"The Burning of the Swastika"
A/N: Another writing assignment for my senior English class in high school. Rated T for graphic content.
~Well, maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
It's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah~
~Hallelujah~ Jeff Buckley
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Poland, during the winter of 1943. A bitter wind not uncommon there blew through the frozen, barren grounds, relentless and cruel on the naked skin.
Indeed, many of the inhabitants there had little clothing in which to wear, perhaps only the thin striped outfit prisoners were forced to garb themselves in. And what did the clothing do to keep the cold out? They did nothing except hide the thinness of the different bodies and give the prisoners the decency of hiding their shame.
Even in winter, the heavy, sweet stench of decay hung in the air. The women suffering in the concentration camp paid little heed to the awful stink, nor did they even blink an eye over the sight of the pile of naked carcasses.
There were two gigantic piles of these bodies laid out; stripped of all clothing, no carcass was distinguishable from another amidst a jumble of emaciated arms and legs. Occasionally, one could see an unrecognizable face, the eyes blank and staring, the skin grey and in a different stage of decay, the open mouth and still-lined face speaking of indescribable horror and suffering. Of course, that was to be expected—all who passed the gates of a concentration camp suffered.
They were Jews, a hindrance to society. They needed to be exterminated.
Or so Adolf Hitler told the people of Nazi, Germany. He told all who would listen—and there were a lot—that Jews were inferior and the dregs of society. He blamed the Jewish people for Germany's poor economy following World War I, and so turned the peoples' hearts against a people who had been quietly living out their lives, none of the Jews' neighbors once realizing that the Jews, too, were suffering from Germany's economic depression. The Nazi sign, the swastika, was raised and the Jews were forced to wear the Star of David, marking them as outcasts, as something less than a dog with weeping sores on its back. Then Hitler took his anti-Semitism one step further—he ordered the Jews deported to concentration camps where many would end up murdered by gas chambers and crematoriums.
So one lonely Jewish girl saw. Rachael was young, only sixteen, but the camps had broken and aged her. She was quite an unremarkable sight, identical with all the other women surrounding her in the freezing building one would hesitate to call the barracks. Her once long, black hair was now cut jaggedly on her head, only reaching her ears in wisps. Premature lines had drastically aged her once-beautiful face; her dark eyes were old beyond their years, tired and sick and empty. She wore only a thin frayed blanket since she had thrown away her own clothing due to the lice—she had not lost her childhood disgust of the thought of something disgusting crawling all over her body. The blanket did nothing but hide her shameful nakedness, which she never looked at; it made her cry if she did as she wondered how far down the road of hate humanity had gone. She was human after all, wasn't she? Did she not also get a chance to live?
A dry, hacking cough caught her attention. Looking, she saw it was an older woman, clearly sick and on the edge of death—the cough had sounded wet and gurgling deep in the throat, like blood or water resting in the lungs. Rachael sighed. At least one person died at Bergen-Belsen. The coughing continued unabated.
"Shut up, will you?" The hoarse, angered cry came from nearby—another woman, one who was also sick.
Rachael's attention drifted again. That happened a lot; she had lost her family weeks back, and she found a temporary respite from her bone-aching grief from her memories. Her mother and father at Auschwitz and her little brother at Dachau. And here she was, alone, without any hope except perhaps liberation.
Any type of liberation. She didn't care how. She escaped the horror through drifting around in her imagination, trying to recall the sunny, warm, happy days of her youth while playing with her younger brother.
Her dreams were growing steadily darker. She had lost hope. Horror was ripped through her small frame, hunching her shoulders and bowing her head. She did not speak, She had no words left to say.
Who would listen to a Jew?
Days passed. The first spring rain came. Snow turned to slush and beat upon the bodies of both the living and the dead. Ash, from a recent burning, covered the ground, mixing with the dirty, melting slush. It was not drinkable for the human body to handle, but the imprisoned Jews, starving and thirsty, did not care. Sickness mattered nothing to them for the very instant that the cool water hit their parched, swollen tongues.
Who of them in that camp did not beg for death, anyway? Death was preferable to this living Hell.
