Pulling in a breath of floating airborne metal shavings pains my lungs in the same way as taking a deep breath of icy air on a late January morning used to when I played out in the snow as a kid. The straining of my chest from a shock of immense pressure on the inside of my lungs reminds me that I am alive, at least for now.
My shaking hands are not digging in snow, but rather rifling through a box of shell casings. I found that if I let my hand linger in the box for a moment longer than it takes to grasp and remove a casing, I have this extra moment to rest.
All I want to do is sleep.
For more than three years now, it has been the same routine every day. Wake-up to the sound of a blaring siren while it is still dark. Groggily shuffle my way to the waiting dull-grey truck whose outline is all I can see in the early morning soot that blankets the ground from the nearby steel plant, while staying just beyond the reach of the ever-barking shepherd. Pile into the truck with the other 24 emaciated men of my work brigade, hoping that none of us falls down on the way to be pounced upon by a trained dog seemingly even hungrier than we are. Spend the day trying to keep my hands steady enough to fill shell casings with explosive charges, but with each passing day finding that my hands want to shake ever more, possibly in an attempt to cause an explosion, taking me and everyone within a 50 meter radius around me, out of our misery. After dark, we are herded back into the truck, taken back to our barracks, given a small stale role of sawdust-infused soggy bread, and told to sleep.
My shaking hand is grasped around a shell casing, holding it tightly as I slowly lift the shaped metal cone to my worktable. I can’t help but admire the smooth boring lines of the casing, the soft filed-down edges, and the engineering that went into making this 20-millimeter killing container.
Before the German’s annexed my country, I was in technical school training to be an engineer. I dreamed of working for Skoda designing and building tanks or airplanes. It was this training that may have saved my life, for whatever that’s worth.
Can’t I just sleep?
The Germans came to my school and told my class that they would house and pay us. They brought us here to Richard, a tunnel complex in the hills near the city of Litomerice in the highlands of the Czech Karst. We believed them.
I just want to shut my eyes.
As my right hand holds the shell casing upright, my left hand reaches down into the small box of wax paper-wrapped explosive charges. Each charge is already shaped to fit perfectly within the shell casing. It is my job to unwrap each charge before placing it within the shell without touching the edges of the shell’s metal to the explosive.
As I reach toward the box, seemingly grasping for the next wrapped charge, I let my left hand slip behind the box so that the guard standing to my left as he talks to another guard does not see that my hand did not make it into the box. Instead, my hand quickly and quietly shakes its way into my pants, where I’ve placed a piece of wax paper that I was able to smuggle out of the factory last week.
On this paper, I was able to scribble a message to the universe as much as to myself. It is a reminder that although I am a slave, I have power. This message is what made me open my eyes this morning.
My left hand slips out of my pants holding the wax-paper message, returned to the shape of all of the individual wax-paper charges in the box of explosives. I gently - without shaking - place this paper into the beautifully refined shaped shell casing before putting the casing into the neatly aligned row of casings I’ve already worked this morning.
My right hand reaches down to the box with the metal casings and pauses there for a moment.
A moment in which, I shut my eyes.
My shaking hand lifts the next casing out of the box.
After a raid on Kassel Germany, a B-17 bomber (Tondelayo) returned to its base with eleven unexploded 20-mm shells in its fuel tanks. These may have been from a ground based or aircraft based cannon. Any one of these shells should have blown the plane out of the sky. The shells were sent to the armorer to be diffused. When they were opened, each was found to be empty of any explosive charge. One of the shells, though, did contain something: a rolled-up slip of paper on which was written, in Czech: “This is all we can do for you now.”
Bendiner, Elmer: The Fall of Fortresses, Putnam, 1980, pp. 138-139.