The Canceled Czech

Page 16

“It’s all right.”

“What do we do now?”

“We’re going to try him.”

“For what?”

“For killing Jews.”

“Him. He couldn’t kill a gnat. What is going to happen?”

“I don’t know.”

They were readying the scene for the trial. Kotacek’s chair was moved to the far wall, four other chairs grouped in a semicircle facing him. I moved toward them all, scooped the pencil-beam flashlight from the table top. I hefted it in one hand and slapped it against the palm of the other hand.

“Talk to him,” Ari said.

“What should I tell him?”

“Explain that this is a court of law, and tell him the charges against him…” He went on to give me a long message for our prisoner. “Make sure he understands what is going on,” he added. “He does not look particularly intelligent.”

I stood in front of Kotacek. “Be very calm,” I said in Slovak. “Look only at me and do not say anything just now. We are in very dangerous trouble right now. These men you see here are Jews.” His lip curled in a sneer. “Don’t say anything. Listen to me. You have to trust me. Nod if you understand.” He nodded. “Good. If you cooperate, I think I know a way to get out of here. But you will have to do as I say. Do you understand?”

“If you are quick with your revolver,” he said, “you can murder all of these Jewish swine before you know it.”

Gershon touched my arm. “What did he say?”

“He says that he is sorry for whatever may have happened in time of war, but he was only following orders.”

“They all followed orders,” Zvi said. “This is a farce. Why is it that no one ever gave an order? Ask him if he signed the order consigning the Jewish population of Bratislava to Belsen.”

I looked at Kotacek. “I have a flashlight in my hands,” I said. “I am going to shine it in your eyes. You must look directly into the beam. Do not take your eyes off it for an instant. Do you understand?”

He nodded.

“He admits it?”

“He does. What else shall I ask him?”

I pointed the pencil-beam light at Kotacek. I moved the switch to the middle position, for sending code, and I worked the little button rhythmically, a nice steady tempo, flashing the light monotonously on and off, on and off, and keeping the beam directed right between Kotacek’s eyes.

“Ask him about his role in the extermination of the ghetto of Spisska Nova Ves. And the ghetto of Presov.”

I said, “Stare at the light, straight at the light, keep your eyes directly on the light.”

“But what is the point?”

It wasn’t getting to him. I flashed faster, upped the tempo. The frequency of the flashes was supposed to have something to do with it. I didn’t really believe it would work, but I considered it a slightly more realistic prospect than divine intercession, and without one of the two we were lost. Of course he would get a shock when they put the rope around his neck, but it might be too late by then. And it might not send him into a seizure anyway.

“Ask him if he also ordered the extermination of the Gypsies, and the Slovak Socialists, and of thirty-five thousand Ruthenians, and…”

I speeded up the frequency of flashes again as Haim completed his question. When I saw Kotacek’s eyes glaze I knew I had him. I held the tempo steady, worked my thumb in and out on the flasher button, and his eyes rolled and his mouth dropped open and I had him, I had him. He tried to stand up and barely got halfway out of his chair before his hand flew to his chest and a moan escaped his lips and he pitched face forward onto the basement floor.

“What has happened?”

“It looks like his heart. Is he all right?”

I eased my way backward, away from Kotacek. I wanted to get out of the center of attention and put the flashlight aside before someone thought to wonder why I had been flashing it in his eyes. I could bluff it off as an investigative technique, but I was as happy not to have to do it. Meanwhile, they could examine Kotacek and assure themselves that he was good and dead.

“He is dead!”

“Are you sure?”

“You think I have not seen enough corpses to tell? No pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing. I would say that he has had a heart attack. Perhaps a coronary thrombosis, but I could not tell for certain.”

“Not poison? All of them carry it, you know. A capsule of cyanide in a hollow tooth…”

“Cyanide leaves them with a blue face. I would say a heart attack, but who knows? It could be some other poison.”

“So he has cheated the rope?”

“Does it matter? He is dead.”

“But not by our hands, under sentence of our courts.”

“Not under a Czech court either. And he died in our courtroom. Is that not the same thing?”

“It is not the same thing at all.”

“Why not? Show me the difference.”

“He had not been found guilty, sentence was not passed, and he was not executed. Otherwise” – palms spread sarcastically – “otherwise you are quite correct. Otherwise it is precisely the same.”

“Then we shall continue,” Gershon said solemnly. “The defendant no longer is required to play an active role in the proceedings-”

“Which is fortunate,” Zvi said dryly.

“Please. His role is finished, as we have all heard his testimony. You will bear me out, Evan, that he has pleaded guilty to all charges leveled against him?”