Rachael believed so. She believed death to be an escape. For a sixteen-year-old girl, she was already tired. She was tired of struggling through another day, tired of living. Her shame—the horrifying, silent visits by young, hungry men who molested her—brought her nightmares when asleep and unstoppable fear through the day. When she had a rare time of full realization of what was happening around her, she looked up through the thatched roof of the barracks and simply stared at the sky.
In her thoughts, the sky was blood-red, full to bursting with the blood of the murdered. With every soul killed so harshly, she could imagine the very earth calling out in anguish as the blood stained the ground.
That day, she left the barracks with the single tattered blanket wrapped around her body. The south wind, bitter and biting, relentless in its fury, nipped at her frail skin, turning it red and raw even as she slipped across the frozen no man's land between the barracks and the fence—a place that the SS guards were known to discharge their rifles into if someone were walking there.
Rachael did not care. She was lost, confused, half-delirious from sickness and despair, unmindful of her surroundings. She approached the large pile of burnt bodies, the ashes that still lay soaked upon the ground, and she fell to her knees before them in a perverse parody of worship. She began to rock and forth there in the slush, tearing the blanket she wore; a quiet keening rattled deep in the back of her parched throat as she reached for the ashes and spread them across her body. Back and forth she swayed on her knees, her head violently shaking upon her thin neck, and she began to wail, asking God why? Why, God, why? She continued to tear her blanket, smeared herself with the ashes of the dead, lamenting the murders of so many, a child's innocent plea for understanding echoing in the air.
Her grief-stricken screams caught the SS guards' attention quickly, and one man came forward, his cruel blue eyes bright with fury and disgust. "Shut your mouth, you Jewish whore!" he snarled in a voice of grating steel, and he grabbed hold of the crying girl's arm and yanked her to her feet, eliciting a pained outcry from her. "You slut, what gives you the idea that you can make noise?! Get your sorry ass back to the barracks, bitch, and shut your filthy mouth!"
Rachael paid him little mind, her wailing and pleading continuing. The SS guard drew back a hand and brutally slapped her across the face. The searing pain that came from his strike caused her to scream, and in response he punched her in the nose. She fell limply to the ground, pouring blood all over herself from her broken nose, and the SS guard began to viciously kick her in the ribs and stomach. Brittle bones, weakened by malnutrition and overwork, snapped and broke like dry twigs beneath the unforgiving tread of his boots, so that finally Rachael simply lay weeping in the mud, unable to catch her breath.
The SS guard sneered at her. "Teach you to not do as your told, you filthy dog," he said, and walked away.
Evening came. Rachael still lay in the mud. Prisoners paid her no heed, turning a deaf ear on her whimpers of pain, and the soft and still-audible sounds of a dreadful rattle in the small of her throat as she struggled to breath. There, lying alone and in the grips of a swiftly-heightening fever, Rachael suddenly felt a fiery hatred suddenly surge up inside her like bile, a fierce fury aimed at the Nazis and everything they stood for, and at their lofty superiority…
Facing Death fully in the face, that night, she dreamed of liberation. In her mind's eye, she saw the burning of the swastika as the cries of the tortured and dying rise in the air on the smoke.
The next morning, she was found in the ashes and mud by the pile of bodies, dead, her dark eyes staring sightlessly up through half-lidded eyes, unmoving.
Inmates did not care about this. Handling the body roughly, they stripped the carcass of its blanket to help cover their own emaciated bodies. They did not look at the shameful nakedness, nor the skeletal limbs. They carried the stiff body and threw it among the others, the dead face only one in a million. Nobody cared about the girl's life, or her tears, or her anguish. Passing SS guards laughed at the body, spat on it and thought to themselves, 'One more filthy animal killed.' They did not look at the dead as human.
The dead, after all, were Jews.
~I'll never forget the first day at Auschwitz, the first time in Mauthausen…. There were broken bodies and dead, sweet hearts… All of them were light, like the cases of empty walnuts. Smoky sky in those places. The smell like a stove, but still so cold…. I'm compelled to continue on, because… death waits for no man—and if he does, he doesn't usually wait very long.~
-Death, The Book Thief, 'Death's Diary; the Parisians'