Living a Nightmare
A week after it happened, and I'm still shaking. Six months since this began, and I can't believe I'm still alive. A year since the first whisper, and only now is it all becoming real, because now I have been jolted awake from my nightmare, and yet nothing has changed. The nightmare goes on.
Every day stories reach my ears of people suffering as I have. It's strange how it never seemed much until I went through it myself, and then the transition from ignorant indifference to bitter experience was so quick, and so brutal, that I feel as though I have aged a hundred years in the course of a week. You see, I am a Jew. To be a German Jew in 1939 is not a good thing. Even as I write, no doubt my name is being called on the roll call for the afterlife. In a way, it would be a relief to be away from it all. To rejoin the people I have lost…
As I have said, we first heard the whispers of what was to come nearly a year ago. Not much really happened to start with. A few attacks, rapes, an unusual number of anti-Semitic jokes with crude and often obscene punch lines. But there was no real suggestion that this would become anything really dangerous. All the same, around that time there was a mass exodus of Jews from Germany. Many went to England, several to Israel, several more went to France or Poland. Some old family friends, the Cochmanns, went to Australia to work in the textile industry. My family would have joined them, but we could not get hold of the visas, so instead we joined a crowd headed for Poland. To be honest, when we arrived in Warsaw the whole attitude towards us was much the same as it had been in Berlin, but in our own curiously optimistic fashion we hacked ourselves a home out of the stony hearts of the Poles, and did not let ourselves acknowledge that we might have made a mistake. I was sent to school along with my older cousin, Chaim, and we settled into Polish life quickly and comfortably. Chaim was a very clever student, and he got on well. It wasn't long before he even had a girlfriend, Anya, a pretty, bright girl who taught us all Polish. She was Catholic, but that didn't seem to make much difference at the time.
It was a few months later that everything started to go horribly wrong. First came the Kristallnacht. My father came home from his job at the radio station one evening, collapsed into his chair and told us in a shaking voice that his little shoe shop in Berlin had been smashed to rubble. That was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. Then there was the Kindertransport. Hundreds of trains wound their way across Europe, taking Jewish children away from their families to England. I did not go, and nor did Chaim. My parents refused to believe that we could be touched in our little Polish haven. By the time we were herded into the ghettos it was too late. The Kindertransport had left without us.
The ghettos were supposedly for our own protection. Maybe so, but we're not as gullible as the Nazis seem to think. It only took a look at the hastily constructed walls, the tiny rooms, and the dark narrow alleyways, to see the Warsaw ghetto for what it was: a prison. Some people were lucky enough to live within the ghetto walls already, and could keep their own homes. We were not so lucky. We were forcibly evicted from our home and dragged, kicking and screaming, to the ghetto along with every other Jewish family on our street. I did not struggle; instead, I looked around. One family group was fighting back tooth and nail. One of the soldiers waved his gun at the group, and, either by accident or design, pulled the trigger. No one was killed by the shot, but it left a young woman crippled in the leg. A man, her husband perhaps, tried to persuade the soldier to slow down or stop so that he could help her. In answer, the soldier raised his gun and shot the woman once, twice, three times in the chest. She slumped forward. "She won't be needing your help now," the soldier growled in heavily accented Polish, and, grabbing the man by the collar, dragged him away from the bleeding body on the ground. I decided (and, after I had spoken to them, the rest of my family did too) to go quietly.
That same day, Chaim and I were kicked out of school. Before we left, we were presented with small packages. They contained stars made of yellow fabric. By the next day, every piece of clothing we owned would be branded with the yellow star. It made me wonder why we didn't all just have the word "Jewish" tattooed on our foreheads. It would have meant less work.
Life was quiet for a while in the ghetto. There would be rumours of catastrophe every now and then, but more often than not they came to nothing. I was told that there were frequent shootings, and I did sometimes trip over bodies that no one had cleared away, but I never saw more than the aftermath, which, though always sickening, never really conveyed to me the full impact of the shootings. Anya came to see us all the time, by some means or another, bringing Chaim books, food and cooking utensils for my parents and Chaim's, and often a paper doll or some such trinket for me. I looked vaguely similar to Anya; the same light hair, blue eyes and pale complexion, so after a while she brought me clothes she had outgrown. This was more of a favour than she could ever have imagined; with my mother spared time from mending, she could do a little work to help us make ends meet.
For my family, scraping past the worst of everything by a hair, the disaster didn't really start until about six weeks after we moved into the ghetto. We were woken at four in the morning by repeated banging on our door and a gruff voice shouting "Wachet auf!" from outside. Being woken up before dawn could never be a good sign; at best, back in Berlin almost a year ago, it meant that my parents were having an argument, at worst, here and now, it could mean one of the massacres I had heard so much about.
Still clad in our thin nightclothes, we were herded into the street. There were whispers, predicting everything from a bomb dropped on our heads to our release from the ghetto, but the most consistent was the talk of the concentration camps. The Nazis needed strong young men for their workforce, and they were here to take them. That seemed to be right, for we were shoved, pushed and prodded, and eventually divided into roughly two groups: the likely-looking young men, and everyone else. I watched as if in a dream as first my father, then Chaim's father, and, almost as an afterthought, Chaim himself were selected and dragged to join the growing crowd of men. It was freezing, and my nightdress was for summer, with more holes than fabric. I had to stand outside, in my bare feet and flimsy garment, from four until seven while the soldiers took husbands, fathers, sons and brothers away from their families. For no apparent reason I remembered when Chaim had suggested, half-jokingly, that he and Anya might marry at some point. Anya had refused, and now I could see why. None of us might ever see Chaim again, and at barely eighteen Anya was too young to be a widow.
