One of the biggest challenges of my life, both professionally and personally, came totally out of the blue. Although I was a practicing psychiatrist at the time, I wasn’t a forensic psychiatrist nor was I the kind of person who sought out difficult cases. But I was on staff at a teaching hospital and generally well thought of by my colleagues, the result, probably, of staying in the background. Things are different now of course, but thirty-five years ago female psychiatrists were rare, at least in France, so I had to be careful around the men. Still, there were times when gender was an advantage. Or so Professor Glasser claimed when he called me into office one sunny day in September and asked if I’d be willing to evaluate a high-profile defendant.
“It’s a big case,” he said, pausing provocatively for just a moment before revealing that the defendant was none other than Klaus Barbie, the so-called Butcher of Lyon who’d just been extradited from South America. “It would be a feather in your cap,” he added, gesturing emphatically with his ever-present cigar, “a chance to get inside the mind of a Nazi war criminal.”
I glanced at the ash accumulating on the cigar’s tip, afraid it would drop onto the carpet at any moment. “But why not Dr. Weber? Isn’t he the one who usually—”
“Listen,” said Professor Glasser, cutting in abruptly. “Weber’s already been there. Gorin and Vedrinne, too. Three men, all of them top of their field, and what do they come back with? He’s intelligent. Sociable even. But peculiarly unemotional.” Professor Glasser shook his large head in disgust. “Peculiarly unemotional,” he repeated. “Imagine that: Klaus Barbie is peculiarly unemotional.” Then, finally tapping the ash from his cigar into an ashtray, he added, “No, it must be you. A woman. You’ll do better, I know.”
For a moment, I sat there paralyzed. “But, really, I don’t think I’m the right—”
“Of course you are. Blonder would have been better, but you’ll see. He’ll try to impress you, start boasting about his exploits even before you open your mouth.”
Grimly, I stared at my hands which were tightly folded in my lap. This was the last thing I needed—some grandiose voyou trying to impress me. Hadn’t I had enough of that with R, always so full of praise for himself, always expecting me to fall at his feet.
“But don’t you need someone who speaks German?”
“No, not at all. He’s ridiculously proud of his French.”
“But someone like him? Would I be tough enough?”
Professor Glasser looked at me from under his bushy brows. “Oh come now, Solange,” he said, breaking away from protocol to call me by my first name. “I’ve observed you with patients. You’re the iron fist inside the velvet glove.”
I smiled at this unexpected cliché. I’d never told Professor Glasser anything about my history, but I walked around thinking he must have intuited it. He was a very astute practitioner, someone who had actually studied under Karl Jung. And yet he thought of me as an iron fist!
“So you’ll do it,” said Professor Glasser, leaning forward in his chair and beaming at me. “I’m sure Judge Riss will be delighted to hear this.” I couldn’t help thinking, just from the way he said this, that the judge had probably been given my name already.
Within days, a crate of Xeroxed documents arrived at my office from Judge Riss. Included with them was a list of the charges against Barbie:
– The roundup of 86 Jews from the U.G.I.F. office on February 9, 1943.
– The arrest and torture of 19 people, and the massacre of 22 others, at Gestapo headquarters during the summer of 1943.
– The shooting of 42 people as reprisal killings during the years 1943 and 1944.
– The deportation of 52 Jewish children from a home in Izieu on April 6, 1944.
– The shooting of 70 prisoners at Bron in August of 1944.
– The roundup of SNCF railway workers on August 9, 1944.
– The deportation to Auschwitz of 650 people (50 percent Jewish, 50 percent résistants) on the last train to leave Lyon before the Liberation.
For the next two weeks, I pored over the depositions the judge had sent, absorbing them one by one, becoming so involved with the women’s statements in particular that I felt as if I were inhabiting them. For the time it took me to read her deposition, I was Alice Vansteenberghe being laid belly down on a drawing room table and hit with a knout by Barbie’s assistants until her back was broken. Next it was Itta Halaunbrenner, the mother who had tearfully handed her two little daughters over to the staff at Izieu because she thought they’d be safe there—except that they weren’t because Barbie couldn’t leave even small children alone. Then finally Simone Kaddouche, the thirteen-year-old girl who was beaten in front of her mother because neither knew the whereabouts of Simone’s brothers. “Look at your daughter,” Barbie told the mother. “You’re the one who’s responsible.”
