Silence Doesn't Echo
They are the victims who are never spoken of—the brothel girls of the Holocaust.
Disclaimer: All written by me. Everything in this story, despite being historical fiction, came from my head—the only things that didn't are historical facts. The characters and most events are from my mind. I don't mind if you quote the story, but please don't repost the whole story somewhere else. I do mind if you say you wrote it.
Author's Notes: I wrote this as a short story piece for a writing internship application. I've never written historical fiction before. But as I did some research on the lesser-known aspects of the Holocaust (purely from curiosity, look at me go!), the character of Abigail Meinhardt began to form in my mind, and I wanted to tell her story. Her voice remained very strong throughout as I wrote this piece.
I have done my best to be respectful of what happened in the Holocaust, and I have done my best to do accurate research. However, it is very difficult to find information concerning the life of the brothel girls, as well as the homosexuals in the Holocaust (it is often censured—I clearly remember being told that we had to ask permission before being allowed to access information about homosexuals in school). As such I have been forced to fill in the blanks myself and take liberties. If you know that any information is flawed, please tell me.
Please, read this piece with an open mind. Remember: Censorship is one step removed from denying that it ever happened.
Dying, dying, dying. My dying eyes saw it, my dying ears heard it, my dying nose smelled it.
Death pervaded my every sense, suffocating me.
Every single day cycled past as a horrifying nightmare that stuck greedy fingers down my throat and scratched at my lungs, my voice box, until I could no longer breathe, speak, cry out—raise a sound against the terrors I witnessed. My calendar was marked by the disappearance of friends and family, my hours by roll call and work.
Outside the barbed wire gate, outside the ditch, the wall, the guard towers, leaves turned from lush green to brittle red before falling and dying alongside us. But for them, life was renewed in the tiny buds of spring.
It wasn't so for us.
I often wished that I would numb against this, but I did not. Many of those around me, however, could. Meanwhile, I recalled every day past atrocities as I encountered new ones.
And when night came, there was no relief in sleep or dreams or even lack of sight, for the work I was forced to do was that of the night.
My name once was Abigail Meinhardt, but now I was as nameless as the rest of them.
Whenever I could I repeated the name to myself over chapped and parched lips, but no amount of repetition could restore the identity that had been torn from me.
My story began at Auschwitz Birkenau, that infamous place.
I worked as a laborer in Auschwitz III. I was an "Aryan," I knew it well, but because someone accused me of prostitution, I was sent away, seen as nothing more than a stain, a crack, a chip on a porcelain society.
Lies. I was never a prostitute.
A black triangle was sewn to my clothes.
In the camps, one was worth as much as the symbol on their sleeve.
And that wasn't much.
Several months passed at Auschwitz, each one slowly breaking its prisoners down.
Roll call: Stand up straight, don't move, don't look around, don't let them see you.
Meals: Eat every last crumb, don't leave it unattended, don't share, don't wish for more.
Work: Do everything fast, don't draw attention to yourself, don't stop, don't make a mistake.
Sleep: Only if you can manage.
One day a group of us women were gathered together. We were herded onto boxcars to begin the long journey to Dachau. A women's camp had recently opened in there, and those of us who had come from Auschwitz were the first "shipment."
The gate proclaimed to us, as we entered, "Arbeit macht frei."
Arbeit macht frei: Work shall set you free.
After a few long weeks, as more women arrived, a small group of us were taken aside. Most were from the women's camp, Ravensbrück, although I saw one other I recognized from Auschwitz. She payed me no heed.
In just a few moments, the terrifying truth of our being gathered became clear as glass.
We were being forced to work in Dachau's brothel, for of course no pay.
The brothel was instituted as an incentive for the prisoners to work hard. In exchange for their work, they would receive a payment that could be used to pay the fee for the brothel. Besides the fee, they would also have to send a request, which was only granted to favored prisoners.
We were given no choice. It was expected, required.
One of the Ravensbrück girls protested. A pink triangle was sewn to her sleeve. She had been brought in for the "crime" of being homosexual.
"I will not," she proclaimed simply.
The female guard regarded her coldly. "You won't?" she repeated, grabbing the woman's arm tightly.
The girl nodded.
The guard kicked her in the knee.
Her victim made not a sound as, balance lost, she fell heavily to the ground.
And so it would have gone, the guard beating the girl, were it not for the other guard who tapped my shoulder and, without a word, offered to me a wooden pole, weighted at one end. "Herr Doktor", they called this instrument—"The Doctor."
