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The Angel of Death
I was only twelve, twelve years old when it happened: the murders, the torture, the nightmare, and the “Angel of Death”.
My name is Julia. Julia Polak to be exact. I was born in Prague on October 15, 1928, along with my twin brother Benjamin. Benjamin and I, like any brother and sister, fought every now and again, but never anything too severe. I loved him just like I loved my other brother, and my parents. And despite his sarcastic tone of voice when he said “I love you too,” I knew that he meant it.
Isadore Polak, several years our elder, was teetering on the brink of adulthood when the “Nightmare” occurred. He was my strong, handsome, and brave older brother. I looked up to his brave ways, and I still find myself wondering if I lived up to the bravery which he displayed day by day. Isadore was a mirror image of my father when he was a teen. Both stood at about 6’1’ and weighed about 180 pounds.
Gregor Polak, my father, was very much like Isadore. However Father was not teetering on the brink of adulthood, like Isadore. Father was very much an adult and had grey hair to show for it. Father was a sweet, kindhearted, and caring man. I admired how he could put a smile on anyone’s face, and had a smile that would stop a train in its tracks. He had a way with people for sure. No matter what the situation, he could always make a friend out of an enemy. His sparkling personality was most definitely what attracted my mother to him.
My mother, Eva Polak, was the most stunning person in the universe. Not only was she beautiful on the outside, but she was beautiful on the inside as well. She loved everything and everyone and was quick to forgive people no matter what the situation. She had a laugh that sounded like the sweetest song and a gracefulness that angels would envy. Her eyes were a sea of green that sparkled like a million diamonds in the sun. She fortunately passed this quality down to Benjamin and me.
Mother would have forgiven them, Father would have been kindhearted, and Isadore would have stayed brave. But me, no, I hold pure hate for those b******s who tore my family apart!
In March 1939, the German army occupied Prague. In 1942 my family went from living in our comfortable three bedroom home to living in a tight, stuffy, one room house in the Theresienstadt ghetto. We were Jewish and obviously weren’t human enough to have the privilege of comfort. I didn’t cry when we lived in the ghetto, because I knew that the worst was yet to come. And the worst did come...three days later.
“Bewegen!!” the German soldier shouted at us as they moved us forward toward the train cars. We were a stampede of humans all being moved onward by various hits and kicks from the German soldiers. I reached for Benjamin’s hand as I heard a gun shot go off a few feet away. I could smell the gun powder in the air and feel the sun on my back. I wanted so badly to ask my mother who it was that had been shot, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I knew that if someone I loved had just been shot, then I wouldn’t have the courage to go on.
I felt a hand on my back; it was rough and big, not at all like my mother’s. I looked over my shoulder and saw the most unfriendly face gazing back at me. He had deep eyes that were the color of the sky above, and hair the color of hay. His face was scrunched up as though he had just sucked on a lemon, and he frowned down at me as if I were the most unpleasant thing he had ever laid his eyes upon. He threw me into the boxcar, and my body was smashed against a wall of crouched and huddled shapes. It all happened so fast; I lost my mother in the confusion. As I looked around the dim, crowded boxcar for her I noticed that there were about sixty of us crammed into the space. Would they really try to fit more of us into this diminutive compartment?
My question was answered as the Jews continued to pour in. As the door was closed behind us, I did a quick count of how many Jews were compacted into the car. All in all, I estimated that there were about eighty of us in there. There was an old man loudly praying in the corner, and a small child screaming for her mother who had been shot earlier. Benjamin and I were shoved tyrannically against the back wall, but managed to stay together. Through the forest of bodies, I glimpsed my mother shoving her way through the crowd in an attempt to quiet the screaming child. As the sobbing subsided my mother’s success became apparent. The ride was far from pleasant, but it was by far not the most horrific part of it all.
The crisp air erupted into the boxcar as the door flew open. Instantly the most horrid smell, one like a mix of rotting carcasses and smoke, seeped into the boxcar. I couldn’t help but wonder if, maybe, I was smelling the burning flesh of my brother or father, who had been whisked away three days before us. I wanted so badly to run out of the boxcar as fast as my legs would allow, to try and find them. I wanted Father to hold me in his arms and to tell me everything would be alright. I wanted to be near them if only for a second.
My thought was interrupted by a German soldier yelling at us to hurry up and get out. At the shouted command, the people around me swiftly scurried from the boxcar. Mother held onto Benjamin and me in an attempt to protect us from the various blows from the soldiers’ guns. We marched into Auschwitz being careful not to look any of the solders in the eyes. “Women and children to the left,” a soldier loudly commanded us.
“Isadore! Isadore!!” I shouted the second I saw him. His thin face lit up just for a second when he saw me, and then turned stone cold. He gave me the saddest look that I had ever seen; I wanted nothing more than to run up and hug him as tight as I could. I was relieved to see Isadore, but that relief quickly turned to grief as I saw him throw a small child into the flames in which he stood by. Was that my fate? Would my own brother toss me into the flames as if I were a piece of trash? I thought.