For my first visit to St. Joseph’s prison, I dressed carefully: a dark A-line skirt that covered my knees and a crisp white blouse with only the top button unbuttoned. My single concession to fashion was a pair of high-heeled boots, though even there, I’d chosen them not so much for their style but because I wanted to cover myself completely—and also because I knew Barbie was short, barely five foot seven.
Sergeant Péan, a heavyset young man with a Provençal accent, met me at the front desk and hurried me through a maze of stone corridors. St. Joseph’s prison had been built in the middle of the 19th century and was called, by some at least, la marmite du diable—the devil’s cooking pot. It wasn’t pleasant—the scent of ammonia, the clanging of iron doors as we passed from one section to another, the glare of the neon tubes overhead—but I had expected worse. For his own protection, they’d put Barbie in an empty wing of the prison that was completely devoid of anything human: no photos taped to the wall, no scraps of conversation, not even the sound of snoring or coughing. It made me feel as if I’d stepped onto a quarantine ward, which, in a way, I had.
By the time Péan finally stopped, we’d made so many turns that I was completely disoriented. Standing there, panting a little after my sprint, I tried not to gawk at the prisoner who was sitting on the edge of his cot, hands folded in his lap. I had studied his photos in the newspaper so I recognized him—he was old and bald and had a bit of a potbelly—but I was still surprised. I don’t know what I’d expected, a monster perhaps, but he wasn’t much different from any other seventy-three-year-old man you’d see strolling the streets or whiling away his time playing pétanque with his pals.
Péan threw open the gate to the cell. “You can step in now, Dr. Louvier,” he said, but I hesitated, transfixed by the stone threshold before me. Once I crossed it, I’d be alone with him. Nervously, I glanced at the walls, entirely blank—a window, high up, unreachable—and the bed, disconcertingly dominant in that small space. It was only a bed, the plainest possible, but it brought to mind other beds, in other small quarters, where I’d been forced to endure whatever “games” R could devise.
Péan must have sensed my panic. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll keep an eye on you.” And he pointed to a chair which stood in the corridor opposite Barbie’s cell.
I nodded. To have a third party present was a violation of the trust that existed, or ought to exist, between patient and doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to send Péan away.
The moment I entered the cell, Barbie rose from his cot, almost as if he were a host inviting me into his home. And, yes, thanks to my boots, we were even in height. Tentatively, he extended his hand, but I was so unnerved by this unexpected gesture that I couldn’t help backing away. Once again, though, Péan came to my rescue. “C’mon, Barbie,” he shouted, “you know the rules. No physical contact.”
Barbie gave a quick nod—whether in acquiescence to Péan or in deference to me I couldn’t tell—then gestured to the only chair in the cell, a folding chair which had probably been brought in especially for my visit. He seemed to be saying, Look, how civilized I am, how refined. But the chair was so close to his bed (so close that our knees would have touched when we sat down) that I had no choice but to move it farther back. He watched impassively while I did this, then waited for me to sit down before sitting down himself.
I could sense then the roles we’d be playing: me, the hapless psychiatrist, and Barbie, the courtly old gentleman. R had been “courtly,” too, always pulling out chairs for me and taking my arm in public, then bashing me in private. But it was all part of the same thing, an assertion—an over-assertion, actually—of masculinity, a way of saying, Look here, little woman, I’m in charge.
Fixing my gaze an inch or so above the bridge of Barbie’s nose, I introduced myself as a clinical psychiatrist from the Université Hospital of Lyon who had been asked (I didn’t want to say ordered) to meet with him a total of three times. Not for anything as formal as a psychological evaluation, just general observations regarding his mental well-being.
“I’ll be taking a few notes,” I added, crossing one leg over the other so I could prop my notepad on my knee. “They’ll be shared with the examining magistrate of course but no one—“
“Yes, yes,” he said, waving away the remainder of my preamble. “The others, Weber and the rest of them, explained that.” He was clearly disgruntled, but with an effort he recovered himself. “I must say, though, you’re at least easier on the eyes.”
I looked down at my notepad, noticing only then that the hem of my skirt had ridden up when I crossed my legs. Cursing myself—why hadn’t I simply worn pants?—I uncrossed my legs and cleared my throat. “Well, let’s begin, shall we?”
