A beautiful, moving detective story set in Auschwitz in the Christmas of 1943.
A young Jewish prisoner…
Auschwitz, 1943. It’s snowing outside and Block 10 looks even bleaker than usual. Gioele Errera, a young Jewish boy imprisoned in the camp, finds the body of an SS officer.
A detective with everything to prove…
Hugo Fischer is sent to investigate the unexplained death of the renowned Nazi. But Hugo is hiding a secret – he is suffering from a degenerative disease. The only way for him to survive is to give his support to the Reich and hide his condition.
A confrontation with pure evil…
In Auschwitz, Hugo comes face to face not only with a complex murder, but with a truth – that of the Final Solution. And he is forced to decide what is most important to him – and who, if anyone, he should try to save…
What readers are saying about Ashes in the Snow
‘A haunting, emotionally dynamic and poignant mystery’
‘I cannot recommend this book too highly, it is well-written and interesting, horrifying details are interwoven with the story keeping me on the edge of my seat’
‘This book is powerful, interesting and horrifying’
‘This is an excellent book,.a complex case, interesting and often unpredictable characters and an ending that I certainly didn't see coming’
‘An incredible book, reminiscent of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but with a detective story twist’
‘Well written, beautifully paced and unputdownable – brilliant!’
‘A moving, human account of life in the most inexplicably evil place ever’
‘ A book I shan’t forget in a hurry’
‘A chilling but compelling read which leaves the reader with much to think about’
‘All I ask is that you read it – please’
Release date: September 5, 2023
Print pages: 256
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Ashes in the Snow
Auschwitz, 21 December 1943
Gioele counted the steps between the dormitory and the doctor’s office in German. The rhythmic tapping of his soles on the floor, between the cold, bare walls, echoed to the ceiling, painted a ghostly cerulean blue by the searchlights.
He hopped to the end of the hallway, to the only window that could be opened, clutching the drawing paper. Almost all the windows in Block 10 were barred with a heavy wooden beam but not this one: from here you could see the stark, whitened birches on the avenue, the barbed-wire fence that gleamed in the searchlights and a distant farmhouse with a chimney exhaling puffs of smoke.
He stood up on tiptoe.
The snow was drumming on the glass. Cold and soft, it tapped the pane before sliding down and coating the entire avenue, the trees, the flower beds, the blocks and the watchtowers. He could see the soldier in the sentry box. Thick clouds of his warm breath scattered the air and he appeared to be shaking like a leaf just standing there, in the frost, behind his machine gun. Gioele wondered if he was longing for a cup of hot broth, a fireplace with a burning log or a family gathered by a crackling fire.
He began to hop again.
He stopped outside Uncle Mengele’s office. He tried the door, but the handle was blocked and the accordion blind quivered against the glass pane with a hollow clatter.
On the wall behind the desk, displayed next to the collection of eyeballs, were Gioele’s drawings. Gioele didn’t have to open the door in order to see them, because by now he knew the room like the back of his hand. Mengele allowed him to go anywhere he liked, even in his private office. He treated him differently from the other children. For example, he allowed him to draw, then he’d put his creations up everywhere, give them to nurses and other doctors, and show them to SS officers with great pride.
When the Birkenau painter had come to sketch the twins, Gioele had stared at her with his mouth open the whole time. He was bewitched by the eyes and lips that emerged from the hazy, sooty pencil swirls, the faces that took shape as though alive. He thought Dina was much better than any other painter he’d ever seen in his life. That morning, Gioele had asked for paper and a little piece of charcoal and drawn the avenue outside the kitchens. One of the nurses had put his sketch up on the wall and Uncle Mengele had got annoyed. Afterwards, though, he’d taken a closer look at the drawing and smiled. It was a barely perceptible smile, but a pleased one. He’d returned that afternoon with a wad of paper and some Lyra pencils. Gioele had never had such a fine box of pencils. From that moment on, this wing in Block 10 had been filled with his drawings.
‘Sieben, acht!’ he resumed, turning away from Mengele’s office.
