In the camp, we were mostly young girls, in our teens and twenties. We had thick dark hair and strong legs and ample bosoms. Some of us were freckled farm girls from the shtetl and had rough hands from milking cows, and some of us were zaftig city girls plump as dumplings, with hands as soft as the silk ribbons in our hair. Some of us came from prominent families and wondered if our wardrobes had survived the trip, but many more of us came from simple, loving homes with just the clothes on our back — thin cotton blouses and worn woolen skirts, faded sweaters mended by our mothers that we would never outgrow. Some of us came from dusty villages and had never seen so many people in one place, and some of us were from teeming ghettos and were used to crowds of people being pushed and shoved together. Perhaps we had lost hold of our father’s hand in such a throng once, or our best friend, or perhaps a lover had turned his back one sad day and simply walked away, leaving us alone in the crush of the crowd.
In the camp, the first thing we did — before asking each other’s name, where we were from, where we would sleep, would we be given work to do — was wonder, out loud, where all the boys went. We had all come together with our families, but even before the mothers and daughters were split into different groups, never to see each other again, we had been separated from our brothers, our fathers, our boyfriends, and the men and boys were all whisked out of sight. They were lanky, they were squat, they were husky, they were svelte. They were fearless, they were timid, they were great football players, they were bookish. They were ours, and suddenly, they were gone. We chattered nervously, worrying about the loss of their strength and comfort, of the protection and reassurances they had provided on the trains. Little of what they told us would turn out to be true, but still we longed for their warm, rough touch, their assertive efficiency, and their gift for acting as if they were in complete control.
In the camp, we often wondered, what would happen to us? Would we go back to our homes someday? Would we make new friends, meet new lovers, have children of our own?
In the camp, some of us had our sisters with us, but most of us did not. Some of us had seen our little sisters dragged away at the trains and knew they were gone forever. Some of us hoped our sisters had been taken to a different camp, and we prayed that we might see them again. Many of us were not sure exactly where our sisters were, and we tried not to imagine the worst. One of us envied her sister’s straight blond hair, which helped her leave late one night for a large farm outside Prague, where the rich and kind Dvoracek family would pass her off as one of theirs, protecting her from the soldiers for more than six years, eventually adopting her when none of her family could be found after the war. One of us hoped desperately that the nuns at the convent in Kalwaria were still shielding her younger sister, masquerading as a novitiate and always struggling to remember not to blurt something out in Hebrew or Yiddish when strangers came. Another one of us couldn’t stop thinking about her big sister and her boyfriend, running away the night before after a horrible argument with Papa, finding their own hiding place beneath the creaky floorboards of a Lutheran friend’s workshop. More than one of us cursed our faces, wishing we were the ones born with the adorable button noses and fair complexions that let our sisters remain in Bucharest or Vienna or Riga, living with families brave enough to risk it, instead of here with us, trying to rub the bumps out of our noses until they were raw and bleeding and stinging from our tears.
In the camp, we slept in pairs, two girls huddled on each thin, tattered mattress, cuddling for warmth as much as comfort. We had no pillows and only torn, scratchy blankets. Some of us fashioned headrests from dirt and straw scrounged from the bare floors of our plain barracks. There were no lights, so we woke with the sun and turned in at dusk, facing long nights alone with our bunkmates and our dreams. Who’s there? Has someone come for us again? When we woke from our nightmares, we could see cottony puffs of steam from the measured breathing of the girls sleeping around us in the freezing air. When we could fall back asleep, we dreamed of Chaim and Yakov teasing us and stealing kisses, of our fathers’ Torah lessons, of our sisters sharing secrets, of riding the streetcars in Warsaw or Bratislava, of warm sunshine and green fields and laughing picnics of pierogi and borscht. We dreamed of the invisible boys, the lovers snatched from our grasp, reaching through barbed wire to take our hands and dry the tears from our cheeks. We clutched the girls curled alongside us a little tighter, buried our chilled noses in their filthy hair, and imagined they were someone we loved.
