At some point I realized that the only way for me to write a novel about the Holocaust that was not exploitative was to refrain from writing any scenes of genocide, any scenes in the camps, any scenes of explicit horror. I’m not saying this is a rule for all writers, but it was what I had to do. I had already written a scene, however, that I thought was really good. I wanted that scene in the book so much, but at the same time, I knew that it cheapened the novel. It’s gone from the book, but you can read it here.
On the outskirts of town, they crossed a small bridge over a canal. Ahead of them was a long barbed-wire fence, beyond which they could just glimpse acres of barracks. About two hundred yards away from the main entrance, they drove over a set of railroad tracks and alongside a train of boxcars pulled up on a siding. Trash spilled out of the open wagons and littered the ground.
“Jesus Christ,” the colonel’s driver muttered, the jeep slowing to a crawl. The driver took his foot off the gas and the engine coughed and stalled. “Jesus Christ,” he said again.
Jack and the colonel climbed out of the jeep and moved swiftly toward the train, Jack trying to keep his attention on the surrounding terrain, on the gaps between the boxcars where a sniper could hide, on anything other than the piles of trash, the heaps of cloth which could be prevented from assuming the shapes of men if you kept your attention focused on the spaces between them, on the shadows, on what you were supposed to be doing, which was looking for Germans and trying to keep from getting killed.
But in the end there was nowhere else to look. A small group of riflemen had arrived at the train before them, and one of them now reached up, flipped over the latch on the door of one of the boxcars, and slid it open. It was filled with bodies, at least twenty or thirty, some dressed in grimy striped uniforms, others in little more than rags.
The GIs walked down the length of the train, opening car after car, each one disgorging an identical burden. The colonel pushed on ahead, but Jack stood at the open door of the first car, staring into the unblinking eyes of a man who lay beneath a bit of torn burlap. The man’s face and head were covered with a half-inch of stubble, his skin stretched tight over the bones of his skull, his open eyes sunk deep into their sockets. One of his hands lay across his chest, the other was clenched by his cheek, gripping a small gray-brown potato from which sprouted a single, green shoot. Jack, light-headed, became conscious that he was holding his breath. He breathed out and in, expecting to be hit by the sticky stench of decomposing flesh, an odor that would, not long after, assault him with a fury unmatched even by the SS officers who did, in the end, put up a final, ineffectual defense. But here by the train there was no smell at all, the bodies so newly dead that they had not yet even had time to rot.
“Hey!” one of the soldiers shouted. “Hey, Colonel! Here’s a live one!”
Jack stumbled toward the boxcar in front of which the soldier stood. The colonel, accompanied by one of the riflemen and by a military photographer, his camera slung around his neck, joined them. Jack peered into the gloom. For a moment he saw nothing, then a hint of motion, a tiny wave from a hand nearly buried beneath the bodies. He lunged forward, but the colonel and the rifleman were there before him, scrambling up and over the bodies.
“Hold on!” someone shouted.
It was the photographer, pulling himself up into the car.
“Hold on, Colonel. Let me just get set up.”
The colonel and the rifleman paused in their efforts, waiting for the photographer to choose his angle and focus his lens. It might have been five seconds, no more than ten, but to Jack it felt like hours that he watched the hand which had given up its waving and now waited, limp, for rescue.
“Go!” the photographer said.
The colonel and the rifleman heaved aside the last of the bodies. They leaned down and together lifted a man out of the tangled heap of limbs and cloth. At that moment the shutter clicked and the three men were frozen on film, the two strong and fresh-faced American soldiers, and the pale waif staring up at them, on his face an expression that the millions of Americans who would soon see it on the front page of their morning newspapers would interpret, with typical naiveté, as a smile.