The Bribe


As Nathan Klein recovers from a stroke in a rehabilitation hospital, he finds that he recognizes a fellow patient-Gerhard Reichenberg, a former Nazi who served as commandant in Klein's Kostowa ghetto in Poland during World War II. Klein, then seventeen years old, hasn't seen Reichenberg, known as the Dog Catcher, in almost fifty years. Back then, Reichenberg was a man to fear.

Deeply agitated, Klein writes letters to Reichenberg expressing his still simmering hate for the man. ...

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The Bribe

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As Nathan Klein recovers from a stroke in a rehabilitation hospital, he finds that he recognizes a fellow patient-Gerhard Reichenberg, a former Nazi who served as commandant in Klein's Kostowa ghetto in Poland during World War II. Klein, then seventeen years old, hasn't seen Reichenberg, known as the Dog Catcher, in almost fifty years. Back then, Reichenberg was a man to fear.

Deeply agitated, Klein writes letters to Reichenberg expressing his still simmering hate for the man. Reichenberg, who has been a diabetic most of his life, replies in writing as well. Each tells of his own tragedies: Klein of his suffering and the loss of his entire family. Reichenberg of the loss of Esta, a young Jewish maiden assigned to him by the Jewish Ghetto Elders by way of a bribe in hopes to save their lives. Gerhard, gone from the ghetto for a few days, returns to find the entire village annihilated and no trace of Esta, who was pregnant.

Ulrica Egberg, the center's physical therapist, fond of both Klein and Reichenberg, tries to make peace between these two elderly men. The letters, bitter at first, become more tolerant and understanding of each other as they face the truth of their lives and their histories.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781491709146
  • Publisher: AuthorHouse
  • Publication date: 9/23/2013
  • Pages: 286
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Bribe

By Oskar Klausenstock

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 Oskar Klausenstock
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0914-6


Morning sunlight streams through my window, left partly open to air the mustiness of my room. The autumn breeze billows the flimsy curtains, and I can hear the arrival of the Long Island commuter bus. It comes to a full halt just around the corner and does so with the squealing of breaks, the door opening with a hiss, the clattering of footsteps on the sidewalk, and the familiar, high-pitched voice saying to the driver, "Bye, Damon. See you later." It is my daily wake-up call. The morning shift at the Rehabilitation Center has arrived. Each morning, within minutes of the bus stopping, a soft knock on my door announces the arrival of Miss Hedberg. Dressed in a white smock, her cheeks flushed, a broad smile on her round face, she enters my room trailing a gust of fresh air and the scent of lavender.

"Ja, ja, we are doing well, real well, Mr. Klein," she says, and it sounds like a Swedish lullaby. "Just a few more sessions with the walker, and before you know it, we'll be up again and jogging down the garden path."

Heavy-footed, sleeves rolled up, she helps me into the wheelchair. Physical Therapy, says the sign on the door leading to a large room, the walls an antiseptic white, the many mirrors reflecting other mirrors into infinity. Exercise equipment lines the walls, and this too is multiplied to look like banks of armor arranged in rows.

"Bend your knee, ja, ja. Now flex your arm. Make a fist, Mr. Klein." She speaks softly. "Just a little more. Ja, ja, that is good, Mr. Klein. Now let's try it on the left side. No, no." She shakes her head. "You mustn't look at me like that. I know we can do it. There, you see?"

She bends and stretches my left arm at the elbow; only a flicker of life resides there. "Now, now, Mr. Klein, don't let me stretch it. Hold it. Just try and fight me. There, you see? It's coming back now. You've got a lot more muscle power than you think."