Our first few days in camp, we struggled to understand. Some of us spoke German, but many of us did not. Some of us had been to school, but many of us knew only what we’d learned in the cabbage fields, at the market stalls, in the rough dust of our small towns, from our rabbis, from the cow farmer, from the storyteller in the village square. The men in charge were no better educated than we were, but they had guns, and they had orders, and they had commands. What did he say? I don’t know what he wants from us. We tried to do as we were told, but some of us stumbled, and some of us fell, and many of us cried and bit our tongues to keep from asking why? Some of us were sure we would be going somewhere else, and some of us insisted this must all be a terrible mistake. Some of us thought they would keep us here forever, but others heard we would be deported to Palestine or America. Some of us were indignant and said they had no right, but many of us thanked God that at least we were alive and had a place to sleep and food to eat.
We were homesick, worrying, who was lighting the Sabbath candles? Was anyone milking the cows? Feeding the chickens? Changing the brine for the new pickles? Was someone else wearing our clothes, reading our books, trying on our jewelry? Were our fathers, mothers, brothers thinking of us? Who was selling cloth, working gold, butchering meat, if the village was empty? Would the cute boys from the yeshiva, the dairy, the streetcar station forget about us?
We wondered about the things left undone. Some of us had just started sewing new skirts with our mothers. Some of us had homework we needed to finish. One of us had just started building a new pen for her goats. Another of us was finally learning her first Mozart sonata. A few of us had just had our first kiss. One of us had just learned she was pregnant.
At night, most of us would pray. Many of us thanked God for seeing us through this danger. We said the blessing for surviving illness. Some of us asked God how he could let this happen. Some of us asked God if he were there at all. A few of us sneered at the others, scoffing at the idea of God coming to our rescue. One of the city girls said she didn’t believe in God, that the rest of us were fools, and what more proof did we need?
Our first few days in camp, we were hungry. Many of us were ill, from the strange food and the cold night air and the fear. More than one of us had to run behind the barracks and get sick after supper. One of us had to do it every morning. We started to bicker and fight in our beds, complaining about the smells and the filth and the nasty habits of the girls next to us. Some of us thought they were better than the others. Some of us tried to take charge. Others tried to make friends. Some of us wished we would just die, while others of us vowed no matter what, we would stay alive.
A few of us kept to ourselves, thinking our own thoughts, daydreaming about men we’d never see again. One of us thought about that young man at the movie theater, who touched her hand when he sold her tickets and then quickly looked away. Another thought of the married tailor who always came into her bakeshop, dropping veiled hints and complimenting her challah and her rugelach. Some of us daydreamed about Abram or Herzl or Shimon. One of us daydreamed about Rebekah.
Some of us heard that a boy from a neighboring camp had managed to escape, had cut himself badly climbing the barbed wire, but ran through the woods to the train tracks and made it all the way to France by hiding on the roofs of freight trains. Some of us heard that there were partisans in the forest, plotting to rise up and fight back, ready to take us in if only we could get to them. Others heard that a man was shot trying to escape, and then another, and another, and many of us heard about the girl who tried to flirt her way into the good graces of the gatehouse guard, only to have the commandant come along laughing and put a bullet through her head. We had no way of knowing each of these stories was true.
After a time, we began to forget our friends, our neighbors, our schoolteachers.
Our friends were replaced by the gossiping girls in the rows of bunks, by the complaining girls next to us scrubbing the floors of the guards’ barracks, by the anxious girls mending uniforms with us at the camp laundry, by the brazen girl who dared to smoke stolen cigarettes—a crime punishable by instant death, but as she would always say as we stared at her in awe, what
Our neighbors — the friendly, smiling, waving ones, the ones who brought us a hot kugel or bowls of fresh slaw or helped us get to school each morning when mother was ill, the ones we’d never met, the ones who envied our family’s nice car or pretty fence or new cow and always frowned when we strolled by — were replaced by hard men with pale skin and yellow hair and prodding bayonets, and by Roma gypsies we’d only glimpse across the yard, curious about their colorful clothing and their black hair, and by humorless dogs with dark, dark eyes and snarls full of spittle, whose every growl and bark made one of us—Leah, from not far away, near Kraków — shake and weep.
Our schoolteachers were replaced by overseers, fierce women named Irma and Maria and Herta, whose blond hair piled high above masculine foreheads and eyes without mercy, who outdid themselves trying to match the cruelty of the male guards they would secretly bed at night, and who would amuse themselves and torture us with lurid details of their liaisons with Horst and Klaus and Juergen, while most of us would never be with a man again.
