Facts were more important than feelings to Hans. Not that he ever gave such things much thought. He was an engine driver, comfortable in a world where all the information he required was provided by gauges and dials, leaving little room for interpretation. A fact was a fact. Solid, dependable. Experience had taught him that feelings could fluctuate, liable to change without warning. With a bitter smile, Hans recalled his only romance. The first time he spotted her, a radiant blonde, in the works canteen, he felt his skin tingle. Aware that he lacked social graces, Hans resigned himself to the fact that such a goddess was out of his reach. He was thrilled when, after he had daydreamed about her for several hopeless weeks, she approached him. Later, he was stunned to realise that she had asked him to take her out on a date. For several weeks, Hans was euphoric, conscious of his cynical work-mates’ envy of him escorting this beauty. Through his innocent delight, however, he gradually started to sense that all was not well, that somehow he was being used. Tentatively mentioning this to his beloved, he was aghast when she laughed scathingly at him. Did he really think, she sneered, that she could really be interested in the likes of him ? Hans felt his pulse rise as she scornfully flung back at him things he had had said and done, making him feel absurd. The negative impact of this experience left him cautious about becoming too deeply involved in others’ lives. Outwardly, Hans was friendly enough, but was not prepared to risk any further damage to his self-esteem. He liked to know where he stood. Feelings random unpredictability made him nervous.
It was not that Hans was an unfeeling man. He spent several harrowing years watching his late mother nurse his father before his final, painful, death. He had returned from battle-scarred France with his lungs destroyed by mustard gas, and his mind disturbed by sights and sounds he was unable to forget. Hans remembered spending many tearful nights trying to console his distraught mother. He vowed to have nothing to do with the kind of events which caused his family so much distress.
Hans only felt at ease with his engine. His engine shed colleagues remarked on the affection with which he treated it. How he spent hours burnishing its DB plate until it gleamed. Or stood, dwarfed by its massive drive-wheels, admiring its well-oiled pistons. Some even suggested that it took the place of a lover. Hans, embarrassed by comments which were closer to the truth than he cared to admit, was unable to explain his fascination for this well-designed piece of machinery. Nor could he have articulated the sensation of supreme happiness which flooded over him each time he turned the regulator, released the brake lever, and felt this great beast stir at his command. Thundering across a countryside wary at their passing, he was oblivious to fleeing cattle, or wide-eyed children. Concentrating on flickering needles and track-side boards, his mind was absorbed by facts. The engine’s rhythmic beat. The boiler’s steam pressure. The time it would take them to reach their next stop. This was his world, a world of concrete facts. Only the unwelcome metallic clash of the sweating fireman’s shovel destroyed his reverie. Hans remembered the years he had spent, stripped to the waist, shovelling coal into the fire-box’s flaming mouth. Eventually promoted to engine driver, he kept his distance from former colleagues, paying little heed to his reputation among them as a cold man. Hans believed that concentration on his engine’s controls was more important than personal relationships.
Away from his engine, Hans grew aware of a swirl of changing events. Marching grim-faced men in black shirts. Shops daubed with menacing graffiti. Tension in the air. Remembering the misery of his father’s final agonising years, he blanked out these perturbing matters from his mind. Retreated from them, spending ever more time with his engine. It, at least, was unaffected, dependable. He stopped buying a newspaper and did not listen to his radio. Turned away from conversations where these incidents were discussed. Insidiously, however, external circumstances started to intrude into his closed world. He could not help but notice more and more uniformed men strutting along the station platforms he drove past, superciliously elbowing everyone else aside. Soon, he was hauling carriages full of cheering, sinister, men clad in unfamiliar military garb. Fortunately, his engine remained unmoved, its reliability untouched. He came to see its cab as the only sane place of refuge in an increasingly alien world.
Hans hoped he could continue to drive his engine, unconcerned about the callous happenings taking place all around. He was mistaken. Walking home, late one night, he came across gangs of wild-eyed men gleefully smashing slogan-daubed shop windows into tinkling slivers of broken glass. A nearby synagogue was torched, flickering orange flames angrily mirrored in the windows of his Spartan bachelor apartment. In the street, he started to notice people, fearfully avoiding eye contact with others, wearing large yellow stars on their coats. One day, two fellow engine-drivers failed to clock on. He remembered them joking about being ordered to sew stars onto their overalls. With no humour in their eyes. Ordinary blokes, just like himself. Hans felt himself compelled to the reluctant realisation that external events were forcing themselves into the cavernous sanctuary of his engine-shed. And shuddered at the thought.
