Luce D'Eramo

Illustration by Gianna Meola


Escaping was extraordinarily simple.

In the Dachau concentration camp I was part of the crew assigned to clean out the waste pipes for the metropolis of Munich. Each morning we set out for the city with sticks and scrubbing brushes; they loaded us onto trucks in platoons of twenty people.

Cleaning out sewers is a more diverse job than it may appear at first: there are assorted variations.

Sometimes you have to lift a metal manhole cover on a sidewalk and lower yourself into the depths below. There’s a huge pipe down there with a short, closed neck that protrudes vertically from it. You uncover this neck and jab the stick in it, swirling it around to dislodge the amassed feces. You have to scrape and stir them until they slide down again.

At other times we cleaned the toilets and drainpipes in factories and public buildings. Or they took us to the huge drainage conduit where, using long sticks, we pushed at the stuck feces from the window openings and sloshed corrosive acids and water on them; then all that noxious decomposition flowed away rapidly like an infernal torrent. After that, we attached the scrubbing brushes to the sticks and scoured the walls of the conduit.

But the worst was when they brought us to rural villages to empty the cesspools: out there, there are no sewer pipes. When the black holes fill up, you have to empty them with buckets and eventually climb in. Only then did they give us masks and rubber boots, and we worked covered in shit until we finished.

A lot of people got sick and there were some who died from toxicity.

There were also good days, when the pipes were not blocked by excrement, when the public toilets functioned efficiently and the “grand canal” flowed without obstruction; on those days we were promoted to the grade of manure spreaders, called Mistbreiter.

We were sent out to farms. We went behind the stables and, with the pitchforks they gave us on the spot, loaded the manure onto wagons. Then we followed the wagons, on foot, to outlying fields. Once we reached our destination, the wagons would stop every ten yards or so and the farmer would dump out a pile of manure that we had to spread around.

I’d sink the pitchfork into the pile and, contracting my muscles, lift with a swift, violent wrench until it emerged with an excessive load of manure; then, as I was about to scatter it around, my muscles gave way, and the fork wavered and overturned. So I jabbed the fork in again, trying to pull it out slowly with a steady force, and just when I was congratulating myself at seeing it rise smoothly, I noticed the long, bare prongs draped with only a few strands of dripping manure.

The ideal time to escape was during unexpected air raids while we were at work, when there was no warning and the enemy bombardment was sudden enough to surprise the guards, who had a hard time rounding us up.

So that’s what I did.

I looked into it for some time, cautiously because the Nazis managed to make us suspicious of one another. The internees do not look favorably upon those who want to escape from the camp, because every getaway doubles the surveillance and results in additional punishments and penalties for those who remain; nor do the escapees ever make themselves known because they are afraid of being informed on by fellow prisoners unable to endure torture or resist promises of reward.

Under pressure, I was able to learn that in the city of Munich, about ten miles away, right near the Labor Bureau, there is a so-called Durchgangslager, a transit camp where fugitives hide out while waiting to find a more secure accommodation. The camp is commonly referred to by us as the Thomasbräu, after the nearby Thomas brewery. I treasured that reference as if it were a reliable friend whose first name was Thomas and whose last name was Bräu.

At Dachau they told me:

“Kiss the ground and be thankful they didn’t throw you into one of their brothels. Nineteen years old, female, what were you expecting . . . freedom in the Third Reich?”

But one afternoon when we’d been transported to Munich, as we were working on the sidewalk sewers in a downtown neighborhood, the siren sounded, immediately followed by explosive thuds; people were fleeing, I flattened myself in a doorway, darted into the next doorway . . . a narrow alley, I squeeze into a niche amid the uproar of the bombs, eyes darting all around me, I throw off the rubber gear. No one is pursuing me. Still running, I reach the station where I think I’ll be safer from any snitches, since no one takes refuge there during bombings.

In the snow, which falls unsteadily, confused, I head for the dead-end sidings where debris piles up; the tracks emerge from the snow to testify to their straitened circumstances, and draw me to them like sad old friends. I move among the torn-up metal that juts out in twisted hunks and sit behind a shed on a rusty shaft that protrudes sideways from a pile of rubble.

The bombs follow one another compulsively and crash like waves in a stormy sea. I’m not afraid because every boom is my accomplice.

When I see the planes move on to the other side of the city, I get up and go in search of an air-raid shelter, to hide and mix in with the people.

