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A lifetime of atheism had not prevented Klaus from preparing with meticulous care for his death.
More accurately, preparing for what might - just might - happen to him after his death. And not to his body. Klaus had no ongoing interest in that. Rather was he concerned for the crisply bright spark of consciousness that he regarded as himself.
And so he had prepared as he had always done. As, decades ago, while Europe was being devastated by war he had prepared two sets of diaries. One set had expressed unshakeable confidence in the absolute rightness of his Fuehrer, complete commitment to the Final Solution, and a visionary zeal for the establishment of the thousand-year Reich.
The other set of diaries - the set that finally swayed the judges at the Nuremburg trials and gave him his freedom - recorded the steadily mounting doubts and misgivings of someone swept along by the pressures of a system and a society. Where, even when supervising a death camp, he would do what little he could to set free people who would otherwise have been exterminated. With always just enough corroborative evidence, carefully placed, to give the vital ring of truth.
Klaus lived by one creed: preparation was the key to survival.
And, in the comfort of a fine home on a well-run estate, he died as he had lived: well prepared.
The act of dying was not as painful as he had expected. The vivid reality of his continuing existence, however, was a greater shock than any that Klaus had ever before known. He was thankful, heartily thankful, that he had - as ever - covered even this contingency.
Klaus was prepared for life after death.
He was standing in a vast paved area. Above was a sky filled with stars in no arrangement ever seen from earth. The stars were reflected in the diamond-smooth surface of the slabs beneath his feet. Or - and briefly he was gripped by giddiness - perhaps the paving was transparent, and he could look down into deep space as well as up.
"Klaus? May we talk, or would you prefer to wait until you feel more settled?"
Someone had appeared at his elbow. A person, yes; a human, no. A being in which deference and authority lived comfortably side by side. The old religious stereotypes of angels suddenly became at best misleading, at worst ridiculous.
"I am ready," Klaus stated. "Is this - judgement day?"
The angel led him to a low stone bench. They sat down.
"Judgement day? No, not yet. In one sense it's a chance to catch your breath. Or you can regard it as a preliminary hearing. Perhaps a means of checking the score."
Klaus knew better than to argue. He would be unemotional; truthful even, if it would be to his advantage.
"First," he said, "you must realise that to find myself here is a complete surprise. Tell me: is this heaven or hell?"
The angel shook its head in an emphatic negative.
"Neither. This place has no name that you would recognise or find useful. It is simply an interim stage for you."
"Then tell me," persisted Klaus, "do you know everything about me? My life, my actions, my thoughts?"
"Yes," replied the angel simply. The lone syllable hung in the still air for a long moment.
"What, then, is 'the score'?"
The angel gave the slightest frown.
"From the time you entered Hitler's Jugend and throughout your career in the Nazi party, you took every opportunity to harass, to bully, then to torture and to kill anyone whom you classed as undesirable or inferior."
"Jews," said Klaus. "I can't deny it. And although my name was cleared at the trials, you must know about the two sets of diaries. So, I repeat, what is the score?"
"It hasn't been added up yet," said the angel. "You haven't been given a chance to say anything in your defence. Is there anything to be said?"
Klaus had waited for this. He had gambled that if by some mischance there really were an afterlife, and behind those shadowy religious myths there really were shreds of truth, then there was the likelihood - not of a carousing, heroic Valhalla where bullies could bluster and brag their misdeeds for eternity - but of a place where justice would be meted out, and where logic and reason would perhaps be weapons he could use.
He looked squarely at the angel.
"I don't know what terms you use here. But if the phrase 'guilty or not guilty' is appropriate, then I am pleading not guilty. And if you will permit me to explain, I believe I can substantiate my case in a way that will totally satisfy you."
The angel nodded.
"Please go ahead. All facts can be verified, down to the smallest detail. And there is no need to hurry. We have all the time that there is."
Klaus had rehearsed this occasion often. He inhaled deeply and began.
"If I had known beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt that one day I would find myself here, perhaps I would have lived in a somewhat different manner. Perhaps. But my being here makes no essential change to the person that I am. In your terms: there is no repentance."
The angel held up its hand.
"You may refuse all interruptions, Klaus. But aren't you simply condemning yourself? Isn't that an admission of guilt?"
Klaus shook his head emphatically.
"The plea is one of not guilty. If you examine my life, you will find that I have been not only a product of my time and my society, but a good product, an enthusiastic product of my environment."
"Did you never feel any doubts, any misgivings?" asked the angel quietly.
"You mean conscience? An inner voice? Maybe you could replay such times for me. Even call them guilt. But I ask - with respect, I demand that you consider the implausibility of someone like myself chasing any such phantom when my life was full of the inspiring speeches, marches, songs. The comradeship, tangible goals, the immediate reality of my world. Even in surroundings such as you have here, you must see that."
The angel nodded. There was no hostility. There was almost an air of agreement. Klaus continued.
"Let me assume for a moment that the whole pattern of my life was wrong. Wrong by some absolute, eternal standard. Possibly - probably - you would reward an individual who stood against people like me. But back there in the real world, such individuals were the misfits, the freaks, those who did real harm to the plans and efforts of me and my friends. So it would have been an abnormal act for me, even for an instant, to consider disbelieving that my views were valid. After all, have you ever dared to doubt that you are right? Have you? "
As he had been speaking, Klaus had watched the angel. Its expression had almost imperceptibly softened. Klaus knew that all his preparations for this moment would bring success.
"My plea of not guilty boils down to this. I lived within my social framework to the very best of my ability. If you had put me in a different family, in a different culture, I would have behaved differently. You would understand fully my situation if you had ever lived as a human. So if there is such a concept as justice, blame must go to whatever authority was responsible for my being born where and who I was."
"Even blame for the violence?" asked the angel.
"Certainly," responded Klaus. "I had a friend, my own age; we grew up as neighbours. But his father and my father were very cold to each other. 'Fat Hymie', my father called him, and explained to me that all the differences of outlook, ideals and behaviour in my friend came from the way Fat Hymie indoctrinated him. So when I became a young Nazi and understood the goals of National Socialism, it was important that I took care of people like him."
"Fat Hymie was the first man you ever beat up," commented the angel matter-of-factly.
"Later, he was the first man I ever executed. I had lost his son as my friend long before that, thanks to him. Although in one of the camps he did submit a request to see me, just before the end, I ignored it; there was no point."
The angel shifted its position on the bench.
"So you claim you lived as you did because of your environment?"
"And in any other set of circumstances you would have been moulded differently?"
"Absolutely. If you have different standards and I had been exposed to them, it would have been a whole new story."
The angel stood and extended its hand to Klaus.
"Your claim is accepted. The burden of responsibility cannot be put on you, as you say. So turn around and begin walking."
Klaus felt his heart swell with excitement. He had won, actually won. His preparation had paid off. As he walked away he dared to wonder what the reality of heaven could be like.
It was a bit like dying again. Not very painful. And he blinked to clear his vision.
He was lying in somebody's arms. There were faces, faces he half remembered from years past, all around him.
And as the Mohel's - the circumciser's - knife deftly sliced through his foreskin, he screamed a shrill baby cry. A scream of fear and understanding.
While the great rubicund face of Fat Hymie his father beamed down at him with an expression of pure love and joy.
* * *
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