I hear cries all around me. I can smell the sickness in the air, hear the cold back-shivering screams of people being shot or beaten, of women and children whimpering in pain. They are putting numbers on us like we are dogs to keep track of. I am next. The needle comes toward me. Pain sears through me. I scream.
I am eighty-one years old. It's midnight and I can't go to sleep. It is haunting me; coming back. After all these long, painful, lonely years, I still can't get it out of my head.
For me, like many others, it all started one day in April. I was playing with my handmade beautiful doll, Hannah. My mother had made her for my twelfth birthday. Hannah had long black hair, deep blue eyes, and glossy red lips. My brother Zvi, was pretending to do his homework. Papa was reading his usual Sunday newspaper in his chair. Mama was cooking what smelled like it would be a delicious meal; the aroma was almost unbearable. My baby sister, Rachel, was sleeping peacefully. Then, without any warning, there was a heart-stopping pound at the door. Everyone froze. Then my father rose from his chair with some difficulty. He had hurt his leg by slipping on some ice while moving some stuff in our family restaurant, and it never fully healed. Papa limped to the door and opened it. Two German soldiers rushed in and started yelling at us in German. Mama rushed into Rachel's room and grabbed her. Rachel..............
The guards yelled at us. "Get out, hurry! Schnell! Schnell!" We were taken to a schoolyard. I helped Papa while Zvi held Rachel for Mama. One by one, many soldiers came into the schoolyard and took all the children under six years of age. They put them into a cart. They said it would be more comfortable for the young ones and that the cart held toys in it. With great hesitation, each family gave up its children. Afterwards, we lay on the ground for two hour while they took all our belongings. I remember that they took my only piece of jewelry, a beautiful heart locket. The necklace itself was a delicate thread of gold. The heart was also golden and contained a diamond in the middle. The real gift was what was inside. It had a picture of Papa holding me as a baby, both of us wearing huge smiles. Finally, the guards let us get up; they pushed us back inside.
When we arrived at the camp, they split us up into two groups, women and children on one side, men on the other. Children and wives were ripped apart from their beloved fathers and husbands. My family was the same, but strangely there was no struggle when they came to separate us. Well, let me clarify that. Not much of struggle when it came to Zvi and mama, but I, on the other hand, was a completely different story. My stubbornness not only led me to two black eyes but a broken heart, for my father said the harshest words that I would ever hear him say.
"You stubborn child!" he yelled. "You embarrass me! Go to your mother, now! Get away; stop acting like you haven't been raised as a proper young lady!" With that a soldier finally managed to separate me from my father, and in exchange for my stubbornness I was punched in both my eyes.
We were led into a room that was bare except for a ceiling lamp that set off an eerie glow to the room. A woman stepped in. Her face was pale and sour. Her mouth looked like someone had sketched her thin pale lips. Her hair was pulled into a severe bun. Her clothes looked like she had just arrived from an important business meeting. Her heels clapped loudly, breaking the silence. She spoke sharply.
"Undress now, you will be taking a shower."
Everyone looked at each other and just stood there.
"Schnell ! Right now, undress!!"
Shyly we undressed and stepped into a room. It was very crowded, but no one seemed to mind when the warm water sprouted out from the numerous spouts on the ceiling. Then everyone started to bathe herself. The pleasurable coolness of the water abruptly came to an end. We moaned in complaint as they opened the door.
We filed out into another room with long wooden tables, filled with articles of clothing. We were handed a kerchief and one piece of clothing. I can still see the pathetic excuse for a dress. It was a little more than a rag with a hole cut out on top. It was faded blue and was stained with perspiration.
I was putting on my dress when two men came walking in. There was a wave of shrieks of embarrassment and surprise. The thing I remember the most were their sly smiles. I wanted to smack those smiles off their idiotic faces. They told us to come into another, larger room. The younger man explained, "This is Harr Ubergrau, your hair cutter; he'll do his job and you'll stand in line and will not give any trouble."
The older one inserted, "Remember no hair, no lice."
We got in line, and I heard whimpers from the women as their hair was shaved. When my turn came, I started to cry even before my hair was shorn. I watch my long, silky, black hair fall silently all around me.
Afterwards we went into the last room where they put the numbers on us. I sat on an enormous chair. I shut my eyes. I heard the cries from the others. I felt it, a hot burning needle jabbing into my skin. I screamed so loudly, I thought that people miles away could hear me. I looked at the hideous numbers on my arm- J16894. Blood blossomed all around the numbers. A soldier directed me outside and gave me a shovel. He told me to dig, so I did. I put all my anger into my work each time I put my shovel to the ground. My strength only lasted for a little and soon I slowed. I needed to stop. I thought I would drop.
Later on that day I met a girl named, Rebekah. She had been there six months and was much more experienced then me. I can still see her bony face, chapped lips, and shaved head. There were numerous grotesque scars on her head. Most, she expressed dryly, were the result of soldiers hitting her with their guns or sticks.
Our first night was very interesting despite our current situation. At the beginning of that night, her eyes were sad, shadowy blue; at the end of the night, they contained bright laughter. We spent that entire night talking about our lives before the war. She told me about her family: her talented singing Mom, her hard working father, and her lovable brother. She told me that she really wished she had spent more time with her brother and hadn't picked on him so much.
The next morning and the days following were the hardest days I had ever experienced in my short, young life. Every day was like a repetition of the day before: waking up at the crack of dawn, eating a thin gruel and then working long agonizing hours.
One day I had a cold; I was coughing and coughing. I couldn't help it. The soldiers were constantly looking for people who couldn't work as well as they demanded. That day, they were even more critical than usual.
I heard shouts and screams, one after the other, bullets blasting from one direction to the next. Then it quieted down, and everything stopped. Silence. I could hear my heart thumping in my ears, and when the screams began again, my heart skipped a beat. Prisoners protested loudly as they were forced into the gas chambers.
Then I heard the horrible words, "That one!" The soldier was pointing at me.
Before I knew it, my kerchief was ripped off my head and Rebekah had put it on. It was a worn- out print of delicate little flowers surrounded by hearts. On me, it fit snug, but on her, it was loose, giving her a silly, and cute look. I asked her what she was doing.
"I am taking your place. Those idiots wouldn't know the difference between two Jews if their life depended on it. You have to be strong. Don't ever give up. Promise me you won't."
"I promise." I said through my tears.
When they took her away, I wanted to break down and cry. But then I remembered what she said to me that night we first met: "Never let those self-centered idiots see you cry; it gives them more power."
It all seemed to happen so painfully slow. She didn't even put up a struggle.
Her face showed no sign of regret or sorrow.
Before she disappeared from my view, she smiled and declared, "We shall meet again in Heaven!"
The guard gave me an evil look. I went back to work while fighting back my tears. I wondered why God chose to keep me on earth. What use was I? Was he trying to punish me for something? Trying to prolong the pain? I remember almost nothing of what happened after that. But weeks later when I finally collapsed, an American GI took me in his arms and said, "You are going home." I fainted.
I woke up in the hospital. My bed faced the window. I thought I was in heaven. I saw birds everywhere singing their beautiful songs of joy. There were millions of flowers. There were green trees. The sun was shining bright. The skies were blue and there was not a trace of clouds to be seen.
Today, I am eighty-one years old. I see myself as a thirteen year old child looking out the window thinking that I was in Heaven. These days I think Heaven will look a little different. When I go there, I will find something that will keep me happy forever, my angel, Rebekah.