Miss Ulrica Hedberg—ample bosom, broad shoulders, powerful arms, hair the color of ripe wheat—projects light and strength. A Viking helmet, a breastplate, and she'd be Helga, the buxom wife of Hagar the Horrible, the no-nonsense, eminently practical keeper of the Viking hearth. I disliked her at first, when she began to manipulate my extremities with the proficiency of a mechanic to whom I was no more than a number of defective parts in need of repair. I didn't like her, for she, more than anyone, highlighted the extent of my defectiveness. In time though, I began to appreciate her direct manner that contained no trace of pity, that old enemy of mine, one I'm quick to detect within myself and within others, even if all too often imagined.

I would watch her bending my flail and nearly helpless arm, listen to her assuring voice, her promise that it was bound to become stronger any day now, knowing it was a lie, yet wanting to believe her with the faith of a child wanting to believe in magic.

Going back to my room, the corridor always seems longer. I'm alone now and tired. The tiredness seems to reside somewhere in my head; it is only half past nine in the morning. The room is small and compact, though large enough that I don't bump my wheelchair into things or have to back up incessantly to get to the window or door. It contains a bed, a desk near the window, two chairs, including a comfortable one with armrests, a dresser, and a throw rug—a cheap one, the edges frayed and linty. Damn thing forever gets caught in the wheels. And there's that painting on the wall, right above the foot of my bed. A bucolic scene of a pine forest at the edge of a lake. Cheap, probably done by the numbers and sold in the nickel and dime stores. The forest in that painting is still and lifeless. A naked sky, not a bird in flight or on a branch, and the water crystal as if it had turned to ice. As if life had fled from there, as if nature too had suffered from a stroke and became paralyzed.

Strange and disturbing, those thoughts of mine as I sit alone in my wheelchair near the single window looking down into the garden. Not much out there to gaze at this time of the year, autumn wilt having blanched the summer colors of the flowerbeds. A milky sky, a few benches along a gravel path leading toward a semicircle of other buildings—pavilions, they call them—and a few trees, an elm, a maple, and some whose names I never knew. Some have already shed their leaves, and the small fountain near the center is no longer spouting water, the basin rust-stained and cluttered with wilted leaves.

"Rest," the doctor said. "Rest and sleep." But I'm awake, listening to the monotone cooing of the pigeons roosting beneath the eaves above my window, trying to decipher their mysterious language. And there is that never-changing, drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet and the incessant whisper coming from the toilet bowl. I'm an old man surrounded by things defective. Things around me, things within me, things only half-done or done but eluding me, like the tying of my shoe laces, trying to soap my face with my one still-functioning hand, or squeezing out the toothpaste and having it land on the toothbrush. How demeaning, how degrading, always having to say thank you. And that surge of anger at every little mishap, an uncontrollable urge to break and to smash things. I pound the table, I pound the sink, I shut my eyes in the vain hope of it all vanishing and me being well again once I open them—how futile.

Was I always like this? I wonder. Is this the real me, dormant until now, caged all these years, held in check only to become awakened by the ravages of the stroke?

"Brain hemorrhage, brain ... left side, right side ... brain ... brain," they whispered at the bedside, and it reached my ears like echoes of far-off shouts, and I could perceive them long before I knew where I was and what really happened. The man looking down at me wore a white coat. So that was it. A hospital. And suddenly the room would plunge into darkness, and then the light would come on again as if some prankster was standing by the light switch, playfully turning it on and off.

And then came noises. Incessant and repetitive, some near my ear and others from far off. "Can you hear me, Nathan? Can you see me, Nathan? Sounds, manmade sounds, reverberating, bouncing off one wall and coming back at me until I had to shut my eyes and shake my head to make them go away. I wanted to say something, ask something, hear my own voice. I opened my mouth, I moved my lips, but there was only a grating, rasping sound and not my voice. I would suddenly become frightened with an overwhelming need to weep, and I would cry out, "Mameh," the only word I recognized as mine. The doctor, a young man, his was the first face I saw after I awoke. I wondered where I was and why my hands were tied down to the bedside railings. Prison bars, they seemed at first. A cage with chrome prison bars, the cage tilted, my legs higher than the rest of me, and I was afloat, unable to right myself, and I kept tugging at my wrists tethered to the bars.

