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Malka stretched her hand out through the barbed wire. The fresh, cold air stung her fingers as it whipped past the train. She pulled her arm in and shivered.
The boxcar she had been loaded into was so full she could barely shrink away from the frigid wind that blew her hair around her face. The thin, mocha colored locks lashed around in unchecked spasms. Whenever she had tried to rein it in, the wind pulled the knotted tresses away from her once again.
Clouds obscured the sun and the train plunged into shadow. The late afternoon chill was so unbearable the boxcar seemed to shake with the shivering of one hundred Jews. Women all throughout the train broke into fits of coughing. The clouds of breath that clogged the air were so thick they were tangible.
Malka turned again toward the window. The German countryside shot past. Spots of cloud shadows danced through the snow-covered valley. Children, mere specks in the distance, played in the snow, ignorant of the war; like the train passing through didn’t hold hundreds of humans, stripped of their rights.
A dry sob escaped. Malka had cried her last tear days ago, when she had first been separated from her family. Now, two weeks later, as dehydrated as she was, tears were beyond her. She cried silent sobs for her family. Every night she ached for her mother’s embrace and her father’s reassuring smile.
A wrinkled, unfamiliar hand grasped her shoulder. Malka looked up and locked eyes with a homely, aged lady in a maroon dress. The woman smiled sympathetically and spoke in a gravelly voice. “Dear girl, you are so young and innocent. This fate was not meant for you.” Her kindly chocolate eyes shone with compassion.
Malka choked down air and smiled lifelessly at the grandma. The poor woman was just as innocent as she was. Malka opened her mouth to return the sentiment but the words caught in her throat. All she could do was stare at the woman who had so selflessly offered her support and shrug helplessly.
The woman nodded in silent understanding and reached out to take hold of Malka’s hand. Wrinkled skin seemed to ripple off her forearms and hang uselessly under them. Age spots covered her neck. Her silver hair was swept back and held up by a thin scarf.
Malka traced the woman’s countenance with her eyes, surprised by the number of laugh lines that seemed to contribute to the creases in her skin. The wise chocolate eyes seemed to penetrate though Malka’s own. However, Malka found this comforting. Unlike the piercing blue eyes of the German officers that felt as though they were searing the soul, these eyes were full of warmth and love. The woman’s nose stood apart from the wrinkles of her face, smooth and seemingly ageless. Her mouth was twisted into an unending smile surrounded by creases.
“What’s your name?” Malka listened to her own voice as if it were miles away.
“Oh, that’s a pretty name. I’m Malka. Are you Polish?”
“Yes, child. I lived in the Warsaw ghetto just like everyone else on this train.”
“Do you know where we are going?”
“If I did, I would not be in this boxcar. I would be an officer.”
“Will we go to Treblinka?” Malka’s voice had slipped into a whisper. She thought of her father. He had been sent to the camp for trying to smuggle bread into the ghetto. Maybe he would be there. He would smile at his only daughter and hug her, picking her up and swinging her around in circles until he huffed-and-puffed with the effort of it.
“No, they will not send so many women to their deaths.” Halina answered in a tone that suggested she was trying to reassure herself more than anything else. Her voice cut through Malka’s day dream like a sharp knife. Death. Her father was in a death camp. “Malka? Are you alright?” Malka tried to nod her head as dry sobs racked her body.
Misinterpreting Malka’s sobs Halina tried to reassure the young woman. “Don’t worry dear! We are in Germany; don’t you remember the border check? We will not be sent to such a horrendous camp when so many of you are healthy enough to work for the Reich.”
Malka just nodded lifelessly. She was a whole country away from her family now. How could she have forgotten that? Even her father, wasting away in a death camp, was no closer to her now than to her mother who was still in the ghetto. She turned to look out the window and compose herself.
The sun was just dropping below the horizon and even as she watched, the train plunged into cold and darkness. Another black night was ahead. Malka turned away from the window and pushed her way toward the edge of the huddled bodies. Snuggling in next to Halina she prepared to block out the cold of the German night.
The bark of dogs pulled Malka from her semiconscious stupor. She blinked away sleep and turned towards the window with bleary eyes. For a second, her eyes searched the horizon for movement, before realizing there was none. The train had stopped.
