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The Golden Watch
I remember the first day leaving my home. I was only eight, and fairly alone. My father and mother had died of a disease ravaging through our destroyed town, leaving my older sister and I as orphans. One day, all of the Jews, including my sister and I, were herded out of the town and into train cars.
“Marion, hurry up. You must not straggle behind, or we will be separated,” these harsh words are spoken by my sister, Rachel, who is pulling me by my sleeve to one of the trains in front of our town. “Where are we going?” I ask sleepily, not fully awake because it is only six in the morning. My sister avoids answering this question, telling me to be quiet so she can hear the directions being spoken by a tall man on a podium.
While she stands listening, I collapse on the ground, falling into a deep sleep. Once again, she pulls my arm, this time yelling, “Marion, wake up! We are boarding a train now! This is no time to rest!” I hear the urgency in her voice and jump off the ground, grabbing her hand and leaping onto one of the trains.
Our train car was full of people, none of whom I recognized, coming from a large town. I do remember one old man who was moaning in the corner.
“Escape the train, now! Before it is too late. I see bad things in the future, very bad things,” the old man rants, “Leave, before you are all killed. There will be no mercy!”. “Do not pay attention to him,” my sister is trying to console me, stroking my hair, “He is a crazy old man, and does not know what he is talking about.” This comforts me, and I lie down once again, my head resting on my sister’s lap. She returns to my hair, smoothing it out, and I am too tired to sense tension in the air.
If I could go back to any moment in history, this would be the time. I would force my young self to listen to that old man, and escape with my sister off the train. Every day this regret haunts me. I wish I had run into the nearby woods, escaped, but I did not make that choice. I slept on the train, being ignorant.
Hours later, I awake to an beautiful woman staring down at me. “Vakhn kinder,” she whispers. “I am awake,” I reply, yawning. I open my mouth to talk, but the woman puts her finger over my mouth. “You must stay quiet,” she commands, “Now, listen closely.” I nod my head, somehow knowing her knowledge is important. “When you get to the camp, they will try to separate you and your sister,” she continues. I gasp. Camp? We are going to camp? She pays no attention and continues, “You need to follow your sister, no matter what happens. They will exterminate all of the children, even the ones your age, but if you stay with her they will only make you work.” “Exterminate?” I ask, “Why would they exterminate us? How can they do this?”. “Do not ask questions, just follow my advice,” she says, and disappears into the crowd of bodies. “Toe-dah raba,” I whisper after her.
After our liberation, I learned who the strange woman on the train was by pictures in books. She was an SS officer, by the name of Helga Ackart. I often wondered why she decided to help me, a small Jewish girl that had no impact on her, could not help her, and did not pose any threat. Maybe she felt badly for the part she played in the extermination of innocent people, and helping me was an act of repentance. I will never know, but I will always be eternally grateful for what she did.
I tap Rachel on the shoulder, but she does not stir. “Achoti, Rachel,” I murmur into her ear. “What is it Marion?” she asks, and I know she was not sleeping, that she could never sleep here, only close her eyes or stare at the ceiling, contemplating our fate. “I just met a strange woman, while you were resting. She said we are going to be separated. That we need to stick together. That…” the words spill out of my mouth, and for an unknown reason, I begin to cry, and I am not able to finish my sentence. “Do not worry, Marion, I will never leave you,” she says, her voice much friendlier, using her dress sleeve to dry my tears, “Everything will be alright.” But at that moment, even as an innocent eight year old, I know that everything will not be alright.
A few hours later, our cars are swarmed with tall men in gray uniforms, yelling, “Eile, eile!”. I catch hold of Marion’s hand, and we jump off the car, onto a grassy field below. “Who are those men?”, I ask Marion. “They are Nazis, often called the SS,” she spits out, and I can hear the hatred and fear in her voice. I turn away, and see one of the men that was in a car with us trying to run away, but he is caught. He is picked up by the scruff of his neck, and thrown across the field, landing on a sharp rock and flopping like a rag doll. We all hear his soft moaning, but no one does anything, for fear of getting beaten. “This should be a lesson to all of you!” yells the SS leader, “Do not disobey our commands, or pay the price.”
This is the first time I witnessed the sheer cruelness and power of the Nazis. They inspired fear in all of us, to make us weak. Some people today wonder how the small number of Nazis controlled the huge number of Jews. Even today, I do not know the answer, but I know that we were tired, sick, and weak. We did not unite, but if we did, we may have been able to overcome the Nazis.