It took days before I fully comprehended where I was and many more before I could recognize my son, Robert, and his wife, Margot. They told me that I kept saying no, no, no, and that I wept each time I looked at my inert left arm and nearly lifeless left leg.

"A matter of a couple of weeks," they said as they brought me here. They lied to me—my son and his prissy wife, the young doctor and the nurse, the whole lot of them. Two long months now—or is it three? I should have known they wouldn't tell me the truth. It was written on their faces. But then I so wanted to believe them.

I was not the model patient, not one resigned to having had a stroke. Nor would I meekly accept that asinine proposition of, "Thank God you're alive. So many never make it." I ranted. I raved at one half of me gone, or nearly gone, as if some cruel being had taken an ax, cleaved me in half, and left that useless part behind as a taunting reminder of the whole me I once was.

I'm still haunted by the memory of those frightful days and try to stave them off by reading the paper, writing a note, listening to my bedside radio, or simply staring at the polished top of my oak table and seeing all kind of faces in the pattern of the whorls—grotesque, some with elongated and droopy eyelids, some weeping, some grinning at me as if jeering.


The window, my vista of the world. Dreary, this gazing at an autumn garden, at that one branch of a tree stretching across my window like a gnarled and withered arm slowly waving in the breeze. Or sitting and watching how the leaves ever-so-slowly turn yellow, then brown, then are torn off by a gust of wind and flutter away. I count how many are still left. And not far off from my window, a gray, old man sits on a bench reading a paper. When he gets tired, he simply raises his glasses toward his receding hairline, closes his eyes, and turns his face to the sky, trying to catch the few warm rays of sunshine, wane and feeble these past few weeks. He always wears the same short winter coat down to his knees, a mousy-looking fur collar raised to cover his ears. And there is his cane with a carved handle slung over the back of the bench. He sits there, hours at a time, immobile like a statue except for once in a while raising his head above the brim of his collar, blowing into his cupped hands, and pulling his head back like a frightened turtle withdrawing into its shell.

There was something familiar about the man when I first saw him. But these days, there are so many old men that look familiar. Age paints them in look-alike gray hues, wrinkles mar their faces, and flesh hangs limply from their jowls. But this morning, there is something new about the man. He pulls out of his pocket a folded newspaper and opens the pages with meticulous care, gently shaking them, then folds them over with a tap of his hand. He has done this before, but this time I can see the thickly printed headlines. German. From a distance, and with my eyesight far from what it used to be, I can vaguely decipher the word Zeitung ... something or other. The man reads. His head moves as he scans the lines, and then, as if trying to remember what he read, or perhaps his eyes have become tired as mine do, he closes them and raises his head to the sky where a thin sun emerges from behind the clouds.

And as I watch him, I wonder if he is asleep now or is simply brooding over something he just read, as I often do. Once again I'm struck by something familiar about the man's face, by his bushy eyebrows that come together at the bridge of his nose and are darkly contrasted against the grayness of his receding hairline, and by his habit of raising his eyebrows like a bird unfolding its wings before taking flight. He does that and throws his forehead into a series of washboard wrinkles. And I notice that the man has no neck to speak of; it's hard to tell though with that heavy coat and fur collar. After a while, the man goes back to reading and then neatly folds the paper before placing it into the side pocket of his overcoat. For a moment, he gazes in the direction of my window, his gaze somewhat unfocused but long enough for me to notice his deep-set eyes.

And that too is something familiar. The man has blue eyes, a watery kind of blue. Deep-set, blue eyes, thick eyebrows—I've seen the man before, a long time ago. My heart begins to race—a German. A heavily truncated man, broad shoulders, powerful arms, a neck so short that his head seems to grow right out of his collarbones, and the collar—always too tight around that thick neck of his. And the collar, yes, the collar, it used to be a uniform—a German uniform. I look at his face and try to recall where I saw him, the way one thumbs through a picture album in search of a photo pasted there a long time ago. I find it at last. My God, the ghetto! That's when it was. During the war. Nearly fifty years ago. A lifetime ago. The Herr Arbeitsleiter. He is there, and I see the man now. I capture him, yes, and with a pounding heart, I see him now, and along with him the time and its people I so want to forget.