“Ask me anything,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.”
“All right then, let’s begin at the beginning. You were born, I believe, in Bad Godesburg, near Bonn, Germany, in 1913.”
“That is correct.”
“And you lived, at least until you were eleven, in the nearby town of Udler.”
He nodded again and I scribbled something—a bit of shorthand—on my pad. My only goal at this point was to establish a base line; that is, to observe his demeanor when simple questions were asked. Then later, when the questions were not so simple, I’d be able to watch for deviations from the “norm.”
“Can you tell me a little about your childhood?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It was a normal childhood. My parents were schoolteachers. We lived over the schoolhouse.”
“So your father was also your teacher?”
Almost instantly, his face tightened like a fist. “I’m flattered that you know so much about me,” he said with a thin smile. “You must have done a great deal of research.” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not, but in any case he was not the first patient who had tried to maneuver the conversation away from himself and onto me.
“Of course I’ve read your file,” I told him, “but that doesn’t make me an expert on your life. All I know is what happened, not how you felt about it.”
“Felt about what?”
“Well, for instance, what it was like seeing so much of your father, not only at home but at school too.” According to the biographical notes Judge Riss had gathered from his investigators, Barbie’s father had been a violent drunk, so quick to box the ears of his students or give them a caning that he’d been forced into retirement after only six years of teaching. And if that was his behavior in public, one could only imagine what it would have been like at home. But Barbie wasn’t ready to go into any of that.
“I was a child,” he said, his face and voice flat. “What did I know?”
“I think children know a great deal, M. Barbie,” I said, calling him by his name for the first time. “Generally much more than the adults around them.” I paused, then added, looking directly at him: “Everything that happens to them is happening for the first time. They have no filter, no protective coating, so to speak.”
I’d said the same thing, at one time or another, to most of my patients—it was simple encouragement, a promise not to judge them—but if I’d offered Barbie an invitation, he was having none of it.
“My childhood is irrelevant,” he said, his eyelids drooping.
“No childhood is irrel—” I began but he interrupted me.
“What do you want me to say?” he asked sharply. “That it was a misery? That I was a bastard, never really belonging anywhere, always on the outside looking in?” He pointed to my notepad. “That’s what you’d like, isn’t it, something juicy for your notes. Oh, the shame of it, the degradation. How could I ever stand it?” He paused for a moment almost as if he’d run out of air, but then continued in a slightly less agitated voice. “When I was growing up, people were always telling me what a shame it was that my father had waited until I was three months old to marry my mother. Why had it taken him so long? If he’d done it just three months earlier, then I would have been legitimate.” He paused again, his face pinched and tight. “But what they didn’t know is that I would have been a hundred times better off—no, a thousand times better off—if that betrunken bum had stayed away forever.”
I was surprised by the ferocity of his outburst: this was the unemotional man Professor Glasser had described? I waited, hoping he’d say something else, but when he didn’t I prompted him: “He was hard on you, wasn’t he?” I asked. I wasn’t excusing him. There are plenty of battered children who grow up to be well adjusted, but for some—those who are less resilient or stressed in other ways—abuse skews them for life. It lays the groundwork, so to speak.
But it was clear from the way Barbie seemed to retreat into himself, knees clenched, elbows tight to his body, that he had no intention of responding.
“Dr. Louvier,” he said in a biting tone, “you’ll have to continue this interrogation some other time. You’ve gotten enough out of me for one day.”
That night for the first time in a long time I dreamed about R: he’d replaced Benoît, my husband, or had somehow inhabited him, and was turning me over. I could feel his breath hot and stale on the back of my neck, and I knew what was coming. He’d threatened it often enough—Someday, Little Miss Priss, you’re going to get it in the ass, what do you think of that?—and now here he was, bent over me making good on his promise . . .
I awoke with a start, my heart pounding, actually exploding inside my chest, but everything around me was quiet and dark. I reached for Benoît’s shoulder, half-expecting R to erupt from the layers of bedding, naked and leering, his big teeth shining in the darkness. But, no, it really was Benoît: his flannel pajamas, his glasses on the bedside table. But R was still there, I felt him, and when I looked up at the ceiling I saw him.
