It was only the shop down the street, only the one that had been visited by the SS more times than she could count. Brita closed her eyes and remembered the one day when Hans had been out shopping in the street and had come so close to entering the forbidden tailoring shop that Mr. Hopkins and his family had been running for more years than she could count.
The silence in the streets now was unnerving. No barking dogs to shatter the stillness, no children running and playing along the streets with one another and not a care in the world. For the children had all been taken. No trace of them left behind save for a ball or other toy here and there lying crushed and broken in the street.
She missed the laughter, longed for the sunshine that the happy faces would bring to Berchauerstrausse. Increasing her hold on the metal bars on the back of the truck, Brita rested her forehead against the cold grate and opened her eyes. She did not dare to turn around to face the other bodies crowded into the SS truck whose engine coughed and sputtered while it idled in the center of the road, waiting for whatever else the Nazis had to finish before they could call this town a day and move on to wherever they were going.
In all honesty, Brita didn’t care where they went, as long as she saw Jakob again.
Hopkins Family Tailoring still stood at the end of the street, its windows listless and devoid of the old home light that used to shine out of the windowpanes at night, only a single yellow star in the front window. From her bedroom window, Brita had oftentimes gazed down at the close-knit family gathered around their father in the evenings. Faces upturned to the good old man’s face wrinkled with so many years of laughter, the wife and children had listened to the large book that the man pulled out and handled with the utmost care. There would be reading, song, laughter, and sometimes even tears during those family hours spent together, but at ten o’clock every night, they would disperse and the father would sit alone with that well-worn book still upon his knee.
And then, one night, the old man was gone.
Jakob, who she had learned was the oldest son, had sat in the armchair by the fire with his siblings slowly gathering around him. He had taken the book from its special place on the mantel and set it in his lap with his hands gently opening the cover. So they had once again carried on the daily tradition, but this time, there was no laughter, only serious talk from Jakob to the others, fervent prayer, and then, tears. Her heart had ached with them, her own eyes filling with tears as she realized that the SS’s sudden appearance in Berchauerstrausse and the father’s disappearance had not been coincidental.
“Father, I don’t understand our government,” Brita had stated as she had stepped down the flight of stairs from the narrow third-story of their apartment to her father’s study where the light still burned. Mr. Taulienschien had glanced up from the mountains of paperwork spread out before him, his face haggard and gray.
“What now, Brita?” he sighed with slight annoyance edging his tone. “Can’t you see that I have to finish all this before the end of the week? The commandant will not be accepting of tardy work…”
“But this is more important!” exclaimed Brita in frustration, throwing herself down in one of the armchairs facing her father’s broad mahogany desk. “Father, you know I hate to interrupt you, but I need things explained to me because I simply don’t know anything anymore. I used to think that I understood our world and how it works, but now I know that I never knew anything.”
“You’re talking in generalities…I need more specifics, Brita,” Father responded, his voice strained in his attempt at being patient.
“The government,” she had repeated, her voice slightly quivering as the image of the deserted children gathering round their oldest brother. “What is it doing? Why are people being taken away?”
Mr. Taulenschien’s face had significantly hardened at her question, and he turned back to his paperwork as he threw his hands up in helplessness.
“Brita, it is the way things are. Those people are criminals and must be taken away. Besides, we don’t want our society to be in danger of their detrimental presence.”
Back and forth they had gone until Brita had finally stood up, more confused than ever and never receiving an answer satisfactory enough to settle her questions. As far as she knew Mr. Hopkins hadn’t done anything to deserve his removal from his small tailoring shop at the end of the street. At length, she had come to the conclusion that the people with the yellow stars on their shirts and coats were to be avoided at the risk of the detriment of one’s own reputation.
“Why are you here?”
He had asked it for what seemed to be the thirtieth time, and Brita still couldn’t force herself to relate the circumstances that had surrounded her getting taken. It was still beyond all her powers of comprehension to figure out how she had happened to be taken to the same camp as him.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she murmured, toying with the sparse grass growing at the edges of the barbed wire fence stretching eleven feet high and seemingly miles wide. “Jakob, all I know is that this is far worse than anything I could have ever imagined was possible.”
