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A SAVIOR WILL RISE
By SHAWN HOFFMAN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Shawn Hoffman
All rights reserved.
At first, all he could hear was the slow drip of blood into a metal bowl.
Samson Abrams's mind fought the darkness. His sense of smell came back to him next. The odor of formaldehyde. The dank dustiness of wet concrete walls. Samson inhaled deeper, struggling for recognition, his mind becoming clearer with each second of consciousness. The sour smell of an open wound. The bitter reek of decayed flesh. He wondered if a corpse was nearby.
Dried blood held Samson's eyelids closed. His hands couldn't move to scratch the blood away, but he could feel the same blood on his face and taste it in his mouth. He strained against the pressure on his eyes until the crusts on the lids gave way. His eyes fluttered open, and he glanced about the room.
It all came back. Block 10, Auschwitz. Experimentation ward. December ... 1941.
A single lightbulb struggled against the dark far above Samson's head. He could just make out his surroundings. Nearby on a bench lay surgical tools and blood-soaked rags, scalpels, and broken needles, the equipment for a long, slow death. Specimen bottles lined a shelf far to one side. An IV fed something into his arm. Saline, Samson guessed, just enough to keep him alive. He caught a murky reflection of himself in a stainless-steel urn on the table. He swallowed, his throat painfully dry.
All he could see at first was the side of his jaw. Samson shuddered. That same jaw had once been sharp and keen, the jaw of a middleweight champion boxer. Samson could take a hit from any man, stay standing with a grin, and then pound back his revenge. His opponents said he hit with the force of a heavyweight, earning him the nicknames Heavy Hands, Sledgehammer, and The Lion of Zion. He'd dominated his opponent at the 1936 Olympics, but two judges and a referee disqualified Samson after he knocked his opponent unconscious. They handed the decision to the other man, but everyone in the arena knew Samson had been robbed. Samson had set his jaw in defiance and pride and walked out of the arena without a word.
That same jaw was now skinless.
The muscles in Samson's lower jaw were visible, like someone had begun shaving him with a straight edge but had cut too deep and kept going. Samson could see the backs of his hands looked the same. The tops of his feet. The fronts of his thighs. The surface of his stomach. He couldn't see his back, but by the mind-numbing agony he felt behind him, he didn't doubt his back had also been stripped of skin.
Pain shot across Samson's chest with each breath, and a dull ache throbbed in his shoulder joints. Both arms were held at the wrists, arms stretched wide. From the corners of his eyes, he could discern he'd been strapped to some sort of operating table that was propped upright. Metal surgical spikes pierced both of his hands and held him fast on a vertical medical gurney. Leather straps went around his wrists, taking the pressure off the spikes, prolonging the agony. He realized that he had been nailed to a cross.
Two thoughts rushed at Samson—how long would the torture go on? And where would he be today if he'd made a different choice that afternoon on the street in Kraków nearly a year ago? Was it worth everything just to do the right thing and show compassion to his fellow man? Had it been worth it to risk his life and the lives of all those he loved, just to help one less fortunate?
Samson let his mind wander. He could feel the hugs of his twin daughters again, tiny arms that once squeezed him in the afternoon sunlight. He could hear his young son's voice, strong and full of laughter. His brother, Zach, and Zach's fiancée, Esther—so much potential in that young couple. His aging parents, their presence as comforting as the smell of freshly baked bread. The shape of his wife's body, warm and curved under their bedroom blankets at home.
There was no sunlight anymore.
Now, there was only one reality. Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death. He was the owner of the steel gurney Samson was strapped to. The operator of the bloody scalpel. A Hauptsturmführer, captain, in the Nazi army and a medical doctor by profession, Dr. Mengele had spearheaded the practice of human medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz. He also selected many who would be gassed. The remembrance of his eerily calm Teutonic voice floated through Samson's mind.
"My promise to you," the doctor had told Samson before he passed out from the pain, "is that I will extract my revenge. It will come in the form of the slowest, most painful death that today's science can provide. On that, you have my most solemn word."
His mind now clear, Samson wanted to fight. He wanted to break free from the gurney. To smash the contents of the experimentation room and set it on fire. He wanted to tear down the walls of the concentration camp and destroy every tormentor who held free people in their clutches. But now Samson's strength was gone. It was a strain even to lift his head. Samson would never fight in a boxing ring again. Perhaps he'd never even heal enough to live life without a wheelchair.
Perhaps he would not live at all.
Samson held out one hope of rescue—Commandant Rudolf Höss. An unlikely savior, the commander was on the same side of the war as the Angel of Death. But as the senior SS officer in charge of Auschwitz, Commandant Höss had displayed an ironic penchant for keeping Samson safe within the confines of the camp. The commander's loyalty was strictly with the Third Reich; there was no doubt of that. But the commander had powerful reasons of his own for wanting Samson alive.