He had been, and probably still was, a good-looking man, tall and dark-haired with big shoulders and an angular jawline. Women were always staring at him, and he encouraged them, flirting with them even if they had a boyfriend or husband standing right there. It didn’t matter to him. Compliments just fell out of his mouth one after the other: How luscious you look (for the girls who weren’t very pretty), or The way you think, it’s just so amazing (for the girls who weren’t very smart), or You have no idea what you’re doing to me, do you? (sort of a throw-away line when he didn’t feel like trying). And the women, the girls, they lapped it up. Me too. Me especially.
The next day I spoke with the superintendent of the prison, a man named Didier who was well past middle age and had a stalk-thin body. “It’s impossible,” I told him. “I’ll never get anywhere meeting Barbie in his cell. Please, find us some other room.” He promised he would, but I ended up having to call Judge Riss to make it happen.
In this way, M. Didier, who had said he couldn’t guarantee my safety anywhere else but on the cellblock, was forced to lend me his office. It was an ideal solution: I could interview Barbie behind closed doors, but Didier wouldn’t have to worry. There was a small button hidden just under the lip of his desk, and all I had to do to summon help was press it. Sgt. Péan, who showed me the button and made me practice using it, said he’d be right outside the door, available the moment I pressed it.
The office itself was austere, with the same white-washed walls and glaring overhead lights as the rest of the prison, but it had the advantage of overlooking a small rose garden. I imagined that this was the superintendent’s personal plot. At any rate, the roses were neatly mulched and staked, and there was even an inmate at work raking the gravel paths.
Before long, a strange rattling could be heard in the corridor, and then the hallway door opened to reveal Barbie, shackled hand and foot. Péan, who had him by the elbow, gave him a little push and he started across the room, the leg irons restricting his gait to a slow shuffle.
I was astonished by the transformation in him. Only a week ago he had looked almost debonair in his black turtleneck, but now, just seven days later, he’d been reduced to a shrunken old man with stooped shoulders. It was a pathetic sight, but secretly I was gratified to see him cut down to size. Barbie had ruled his little thug-dom like a knight, and now here he was, barely able to walk across the room.
R used to stagger home after a night out with his pals, drunk, bleeding, the sleeves of his shirt half torn off. He didn’t have to explain to me what had happened. I knew what he was like, how he’d pick fights over nothing just because he was angry and wanted everyone else to be angry, too. I understood all of that, at least on some level, but it was still a pleasure to see him brought down. If he could dish it out, then let him get some of his own back.
In the beginning, I was full of solicitation (Oh, you poor darling and so forth), but I was ashamed of myself even then. How had I gotten into this mess? Wasn’t I supposed to be an intelligent woman? Getting out from under R wasn’t easy, but when I finally managed it I had only one goal: to construct an all-new life for myself. I don’t think anyone believed I’d make it through med school—I was a little older than everyone else in addition to being a woman—but I was determined. I worried at first that I might not be dispassionate enough for psychiatry, but my training provided me with the framework I needed to evaluate patients.
In Barbie’s case, there were obvious signs of a narcissistic personality disorder. Some might even have labeled him dissocial, but I thought that was a stretch. Barbie was a piece of work, no question about that, yet I doubted there was any real pathology. What I most wanted to know, however—and this was more for my own satisfaction than anyone else’s—was whether or not he felt remorse.
I gestured toward an armchair that sat across from M. Didier’s desk, then watched as Barbie struggled to maneuver his chains so that he could sit down.
“Are those really necessary?” I asked Péan, gesturing to the handcuffs and leg irons.
The sergeant, still in the doorway, shrugged his shoulders. He said the superintendent had ordered them “just to be on the safe side.”
“Very well,” I said and waited for Péan to slip out of the room. Now, finally, I was alone with my patient.
“I am sorry they’re making you wear those,” I said, referring to his chains, but if he heard me he made no response.
“Still, I guess you know all about chains, don’t you?” I asked, moving directly into our session. Last time I had been too circumspect, too hesitant, but I’d learned my lesson and wasn’t going to let that happen again. “As a matter of fact, I believe that your handcuffs were lined with spikes. The more resistant the prisoner the tighter they were pulled.”
He smiled at me weakly as if acknowledging a point in my favor. He looked unwell, I thought, with dark rings under his eyes, an unhealthy, almost gray pallor to his skin.
