Emil Clément, nicknamed "The Watchmaker", is a French Jew who survived Auschwitz thanks to his chess talent, and a lot of luck. Now, almost twenty years later, he participates in a chess championship in Amsterdam. There, he meets the terminally ill priest Paul Meissner, who was also at Auschwitz. But not as a prisoner, he was an SS officer. Back then, he introduced chess to improve the morals of the SS officers in the camp. It's a huge success. But then there are rumours about a Jewish chess player only called "The Watchmaker" who seems to be unbeatable. A challenge to the Nazi ideology. And so Emil gets forced to play chess against the Nazis: if he wins, he will save the life of a fellow prisoner, if he loses, he will lose his own life...
I enjoyed The Death's Head Chess Club, it was a gripping read. And while the story and its main characters are completely fictional, it feels very realistic. The author also does a very good job in the character development of the main characters. On the other hand, there are many errors in German words, which is a bit annoying if it's your native language.
Quotes from the book
He walks with a pronounced limp – a parting gift from a Russian tank.
He used to have a name, but that was in another life, a life that made sense beyond the daily struggle merely to survive. His name was Emil Clément, and he was a watchmaker. Now he is simply Häftling number 163291.
At first, Emil felt disgusted at the thought of sharing his bed with another man, a stranger. Now he knows he is fortunate: it is the only time he is warm.
"Why were you sent here, Oberhauser? Political crimes?" - "No, sir." - "You're not a Jew?" - "No, sir, I'm a Jehovah's Witness." - "A Jehovah's Witness? I had no idea they were so dangerous." - "Me neither, sir."
Emil is anxious about his two boys, but the officer tells him not to worry: adults of working age will go to a work camp and the children will be sent to the family camp, where they will be cared for by those who are too old for manual labour. He says it with the weary calmness of a man who has given this reassurance a hundred times before. It has the ring of normality, of truth. But it is the first of many lies in the land of liars.
"Family" is a word the Nazis have violated so that it has lost its natural meaning. In Auschwitz, "family" means death.
Time has no meaning here: it is too painful to contemplate the past and impossible to conceive of any future. There is only now, which is seared, like a brand, upon the consciousness; the struggle for this day, this hour, this minute, is all there is.
"The SS-Totenkopfverbände Chess Championship could become an annual event, hosted by K-Z Auschwitz."
Meissner had stared at the Kapo, his eyes drawn to the green triangle on his jacket: a criminal. So serious were his crimes that he had been sent to Auschwitz, where, in accordance with the perverse rules of the camp, criminals were put in charge of honest men and women.
"We are worthless. We are no longer even human beings. We are less to the SS than sacks of beans or potatoes. That is the truth of this place."
"How could intelligent people like you and Paul have allowed yourselves to be so hoodwinked by Hitler that you ended up criminals?" [...] "I've asked myself the same question many times, and the truth of it is very disheartening. People have talked about the failings of our politicians and the terrible effect on Germany of the Depression and the war reparations, but the fact is that too many of us wanted to say "Yes!" to Hitler. We knew he was dangerous, but he promised to lead us to our rightful destiny. Who could say no to that?"
"Some of the Yids in here are bound to have rich relatives in England or America, only they can't get word out to them. But we can. [...] Every time the Watchmaker wins a game, I've fixed it so that I get to choose which life he saves. So, we're going to have an auction – the Yids can bid against each other for their lives. We get word to their relatives in return for a large deposit into a Swiss bank account."
Dorn was typical of the new breed of concentration camp officers: what he lacked in intelligence he more than made up for with unconditional obedience.
"It's quite daunting to be in a room where every person really does want you dead."
I tell myself that I am fortunate. I am not in the camp where the killing is done and I am not involved in this brutality. In fact, I am quite insulated from it. But that does not absolve me from the guilt in which I must share because I am here and do nothing to prevent it. I tell myself that it would be futile – what could I achieve other than getting myself shot by the Gestapo? But the little rats' teeth of remorse are gnawing at me without mercy.
[...] I told them that because I was involved in armament production I wanted to see Jews spared for work in the factories, not killed as soon as they arrive. That's what my life has come to – an SS officer in a death camp who is trying to keep the prisoners alive when everyone else wants them dead.
"Calling him a bastard is too good for him in my book."
"[...] underground shelters sufficient for the civilian and SS personnel." - "But not the prisoners?" - "No, sir. In accordance with policy, they are considered expendable. With more shipments arriving daily, it is a simple matter to replace any casualties."
"War is cruel... but death camps? It was not only unbelievable, it did not make sense – so much better to put the Jews to work than to kill them. Why kill them? There was no profit in it for the Reich. So I told myself the stories were not true. Could not be true." - "And now?" [...] "Now I am ashamed. Ashamed of myself, ashamed of my country. For the rest of my life, I must live with the knowledge that we are a nation of murderers."
"I know Hustek. He's an evil bastard. If he gets wind of this he'll have us thrown into the ovens while we're still alive."
"You know, Herr Hauptsturmführer, you should pay a visit to Birkenau yourself sometime, see what it's like. It's quite something to see the gassing – hundreds of people one minute and so still [...] the next. And the screams, you should hear the screams. Gives you a real sense of a job well done." [...] "The only death I've ever seen is the kind where men get blown to pieces or roast to death in a burning tank. And the more I think of it, the more I realize what a fitting end that would be for you."
"You won't shoot me", he said. "Not for the sake of a stinking Yid." - "I wouldn't be so sure. [...] I've sort of taken to him. He's not a bad sort – for a Jew. On the other hand, nobody likes you Gestapo scum – not even your own mothers."