I’m not seeing clearly. I don’t trust my own judgment anymore. I see things one way and then wonder if they’re actually different.” She shook her head. “It really rocked me, a lot more than I would have believed.”
“I guess,” Maggie said slowly, “when you put it like that, it would be normal to start questioning everything, but I hope you’re not being too hard on yourself. You’re one of the most down-to-earth people I know, Jules. You’ve never been flaky, never been an airhead, so I don’t think it’s fair to start rethinking everything you’ve ever believed. You never expected Jack to stray, so you weren’t looking for it. He did the unexpected. That doesn’t invalidate everything you know.”
Julia nodded, not completely convinced. “I guess.” She sighed. “But I just hate sliding into that zone, obsessing about it at the drop of a hat. And I don’t want you to feel like your happy marriage makes it worse for me. It doesn’t. I love seeing you and Denis together. You guys are great. You two let me know that honest, respectful relationships really do exist. And the way Denis is with Marita-he’s definitely a keeper.”
“That he is,” Maggie agreed happily, nodding her dark head. “His offering to keep her today while we go exploring is pretty normal for him. He’s such a good dad, and Marita just adores him. Sometimes I feel a little pang over how close they are, but in a few months I’ll have my hands full with the baby, so I don’t think I’ll have any room to complain.”
“I don’t think so, either,” Julia said, and her meaning was unmistakable.
Both women had entered USC with no more ulterior motive than to get the education they needed to have the careers they envisioned, Maggie in medicine and Julia in teaching. The fact that each had found and married a compatible partner deterred neither from her course, and for a while it seemed they had it allsatisfying career and nurturing home and family. When Julia’s marriage fell apart, the rock-hard foundations of her life had dissolved suddenly into quicksand.
“At least,” she said, voicing the thought Maggie had kept silent, “we didn’t have any kids. I can thank God that Jack wanted to wait on that.”
“Absolutely,” Maggie agreed. “It would be so much harder to start over with small kids, plus you’d be tied to Jack forever through them. This way it’s pretty much a clean break.”
“I made sure it was,” Julia nodded. “I even traded my stake in his pension for his half of the house. I didn’t want anything tying us together, least of all money. This way we can go our separate ways and not look back.”
“Well, it’s great that you took the summer off to come over here. I think it’ll be a wonderful interim for you, a time when you can relax and just enjoy yourself and recharge your batteries. At the end of the summer it’ll be time to switch gears again, but by then you’ll probably be frothing at the mouth to get back to work.”
“I’ve wanted to see your place ever since you moved here, but there just never seemed a convenient time to do it,” Julia said. “Now that I’m here, I wish I had come years ago.”
“We’ll do our best to make it worth the wait,” Maggie laughed. “When we get to town, I’ll show you our clinic and we’ll eat lunch at a tiny little café and buy fresh-baked bread and do all those European-”
“What’s that?” Julia interrupted. She pointed to a collection of small white bungalows in a clearing amid the trees. A neat white fence bordered the property, speaking of care. A small parking lot had one car in it. “Couldn’t be a school out here, could it?” Her teacher’s curiosity sparked to attention.
“No, it’s a museum,” Maggie said. “This was a work camp during World War II. I’ve actually only been there once, and that was years ago.”
“Work camp?” Julia repeated suspiciously. “Does that mean …?”
“Concentration camp?” Maggie finished. “Yes, unfortunately. It wasn’t a big one and didn’t have the ovens or anything like that, but over a thousand Jews died there, as well as others, mostly from starvation and exposure. There’re several mass graves in the back. It’s very tragic, of course, but they do a nice job of honoring the victims. We can stop there sometime, if you want.”
“Can we stop now?” Julia surprised even herself with the hasty request.
“Now?” Maggie repeated. “Well, sure, if you want to. We’ve got no schedule today; we can do whatever we want.”