“And that’s not all,” I continued, opening the folder in front of me and pretending to consult its contents. “Witnesses say that you beat them with whips, with koshes—that you always had a blackjack in your hand.”
For several moments, Barbie looked out the window and I wondered if he was admiring the roses, but when he turned back I saw that his face had hardened into a mask. “They had no one to blame but themselves,” he said. “All they had to do was tell me what they knew. Then they could have gone home. They could have saved themselves.”
I looked at the podgy little man in front of me, appalled at the ease with which he was able to shift the blame onto his victims. But it had been no different with R. His excesses were always my fault: I’d left dishes in the sink, or I’d gone to the market in a see-through blouse, or I hadn’t been nice enough to his friends (or in some cases too nice). Nothing was ever right. I was always in the wrong.
“So I guess it was their fault when you injected acid into their bladders, or pushed three-inch-needles into their lungs, or sicced your dog on them . . . ” I paused, waiting for Barbie to respond, but his face was blank.
“And the baignoire,” I continued, “that was your specialty, wasn’t it? Pushing people’s heads under the water until they were on the point of drowning, then pulling them out and giving them one more chance to talk. But if they didn’t, then it was back under again.”
Barbie considered me coolly. “How should suspects be questioned?” he asked. “If we’d relied on the courts it would have taken months.”
“But your way . . . to dispense with all legalities? Is that right?”
“Was it legal to shoot German soldiers, to blow up one of their Bierstubes?” he said, then paused. “Well, was it?”
I didn’t know what to say to this. There was something wrong with his argument, but I couldn’t come up with a response.
“You seem quite well informed,” he continued, “but did you know that résistants were told to keep quiet for the first twenty-four hours? That gave their networks time to limit the damage. Whenever somebody was arrested, they’d go to work right away alerting contacts, shutting down safe houses, changing the mail drops. They could do this in a day, even less. So if we wanted actionable information, that was all the time we had. Just twenty-four hours.” He paused for a moment, then added: “So I ask you, what would you have done in my place?”
“It doesn’t matter what I would have done,” I said stiffly. “We are not here to discuss me.”
“D’accord, d’accord,” he said lightly, backing off, even smiling a little. “But honestly, do you think the French were any better? Whatever we did to them, they turned around and did to the Algerians.” He was referring to the Algerian War of Independence in the nineteen-fifties, a conflict I barely remembered. “The baignoire in particular, that was a favorite of theirs,” he said, pausing rather theatrically before adding: “So you see, I am not a criminal. I am a soldier. A good soldier.”
I made a show of glancing at my watch. The hour had not quite elapsed, but I’d had more than enough. “I’m sorry,” I said, closing my notepad on which I had written nothing, “but we are out of time for today.”
A smirk flickered across his lips. “Of course,” he said as I pressed the button to summon Péan.
I stayed late at the office that night, rereading depositions and studying the handful of photographs Judge Riss had sent. Most were of victims, but a few were of Barbie himself.
In the first, he is pictured in uniform, looking smug, his face somewhat like a ferret’s. In the second, a 1948 mug shot taken by American intelligence, he looks dodgy and down on his luck, his face stubbled and his hair mostly gone. But in the third, a photo taken just eight years before, he looks different. It’s his eyes, of course, and the way they say, Please, please, please.
R had the same kind of eyes: always sad, always wanting more. Nothing you could give him was ever enough. It was always: Do you love me? Are you sure? Tell me again. I’d go crazy trying to convince him (always saying, Yes, yes, yes, and trying to get him to calm down), but all he’d say back was Then get pregnant and prove it. It was the only “love” he’d accept. And if I tried to change the subject or jolly him out of the idea, he’d get mad and threaten to find my birth control pills and destroy them. You don’t think I’d make a good father, is that it? he’d bellow, sounding like a bull with a pitchfork stuck in its side. I never answered that because what could I have said? And besides I didn’t want to set him off.
When I arrived at M. Didier’s office the following week, it looked almost homey. The week before, his desktop had been empty, but today it was crowded with personal items: photographs of his family, a pipe and ashtray, even a small bouquet of roses that must have come from his garden. Did he cut them himself? Well, perhaps. At any rate, they were lovely: some yellow, some pink, all of them just beginning to unfold.
