A man and woman walk through the park together, holding hands. They pass an old woman sitting on a bench. The old woman is knitting a small, red sweater. The man begins to cry. Write this scene…
THE END OF ILSA GRESE
a short story
Mamie Potter had just completed yoga and was sitting down to her usual breakfast of eggs, toast and tea when she got the call. It was George, her only living and former boss.
“My dearest George, it has been at least a decade! To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?”
“Are you up to one last assignment in service of our country?” asked the decrepit voice on the other end of the line.
“Naturally,” she replied without a second hesitation, a broad smile forming across her face.
“Good,” he croaked.
“Who is my target?” Mamie inquired.
“She was SS and a former doctor.”
“So, she’s about my age. That won’t be hard. May I ask why you picked me?”
“I figured you would want this one, considering she is responsible for the deaths of some of your family members. Consider it my last gift to you.”
“Gift accepted. What will I need?”
“Red yarn and a needle, you’ll be making a sweater on a park bench. Our man will point out your target by approaching you and crying,” George answered.
“Quite theatrical,” said Mamie.
“You’ll know what to do next.”
“Ahhh, the needle…”
“Poisoned. Your package with instructions should be on the way tonight. You’re on for tomorrow morning. Best of luck to you.”
And the call terminated.
Mamie arose the next day, did her yoga and ate her usual breakfast. She sipped the last drop of her tea, got up from the table and walked over to her mirror to assess her appearance. Though she was in her early eighties, she was still strong and fairly agile. She exercised regularly and took her vitamins daily. It showed. She was five feet, eight inches tall and lean. She needed no walker or cane to get around and had no hunch when she walked. And Save for minor arthritis in her feet, she was up to the task. Besides, all she needed to do was knit a sweater while sitting on a bench…
It had been decades since she was called into service. She had refused to retire from the agency, so George convinced the group to allow her to remain active on an honorary status. She had been with his clandestine unit ever since World War II. She was just eleven. At that time, George’s family was among a group of American spies living in London collecting information on the activities of Nazi sympathizers. She was growing up in London’s high society when she met George and his family at a friend’s dinner party. They immediately took to her once they heard her and her father’s outspoken views on the Nazis. It was George’s mother who quietly recruited her to carry letters and report conversations she heard while dining with certain wealthy families thought to be financing the Nazis. Mamie had proven so successful in her efforts; they offered her a permanent position in the agency as a spy and later, an assassin. With George’s mother and eventually George as her boss, she and her agency stopped many political coups, removed dangerous heads of states and leaders of terrorist organizations.
She put on her blue overcoat and grabbed the package sitting on the table in her small foyer. Inside the package was the red yarn, the needles in a bag of plastic and several photos of children and women whose bodies had been tortured and mangled. She shook her head, re-stuffed the package and headed out the door.
She arrived at the park and quickly found her place on the bench. She started knitting as instructed. About twenty minutes in, she heard the sound of crying and an older lady trying to console him. That must be Mr. Hastings. What a performance, she thought. Or was it? It seemed very real. Too real. Was he having second thoughts? She’d better act quickly. Setting aside her knitting she reached in her package and pulled out the pictures.
“Dr. Ilsa Grese,” Mamie called out to her target. The old woman turned with a look of shock on her face.Mamie then confronted her with photo after photo of her horrifying deeds. The old woman was frozen with disbelief.
“For your crimes against humanity,” Mamie declared and with the swiftness, she stuck her target in the neck with the needle. Daniel caught her as she collapsed to the ground and he continued to sob. Her work was done. She sent a quick text to George and then helped Daniel pick up her target and prop her on the bench. She carefully laid the yarn and needle on the corpse’s lap and gave Daniel a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
“Sometimes these assignments are difficult, but you must always remember your duty. Now let’s go,” she said softly.
The morning light seemed to dance between the trees in the quaint little park as he strolled with his sweet motherly neighbor who until just a few weeks ago, went by the name of Gladys Steiner. He felt conflicted about this day, as well he should. He moved into the old pre-war apartment about a year ago in order to gain the trust and a confession from her. He had no idea she would be so complex; an assortment of good and evil, of pride and regret. She would both charm and repulse him, but that was the way it was with most people he had come to know. He had a job to do nonetheless. However, today, for mercy’s sake, he took the long way around the park, which she seemed to appreciate very much.
