In the camp, we were mostly young girls, in our teens and twenties. We had thick dark hair, strong legs and ample bosoms. Some of us were freckled farm girls from the shtetl, with rough hands from milking cows. Some of us were zaftig city girls; plump as dumplings with hands as soft as the silk ribbons in our hair. Others came from prominent families and wondered if our wardrobes had survived the trip. Many more of us came from simple, loving homes with just the clothes on our back—thin cotton blouses, worn woolen skirts and faded sweaters mended by our mothers that we would never outgrow.
Some of us came from dusty, remote villages, having never seen so many people in one place. But there were also some from teeming ghettos who were used to crowds of people being pushed and shoved together. Perhaps we had lost hold of our father’s or best friend’s hand in such a throng once. Or a lover had turned his back one sad day and simply walked away, leaving us alone in the crush of the crowd.
The first thing we did—before asking each other’s name—where we were from—where we would sleep—if we would be given work to do—was wonder, out loud, where all the boys went? We had all arrived with our families. But before mothers and daughters were split into different groups, never to see each other again, we had been separated from our brothers, fathers, and our boyfriends. The men and boys were all whisked out of sight. They were lanky or squat; husky or svelte. They were fearless, they were timid, they were great football players, they were bookish. They had been ours, and suddenly, they were gone.
We chattered nervously, worrying about the loss of their strength and comfort, of the protection and reassurances they provided on the trains. Little of what they told us would turn out to be true. But still, we longed for their warm, rough touch, their assertive efficiency, and their gift for acting as if they were in complete control.
We often wondered what would happen to us? Would we go back to our homes someday, make new friends and meet new lovers? Would we have children of our own?
Some of us had our sisters with us, but most did not. Some had seen our little sisters dragged away at the trains and knew they were gone forever. Some of us hoped our sisters had been taken to a different camp, and we prayed that we might see them again. Many of us were not exactly sure where our sisters were, and tried not to imagine the worst.
One of us envied her sister’s straight blond hair. She had gone, late one night, to a large farm outside Prague. The rich and kind Dvoracek family would pass her off as one of their own. They would protect her from the soldiers for more than six years, eventually adopting her when none of her family could be found after the war.
One of us hoped desperately that the nuns at the convent in Kalwaria were still shielding her younger sister, masquerading as a novitiate and struggling to not blurt something out in Hebrew or Yiddish when strangers came.
Another one of us couldn’t stop thinking about her big sister and her boyfriend. They had run away the night before after a horrible argument with Papa, and found their own hiding place beneath the creaky floorboards of a Lutheran friend’s workshop.
More than one of us cursed our faces, wishing we were the ones born with the adorable button noses and fair complexions—like our sisters, who had remained in Bucharest, Vienna, or Riga, with families brave enough to risk it—instead of being here, trying to rub the bumps out of our noses until they were raw, bleeding and stung from our tears.
In the camp, we slept in pairs. Two girls huddled on every thin, tattered mattress, cuddling for comfort as much as for warmth. We had no pillows and only torn, scratchy blankets. Some of us fashioned headrests from dirt and straw scrounged from the bare floors of our plain barracks. There were no lights, so we woke with the sun and turned in at dusk, facing long nights alone with our bunkmates and our dreams. Who’s there? Has someone come for us again?
When we woke from our nightmares, we could see cottony puffs of steam, the measured breath from the girls sleeping around us, forming in the freezing air. When we fell asleep again, we dreamed of Chaim and Yakov teasing us and stealing kisses, our fathers’ Torah lessons and our sisters sharing secrets. We dreamed of riding the streetcars in Warsaw or Bratislava, warm sunshine, green fields and of laughing picnics of pierogi and borscht. We imagined our lovers, snatched from our grasp, reaching through barbed wire to take our hands and dry the tears from our cheeks. We clutched the girls curled alongside us a little tighter, buried our chilled noses in their filthy hair, and imagined they were someone we loved.