“He did mention extenuating circumstances…”

“But he admitted his guilt?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Good. Now it is upon us to reach a verdict, and then to pass sentence. I vote guilty, for my own part, and advise the death penalty. Zvi?”

“This is absurd. Guilty, death penalty.”


“Guilty, death.”


“Guilty, death.”


“If I said twenty years in prison, what would you do? I’m sorry. Guilty and death, yes, by all means.”

Gershon smiled. “You see? It is unanimous. The prisoner has been found guilty and has been sentenced to death. Sentence will be carried out now by means of hanging. You, Zvi, get the rope, and we will hang him from that beam there just as we had planned. Ari, give me a hand with him. Evan…”

This was too much. He was alive, but they thought he was dead. So they were going to hang him anyway and kill him in the process. I felt it was time to assert myself.

“That is barbaric,” I said. “We are not barbarians. We do not hang dead men.”

“It is the sentence. Alive or dead-”

“Sheer nonsense. He was tried and convicted and sentenced; that is sufficient. He died while awaiting execution, perhaps of a heart attack, perhaps induced by remorse for his crimes” – that, I thought, would be the day – “or perhaps in fear of the retribution he so justly deserved. It does not matter. Our organization has been the instrument of his death acting in the name of the Jewish nation and Jews throughout the world, and that is enough.”

“His kind buried living men. Why not hang a dead one?”

“We are not his kind.”

It went on this way for a few minutes. I was arguing nicely, but couldn’t have carried them by myself. Surprisingly, it was Zvi who came in on my side. His enthusiasm was evidently confined to the execution of living persons; once an enemy was dead, it ceased to interest him. Between the two of us, Zvi and I carried the rest.

“But there is one thing we may do,” Zvi added.


“An old custom of our people. Do you recall in the scriptures when Saul slew his thousands of the Philistines and David his tens of thousands? Do you remember what was done to the fallen enemy?”

No one seemed to remember. I remembered, but said nothing.

“Evan, perhaps you know. You are from America, are you not? You know what it is that the American Indians did to defeated enemy tribes?”

“They scalped them,” I said, “but I don’t see-”

“This is similar. But our people have brought back as trophies something other than the scalp. An Indian might return to his village with the scalp of one of his tribesmen and no one would know the difference. But a Jew could not take this from another Jew, because another Jew would not have it to lose. You know what I mean, Evan, do you not?”

I nodded.

And gradually it dawned on the others. “But we don’t have a rabbi,” someone objected.

“Fool, we don’t make a b’rucha over him, either. It is not a religious ceremony. It is an act of military triumph. Who will do it?”

“My uncle was a mohel,” Ari said, “but-”

“Then you may do it.”

“Must I?”

“Don’t you want to? It’s an honor.”

“The honor should be yours.”


“It was your idea. Go ahead, Zvi.”

And so he went ahead. We rolled Kotacek over on his back – and I prayed that he wouldn’t pick that moment to come out of his funk – and Zvi took down his trousers and undershorts and exposed him.

“Someone give me a knife.”

Someone gave him a knife. Greta had joined our little circle and was pressing against me, watching the proceedings with excited curiosity. Her eyes never left the theater of operations. I thought that corpses did not bleed and wondered if cataleptics did. This one didn’t.

So we crouched there, in a basement in Prague, and Zvi used the knife and, effectively if awkwardly, brought to completion the circumcision of Janos Kotacek.

Chapter 11

“Evan darling,” she said, “there are some things I do not understand.”

We were alone now. Well, not entirely alone; Kotacek, snug in the arms of living death, lay motionless a few yards from us. But my fellow Sternists had left. With them on their way, I was able to relax for the first time. As long as they remained with us in the basement, I kept waiting for Kotacek to come out of his funk and get himself executed all over again. Once they had finished their experiment in surgery, I couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.

And they were in no rush to be gone. Ari still had hopes of horizontal pleasantries with Greta, a thought which had apparently occurred to one or two of his comrades as well. Zvi was concerned about the disposal of the corpse. I insisted that it was dangerous for them to stay and selflessly assumed the task of tucking Kotacek’s corpse into the gentle waters of the Vltava. They felt I was taking an unnecessary risk. “We can all do it,” Zvi said, “and then we can all leave together in the car.” I told him to take the car, explaining that I had to get Greta back to Germany. We clasped hands all around, and each of them kissed Greta with rather more than pure fraternal affection. “You must come to Israel,” Ari insisted. “You will be truly welcome there, Greta.” She agreed that she would love to see their country. They all kissed her again, and felt her body against them, and remembered how grand she had looked, all soft and nude, in the arms of one Czech guard after another. I didn’t think I would ever get rid of them, but, reluctantly, they left.

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