After a time, some of us began to think that a few of the younger male guards weren’t so bad-looking. More than one of us exchanged smiles with the ones who seemed gentler, who seemed almost as scared and unsure as we were, who seemed impossibly young to be in a position of such authority, who surely were forced into service the way we were forced into servitude. Some of us lingered in the breadline, hoping to share a word or two with Erich or Hermann. One of us took a very long time delivering clean laundry to the infirmary, so that she just might happen to bump into Bernhard, who once helped her unload her baskets and left her with what she was sure was a look of longing. One of the most beautiful of us, Naomi, who everyone agreed had the face to be a movie star if only she’d been born in a different time or place, tried to ignore the looks and whistles and gropes of the guards and even, once, of Herta, and insisted in the dark at night that she would never let any of these Nazi dogs touch her, until one evening she did not return to the barracks, and the next time we saw her, she was hurrying out of the commandant’s quarters in the middle of the morning, and though she refused to admit anything to any of us, even to Leba, her best friend from the first day in camp, she would disappear every few days for hours at a time, and the guards abruptly stopped harassing her, focusing their attentions instead on Rachel and Dora, not daring anymore to bother Naomi, who seemed to keep her figure and the color in her cheeks better than the rest of us, especially as she spent more and more time away from us and with, if the whispers were true, the commandant.
We knew there were men right across the barbed wire from our camp — young men, strong men, brave men, our men, even if they really had never been ours to begin with and, in most cases, would never be ours at all — and we did our best to catch sight of them, lock eyes with them, smile at them, have entire relationships with them through looks of desire and what remained of our imaginations. We knew by now that only the strongest, the most useful, survived, that the men were being winnowed and culled just as we were, that the human chaff was cast aside quickly in search of the hard grains the Germans could thresh and mill and grind into the flour of their empire, so that the men we spied through the wires and the wood were the very best we had left. Few of us dared make contact. Many of us were too weak to act, even if we could summon the courage. Some of us took advantage of the rare occasions when male prisoners would be brought to our side of the fence, to rebuild a wall or fix a light. If the job took more than a few hours, there might be a moment when the capo would stop paying attention, and perhaps Elias the carpenter would manage a rendezvous with Hana, disappearing into the barracks while everyone else was off working, or Aron the electrician would make some time with Golda, unable to do much more than grasp hands, profess love, and make promises that would never be kept, their bodies no longer capable of matching their souls’ desires, but even unconsummated, in their eyes and those of God, it was a match.
Some of us wondered how any of us could even think of such things. We were exhausted from standing in the inspection line for hours each morning. We were exhausted from working so hard in the factories for hours each afternoon. We were thin and broken and starving. Who had time for such nonsense? Keep your eyes to the ground and your hands on your work. Give them no reason to notice you. Don’t end up like Rahel, made pregnant by a guard, although she didn’t even know it for so many months. Once she did, she knew she had to keep it secret. Girls with babies in their bellies don’t make good workers. No good could come. None of us wanted to imagine what might happen to such a child, or to Rahel. She couldn’t let the guard know — any of the guards, even the overseers — or that would be the end of her. She hid her condition as best she could for as long as she could, but like the rest of us, she was so thin that soon enough, that was no longer possible. She didn’t dare go to the camp doctor. We had all heard the stories, and we all knew girls who never came back. There was only one way, and it was not an easy way. Two of the older girls said they knew what to do, and very early one morning, when Rahel knew she was out of time, they tried to do it, on the dirt floor, with Rahel praying and begging for forgiveness and other women around her praying, and they used some copper wire and a sharpened spoon and what rags they could gather, but there was too much blood and no way to stop it, and by the time Irma and Greta discovered them and the guards came running and the dogs were barking and the praying women scattering, it was too late, and even if it hadn’t been, the guards would have finished things off, and who knows how many of us they would have taken with her.
