“Let’s go for a walk,” says Kristoff.
A walk, he says as if it isn’t so blistering cold our toes may freeze at any moment.
A walk, as if we have the power to truly go anywhere.
As if there isn’t a fence between us, keeping us from touching, from loving, from the warmth each other provides.
As if we aren’t prisoners.
As if… I shutter.
Momma reminds me every morning to be brave. She says that the only thing they can’t take from us is our hope and we must cling to it like our life depends on it. Because these days, it does.
“A walk sounds great,” I muster. The lie tastes bitter in my mouth.
We try to make small talk. I ask him about what breakfast he would be eating right now if he could choose. He asks me if I am going to do anything to commemorate Hanukkah. That makes me cringe because I had forgotten such a celebration could still exist. No such joy survives in a place like this.
In the distance, I hear the screams, the wails as skin falls off bone. As loved ones wake up to the now-familiar scent of death and waste. It is a sound I pray I never get used to but one I have heard much too often.
Before the Führer came to power my family was always taken care of. We didn’t have as much money as some others but we had enough. I never knew hunger. I was always bathed. I had never had lice. Even the place we shit was cleaner than any of my surroundings now. We took it for granted because we had no idea how quickly it could be lost.
It wasn’t a quick loss. First, it was neighbors and friends turning their backs on us, being forced to wear a star on our clothes, and losing customers who behaved as if our fate was contagious. We slowly lost everything we had but didn’t know true loss until the day they came for us.
“What are you thinking?” says Kristoff. “You’re face looks so distraught.”
Why doesn’t yours? I want to ask. His sunny disposition is part of why I love him so much but it can be annoying. Why doesn’t he want to scream? My own bones are sore from holding in the rage. How can he smile as every day someone leaves and never comes back? And every month new trucks of people arrive ready to join in our torment simply for the way they were born or what they believe. Why do I carry this burden alone?
Instead, I say, “Momma has a cough. I’m a bit worried. Hopefully, it is nothing. But she’s all I have left now.”
The spark disappears then from his eyes as he turns to stare at me through the links in the chained fence. “There are men on this side that are dropping dead. We don’t know why. Some rumor the food is poisoned. I’ve barely eaten in weeks. Is that happening over there?”
I think of Mrs. Bosko who died in her sleep last night clutching her stomach and groaning.
She used to be our neighbor. She sold flowers in the town square while her husband worked at the bank. Her two kids were separated from her on the train ride over. We never saw them again. Momma sent a prayer this morning that she is now with her children.
“No,” I sigh. “But it’s hard to know for certain. The colder it is, the more work they have us do— the more death I awake to. It’s becoming harder and harder to have faith.”
He nods. The fear and pain flicker in his eyes. “Some of the men over here say help is going to arrive soon. News of what is happening has finally reached the Americas. Surely they won’t let this go unpunished for long.”
I nod but I don’t believe it. No one is coming to save us. I think deep inside he truly believes that too because he turns to me and says, “Kasia, we need to leave. I don’t want to wait on them. We can leave your mother for now and go get help. At least get away.”
“What? Why would you say such a thing,” I hiss, my eyes scanning the area for the possibility of being overheard. “A guard will send you to the chamber for even suggesting it.”
A big tear falls from his eye. Just one. I almost don’t notice it, save for the trail of skin it leaves through the caked dirt on his face. He’s always had such a beautiful face. Seeing it so dirty and worn, tears me to pieces.
Some say we are lucky. Many women and girls on this side have not seen their lovers in months or even years. Some have heard from others that their men/sons/brothers now lay in a pit, never to have a proper burial. Their families never getting closure or a chance to say goodbye. Even if I never again get to wrap my arms around Kristoff, at least I am not alone. The fact that he is still breathing is the only reason I force myself awake most mornings.
Kristoff’s words grow more breathy, more panicked. “We can’t live like this. I try to be happy. I try to hold on to joy but I can not. I want to touch you, Kasia. I want to eat real food instead of scraps like a pig. I want…” his voice trails off and he reaches his fingers towards me through the fence. “God will save us only if we try to save ourselves.”
“God doesn’t care about us anymore, Kristoff. He’s abandoned us all.”
“Kasia,” he says, holding my stare. “We have to try.”
“It can’t be done,” I whisper. “The few people who have tried to leave have ended up in a trench.”
“I would rather die in a trench than live in this filth. To live as a coward. I have to try, Kasia. One of the men has a plan. There is a small hole in the fence over there. We can make a small hole in this one too and you can come over here. We can sneak out together.”
I shake my head vigorously. “We can’t. We’ll be caught! Sneaking through one fence is hard enough. You want to attempt two? Guards aren’t stupid and they are everywhere.”
“One of the men is going to sacrifice himself. He’s going to cause a distraction and we are going to go. No one will notice.”
“Why do you speak like it’s already a sure thing?” Panic fills my lungs. If we stay here we will die but if we try to leave, I will have to watch the air be removed from his lungs in front of me. I can’t stomach the thought. If he leaves without me, he may have a small chance. With me, there is zero. Making a hole, hiding on the men’s side of the fence—it can’t be done. I know I must let him go.
“Kasia. I’m going. Today. It is already in place. Please, come with me.”
My tears fall in droves now. “I can’t. I’m afraid. Please. Don’t be mad at me but I can’t do it.”
Kristoff swallows hard. I can see the acceptance on his face as he knows as well as I that there is no persuading the other. It is futile. He bends down to kiss my fingers sticking through the holes. “I will get help. I will come back for you. I promise.”
“Girl!” yells a guard behind me. “Get away from the fence. Get to your barracks for roll call!”
“I love you,” I whisper as I turn to walk away. I try to keep the knowledge out of my bones that this will be the last time I ever see him. God help us all.
“Line up!” the guard yells. There are already women assigned to dragging Mrs. Bosko’s lifeless body towards the pile of this morning’s dead. I see other women glance at her feet to decide if her shoes are worth stealing, if she has socks or a sweater on her to help them ward off the cold, as she won’t need them anymore.
I grab my mother’s shaky hand and that’s when I hear it, the shot on the other side of the fence. Then another. And another.
In my mind, he got away. In my mind, the shots were for someone else, for something unrelated. And I shall cling to that hope because my life depends on it.