“Yeah, let’s stop,” Julia said. In her new unattached state, yielding to the sudden pull of the place seemed a small celebration amid the pain. Maybe she really had gotten kind of pedantic without realizing it. How long had it been since she’d done something so impulsive?
The two women steered their bikes onto the car-wide lane that snaked through the trees. The morning sun slanted intermittently through the trees, its yellow rays alive with dust motes and tiny insects. A slight breeze barely fluttered the leaves around them. The setting was so peaceful, Julia thought, how could anyone envision a death camp here?
They parked their bikes in a rack in front of the main building, the small sign reading only Fleischerhaus. Julia had to wonder if it were the kind of thing where everyone knew the story so no explanation was necessary, or if it were a subtle sense of shame that precluded any larger advertising. Any monument to victims that died here had also to be a monument to the native Germans who lived nearby and turned a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities. She couldn’t imagine anyone coming through that war unscathed, no matter how hard they may have tried to go about normal lives. In a conflict like that, there was just no room for neutrality.
“The fences are all gone, of course, but they’ve set markers in the ground where they used to be,” Maggie explained as they walked past the flowerbeds toward the front door. “All of these bungalows are the originals, just restored.”
Julia nodded, but thought restored might not be the right word. She doubted that this place ever looked as homey as it did now. Certainly the startling white paint and the multi-colored flowerbeds were never a part of the original experience.
“What does Fleischerhaus mean?” she asked. “I think haus is house, right?”
“Yes. Fleischer means butcher.”
“So, butcher’s house.” Julia shivered. “Ug.”
They went inside. A docent behind a desk welcomed them and spoke with Maggie. Julia noticed a collection box and slipped a couple Euros into the slot. The walls were covered with black and white photos as well as racks of books about the war.
“She said there’s a self-guided tour,” Maggie said as she joined Julia at the bank of pictures. “I’ve got a guide brochure here. There are four other buildings beside this one.”
“Look at the children,” Julia noted, pointing to a picture of school-age children working an unpromising plot of ground. Sadly she realized these kids were the same age as her students back home.
“Yes,” Maggie said, “unfortunately whole families were brought here. I believe the youngest to die here was a child of two.”
“Were they all Jews?” Julia asked.
“Primarily. There was a scattering of other ‘undesirables:’ homosexuals, political prisoners, other non-Germans. I suppose the good news is that this area has always been composed of small villages, so there was never a large population of any particular group. I think that alone kept this operation small.”
Scanning the photos along the wall, Julia was dismayed at the expressions on the faces. She saw the fire of defiance, anger and hatred, the pain of hopelessness and despair, the shuttered look of resignation. Somehow that blank stare was the worst. To her, it looked like those who had abandoned all feeling were dead already. But in what ocean of pain and degradation had they swum before they slipped beneath the surface? How much had they endured before they shut down so completely?
“Let’s go outside,” she said, wondering now whatever possessed her to want to come in. She hadn’t been prepared to see faces, or for the onslaught of emotions that tore at her.
Leading the way out the back door, she stepped down the two stairs onto a concrete path. The path led around the perimeter of the grounds and branched to the other buildings as well. Needing the open space and the fresh air, Julia turned right along the perimeter.
“Boy, it felt so heavy in there,” she told Maggie. “The emotions are just overwhelming.”
“I know,” Maggie agreed. “It’s such a horrible thing that you don’t even want to be reminded, you don’t want to hear about it or think about it, but it’s exactly because it’s so awful that we have to remind ourselves. We have to keep it fresh so it never happens again.”
“Amen,” Julia murmured.
“Here’s that garden area that was in the picture,” Maggie said as they neared a marker. Scanning the brochure, she said, “They mostly raised potatoes, but some other vegetables as well. When the people got so emaciated that they couldn’t work, the gardening stopped.”
Julia scanned the ordinary plot of dirt, imagining stick-thin people scrounging in the earth for shriveled potatoes. Immense sadness settled around her.
