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What’s Underneath That Skirt?

That should prove to be an interesting heading especially if you are a male homo sapien, virile, testosterones quivering and an over abundance of sex drive. On the other hand I could have entitled this “Is That Bulge Up Front For Real?” and the same determination has to be made. To find out, you have to do some research.

I found myself gravitated to mysteries. Not just crime mysteries but mysteries in general. Everyone has a mystery in their life. How you view it determines how much of a mystery it is. I discovered this observation when listening to Holocaust survivors tell me about themselves. Their focus was on the terrible as you would expect, but inevitable some small fragment of information was revealed that piqued my curiousity and as I wrote the total picture, I became more interested in the small vignette – the mystery.

A man I interviewed told me he was shipped from a camp in east Poland to an ammunition factory where after a few attempts at escaping, he finally did. At the time the man was a boy of fourteen. He said, “I heard the Germans were looking for mechanics. I joined the line hoping they would accept me. I told the German that I was a bicycle mechanic. I was only fourteen and he accepted me and had me taken to a train with about 500 other applicants. They took us to this place where I did menial jobs while the others made bullets.”

I thought about that. Why, I asked myself take a fourteen-year-old boy who obviously was lying at his word? And after he gets to where he was going, give him a nothing job. Why did he have to apply if what was asked of him could be done by everyone? I felt in that statement of his was a mystery.

A few weeks after he left for this other camp, the remaining 10,000 Jews were shot in one day and buried in a mass grave. There was not one living survivor after his group left the camp. Why were these 500 allowed to leave?

“Why did you survive?” I asked him.

“Because I had mazel (luck). I was only fourteen. What did I know of politics? I had mazel.”

Was it luck? How does a writer go back into the past? H. G. Wells had his time machine. Stargate has its time wheel. I had the Internet, the library and my wife. It was my wife who uncovered a book with the answer – six months later.

A new book had been released revealing correspondence and first hand documentation about a German consortium that made bullets for profit. They used slave labour from all nationalities to manufacture their bullets, which cost them hardly anything. They fed them occasionally and the fatality rate was high. Very high. My wife brought home the book not knowing what it contained. I read everything I can on the Holocaust never knowing what tidbits I’ll uncover.

I had set the story aside about the boy and the ammunition because it took me nowhere and was working on a detective story. All my stories make some reference to the Holocaust and so whatever I read can be used. I started to read the book. About half way I read a single paragraph and stopped. The words were like neon signs. I went back several pages and read again until I came to that paragraph and knew that I had found my story.

Absorbing knowledge, procedure, understanding and long, long hours of reading make up research. No story can be fully told without extensive reading. Authenticity to me is important even in fiction. In a novel that has been accepted but I haven’t agreed to release I had to do quite a bit of research. I have a scene in which a baby was born in an apartment. The Germans are looking for the mother. I took a verbal crash course on how to deliver a baby that had an umbilical cord around the baby’s neck. It’s a love story: a Jewish woman and a Polish boy. I sat with a Roman Catholic priest and asked him to play act how he would try to talk his parishioner from marrying out of the faith. There were scenes in which the War was seen through non-Jewish eyes and I found two Polish soldiers living in another city who fought the Germans in September 1939 (both have since died), and so on. This research authenticated my story. I read a short story to my critiquing group for comments. We had an eighty-year-old woman in the group and she said, “Alvin, the story won’t fly? There’s a major flaw in it?” “What?” I asked. “Macdonald’s wasn’t in Toronto in 1955. They came in ’58. Find yourself another restaurant.” A flaw can destroy a story. Research is as necessary as a prophylactic is to safe sex.

I called the man I had interviewed and told him I had uncovered his mazel. I was coming to his office to show it to him. At his office, he read the chapter and stared at the one paragraph, closing the book slowly after he had finished. “I told you I had mazel,” he said. His voice was hoarse. It broke. Tears fell from his cheeks and he left me and went into his washroom.

What was it I had discovered?

The German consortium needed more slaves and the Gestapo refused their request. They resented that Germans were profiting from the war. A war that was lost. They refused them more slaves and the consortium’s profit fell. Meanwhile at the labour camp, a subterfuge was in progress. Everyone had to die, but the camp was too big. In an attempt to reduce the population, a notice asking for 500 skilled mechanics was announced and the unsuspecting applicants, my story among them, voluntarily agreed to get on a train thinking they were going to a labour camp.

They were not.

They were headed for Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death camp to die.

Part way there, the train stopped and the last three cars uncoupled and attached to another train. The original train continued on its way, the new one to the ammunition factory. The consortium in need of slaves had secretly bought the last three cars and had their slaves. They were going to die anyway, so what difference did it make where they died – Birkenau or the ammunition factory.

The difference, no one escaped from Birkenau – alive.

That’s what research is – looking under the skirt and discovering that it’s a man. His name is Angus and he wears no underwear under his kilt. As for the bulge, you’ll have to do your own research.


Gator Springs Gazette: 2002