Chaim's departure to the concentration camp came as a huge shock to Anya. She was considered part of our family, but now our family was falling apart. And yet, somehow, she held on. I think I helped: I comforted her in her grief and told her, with feigned childish na?t?hat everything would be alright, that Chaim would come back, that if they married we would be cousins, but now we were like sisters. And she believed me, or at least she pretended to, and in that belief she found an inner fire that no one would have imagined was in her. She kept coming to see us, me in particular, and soon we might as well have been sisters. I asked her once, walking down one of the ghetto streets, how she managed to enter and leave the ghetto so freely. She smiled grimly. "I say I'm Jewish to get in, and to get out I show them my passport," she said. The words were light, but they hit me like a sledgehammer. "You will be killed!" I cried. "So?" she answered. "So will everyone else here, soon enough. It's not fair that I be safe while you don't know if your next breath will be your last." She was so brave, so reckless. Even before what happened next, I appreciated how precious our friendship was. She brought a ray of hope into the dismal world of the ghetto, like a bright thread of silver among pellets of lead.
Everything started to happen very quickly. A truck drove into the street, parting the crowd as it passed. I barely had time to take note of the swastika emblazoned on its side before armed men jumped out and swarmed into the crowd. For a moment there was silence. I reached for Anya's hand, hearing my own heartbeat in the tense, unnatural quiet. Then a baby cried, and all hell broke loose. My ears were filled with the sounds of people calling and feet pounding on the cobbled streets, and my mind filled with fear.
Suddenly a shot rang out. In an instant there was silence again. In the instant that followed I had time to realize that I had been pushed to my knees and that I had lost my grip on Anya's hand. It felt like I had lost my grip on life. But I was not to know that the real horror had hardly started.
That first shot had been a signal. Now the armed men were interspersed among the people I knew, shooting at random into the crowd. I knelt on the cobblestones, frozen with terror, flinching every now and then as a bullet whizzed past me. Every so often a bullet would find its mark, and I watched, horrified, as, one by one, the people of the ghetto, my only friends for months, dropped like leaves in autumn.
Suddenly there was a commotion a few metres in front of me. Anya had stood up; for some reason she stood out clearly in the blurred mass of bodies, living and dead. She was alive, but she was angry. It was not in her nature to stand by and watch things happen, and she had seen too much. I can't remember now what she did, but I know that it was a vain, desperate attempt to help. I think she shouted something, and made some aggressive gesture. Whatever she did, it was like pulling a trigger. Without speaking, as though at some silent signal, the men formed a circle around her. Fifteen, maybe twenty shots sounded as one. Then she fell.
I cannot even begin to describe the horror of seeing her fall, her long, light hair spread over the ground, her face a pallid grey. I stood up, screaming out her name, unable to control myself in my terror. Then two of the armed men grabbed my arms and forced me back down to my knees while another fired a shot at me. It missed, but it might as well have been a fatal shot; I jerked as it passed, and I heard a low mocking laugh from the man who had fired it. That laugh told me, more clearly than words, that he was keeping me alive for the fun of killing me later, enjoying my torment as he killed the people I knew and loved before my eyes.
As I knelt, petrified, I heard a rustling from the part of the street in which Anya had been shot. By some miracle she was on her feet, swaying slightly, but standing nonetheless.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she said through gritted teeth, in answer to the whispers of concern that rustled around her. She lunged forward, bitter determination written on her face. But she had barely gone a step before one of the men was upon her. The butt of his gun crashed into the side of her head, followed by his fists and his feet. He was hitting her, kicking her, jabbing at her with the muzzle of his gun, all while I watched, paralysed with my own helplessness.
Not even someone who had not already been shot could last for long under such a hail of blows. For the second time I saw her fall, her face a waxen mask of agony. The desperate, hopeless defiance was gone, and so was any remaining spark of life. The silver thread had snapped and tarnished, leaving the lead to poison me.
At this point my memory of this nightmare fades. My mind had been cleared like a slate, and Anya's face, contorted with pain, had been branded, white-hot, upon it. All I remember after that is being one moment suffocated by the weight of the people around me, and the next kneeling in an empty street, choking on my own fear. By the next day the bodies had been swept to one side, and the decaying remains of my best friend were indistinguishable from the rotting corpses piled on and around her. I had been brought down to earth so hard that I could feel my body shattering on the cobblestones, tearing my mind apart as it broke.
The stories the world hears about us are sad, but there is no sadness in the reality. There is no time to grieve for our loved ones. We have to force ourselves to eat food that sticks in our throats, force ourselves to breathe with lungs that have forsaken our chests, and even force ourselves to live. From one day to the next, we live a nightmare. For we Jews of the ghetto, the sun has gone out, and who knows when we will next find silver among the lead.