Authors: Steve Berry
Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller
The Amber Room
Mauthausen Concentration Camp, Austria
April 10, 1945
The prisoners called him Ears because he was the only Russian in Hut 8 who understood German. Nobody ever used his given name, Karol Borya.`Yxo— Ears—had been his label from the first day he entered the camp over a year ago. It was a tag he regarded with pride, a responsibility he took to heart.
“What do you hear?” one of the prisoners whispered to him through the dark.
He was cuddled close to the window, pressed against the frigid pane, his exhales faint as gossamer in the dry sullen air.
“Do they want more amusement?” another prisoner asked.
Two nights ago the guards came for a Russian in Hut 8. He was an infantryman from Rostov near the Black Sea, relatively new to the camp. His screams were heard all night, ending only after a burst of staccato gunfire, his bloodied body hung by the main gate the next morning for all to see.
He glanced quickly away from the pane. “Quiet. The wind makes it difficult to hear.”
The lice-ridden bunks were three-tiered, each prisoner allocated less than one square meter of space. A hundred pairs of sunken eyes stared back at him.
All the men respected his command. None stirred, their fear long ago absorbed into the horror of Mauthausen. He suddenly turned from the window. “They’re coming.”
An instant later the hut’s door was flung open. The frozen night poured in behind Sergeant Humer, the attendant for Prisoners’ Hut 8.
Claus Humer wasSchutzstaffel , SS. Two more armed SS stood behind him. All the guards in Mauthausen were SS. Humer carried no weapon. Never did. A six-foot frame and beefy limbs were all the protection he needed.
“Volunteers are required,” Humer said. “You, you, you, and you.”
Borya was the last selected. He wondered what was happening. Few prisoners died at night. The death chamber remained idle, the time used to flush the gas and wash the tiles for the next day’s slaughter. The guards tended to stay in their barracks, huddled around iron stoves kept warm by firewood prisoners died cutting. Likewise, the doctors and their attendants slept, readying themselves for another day of experiments in which inmates were used indiscriminately as lab animals.
Humer looked straight at Borya. “You understand me, don’t you?”
He said nothing, staring back into the guard’s black eyes. A year of terror had taught him the value of silence.
“Nothing to say?” Humer asked in German. “Good. You need to understand . . . with your mouth shut.”
Another guard brushed past with four wool overcoats draped across his outstretched arms.
“Coats?” muttered one of the Russians.
No prisoner wore a coat. A filthy burlap shirt and tattered pants, more rags than clothing, were issued on arrival. At death they were stripped off to be reissued, stinking and unwashed, to the next arrival. The guard tossed the coats on the floor.
Humer pointed.“Mäntel anziehen.”
Borya reached down for one of the green bundles. “The sergeant says to put them on,” he explained in Russian.
The other three followed his lead.
The wool chafed his skin but felt good. It had been a long time since he was last even remotely warm.
“Outside,” Humer said.
The three Russians looked at Borya and he motioned toward the door. They all walked into the night.
Humer led the file across the ice and snow toward the main grounds, a frigid wind howling between rows of low wooden huts. Eighty thousand people were crammed into the surrounding buildings, more than lived in Borya’s entire home province in Belarus. He’d come to think that he would never see that place again. Time had almost become irrelevant, but for his sanity he tried to maintain some sense. It was late March. No. Early April. And still freezing. Why couldn’t he just die or be killed? Hundreds met that fate every day. Was his destiny to survive this hell?
But for what?
At the main grounds Humer turned left and marched into an open expanse. More prisoners’ huts stood on one side. The camp’s kitchen, jail, and infirmary lined the other. At the far end was the roller, a ton of steel dragged across the frozen earth each day. He hoped their task did not involve that unpleasant chore.
Humer stopped before four tall stakes.
Two days ago a detail was taken into the surrounding forest, Borya one of ten prisoners chosen then, as well. They’d felled three aspens, one prisoner breaking an arm in the effort and shot on the spot. The branches were sheared and the logs quartered, then dragged back to camp and planted to the height of a man in the main grounds. But the stakes had remained bare the past couple of days. Now two armed guards watched them. Arc lights burned overhead and fogged the bitterly dry air.
“Wait here,” Humer said.
The sergeant pounded up a short set of stairs and entered the jail. Light spilled out in a yellow rectangle from the open door. A moment later four naked men were led outside. Their blond heads were not shaved like the rest of the Russians, Poles, and Jews who constituted the vast majority of the camp’s prisoners. No weak muscles or slow movements, either. No apathetic looks, or eyes sunk deep in their sockets, or edema swelling emaciated frames. These men were stocky. Soldiers. Germans. He’d seen their look before. Granite faces, no emotion. Stone cold, like the night.
The four walked straight and defiant, arms at their sides, none evidencing the unbearable cold their milky skin must have been experiencing. Humer followed them out of the jail and motioned to the stakes. “Over there.”
The four naked Germans marched where directed.
Humer approached and tossed four coils of rope in the snow. “Tie them to the stakes.”
Borya’s three companions looked at him. He bent down and retrieved all four coils, handing them to the other three and telling them what to do. They each approached a naked German, the men standing at attention before the rough aspen logs. What violation had provoked such madness? He draped the rough hemp around his man’s chest and strapped the body to the wood.
“Tight,” Humer yelled.
He knotted a loop and pulled the coarse fiber hard across the German’s bare chest. The man never winced. Humer looked away at the other three. He took the opportunity to whisper in German, “What did you do?”
He pulled the rope tight. “They don’t even do this to us.”
“It is an honor to defy your captor,” the German whispered.
Yes, he thought. It was.
Humer turned back. Borya knotted the last loop. “Over there,” Humer said.