He was rostered to drive to a new destination, some place called Auschwitz. Hans had never heard of it. Ordered to take his engine to an unfamiliar part of the marshalling yard, he was annoyed. His engine, normally assigned to pull passenger carriages, was being asked to associate with animal wagons. A colleague, seeing his displeasure, muttered so as not to be overheard “ Do as you’re told, and don’t ask questions. ” New men had started to appear in the shed. Arrogant. Patently not genuine railwaymen. Hans felt uneasy in their presence, and tried to avoid them as far as possible. Sensed their eyes observing him. Weighing up his loyalty to their cause. Leaving the shed’s newly suspicious atmosphere, his relief at being back in his cab’s shelter was soon shattered. Where cows usually stood, dumbly awaiting transport to their fate, he saw hordes of human beings milling about. Hans thought he recognised one of his former colleagues. All were wearing yellow stars. Men, women and children. Panic-stricken. Herded by brutish rifle-wielding soldiers into straggling queues. Elbowed and shoved, in barbaric confusion, onto wagons still reeking of cattle. There was a clatter of doors being rammed shut. For a brief moment, it blocked out the wails of human misery. They soon resumed. Even the steam-hissing noise of Hans’ engine could not screen these upsetting sounds from him. To stop himself thinking, he busily checked his gauges and dials. Again and again. Unnecessarily. He was jerked back to what was going on by an angry shout. A soldier, eyes bulging with rage, screamed up at him : “ Get going ! ” It was good to slip effortlessly into his well-worn routine. Even the engine’s rhythmic “ clickety-clack, clickety-clack ” was, however, unable to stop his thoughts drifting back to his unwilling passengers. Who were they ? What had they done ? They seemed ordinary enough to him. He was troubled to find that these ideas were overruling his normal preoccupation with his engine’s gauges, dials and levers. He was becoming interested in these strangers’ lives. Why should he feel anything for them ? He did not know them. For the first time in many years, he felt a growing concern for fellow human-beings. It dawned on him that he had allowed himself to be more interested in his engine’s performance than others’ well-being.
Hans scarcely noticed as they crossed the border into Poland, now manned by men uniformed like those guarding his passengers. Steaming through an elaborate gateway extolling the benefits of work, he was reassured. They were going to a work camp, perhaps as some kind of punishment ! He had only time to catch sight of a scattering of rough brick huts, and some unusually tall brick chimneys, before being flagged to a halt. A torrent of dishevelled humanity spilled out of the newly opened trucks. Ignoring their anguish, soldiers roughly sorted them into two distinct groups. Rifle buts rained down. Moaning, both groups sidled off, out of Hans’ sight. His engineer’s mind was impressed by the operation’s efficiency. He managed to catch a passing soldier’s eye, and asked : “ What’s going on ? ” The soldier glanced around, furtively. “ I’m not supposed to say. They’re only stinking Jews. Most are going to be gassed. ” Realising he had already said too much, the man scuttled away. Hans was stunned. He had brought his passengers here to be killed.
Next night, back in his apartment, Hans could not sleep. Tossing and turning in bed, he was unable to get the sights and sounds he had witnessed out of his mind. His life-long fear of involvement with others had led him to deliberately ignore the evidence of what was going on. And now, he felt that he was as guilty as the most bestial soldier. He had actively contributed to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Slaughtered only because of what they believed. That soldier had casually labelled them “ stinking Jews ” as if that were reason enough for them to be executed. Hans had never bothered with religion, considering it insufficiently factual. Now, he grasped that he had, rather, been worshipping his engine’s cold precision. Despair seized him. His fear of feelings, and his blind trust in facts, had led him to this !
By morning, Hans knew that continuing to ignore what was going on had ceased to be an option, To be able to live with himself, he realised that he had to make some kind of response to these new, challenging, thoughts. He had to act. Pacing up and down, Hans decided what he would do. And, well aware of its consequences, he shrank from it. With a pair of scissors, he cut a rough star shape from a discarded piece of yellow curtain material. Tongue sticking out with the unfamiliar effort, he laboriously stitched it onto the front of his greasy overalls. Attempting to gather up his courage, he lingered over breakfast. Unable to put off the moment any longer, Hans opened his front door, and emerged into a world full of new menace. Streets, where previously he was invisible, were now peopled by those whose eyes seemed drawn to his clean badge. Most grimaced in disgust. A few looked down, embarrassed. It was not long before he heard the shout “ Dirty Jew ”, and felt himself being roughly manhandled by a gang of uniformed men.
Having been jostled and humiliated by snarling men inflamed to hatred by his yellow star, he was herded in a crowd of terrified people across the same animal yard where his doubts had surfaced. Hans could hardly believe that this was forty-eight short hours earlier. While being roughly shoved onto a foul-smelling cattle wagon, his engine driver’s eye tried to catch a glimpse of the engine pulling them. Hans had time for one last ironic smile : it was his own engine. He hoped its new driver was treating it as well as he had.