We struggled to understand. Some of us spoke German, but many of us did not. Some of us had been to school, but many of us knew only what we’d learned in the cabbage fields, market stalls, or in the rough dust of our small towns. And what we had heard from our rabbis, the cow farmer, or the storyteller in the village square.
The men in charge were no better educated than we were, but they had guns, orders, and they had commands. What did he say? I don’t know what he wants from us. We tried to do as we were told, but some of us stumbled, and some of us fell. Many of us cried and bit our tongues to keep from asking why? Some were sure we would be going somewhere else, and insisted this must all be a terrible mistake. Some of us thought they would keep us there forever, but others heard we would be deported to Palestine or America. Some were indignant and said they had no right, but many of us thanked God that at least we were alive, had a place to sleep and food to eat.
We were homesick, worrying about who was lighting the Sabbath candles? Was anyone milking the cows and feeding the chickens? Who was changing the brine for the new pickles? Was someone else wearing our clothes, reading our books and trying on our jewelry? Were our fathers, mothers, and brothers thinking of us? Who was selling cloth, working gold, and butchering meat if our villages were empty? Would the cute boys from the yeshiva, the dairy, and the streetcar station forget about us?
Many of us wondered about the things left undone. Some had started sewing new skirts with our mothers. Some of us had homework we needed to finish. One had started building a new pen for her goats. Another was finally learning her first Mozart sonata. A few had just had our very first kiss. One of us had learned she was pregnant.
At night, most of us prayed. Many of us thanked God for seeing us through this danger and said the blessing for surviving illness. Some of us asked God how he could let this happen and wondered if he were there at all. A few of us sneered at the others, scoffing at the idea of God coming to our rescue. One of the city girls said she didn’t believe in God, that the rest of us were fools, and what more proof did we need?
During our first few days in camp, we were hungry. Many of us were ill from the strange food, the cold night air, and the fear. More than one had to run behind the barracks and get sick after supper. One of us had to do it every morning. We started to bicker and fight in our beds, complaining about the smells, the filth and the nasty habits of the girls next to us. Some of us thought they were better than the others. Some of us tried to take charge. Others tried to make friends. Some wished we would just die, while others vowed that no matter what, we would stay alive.
A few of us kept to ourselves, thinking our own thoughts, daydreaming about men we’d never see again. One of us thought about the young man at the movie theater, who touched her hand when he sold her tickets and then quickly looked away. Another thought of the married tailor who always came into her bakeshop, dropping veiled hints and complimenting her challah and her rugelach. Others daydreamed about Abram, Herzl, or Shimon. One of us daydreamed about Rebekah.
Some of us heard that a boy from a neighboring camp had managed to escape, but had cut himself badly climbing the barbed wire. He had run through the woods to the train tracks and made it all the way to France by hiding on the roofs of freight trains. Some of us heard that there were partisans in the forest, plotting to rise up and fight back, ready to take us in, if only we could get to them. Others heard a man was shot trying to escape—and then another, and another. Many heard about the girl who tried to flirt her way into the good graces of the gatehouse guard, only to have the commandant come along laughing and put a bullet through her head. We had no way of knowing that all of these stories were true.
After a time, we began to forget our neighbors, our schoolteachers, even our friends.
Our friends were replaced by the gossiping girls in the rows of bunks, the complaining girls next to us scrubbing the floors of the guards’ barracks, and the anxious girls mending uniforms with us at the camp laundry. There was a brazen girl who dared to smoke stolen cigarettes—a crime punishable by instant death. She would always say as we stared at her in awe, what crime in here isn’t?
Our neighbors from home were replaced by hard men with pale skin, yellow hair, and prodding bayonets. And by the Roma gypsies we’d glimpse across the yard and the humorless dogs with dark, dark eyes and snarls full of spittle; whose every growl and bark made one of us—Leah, from not far away, near Kraków—shake and weep.