He and the other three Russians trudged across fresh snow, out of the way. To keep the cold at bay he stuffed his hands into his armpits and shifted from foot to foot. The coat felt wonderful. It was the first warmth he’d known since being brought to the camp. It was then that his identity had been completely stripped away, replaced by a number—10901—tattooed onto his right forearm. A triangle was stitched to the left breast of his tattered shirt. AnR in his signified that he was Russian. Color was important, too. Red for political prisoners. Green for criminals. Yellow Star of David for Jews. Black and brown for prisoners of war.
Humer seemed to be waiting for something.
Borya glanced to his left.
More arc lights illuminated the parade ground all the way to the main gate. The road outside, leading to the quarry, faded into darkness. The command headquarters building just beyond the fence stood unlit. He watched as the main gate swung open and a solitary figure entered the camp. The man wore a greatcoat to his knees. Light trousers extended out the bottom to tan jackboots. A light-colored officer’s hat covered his head. Outsize thighs hitched bowlegged in a determined gait, the man’s portly belly leading the way. The lights revealed a sharp nose and clear eyes, the features not unpleasant.
And instantly recognizable.
Last commander of the Richthofen Squadron, Commander of the German Air Force, Speaker of the German Parliament, Prime Minister of Prussia, President of the Prussian State Council, Reichmaster of Forestry and Game, Chairman of the Reich Defense Council, Reichsmarschall of the Greater German Reich. The Führer’s chosen successor.
Borya had seen Göring once before. In 1939. Rome. Göring appeared then wearing a flashy gray suit, his fleshy neck wrapped in a scarlet cravat. Rubies had adorned his bulbous fingers, and a Nazi eagle studded with diamonds was pinned to the left lapel. He’d delivered a restrained speech urging Germany’s place in the sun, asking,Would you rather have guns or butter? Should you import lard or metal ore? Preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat. Göring had finished that oratory in a flurry, promising Germany and Italy would march shoulder to shoulder in the coming struggle. He remembered listening intently and not being impressed.
“Gentlemen, I trust you are comfortable,” Göring said in a calm voice to the four bound prisoners.
No one replied.
“What did he say, `Yxo,” whispered one of the Russians.
“He’s ridiculing them.”
“Shut up,” Humer muttered. “Give your attention or you’ll join them.”
Göring positioned himself directly before the four naked men. “I ask each of you again. Anything to say?”
Only the wind replied.
Göring inched close to one of the shivering Germans. The one Borya had bound to the stake.
“Mathias, surely you don’t want to die this way? You’re a soldier, a loyal servant of the Führer.”
“The—Führer—has nothing to do—with this,” the German stammered, his body shivering in violet quakes.
“But everything we do is for his greater glory.”
“Which is why I—choose to die.”
Göring shrugged. A casual gesture, as someone would do if deciding whether to have another pastry. He motioned to Humer. The sergeant signaled two guards, who toted a large barrel toward the bound men. Another guard approached with four ladles and tossed them into the snow. Humer glared at the Russians. “Fill them with water, and go stand by one of those men.”
He told the other three what to do and four ladles were picked up, then submerged.
“Spill nothing,” Humer warned.
Borya was careful, but the wind buffeted a few drops out. No one noticed. He returned to the German he’d bound to the stake. The one called Mathias. Göring stood in the center, pulling off black leather gloves.
“See, Mathias,” Göring said, “I’m removing my gloves so I can feel the cold, as your skin does.”
Borya stood close enough to see the heavy silver ring wrapping the third finger of the man’s right hand, a clutched mailed fist embossed on it. Göring stuffed his right hand into a trouser pocket and removed a stone. It was golden, like honey. Borya recognized it. Amber. Göring fingered the clump and said, “Water will be showered over you every five minutes until somebody tells me what I want to know, or you die. Either is acceptable to me. But, remember, whoever talks lives. Then one of these miserable Russians will take your place. You can then have your coat back and pour water on him until he dies. Imagine what fun that would be. All you have to do is tell me what I want to know. Now, anything to say?”
Göring nodded to Humer.
Humer said.Pour it.
Borya did, and the other three followed his lead. Water soaked into Mathias’s blond mane, then trickled down his face and chest. Shivers accompanied the stream. The German uttered not a sound, other than the chatter of his teeth.
“Anything to say?” Göring asked again.
Five minutes later the process was repeated. Twenty minutes later, after four more dousings, hypothermia started setting in. Göring stood impassive and methodically massaged the amber. Just before another five minutes expired he approached Mathias.
“This is ridiculous. Tell me wheredas Bernstein-zimmer is hidden and stop your suffering. This is not worth dying for.”
The shivering German only stared back, his defiance admirable. Borya almost hated being Göring’s accomplice in killing him.
“Sie sind ein lügnerisch diebisch-schwein,”
Mathias managed in one breath.You are a lying, thieving pig. Then the German spat.
Göring reeled back, spittle splotching the front of his greatcoat. He released the buttons and shook the stain away, then culled back the flaps, revealing a pearl gray uniform heavy with decorations. “I am yourReichsmarschall . Second only to the Führer. No one wears this uniform but me. How dare you think you can soil it so easily. You will tell me what I want to know, Mathias, or you will freeze to death. Slowly. Very slowly. It will not be pleasant.”
The German spat again. This time on the uniform. Göring stayed surprisingly calm.
“Admirable, Mathias. Your loyalty is noted. But how much longer can you hold out? Look at you. Wouldn’t you like to be warm? Pressing your body close to a big fire, your skin wrapped in a cozy wool blanket.” Göring suddenly reached over and yanked Borya close to the bound German. Water splattered from the ladle onto the snow. “This coat would feel wonderful, would it not, Mathias? Are you going to allow this miserable cossack to be warm while you freeze?”