The corridor was long and dark. The patients in the block were afraid of it because rooms would open onto it like hungry mouths beyond which terrible things happened. Sometimes, you could hear dreadful screaming. But what was even scarier were the whispers in the night, the footsteps that were like a dull tolling, the moans that made you shudder. Some people said it was the ghosts of people who’d died during doctors’ examinations. They infested the building and at night you could glimpse them in their long, milky cloaks, gliding along the walls and sliding over windowpanes, creating sudden condensation. Or else you could see them in the constant flicker of the light bulbs.
Gioele summoned up the courage.
He stopped outside an open door. Inside, the light was off except for a faint glow at the far end, so the threshold seemed like a dark eye staring
intently at him. Gioele looked up and in the semi-darkness read the inscription SIGISMUND BRAUN on the nameplate by the jamb.
The door moved with an eerie squeak, perhaps because of an open window. Gioele couldn’t help thinking that the stories about the ghosts might be true, after all. He clutched the drawing paper against his chest to silence his heart, which was pounding in his throat. Instead of turning and running away, though, he stuck his nose into the liquid darkness of the laboratory.
When they were on the train and he called out to the SS men through the window to practise his German, his mother often said, ‘You’re too bright and too inquisitive a little boy, Gioele, and it’ll get you into trouble. It’ll bring you bad luck.’
Since he’d been in the camp, he had survived only because he was bright and inquisitive, and thanks to the genius that set him apart from the other twins, even his brother Gabriele. He was rewarded with lumps of sugar, chocolate and, every now and then, a used toy. He and his brother slept in Block 10 with the other select few and not in the Birkenau blocks, which he’d been told were cramped, dirty and swarming with lice. They wore the clothes in which they’d arrived at the camp and weren’t forced to trek across miles of countryside from the Birkenau barracks to the Auschwitz laboratories to be measured and studied. That was lucky, he thought.
Gioele gathered all his courage. With a single, heroic stride, he stepped over the line between the half-light and the darkness in the room. It felt like leaping into a black, menacing abyss.
You couldn’t see anything inside.
He searched for the switch, flicked it down and a cold light flooded the room. It was so bright that he had to squint before he was able to see anything. He held his hand flat above his eyes to shield them and looked around. This laboratory was like all the others in the block. Beneath the flickering light he recognized the granite floor and the white walls made of identical tiles. He let his gaze wander over the steel trolleys, the strange machinery and the tiled tables. It lingered on the cabinets full of medicines, the shiny sink and the photograph of the Führer hanging on the wall, looking at him with a grim expression.
The window was open but there was an odd smell in the air. It was neither disinfectant nor the formaldehyde the doctors used for preserving their exhibits. He thought he’d smelled it somewhere before, not only in the camp but also at home, in Bologna. Overwhelmed by the painful nostalgia of an elusive recollection, Gioele suddenly felt sad.
Silently, he walked to the middle of the room.
In some parts, the grout
lines between the tiles were caked in blood. He looked up at the shelves and made out the clear jars in which floated a heart, a brain and kidneys. There was a foetus swaying as though asleep in its mother’s belly and a basket of red apples that made Gioele feel hungry.
He looked for a chair he could climb on to get one but was distracted by the faint glow coming from the room leading into the laboratory.
He approached, then went in.
The office was lit by the soft, amber light from a table lamp that projected the colourful flowers of the leaded glass on the wall. He could hear a buzz in the air, like an electrical lament that permeated the walls. It was a rhythmic, constant rustling sound. Gioele looked at the desk, the microscopes, the velvet armchairs, the grandfather clock and the bookcase. In a corner, the gramophone was spinning non-stop. The stylus had reached the end of the record and there was no more sound coming out of the brass horn except for a scratching whirr, like a fly in distress.
He looked down at the floor. His attention was captured by a nibbled apple that had rolled down from somewhere or other. Gioele felt his heart catch in his throat as he made out a pale form between the desk and the Christmas tree. A white coat dumped in a corner.
Ghosts wear white sheets, he thought.
He nearly ran away but something held him back, rooted him to the spot. He felt his anxiety swell and his heartbeat echo through his entire body, down to his fingertips. It was not just a lab coat lying on the floor. It was a coat with a man in it.