I understood perfectly what she wanted me to do. I'd seen it happen.
My instinct was to refuse. Instead, my heart seizing, I wrapped my hands around the pole and unsteadily broke away from our formation to where the guard was berating the Ravensbrück girl.
She made eye contact with me. What little breath I still had caught in my throat as I raised the bludgeon, this thing of revulsion, and brought it down upon her back.
Each blow cracked sharply against the drowsy summer air.
Meanwhile, the other stood tall and straight, just as we'd been taught. Don't move. Don't move.
Finally I was told to stop. By that time, only a very distant part of me was still conscious of what was happening, and she shrieked in horror with the deed I had carried out.
The Ravensbrück girl was dragged off. I prayed she'd lost consciousness early on. She had not made even the slightest whimper.
I never saw her again, but even now I can see her eyes. They stare out at me from every corner.
Never before had I seen such hopeless eyes.
All of us had eyes like her then, all of us brothel girls.
Time in the brothel was difficult to follow. We were rarely allowed outside of the barrack where it was located, and outside of it, we were treated with such extreme contempt by all that we'd rather not leave. The black triangle had always been an impetus to the other prisoners to ostracize those who bore it, but alongside our work, it was worsened.
We all bore the black triangle then.
In a strange sort of perversion, life in the brothel was almost better than life in the barracks. We were given a little more food, better clothes, and time to wash. Despite this, we were still dangerously underfed. We were still ill. We were still suffering.
We were housed two to a room, with ten girls in the brothel at a time. The living areas were in the back, the washing area in the middle, and the working area in the front. Our "meetings" with the customers, as they are so loosely termed, were monitored by one of the female guards through a peephole in the door.
I had a rule that the men who come to me tell me nothing about themselves, and that they please not ask anything of me. They were all happy enough to comply. As a result, I know nothing of those I "entertained," and they know nothing of me.
Shame is a working institution.
Whenever a girl died, she was replaced by another from the women's camp.
The first girl I shared my room with was a young, healthy girl, looking to be about sixteen. Her name was Clara. A homosexual brought from Ravensbrück , she still had hope, and would whisper to me in impassioned tones as we tried to sleep about her dreams.
"I'm going to go to a university and become an actress," she declared. "When all of this is over, that's what I'll do, and I'll invite you to my opening show. Everyone will know my name."
I no longer remembered what I had dreamed of. I had been going to university for something, but I hadn't an idea what, now.
Clara soon lost hope, however. Her whisperings succumbed to silence.
And so she made no attempt to cry out when, after becoming diseased, she was taken to Dachau's hospital for experimentation.
The next day, Clara's bunk was in use by a demure girl my age with downcast eyes.
I didn't bother to learn her name.
We knew well what happened to those who contracted disease, but what happened to those who became pregnant was not spoken of, and was a mystery to me until I experienced it for myself.
When I realized I was pregnant, I was glad—not because I wanted a child, but because I believed it meant that, for nine months at least, I would not have to work in the brothel.
But as soon as I made my pregnancy known, I was taken to the camp hospital and given an abortion.
I had no choice.
I remained silent through the whole ordeal, and shut my ears to the accusatory silence that lingered after.
A year elapsed—one year of hell.
Conditions at Dachau, in its dying months, became so bad that I weakened to the point I could barely walk. And yet, for all I could, I kept up the appearance of a healthy, attractive girl, not one emaciated, not one violated beyond recognition.
There was not one moment where I didn't think I would gladly take my own life were the means available.
When April came with cooling rains, so too did our freedom.
By that time, I could not summon the strength to leave my bed, and so it had been for the past few days. But since us prisoners had been abandoned at the camp, that no longer mattered.
When I heard the cheering, I wished I could run with the other girls outside to meet our liberators. Instead, I was left to wait alone for promised help. That help came in the form of a soldier led there by one of the three of us ten girls who were "originals."
He gathered me in his arms and carried me out into the harsh sunlight. He entrusted me to the Red Cross.
"It'll be okay. You're safe now," he swore.
Yet as I looked around me at the piles of bodies, at the soulless eyes, at the bony bodies, at the groups of those stricken by typhus, I knew that it would be years, centuries, millennia, maybe even forever, for everything to be "okay."
My silence did not leave me, and it never left my comrades.
Shame and silence.
Silence doesn't echo.
And so we, the brothel girls, were never spoken of. Who wants the echoes of a prostitute, even if it was forced?
Silence doesn't echo.
But maybe it should.