I heard a rumor. A rumor that the soldiers are using leather straps, a tree stump, and a mallet to break wrists.
“It’s to stop us from talking,” Ingeborg whispers. “Can’t you hear the screams?”
I answer no, say, “My bunk is on the West Wing; therefore, any scream would lose its momentum before it reaches my window.”
Ingeborg speaks with her eyes; therefore, I don’t doubt her when she says she can still hear screams long after they’ve stopped. “Long after the sun has set,” she says. There is silence, and Ingeborg begins to look at me as if I’ve done something wrong.
“So,” she says, “you fall asleep to the sound of hissing steam engines circling the mountains and the smell of quenched fires, and I …”
After Ingeborg hears a noise, she abruptly stops talking and hurries away. She is still walking when she turns, cups her hands around her mouth, and whispers, “Write, Petra. Write as much as you can before it’s too late.”
To my surprise, Ingeborg manages to roll a pencil along the floor without anyone noticing. What’s surprises me, even more is how, without thinking, I fake a fall and secure the pencil between my legs without raising suspicion. Falling of any kind was frowned upon weeks ago, but lately, without much food in our stomachs, fainting has become common practice; therefore, I like to believe the soldiers understand our falling is not by choice. I wince when an order from a sentry catches me off-guard.
“Keep moving!” he says.
And I do, following silhouettes of humanity until I’m the last one left in the line. The sentry, a young man with a square jaw and a lock of thick hair hanging over his left eye, instructs me to stop. And I do, squeezing my thighs, so the pencil stays in place. It takes two attempts but finally, he slicks his hair into place, and I immediately notice how lifeless his eyes are, and I imagine what they’ve witnessed. He studies me while he sniffs the air around him – his way of reminding me we’re animals, not humans, and animals smell, don’t they?
“Even the pretty ones,” he says as if he knows what I’m thinking. “Keep moving!”
I picture the pencil slipping from between my legs, hitting the concrete floor before rolling towards the sentry’s black boots. As I pass, I squeeze my legs together, smile at him, and wait for him to spit. They always spit.
“You smile – they spit, see?” Ingeborg said the first time we met.
For the first time, he follows me as I settle onto the bunk, finds something to lean against, and throws his gun over his shoulder. He produces a box of cigarettes, offers me one, but I decline with a head-nod. Perhaps it’s the room’s acoustics or the way he chooses to smoke, but I’ve never heard anything like it before. “Try one,” he says with a smile, “They’re good for you.”
He calls himself Horst as he slowly moves from the door, straightens up, and exercises his neck.
“You have a name?” he asks, expelling a mouthful of smoke.
I hesitate and then “Petra.”
“Nice name. You remind me of my sister.”
I whisper something under my breath, and he asks me to repeat myself.
“I said we are not supposed to talk to the guards.”
Horst smiles as he looks over his shoulder, and his gun slips. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t,” he says.
For a brief moment, I feel alive, and not because my heart is beating but because my skin is crawling at the way Horst’s tongue plays with his top lip, and cigarette smoke stings both his eyes.
As he comes closer, I notice the dirt between his fingers, the black under his fingernails, the fact he’s never taken a razor to his face. His uniform is grubby, worn at the knees, and smells from wearing it one too many times in the mist that sometimes hides this camp. He allows the cigarette to burn between his finger as he perches one boot on my bunk and beside me.
“They say you shouldn’t be here,” he says, but I’m preoccupied with his boot, how big it is against his slight frame, and the hours of endless polishing he has given it.
After he clears his throat, I answer, “They are wrong.”
“Or maybe they are right,” he says. “Maybe I speak with him, and he sets you free. Tell me, would you like to run – there – where the trees are?” Horst points as if I didn’t already know freedom is over the barbed wire. I sense his hand and close my eyes as he uses his finger to part my hair and studies my face.
“Mmm, maybe not,” he says. “Maybe you look more like my dog than my sister.”
The laugh that follows sends a shiver through me.
“Perhaps you would like to show me how you are not a dog.”
As he talks, the pencil continues to slip.
“Why?” I ask before my mouth runs dry.
“You know why – I tell him they make a mistake, and he lets you go.”
I feel his hand slip between my shirt and grip my shoulder, where he grimaces at the sight of my collar bone protruding against my skin.
“You’re shaking,” he says. “Are you cold?”
For a moment after, he holds his breath, resists the urge to blink, and then removes his boot from my bunk. His ear is cocked towards a familiar sound as he sets the gun into place across his chest. What follows is the sound of an airhorn, and it scares us both. Horst leaves quicker than he entered, and I part my legs, watching as the pencil rolls into my view. A moment later, I begin writing.
I remember my father bursting through the door, the way he hardly allowed it to open, and how my mother told him to catch his breath.
“He’s on his way,” my father announced.
“Who?” my mother asked.
“The man … The man with the tin-box.”
That was enough for my mother to drop what she was holding – I believe it was a vegetable of some sort – and scour the kitchen.
“And a pencil, something to write with,” my father announced, and it was then I realized my mother was trying to locate some paper. Mom and Dad met at the kitchen table after a few minutes, my father with the butt of a pencil he used to mark his timber and mother with the paper she found upstairs – an old Doctor’s prescription, I believe. Before my father wrote what would be our family name, he hesitated.
‘What? What’s the matter?” my mother asked.
‘Please, Marta, I need you to write.”
“What if he struggles to read my writing – struggles to read our name.”
My mother considered this and took the pencil from my father.
“You’re bleeding,” my father said, noticing how drops of blood from my mother’s finger was staining the paper.
“I must have cut it preparing dinner,” she said as she slipped her finger between her lips and sucked. After my father took the paper, he ripped it by hand in such a way that there was enough for our family name to fit and a drop of blood to remain visible.
“Wilhelm, what are you doing? I can still see the blood.”
“I know,” my father said. “But it might be enough for him to notice – to steal his attention. Now, quickly, write.”
My mother wrote – COHNHEIM – in capital letters while my sisters and I remained oblivious to what was going on. I was old enough to know that tanks and men with guns were not too far away, “Die Jäger,” my father would say - The Hunters.
My sisters and I took turns keeping watch from the first-floor window for any signs of a man with a tin-box or neighbors in a hurry while my mother finished preparing dinner and answering my father’s questions. Questions such as “Do you we really need this?” And “Is this valuable?”
“Wilhelm, how can you pack when we don’t even know what’s going to happen?”
“If – when – he draws our name – we won’t have time to pack, Marta. I want us to be prepared – prepared to leave at once.”
My mother said nothing and agreed with a head nod before kissing my father’s forehead.
After my mother disappeared upstairs, my father summoned me to the kitchen table, where he placed a folded piece of paper in my palm and closed my fist.
“Petra, mind this with your life until it is safely in the tin-box.”
“Tin box?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “What is this?”
“A way out, Petra. A way out.” It was here my father gripped my shoulders and whispered, “If the man with the tin-box draws our name – he will see us safely over the border using a truck Die Jäger will never suspect.”
“Why? Why would someone we don’t know help us?” I asked.
I could see from my father’s reaction that although the same question crossed his mind, the answer eluded him.
And I did, on the sofa, until a knock on the door woke us all early the following morning.
After my father pushed me through the doorway and told me how the smoke I’d mistaken for fog was from the nearby burning village – Die Jäger was close – I ran with the crowd until I fell. It was here I noticed the man with the tin-box, a folded chair under one arm, a folded table under the other. Everything about the man was round – his face, his arms, his legs, even his clothes. Was this the man who would save us? I didn’t think so. After he set the table and chair in front of the village fountain, he insisted with his hand that everyone ‘push back.’ I was still sitting on the cobbled road, adjusting my shoe when I witnessed two men brawl. It was easy to see why after the smaller of the two men attempted to drop two pieces of paper into the tin-box, although I must point out the tin-box was, in fact, a tin bucket. I watched as men bigger than my father attempted to toss their folded paper into the tin bucket and fail, sometimes without even realizing it as they were pushed to one side – sometimes by force if they did not comply. Then there was me and my father’s idea of success. Another brawl, and this time there was blood. When the screaming started, I covered my ears.
“There will be fighting,” my father said, “and blood. Wait until the fighting involves more than two men – wait until the tension reaches boiling point and then pounce.” I didn’t understand boiling point nor pounce, but after, my father explained how I needed to crawl – shimmy between the trouble and drop the paper in the box. It worked. And although I can’t be sure, I think the man with the bucket tipped his hat in my direction as I crawled backward.
