When the latter’s eyes met his, Lazar had a hunch what he was going to say next. “For when it comes down to it,” Kaminski continued, “it’s not about us at all, is it? There’s more at stake here than simply saving ourselves, or for that matter the thousands we’ll be busting out with us. More important, much more, are the hundreds of thousands to come, and not just the Hungarians but those doomed to follow them. Who knows how long it’ll be before the Russians get here, and you can bet the Krauts won’t be pulling up stakes and moving on until they’re forced to.
“First, though, the Hungarians. The killing has got to end now. We all knew it was going to be terrible, but this? Hell, the cremos are running eighteen hours a day as it is, twenty! And the transports have only started to roll in. Our friend Noah Zabludowicz tells me there are close to a million Jews in Hungary. Are we supposed to do nothing while a million people go up in smoke, keep shoving them into the fire until it’s our turn to bake?”
As he spoke, he’d moved from the head of the table to where Lazar sat, and now stood behind his chair, gripping the back of it. “If it’s all right with him,” he said, “I’d like to ask Bela here a question. Have you ever wondered, young man, why the word Jericho was chosen as the code name for the revolt?”
Lazar had, in fact, but not enough to inquire about it. Though as familiar with the legend as anybody, he’d never been much of a one for religion, and had relegated it with most other Biblical tales to the realm of the fanciful. “Why Jericho? I no able to tell you, please, sir,” he said in the broken Polish he’d learned since he got here, “but that you…. wait for this night for ask me, I think maybe is not…. not accident.”
“So it isn’t,” Kaminski said. Nor was it solely for Lazar’s sake that he felt it worthwhile to chat the story up again. It was for everyone who was listening, whether he’d heard it before or not. “When the first of the crematoria came into being over a year ago, we of what was then the 9th Sonderkommando saw that to leave them standing would amount to a crime almost as great as that of those who’d built them. We likened the obligation to destroy them to that felt by our forebears to take and destroy the Canaanite city of Jericho. Just as the trumpets of Joshua’s Israelite army had tumbled those pagan walls, so would we with our dynamite the walls of the death factories.
“As fate and our own shortcomings would have it, however, we failed in the task, with the result that those factories were permitted to succeed at theirs. The heart and soul of our race, the largest concentration of us anywhere—the millions of Jews who over the centuries had set down roots in Europe and Russia—appeared if not already done for, then well on the way to it. The transports slowed almost to a stop for lack of people to fill them.”
Kaminski raised his face to the ceiling and held it there. When finally he lowered it, his voice had sunk with it. “I blame myself for that failure. Somehow, somewhere along the path of firm purpose, I made a wrong turn, lost my bearings, then compounded the error by refusing to listen to those of my men, to you at this very table, who would steer me right again.
“But now,” he said, louder, “I’ve been given a second chance, the opportunity to redeem my undeserving self. Nor is this, as it was with the Czechs of the Family Camp, a false alarm. This time there’s no stopping the wheel of history from turning. The trumpets of this latest Jericho will sound after all, the walls of our enemies dissolve into dust. It mustn’t be for ourselves only, therefore, that we do this great thing, but also for the crowds once again spilling from the cattle cars. And lest we forget, the devil take us if we forget, to avenge our friends and families who’ve perished within those walls.”
Without turning around, Lazar reached over his shoulder, and in what was either affirmation, affection, gratitude, or all three, took Kaminski’s hand in his and briefly squeezed it. He started to say something, but Handelsman beat him to it. “Well spoken, commander. Thanks for your eloquence, for the power of your words…. words all of us would do well to pass on to our men.”
But Kaminski wasn’t finished. There was something else, something he could imagine Roza Robota closing with. “That isn’t the whole of it, however. It’s not just for the present that we fight, but the future—not only for ourselves, the Hungarians, the dead, but for the living of the decades, maybe the centuries to come. For as long as the human story is soiled by the memory of Birkenau, so too will it soar with the tale of the 12th Sonderkommando. We rise up today to carve our names on stone, so that men for all time will remember and learn from what we did.”