Author's note: This isn't exactly depressing, but it might appear a little upsetting to some.
Twenty-four hours for my entire life to turn upside down.
And now I was locked up in the attic miles away from home.
It all started when my parents had rushed to my brother and me that night with coats, saying in hoarse voices, "Gather only what you need and hurry! We need to move."
They had been searching for a place all these months. We weren't allowed to go to school the past few weeks, in fear of the danger our lives were in. We had been biding our time for the right moment, the right opportunity.
Life wasn't easy when you were outcasts in your own country. When they stripped you of your citizenship just because you were a Jew. When you had to be careful every living moment, when all that came to your mind when you thought of your future was terrible. When you knew that no one deserved this.
This new place was hundreds of kilometers away from where I lived in Hannover, Germany. The journey took several hours, spanning throughout the night. We finally reached before dawn; lucky to have made it all the way without being caught.
When we arrived, I could only remember hushed voices, urgent whispers, the scurrying about of feet as we were jostled in, and the lingering air of pandemonium. All they had told me was that the war had made us relocate to a safer place for a while and that we were going to live in the attic of one of mom’s friends’ houses until things cleared up.
The attic was no bigger than our old living room, and it had no windows at all. I wondered how four people would live here. For more than half a year? Or till the war ended, if it ever did?
It had been two days already, but it felt like a fortnight.
Around me, dreary darkness threatened to swallow me whole, the old furniture lay around without any life, and the sheer coldness of the approaching winter made me shiver.
And of course, I could hear the laughter. Who could forget the joy flitting around downstairs when mom's friends, the Masons, had guests for tea? I could make out half a dozen other voices, having an animated discussion. On golf or politics or something like that.
"They could be more careful, the Masons." Mom had said, "Our lives depend on outsiders knowing about us."
I knew what she meant. We couldn't let anyone else learn of our presence. If they found us out, they would report us to the Nazis without a second thought and we would be pancakes.
I still heard their laughter, their chuckles. Their flooding joy.
“So this is the place we’re moving to,” I said, looking out the window, as our car zipped by at a million miles per hour
"Yes it is," said my mother, "unless we've taken a wrong turn."
The car rounded in a smaller street which had already been lit up with street lamps, even though it was still light outside. The houses here were larger and more grandly built, furnished to look like mansions. The car came to a stop in front of a three-storeyed house. When I looked outside, my mouth fell open.
"Mom, you don't mean to say we're going to live here?" I said, my voice filled with disbelief.
"Yes, Matthias. This is the place."
My eyes moved across the grandeur, the fine finish, the majestic windows and doors, the sloped roof, and the arched gate that swept me off my feet.
Trust me, but I never thought we were going to live in a house that looked like it came from the previous century.
Each day went the same way. Monotonous, tedious, and nothing to distinguish a Sunday from a Monday. We couldn't hold conversations, laugh out loud or risk opening the trapdoor even a tiny shade.
Every evening, at four p.m, we could hear the doorbell ring and the guests stroll in, full of boisterous laughter. If we didn't have a clock, we had them.
Mom didn't dare speak up against this routine like before. She only pursed her lips, saying we would rather not question the Masons right now. With the war proceeding and our dependency on them rising, they could threaten to make us move out.
Every morning, we had to wake up at dawn break, before the neighbors could rise and hear us. We freshened up on the third floor after the Masons ensured that all their rooms had been curtained securely. Breakfast was always scanty. The Masons reasoned that they couldn't get excess food home without giving rise to suspicion. We were grateful, but I still missed the steaming hot food from back home.
Things kept getting worse. Hitler declared the systematic Assassination of all Jews, bombs kept dropping from the clouded skies, and more and more innocent people were subjected to unexplainable horrors. The Masons turned up the radio every night so we would be able to hear the latest news too, but I could never bear more than a few minutes. The speeches Hitler gave, the way his words were filled with loathing for us, and how so many cheered him on in broad daylight.
Pictures of people suffering and fighting for their life cascaded in front of my eyes and made my insides churn.
I hated it.
But I could do nothing.
The house was old-fashioned and weird.