SS Officers in shiny black boots led their dogs up and down the makeshift train station as the first boxcar, about three cars in front of Malka’s, started to unload. She watched in horror as women of all ages were separated into two lines and sent in different directions. The first line turned towards the crude barracks full of prisoners. The second walked towards the back of the camp where a building with a tall chimney stood. The chimney spat ash into the empty blue sky. The air held the odor of burning flesh. Bile rose in Malka’s throat as comprehension came. A crematorium. Women were being sent to their deaths.
The second boxcar started to unload. Malka continued to stare at the forbidding landscape. Barbed wire encircled the train and all surrounding area. Judging by the constant buzz in the air and the distance most inmates and officers gave the fence Malka could guess that it was electric. The trees around the camp were bare and small. Malnourished women in striped dresses stood in lines just beyond the train station while a woman SS Officer stood beyond them calling numbers in a nasally voice and other officers walked through the ranks of prisoners with their pistols raised.
The third boxcar started to unload. Women filed out onto the wooden station. Malka turned away from the window and looked to Halina. “You’re too old to work. They’ll… they’ll kill you…” Malka stared at Halina with wide, frightened eyes.
Halina smiled back kindly. “Sweetheart, I knew from the minute I got on this train that I wasn’t going to live very long once I got off. This has been my death march.”
Malka watched Halina fearfully, at a loss for words. This woman was facing her death with spirit flashing in her eyes. Malka’s heart filled with admiration and respect for the elderly woman who had become a fast and reassuring friend.
The door to their boxcar was unlocked and thrown back. An officer stood in front of the door directing women based on their appearance. Younger and healthier women were sent to the right while older and sickly women were sent to the left.
Halina turned to Malka. “Well, my dear, this is where we say goodbye.”
Malka blinked at her and shook her head. They were now at the front of the lines. An officer pointed for Halina to follow the elderly woman in front of her towards the crematorium. Malka watched her friend march away. Raising her arm in a silent farewell that she knew Halina could not see, Malka waved.
She turned away and followed the woman in front of her off the train. They traipsed down the station and toward the center of the camp where an officer was waiting. He asked every woman her age, home country, and religion before pointing her to the showers and correct barrack. Before long it was Malka’s turn.
The officer watched her with ice blue eyes. “Age?”
“Jewish.” She stared him in the eyes, a dare. Watching Halina walk away had given her spiritual strength. The officer reached forward and slapped Malka. She fell into the woman behind her.
“Follow the path on the left to the showers and collect your uniform. Then report to building 24.” The officer snarled at the spirited youth.
Malka nodded at him with wide eyes and rubbed her tingling cheek. Then she hurried down the dirt path. Behind her women were filing into the crematorium where they were consumed by flames. The camp echoed with the sound of gunshots from inside the building. Malka walked without looking back until she reached the bathing house.
Once inside she was told to undress and was given a bar of soap. She followed the other nude women into the shower chamber. They were hurried through a quick shower and rushed out the other side.
Malka was handed an oversized prison dress and a cloth apron. The dress had a triangle sewn onto the left breast. The triangle was yellow. Without even thinking about it Malka knew the yellow represented one thing: Jew. The woman guard handing them out thrust the clothes at Malka and pushed her through the exit before she had time to cover her nakedness.
Quickly Malka pulled the dress over her wet body and wrapped her apron around her waist, cinching it tightly. From here she was directed to the next building where she sat in front of a barber who shaved her hair short.
Rolling the sleeves of her dress up, as she was directed, Malka entered yet another building. This building was brighter than the others and full of screams of pain. Malka shivered in fear and continued walking. She was shown to a chair and sat down. A guard came up and strapped her arms in. He took out a needle and ink and tattooed onto her right forearm “T-24” and underneath that “32.” Malka screamed and struggled but she could not escape the needle and ended up with a crude tattoo on her arm. She fled from the building to her barrack.
Cradling her arm she crawled to the top bunk and refused to come down. Malka remained in the barrack for the rest of the evening, ignoring the dinner whistle and the imploring voices of her roommates.
As the sun set she came down and stared out the doorway. The sun was a burning ball of fire, just touching the horizon.
Roll was called and Malka stood with her unit. Hours passed as, in the darkness, SS Officers patrolled the ranks, killing unsuspecting women. After what felt like a lifetime in the cold, the miserable women were dismissed. Malka hurried back to her bunk, which she shared with four other 15 year olds, and stared out the open door of her prison. The silhouette of a guard was patrolling right outside.
Malka turned her back on the cold night and cried for her fate.