Our schoolteachers were replaced by overseers; fierce women named Irma, Maria and Herta. They piled their blonde hair high above masculine foreheads and had eyes without mercy. They outdid themselves trying to match the cruelty of the male guards whom they would secretly bed at night. Then amused themselves by torturing us with the lurid details of their liaisons with Horst, Klaus and Juergen; knowing full well most of us would never be with a man again.
After a time, some began to think that a few of the younger male guards weren’t so bad looking. More than one of us exchanged smiles with the gentler ones, who seemed almost as scared and unsure as we were. We thought they seemed impossibly young to be in a position of such authority, and surely were forced into service the way we were forced into servitude. Some of us lingered in the breadline, hoping to share a word or two with Erich or Hermann. One of us took a very long time delivering clean laundry to the infirmary, so that she might bump into Bernhard, who once helped her unload her baskets and left her with (what she was sure was) a look of longing.
One of the most beautiful of us, Naomi, whom everyone agreed had the face of a movie star, tried to ignore the looks, whistles and gropes of the guards; even once of Herta’s grasping hands. She insisted, in the dark of night, she would never let any of those Nazi dogs touch her. One evening, she did not return to the barracks. The next time we saw her, she was hurrying out of the commandant’s quarters in the middle of the morning. Though she refused to admit anything to us—even to Leba, her best friend from the first day in camp—every few days she would disappear for hours at a time. The guards abruptly stopped harassing her. Instead, they focused their attention on Rachel and Dora, not daring anymore to bother Naomi, who seemed to keep her figure and the color in her cheeks better than the rest of us (especially as she spent more time away from us and with, if the whispers were true, the commandant).
We could see men across the barbed wire—young men, strong men, brave men. Our men. Even if they had never been ours to begin with (and, in most cases, would never be ours at all), we did our best to catch sight of them. We locked eyes, smiled and conjured up entire relationships with what remained of our imaginations. We knew only the strongest and the most useful survived. The men were being winnowed and culled just as we were. Human chaff was cast aside quickly in the search for the hard grains the Germans could thresh, mill and grind into the flour of their empire. The men we spied through the wires and the wood were the very best we had left.
Few of us dared make contact. Many of us were too weak to act, even if we could summon the courage. Some of us took advantage of the rare occasions when male prisoners would be brought to our side of the fence, to rebuild a wall or fix a light. If the job took more than a few hours, there might be a moment when the capo would stop paying attention, and perhaps Elias the carpenter would manage a rendezvous with Hana, disappearing into the barracks while everyone else was off working. Aron the electrician would make some time with Golda, unable to do much more than grasp hands, profess love, and make promises that would never be kept. Their bodies were no longer capable of matching their souls’ desires, but even unconsummated—in their eyes and those of God—it was a match.
Some of us wondered how any of us could even think of such things. We were exhausted from standing in the inspection line for hours each morning, then working hard in the factories every afternoon. We were thin, broken, and starving. Who had time for such nonsense?
Keep your eyes to the ground and your hands on your work. Give them no reason to notice you. Don’t end up like Rahel, made pregnant by a guard, although she didn’t know it for many months. Once she did, she knew to keep it a secret. Girls with babies in their bellies didn’t make good workers. None of us wanted to imagine what might happen to such a child, or to Rahel. She couldn’t let the father or any of the guards know, as that would have been the end of her. She tried to conceal her condition but it wasn’t long before it became noticeable. Like the rest of us, she was thin, too thin to hide it. She couldn’t go to the camp doctor. We had all heard the stories about the girls who never came back.
There was only one way. It was not an easy one. Two of the older girls said they knew what to do. Very early one morning, they tried it. Rahel begged for forgiveness as she lay down. We prayed around her. The older girls used copper wire, a sharpened spoon, and what rags they had been able to gather. But there was too much blood and no way to stop it. When Irma and Greta discovered Rahel, lying dead on the dirt floor, they signaled the guards, who came running with barking dogs. But we had already scattered. Even if it hadn’t been too late, the guards would have finished her off. Who knows how many of us would have gone with her?
