TW: PTSD, Holocaust
I got up from my spot on the ragged yellow couch, worn beige pants rustling and my knees groaning: small pops and cracks in my limbs. The popping of the joints sounded like far off gunshots: echoes in the harsh, biting wind.
For a moment, I was transported back to Europe. Back to--
I shook my head, ridding myself of the horrid memories that threatened to flood my mind.
I walked to the bathroom, shuffling my slippered feet. Slowly--as if to not break my old, run-down, beaten limbs.
Finally, I arrived at the cream white bathroom door, its paint chipping. Cracks in the wood trickled down like little rivers on the old door, and its hinges creaked as I opened it.
I entered the bathroom, going to pass the dirty mirror. I turned my head toward it--towards the old man: the thinning snow hair, the empty hazel eyes, the crooked nose, the spots on my skin I’d acquired from the years on this earth. And for a second--just a second--as I glanced at the mirror, I saw that young boy at the camp.
The one with a shaved head, limbs so skinny that bones seemed to bulge out painfully.
The one with skin so stretched over his bones. The skin smudged with dirt and ashes. As if doused in it.
A rain of debris scattered on his skin.
Bare naked. Exposed. With a midnight blue brand on my forearm. Like cattle.
I gasped hard, a faint wheeze, my weary heart shaking. I gripped the sides of the sink, looking at my reflection; a free old man. Scarred, yet no longer oppressed for his beliefs. But that brand lingered on my forearm: a silent and deadly reminder of the horrors.
I got out; I remind myself. I got out and survived.
Barely. I wouldn’t have lasted another month in that camp. I prayed to God every day--despite the evil soldier’s harsh words--for someone to come and save the few amounts of us left. Scarred and broken so badly, our tears dry, our bodies bruised and dirty.
I turned on the faucet and placed my spotty wrinkled fingers under the cold water. Cold just like the “showers” we had at the internment camp. The freezing dirty water that we rarely got to use, and only in small amounts.
I quickly turned off the sink, the crystal edges of the sniveling faucet handle cutting into my weary calloused skin. I tried my best to erase the obscene images out of my mind--trying to soothe myself into tranquility. Numbness, at the least. So I could try to pretend it didn’t happen.
But it did happen. It happened, even though it was brutal. Unimaginable to everyone but who experienced it. No one else could begin to fathom the savagery we faced. The crude treatment. Outcasts for our thoughts and beliefs.
I had been trying to forget my years in the horrid camps for decades now. Horrid couldn’t even begin to describe the evil that went on there. The horrors I couldn’t erase from my mind.
No matter how hard I tried.
No matter how happy I was now.
No matter how much time passed.
This time, I let myself think about those times. I was a young boy in my early teenage years when my family and I were ripped from our home. And then my family was ripped from me. My sisters and mother never to be seen again. My father died after a year of labor and starvation. I’d been the only one to get out of the camps.
To live to see an unpolluted sky.
To eat good food.
To have clothes on my back.
To have fresh water.
To not be persecuted for my faith anymore.
I thought back on the day I became free. The soldiers coming in, the fear at first, and the tears and triumph that followed. As we marched out of the camps.
Finally out of that horrible hell.
I marched alone that day. By myself, my head high, dirty tears of absolute relief running down my face. I hadn’t bothered making friends in the camp. One day you’d talk to them, and the next, they’d die.
So I walked on, deep breaths echoing through my bony body, the exhale showing in the brisk air.
Walked to freedom
Walked to safety
Walked to health
Walked to home
These were plaguing memories. I tried not to let them consume me often. But reflection was healthy, was good. And better yet, it was safe--no chance of reality becoming consumed with my past as it once had.
So I stood there in front of the old mirror, thinking about my past. Looking at the thin white hair that once was brown and shaved to my scalp. The once hollow cheeks now full. At my body--no longer starved and bony and pale and sickly. A body now wrinkled with age; tan and plump.
I loosed out a breath. And with the breath came out the pressure that had built up inside of me.
The smell of burning bodies. The smell of piss and blood and dirt everywhere. Inescapable. The smell reeking so horribly that I still smelled of it weeks after I left Europe and came to America.
America was better than Europe during those years. Better yet scarcely. People were still discriminated against. Beat and broken for their differences. But I wasn’t, and at that time, that was all that mattered to me; that I could live secluded from the world.
I got married and had kids, passing down the Jewish religion so our shriveling numbers could increase.
My wife died a few years ago. I always thought I’d be the first to leave the earth. With all of the dirt and ash and torture, my mind and body had endured for years. I thought that with all the chemicals that had entered my body, all the dirty particles and disease that roamed around the camp freely—that I would be the first to pass into the sky.
But I hadn’t, and once again, death suffocated me. My wife went peacefully. Not like my parents or sisters. Not like the millions during those years in Europe.
Death will come for me soon. And I will welcome it with open arms.
My wife will be there.
And I will get to see my parents.
And I will see every face that passed by me desperately in the camps. Too soon, they were all ripped from me. And too long had it been since I’d last seen them, hugged them.
So I will go with a smile on my face.