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Tank Chocolate

The stench of death clung to the hot summer air, hanging over the city in a suffocating layer. The blazing sun was the only thing in the vast empty sky. It scorched the cobblestone streets and turned the tight urban corridors into an oven. There was a wall that ran through the city. It’s top was wrapped in barbwire and it was kept under the watch of rifle sites. The wall was a quarantine measure meant to isolate Warsaw's Jewish population. It was part of a process to physically excise them like a gangrenous limb. 
The residents on the wrong side of the wall were branded with yellow stars. Hunger and fear were their constant companions and death cast it’s long shadow over the remains of the war torn city.
What were formerly homes had become stifling cells in an overcrowded urban prison. Crammed into one apartment four stories up where multiple families spanning many generations loosely connected by a few elderly members. These times of extreme deprivation had forced them to sacrifice comfort, privacy, and dignity so that they may hopefully live to see the next day.
When they heard the death dealing cadre thundering up the stairs of their building they huddled together like a pack of frightened pack animals. They collectively held their breath as they listened to the footsteps draw closer and closer and grow louder and louder. The invaders were shouting in a language almost unrecognizable to their ears making them sound even more like monsters.
The footsteps stopped, everyone stared at the front door with wide unblinking eyes, and for a moment time came to a standstill.... The heavy leather boot crashed through the wooden door like a battering ram. The pleas of a mother and the crying of her children were drowned out by the stomping feet of tall figures donned in ebony S.S. death shrouds. Their caps were adorned with the the grinning face of death. They were followed by two members of the Jewish police. They raced in like ravenous dogs just let off the leash. 
The two Judische Ghetto-Polizei were men possessed by the specter of desperation and had begun to take on a ghoulish form. They wore heavy jackets to hide their emaciated frames, their flesh had no depth as if it it had been painted on their bones. The yellow star of David was wrapped around their arm bands but their empty shark eyes, every bit as hollow as the sterling silver skulls, told more about these men than the star on their arms. They tried to use their natural inclination towards violence to curry favor with the German conquerors, but the more they carried out their vile orders, the more their master’s disdain for them grew.
The rather chipper voice of Peter Reindlandhoffer was carrying up the stairs from behind the mobile exterminators, “All I am saying is sometimes they can surprise you,  for instance, did you know it was actually a Russian film maker who came up with the theory of intellectual montage?”
What?” A much lower and raspier voice answered. Peter Reindlander and S.S. Sturmbannfurher Werner Manstein came through the door. Rheinlander continued his delightful little lecture on film theory, giving practically no notice to the men, women, and children being ushered past him at gunpoint while the savage Jewish police kept pace with their clubs. 
Rheinlander was a young recent university graduate. He was short and thin, wire frame glasses covered his twinkling sky blue eyes, and light brown locks hung over his forehead. He had been barely in his mid twenties when the tiny little production company he had formed with a few friends in his hometown was contracted to make propaganda films with the S.S. In Warsaw. He and his crew were attached to Manstein's unit.  Manstein could not have been more the the polar opposite of Peter. Whereas Peter radiated youthful enthusiasm Manstein had an air of sorrow about him. Deep deep dark circles that ran around his brooding eyes, his long body, bad posture, and hook nose gave him the appearance of a looming vulture. He was not ten years old than Peter but age seemed to have decayed him far more rapidly. It was not long ago he was a youthful upstart much like Peter, but something during his tenure in the S.S. had transformed him into this figure, wracked by pain and distorted by anguish.
The intellectual montage,” Peter repeated as if somehow this would turn a light in the clearly disinterested Manstein's mind, “is the use of juxtaposition images to convey an idea that the images on their own could not communicate.”
Oh,” murmured Manstein, “is that something you learned in film school?” he asked.
Yes” Peter said with a smile ,“not too many people have a grasp of all the intellectual components that go into making a proper piece of cinema.”
Is that so?” Manstein murmured as he pulled the brim of his cap down his forehead.
The overly energetic Peter didn't seem to notice the horrific state the S.S. Major was in. A cold sweat had broke across his brow, and his skin was waxy and pale. The veins in his head pulsated with pain, and nausea overtook him as the room began to spin like a carousel. “Excuse me for a moment,” said Manstein.
Of course Herr Sturmbannfuhrer,” replied Peter.
Mansfield lurched away and headed for the bathroom just to the right. He looked around at the little apartment. Dusty cracks wound around the ceiling like rivers on a map, there was almost no furniture, and the white paint was dull and chipped. Yet he could tell it must have been quite nice before the war. They even had their own bathroom. He found the little bathroom in the hallway and quickly shut the door. He felt around in the darkness for the string to pull the light on. His hand found it but the light didn't come on. “Damn, no electricity” he murmured. He felt around for the sink. He turned the faucet but no water came out. “No running water either,” he sighed. He gripped the edges of the sink, lowered his head, and shut his eyes.
That helped the nausea a little bit. His breathing was rapid and shallow. He let the darkness enveloped him and tried to shut out the chaos in the next room. He could hear the stomping feet accompanied by the sobbing of women, and the cries of children. It had all become far too normal to him, like a constant accompanying soundtrack to his life in wartime.