He looked down at this demur, round lady whose plump arms were wrapped tightly around his. She paused at the lake to observe the ducks gliding back and forth.
“We can stop here for a bit if you’d like,” said Daniel. They took a seat on a nearby bench. Daniel’s mind began to wander, recalling the day he had learned her true name and identity.
It was a Friday, time for the weekly dinner at her house and Daniel called to say he’d be late. When he arrived at about eight o’clock, Gladys had already eaten and had moved on to the cocktail hour. He knocked on her door and then entered her modest apartment, decorated in 1960’s furnishings. Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen played on her old, dusty turntable. The living area was darkened and smelled of grilled onions. She probably made steak, he thought.
“Gladys,” he whispered. You awake?” He said as he approached the figured seated in a crush velvet orange chair. The brandy on her side table sat half empty under the spotlight of her Danish walnut mid-century lamp. The crystal snifter in her meaty hands was nearing a tilt. As Daniel crept near her, he heard faint mutterings. Daniel leaned in to rescue the glass from her hands and rest it on the side table when he heard her mutter the words, “Heil, Hitler,” over and over again.
Daniel gently shook her awake.
“Ms. Steiner, you’ve started cocktail hour without me and you’re sitting here with little light,” he said as he helped prop Gladys up in her chair. She snorted and grunted and strained her eyes as if she were trying to recognize the stranger in her house. Daniel sat on the sofa next to her turned on her other lamp and helped himself to the brandy. She stared at him blankly, her eyes blood-shot and watery.
“My name is not Gladys Steiner, I am not a Jew. I was never a Jew. My name is Dr. Ilsa Grese, my aunt was the famous Irma Grese, SS guard at Auschwitz…” she slurred, her German accent becoming more pronounced.
“No, you are Gladys Steiner from Great Neck, NY,” replied Daniel and he took out his cell phone to begin recording. He reached over, lifted the needle and turned off Wagner.
“I must certainly am not!” Ilsa objected, completely oblivious to what Daniel was doing.
“I am not a Jew. I do not like Jews. Are you a Jew, Daniel? Daniel. Is that a Hebrew name?” she scoffed, “no, my real name is Dr. Ilsa Grese. I apprenticed with Dr. Josef Mengele in Brazil for a time. Did you know Dr. Mengele was my aunt’s lover?” Ilsa confessed with a laugh.
“Why are you telling me this?” interrupted Daniel.
Ilsa shook her head. “I don’t really know. You have become like a son to me and you ought to know the truth. The real truth about me,” she said, holding her head. Her buzz was wearing off.
“Please give an old lady another drink,” she pleaded.
Daniel did as he was told and spent the rest of the evening listening and recording every detail of her horrific and unrepentant crimes against humanity.
He looked down at Ilsa and grabbing her by the hand, said, “Let’s continue on, shall we?”
Ilsa looked into Daniel’s brown eyes and smiled.
“Anything bothering you my dear boy?”
“Nothing at all, Ilsa,” he patted her hand and they continued their slow stroll.
“There’s a koi pond I’d like to see, up ahead,” said Daniel as they approached a clearing in the trees.
And there she was.
An elderly woman in a blue overcoat knitting a red sweater. She looked remarkably spry and strong for her age, thought Daniel. His hands began to shake and become sweaty. Tears begin to well up in his eyes. This was not going to be as easy as he believed, thought Daniel as he approached the knitting woman.
“What’s wrong, dear?” asked Ilsa, with a look of motherly concern.
“I am so sorry, Ilsa,” Daniel whispered and he broke down sobbing. It has to be done, he kept thinking over and over to himself.
Ilsa, a bit confused by the scene, tried to console Daniel while the woman on the bench stopped her knitting as they drew closer.
“Dr. Ilsa Grese,” said the knitting woman whose stern voice filled the air around them.
Ilsa looked up in astonishment. Daniel stopped crying and saw the woman hold up photos of tortured women and children.
“For your crimes against humanity,” was all Daniel could remember the knitting woman saying before she struck Ilsa in the neck and she collapsed to the ground. Daniel cradled Ilsa in his arms and cried. A rogue tear escaped from Ilsa’s glassy, terror-filled eyes and then she reached up and grabbed Daniel’s cheeks between her hands. Seconds later, she became void of life.