I walk through deserted streets in the dithering snow until I come across the opening of an underground station that looks like a subway under construction; I go down the stairs and come out into a long, wide corridor full of poor indigents, so it must be a bunker for foreigners. I look at them avidly as if to trace the face of freedom: they have sagging mouths, jaws, and a vague mask of defiance on their faces. No one pays any attention to me.

When the all-clear sounds, I ask an Italian who seems friendly and more welcoming where the Labor Bureau is.

“At this hour?” he looks at his watch.

“What time is it?"

“It’s eight o’clock, the Bureau is closed.”

“It doesn’t matter. Where is it?”

The man picks a crumpled piece of yellow paper off the ground, smoothes it out meticulously with his hands, flattening it against the wall, and with a pencil, under the dim glow of a dangling light bulb, sketches a map of the streets I need to take.

Other Italians gather around me.

“Are you Italian?”


“Where are you from?”

“From Rome.”



“For a long time?”


“So, nothing new.”

They don’t ask me any more questions. They go out of their way to explain to me where I have to go.

One says:

“At Sendicatorplatz you can ask.” (Later I’ll find out that the real name is Sendlinger-Tor-Platz, which no foreigner has ever been able to pronounce correctly.)

Someone else shrugs:

“Don’t you understand that she can’t ask?”


They look at me uninterestedly. I wonder if they can help me? I take a chance:

“Where are you staying?”

“At Siemens. Today is a day off.”

“Some day off!” one of them remarks, spitting on the floor. “Slammed in here.”

“If you need anything, come on over.”

“We’re in barrack eighteen in the first camp.”

“But be careful.”

They say goodbye. They go away.

I don’t know what to do and I hide in a corner. People leave, no German guard appears. The dim light bulbs go out. I wait in the uncertain silence.

I wake up terrified because I fell asleep without meaning to and I’m afraid it’s grown late. I go outside: it’s the dead of night. It’s still snowing; occasional streetlamps, their glass obscured, cast a mysterious light on the harsh houses, on streets made even more immaculate by the snow.

I walk along following the route on the yellow paper; undisturbed, I wander through streets smoothed over by whiteness, in dazzling solitude, caressed by the snow that teases me. The Labor Bureau must be here, though I can’t make out any Lager, I don’t see any barracks, or barbed wire, no guards walking around. Only uniform houses, their white roofs lowered over gray facades like inhospitable visors, continually barring the way in order to repel me.

I’m exhausted from the cold, tired and hungry. A furtive shadow slinks in front of me, sees me, stops, watches me.

It’s a blond young man, thin, tense, eyes like two slits. He looks like a foreigner. I wish he’d say something, but he remains silent. Maybe he’s waiting for me to speak first. I raise my hand slowly and nod at him. He repeats my gesture. I’d like to call out, but I’m afraid of the sound of my voice in the soft silence. I raise my hand again to motion him over to me.

He approaches, his right hand in his pocket.

“What do you want?” he asks me in French, looking me up and down. His voice is as peaceful as the snow and doesn’t disturb anything.

“Are you French?” I ask in turn in his language.

“Yes. And you?”

“I’m Italian, but born and raised in France.”

“What are you looking for?”

Suddenly I feel very trustful:

“Thomasbräu,” I tell him.

A quick smile, affectionate and patronizing, flickers over his gaunt, impassive face.

“Come with me.”

He walks briskly, without a sound, on the unspoiled snow, and I can barely keep up.

When we come to a corner, he turns to me: “Hurry up.”

“Okay.” I nod fervently and speed up; I have the impression that my steps alone are making a terrible racket, while his are muffled.

We arrive in front of a wall. The young Frenchman moves closer and stands facing it.

“Climb on me and scramble over.”

I start to climb, but am left awkwardly straddling his back, unable to go any farther.

The boy sighs: “Get down,” he says brusquely.

I slide off. He picks me up, I barely have time to marvel at his strength (it comes from freedom, I think joyfully).

“Grab onto the edge of the wall, watch out for the glass shards.” I do what he says and cut my hand.

“Put your feet on my shoulders. Now climb over.”

A thud and I find myself sitting on the ground, on the other side of the wall. With an agile leap the Frenchman joins me, pulls me up, takes my hand and pulls me along.

We’re in a spacious courtyard, occupied by massive silhouettes of vehicles camouflaged by the snow. On the ground, shiny white tracks left by tires trace diamond patterns and arabesques.