He reached into his pocket for his silver cigarette case. He fumbled with it in the darkness when he got it open he heard something hit the floor with a slight tap. “Shit,” he muttered. He fell to his knees and began feeling around. Werner wasn't keeping cigarettes in the case. He was stashing away what the Panzer crews called “Panzerschokolade” a powerful amphetamine distributed by their commanders. He felt the little tablet against his palm. He breathed a sigh of relief. 
He slipped it back in the case, stood up and leaned against the wash basin. After a few moments it felt like his nausea had abated. He adjusted his cap and headed back outside. The sun flooded into the room through the windows and pierced Mansfield’s darkness adjusted eyes.
The light pierced his eyes and the pain made him squint. He shuffled over to the kitchen and stood in the entrance. Peter was busy designing his set. He had drawn back the cloth floral shades over the small windows above the sink. Mansfield could see every particle of dust floating through the sun's rays. Sitting at the small round cafe style table were a man in a woman both looking to be about middle aged. 
The woman had very curly and very bright red hair that had become frizzy in the heat. She wore equally deep red lip stick, and an equally red dress. The man sitting across from her had thinning brown hair that had receded to the middle of his head. He wore a pin stripped suit that was a too big for his thin frame and his collar was stained with sweat. They both were silently looking down at the table while Peter circled around them like a shark. 
To Peter's right another young man watched the scene through the lens of his 8mm camera. One of the Jewish police ushered in a young boy probably no more than ten years old. He had a shaved head and wore dusty tattered clothes that looked like they hadn't been changed in a long time. Peter pointed to a plate of bread and cheese on the counter top. “Tell him to pick up the plate,” Peter said to the policeman. He repeated the command in Polish. The boy hesitated, the policeman's foot darted out and smashed into the boys chest. He fell to the floor and the command was repeated again. Holding his chest the boy pulled himself up and picked up the plate. “Have him serve it to the people at the table,” Peter commanded. The policeman translated the order in his guttural voice. 
And action!” Peter called out. The boy slowly walked over to the table and held up the plate to the red headed woman. She clenched her eyes shut. She couldn't look at the boy. “Take some of the bread” said Peter. She seemed to understand she slowly reached out and took a piece of the bread. “Cut cut cut!” Peter cried out. “This is all wrong this boy is supposed to be your servant!” he shouted. He gave the policeman a glance and he instantly slapped the woman across the face.
All Right from the top!” Shouted Peter.
The nausea quickly returned and washed over Mansfield like a wave. He shut his eyes to the inane scene being created before him. His breathing picked up again and even as his blood burned like fire sweat was running down his flesh like drops of ice water. His mouth began to overflow with saliva as he tried to fight back the bile racing up from his stomach. “Major are you feeling well?” someone asked. Manstein didn't answer he raced over to the open window hung his head out and vomited onto the street below.
The next time Mansfield opened his eyes he was laying on a small couch in a dark room. His head throbbed and pulsed with pain. He looked around the room with disoriented eyes. After a moment the scenes from earlier returned to his mind. Breaking down the door, sitting in the bathroom, then vomiting out the window. He shut his eyes again and rubbed his temples. He heard a chuckle in the other room. He opened his eyes again. There was a solitary lantern glowing in the kitchen.
Manstein slowly stood up. His legs wobbled beneath his body and he almost tumbled over. He wobbled towards the kitchen. As he approached he could see Peter sitting at the little round table. Manstein stumbled over something in darkness. “Ouch” someone said. He looked down his S.S. Men were sleeping on the floor around him. “Sorry,” he whispered to the resting trooper. Peter looked over, “Oh good, you're awake,” he said. Manstein nodded and rubbed his head. “Feeling better I trust?” said Peter.
Yes much so,” replied Manstein. “What are you doing” ?
““Creating a rough storyboard for the shots we took today,” Peter answered.
Oh, is that like some kind of proposed arrangement of the scenes”? Manstein asked. “Right”! Said Peter with a gleeful smile. Manstein dragged himself over to the table and fell into one of the small chairs, “I need a drink,” he murmured.
Peter grinned again and picked up a black leather satchel sitting on the floor next to him pulling out a bottle of red wine. “some of the best wine from the Rheinland,” he said.  Now it was Manstein's turn to grin, “Bringing wine to Warsaw, good idea,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his silver cigarette case. “Here, try one of these,” he said pushing one of the little white pills over to Peter.
What is it?” Peter asked.
They call it 'tank chocolate'. I have a friend who works as chief of staff in a panzer division. This is what the tank crews took during the blitzkrieg. It makes you feel energetic, alert, and invincible”. Peter held the little white capsule between his fingers and studied it a moment. “Well bottoms up”. He chuckled as he swallowed the pill with a swig of wine.