A choke caught in Samson's throat. The sound of one man's footsteps echoed down the corridor outside the walls of the experimentation ward. One man was coming, and only one man. In this isolated part of the camp, there were only two options.
Was it Dr. Mengele coming to continue his tortuous experiment in prolonged death?
Or was it Commandant Höss coming to intercede?
Samson braced himself as the door swung open.
Kraków, Poland Nine months earlier, March 1941
Samson Abrams had never been afraid of anything. He was a muscular thirty-five-year-old, hands hardened and covered with scars as thick as sea barnacles. When it came to a fight—either in the ring or on the street—Samson was always the last man standing. Still, as his sharp, dark eyes stared out from around the corner of a building and peered across Kazimierz Street, Samson couldn't stop the shiver that ran down his spine.
A simple glance up and down the block reminded Samson that his native Poland was no longer herself. The Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH, was Nazi Germany's "Army High Command," and its presence could be felt everywhere these days. On one wall hung a poster that showed a virginal-looking Polish girl handing food to a hook-nosed Jew with a shadow like Satan's. Samson's nose had always been considered small by his Jewish relatives, almost Gentile-like, but he hated that poster propaganda as much as anyone.
Another poster next to the first screamed the slogan Juden=Läuse=Flecktyphus. Jews=Lice=Typhus. A shop window next door displayed a large picture of a Jewish skull with lines indicating a smaller circumference, and therefore lesser intelligence, of the Judaic brain. The collective implication was that Jews were all flea-infested, moronic seducers of the Gentiles.
A year and a half earlier, on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany had flexed her muscles and pushed beyond her borders. Poland, though filled with brave fighters, was outmatched from the start. Germany was a munitions powerhouse. Day and night her factories churned out tanks, planes, and machine guns. The Polish army fought back with all it had, even managing to destroy a quarter of all German planes, but it was never a fair fight, particularly after the Soviet Union began fighting against Poland too. They called it the Kampania wrzesniowa, the "September Campaign," and in just over a month, by October 6, 1939, it was all over. General Wilhelm von List's armored divisions drove steadily north from the Sudetenland, tanks rolling down the same boulevard where Samson now crouched behind the corner of a building, staring across the street.
At first, the occupied land was divvied up. The Soviet Union grabbed a portion; Germany took the rest. Polish cities under German control became military districts ruled by Nazi generals. Streets and cities were given new, Aryan-sounding names. Kraków became the new capital of Germany's central government. All Polish citizens were made to register with the new government and given identity cards. All Jews—men, women, and children—were forced to identify themselves by continually wearing a Star of David patch or armband.
Then food became short. One day you couldn't buy bread. Soon after you couldn't buy milk. Then you couldn't find enough fuel to heat your home. The December winds blew off the Vistula River, and people everywhere shivered as shops and restaurants were seized and shut down. Churches, museums, libraries, universities, and even high schools were soon shuttered—after all, Germany didn't want Polish people thinking freely.
Months went by. It became hard to find doctors. They, along with Polish teachers, priests, university professors, and other Polish leaders, were arrested and sent to prison. Other people simply vanished. One day you were talking to Sigismund, your next-door neighbor; the next day he couldn't be found. The lucky Polish children with blue eyes and blond hair were sent to Germany for "testing." If they passed, the youths were reeducated in German institutions. If they failed, even though they still had mothers and fathers back in Poland, they were shipped to orphanages—or worse.
Samson, along with all the adults in his extended family, had lost his job soon after Poland's fall. They were thrown out of their homes and forced to share a tiny four-hundred-square-foot apartment—all eleven of them—in a walled area of the city known as the Kraków Ghetto. The friends Samson had labored with as a journeyman steelworker disappeared, all the Jews were fired, and many of the Polish men were forced to work for the Germans making artillery and other weapons.
Some days, Samson was sent out on work detail. He picked up odd jobs here and there in an effort to try to make ends meet, but rations and compensation were always scant. He'd quickly learned to blend in on the street as a Pole, to stuff his Star of David armband deep in his pocket, and to speak Polish with a decent Polish accent. He thought it might be a good thing that his nose had that Gentile look his relatives teased him about.
This morning in March 1941, it had come to a point of desperation. Samson blew on his hands, trying to warm them up, and scrutinized the layout of the storefront across the street. Scratched-out words on a sign read Jüdisches Geschäft: Jewish Store. By the scent emitting from its walls, Samson knew the store was still in business, albeit under new ownership. German bread and pastry makers had moved into the formerly Jewish establishment. Samson knew exactly what he wanted and made a quick calculation of the risk. If he was caught outside the ghetto without being on a specific work detail, he would be beaten, shot, or immediately shipped to the camps.