Gioele recognized him immediately. Doktor Sigismund Braun’s sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, as if he’d just finished working, and his turquoise eyes were blank. His mouth was open in a silent cry, his tongue hanging out like the SS men’s dogs when they were thirsty. There was a dark bruise on his high, balding forehead.
Gioele tiptoed towards him and shook him, but the man did not stir.
He was stone dead.
Gioele sat down in front of him, cross-legged, licked his lips and put the drawing pad on his lap. Whenever he tried to swallow it felt like gulping fire, but despite this and the fact that his hands were shaking, Gioele started to draw. There could be no drawing more beautiful than that of a dead Herr Doktor Braun, he thought.
Judenrampe, 23 December 1943
The searchlights pierced through the darkness of the countryside, illuminating the siding, and casting a blinding light on the verge.
Leaning on his stick, Hugo Fischer got out of the car. The dry snow squeaked under his boots. At the same time, the rails screeched beneath the weight of carriages reaching their destination. They produced a sharp, drawn-out sound that gradually died down and vanished in the night’s silence, among the birch forests that flanked the railway line.
The locomotive puffed out one last plume of smoke and an SS man jumped down, the hem of his leather coat flapping like the wings of an eagle.
Hugo sighed. The air condensed outside his mouth like a milky cloud, similar to the yellow cocoon swirling against the dark sky in the distance. There was a pungent smell in the air, just as they said in Berlin: a sickly-sweet smell reminiscent of burnt flesh.
He took out a cigarette and wedged it between his lips. He held it firmly with his teeth while clicking the lighter, his eyes seeking an SS man’s approval. ‘Who gives a shit?’ the petty officer, his pose stiff, face taut and red from the cold, seemed to reply. In this cold that bit into your bones harder than a rabid dog’s teeth, everybody turned a blind eye to the Führer’s abhorrence of smoking.
The cigarette sizzled with unexpected warmth. The taste of tobacco stung his tongue and replaced the pungency dominating the countryside that even snow hadn’t been able to wash away. Hugo sighed contentedly, voiding his lungs fully. Further ahead, the Alsatian on the SS officer’s lead whimpered.
Hugo took another drag and leaned against the Mercedes to alleviate the ache in his back. Two days earlier, he’d woken up with a stabbing pain in his lower back and his arm numb all the way down to his thumb and index finger. He felt as though there were pins stuck in his flesh and a thousand ants walking under his skin, severing his contact with objects, so much so that everything risked slipping out of his hands. He knew that the acute phase of the illness would soon lessen, but not sensing the surrounding world and not being able to probe its consistency distressed him.
It was the same with every relapse. Whenever the illness started up again, nibbling at some hidden part of his brain and spinal cord, it left new marks on him, grooves on a record that played music off-key until someone repaired it.
After a while, the worst was over.
His sleepy leg, however, was a permanent scar. They’d told him that his nervous system was so damaged it would never go back to normal. At times, the leg was so unbearably heavy that he wished he could cut it off and feed it to the dogs, that way nothing would be left, not even a shred of flesh. But it was there, attached to his body, a phantom appendage that no longer obeyed his command.
Hugo slipped a hand into the pocket of his coat and the clinking of the morphine phial briefly made him relax. Whenever the illness came on strongly, he would start sweating, his veins throbbing like a drum, dilating and contracting under his skin. From that moment, and until he was able to stick the needle into a vein, there would be an unbearable wait that only increased his anxiety and made him short-tempered with everyone. Holding the phial helped calm him down. He’d discovered that it was the only way to control the tremors.
Hugo let go of the phial and took his hand out of his pocket. He turned up his coat collar to shield the clammy back of his neck from the bitter cold and pulled down the brim of his hat slightly. He took another puff at his cigarette to avoid thinking about his pain and darted a glance at the driver, nice and warm in the car. Good for him.
He looked around, lingering on the details of the train station. The ramp was long, interminable. The snow had been swept off, but more had accumulated over the past hour and now there was a thin coat on the gravel,
crunching at every step. The odd flake fell from the sky. The searchlights made everything sparkle – the lorries, the vans, the helmets and the damp uniforms of the SS men who waited in line for the convoy that had just stopped. Even the dogs were on alert, whining and barking as they quivered.
He saw dozens of hands grabbing at the gratings of the carriages, which were still shut. Long, bony, dirty fingers, swarming like earthworms.
