Another evening I was at Kamienica again, for an appointment with Piotr, a journalist. I waited for him at the bar, reading the Herald Tribune, while the bartender did bartending things – cleaning glasses, twiddling taps – with the room darkening into another cold Baltic dusk. A few minutes after six Piotr came in, a blond, solidly overweight man of about thirty, with what Nabokov had called “the smooth cheeks of an easy shaver.” (Lucky guy: if I don’t shave exactly right, if I mess up the fragile triangulation of razor freshness, water temperature, and relative bathroom humidity, then my neck will be studded with angry pimples for a week.)
Slawek, Kamienica’s owner, had felt it a matter of grave importance that Piotr and I meet. Slawek, in fact, had arranged everything: the topic, the time, even the table, in a quiet corner near the bar. And it seemed that Piotr had been well prepared. After the preliminaries – a handshake, a request for coffee – he started right into his story:
“In 1943, the German economic situation was very bad. There was a shortage of many basic things: coffee, sugar, soap. But there is ersatz sugar and ersatz coffee, why not ersatz soap? First they tried to make soap with chemicals, but this was not so good. So then they had an idea – to make the soap with fat, human fat. Questions?”
“Okay. Here in Gdansk was Professor Doctor Rudolf Spanner. He was an anatomy expert and also a Nazi Party member. In 1940 he was teacher at the medical school and later he tried to make the soap. Dr. Spanner worked in the back of the institute in a small brick building. He worked with a butcher. He also had a Danziger with him, a man called Mazur, and also two English POWs. This is how we know many things, because the POWs gave testimony at the Nuremburg Trials.”
“But where did they get the bodies for the soap? Who did they make it from?”
“This is a very important question. Many people believe it was only Jews but this is not true. First they used executed prisoners from Gdansk and Koenigsberg and also bodies from the mental hospital. The prisoners were killed by guillotine, probably for political reasons. But also I think that the SS killed people from the mental hospital for the soap experiments. And later they used bodies from the Stutthoff prison camp, where most of the prisoners were Russians, then Jews, then Poles. So. When the Russians came with Polish troops to liberate Gdansk, they found four hundred bodies in the cellar of the institute. Too many bodies for anatomy studies. Thirty or forty persons were decapitated with the guillotine. The slices were very clean and straight. And there was a very big pot, made of cement, with two bodies in it. More specifically, two torsos in liquid with fat on the surface. And on a nearby table, two cuvettes or trays, with a gray substance.”
Piotr took a sip of his coffee.
“Now I will go backwards,” he said, “and tell you about Zygmunt Mazur, the helper. He was a very interesting person. He was part of Polish minority in Gdansk before the war. He was eighteen years old when the war started. His father was a railroad worker killed by the Nazis. So Mazur needed a job and found one at the Institute. Dr. Spanner liked Mazur. He was a good worker. Mazur chopped up bodies and he was very good at doing this. But in January 1945, when the war was going badly for Germans, Mazur quit his job. The students at the Institute were becoming very curious about the smells from the cellar and the shed. So Mazur was nervous. And Dr. Spanner returned to Germany, and in March the Soviets and the Poles arrived and found the soap.”
“Do you mean actual bars of soap?”
“Yes, big bars of soap. Cakes. But bad soap; it doesn’t work. Dr. Spanner never made good soap.”
“Why do you think Mazur helped? You said he just needed a job. Nobody forced him into it.”
“Exactly. He did this because he wanted to. Maybe he liked it, the work with dead people. I don’t know. You know, sometimes people like also to be near the conqueror. It makes them feel strong.”
Inside the bar the light was now very dim. The waitress set down a candle – another object that used to be made with animal fat. I surprised myself with a cold, involuntary thought: that Dr. Spanner might have had an easier time making candles.
I asked Piotr how he came to this story.
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart
Whatever it Takes
The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
James Lee Byars & the number Ten
Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
Jacob said to an angel, Tell me your Name
Our 610 Back Pages
The I-Thou Circus
February 10, 2005
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Josh Plays the Sitar
My First Shabbos
How can you be gay and Jewish?