“How long was this place in operation?” she asked. Standing at the corner of the grounds looking back at the bungalows, she realized the quaint, unremarkable collection of buildings could never align in her head with the atrocities that must have happened here. The peaceful image before her and the sense of the destruction would always be at odds with each other.
“Four years. Long enough for hundreds to die.”
Julia nodded. They walked the perimeter to the back of the property where markers denoted mass graves. Physically there was nothing to delineate the graves except the slight rise of the ground. Lush grass covered the area, dotted with small summer flowers that grew wild. This should be a picnic area, she thought when she looked at the cool grass and the tiny flowers nodding in the breeze, but her mind imagined a picnic table set over a pit stuffed with wailing, suffocating people. She shivered and walked on.
“This next building had been the officers’ quarters,” Maggie read. “The one dormitory that’s been restored is that last building before we turn back to the visitor’s center.”
The officers’ quarters could have been any military “home.” Austere but comfortable, it had several bedrooms, a large kitchen, a genial front room. The large front windows had heavy, dark drapes that could be drawn against the sight of the emaciated prisoners on the grounds. Was it really that easy to block out? Julia wondered.
“I guess the ‘lucky’ ones, if you could call them that, were the ones who were recruited to take care of the officers,” Maggie paraphrased from the guidebook.
Julia shook her head. “The truly lucky ones were the ones who were killed outright,” she said. She could envision a bold young man trying to escape one of the periodic round-ups, imagine him breaking away and running. The cowed others would see him summarily shot and they would go docilely wherever they were herded, thinking they were better off than the man lying dead in the street. Of course they wouldn’t know they were wrong until it was too late.
Leaving the officers’ quarters, Julia found herself not caring to touch anything, as if the horrific machinery of the past were somehow imbued with an evil that could transfer to her through touch. As before, she felt much better stepping out into the sunlight again.
A smaller building sat behind the officers’ quarters. There was no sign on it, but Julia felt a morbid curiosity about it. “What’s that?” she asked Maggie.
Maggie scanned the guidebook. “Storage building,” she said. “The dormitory is over this way.” She indicated the path that would lead them to the last large building and then return them to the front of the property.
“I want to see this first,” Julia said, and headed for the storage building.
She felt a peculiar prickling sensation in her head. A headache? She didn’t think so. The sensation itself was not unpleasant, just … unusual. She couldn’t remember ever feeling anything quite like it. She walked to the door of the storage building and reached for the doorknob, then found herself immediately, uncontrollably, shrinking back.
Get a grip, she thought. How much misery can be stamped on a storage building? But she seemed powerless to open the door.
“Jules?” Maggie queried from behind her.
Willing herself through the curtain of dread that seemed to keep her stationary, she swallowed and reached for the door. The knob turned easily in her handnot with difficulty, as with a rusting mechanism as she had expectedand the door swung open. There was no odor, although she expected one: the musty, powdery smell of bulk flour or grain, the earthy smell of raw potatoes. After the brightness of outdoors, the windowless building was dark but she forced herself to step up into the dimness and let her eyes adjust.
The room was distinctly unremarkable. Blank white walls held a few pictures of prisoners in a food line, holding dirty, dented metal plates, each being served a single smallish potato in a thin gruel. A small table nearby held one of those plates. A desk in the opposite corner was empty except for a roster of supplies under glass. Rough burlap sacks were stacked against one wall, but when Julia peeked into the loose opening of one, she saw it held only rocks.
The prickling sensation in Julia’s head intensified. Her vision began to swim slightly, as if her eyes were crossing and she could not get them to line up correctly. Instead of the clean white walls, she saw dingy raw wood and signs tacked up with flat metal thumbtacks. The paper signs seemed to flutter as if a breeze disturbed them, and the blurry picture revolved slowly around and beyond her sight of the actual room before her. She felt her stomach turn over, as if the moving images were making her nauseous. A heavy dread descended on her and she wiped damp palms on her thighs.
“Nothing much here,” Maggie said behind her.
