"I could – not that I would."
It was when we were moved to the ex-German army camp that I knew I was really free. I was no longer an inmate of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; I was now a patient of the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, run by the Allies.
My time in the concentration camp itself was hard, but I was one of the lucky ones. My next to final year at school had been interrupted, and it was doubtful my schooling would ever be resumed. I had been forced to leave my home, but I had been taken to Belsen. That may not seem like good luck, it seems to most to be the worst luck in the world, but I only think of the alternatives, and I feel like the most fortunate man alive.
For Belsen was a concentration camp, labour and internment in filthy conditions, a much better place to be imprisoned than the places that others went – Auschwitz, Treblinka – the extermination camps.
My mother and sisters died in Auschwitz, I watched them go to their deaths, as I was shepherded back on the train, one of the stronger ones, chosen for forced labour, rather than instant death.
I was born in a small town, just outside Vienna, Austria, in 1925. In 1941, when I was 16, my two younger sisters, my mother and I were arrested by the Nazi's, and my father shot dead before our eyes. Our crime? Being Jewish.
I lost the will to live for those first few months in Belsen. My family was gone, I was stuck in this hell-hole and I had no idea if I would ever be able to leave. But then, I realised that thinking like that wasn't going to get me anywhere. Surely the best way to defy those who wanted me dead was to stay alive?
I missed my old life, more than anything else I lost. I would never be able to have that life back. I may have had my liberty back, but my parents were gone, my house no doubt had other people living in it and I would have to completely re-start my degree course from scratch.
On the other hand, it was a new world out there – a world that I would no longer be ashamed to call home. I was determined to leave that place, and never look back, as soon as I was declared healthy enough to leave the hospital. I was going put everything behind me. There were those that had suffered much more than I, and so I would complain about the way life has treated me up until then.
I was considering going to England or Canada. My English was fluent, and I could continue to study there, and hopefully one day finally realise my dream of becoming a doctor. There would also be none of the memories there that would always haunt me on the continent, those memories that would haunt me for an eternity.
I was awaked by the sound of heavy boots marching through the makeshift hospital. I was still not entirely used to liberty, and jerked awake, before seeing that it was a British soldier, come to talk to the matron. Whatever he said to her caused her to gasp in shock, and clasp her hands to her mouth. At first I thought that maybe there had been another bombing raid by the Luftwaffe on the camp, there had been one some months before, which had killed several nurses, soldiers and patients. However, as soon as she moved her hands to continue her hushed conversation, I could see that she was smiling, and so I put the conversation out of my head, and allowed myself to drift back into sleep.
Early the next morning, I was woken by a nurse coming around with my early morning medicines.
"Good Morning, Aaron," she said cheerily "ready for this morning's medicine?"
"I'm never ready for it!" I said, only half joking.
She chuckled at me, and handed me a spoon of the vile liquid I was supposed to take every morning, before sticking a needle with my daily injection in my arm.
"Well, I'm afraid it's take it, or die," she said reprovingly, watching to make sure I took the medicine "Matron has an announcement to make this morning, so don't go back to sleep like you usually do."
I wondered absently what Matron wanted to say, considering the possibility that it was to do with what the soldier had been telling her last night, but just as quickly dismissing the thought. No doubt it was something to do with when we would be moving to a more permanent ward, rather that the tents we were in now.
I picked up one of the books that had been in the last Red Cross parcel I had received, and began to read. There was very little to do when you were bed-ridden, and I found it fortunate that I spoke English, as many of the books that were sent were in English, and they were one of the few things that one could do to pass the time. Of course, it also meant that I could understand what the nurses were saying to me, and asking me to do, which several other patients could not, meaning that I translated for those patients.
Matron came out a few minutes after I had started my book, and cleared her throat.
"Last night, I had some news delivered to me," she began. So this was to do with what the soldier had told her... "Yesterday, there was an announcement made in Britain, by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He told the country that on the morning of September 2nd, the head of the German State signed an act of unconditional surrender. The war is over."
The war. Over. Was it really possible? This war had been so much a part of my life by now, running, hiding; surviving was all I knew now. How was I meant to go back to normal life? Or, at any rate, as normal as life would be now. All I needed was to get out of this place. I wasn't so ill that I needed to stay here. I could take medicine myself and I could give myself my daily injections. Not that I would actually take the medicine, but the nurses would never know that. I think that that probably sums up my entire life – I could – not that I would.
I returned to my book, trying to block out the voices now buzzing around the ward. I was relieved that the war was over, yes, but I wasn't glad. My life would never be the same as it had been before – not that that was necessarily a bad thing. I had no family to return to, didn't know what had happened to my friends, and had no desire to return to my hometown to discover who was living in my home now.
Life before had been so easy, before the war, before my life had been ripped apart, before the storm. Now I would be living hand to mouth, I would never be able to go to one of the charities. I was much too proud for that. That was my biggest downfall, my mother had always said – pride, and the inability to ask for help when it was needed. I'm a survivor though – always have been, always will be. Hard as nails. Nothing, but nothing, could, can or will bring me down.
I turned my head slightly to see the single white rose, resting in the vase next to me. Some rich American lady had been to visit, leaving every patient a single white rose as a gift. Mine had been full and beautiful a week ago, but now it's outer petals were beginning to go brown around the edges, all of the petals were becoming looser – the one on the outside was one shake away from falling off – and the once velvet feel of the petals, apart from those in the very middle, had been replaced by something rougher, almost tough feeling, and the flower was wrinkling, the petals curling outwards.
Just like humans, I mused, so strong at first, and then slowly curling up, drying and dying, until we become a mere shell of ourselves. A shadow.
That was what I felt like at that moment. A shadow. Sitting there in my bed, watching the word moving around me, incapable of doing anything but observing it, as it journeyed on without me. If I'm being honest, that's what really scared me – being left behind, growing old and slowly dying, forgotten by the world, incapable of doing anything but what I was doing then – observing.
I picked up the book again, but truth be told I was finding it difficult to concentrate. It was a romance, not my thing at all, but I was reading whatever I could find at that time, books were scarcely put into the Red Cross parcels. I was reminded about my first – and only – relationship, which had ended as soon as she had discovered that I was Jewish. Clara. She had been perfect – or so I had thought at the time. She was shallow, fickle, and had never really loved me. I had been a status symbol, someone to prove a point with. She had only ever agreed to date me because she wanted to prove she could get someone as good looking as me.
I'm not being conceited; almost every nurse and doctor I saw after I was freed commented on how healthy I looked given the time I was imprisoned for. I was thin, but I had enough muscle when I first went in to ensure that I didn't look as malnourished as some of the other ex-inmates, the tan from all the time spent in the sun during my imprisonment ensures that I had a healthy looking "glow," rather than the pale, waxy appearance of the prisoners that were kept inside. My dark hair had been cropped, but much of it had grown back by then, covering the number permanently tattooed to scalp, and my grey eyes, according to one of the nurses "still have that spark of life in them."
In fact, looking at me, apart from the number still clearly tattooed on my arm, I looked like I was never imprisoned.
In a way, that was a blessing. It meant that when I could finally leave this ward, I wouldn't get the sympathetic looks, and the condolences. I didn't want them. I never could bear to be pitied.
Accepting pity is a sign of weakness, and one thing I wasn't was weak. Hadn't my time spent in Belsen, and the fact that I had survived, and lived to see the end of the war, against all the odds, proved that?
I wasn't going to survive all that, just to accept pity, and coast along on charity. I would get along just fine. I might not ever be able to fulfil my dreams - medical school, family, happiness – but I would survive.
Survival was all that mattered. If I could survive, I would've won.