Most of us pledged silently, This will never happen to me. Some of us cursed Rahel under our breath, saying, See how this nafka, this kurveh, wound up, it’s her own fault. Others of us cried for her, knowing the guard took her whenever he wanted and it could have been any of us. Many of us knew that even if it had been, our bleeding seemed to have stopped coming each month, and we were thankful that we almost certainly could not conceive a child.
Some of the girls did still bleed. The most observant among us insisted there be a mikvah — a ritual cleansing each month — but in such conditions, most of us agreed, adjustments had to be made, and God would understand. When the overseers would let us bathe, we would count that as the mikvah for any girl who had bled the week before. One of us, Ester, from Liozna, who was especially righteous, was adamant. She must observe the proper ritual. She came from a line of many grandfathers and uncles who were Hasidic rabbis, and she said the eyes of God could not be closed to her deeds and missteps, even in the camp. She would swab herself for seven days after her bleeding stopped each month, to make sure she was clean. Then she would cry in the shower, mumbling her prayer, scolding those around her, insisting she be immersed, demanding that we help her find and prepare a mikvah bath. After many months of this, she could take it no longer. One rainy evening, the end of the seventh day, as we trudged back to the barracks after our long hours working in the fields, or the laundry, or the nearby factory fabricating rocket shells, Ester kept walking, behind our building to the next one, where we had dug one of the many ditches the guards ordered us to dig, often for no reason apparent to us. It was a deep trough in the mud, mostly filled with rainwater, gray and dirty. Two other girls stumbled alongside her, pulling at her elbow, hissing for her to come back. Ester ignored them. She threw off her soggy rags, said the blessing, and plunged in. She immersed herself in the pool of water, reciting Hebrew, surfaced, let the dingy water run from her hair and the raindrops down her face, and submerged again. When she stood again, she was smiling as she prayed. The light had come back into her eyes. She started to laugh as she washed away the filth and grime, purifying herself in the muddy ditch. Her friends stood silent guard. Some of the rest of us circled behind the barracks to witness her ritual. One of the overseers, Greta, came too. After a few moments, she barked something in German. She started yelling at Ester to get out, reached into the ditch to tug at her hair. Some of us scattered in fear. We heard one of the dogs bark. An SS guard came, rifle at the ready. He ordered Ester out of the ditch. She smiled at him, the water running down her breasts. Surely, God would see this too. A mikvah is supposed to be a private affair. Another guard arrived. He asked Greta what was going on. She explained the ritual, how the dirty Jew needed to cleanse herself. He laughed. He nodded. He laughed some more. Some of us relaxed. Ester laughed. The guard picked up a hose from the ground. He was still laughing when he turned it on Ester. “Here,” he said. “Clean yourself.” He opened the nozzle and trained it at full force on Ester. She threw up her hands and sputtered as the water hit her in the face. She yelled for him to stop. He was no longer laughing. The powerful spray knocked her off her feet, slipping in the mud. The ditch filled and began to overflow. Ester screamed and gasped for air. She slid under the surface. She struggled to get her head back above water. The guard kept the hose on her at full blast. We saw her hands waving in the rain. We could no longer see her face. When Ester stopped struggling, when the hands stopped waving and disappeared under the dark water, the guard turned off the hose and walked away.
When the Russians finally came and set us free, it was snowing, and it was cold. We didn’t even know how many years had gone by. We just knew how few of us were left. Almost every one of us was gone. We wondered how many of the men were left too. The Russians counted us out as we stumbled in silence through the open gates. Two hundred eighty-two, we heard one of them say. We had dreamed of this moment, imagined it in so many ways. Now it was here, and we were numb.
They gave us some bread and some soup and sent us on our way. No transport, no escort, no maps. Most of us had no idea where we were or where we should go. Some of us fell to our knees and died right there in the snow. Others of us would do the same soon enough. Some of us shrugged our bony shoulders and said, “We’ve made it this long, what’s a little longer?” And so we began to trudge home. One hundred ninety-three miles to Warsaw. Two hundred seven miles to Bratislava. Five hundred eighty-six miles to Kiev. We ate what we could along the way, fed by American soldiers and Russian soldiers and Polish families and workers at displaced persons camps. We slept in barns and abandoned barracks, on the floors of breweries, and in the backs of wagons. We stole clothes and shoes off of bodies. We filled bottles with snow and sipped it as it melted. When spring came, we drank from the rushing creeks and rivers and broke the necks of small birds and roasted them over campfires. Men and women from the other liberated camps fell in alongside us, taking the places of those who could not wake one morning, who had managed to survive so long behind the wire but could last no longer now that we were free.
