Day after day in the morning drill, we went through a ceremony conducted by the corporal in charge of weapons, a man who looked serious on principle. He handed them out, we grabbed them. It goes without saying: every member of the Labor Service was to feel honored by the touch of the wood and metal, the butt and barrel of the carbine in his hands....We thought of ourselves as engaged, if not quite married, to the 98 carbine.
Though I make a point of using “we” here, there was an exception to that rank-and-file, somewhat facile plural. This exception was a lanky boy who was so blond and blue-eyed, and whose profile revealed a skull so elongated that the likes of him could be found only in propaganda promoting the Nordic race. Chin, mouth, nose, forehead—each was the epitome of “racial purity.” .... No one could beat him in long-distance running; no one could match his daring when leaping over musty ditches or his agility when clambering over a wall. He could do fifty knee bends without getting tired. There was nothing, no flaw, to sully the picture. But what made him an exception was that he—his name eludes my memory—was an insubordinate: he refused to take part in rifle drill; worse still, he refused to take butt or barrel in hand; and, worst of all, when our dead-earnest drill instructor pressed the carbine on him, he would drop it. Which made him or his fingers criminal.
With the spade, a basic utensil for everyone in the Labor Service, he did all that he was ordered to do. He would also have received top marks in camaraderie. He was the friendly, good-natured type, always ready to help, and he never complained. Upon request, he would give his comrades’ boots such a regulation shine that they would be a feast for sore eyes, even the eyes of the strictest N.C.O. during roll call. He had no trouble with brushes or dustcloths; it was only the firearm he refused to wield.
Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. He would work conscientiously for hours without a peep, emptying the latrine with a worm-infested bucket on a long stick—a punishment known as “honey-slinging” in soldiers’ slang—only to appear, freshly showered, at rifle drill shortly thereafter and refuse to wield the weapon once again. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion.
At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. We actually liked the fellow, this oddball, this knucklehead: “Take it! Just hold it!” But when they took to punishing us on his account and tormented us in the hot sun until we collapsed, we all began to hate him. I, too, worked up my ire against him. We were expected to give him a hard time, and so we did. He had put us under pressure; we would return the favor. He was beaten in his barracks by the very boys whose boots he had polished mirror-bright. All against one. Through the boards that divided room from room, I could hear his whimper, the snap of the leather belt, the loud counting. These sounds are ingrained in my memory. But neither the hazing nor the beatings, nor anything else, could force him to carry arms.
Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.
I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, a catchphrase that has never left me: “We don’t do that.” He stuck to the plural. In a voice neither loud nor soft, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat.
When he was asked what he meant, he repeated the indefinite “that” and refused to call the object he would not take in his hands by its name.
His behavior transformed us. From day to day, what had seemed solid crumbled. Our hatred was mixed first with amazement, then with admiration expressed in questions like “How can that idiot keep it up?” “What makes him so hard-nosed?” “How come he doesn’t report sick? He’s been pale as a ghost lately.”
Then we let him be. No more beatings on the bare behind. The insubordinate stood above us, as if on a pedestal.
In the end, this morning ritual was cut off by his arrest. “Off to the cooler with him!” came the command.
From then on, discipline and order reigned. Every once in a while, the “convict” came up in our conversations. Someone—was it the drill instructor or one of us?—would say, “He must be a Jehovah’s Witness.” Or, “He’s a Bible nut. No doubt about it.” But the blond, blue-eyed boy with the racially pure profile had never referred to the Bible or Jehovah or any other Almighty; he had said simply, “Wedontdothat.”
One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone—“transferred,” it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as unfit for service; no, we whispered, “he has long been ripe for the concentration camp.”
And since we knew of the camp, Stutthof, only by hearsay, we thought Wedontdothat—which was what we called him in secret—was in good hands. “They’ll bring old Wedontdothat down a peg or two.”
Was it all as simple as that?
Did no one shed a tear?
Did everything go on as it had before?
I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything in which I’d had rock-solid faith died down....
To the memory of that blond kid. A boy with courage I don't know I possess.