The young man stops.

“Beautiful,” he says, his eyes indicating the tracks: “It looks like they’re trying to tell us something.” He looks at me and smiles again like he did earlier.

“What’s your name?”


“I’m Louis.”

He starts walking again, unhurriedly, lighting a cigarette. I’m worried that someone will pop out from behind a truck, but I don’t dare tell him that.

“Is it far?” I ask as we leisurely make our way across the courtyard, as if we were out for a stroll.

“There,” he points to a small door that I hadn’t noticed in the wall in front of us, which is not actually a wall, but the side of a house without windows.

A pang of dismay freezes me:


“What is it?”

“I wanted the Thomasbräu Lager.”

“I know.”

We reach the door. He shoves it open with his hip. He goes in, stamps his feet vigorously to shake off the snow, pulls me inside and kicks the door shut. He switches the light on.

We’re in a clammy corridor full of spit and dirt; a pipe runs along a wall, bending abruptly into the hall and ending at a thunderous faucet which noisily spills water into a bucket. The water splashes out onto the floor and races toward the door in rivulets.

Louis grabs the bucket, tosses the water into a corner, sets it upside down.

“Have a seat,” he says.

He crouches on his calves in front of me.

“What, don’t you like the place?” he asks with mock innocence.

“Oh yes, very much.”

“Where did you come from?”


He gives an admiring whistle. He gathers his thoughts and says:

“So then, Thomasbräu is officially the Labor Bureau’s transit camp where foreigners stay while waiting for a new job or to be repatriated, waiting for new convoys to be formed because, in case you didn’t know it, none of us, not even those sold for free labor, has the right to travel alone.”

“Isn’t it dangerous there?”

“Dangerous?” he snickers briefly. “Not at all: we’re safe there. Who could be better informed than us about searches, rumors concerning escapees or suspects?”

“Aren’t there informers?”

“Informers! Don’t be silly! The camp also houses those who are really waiting for a decision from the Labor Bureau, there are a lot of them in fact and they’re always changing, replacing one another, the ones who get a job leave and new ones arrive. New faces all the time! How can the Germans tell the difference between them all? The majority of the new arrivals don’t have documents, they’re people who’ve been rounded up in the streets, morons deported by mistake, desperate volunteer workers. If one of us should end up at roll call due to a slip-up, all he has to do is answer confidently to any name, receive a glance in return and that’s that.”

“And the new ones keep quiet?”

“What do they know? We sure don’t go and own up to them!”

“But at roll call?”

“Not a word! Those people are so scared they’re shaking. Don’t worry, they don’t bother anybody, really: they hole up all day and don’t spend their time at Thomasbräu.”

“The brewery?”


“What about the Germans?”

“Which ones?”

“The ones at the Bureau.”

“Whoever sees them? We go there late in the evening when they’re at home eating their lard, or in the day during office hours, when they’re slaving over their stupid paperwork.”

“Isn’t the brewery owner an informer?”

“Forget about informers! Nobody pays him better than we do. It’s not worth it to him.”

“But where do you get the money?”

Louis stands up, irritated, looking down on me as if to say, “Are you done acting smart?”

“Go to sleep, go on.”

I stand up too:


“In there.” With a look he indicates a rickety little door at the end of the hall.

I don’t dare move. I’m afraid of being left alone. Just to say something, I ask him:

“How come you always keep your hand in your pocket?”

Louis pulls out a revolver.

I stumble over the bucket.

“Where do you come from, anyway?” he says with a tight-lipped smile.

Thin, skinny maybe, but nimble, with something feline about his movements and posture. He’s wearing blue coveralls; back straight, head held high on a tense, sturdy neck. He has sharp, pointy features, a little like a weasel; his eyes are small, shifty, changeable, at this moment very dark, his mouth a slit with no lips, blond hair the color of chestnut wood, unruly in back, his expression guardedly harsh.

He puts the gun back in his pocket and takes out his hand. He seems more conciliatory:

“Force of habit.”

“I see,” I say (how did he manage to get hold of a weapon?). “I’m sorry,” I add.