I thought about clearing off the desk. I always kept my own consulting room as bare as possible just to ward off distractions. But these traces of M. Didier somehow felt like a gift, as if he’d left them behind to lend me support.
I sat down at the desk and picked up one of the photos. In the center, M. Didier stood next to a woman—Mme Didier surely—who was white-haired and kind looking, while their grown children, together with spouses and babies, arrayed themselves on either side. And though none was particularly striking, they were so charming as a whole that I moved the picture closer just so I could see it better. Then I put the vase of roses next to it, creating what might have been a small shrine, or more to the point, a modest buffer between me and the Butcher.
Before long I heard the dungeon-like sound of chains in the corridor, and then the door opened to reveal Péan who gave me a sympathetic smile before shoving his prisoner into the room.
As I watched Barbie struggle across the floor and sit down, I thought he looked even older and sicker than before. He seemed worn out, not just tired but exhausted, and he moved as if every joint were inflamed. It had been raining for days now and I wondered if his cell was damp. But heating a wing of the prison for a single prisoner, especially one like him, was probably not a priority.
“Bonjour, M. Barbie,” I said. “Comment allez-vous?”
“Comme ci, comme ça,”he said in a noncommittal tone of voice. His face, I noticed, was covered with stubble. He hadn’t even bothered to shave? I was surprised.
“So, our last session,” I said. “And since it is our last one, I wonder if you could help me to understand, just for my own benefit, what led you to seek out a career in the SS.” I was being very direct but our time was limited, I didn’t want to waste it.
He shot me an exasperated look and I added hurriedly, “I’m just curious, that’s all. Because there were other options. The Wehrmacht, for instance, or with your perfect vision the Luftwaffe.” I paused, then added: “Or university. You were a Gymnasium graduate after all, you had your Abitur. Not only that, but you were good at languages.”
He gave an ambivalent shrug of his shoulders, but I could tell that I’d touched a sore spot. “University was impossible,” he said shortly, the broken blood vessels in his cheeks flaring up and turning purple. “My grandfather made sure of that.”
“Yes, my grandfather,” he exploded. “That alter Blässhuhn wouldn’t give me a pfenning after my father died. He said I didn’t deserve it, that I had no rightful place in society.”
Judging by the emphasis he placed on it, I had no doubt he’d preserved the phrase verbatim. It was a cutting remark, awful really, yet another boy might have been able to slough it off. But Barbie had probably nursed it for years, his feelings of personal worthlessness expanding in tandem. No wonder the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had seemed like a refuge to him.
“That must have felt very unfair,” I said. “What your grandfather did, I mean.”
Barbie snorted in derision. “The old fool always acted like he had no idea who my real father was, but that was Kuhscheisse,” he said, a muscle in his jaw jumping. “We lived in a very small town. If somebody besides Nikolaus Barbie had been my father, he would have heard about it. Everybody would have. And my mother—even though she had no idea whether the Arschloch would marry her or not—still named me for him. If that’s not proof . . . ” He paused to catch his breath, then went on.
“So for three months I was Anna Hees’s bastard child, but so what? Willy Brandt was born the same year I was and he was a bastard too, but nobody ever seemed to care about that. They even gave him the Nobel Peace Prize. But me, I was thrown away like some piece of trash.”
A petal from one of the roses had fallen onto the desk. I picked it up and stroked it a little, feeling its soft, almost oily surface. “So if you’d been able to continue your education,” I asked, “what would you have chosen?”
Barbie was quick to answer. “I wanted to study law. That was always my dream.” I nodded and he went on. “Herr Horrmann said that the SS would provide legal training.” His voice, even now, after fifty years, sounded pathetically eager, as if this were something that might still happen.
“Herr Horrmann?” I asked. I didn’t recall his name from the files.
“He was the Nazi Group Leader in Trier where I went to school. He took me under his wing, let me do a little work for him in the office.”
“What sorts of things did you do?”
“Oh, the usual. Errands mostly,” he replied, his response so clipped I thought he might be glossing over something.
I waited, and finally, after shifting uncomfortably in his chair, he added, “You have to understand . . . I mean, there were elements in Trier, among the clergy especially . . . ”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “So what were you exactly?”