“Line up!” the leader booms, “Men to the right, girls over 14 to the left, and all children and pregnant women stay here!” Stunned into silence, we shuffle into our sections. Rachel, being 15, moves to the left, taking me with her. I glimpse one woman consoling her older daughter, and clutching the hand of a young boy. “I must stay here with your brother,” the woman says, “You go with the other women, Catherine. Stay strong, and work hard. We will meet up with you again soon.” “No, mother, I don’t want to go without…” the daughter begins to speak, but her mother puts her hand over her mouth, quieting her. “Go!” she commands, pushing her daughter away. She watches her daughter disappear into the crowd, and teardrops form on her face.
We march in our lines, the pregnant women and children behind us. My old shoes are wearing away, and I can feel the blisters popping on my toes. Some people are starting to straggle along, and among them I see the man who was thrown across the field. Luckily, he looks relatively uninjured. After walking for what seems like hours, we arrive at a pair of iron gates, surrounded by barb-wire fences, bristling with electricity. The Nazi leader smiles, showing his rotted teeth, “Welcome to Majdanek!”.
Though first impressions can be incorrect, my first impression of Majdanek was extremely accurate. Even as a young child, I knew this was not a happy place. It looked more like a prison than permanent housing, one to put high clearance prisoners in.
Entering the camp, I can see thin silhouettes of people rushing from building to building. Some walk with limps, or falteringly, and some just crawl. Before I have long to ponder this, an earsplitting whistle screeches through the air. “Men to barrack 55, women to barrack 44, pregnant women and children, stay here!” booms a female voice. As we pass by the speaker, I tap her leg, causing her to turn around. Before my sister can stop me, I say, “Excuse me ma’am, but why are you doing this to us? Please, just let us free,”. The woman looks at me coldly, and strikes me across the face. “There will be no pity for you, Jew,” she says, turning on her heel and walking away.
I still have a small scratch on my face from where the woman’s nails raked it. Though it is an old injury, when I touch it I can feel the pain.
I join my sister, who quietly reprimands me for speaking out. “To survive here, you have to make yourself invisible,” she says, “Sticking out in any way is another reason for the Nazis to kill you.” The crowd suddenly stops. We arrive at a sagging building, with a crudely built wood sign on the front: “Barrack 44”.
A sign on the wall says, “Remove all of your clothing and belongings”. I see the people around me starting to do so, and they create a pile in one of the corners. My sister takes off her skirt and blouse, folding them lovingly and giving them a final pat before setting them down in the pile. My mother had made these clothes for us, and it is hard to part with them. No one takes off their shoes, so I leave mine on, too. I also decide to keep the only non-clothing possession I have with me, a golden watch my father gave me when I was four, just before he died. He had told me to never give up, and to keep his watch as a sign that he was always there, watching over me.
Ten minutes later, Barrack 44 is swarmed by Nazis, pushing us towards a large white building. Clutching the watch tightly in my hand, I shiver in the cold, my exposed body breaking out in goose bumps. My sister looks at me worriedly, whispering, “Marion are you alright?” I think, “No,” but I say, “Yes.” We trod along, our heads pointed to the ground and our faces solemn. Suddenly, I hear shouting, and a loud CRACK! The older daughter who I had seen with her mother, Catherine, is screaming, and writhing on the ground. Someone rushes over to help her, and props her up onto her feet.
“I…I tripped and I think I broke my ankle,” she gasps. People are beginning to poke their heads out of surrounding barracks, looking for the source of the screaming. The woman who helped Catherine up takes her in her arms, and runs towards the building. She lays her down on the ground, and a concerned crowd forms around her. “My husband is….was a doctor,” the woman announces, and taps on her ankle lightly, “Just as I thought- it is not broken, just sprained.”
Some color floods back into the Catherine’s pale face, and she asks, “What can I do it heal it?” “Keep off of it as much as you can, considering the circumstances. I’m going to wrap some cloth around it to keep it in place,” the woman replies, “Come back and find me in a few days, just to make sure it is healing properly. My name is Bronya Riska.” “Thank you,” Catherine says, pulling herself off the floor by holding onto the wall.
The crowd begins to surge forward, and I find myself pushed into a large tub, on top of many others. The flailing bodies below me shift, and I fall downwards, landing on a hard floor. The solution in the tub stings my cuts, and burns my eyes. I try to claw my way up, so I am not suffocated here. All around me, I can hear muted cries of people in pain. When I finally get a breath of air, I close my eyes, and wait for the stinging to stop. It doesn’t. Finally, the Nazis order us out of the tubs, and I fall onto the floor, crawling towards the set of doors opened for us.