He studies me. “You’re a . . .” he begins, then falls silent. Continuing to stare at me, not turning away, he spits the cigarette stub out of the corner of his mouth like a bullet. “They raised you not to get your hands dirty, right?” he laughs with a quick smirk. I laugh curtly in return. We gaze into each other’s eyes for a long moment. “Lucky you!” he sighs. He turns abruptly and goes to shut off the faucet: “That water is annoying, isn’t it?” He looks at me again and says, “Let’s go.” He starts toward the rickety door pushing me ahead of him. He opens the door slowly.

Hidden in shadows, the lumpy profiles of straw mattresses on bunk beds takes shape in front of me, and the sweaty stench of humanity in closely packed quarters assails me.

I recognize my world of Dachau. All that effort only to find myself at the same point again.

I stop at the door.

“Are you scared?” he whispers softly.


Louis goes in and disappears among the beds. I hear heavy, raucous breathing intermingling confusedly in the darkness. After a short while he reappears, takes my hand, and leads me through the tight spaces to a corner where two pallets are empty. “Lie down there,” he murmurs. He leaves. Someone groans and moves with sinister creaking.

The light from the corridor is turned off. Louis’s form reappears and he lies down on the mattress next to mine.

He lights a cigarette and in the brief glow of the match the upper bunk can be seen, the eternal baldachin of the Lagers, presumptuous and grotesque in its wasted form. Louis slips a blanket out from under his pallet and throws it to me.

“Cover yourself.”

“What about you?”

“I’m warm.”

“Is this where you sleep?”


After a while he hands me a bar of chocolate.

“Eat it.”

I finger it, because I think it’s a joke.

“Thank you.”

Slowly I unwrap it from the thin silver paper my touch has forgotten, lingering to savor the delicate sensation.

Meanwhile, more distinct sounds emerge from the oppressive air, muffled laughter, groans, a swelling surge, like a shifting, heaving mass. The wooden timbers seem to be frenzied, in an insolent nocturnal life of their own.



“Is this one of their brothels?”

“We screw among ourselves.” He waits.

“Men enter freely?”

Louis turns on his side:

“Do you perhaps expect the Nazi gentlemen to go so far as to provide separate dormitories for men and women?”

“In Dachau . . .” I start to say.

“There they do, and here they don’t,” he cuts me short. “As it suits them, my dear girl. There they do, because it’s easier to monitor them when they’re separated, and because abstinence is a punishment. Here they don’t, because for a temporary Lager such an arrangement would involve too much effort, and because foreigners entering Germany should learn right away that they’re nothing but swine.” He pauses. “Get it? Inferior races.”

“I see.”

“You don’t copulate over there?” he asks with exaggerated innocence.

“In Dachau?”

“Don’t say that name, dummy.”

“Some make love, but the men enter secretly and risk their lives.”

“What did I tell you?” he laughs. “And you?”

“No, I don’t.”

After a moment, Louis replies, “Too bad,” and turns his back.

A big hand moves towards me across the space that separates me from the other bunk bed. It starts groping the blankets. An arm follows, a hairy face appears.

My throat is dry. I reach out towards Louis. He sits up abruptly.

“What’s wrong?” He lights a match. He deals a sharp blow to the fingers that have reached my breast.

The hand retracts like a mechanical device.

“Leave her alone, she’s my girl,” Louis hisses.

The hairy face vanishes with a grunt.

Louis makes me change places and moves over to my pallet. I stare into the shadows. In front of me, in the semidarkness, on the upper level of the bunk across the way, I gradually make out a jumble of bodies from which tangled arms and legs stick out, stretching and contracting like the multiple blind antennae of huge snails. I close my eyes, the rancid smell of the blanket in my nose.

“Squeeze in!” an excited voice yells.

“Don’t slump on top of me!” another one pants, out of breath. Jibes, suggestive remarks, rude catcalls then spill out, as if a repressed effusiveness, lying in wait, had been given the green light. Occasional drowsy voices wearily break their silence.

It’s true, escape is an expedient that is merely outward appearance, fundamental nature remains unchanged.

Louis isn’t sleeping, he lights a cigarette.

“Don’t cry,” he whispers. He leans over me:

“They’re just poor devils.”

Seeing myself exposed, I cry even more.

When I wake up, I feel as if I’m hemmed in: those standing up, bent forward with their heads under the beams of the upper bunks, are chatting beside the beds; others are sitting up on top with their legs dangling, while others still are milling around in the narrow spaces between the beds, backs leaning against the wood frames. Anemic, evasive faces, dark circles under sunken eyes, stick figures made of rotten, measly wood, entrenched filth.