The interiors were intricately crafted, walls covered with floral wallpaper that stood strong even after all these years. The doors were embezzled with fine carvings, curving over the surface and forming evoking designs. A few framed pictures and portraits hung by the mantelpiece, adorning the walls.
I wondered whose pictures they were. All I knew was that this house was originally owned by an influential family called the Masons. These were probably family portraits.
Something caught my eye from the hallway, almost completely hidden from view.
A trapdoor. Leading where?
Taking an expeditious glimpse around, I lowered the stairs that descended and began treading upstairs, my heart thumping. The area above was dark, but I was fortunate I didn't fear rodents or creepy crawlies.
I finally came upon inky darkness, one that made me draw in my breath. I fumbled around for my phone and flashed its light ahead. My surroundings had turned still, enigmatic. I seemed to be in an attic.
In front of me, German furniture lay, coated with years of dust and memories. Half-torn cushions were thrown around, one lying just at my feet. A few shabby clothes were left on the chairs, and the walls were bare and bleak, the slanted ceiling nearly touching my head.
Nothing here was remotely close to the life I had been accustomed to.
It was straight out of the 1940s.
You could call it the worst day of my life.
Thinking about it painted fresh pictures in my mind, bringing back terror.
The sirens wailing through the stillness of the night, echoing in the skies, making my heart run cold.
"Oh no, an air raid!" I shot up, "They're going to drop explosives on us."
I couldn't see anything in the pitch blackness, not even my family. Only their outlines scrambling through the dark, making their way somewhere.
"Esther!" My mom yelled, "Come down here! We're going to the cellar until the danger is over!"
I didn't need another second. I threw myself on my legs towards the trapdoor. Dorian had already gone down, and my parents shuffled behind me. The Masons showed us the way and we slipped into the cellar, fastening the cellar trap door over us. It barely muffled the sound.
"Are we going to die?" Whispered Dorian.
"We won't." I hated lying through my teeth like this, but how else could I assure a ten-year-old? "We're going to come out of this."
He nodded, his eyes huge and glinting in the dark.
I wanted to believe my own words.
I couldn't say how long the night went, but it felt like years. None of us had the courage to speak up. We could only keep to ourselves and fear the very worst. I imagined what would happen if the bombs did descend over us. How would it feel? Would we be able to sense anything?
Was this the true end?
The next thing I remembered was being woken up by someone. When we were ushered to the attic, I was too flustered to protest. I thought over and over again, how the worst hadn't happened, and how fortunate we were to still be alive.
But maybe not so much.
Two days later, when the Masons had their radio turned on, we heard something that hit our ears like a torpedo.
"The city of Hannover in Germany which had once been a thriving center, has been bombarded. The city had been under the threat of air raids since September 1939, but hitherto, suffered minimal damage. However, it was attacked on 9th October 1943, and this is taken to be one of the most disastrous air raids in the history of Hannover. An estimated 1245 people were killed, and…" the reporter's voice trailed away as I gripped one of the chairs for support, the world spinning under my feet.
Hannover. Where I had spent my entire childhood. The city which had been more dear to me than any other. Bombed. Destroyed. Turned into ruins.
I realized that the planes which had passed over our hiding place that night were probably the same ones that had brought about my city's doom.
They had left us alone but had gone straight for Hannover.
I was back in the attic.
Flashing my torch over the dark interiors, I held my breath. Nothing had changed; things were just the way they had been yesterday.
I shook my head. What was I thinking? Why would I expect anything to change when I was the only person coming here?
Today, my eyes caught something I hadn't noticed before.
In the farthest corner of the attic, a writing table stood next to one of the chairs. It had a battered leg and was far beyond use. I edged towards it, the floorboards creaking under my shoes.
A few books had been scattered over the wooden table, the text on them was inscrutable. I could only make out a dog-eared classic novel and a few crumbling papers.
On one of the sheets, something had been scribbled with an ink pen, curling across the page in a swirl of letters.
I swallowed. Who was this Esther? Was she one of the Masons? I wanted to believe that really bad, but her name evoked some memory as if I had heard it somewhere. I knew that as influential as the Masons were, none of them were dead famous.
Below her name was scrawled: 'October 1943''
A shiver ran down my spine. Was that when Esther, or whoever she was, had written these words down? Could paper survive so long without disintegrating?