The pain in my eyes is now so much that I close them. I can not see, and stumble around blindly, hitting something that feels like a wall. Suddenly, I feel a strong grip on my elbow, leading me somewhere. After half a minute I hear voices, and I know that I am back in the group. Cool water is running down my face, and I let out a sob of relief, the pain alleviated. Opening my eyes, I can now see we are standing in a shower room. My shoes are soaked, and I can see that it is the same for the many people around me. I remember the strong hand leading me back towards the group, and I turn to my sister, “Thank you, for helping me find my way back,” I say. “For what?” my sister asks, looking baffled, “I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t see at all, I just followed the sound of voices. I’m sorry, but I did not help you.”
After all of those years, I believe I have finally figured out who lead me back to the group. I think it was the beautiful woman from the train. Upon talking to those who were there, I discovered that the few who kept their eyes open saw a little girl with golden hair stray off course, only to be lead back by a female SS officer. They did not see the officer’s face, they said she disappeared as quickly as she appeared.
A large dirty rag is thrown in my face. It is grayish-black and white striped, with many holes. Holding it up, I do not know what to expect. Am I supposed to dry myself with it? If so, it would not do much to help. Watching the other women, I realize I am supposed to wear it. I slip it over my head, the sleeves falling below my waist. The dress is too big for me. My sister’s dress is no better. Her dress is too short for her. We silently trade, and the new dress fits me much better. We are lucky though, as I see many people with ripped clothing that is much too small or large.
A group of SS officers stride over to our shivering, huddled group. They laugh in our faces, calling us rude names, and their ringing voices stick in my ears. My head reeling, I hear yet another command, “Take off your shoes!” We pile up our shoes, but by now they are not much more than soaking cloth, ripped and worn from our journey. I do not throw my golden watch in the pile, though, but keep it tightly clutched in my fingers. My fingers are so frozen, I do not think I can let go if it if I try.
It does not take long for me to realize that the “cleaning” is not over. The SS officers come out of the buildings once again, this time with dull-looking razors and caps in their hands. One by one, they shave our heads, not caring about the cries of women in pain. When they come to my sister and I, they decide to pass us by on the shaving, but give us caps, maybe because we are so small and pathetic looking. We have short hair, so they would not be able to sell it for much, anyway. I finger my golden locks, relieved that they did not take them away from me.
They take everyone else’s hair, and dump it onto a dirty gray truck. I watch blond strands mingling with black, brown, and red. The Nazis have stripped these people of all they have, leaving them with literally nothing. I look around at these bald, forlorn women, and anger bubbles up inside me, giving me an uncontrollable urge to attack the Nazis. Stepping ahead, I clench my fist, but my sister catches me by the arm, anticipating my actions. “Not now Marion,” she soothes, “Just wait, their time for justice will come.”
And it did come. Maybe it did not in the way we expected, but it came. When we were liberated, many of the officers killed themselves, punishment enough. The few that did not escape and live life in fear of being caught or commit suicide were tried in Nuremberg. Four of them were killed. Two got away. I listened in on the trials with a close intensity, my ear pressed tightly to the radio like it was going to grow wings and fly away, leaving me forever.
“Roll call!” the commanding officer yells, “Stillgestanden, Mutzen ab, Augen links!” I take off my cap, and divert my eyes to the left. We are in perfect lines, fifty to a row. Luckily, I am in the back row, so it is harder for the officers to see me. We stand, stock still in our lines for what seems like hours. That’s when I realize that they are done with the counting, and they have been for a while. They are making us stand here to inflict pain, to cause torment, to break us down. It has worked.
At that moment, I believe I did something very important. I promised myself that I would never give up. To keep fighting, to live. And when I got out of the camp, to tell my story. So that something like this will never happen again. I still have my golden watch.
Vakhn kinder- Awake child!
Toe-dah raba- Thank you very much.
Stillgestanden, mutzen ab, augen links!- Attention, caps off, eyes to the left!]
"Majdanek Concentration Camp (a.k.a. Lublin KL)." Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team (HEART). 2007. www.holocaustresearchproject.org. 13 Mar 2008 http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/othercamps/Majdanek%20Daily%20life/majdanekdailylife.html