Yet observing these sordid, anxious creatures, this misery that breathes around me like swamp air on an abandoned daffodil, I feel like I’ve been part of it from time immemorial.

Louis’s pallet is empty. There is a package with my name. I take it and unwrap it: in it I find a big piece of bread with two sausages. No one says a word to me. I hide the bundle in my coverall. I go wash up in the corridor, plunging my arms into the bucket and rubbing my face with the bracing water.

The word spreads swiftly like a gust of wind: “Police.”

The camp empties. I go outside; to the left of the door, in the courtyard, there’s a gate through which they all leave with a show of nonchalance, scattering along the way.

It’s raining. The snow has disintegrated into a dreary gray slush.

I walk until I come to a desolate, welcoming cemetery. I go inside, there are no crosses or cypresses. It seems like the old garden of an enchanted castle where everyone has been turned to stone. I stroll along slowly and say a prayer at random: like when I was a little girl and would amuse myself sitting at the window, watching the passersby and mentally reciting the “Angel of God” for figures whom I chose aimlessly, on a whim.

I eat my bread and sausage, savoring them slowly, and spend the day there until, turning quickly, I notice that the shadows are lengthening, reaching out everywhere like absorbent stains, and that the light descending through the latticework of foliage is more and more spidery and tenuous. Racing out, I bump into a red house, starkly exposed on the sidewalk, and return to the camp.

I lie down on my pallet in the darkest corner. The shadows thicken. Louis is nowhere in sight. I’m afraid, what if he doesn’t come back? I should obtain some information. But since leaving Dachau I’d set myself a goal: to go unnoticed, mix in completely with the crowd.

I don’t want to die.

Finally Louis shows up. I sit up on the mattress. He jerks his head toward the door.

“Come with me.”

I follow him happily.

He turns to me and winks: “Let’s go get to know Thomasbräu.”

In the mist dissolved by the muted red glow of twilight, it seems to me, in my sudden contentment, that the houses with their intermittently illuminated windows are twinkling at me like the befuddled, shiny faces of the patrons in a smoke-filled, crowded tavern.

It’s as if things were waking up from a hazy languor. Even Louis is different than he was yesterday.

We go into Thomasbräu. A room with solid tables and benches, walls paneled halfway up in wood, dignified deer antlers of various sizes and branches mounted high on the walls, beer steins. A lot of noisy people, foreigners.

To the right is another room with small, intimate tables, white tablecloths and small vases of flowers, swanky customers, a subtle chamber orchestra: the Germans’ dining room.

Louis shows me to a seat in the wood-paneled room, next to a couple whom he greets with a quick wave of his right index finger, and sits down beside me.

“Here you are, Lucie. These friends will protect you since I rarely stay at the camp, so I’m putting you in their hands. They already know who you are.”

The woman is young, with a marmoreal complexion, gentle, remote blue eyes, cropped shaggy hair; she’s in an advanced state of pregnancy. The man has very dark skin and hair, dark eyes; he’s older, with the deep-set wrinkles typical of peasants from the south. He immediately explains to me, in the broken French of emigrants, that the “lady” is Polish, while he is Sicilian.

“I’m Italian too,” I laugh.

“Oh,” he nods soberly. “Good,” he says, then proceeds to tell me the story of his companion. “Her husband, a Polish patriot, was shot by the Nazis and she was deported to Germany and put here to await the delivery. After which they want to shoot her.” He gestures as he talks, but his tone of voice is composed and his hands sometimes pause in mid-air. “I love her, I want to adopt her child, they won’t make a Nazi out of him.” His face contracts. He relaxes his jaw: “I want to marry her,” he says with a slight bow to his beloved. “She’s very intelligent,” he smiles at her, “she’s already learning a little Italian. I work for a German civilian and I’m trying to find a way out. I have less than two months’ time,” he says, a gleam of frantic resolution in his eyes. The woman looks at him with patient tenderness. The Sicilian continues:

“Louis told me to watch over you too. So then, always stay close to Dunja, no one will do anything to you.”

The woman smiles at me.

Louis looks at his watch.

“I’ll leave you now. I have to go.”

“Go and don’t worry,” the Sicilian replies in French, clapping him on the shoulder with a certain respect.

Louis waves goodbye to everyone and without turning around goes away.

At the camp, I lie down next to Dunja.

translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel