Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
Hanna turned the worn, burlap doll over in her leathery hands, tracing the stitched-on eyelashes and the course indentations of the fabric. Her fingers were long and skeletal as she handed the doll to a small girl beside her.
The girl wrapped her sandalwood-toned hands around it and held it to her chest.
"Elisabeth was never my favorite doll," Hanna began quietly, her voice raspy with hunger, "but she's all I have now. I suppose that makes her a favorite, doesn't it?"
The girl shrugged her bony shoulders, burying her face into the doll's yarn hair.
A woman's scream could be heard from outside the walls of the room.
Hanna tensed. She was growing used to the sound daily, but it didn't stop her blood from curdling. She prayed that it wasn't her daughter.
Evidently, the child had thought the same thing, because her eyes were wide with panic and she looked like she might fall apart if a mere breeze were to touch her.
"Come here, granddaughter." She patted the space beside her. She was too weak to take her into her arms, as she would have done only a few months before. It was astounding how much strength depended on food.
Straw jabbed into Hanna's legs as she curled an arm around the little girl's side and held her close. She ignored it.
"Grandma," she whispered, blinking up at her with dark, teary eyes. "I'm scared."
Hanna bit down on a "me too" and instead stroked her granddaughter's matted hair. "Want me to tell you a story? About the doll?"
"Yes, please do."
A child's wail penetrated the walls of the little building. Hanna squeezed her eyes shut and tried to imagine a time when that wasn't a normal thing to hear. She imagined hearing the sound of birds perched in a tree, weaving their songs from silvery notes. She imagined the babbling chatter of a nearby brook. She recalled the tranquility, the peace that she'd once taken for granted.
"Once there was a little girl.
The little girl looked very much like you, dear, and her name was Hadassah."
"That's my name!" the girl proclaimed with a small smile.
Hanna nodded. "That's right. You were named after this girl. She was a great woman who saved her people and--" She cut herself off as a wracking cough shook her frail chest. She closed her eyes for a second and tried to regain her breath.
"Grandma? Are you alright?" she asked timidly, her voice filled with fear.
"Just fine, dear." She inhaled again and forced a reassuring smile to curve her lips. "Hadadsah's parents were killed when she was very young, so she lived with her uncle who took very good care of her, and loved her like his own daughter. When she grew up, she was the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom. So beautiful, that when the king's soldiers were seeking a wife for the king, they brought her to him."
The girl shivered. "I don't like soldiers." She wrapped her arms around herself, pinning the doll beneath her armpit.
"These soldiers weren't like the ones you know," Hanna said quietly. "These are bad soldiers, but the soldiers in the story are good. When Hadassah was brought to the king, they dressed her in fine fabrics and jewels and made her bathe in fine oils to make her skin smell fresh and look healthier. See, Hadassah was normally covered in dirt, like us, and kings don't want a bride covered in dirt." As she said this she wiped a smudge off of her granddaughter's nose.
"When the king saw her, he fell in love with her, and they were married."
The little girl sighed. "I like that story."
"Oh, but that's not all, dear."
She picked her head up and looked curiously into her grandmother's gaze. "Really?"
"Really. You see, Haman was the king's second-in-command. He was the second most powerful person in all the kingdom, and he hated the jews, which is what Hadassah and her family were. He wanted all of them dead."
"Just like the Führer," the girl spat.
"Yes. Just like the Führer. But God used Hadassah to save her people. Hadassah went to the king. She wanted to tell him then and there that Haman was a devil who deserved to rot, but she couldn't find the courage to do so. When she stood before the king, she panicked. He had the power to end Hadassah's life then and there if he chose to, and this scared her."
"What did she do?"
"Instead of spilling the beans on Haman, she asked him and Haman to her rooms for dinner."
The little girl's eyebrows scrunched in confusion.
"Hadassah knew she had to tell the king Haman's plot to kill her and her family, but as she began to ask him, she chickened out again. She asked him to dinner a second time. That time, she told the king, and the king had Haman killed. Hadassah saved her family."
"Oh, that's such a nice story," she mumbled, her head still buried against her grandma's shoulder.
"It is, isn't it?"
The doors suddenly burst open and the grandmother jerked her head up.
Soldiers were pulling out all of the women who stayed inside.
Hanna knew it would happen, but she was too weak to fight it anymore, and Hadassah, her granddaughter, was equally weak with hunger.
But in this place, the weak died and only the strong could survive.
"Get out! Move! Dummkopf!" The man yelled a bunch of other things at the few who'd chosen to remain inside, but Hanna did not understand them. Those still inside the rooms were mostly the very oldest, the sick, and the youngest of the children.
Hanna and Hadassah fit every category.
Hanna could no longer stand, and Hadassah. . . she was too weak. Too weak from malnutrition, too weak from the lack of joy, too weak from the fleas, too weak from everything--and Hanna knew they would both die that day.