Most of us pledged silently, This will never happen to me. Some cursed Rahel under our breath, saying, See how this nafka, this kurveh, wound up, it’s her own fault. Others cried for her, knowing the guard had taken her whenever he wanted. It could have been any of us. Though it was unlikely now, as our bleeding had stopped coming every month. We were thankful we couldn’t conceive a child.
But some of the girls did still bleed. The observant among us insisted there be a ritual cleansing, each month, called a mikvah. Most of us agreed, due to our conditions adjustments had to be made. God would understand. When the overseers let us bathe, we counted it as the mikvah for any girl who had bled the week before. But one of us, Ester from Liozna, was especially righteous. She insisted on observing the proper ritual. Both of her grandfathers and many of her uncles were Hasidic rabbis. Even in camp, the eyes of God will not be closed to our deeds and missteps, she would say and swabbed herself for seven days after her bleeding stopped each month to make sure she was clean. Even so, she cried in the shower, mumbling her prayer and scolding those around her. She insisted she be immersed and demanded we help her prepare a mikvah bath. But we refused as helping her would have meant death to us. One rainy evening, as we trudged back to the barracks after long hours working in the fields, laundry, or in the nearby factory fabricating rocket shells, Ester kept walking. She walked behind our building to one of the ditches the guards had ordered us to dig, often for no reason. It was a deep trough, mostly filled with grey, murky rainwater. Two other girls stumbled alongside her, pulling at her elbow, hissing for her to come back. Ester ignored them. She threw off her soggy rags, said the blessing, and plunged in. She immersed herself in the water, reciting Hebrew. Then she surfaced, let the dingy water run from her hair and the raindrops trickle down her face, before submerging again. When she stood again, she smiled. The light in her eyes had come back. She started to laugh as she washed away the filth and grime, purifying herself in the muddy ditch. Her friends stood silent guard.
Some of us circled behind the barracks to witness her ritual. One of the overseers, Greta, came too. After a few moments, she barked something in German. She yelled at Ester, reached into the ditch and tugged at her hair. Some of us scattered in fear. We heard one of the dogs bark. An SS guard came, rifle at the ready. He ordered Ester out of the ditch. She smiled at him, the water running down her breasts. Surely, God would see this too. A mikvah is supposed to be a private affair. Another guard arrived. He asked Greta what was going on. She explained the ritual, how the dirty Jew needed to cleanse herself. He laughed, nodded, then laughed some more. Some of us relaxed. Ester laughed too.
The guard picked up a hose from the ground. He was still laughing when he turned it on Ester. “Here,” he said in German. “Clean yourself.” He opened the nozzle and trained it, full force, on Ester. She threw up her hands and sputtered as the water hit her in the face. She yelled for him to stop. He was no longer laughing then. The powerful spray knocked her off her feet and she slipped in the mud. The ditch filled and overflowed. Ester screamed, gasping for air, then slid under the surface. She struggled to get her head above water but the guard kept the hose on her. We could no longer see her face, just her hands, waving in the rain. The guard waited until Ester’s hands stilled, then disappeared under the dark water, before he turned off the hose and walked away.
When the Russians finally came to set us free, it was snowy and cold. We didn’t know how many years had gone by. So few of us were left to remember. We wondered how many of the men were left too. The Russians counted us as we stumbled in silence through the open gates. Two hundred eighty-two, we heard one of them say. We had dreamed of this moment, imagined it in so many ways. Now it was here, and we were numb.
They gave us some bread and soup, then sent us on our way. No transport, no escort, no maps. Most of us had no idea where we were or where we should go. Some of us fell to our knees and died, right there, in the snow. Many of us would follow soon enough, but some of us shrugged our bony shoulders and said, “We’ve made it this long, what’s a little longer?” And so we began to trudge home. One hundred ninety-three miles to Warsaw. Two hundred seven miles to Bratislava. Five hundred eighty-six miles to Kiev. We ate what we could along the way; fed by American and Russian soldiers, Polish families and workers at displaced persons camps. We slept in barns and abandoned barracks. We slept on brewery floors, and in the backs of wagons. We stole clothes and shoes off bodies, filled bottles with snow and sipped the cold slush as it melted. When spring came, we drank from the rushing creeks and rivers. We broke the necks of small birds and roasted them over campfires. Men and women from the other liberated camps fell in alongside us, taking the place of those who did not wake in the morning. The ones who had managed to survive behind the wire, but whose hearts gave out once they had been freed.
