It is dark. The snow covers the factory and the long, forlorn huts in a remote wooded area 19 kilometres west of Prague. Inside the freezing huts, hundreds of stinking, filthy old men in their ‘striped pyjamas’ sleep rough on their sides on long wooden boards, clustering together for warmth.
The machinist is awake early. He is exhausted but cannot sleep, the man who slept at his back went cold hours ago and stopped generating heat.
The work siren goes off at 05:15. Wearily, apart from two who lay unmoving, the prisoners move off the wooden boards and make their way to the doors of the huts, which the guards are already opening.
It is February 1945. Each man in the camp, prisioner and guard alike, knows the war is nearly over. The machinist’s colleagues murmur that the Allies, hopefully the Americans, will reach them soon. There is hope. There are less that go quietly now. Yet it is doubtful the guards will let any of them live to see liberation.
Inside the factory, the machinist reaches his station along with 400 or so others. So few of them left. A fellow prisoner goes round each of the stations in his zone, bringing their tools on a tray. The machinist examines the tools in front of him. Defective. He has reported three times this year that the tools are worn out. Replacements are needed. In this state, these tools will take ten times as long to complete each unit. The machinist cares not about the output only the reprisals for errors in quality.
The guards do not understand, or care. Or both. He stopped reporting it after the third beating. The guards don’t shoot them anymore. Workers as well as bullets are in short supply.
Another prisioner brings the raw materials to their stations and the cutting wheels start to turn, driven by pulleys and his weak pedalling at his station.
The “soup” is devoured, albeit feebly, at their stations at 13:00. Twelve more hours to go in the shift – minus the one toilet break. The machinist deliberates yet again if he will make it through this week – the day even. It is a serious question. After all, his body mirrors the others, walking skeletons. All old men. Yet six years ago he was 28 years old.
At 01:00 the prisoners down their tools, wait for them to be collected and counted, then shuffle back in the blackness to their freezing hut. The machinist drops onto the nearest long board that he will share with fifty fellow withered human beings.
Huddling and on his side, the machinist falls asleep; pressed against a neighbour’s back and grateful to have a new warm body at his own back.
Later that morning, the neighbour to the front of the machinist wakes early. His back is cold.