January 27, 1945
The explosion shocked Erika awake. She gasped as she stared into the blackness. The other inmates stirred, talking to one another, raising their voices. Someone's elbow poked her in the side, but she hardly felt it. She'd long ago grown accustomed to not having enough room to turn over.
"What happened?" she cried.
"The Russians are coming to rescue us!" one woman told her. "They're outside the gate! The Nazis have fled! We're free at last!"
Erika shivered as she hurried from her bunk to join the others. The thin threads of her concentration camp issue rags did virtually nothing to protect her from the bitter cold, and the near-starvation level she'd existed at for months had left not an ounce of insulating fat on her body. She'd ceased to notice the ubiquitous stench ages ago, about the same time she'd learned to ignore the constant rumbling of her empty stomach.
Outside, blazing fires lit the night from the direction of the crematoriums, and Erika realized the woman's words were true. The Nazis had indeed fled, setting the fire in a desperate attempt to hide their horrendous deeds. She reflected on this for a moment before her attention was drawn to what was taking place on the other side of the gate. She could see Soviet soldiers approaching in white coats as camouflage against the snow. They rushed through the gate, running in every direction. One of the men grabbed her and pulled her toward the woods outside the gate.
She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Almost instantly, another man smashed his fist into the first man's face, causing him to lose his grip on her. The second man led her back toward the others. He spoke to her in a language she didn't understand.
"What?" she asked.
"Are you all right? Did he hurt you?" The soldier spoke German with an obvious Russian accent.
"I'm all right. I'm not hurt." She'd found her voice at last.
"Come, sit near the fire. Would you like a hot drink?"
He led her to a seat beside a crackling fire, then fetched a blanket to wrap around her. She pulled the edges of the blanket together so it covered her entire body, and her shivering diminished slowly at first but was soon gone. He handed her a mug of steaming liquid, and she took a sip. Hot chocolate.
"Thank you." Her voice was barely a whisper as she gazed into his eyes - they were green, and she could see kindness in them. Tufts of dark blond hair peeked from beneath his fur cap, and she realized that, to her astonishment, he was, at most, only a couple of years older than she.
"What shall I call you?"
"My name is Erika, Erika Messer." Nobody had called her by name in so long she was amazed she still remembered it. "What's yours?"
"I am Yuri Leonidovich."
"The hot chocolate is very good." She couldn't remember the last time she'd had something to drink that actually had a taste to it.
"Would you like a cookie too?"
She nodded, and he passed a tray laden with an assortment of cookies. She chose the closest one. "You're so very kind."
Tears came unbidden to her eyes, the first she'd shed in many months. It was as if something inside her that had been frozen solid was at last beginning to thaw. Embarrassed for a virtual stranger to see her cry, she turned her head away from him.
"Hey." She felt the soft warmth of his hand covering her own. "It's all right. It's all over now."
Touched by Yuri's kindness, she couldn't hold it in any longer, and her shoulders heaved with heavy sobs. She felt his arms around her, holding her, and she laid a head on his shoulder. She cried until no tears remained, and his fingers wiped the last ones from her face.
"You look just about the same age as my sister in Kiev. Her name is Natasha."
"I had a sister, once." The memory of Tonia brought a searing pain to her heart. Although it had now been many months since she'd died, it seemed like only yesterday. The utter hopelessness in Tonia's haunted eyes would remain with Erika forever.
"She was the last of my family. Now no one is left but me."
"Where will you go now?"
"Why, I don't know! I hadn't even considered I might live. I just assumed I'd die in the camps like my parents and sister. It hadn't occurred to me I might one day be free again."
"Where are you from?"
"Berlin. That's where we lived when it happened."
"When what happened?"
"Kristallnacht. The Night of Broken Glass. My father sold watches. The Nazis smashed all his store's windows and destroyed all his merchandise."
Erika could still remember her father surveying the ruins of his livelihood while crying and praying in Yiddish, a language she and Tonia hadn't known. They'd had no interest in learning the tongue of their ancestors, anyway. To them, they were simply Germans, and religion had nothing to do with it.
Until that night, when they'd discovered that religion had everything to do with it.