I took another hasty glimpse around. Suddenly, I felt as if I wasn't in my attic. I felt as if I was invading someone's space, someone's life, merely by standing here.
The chairs, the cushions, the boxes, the books.
They were all Esther's.
Esther from 80 years ago.
I didn't belong.
The year was coming to an end. I had been accustomed to this way of life; it had been almost seven months since we had first arrived, but it felt like years. I didn't complain or whine anymore, because it was pointless.
I rarely spoke, either.
"Why won't you talk?" Dorian whispered one night when everyone was asleep, "Why do you always sit by that corner?"
"Because they'll take us away and lock us up if we make any noise." I hissed, which was perhaps a little harsh.
"But we should be allowed to talk." He said, "Is the world so bad that we have to stay inside an attic and not say a word for months on end?"
'Yes, it is,' I wanted to say, 'It's worse. Did you forget Hannover? The killings? The heartlessness of it all? This is only the beginning.'
But I stuck to, "Sometimes we have to do things we don't want to."
* * *
It was an ordinary evening in November- or how ordinary things could get when you were locked up. I was leafing through the only memory I had brought along: a worn-out old novel. Something had made me pick it up after such a long time, not the longing to read, but more like an impending sense of what was to come.
I turned the pages over, flipping them around restlessly. My mind was buzzing, hundreds of thoughts flickering through.
We were so close to the outside world, yet so far away. It had been so long since we had seen another outsider or had spoken to anyone.
I got up from my cushion, book in hand, my heart hammering.
I wanted this to end. I didn't want to live like this anymore.
What happened next happened so quickly I didn't realize it. I heard the bell ring, a coarse knock on the door, someone give a shrill cry downstairs, and the door swing open.
Mom and dad stiffened instantly, their faces going white. Dorian looked back and forth at them and me, his eyes huge.
I wanted to believe it was the guests coming over again, and I strained my ears to hear their laugh and banter, their loud talk. 'In a moment now,' I told myself, 'You'll hear the woman laugh and the man snort. It's all okay.'
But even underneath all my optimism, I knew it was different.
"We're not holding anyone." I heard Mrs. Mason say from downstairs, "It's only the two of us." I could feel the fear in her voice.
"We need to check the house." Came back a voice, rough, brutal, and inhumane in every possible way, "We cannot be sure until we do so."
"There's no one." Mr. Mason budged in, and I could picture them both blocking the door with their shoulders, persisting, trying to hold the former back, "Really no one."
"Orders." The official said. Hearing him filled me with revulsion. Orders? Was it orders to decide someone's death sentence?
Dorian's face was filled with disbelief as if he couldn't get why we weren't leaping around and doing everything in our control to conceal our presence. Why we had frozen the moment we got to understand.
I wanted to say a million things, everything I had been holding back all these months and a lot more.
But nothing escaped my mouth. Not a word. Not a syllable.
The shuffling of feet echoed right up to the attic, and with a pang, I realized that the Masons hadn't succeeded in holding him back. The official, the decider of our fate, was just a few feet away. In a few seconds, he would find the attic, come through and discover us. And what would happen after that?
Concentration camps? Gas chambers? 'Systematic assassination?
I didn't know.
A wild urge made me shoot for the fountain pen I kept on the table by the corner, and jot something down. My writing came out all sloppy, but I needed to get it down.
And a moment before he came, a moment before we were discovered, I exchanged eye contact with my mother, father and Dorian. An untold message passed in our gaze. Something which made us lift our chin and look ahead. I remembered all the times we had had together, all the fun. All the days before the war swallowed our lives. No matter what happened, no one could take that away from me.
Not even the Nazis.
I let myself go, handing myself over to what fate had for me.
Every day, I returned to the attic, and every day, I searched through the whole place. Looking for what, I didn't know. Evidence? Documentation of the existence of someone called Esther? Maybe. I only knew that I kept coming back again and again, filled with renewed energy every single time.
And then I saw it.
Scribbled on the last page of the book, was something I had missed before. Something that stood out from everything else in the attic.
Something that could only have been written by Esther:
'They took us away but they cannot take away our spirit.
We are the Cohens and no one can conquer us.'