The knitting woman helped him up and they propped her on the bench. She tried to reassure him, but he didn’t know if he had the chops to do this job anymore. Even though she might have done terrible things in her past, she wasn’t a bad person to him. In fact, she had become the mother he never had. To him, she would always be Gladys Steiner.
Gladys Steiner/Dr. Ilsa Grese
“What a lovely morning in the park, this is,” remarked Ilsa as she and Daniel made their way to the duck pond. Daniel had offered to stop and let her rest and enjoy the ducks, which he so often did on their morning strolls. They’d often chat on about their respective plans for the day, but this day felt radically different to her. Today, Daniel seemed very distracted. As they sat on the bench overlooking the pond, she took out a bag of bread crumbs from her pocket and in silence, fed the ducks. Ilsa wondered what had the young man so engulfed in thought. Could it be about a girl? She hadn’t thought to ask him much about his love life. Though she wondered why in the year they had known each other, she had not. Perhaps she didn’t want to know. Perhaps she was just glad to have the company of someone and did not want to divert his thoughts elsewhere. He was the son she wished she had and that is why she told him almost everything about her past. To her pleasant surprise, he did not judge her. She would never have judged him, even if he told her he was an axe murderer and where he hid the bodies. She’d never tell a soul and would help him cover up his future crimes, if need be. That’s just how much she had grown to love the boy.
She really hoped and prayed he felt as strongly about her and she did him. Telling him about her experiments with Dr. Mengele in service of Da Fuehrer, and his interest in the details, proved to her that they were truly one. Mother and son, to the end. Maybe she should stop being so selfish and encourage him to find a young lady. Yes, she thought to herself, at their next Friday dinner, she would do it.
“It just amazes me how seemingly effortless these ducks move across the pond, yet underneath the surface, their little feet are kicking wildly. That’s just how life is, wouldn’t you say, dear? Ilsa observed, breaking their tiny bubble of silence.
Daniel didn’t reply directly to her comment he just got up, grabbed her hand and asked her if she wanted to continue on. Just one look into his big brown eyes and she could not help but say yes, but still she had to know if there was something bothering him.
“Anything bothering you, my dear boy?” asked Ilsa. He replied, ‘nothing’ and then led her down the tree filled path towards a koi pond he wanted to visit. As he gently swung her hands back and forth she began to release her concerns for him and allowed herself to soak in the sights and sounds of morning: the chirping birds, the light rustle of the oaks and evergreens in the crisp morning breeze, the sun burning off the morning mist and the peaceful sound of their slow, delightful footsteps down the windy path.
All of a sudden, as they reached a clearing, Daniel squeezed her hand. It became shaky and sweaty. As they approached the koi pond, Ilsa noticed an elderly lady sitting on a bench engrossed in her knitting. The yarn was a bright red. It looked as if it were going to be a small sweater. Daniel looked at the woman and began to weep.
“What’s wrong dear?” Ilsa pleaded, feeling shocked and a little embarrassed by Daniel’s odd behavior.
It was at that point, everything became a dream. She heard the lady on the bench call her name.
“Dr. Ilsa Grese,” her voice boomed. Isla turned around, aghast. Then she saw photos she vaguely recognized as being from her past days.
The very last words she heard were, “For your crimes against humanity.” She felt a light pinch and then as she collapsed. She saw the angelic face of Daniel. His eyes were filled with tears. She saw conflict in his face. She grabbed his soggy cheeks and held then tight. His face was becoming brighter and brighter. Was she dying? She suddenly felt light as if she were being lifted up and carried away to somewhere she did not know. The brightness of the day began to slowly fade until there was only darkness. Suddenly she heard screams, the sounds of hundreds of thousands of people screaming. She tried to cup her ears, but she could not. She felt as though something was restraining her hands. The sounds kept getting louder and louder, so loud it felt like a sharp knife to the head. The darkness began to fold and envelope around her. She was gripped with terror. She had never felt this way before. She could not move and the screaming became absolutely unbearable. Where was she? Would this torture ever end? And suddenly, somewhere in the deep recesses of her soul came a witness. No, it will never end.
And she erupted in a single, soul rocking, shrill of pain.