About ten yards away a small set of twin girls were being whisked away by a young looking man. My mother quickly acted when she saw this happening. “Zwillinge!” my mother shouted in German loud enough for the young man to turn his head in our direction. Mother pointed at Benjamin and me and yelled “twins” repeatedly as she jumped up and down in the crowd. The man made his way toward us smiling all the while as he asked us if we were twins. I tried to speak, but the thought of what I just saw my brother do, evaded my mind. Perspiration began to trickling down my face, uncontrollably I began to tremble, I was about to let out a cry when Benjamin started to speak . “Wir sind zwillinge.” He spoke in a clear calm voice. I was shocked that Benjamin could talk to this man with such clarity; I was admiring his bravery as the man took us away from our mother. Little did I know that that would be the last time I would see Isadore, or my mother.
I laid flat on my back next to Benjamin as Dr. Mengele (also know as the “Angel of Death”) circled around us, eyeing every last inch of our naked bodies. I closed my eyes and pretended that I was somewhere else, anywhere else but in that examination room. We laid there on that cold metal table, for hours, as Dr. Mengele wrote down the details of our bodies; as I laid there with my body exposed, I cried. I didn’t want this scary man looking at me as if I were a bug under a microscope. I wanted to reach beside me where Benjamin lay and hold his hand. As I tried to move my hands, the material that was tied to my wrist dug in even further and a small cry escaped from my mouth. Dr. Mengele laughed at my pain. He laughed as if my squeals of pain were the funniest thing he had ever heard.
After he had a good laugh, he jabbed at my side with a ruler to measure who knows what. The ruler was bitter cold and made out of metal just like the examination table that I was stretched and tied upon. Four hours in and I was emotionally and physically drained of all my energy. Just when I thought that I couldn’t take another second of his measuring, eyeballing, and touching my body, the examination process was over.
As I huddled up against a wall in the barracks I found myself imagining my mother rocking me back and forth in her arms as I drifted off to sleep. Nightmares invaded my dreams every night in the barracks. My nightmares usually consisted of the “Angel of Death”, fire, and creatures so terrifying that even a grown adult would wake up with a cold sweat and extreme paranoia.
On the fifth day in Auschwitz a loud booming voice filled our barrack. “#70926!!” The loud voice roared. I started to panic. That’s my number, I thought to myself. I stood up with shacking legs and gradually made my way to the voice.
The tall man directed me to a small room much like the examination room from the first day. I swiftly glanced around the poorly lit room and saw Benjamin already bound to the metal table. The gratitude that I felt was undoubtedly cast upon my face at that brief moment. However, the emotion swiftly evaporated into a big heap of distress, as I saw a six inch needle inching its way toward my brother. “Benjamin!” I emitted a shriek of violent terror, as I started to run to my brother. My venture, however, was cut short as the towering man seized my arms and dragged me to the second examination table. Flailing and kicking the whole way, I made an unsuccessful attempt to break free of the man’s iron grasp. He pinned me to the table and pulled heavy leather straps across my chest and limbs, to escape my flailing feet.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dr. Mengele inject some unknown liquid into my brother’s neck. Benjamin just lay there on the table, as silent as a whisper. Tears flowed down my face like a river, but I did not make a sound. I refused to allow Dr. Mengele the satisfaction of my audible cries. I kept waiting for him to make his way toward me with a needle similar to the one used on Benjamin. I kept waiting yet he never came. We stayed strapped to the table for such a long period of time that bruises began to develop under my pale, thin skin. But I didn’t complain, for my bruises were minor compared to what Benjamin faced.
Only a few hours after the injection, he began to throw up. His retching soon subsided, because after the first time he regurgitated there was nothing left in his stomach. Yet a word never came out of his mouth. He laid there, in his own vomit, gasping for air as he dry heaved. For the first time, my brother’s voice betrayed no sarcasm as, between gasps, he whispered, “I love you Julia.” Abruptly the room fell still, and silence hovered in the air like flies. “Benjamin?” I started to panic. “Benjamin!!” I frantically cried. But I knew….I knew he was already gone.
Now I kneel on the soft, green grass of Sunrise Cemetery where a grave stone lies for each one of my family members, and I recall the nightmare that we Jews had to endure. After my rescue by an American soldier an hour after Benjamin’s death, I learned the fates of the rest of my family. Mother was the first to die. She was thrown into the crematorium by Isadore after Benjamin and I were taken from her. Isadore had been assigned to throw Jews into the flaming oven because of his physical strength. He died two weeks later after they switched him out for another unfortunate Jew. He met the same fate as mother. Father was assigned to work in the concentration camp and, luckily, like me, he made it out alive. On July 28, 1956 in Mercy Hospital, father without warning died of a heart attack.
I trace the letters engraved into the cold marble with my wrinkly, old hand as tears of sorrow run down my face. As I reach Benjamin’s name I stop, and the memories come flooding back as though a dam has broken in my heart. Benjamin, sitting at the supper table, pushing his food around his plate as if it were a game. Benjamin and me playing tag in the back yard on a cool summer night, just waiting for mother to call us to bed. Benjamin lying on a cold, steel table telling me that he loves me one last time. He will never say those sweet words to me again. He is gone….forever.