His clear blue eyes cut across the distance between them and his breath rushed through his cracked and dry lips in a grating sigh. With his hands folded in his lap, Jakob sat criss-cross on the dirt and raised an eyebrow every time a shout arose from somewhere off behind him.
“I know,” he said in a low voice, his eyes now falling to the dying grass struggling to survive along the fence. “I know.”
It seemed a strange response, but the mere two words held the power to communicate all of their complicated feelings. All the feelings so pent up inside each one of them and all the unspeakable things that the Nazis were capable of doing without a flicker of an eyebrow or a moment of hesitation.
Brita passed a thin, twisted hand lightly over her bare head, her eyes burning not with tears, but with the very absence of them. Ever since she had been deported to the labor camp, she had never cried—was physically unable to cry. One who had seen her those few years back would now never recognize the daughter of the prominent Nazi officer who was most likely on the blacklist of every anti-German government.
“Hans smuggled me this letter,” she said with a shadow of a smile in eyes that seemed all too large for her thin and pinched face.
A reflecting smile hinted on Jakob’s face as he nodded and followed her eyes to the carefully-folded paper in her hands.
“I am doing well here,” she read, devouring every single word of her brother’s letter, “and don’t feel like I can afford to mince words when it comes to you. Brita, I miss you every single minute of every single day and cannot forgive myself for being so blind to what Father had planned. ‘I’m sorry’ seems like such an understatement of what I truly feel, so allow me to say that I will do everything in my power to free you and the Hopkins boy. Give him my thanks for watching out for you during these years that have bridged between us. I love you beyond words, and wish you well. Your brother, Hans.”
“Here is a letter for you too,” Brita said in amazement as she pulled out another sheet of paper.
“From whom?” puzzled Jakob as he reached a hand carefully in between the fence where his hands had already before become entangled in the cruel, twisted wires. “I can’t imagine who would remember me.”
His eyes went to the name at the bottom of the page before anything else.
“Dear Jakob, I miss you so much,” he read as a half a grin spread across his pale face. “Me and the others wanted to write you a letter, and Brita’s brother said he could mail it for us. He is a nice man, and we all like him very much. Since I’m the only one who can write in German, they told me to write it. The shop is doing good because we can all sew. Marta sews the best, but I told her I am better at making the prices. We mostly just fix clothes for people, though, and I wish we could take that old yellow star out of the window. When can we? I miss Papa and Mama. When are they going to come back? Did you see them? Jakob, we don’t know where you are, so we are all very worried and also worried that you will forget us. We love you and miss you so much. Love, Karl, Marta, Samuel, Kaleb, and Greta.”
“His spelling is a little improved,” remarked Jakob with a twinkle in his eye as he looked back up at Brita who was smiling. “I think Hans is doing him a world of good. Brita, I don’t see why he does it. What if your father were to find out?”
“Hans can hold his own,” Brita said slowly. Suddenly, her spine stiffened and she glanced around about her as loud voices seemed to be drawing nearer. Footsteps shook the ground, the raucous barking of the mangy German shepherds the soldiers kept shattering the stillness in the chill air.
“What is it?” Jakob whispered as he instinctively reached through the fence and laid a hand on her arm.
“Most likely inspection time again,” Brita murmured, though the fear that grasped her heart in a grip of iron nearly froze her. A bitter wind swept across the labor camp yard, fluttering the limp striped rags hanging around Brita’s shoulders and whipping the striped pants around legs that trembled like twigs.
“It’s alright, Brita, everything’s going to be alright,” Jakob was assuring her.
The harsh voices of the Nazi soldiers gathering in the middle of all the wooden huts shook the air, and it was all the Brita could do to force one foot in front of the other and stagger toward the rapidly-gathering group of Jews.
“You all too,” barked an officer who had seen Jakob standing on the other side of the fence. Turning to one of his fellow soldiers, he nodded over in the direction of the men’s living quarters and raised both his eyebrows.
“It’ll be only a few moments,” the other ensured him as he strode off to comply.
The quietness of the shivering group worked a little to calm Brita’s nerves as she stood there among them with bodies crowded around her on all sides, trembling, cowering bodies that kept their eyes on the ground. Many of these people had been through more than she had, and if they were calm, shouldn’t she be as well? No words, not even small uttered prayers left their lips as they stood there in the cold with blue hands grasping each other and feet raw and bloody covered with dust.