My eyes are riveted on him, and the longer I look, the fewer my doubts. I can see him now. I see him as he walks with those long strides of his through the crowded ghetto sidewalks, expecting all near him to doff their hats and step aside. Dear God, I remember it now. It's all coming back to me, vivid and unmistaken. He's there, like a sleeping beast waking from its hibernation, stretching its limbs and yawning at me. It's there, and I haven't thought about it for some time. A forbidding vision it is, a vision that tags along the past, the unwanted past, the past I haven't thought about for some time. Ah, yes, his thick neck. He wore his German uniform then, tight fitting; it seemed to be strangling him, and he would raise his chin to free his neck from an encasing collar. And at times, in a foul mood, he would place his fingers between his collar and chin and twist his head from side to side. And those of us running into him and seeing him do that would scamper away, hide in the nearest doorway, step off the curb and into the street to look inconspicuous. A bad omen, this pulling his chin forward and loosening the collar. The Herr Arbeitsleiter was a man with a temper, and when in a foul mood, he would knit his brows, and his eyes would flash anger.

He was a man to fear. But in those days, all of them in those spiffy uniforms, their boots at high polish, riding britches, belt and revolver, were men to be afraid of. He never struck anyone, not that I ever saw. He would stop a man or a woman on the sidewalk, and using a swagger stick and without ever saying a word, he would simply point at the armband with the Jewish star that was all crumpled, way down the sleeve instead of in the right place above the elbow. He would then stand there and gaze at the man or woman fidgeting, trying to put it into place. Men would doff their caps, women lower their heads, and rarely would he acknowledge them with a short nod. But still we feared the man in charge of work. Too many would be snatched away, at times right off the street, and sent somewhere never to be heard from again.

Being near the window, I watched him with a renewed interest. Having given up his pursuit of sunshine, he shifts position and looks in the direction of my window once again. Long jowls, baggy eyelids, sparse hair, his hands tremble each time he turns the page of that newspaper, the pages fluttering like wings of a butterfly. I'm beset by doubts again—no, that couldn't be him. The man I knew, Gerhard Reichenberg, the Dog Catcher of the ghetto of Kostowa, we used to call him, he was young, in his twenties, perhaps early thirties, and powerfully built. He was young then, but then so was I, only seventeen and frightened. God, how frightened we were then.

The man rises slowly and with obvious effort. Holding on to the edge of the bench, as if afraid to fall back, he pivots around to reach for his cane and then stands on the gravel with his feet apart. The man limps, and shifting his weight to his cane, he drags the left leg, leaving a track of upturned gravel behind him. He proceeds slowly. No, that couldn't be Reichenberg, the man who would walk with a swaggering gait, his long arms swinging as if on parade, the people parting like water around the prow of a swiftly moving ship. He would walk as if he owned us, rarely looking at anyone, as if looking into our eyes was beneath his dignity.

Fifty years ago, it was. I vividly remember some of it. I try to remember more, but as yet I cannot. Like an aged rubber band, the memory stretches only so far and then threatens to snap. So much happened since then. And yet, that man—hard to forget the time when walking hurriedly, elbowing my way through the crowded sidewalk, I came around the corner, nearly colliding with him. We both halted, and the man stared at me angrily. My legs trembled. I watched him raise his swagger stick toward my head, I closed my eyes, convinced he was about to strike me, but the man tapped the visor of my cap with the end of the stick—I had forgotten to doff my cap. I did so hurriedly, and he walked on.

Excerpted from The Bribe by Oskar Klausenstock. Copyright © 2013 Oskar Klausenstock. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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