As the amphetamines coursed through their veins Peter and Werner began to chat away as if they had been the oldest of friends. It became so jovial and lively that the sleeping S.S. troopers had to look elsewhere for a place to sleep. The combination of speed and alcohol seemed to send the current of time racing forward and it was not long before the two started to notice the first signs of the approaching dawn. The heavy darkness had lightened into a deep blue shade. The sporadic chirping of birds could be heard, as well as the sounds of feet and wooden wheels against the cobblestone streets below. Having long forgotten about the makeshift storyboard, Peter had set himself on explaining everything he knew about cinema to Manstien.  Who, because of the amphetamines was now giving him his undivided attention. “So then the rocket crashes right into the Moon's eyes!” he exclaimed.  They both erupted into laughter, which after a moment became  chuckling, then things became quiet again.
So how long have you been in the S.S.?” Peter asked.
The smile disappeared from Werner's face, “Oh I would have to say about 6 years now.” “Wow that is an impressive length of service” said Peter, “Germany thanks you,” he concluded with a small salute.
Werner scoffed “I'm not soldier, I'm a murderer,” he mumbled.
I'm sorry?” Said Peter.
Werner lowered his head and sighed. “Are you married Peter? “ he asked.
No, but I am engaged,” replied Peter.
Well congratulations”. Said Werner wryly, “next month would have been my fourth  wedding anniversary,”  said Werner.  “Would have?” Peter repeated.  “She died….well, actually she killed herself last spring.”   Peter remained silent, Werner went on in a mocking tone, puffing his chest out,  “because of my great and heroic service to the Fatherland.”
I don't understand Herr Major,”  Peter replied.
“‘Major?...Ha! Majors are soldiers,” Werner hissed. “I am no soldier. I am a murderer in a pretty uniform.  How many armies do you think I have fought while wearing this shiny little wrapper?” Werner asked rhetorically, “None.  Over the course of my distinguished service I've only fired upon old men, crippled boys, women, and little children. The adults understand better what death is, they're afraid, they look away, but the children...they stare right at you until the very moment the bullets shut their eyes forever.” Werner looked down, “and sometimes they don't shut at all. They stare at you from the bottom of the muddy pit as the blood begins to pool around them. After my first return from the Eastern Front the cracks really began to show. “
When I returned to her I did my best to act as if nothing had changed, but it became impossible. Women are a bit like dogs in that regard they have an innate sense when something is wrong. Finally she asked, and I made the mistake of telling her the truth. After I told her everything she seemed to have no reaction. She seemed to just shut down. Her once twinkling eyes lost their light. Every day with her was one forced interaction after the next. She stopped coming to be with me. Finally there was this.”
Werner reached into one of the pockets on his uniform and pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it across the table to Peter. Peter took the paper and held it for a moment. “Go ahead, open it,” Werner whispered. Peter unfolded the note and smoothed it out on the surface of the table.
I always believed love was eternal, but now I understand its existence is every bit as delicate as our own. Like us love balances on an edge and can fall off at any given moment. What I thought I would feel for you until my last breath died in just a few hours after you told me everything that happened. Everything you did.  I am sorry, but I would rather face the consequences of what I am about to do than spend one more night with you. My only fear now is that I might see you in hell.
Peter silently placed the note back down on the table. “So you see,” said Werner “I must hope there is no God because he would never forgive me for what I've done. I keep this note with me in case I should meet my demise out here.  It will be a reminder to me I deserve to die.”
Surely you will be vindicated by history,” said Peter. “The mission of the National Socialist and that of Germany is not for the faint of heart.”  Werner shook his head. “Those are the pretty words of those who never had to pull the trigger” He murmured. Peter had no reply. “Excuse me one moment,” Said Werner. Peter nodded. Werner picked up the lantern and headed for the bathroom.
The room was even smaller than he had imagined in the dark. Not much bigger than a closet. He lantern's flame cast his long shadow over the wall and along the ceiling. He took a long look at himself in the mirror. He was disgusted by the haggard face that stared back at him with its tired eyes. He felt his hand gripping the cold steel handle of his Luger. He slowly raised the barrel, held it to his temple, and shut his eyes.
When his eyelids fluttered open he was in a brightly lit room, with gleaming white tile floors, and freshly painted ivory walls. The little rusty wash basin had become a large spotless porcelain sink, and the gun had disappeared from his hand. the man he had locked eyes with in the mirror was someone entirely different.
Besides a few white strands over the top, his hair had all but gone, his skin was wrinkled, and his face was round and fat. Werner was an old man. A very old man in the waning days of his life. He leaned in to the mirror and ran his fingers over his wrinkled flesh. “Grandpa Werner, Pizza's here!” The voice of a young girl called from the other side of the door. “Be right down,” Werner called back in a low raspy voice that contained little hint of his German accent.
For Werner alcohol and so-called Panzerschokolade had been a way to medicate. It helped silence the screams of the people in the pit, and it it helped dissolve the image of his first love, at least for a while. Werner had never been able to pull the trigger, and after the drugs were gone he had to look for other ways to dull the pain.   He had strove to distract himself by creating a new life. He eventually went to America and attempted to repair himself mentally and physically. He and a new wife had children, who eventually had children of their own.
None of them ever learned the truth about their dear old husband, father or grandfather. They didn't know what he hid behind his eyes, and that to him they were simply ways to dull an old pain just the same as the panzerschokolade.  


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