The rumor was there would be a knock on the door in the dead of night, that a man driving a truck transporting dead bodies would ask us our name and if the name matched the paper in his hand – then the decision to leave was ours. The truck was large and green, with two yellow lamps that highlighted the falling rain. Then there was the smell. My mother did what she could and tried not to, but the urge to vomit proved too much.
“Is she going to be okay?” the driver asked.
“Yes, of course. Everyone into the truck! Now!”
I’d never heard my father raise his voice before, nor had I ever seen my mother cry.
The driver pointed at a hole away from his truck and ordered, “If you need to – do it there – away from my truck. Dead people don’t vomit.”
As both my sisters silently cried, my mother tore at an old shirt. “Marta, what are you doing?” my father asked, realizing vomit had reached her clothes. “Now is not the time for a change of shirt.”
“It’s not for me,” she said. “Here,” as she handed everyone enough cloth to cover their nose and mouth.
The driver was on the driver’s seat, pushing the pedal, so the engine growled when he yelled,
“We have to go, now!”
Under a dark green tarp that covered the truck’s bed, timber slats housed dead bodies hidden under sheets. My father instructed us where to go, based on the space on the slats and our height. After I held my breath and lay down, my father smiled before he covered me in a sheet. “Remember, if the truck stops - you remain perfectly still until it moves again.”
And then he kissed me.
That was the last time I saw or smelled my father. From what I remember, the truck hit a bump in the road a long time after we left home, and the soldiers who came to help were as surprised as the truck driver to discover five people far from dead. They took my father thirty miles North West to work as a roofer at a work camp. He always said his hands would save his life, and he was right. My mother survived as a cleaner not too far from where I sit right now, but I heard a rumor she died – beaten to death with a leather strap and metal bars for trying to impersonate a camp-worker allowed to leave and return home. My two sisters, their faces I can no longer picture, died like so many others on a packed railroad livestock car to hell. Well, that’s what those who survived told me. At the time of the year when the sun retreats before supper, they transported me to …
“You follow me, now!” a soldier says, and it’s not Horst. It’s a man twice his size with twice his rage. Luckily for me, his approaching footsteps and heavy breathing alert me to what is coming, and I manage to hide my papers between two failing bricks. He strong-arms me through the doorway with questions such as “Why do you have a room to yourself?”
I explain how the room was full but recently …”
His smile tells me there is no need to finish my sentence because he knows why my room is empty. You can’t fill a room with people that don’t longer exist, can you?
Momentum takes the remaining women and me to the yard, where we join hundreds if not thousands of men.
The orders are clear and repeated every hundred or so feet.
“March until you see the water.”
People are already falling, and when they refuse to stand, people who look like Horst beat them with metal bars and sticks. I think about running to a young man’s aid, but someone already knows what I’m thinking and catches my arm.
“They will kill you,” she whispers.
“Isn’t that the plan, regardless,” I say, and she immediately decides my company is not for her.
Bookended by a sea of moving corpses – I can tell it hurts to breathe – a smell that reminds me of the last time I saw my family hits me. I inhale deeply, and curious eyes meet my actions. How can someone willingly inhale such depravity, they think. I imagine if those around me fall away, that my view will greatly improve – one of the trees, marshes, and red brick buildings with beautiful furniture and paintings with colors I can’t pronounce inside. People begin to scream when we reach the water, while a hail of bullets meets those who attempt to run. I smell water, and one by one, the water in front of me begins to fill, and soon it will be my turn. You won’t have to push me, I think. I’ll gladly jump in. When there are enough people packed into the water – some have already died and begin to disappear beneath the surface – the shooting starts.
The last time I heard screaming this loud, I covered my ears but not today. Today, I jump with my head held high. A moment later, as the cold takes hold and my body shivers, an order is given, guns are cocked, and hands that grip them begin to shake. The soldier without a gun raises his arm, and when he drops it, the shooting will start again. I hold my breath as his hand cuts the air, and the shooting begins, but I am already under the water. I’ve gotten used to playing dead since the day I heard a rumor. Today, I listened to another rumor – a rumor help is on the way.