I held my little boy as close to my chest as I could, as the wooden box where we’d been trapped for God knows how long- Perhaps a day, perhaps a few, began to slow. The stench in the cart was putrid, like raw sewage mixed with sulphur and onion- That’s the best I can describe it. It smelt like hell. We were packed so tightly- Shoulder to shoulder- No room to sit. The short hours we did manage to sleep were standing. He was so brave. All the way here. He barely grumbled, just clung to me and I to him. I dare say that we kept each other alive in there. Many did not survive, their bodies slumped on the floor and we, no choice but to trample them- Respect for the dead was an ill afforded luxury in that moving, wooden prison.
We were stationary now, no clue where we were- No notion of what fate had in store.
My son started to cry- All the children did. Myself and the other mothers did our best to sooth their tears but our ‘there theres’ could only go so far, for they may have been children but humans they were too, and although they were young, they nevertheless were still capable of sensing the depths of the unknown danger lying in wait.
Eventually, the side of the box slid open.
We were some of the first to breathe the fresh, spring breeze- The crisp elixir of life which filled our lungs never before tasting so sweet.
The bright, mid morning daylight juxtaposed with the darkness from which we emerged, mercilessly scorching our eyes as they frantically adjusted.
We spilled into the open.
The guards were waiting for us in line as we piled out of the wagon. They smiled at us, brandishing their batons, amused by our suffering and helplessness. I tried my best to shield my boy’s gaze but he’s an inquisitive lad, he wanted to look at his new surroundings.
Several buildings. A few trees. No birds.
It became apparent, once outside, that a small child was lost- Highly possible her Mother had perished during the journey. The child was screaming and began stumbling around- She could not yet run, as she was only a toddler. One of the guards picked her up. At first, it looked like he was going to help her but to my horror, he hurled the little girl with full force at the side of the wooden cart. The sound of the child smashing against the wagon made a loud thump and her cries stopped immediately, as she fell lifeless to the ground.
My boy saw this and asked me what had happened. I had no choice but to tell him it was not real, that she was not real. The girl. ‘Just a dolly’ I said, as I held his head close and we were pulled away. They separated us into two lines. We were not told why.
We stood for hours on the harsh, stoney ground. None of us had eaten or drank since before the journey but eventually, they brought us some water, which we lapped like thirsty dogs on a hot summer’s day.
We were told we would be given fresh meals and ample rest, once we were registered and signed into the camp. ‘It’s over this way’ we were told ‘Only a short walk’. I relayed this to my boy, reassuringly, as he began to get restless. I used all the strength I had to jiggle and comfort him, forcing a smile as I tickled his belly and stroked his brown, delicate hair. My arms ached from the prolonged weight of carrying him for so long but it was a sacrifice I was prepared to make- My embrace and warmth serving as the only means to keep him calm.
The guards told us not to fear and that, if we did everything they asked, it would all be ok and they would take care of us, providing we complied and didn’t do anything foolish, such as try to escape or fight back.
We had no choice but to obey them, for we were all so weak from the journey and in the middle of nowhere. High fences topped with barbed wire surrounded us and wooden watchtowers stood on every corner, with manned armed guards nestled neatly inside, poised and ready to aim and fire at a moment’s notice.
When they finally told us to move, it started to rain. The thick clouds had insidiously crept overhead as we waited, accompanied by that blustery wind that tells you, unspoken and forcefully, that soon you shall be showered by the heavens. As we marched, we welcomed the weather, for it served to wash away some of the dirt and grime- Grease like in its consistency, accumulating in our pores, saturating our hair and faces.
We were told to ‘Halt!’ once we reached the entrance of what looked like some sort of compound. The red brick buildings arranged linear and orderly on the grey stone floor. We were told, once again, that if we behaved, we would be safe and providing we listened and worked, there would be plenty of use for us and that soon, when the war was over, we would be allowed to go home and be reunited with our loved ones.
They then counted us again before leading us through the iron gates.
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.
Within minutes, we were taken into a room the size of a school gymnasium and asked to remove our clothing and shoes, plus relinquish our belongings. This was necessary, they told us, as we would need to undergo a decontamination process, before we could enter the work camp. ‘Standard procedure’, they said ‘No need to worry- We’ve seen it all before!’
We were instructed to attach our shoes together, with the laces, in order for us to be able to find them with ease, after we’d taken our showers. We were assured that our valuables would be kept secure and we would be able to retrieve them shortly. Then, we were told, there would be hot soup and bread waiting for us, upon our return, and we would be shown to our barracks, where we would be permitted to sleep in peace and comfort.
We did what they said.
I removed my clothing and shoes before my boy’s, tying up his tiny boots and folding our garments neatly in a uniform pile, placing them on top of the black, leather case I had managed to carry for all this time.
I was told I may keep on my wedding band.
Once we had stripped and deposited our things, one final procedure was required, ‘for lice prevention’, they told us, as they sheered our heads one by one and bagged our hair as if we were sheep.
We were then taken back outdoors.
I scooped up my naked boy and held him tight, softly singing to him, his favourite lullaby. ‘Just a short trek to the wash facilities’ they told us, as our bare feet tread the cold, hard, damp floor. I held my son close and used what energy I had remaining to bounce him in my arms.
One of the guards approached and smiled at us, pinching his soft cheek and asking of his name. The guard then handed him a candy, and told him there would be another waiting for him, once he’d been cleaned up. My boy eagerly snatched it from the guard’s hand and popped it in his mouth, suckling the sugary sweet as he rested his head on my shoulder, seemingly appeased, if not only for a short while.
The ramp to the showers was steep and narrow. We had to get into single file to be able to fit onto the path and squeeze through the doorway. The interior was much smaller than expected. We were pushed further and further towards the walls, as more women and children clambered inside, shoving each other to secure a spot. A single light in the corner glowed over our shaved heads. The space between us, getting tighter and tighter, until we were glued together again, no better than the wagon from which we had only recently escaped.
The oxygen was scarce. Our eyes darted around as we waited for the water to arrive. My boy started to cry again, in unison with the rest of the children. Then some of the women began to yell- Calling out for assistance, before the heavy door was heaved shut and the sound of the steel bolt locking echoed through the concrete chamber.
Then the light went off.
Screams instantly filled the room as we were plunged into pitch black darkness.
I gripped my wailing son, struggling to stay a foot, as the ground began to move- Going from sturdy and firm to malleable and soft.
‘Help us!’ we yelled, to the absent ears of salvation.
A hiss from on high.
The air, instantly clogged and thick.
Our tactics changed.
No longer gasping above but cowering below.
That which had been our only lifeline moments before had turned now into our greatest threat.
Nowhere to go.
This is the end.
‘I love you’
One last kiss.
‘Mummy loves you so much’