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The War Merit Cross



It’s dark in here and smells of burning axle grease, stale canvas and leather. Because of the cramped conditions, we’re constantly jostling each other. It’s inevitable, given the lack of space and how they’ve packed us together. Despite being thrown about during our enforced transportation, the rhythm of the train has a soothing effect. The only drawback is not being able to see our immediate surroundings and, above all, not knowing our ultimate destination.

Intermittently, there’s the screech of a whistle. It makes one think of a referee halting play on a football pitch. Then there are voices: German voices. These snatches of conversation overheard in the course of our travels are necessarily brief and, in the main, banal. Much later, we hear a bunch of keys jingling, the whirr of hinges, and a spring-loaded metal flap opening and closing with a snap.

At my journey’s end, I’m separated from the others. Despite there being a sense of inevitability about the entire process, I’m startled by the speed at which everything takes place. It resembles a well-rehearsed drill or military exercise. Not that I have any say in the matter, since I’m at the mercy of forces beyond my control. In the circumstances, to be stripped naked with such apparent indifference appears not only vulgar but also disrespectful.

The man’s face seems kindly as he takes me out of the little cardboard box and holds me in the palm of his hand. After a cursory inspection, he pins me to one of his lapels, with the swastika facing outwards, and shows his wife and children. He must be a favoured son of the Reich, for only exceptional civilians receive the War Merit Cross.