A Step to the Block, by Esther O’Reilly

7 Sep


Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them. – T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

You can trace every wrinkle on her face. She speaks carefully, measuring each word. Every now and then, she strokes the necklace around her throat. Surrounded by nothing but the studio’s pitch blackness, she seems suspended timelessly in time and space. She looks ahead with now sightless eyes, her vision fixed on something we cannot see. Her words hang in the still air, unpunctuated by narration, music or sound effects. She is 105 years old. She is Brunhilde Pomsel, former stenographer for Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

She remembers that the doctor had “a kind of noble elegance.” He was courteous, debonair, never without a manicure. He had children that doted on him and brought the family dog to the office. And he trusted Pomsel implicitly to do as she was told, no more and no less.

Pomsel’s job description often necessitated the massaging of inconvenient facts. Inconvenient statistics were “corrected” when they passed through her hands. Inconvenient files were obediently thrown in a safe without a second glance. It was, as she phrases it now, “just another job.”

Yet, even as Pomsel insists that “[this] is absolutely not about clearing my conscience,” she cannot lie: she saw things. There was her Jewish friend Eva, mysteriously whisked away like the other Jews for a “repopulation project” in the Sudetenland. There was the gay radio announcer suddenly arrested and vanished. There was the unnerving transformation of Goebbels himself when he rose to deliver the Sportpalast speech, from the mild-mannered good doctor to a raving, possessed ideologue. She saw it all from a ringside seat. Yet, like other cogs in the machine, she chose to see what she wanted to see.

As is wont with human nature, Pomsel is deeply ambivalent. She describes the interview as “a mirror” in which she can see clearly all the things she has done wrong, yet continues to protest that she has done no wrong. She takes comfort in her ordinariness. People say they would have known better and resisted, but she says they would not.

What of those who rose above the ordinary? “Those poor young people,” she says in hindsight of Hans and Sophie Scholl, guillotined for distributing anti-Nazi flyers on their campus. “If only they’d kept quiet…” She reflects on how unaffected she was at the time by “the idealism of youth.” That sort of thing “might easily have led to having your neck broken,” didn’t you know?

She remembers when Sophie’s file landed on her desk. She remembers the thrill of pride she got as she scrupulously filed it unopened. How far had she risen, to be trusted with such a mysterious thing!

Who among us would not thrill at the weight of such a privilege? Who among us is without pride? Who among us, not knowing, would choose knowledge? Who among us, not seeing, would choose sight? Who among us would take that step to the block? Perhaps we are less like Sophie Scholl and more like Brunhilde Pomsel than we want to believe. Perhaps there is something to that ancient prayer: “Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.”

“How could she not have known?” we ask now. At the very least, how could she not have wanted to know? There are no easy answers. There is only this last confession of an old woman who did nothing but type quietly in a warm, well-lit office. There is only the memory of a man with a white collar and clean fingernails and smooth cheeks, who did not need to raise his voice.

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