Channah

They made them dig their own graves. Or so I heard. A little girl kneels before a dark pit, her mouth twisted into a silent scream. She still holds that doll in her arms—that bundle of ragged cloth and faded yarn. "Please, God, not now," she whispers, but no one can hear her. Just one pull of the trigger and she's dead. That was how they did it. Or so I heard.

I hear the whimpering of a million children. Their pitiful voices hang broken upon the air. A muffled scream or screaming in water. Like breath in winter, they linger then disappear. Rachel looks at me and all she can do is sigh. Six million yellow stars flung at the feet of a man named Hitler and all I could do was watch.

It is said that crying makes way for healing but my eyes have long forgotten tears. I am deaf and I am mute. I am nothing. I have no face and I have no name. Just a story best kept unheard.

It all began when my Tata lost his job. They told him to go home because his father was Jewish. And so he did go home. He put on a somber face but said nothing to us. My mother still had her little sewing shop but the windows were broken and crude signs were plastered all over the door. Only our people were allowed inside.

Next they took away our radios, cameras, and bicycles, among other things. But that wasn't all they took from us. They took away our pride and our dignity and turned it all into shame, all for the sake of their 'master race'. It worked. I was ashamed. I felt shame every time someone looked at the ugly yellow star sewn onto the outside of my jacket. Tata told me once that I should be proud to wear the Star of David. But all it did was set me apart from everybody else.

Rachel, Krysia, and I walked a different road to school. We never ran. We had heard the whisperings of our parents in the night and all the while pretended to be ignorant. But we were careful. Very careful. Germans marched our streets, their hard boots drumming to their own battle drums.

They harassed my brother in the streets. Hitler Youth in their important uniforms kicking at my Jakob with their polished boots. They struck him again and again—a million times over until he didn't get up anymore.

We moved into the ghetto in the winter of 1941. Living in our new home, walled by barbed wire fences, were my father, my mother, and my sisters, as well as two other families. Mrs. Goldstein, an old woman who had been a neighbor of ours, did nothing but stare out of the window everyday. When we asked her who it was that she waited for, she replied in a cracked voice, "The Messiah". We never asked her anything again.

I once took a comb to her long, white hair. I untangled the white and made a long plait down her back. Her face still faced the window. She no longer cringed at the sirens and her knuckles no longer turned white upon the windowpanes. She took my face into her hands and told me that she was going to die soon and that I was to have her cot. "You will have a crooked back like me if you keep sleeping on the floor," she told me.

We began to disappear. I hovered by the window, where Mrs. Goldstein had spent her last breaths, and watched that little girl and her doll sitting upon the steps across the street. With dirt smudged on her cheek, she waited, her doll tucked under one arm and a dirty kerchief in her hand. I once asked her for her name: Channah. A canvas-covered truck came and took Channah and her doll away.

Deportation and liquidation; I never understood the meanings of those words until now. They were words not meant to reach our ears but they did somehow. No longer just a story twisted from afar but something happening here before my eyes. I saw them take my Tata. He had been working in a factory, making uniforms for the German army. He hurt his arm and they took him away.

Then it was our turn. In the middle of the night, a loud, harsh knocking came at our door. We were given only five minutes to pack. Mama pushed little Krysia in the cupboard and told her not to cry. "You are small, Rebekah, you can fit too," Mama told me, the desperation in her eyes. She forced me in the cupboard beside my sister. Then she kissed our foreheads and shut the door.

It seemed a million minutes had passed us by. The sound of a million bullets finally receded until all that could be heard was Krysia's frightened breathing. I held her in my arms, smoothing her hair and whispering a story into her ear. She began to sing one of Tata's old songs but I covered her mouth. I felt her warm tears on my hand. "Where is Mama?" she asked.

"Shah," I hushed her, "or they will find us."

But they did find us.

The trucks took us all away. We were among the last, I heard. They took away our things and said that they would return them to us later. I didn't believe them. I waved a sarcastic goodbye to the barbed wire fences and whispered a half-hearted prayer under my breath. Rachel's fingernails were digging into my palm; my heart beat rapidly in my chest.

They put us on a train next. I had never been on a train before—I had never been herded in a boxcar before. The people were tightly packed together and I could hardly breath. Every breath I took, I took in vain. I inhaled the sick, I inhaled the tears, I inhaled the dead. I looked down to see a young woman lying at my feet, tangles of yellow hair stuck to the vomit smeared from the corner of her lips to her ear.

I hear the flies buzzing and they won't stop. Their mock song rings in my ear and I want to scream.

"We are almost there," I said wearily after a long while. "The train—I think it is slowing down."

Work makes freedom. Or so I heard. My Tata worked in the ghetto and he was taken away. I didn't believe anything anymore. Rachel and I were put into one line and Mama and little Krysia were put into another. The cold snatched the screams from my throat. I knew I would never see them again.

