A Story of Strength
Shivering. From the cold. But our hands can't warm all of our body at the same time.
Nakedness. Since they ripped off every piece of clothing we owned. We now stood in line.
Hunger. Biting at our insides, causing our stomach to feel like a cavernous hole in our pathetic body. Like nothing anyone had ever felt.
So we stood there. Waiting. Always waiting. That was the worst. That our lives were not in our own hands any longer. It was up to someone else, what to do with us.
I speak using "we" and "our" for more than one reason. They've stripped us of our individuality. They do not treat us as different people but as one, as a group. They took away anything that could make me different from the woman next to me and she from the woman next to her, by taking our clothes, our belongings, our sense of pride… . It is also easier to think of myself as outside of it all. As if it isn't happening to me. But to another group of people I do not personally know. And finally because this is not just my story, it is everyone's. The same things that happen to me happen to every person around me. They do not treat anyone differently. So when someone finds my diary. When this is all over, because it will end, if not possibly just a bit too late for me. They will know the truth of what happened to us.
The first time I woke up in the concentration camp it was hard to understand where I was. The wooden bunkers were not in my house; we had lavish, large beds with lumpy mattresses your legs sink into. The walls did not seem familiar; where in my life had I ever been around such verminous, graffittied walls with holes here and there to let the ghastly cold air straight in? I did not know any of these people. And then I looked down at me and realized I did not know myself. My hair, my long blonde hair that everyone said never made me look like a Jew, that I took pride in, had been crudely shaven off. No longer adorned in my beautiful dresses designed specially for me, now I wore a yellowed frock that had seem much better days. When I reached out to clutch the locket bracelet my mother gave me right before her death, I recoiled in horror not only because it was gone but it'd been replaced with ugly blue numbers. Is that what I'd been degraded to? Dehumanized to be nothing more than a bunch of numbers? All my thoughts were drowned as someone took the liberty to slosh a bucket of frigid water at me.
I turned to snap, "What's wrong with you?"
The girl just looked at me and said simply, "You don't go outside and line up with the rest of us now, they'll kill you."
"So I suppose you think your being all nice and friendly by doing that?"
She gave me a pained smile. "It's harsh here but sometimes the little things someone does for you, like reaching out a hand, help a lot."
She looked like she'd been here a while and gone though a lot. I am a survivor. I survived Mother's passing, my baby sister's sickness that ended in the inevitable death of her and my other two siblings, I'd survived the fire that had left me with nothing but my old aunt and her wealthy household, and I'd survived until now. I, too, had been through a lot, and was not going to give up. So I followed the girl outside the barracks.
It was my first line up and since then I've been in quite a few, but the same fear that was in me then remained with me always throughout my stay at the camp. That time I was sent to work in the labor part of the camp, along with the girl and a few other women I recognized from my barracks. When I saw the sort of work we would do, I was aghast. These women looked frail and broken, no way they'd be able to endure such tedious toil. But they surprised me. As weak and malnourished as their bodies were, they each found something in them to keep them going. I learned from that. I searched deep within me, looking for something to help keep my head up. Remembering Mother's last words did it. "My girl," she said, pushing back a lock of my hair as she lay in bed, looking like nothing much more than a semi-substantial ghost. "You will always be here. You are strong, I know it. I need you to know it so that you can live in through whatever God throws at you, because he will throw you a lot to see how much you can handle." We had never been a remotely religious family, but in her last days, my mother found her dying strength in her God. I never thought of him as my God, he was always hers. Since then he has thrown me a lot of fastballs, but maybe her words were a blessing or something because I have been able to deal with all of them, maybe some not as easily as others but I still am here.
The memory made me have to brush aside some tears. There was that girl again.
"Are you all right?"
I took a deep breath and replied, "Yeah, now I will be."
From then on, I took Mother's god to be my God whatever should happen, I knew she would be watching over me and I wanted to make her proud.
The girl introduced herself as Anya. She'd been here three months, watched every member of her family die before her eyes. Made friends, watched them die. It was a cycle for her as it would be for every other person in the camp.
"But I will be the last to go," she resolved. "I will survive."
Her show of strength impressed me and as I learned what kind of person she was as time went on, I grew to admire her, even. Sickness ran rampant in the barracks and sickness always meant death, whether from the illness or from the Nazi's who did away with anyone too weak. We were all always hungry, though some, including me and Anya and some others, were for some reason or another better with it than other. People would randomly collapse and usually no one took care, it happened all too often. But Anya would run to them, give them some of her own small amount of water or soup, and help them up, whispering words of encouragement. For if one of the Nazi's saw someone fall, they'd be on them faster than a pride of lions on a lame deer. I would often help Anya help the others but I was nowhere near as gentle as her, or as good as her with them. Though she was small and but a girl, everyone young and old looked to Anya for strength and inspiration.
She became my good friend there. Sometimes she'd even help me forget everything, why I was here, my family, my past life, by entertaining me as we lay in our beds late at night, giggling, just like two normal teenagers at a sleepover. I was a good friend to her, too. The time she caught a flu from one of the girls in the labor camp, I nursed her, gave her my food, made excuses for her as dead scared as I was, to the Nazi's. When she got better, she touched my face and murmured, "You too, are a survivor. God knows, you might even survive me. Stay strong, Natalie."
I asked her about God, letting forth all my questions and doubts and beliefs. She answered me in her clear, easy way. Her family had been what my father had called, "real holy people." They kept the Sabbath, went to study in religious school, and even upheld kosher. Few were like that, especially once Hitler's Reich began. Most lost their way but Anya's family stayed strong. She herself was very strong her beliefs. She truly believed it all and had answers for me. Some things made sense, and some didn't. But I decided that once I got out of here, I would go to America as I heard it spoken in hushed tones among the Jews, as a land of freedom to live however you choose in whatever religion you choose. There I would learn more and maybe follow Mother and Anya's way with God.
It was my twenty-sixth day there when the lineup was called to pick out the weak and the strong. My fourth lineup, Anya's fourteenth. Heads held high, we went out, not wearing much, the snow to our ankles, and though a few of our fingers would grow numb and a couple might even break off, our hearts kept us warm.
So we now stand in line waiting. Waiting for them to point us to either side, waiting for someone to show the way, waiting for help, waiting to survive, waiting for someone, or God, to step in and save us.
It is a long line and I've been waiting a while. It is Anya's turn now. She gives me a sad smile, just like the one she gave me the first day I was here, and a small wave, before she goes, head held high, to the left.
No one knows which way to pray to be sent. But everyone knows one way you live, and the other way is to your death. All one can do is hope. Hope to be sent in the right direction. Then hope that before you are sent the other away next time, it is all over and the Allies have won. Hope not too see loved ones and friends be separated from you and be sent the opposite way. And then hope they went the way of life because you living and seeing them die is so much worse than anything the Nazi's can do to you. Stripped of our pasts, stripped of our sense of self, stripped of anything we knew or thought before all this, we do still have hope. There will always be hope. Pandora never let hope leave. God will never let our hope leave us.
It is my turn now. There is nothing I can do. No use praying. It hasn't helped anyone. No use screaming or running- to whom will you scream? To where will you run? All you can do is take what could be your last breath or your first, face whatever may come with dignity and go. I go to the right.