We walked all the way back to Kraków, where we married a kind Polish man, a merchant who marveled at our beauty and did not ask how we had used it to survive the war.
We walked all the way home to Vilnius, where we became a schoolteacher. As Soviet rule became more repressive in our later years, we would say to our children, “Well, they’re not as bad as the Germans,” and our husband would agree.
We walked all the way home to Bielawa, but our family was gone. Before long, we would go too, emigrating to Palestine, where we would marry a Zionist freedom fighter who would die in the fight for Israeli independence. We married again, this time to a lemon farmer who made us laugh, and we would live the rest of our days near Haifa.
We walked all the way home to Slovakia, to the restless streets of Bratislava. We walked to our old neighborhood. We walked to our old house. We knocked on the front door. Someone we did not know opened it. “We used to live here,” we told the woman. “This is our family’s house.”
“Not anymore,” the woman snarled, and slammed the door in our face. We knocked again. The door did not open. We looked up at the attic window and wondered if the Star of David we had scratched in the sash the morning we were taken away was still there.
We walked all the way home to Prague, but we couldn’t even recognize our neighborhood. All the homes had been burned. We stumbled down the street, not sure where to go. We found our synagogue. The doors were locked. The windows were smashed. We walked downtown until we saw a line of shuffling skeletons waiting for bread and potatoes. We nodded at them and took our place in the line. We noticed the man who fell in behind us. The haunt in his eyes seemed familiar. “So,” we asked, turning to him, “where were you during the war?” He showed us the blue numbers on his arm. We smiled and showed him ours. He smiled back, and his eyes warmed. We had been in neighboring camps. We began to chat. We wondered if we had seen him through the fence. He thought he might have dreamed about us two winters ago. We liked the kindness in his eyes. He liked the way we spoke with him, our easy manner. We could see beyond his bones, beyond the translucent skin stretched taut across his hard jaw and chin. This had been a handsome man, and he would be again. We took our plates of crusty bread and underboiled potatoes and sat together under a broad oak tree. We shared stories about the guards, about our lives in the camp, about the men and women who were not among the two hundred eighty-two. We told each other about our families. He had already tried to find his brothers, but he had no idea where they were. We asked him to help find our sister, to come with us to the farm where we thought she might be, and he agreed. We walked through Charles Square, hand in hand.
Our sister was not at the farm. The farmer’s wife said yes, she had survived, but she had gone away, before the end of the war. Perhaps to America now, she thought. That was the last she had heard. We began to cry. America seemed so far away.
We would search for almost two years, through agencies and documents all over Europe, and in Palestine, and even in letters and cables to America. There was not a single trace. Finally, we would give up and emigrate, first to Mexico, because that was where the boat was going, and eventually to California, where the living seemed easier and the people, we had heard, were more familiar. And it was there that we would finally find our sister, living just a few miles away in a neighboring suburb of San Francisco, when a relief worker from Jewish Aid told us about the other newlywed she’d just met, a pretty girl with long blond hair and a button nose, who had escaped the horror of the camps by hiding on a sheep farm.
“You should really meet this girl,” the social worker said. “You must have so much in common.”
Most of us never found our sisters, or our brothers, or our best friends, or our cousins. Most of us lost everyone we had, even ourselves. A precious few of us survived to meet a man, a new boy to take the place of the ones we left behind, the ones whose hands we let go when we were pulled apart, at the trains, through the wires, at the entrance to the showers, the ones we know in our hearts would still be ours if only it had been a different time, the ones whose children we still imagine raising, teaching, scolding, kvelling over, even as we hold tight the sons and daughters we bore our husbands, the new families for which we are so grateful, shadowed forever by the burden of memory.
Douglas Sovern of Berkeley wrote the Twitter novel “TweetHeart.” His short stories have appeared in journals including Sand Hill Review and Alimentum ,and won Narrative’s Top Five Stories of the Year award. He is the political reporter at KCBS Radio in San Francisco.