He hesitated for a moment, then said, “A voluntary helper.”
I was taken aback. I knew enough to know that “voluntary helper” was a common euphemism for Vertrauensmann or V-Mann. And Barbie, having been a student at a Jesuit Gymnasium, would have been ideally situated to collect the kind of information that Horrmann and his bullyboys wanted. It was vile and pathetic—pretending to be a good Catholic boy while informing on your teachers and classmates—but it still seemed strange that a man like Barbie, who had gone on to do so much worse, would be embarrassed by what was essentially snitching.
“Herr Horrmann, was he something like a father to you?” I asked. “A good father, I mean, the opposite of what your real father was like.”
Barbie’s response was immediate. “Ah yes, my ‘real’ father,” he snarled. “Now there was a specimen for you.”
“How so?’ I said.
He threw me one of his withering looks—so much a part of our parlance I hardly noticed—but then, inexplicably, something shifted and he began talking about his past, sounding like almost any other patient in therapy. “I was just six years old when my father came back from the trenches,” he started, his voice so low I could barely hear it, “and I couldn’t understand . . . I mean, up until then, it had been just the two of us, my mother and me—and Oma of course because during the war we lived with her.” He glanced away then, toward a corner of the room where M. Didier’s beige trench coat was hanging from a hook. Recognizing this as a bid for privacy, I too looked away, focusing on a thin crack near the door which reminded me of the letter “Z.”
“It was stupid of me,” he went on, “but I guess I thought it would always be like that. Even when Mutti said the war was over and Vater would be coming home—you know, living with us—I still didn’t think that it would be . . . like it was.” He laughed a mirthless laugh. “And I tried so hard to be good. You have no idea how hard. My goal—really, it’s not exaggerating—was to be the best little boy in the world . . .” His voice trailed off then and he looked back at me warily, almost as he’d been caught doing something embarrassing, picking his nose perhaps or scratching his groin.
“But being the best little boy in the world didn’t get you anywhere, did it?” I said, urging him to confront his own victimhood.
“No, Dr. Louvier, it did not,” he said harshly, almost as if I had pried the confession out of him under duress. And for a moment his watery blue eyes took on a malevolent gleam, becoming what some of his victims, in their depositions, had called “serpent eyes.”
“You think I should be ashamed,” he continued, “but I’ve never had any regrets. I’m proud of having commanded one of the best corps of the Third Reich.” He paused briefly, then, added: “And if I should be born 1,000 times, I would be 1,000 times what I have been.”
I was startled by the glibness of this little speech. “Surely you don’t mean that?” I said, giving him a chance to recant. But he only said. “I had a difficult duty to do, and I did it.”
Repulsed, I looked down at the photo of the Didier clan. Yes, family, I thought, it’s the single most durable unit of humanity. You can shed almost any other obligation (country, church, party), but not your family. Even after everything else is gone, family remains. It is almost always inviolable.
I looked over at Barbie who was slumped in his chair with his eyes half-closed, and for the first time I wondered if he’d make it to his trial. Perhaps he would die before the first witness could even be called.
“M. Barbie,” I said loudly enough to rouse him, “our time is almost up. But before we close, there’s something I’d like to ask you.” He looked at me suspiciously, but I went on: “You have lived an exceptional life—”
He started to protest, but I was adamant: “No, you have, and I think you owe it to history to share what you know.” I paused, looking out the window at the sky which had turned a dark shade of purple. “It won’t make up for the pain you’ve caused, but it’s a service you could provide.”
But he only scoffed. “People already know too much. I have nothing more to add.”
“But you have a daughter, Ute. And there are three grandchildren as well. They’re young now but they’ll grow up, and then they’ll be asking about you. They’ll want to know what your story was.” I paused, waiting for him to look at me before I went on. “Surely you must have something to say to them.”
For several long moments, Barbie was silent, leading me to believe that he was considering what I’d just said. But instead he was thinking of something else entirely.
“I always sleep with the light on, did you know that, Dr. Louvier?” he said, his voice almost wistful. “And do you know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because I am afraid of the dark.”
He chuckled dryly. “It’s amusing, isn’t it? I was the one who threw prisoners into the cellars at the École de Santé. It was pitch black down there and damp. They had to sit chained to the wall. Sometimes they even had to stand until I called for them.” He looked up. “And now, whenever I try to sleep with the light off, that’s where I am. In the cellars of the École de Santé.”