‘Eau!’ someone yelled from inside the train. No one answered, so they tried in a hesitant German, ‘Wa-wasser, bitte! Wasser!’
Hugo swallowed the smoke. He felt his heart miss a beat with an irksome arrhythmia.
He wasn’t one inclined towards easy emotions. Over the past three years, since he’d been working with the Kriminalpolizei, he’d seen everything: bodies mutilated, women raped and killed, men strangled or brutally castrated, fresh cadavers and others putrefying, swollen, full of gas, shit and worms. The first few times, he’d vomited, had nightmares like those that torment children; then he’d got used to it.
He wasn’t one inclined towards easy emotions, he mentally repeated while lapping up the aroma of tobacco to rid himself of the stench that permeated the station. And yet he felt he was about to witness something for which he wasn’t ready. Something for which Arthur Nebe, the head of Department V of the RSHA – the Reich’s Security – hadn’t sufficiently prepared him. He could feel it in the air, compressed like a snowball in your hands, and in the smell of charred flesh that had started drifting over again in foul wafts now that the tobacco was burning away.
He could swear to it. This really was flesh bound for the crematoria, as he’d heard in the Berlin office. In the corridors of Prinz-Albrecht-Straße and in the new office in Werderscher Markt, they talked about Sachsenhausen and Dachau, but nothing beat Auschwitz. There were rumours that diseases and the SS-Totenkopfverbände’s insane methods reaped so many victims that the SS men were forced to burn the bodies in state-of-the-art crematoria, stinking out the sky with clouds so dense you could never glimpse the sun. Here, the snow covered a thick layer of ashes.
The bark of an SS officer startled him. ‘Bring the dogs!’ He was holding a logbook and scanning it with his eyes. ‘We’re about to offload the cargo! A thousand pieces!’
The sky over the cattle wagons was dark, almost devastating.
The Alsatians curled their lips over their gums and scratched the snow with their paws. The searchlights made their sharp teeth glisten. Anybody would have stopped at the guttural snarling that came from their bristly bellies.
Hugo gave the cigarette – dying by now – one final drag and threw it into the distance.
A short-lived, luminous trail that then sizzled in the snow.
‘Out!’ an SS man yelled, beating a baton against the carriage walls. ‘Out, you pieces of shit!’
The carriage doors opened one after the other with a deafening clatter that was
drowned out by the shouts of the SS men and the barking of the dogs. A noxious smell flooded the station and Hugo instinctively stepped back.
Bodies, crushed beyond belief, swarmed out like bees from a broken hive.
Hugo felt as though he was in one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno. He remembered the swamp of the River Styx well: it was where souls writhed in the mud, thrashing against one another. Some couldn’t even reach the surface, but remained below, faceless, just bubbles rising from the mire.
The SS men tried to restore calm by administering blows with the butts of their rifles. Hugo’s eyes met those of a woman who was carrying a suitcase in one hand and, in her arm, a baby girl only a few months old. She didn’t want to let go of either. The viscous swamp sucked her back. In the crush she had to give up her suitcase and hold her daughter tight to make her way through the crowd.
Pushed by another woman, she fell to her knees.
An Alsatian snapped at the cold air right in her face. From his position by the Mercedes, Hugo could see her features deformed with terror. He felt uneasy at being this unexpected spectator, in his civilian investigator’s coat, unable to do anything but watch. He took a step forward to help her, but the icy glare of the SS officer next to him stopped him in his tracks.
The woman got back up and looked around, lost. Now, the torrent of Jews with the yellow star pinned to their coats was following the SS men’s instructions in an orderly fashion, with a meek murmur. Their eyes were full of questions, but no one dared breathe a word. Some gave the others quizzical looks but took care not to address the Germans.
Hugo felt uncomfortable. For him, Jews had never been a problem. But they were for the Party, to the point of obsession.
He had fond memories of Frau Mandelbaum, his neighbour in Berlin; she was like an aunt. In Nikolaiviertel, on summer afternoons, he would linger with her son Henryk. They’d go and play hide-and-seek at the back of the church or race on the banks of the Spree then dive in and swim to the other shore. ...
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