I remember when they took our names and made them numbers. I remember too when they took our clothes away. They watched us as we paraded in front of them, our hands in the air. They took Rachel's glasses. Rachel can hardly see without her glasses.

Rachel and I, and others, were seated in chairs next. A fat woman, with gray wisps of hair and a dirty face, stood over me with a pair of shears. I knew what was going to happen next. I had seen the other Jews with their cut hair.

"No, no! Not my hair…please!" I heard Rachel plead. She grabbed her hair and pulled it close to her face. The woman yanked Rachel's hair out of her grasp and cut it. My sister's beautiful locks of brown hair fell to the ground. I remember how Rachel was so proud of her hair. Mama loved to brush it when Rachel was a little girl and she used to plait it into two long braids and tie the ends with colourful scraps of fabric she found at her shop.

The showers were outside. After our hair was cut, all the women were sent outside to the showers. I still remember one of the woman's shrieking when she saw them, "They are going to gas us!" she had cried, flailing her hands in a blind panic. I tried not to listen to her.

They gave us all dresses. I wondered where they got these dresses. It didn't matter how big or small they were, they handed them out to anyone, regardless of their sizes. The seams on mine were ripping, I observed, and this time Mama couldn't fix it. So I buttoned up the faded pink flowers and forced myself to be content with it. It was all I had.

Our bunk beds fit three on the top and three on the bottom. There were four of us in the top bunk and it was very crowded. In the mornings, the Kapo came and hit everyone's bunks with a stick to wake us up. We then would get up off our straw pallets and hurry outside to stand in line for roll call. Sometimes, we would stand there for hours. Rachel slapped my face so that my cheeks would have colour in them. Sometimes people never reported from the barracks. They were found dead in their beds.

Rachel watches the cart. She envies the people inside it, the shriveled corpses covered by a tarp. The wheels of the cart creak and groan from the weight placed upon them. Rachel isn't afraid of rats anymore; she's seen too many. Someone stole her shoes while she was sleeping and now she walks around barefoot, gathering scraps from the muddy ground. She found an apple core in the mud and went to bed that night with a smile on her face.

A tear—something I used to shed for nothing I now shed for everything.

It's a strange thing to trace invisible words in the air. That is all my words are to you. Invisible. If I had a diary I could have filled it with a million words but you would not read them. I saw Channah. I saw her on the other side of the fence and reached out for her. I wanted to hold her in my arms. She and the other children were all waiting in a line. They went into a big white building and never came back out again. Do you hear me, Channah? I am that doll she carries, whose bright red lips have long since faded from its face.

Rachel threw away her tattered clothes and found a blanket in the barracks and covered herself in that instead. I asked why she did it and she told me it was because she had grown weary of picking the lice from the seams of her dress. "They live in my fingernails now," she told me though I knew that was impossible. "And they eat my skin away."

I waited. And Rachel waited. Minutes like hours, hours like days, days like weeks. The prisoners were afraid of death and yet they yearned for it. I had heard and seen it all—I had endured the lice, the cold, the hunger. Rachel walks like a skeleton, shrouded by death. Her eyes are sunken into her head; her belly is swollen because she is hungry. We waited.

"Rebekah?" she calls out for me in quiet voice.

"Yes," I reply. I don't even want to look at her.

"Will you tell me a story?" She pleads like little Krysia. I have no stories to tell—none of happy things, anyway. Her request lurks in quiet and all I can do is breathe. I am already dead, I tell myself. Breathing is only second nature; I merely exist.

"My hair is growing out now," Rachel tells me. I do not reply. "Your hair is too,
Rebekah—it will be pretty once it's longer again. Her tone angers me. She had spoken with a kind of hope that had been absent from my ears for the longest time. "Rebekah, did you hear me?"

"I did hear you," I let her know.

"Then why won't you speak to me?"

"I am now, aren't I?"

"I haven't seen a Nazi in the longest time. Maybe they've left us… there are no more guns. Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning all disappointed because I haven't died, I hear the birds. We haven't heard birds in a long time, Rebekah. There are no guns to scare them away." Rachel is mad, I decide, for I hear no birds.

"Stop it!" I shout at her, but my voice does not shout. It cracks then becomes hoarse—just a burdened whisper. No voice at all.

"I swear I did hear them," Rachel insists, pulling at my arm. "No roll calls, no guns, no Kapo…"

"They hide."

"Please, God," she whispers, "deliver us."

Channah sits on the bunk across from us. Her feet swing below her, making dull thumping noises against the wood. She hums a song and it's a song I know. She had been sitting there the whole time, I think, and no one has even noticed her. Channah, Channah, what are you doing here? Then I hear a radio.

It was the faint call of an owl. It was the sound of laughter far, far away. At first, I didn't care. It could have been sirens—the sound of Nazi footsteps coming to the barracks to punish us for being too weak to working. But Rachel had stumbled out of the building to see what it was. She was gone for a little while and then she returned to say God had sent angels to deliver us. We were being liberated. Then the sound became a peaceful sound. We were free.

The End