With his chains rattling a little, he placed his hands on the edge of the desk and leaned forward. “You see, one becomes tough when one is young. But I don’t think I could do the same today.”
It was not a confession. It was nothing, I knew that, and yet . . .
Outside, there was the crack of thunder and then, a minute or two later, a sudden downpour. “Tenez, it’s really coming down, isn’t it?” I said, nodding toward the window and watching as the rose bushes writhed in the wind. Perhaps M. Didier had heard the weather forecast and that’s why he’d decided to cut a few of his flowers and bring them inside.
I studied the bouquet in front of me, then idly pulled one of the roses out of the vase. In company with the others, it had seemed yellow, but on closer examination I saw that its petals were actually veined with maroon. How subtle nature is, I thought, never a single color but always a combination. I lifted the flower to my nose and breathed in its sweet smell. No perfume could match it, I thought, about to return it to the vase when I looked up and saw Barbie watching me.
“Can I smell it too?” he asked, his voice hardly above a whisper.
It was a modest request, the kind a child might make, but at that moment it was beyond me. Even looking at him was more than I could bear (that old pathetic face! those sad pleading eyes!) and involuntarily I turned toward the window, focusing instead on M. Didier’s roses which were being battered by the storm. The moment seemed endless—just how long I couldn’t tell—but then I heard Péan pushing his way through the door and looked up.
“It’s about time, Dr. Louvier,” he said. “You’re way over the hour, or didn’t you know? If you hadn’t pushed the button just now, I would’ve come in here myself just to see what was going on.”
“I pushed the button?”
“Yes, just now.”
“Oh,” I said, not quite believing him. Had I pressed the button without realizing it? Well, perhaps I had.
Péan hooked his hand under Barbie’s armpit and yanked him to his feet, then hustled him toward the door. I should bid him farewell, I thought. This was our final visit after all, and I’d never see him again. But instead I did nothing, just sat there listening, first to the heavy door as it swung closed behind him and then to the sound of his chains being hauled over the stones in the corridor.
When the conductor asked me for my ticket on the train that night, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out not just the ticket but M. Didier’s rose. I must have stuffed it there on my way out of the office. It was a sad little artifact now, squashed and limp, but when I lifted it to my nose it was as fragrant as ever.
R used to bring me roses after a fight. He’d pick them up at the grocery store or buy them from some guy on the street. They never lasted, though, just bowed their sad little heads and dried up. And if they smelled at all, it was like a refrigerator case. Yet I never refused them. Even covered in bruises, I’d take them and put them in water. I had to. He just looked so sad I couldn’t help it.
The train swayed to a stop—my stop—and I gathered up my things and pushed my way into the aisle. Outside on the platform, though, I felt something sharp digging into the palm of my hand and looked down to see that I was still clutching the rose. It was nothing but a soggy remnant now, though its thorns were still sharp. While other commuters surged past me, their shoulders bumping into mine, I stood there rolling the rose’s stem idly between my thumb and forefinger, only half-aware of the tears stinging my eyes. All that training, all those years of seeing patients and writing up notes, but where had it gotten me? I was still the same soft-hearted (soft-headed!) sucker I’d always been. Anyone, no matter how malignant, could con me. And without another thought, I tossed the poor abused rose into the nearest refuse bin.
He’d wanted to smell it and I had felt bad about not letting him, but at the last moment I’d denied him. The thought of his evil old nose burrowing its way into the delicacy of those petals was simply too awful. No, the chains were right, the flower was wrong.
The rain had slackened a little now, but the wind was still fierce, rocking the traffic light which hung like a lantern over the intersection and tearing the last of the autumn leaves from their branches. Tomorrow, gardens throughout the Rhône would be in shambles, their brightly colored chrysanthemums torn to bits, the stems of their asters bent and broken in a silent submission to the winter that would soon overtake us all.
Roberta Hartling Gates has been published in Confrontation, Fourth Genre, The Louisville Review, and the Beloit Fiction Journal, as well as elsewhere, and is now working on a novel set in Vichy France. She has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a reader for The Examined Life Journal. She lives in suburban Chicago with her husband. Read more at https://rhgates.com.