But there was, Julia realized. There was a door behind the desk. A door … to another room. Clamping her jaws tight against the sickness that threatened to well up in her throat, she crossed to the door and put her hand on the knob. Every nerve in her body screamed out against opening it, but she fought through the intense panic and turned the knob. The door swung open to another, smaller room, as she had known it would.
Her eyes jumped about the room, looking for things that she did not want to see but that should have been there. A ghostly vision of clutterboxes, wooden boards, stacks of burlap bags and ropes, a crude wooden palette with a thin ticking on topwas superimposed over her view of the room as it currently was. The small windowless room was entirely empty but it felt oppressively crowded to her, as if she couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe. The air in the room was thick, stifling her lungs. She felt herself struggling for breath. Chest heaving, sweat breaking out on her face, she had to fight to keep her feet as dizziness swamped her. She had the distinct feeling that her throat was closing, her airway shutting down. She heard small, harsh gurgling noises and realized they were coming from her own throat. Putting a hand to her throat, she saw the side door leading to outside and she lunged for it. Yanking the door open, she leaped as if the hounds of hell were after her and fell blindly down the two steps to sprawl on the grass outside.
“Jules!” Maggie called. She was instantly beside Julia and turning her limp body face up. Julia’s eyes were rolled back in her head and she gagged violently. When Julia fought to turn away from her friend, Maggie let her go and Julia vomited on the grass. Her entire body shuddered with the effort. Maggie sat quietly beside her and rubbed her back until the spasms stopped.
“Julia?” Maggie said softly. “Are you okay?”
Julia gulped in air and fought the bile that threatened to rise in her throat again. Slowly her head began to clear and she could open her eyes and see only the grass and trees before her. Raking in huge breaths, she turned back toward Maggie and struggled to sit up next to her friend. Maggie helped her with a supportive arm behind her back.
“You okay now?” she asked.
Julia nodded, still not quite trusting her voice. She looked around at the open grounds and was acutely relieved to notice that it all stayed put. She steadied herself with a few more deep breaths and finally faced Maggie.
“Jesus,” she said wearily.
Maggie felt her forehead. “You’re warm but you don’t feel like you have a fever,” she said. “I wonder if you’re catching something? Or if something at breakfast didn’t agree with you?”
Julia shook her head, then regretted it as the dizziness returned. She clamped her jaws tight and waited for it to pass.
“No,” she said finally, “it’s nothing like that.” She glanced over her shoulder at the small white building behind them. “It’s that,” she said, hooking a thumb in that direction.
Maggie looked back over her shoulder, clearly confused. “It’s what?” she asked. There was nothing there, at least nothing that would make anyone sick.
“Can you … help me up?” Julia asked. She rolled to her knees and let Maggie pull her to her feet. “I’d like a drink of water.”
“Sure,” Maggie said. “Come on, let’s go back to the visitor’s center.”
“No,” Julia said firmly. “I want to stay outside. Over there.” She pointed to a bench set beneath a large tree just off the parking lot.
“Okay,” Maggie said. “Can you walk okay? I’ll go get you some water.”
Julia nodded and started across the grounds toward the bench. Maggie angled back toward the visitor’s center and found Julia beneath the tree a few minutes later.
“Thanks, Mags,” Julia said gratefully. She opened the small bottle of water and sipped it. The cool liquid felt heavenly on her rough throat. She sloshed some water around in her mouth and spit it out on the ground, then drank deeply. She held the cool bottle to her forehead.
“So, now,” Maggie said, watching her friend closely, “what did you mean back there? What do you think made you sick?”
Julia rolled the bottle across her forehead, stalling a bit. “This is going to sound nuts,” she started slowly, “but the truth is that I feel like I died in that room.”
Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres: biography, contemporary, western, action, romance, fantasy, paranormal and spiritual. She has been both traditionally and independently published and is a regular contributor to the superblog Indies Unlimited. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona with her husband and an Airedale terrier. She also writes under the pen name Amber Flame.
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