We walked all the way back to Kraków, where we married a kind Polish man, a merchant who marveled at our beauty and did not ask how we had used it to survive the war.
We walked all the way home to Vilnius, where we became a schoolteacher. As Soviet rule became more repressive in our later years, we would say to our children, “Well, they’re not as bad as the Germans.” Our husbands would agree.
We walked all the way home to Bielawa, but found our family was gone. Before long, we would go too, emigrating to Palestine, where we would marry a Zionist freedom fighter who would die in the fight for Israeli independence. We would marry again, this time to a lemon farmer who made us laugh, and live the rest of our days near Haifa.
We walked all the way home to Slovakia, to the restless streets of Bratislava. We walked to our old neighborhood and to our old house. But when we knocked on the front door, someone we did not know opened it. “We used to live here,” we told the woman. “This is our family’s house.”
“Not anymore,” the woman snarled, and slammed the door in our face. We knocked again but the door didn’t open. We looked up at the attic window and wondered if the Star of David we had scratched in the sash the morning we were taken away was still there.
We walked all the way home to Prague, but didn’t recognize our neighborhood. All the homes had been burned. We stumbled down the street, not sure where to go. We found our synagogue. The doors were locked and the windows were smashed. We walked downtown until we saw a line of shuffling skeletons waiting for bread and potatoes. We nodded at them and took our place in the line. We noticed the man who fell in behind us. The haunt in his eyes seemed familiar. “So,” we asked, turning to him, “where were you during the war?” He showed us the blue numbers on his arm. We smiled and showed him ours. He smiled back, and his eyes warmed. We had been in neighboring camps. We began to chat. We wondered if we had seen him through the fence. He thought he might have dreamed about us two winters ago. We liked the kindness in his eyes. He liked the way we spoke with him, our easy manner. We could see beyond his bones, beyond the translucent skin stretched taut across his hard jaw and chin. This had been a handsome man, and he would be again. We took our plates, filled with crusty bread and under-boiled potatoes, and sat together under a broad oak tree. We shared stories about the guards, about our lives in the camp, about the men and women who were not among the two hundred eighty-two. We told each other about our families. He had already tried to find his brothers, but he had no idea where they were. We asked him to help find our sister, to come with us to the farm where we thought she might be, and he agreed. We walked through Charles Square, hand in hand.
Our sister was not at the farm. The farmer’s wife said, “Yes, she survived, but she went away before the end of the war, perhaps to America”. That was the last she had heard. We began to cry. America seemed so far away.
We would search for almost two years, looking through documents from agencies all over Europe, Palestine, and even in letters and cables to America. There was not a single trace. Finally, we would give up and emigrate, first to Mexico, because that was where the boat was going, and eventually to California, where the living seemed easier. And it was there that we would finally find our sister, living just a few miles away in a neighboring suburb of San Francisco, when a relief worker from Jewish Aid told us about the other newlywed she’d just met—a pretty girl with long blond hair and a button nose—who had escaped the horror of the camps by hiding on a sheep farm.
“You should really meet this girl,” the social worker said. “You have so much in common.”
Most of us never found our sisters, our brothers, our best friends, or our cousins. Most of us lost everyone we had, even ourselves. A precious few of us survived to meet a new man to take the place of the ones we left behind—the ones whose hands we let go when we were pulled apart at the trains, through the wires, or at the entrance to the showers. The ones whom we know in our hearts would still be ours if only it had been a different time. Sometimes, we still imagine the children we would have had with them, even as we hold tightly the sons and daughters we bore for our husbands. We are grateful, but shadowed forever by the burden of memory.