I looked down at my lap, ashamed that I had asked. I knew the pain she was feeling must be unbearable. "I am sorry."
She looked at me and smiled, her eyes all at once full of hope and sorrow and anger. But mainly hope. "It's all right. I will survive. I must live. We all must learn to survive."
Eva's childlike courage gave me strength. She was younger, only ten, but she had a strength that emanated from her heart like a warm fire in the wintertime. It filled everyone around her with the strength to keep on living, no matter how starved, thirsty, weak or filthy we were. "How can you be so hopeful?" I asked.
"I have to be. If we aren't hopeful at all times that we may someday see our families or at least our homes again, we are letting the Nazis take over our hearts and minds. We are allowing them to steal our pride. They take everything, but our pride as Jews is just that: ours. They can't take it. It lives inside us, and keeps the flame in our souls burning bright. We have to keep that fire burning. That's what Irena is trying to do for us. She knows about the flame, and knows that it must stay bright. That's why she tells us to draw and paint and sing. She is very smart. Don't let your fire die, Alesa. Keep it alive."
I nodded. It was the same speech I had heard from Mother right before we boarded the train, but somehow it seemed more meaningful coming from a girl who was closer to my age. Maybe because she did not have to tell me, but chose to help anyway. Here was a girl, just ten years old, who had already discovered how to survive. Nothing could break her spirit.
A few hours passed, and we talked for a while. It was getting close to night. There was a window beside our bed, a very small one, and the moon cast silver shadows on the mattress. It was peaceful.
For a time, at least.
Suddenly, throughout the camp rang a loud siren. Eva and I jumped in surprise. I wondered if my eyes were as filled with fear as hers were. A loudspeaker called out "All residents of Terezin! Report to the square immediately for dinner rations! Those who do not comply will be punished promptly!"
I scrambled down the bed and Eva followed close behind. We ran to the square, where hundreds of other prisoners were lined up, hands cupped in front of them, eyes glued to the dirt beneath them. A Nazi officer walked along the line, handing out a slice of slightly moldy bread to each prisoner. The woman beside me leaned over and whispered, "Don't look in their eyes. They'll shoot you right here." I figured it was best to take her advice.
I angled my head downward and tried to calm my racing heart. I was scared. I held out my shaking hands so they formed a cup, and felt the light weight of stale bread in them. I cautiously lifted the food to my mouth and nibbled it a bit. It was almost rock hard, like a terrible version of the candy that Father used to buy me and Alexandr on special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. I broke off a moldy piece with my teeth, expecting it to be gross. To my surprise as well as my relief, it didn't really taste like anything. I finished eating the slice, however, because I had no idea when I would get to eat again.
A whistle pierced the air, dismissing us to return to the barracks to sleep. I looked around frantically, trying to find Eva. I spotted her curly black hair and ran to her.
"I'm scared," I told her. She hugged me and I rested my head on her shoulder.
"Shhh," she whispered soothingly and stroked my hair. "You're okay. Everything is okay." She grasped my shoulders and pushed them gently so I was facing her. I had tears in my eyes and she wiped them away. "Let's go back to the barracks and try to sleep, okay?"
"All right." She took my hand, like I was five years old, and led me to the girls' barracks.
I knew I had found a best friend.