“Alright! Get a move on!” shouted the commanding officer, kicking at one of the women standing closest to him with his nailed boots. Staggering to the ground, the woman reached out to catch something to break her fall, but her thin fingers in their weakness let the shabby prison uniform of one of the women standing nearby slip.
In ragged unison, everyone began the trek through dirt that was quickly transforming white underneath the snow that began to drift heavily down from the ominous sky overhead. Brita shivered, her teeth clacking together as they chattered involuntarily and her bones aching even more in the dropping temperature.
After at least twenty minutes of marching with the officers surrounding them on all sides with guns at hand and sharp eyes perusing the mob of Jews, the crowd seemed to suddenly triple in size. Brita’s eyes darted across every blank blue face around her, all eyes simultaneously filled with the dull pain that was so deep-set in everyone’s faces.
She lifted her head above the stooped bodies that stumbled on blindly one after another, and finally caught sight of what seemed to be their destination. A small building situated on this side of the camp that she had never seen before.
The whispered word rose more gooseflesh if that was even possible.
“Jakob,” she whispered back in near disbelief as a tall, thin figure appeared beside her. “Jakob, what is happening?”
“I don’t know,” he shivered, looking about them with an expression so confused that he looked as if he were about to break down in sobs. “Brita, hold my hand. We’re going to get through this together. I promised Hans I would take care of you.”
Two near-frozen hands joined together in the struggling swarm of bodies and two pairs of eyes looked ahead to the gaping door leading into the small building. A strange odor hung in the air, and only darkness was visible in front of them where the other stripe-clad prisoners before them were gradually fading. As Brita and Jakob entered inside with their cold hands still clasped together, she thought that it was exactly what she imagined a coffin to feel like. Close, cramped, dark, and with that chill in the air that went straight to one’s bones.
A small brown brick building stood on the corner. With windowpanes bashed in and shards of glass lying scattered on the ground, it looked broken, forlorn. A sign with faded letters hung askew on the front of it with what seemed to have been a family name written just below. Here and there, whole chunks of the brick were missing from the walls, but the shop still stood.
A figure wandered along the street, attired in clothing that was way too large for them, or perhaps it was regular-sized clothing on a figure too broken and emaciated to fit into anything. Either way, the girl sat down on the edge of where the sidewalk once was and stared at the shop with eyes full of so many emotions that it was difficult to dictate just which one was the most prevalent.
“It’s still there,” she whispered to herself.
“Brita?” came a small voice from the other side of the street, startling the girl where she sat.
First one, then two, and then five children appeared in the open doorway of the shop, all peering out of the broken door in astonishment. The next second, all were running full speed across the street and wrapping their small arms around Brita, laughing and crying and overall struggling to keep their voices in check.
“You’re back,” small Karl cried into her shoulder. “We thought you were never coming back.”
“I’m here,” said Brita, forcing a smile onto her wasted face as she gave Karl an extra squeeze in her scrawny arms, “and I am never going to leave you all again for as long as I live.”
“You promise?” small Kaleb queried, his eyes narrowing a little as no doubt he remembered that night when Brita had left the attic where she had been hiding them, only to walk into the faces of the SS.
“I promise,” Brita said solemnly.
“Did Uncle Hans come and take you away from those bad men?” Samuel wanted to know as he timidly stepped back and laid a protective hand on Brita’s shoulder.
Shaking her head, Brita swallowed the lump choking her throat and was at a loss of how to explain to the children just what had happened. Even herself, she didn’t completely understand it or remember.
“I woke up and I was outside the camp in a bare field with many other people around me,” she said in a quivering voice, ensuring to leave out the detail that the people had not been alive. “Maybe I fainted, or-or was held back, or—”
No, she could not have been held back when everyone on every side had been all moving steadily forward and carrying her along with them. It was still such an enigma to her, but the last thing she could barely remember of that evening was Jakob’s icy fingers around hers and his promise that everything was going to be alright and that they would make it through together.
She closed her eyes. They ached so much that it hurt to keep them open. Yet even though her eyes were closed, she could still see the yellow star in the window of the tailor shop. The yellow star that had started it all.