He shook the thought from his mind when the front door opened, and a baker set out the first of the morning's wares on the shallow shelf—a large basket of fresh bread loaves covered with barbed wire. A padlock held the base and domed wire together, a precaution meant to stop hungry Poles from helping themselves to the goods. The bread could be smelled by passersby but purchased only if the vendor opened the padlock and separated the dome of barbed wire from the base. Samson's eyes locked on to the warm, steaming bread, the smell wafting into his nostrils from just yards away. The aroma brought thoughts of his own family to the forefront of his mind, the family he loved more than life itself.
They were the reason Samson got up in the morning, the reason behind what few smiles he had left. It had been weeks since any of them had eaten a good meal. Three days since any of them had eaten anything at all.
Within three months of meeting her, Samson had fallen in love with and married Rebecca, an ebony-haired young Jewish woman with a smile that made Samson glad to come home every night. Eleven years of married life later, Samson still adored her.
They had a son named Simon, now ten years old, a boy of strength and arts. He could play piano and violin with the skill of accomplished musicians ten years his senior.
Petite, seven-year-old, identical-twin daughters rounded out his immediate family: Rachel, a precocious math genius; and Leah, a little comedian, gifted in writing and languages. Twins on the outside, but completely different girls on the inside.
Samson's Orthodox Jewish father and mother, Abraham and Hannah, shared the apartment with them. Every day they grew frailer with age and hunger.
Samson's younger sister, Sarah, who also shared the tiny quarters, was showing signs of malnutrition, growing weaker and more exhausted every day. Sarah had a baby boy, Elijah, who often cried from not having enough to eat. Sarah's husband had been captured and sent to the trains after attempting to smuggle food to them.
A slender, young Jewish woman named Esther also lived in their apartment. She was without siblings, and her aging mother had passed away shortly after Poland's fall, leaving Esther without any family. She was engaged to Samson's younger brother, Zach, a bookish, slight-of-build intellectual, and they had pledged to maintain their chastity until their marriage date, even sharing the close quarters as they were. It was a strange mix of feelings they exhibited—excited that life was continuing forward for them, yet worried and haggard from the effects of the occupation.
Samson's mind snapped back to the task at hand. He was bound and determined to come home with food that day, one way or another. Samson stayed low and out of sight; he ducked behind a Nazi tank that lumbered along in front of him and crossed the street. After edging around a corner, he stopped, momentarily mesmerized by what he saw in the gutter near the corner.
One solitary flower stuck out of the cracked cobblestones, the earliest spring victor against winter's darkness. The tiny flower looked so out of place, such uncommon beauty in the midst of a city now cloaked in steel and death. He picked the flower, keeping the roots intact in the small clump of dirt, being careful not to crease its petals, and tucked it inside his jacket pocket. Along with the bread he'd vowed to bring home, the flower would bring a bit of joy to those he held closest.
Samson ducked back behind the building and turned his attention back to the vendor of the newly German bread shop. The baker was busy with a customer on the street. Samson stealthily moved ahead and slipped behind the German pastry sign, hiding just a few feet from his target. Now was his chance. Quickly, he slipped his hand inside the sharp metal wire, cutting himself on the iron as he pulled powerfully and forced the barbed wires apart. Within moments he was back in the shadows, down the back-alley steps, the bread safe in his jacket, one hand pressed against his bleeding forearm. Moving carefully behind the wall, Samson disappeared from the view of anyone on the main street.
A scream stopped him in his tracks.
Within seconds the scream came again. Samson turned, spotting an Orthodox Jewish boy, about thirteen years old, probably on his way toward the day's work detail. The boy was out on the street a few steps from the sidewalk; two SS officers ringed him on either side. The SS weren't any common German soldiers. They were a small, cruel, elite branch of the larger Nazi army—the lead branch tasked with purging "undesirables" from occupied countries. One officer held the boy's left pais in his hand. He'd just sliced off the long lock of hair on the side of the boy's temple with an infantry bayonet.
"Edict forty-four-ninety-one. You know better than to be out of Jew Town!" roared a big, square-shouldered officer. Samson felt his fists clench, but he stayed in the shadows of the alley, unmoving.
Laughing, a shorter, stocky soldier cut off the boy's other pais. This time, the bayonet sliced across the boy's ear and into his temple. A trickle of blood ran down the boy's cheek. He screamed again.
Samson checked himself. He knew better than to interfere, but a memory flashed in his mind, a memory he couldn't set aside. Years ago, when he was about the same age, he had been the only Jewish child on his block, a walking target for any neighborhood bully. One day an older boy spit on him when he walked to school. Another day, a gang of boys loaded shotguns with rock salt and blasted Samson's legs and back while he walked home. On yet another day, two boys started a distraction in front of Samson while two more snuck up behind him and hit him in the back with a three-foot-long pipe.
Excerpted from SAMSON by SHAWN HOFFMAN. Copyright © 2013 Shawn Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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