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A Little Piece of Hope
Wisps of white air puffed out of my mouth as I trudged through the icy streets of Auschwitz, Germany that morning. The normal hubbub of activity ever present in the marketplace was silent out of respect for today. Even the animals seemed aware of the somber tone the world had taken on overnight. The birds simply flew from rooftop to rooftop, abandoning their usual chatter.
My son and his family had volunteered to come with me on this day. My three grandchildren couldn’t decide if they should skip ahead with their usual gaiety or slosh through the snow quietly so as not to disturb the adults. Little Hanna had the most trouble with this predicament. Attempting to quell her high spirits and loud personality was always a challenge. Worse yet, she knew she couldn’t shout and demand answers of her parents’ strange behavior. In the end, she settled on walking briskly ahead of the group, her little fists held tightly against her sides.
We were able to board a bus that would take us to our destination. The seats were all taken, but a young man was kind enough to give up his place for me. I gratefully accepted the seat, glad for my old knees. I placed Hanna on my lap, patting her blonde curls, her nervous energy began to ebb away as the engine began to hum and rock the bus in a soothing manner. The ride was quiet as well. Hushed murmurs ran through the bus, but most sat in contemplative silence.
Exiting the bus, we stepped into a spacious acreage of land covered in snow. The sound of gunshots, gruff commands, the smell of blood, and a young girl’s pleading brown eyes torment me as I take in my surroundings. I had not come back to this place for forty years. I had hoped the memories would have faded, a vain hope. No one could have forgotten the events that had transpired in that short period of time.
“Papa, are you alright?” My son places his hand on my shoulder. I shrug it off and take little Hanna’s hand.
“Hanna, do you want to hear a story?” I lead her over to the 20ft barbed wire fence. She peers into the greatest failure and sorrow of my life and then looked up at me with loving and trusting eyes.
“Tell me a story Grandfather.”
Frostbitten hands clutched a worn brown coat closed against the icy wind. The only light in the inky darkness were a few persistent stars twinkling high above. All was quiet for the moment. The girl new she only had a few minutes before the guards would be back, guns in hand. If timing went according to plan than she would be well into the surrounding forest by the time they reached the fence.
She opened her coat pocket, pulling out a wad of soiled cloth. Quickly, she wrapped the material around her bare feet and the palms of her hands. She took one last look at the place that had been her home for the past three months. She turned away from the 12 dark buildings she wouldn’t miss it. She turned back to her task and began to climb.
Her story was similar to those that remained in the camp beneath her. All were innocent girls that were singled out to wear the gold stars. Forced to board a large bus by men with cold eyes, they began their journey to their demise.
When they arrived at the camp the men shouted at them to cast off their belongings and step into single filed lines of eight. Each row would step forward to endure the men’s emotionless gazes. The girls that were on the smaller side, or sickly in appearance were singled out by the head guard to go to the showers. What the girls didn’t know was that these showers didn’t spray water, but poisonous gas. There were 600 bodies to burn that day.
But all of that would end soon; the girl had the evidence to prove it.
The night before, the girl had been sent to ask the cook where the officers’ dinner was, as it had not arrived yet. Tip toeing down the dark corridor of the main building, the girl came across a room with light splaying underneath the door.
“I told you Franz, he said Friday is the day.” The deep bass of the head of the camp whispered angrily.
“But what about the Soviets? I heard a rumor…”
“No, Friday will be too soon for them to act. He said it has to be then, or all our work against these rats is worth nothing.” The commander growled with finality, ending the conversation with an abrupt hiss.
The girl stood there, trying to puzzle over what she had overheard. She didn’t even know what day it was anymore, the weeks had rolled together in a sea of harsh memories. The doorknob turned and the girl jumped back so she was hid amongst the shadows of the outpouring light. The commander growled something at his lieutenant and shoved a wad of papers into his hand. Muttering something in a low voice that the girl couldn’t make out, he stormed away. The lieutenant went back into the room, hiding his person from view. The girl remained frozen, straining her ears to the sound of shuffling papers. A moment later the lieutenant emerged, a thin sheen of sweat shining on his forehead and turned off the light. The slam of the door resonated in the empty hallway, echoed by the sound of his heavy boots as he walked in the direction that the girl had come from.
After several moments the girl let out her breath, shaking in terror, trying not to think of what tortures they would have forced on her if she had been discovered. She was about to return to her task of finding the cook, but curiosity and a faint flicker of hope ran through her. Carefully, with bated breath, the girl turned the knob of the door and slipped inside. The dark blobs that emerged into her vision as her eyes adjusted gave her the impression that this was an office of some sort. A large desk covered the center of the room. A telephone, half eaten sandwich, and a pile of papers were strewn across its surface. Gobbling the remainders of the lunch, the girl shuffled through the papers. One piece had a heading of “Friday Procedures”. Pulling out a match she had discovered in the dirt of the common area a few weeks before, she lit it. With a quick intake of breath, the girl read the plans of the supreme commander of them all, the man who had created all of this chaos, Adolf Hitler.
The girl continued her tortuous climb, wincing with each new wound the wire dug into her flesh, but she never paused. Reaching the top, she threw her right leg over the other side of the fence. She began to wobble, extending her arms to keep her balance just as the wind swept over her. To her horror, the girl saw her precious paper fall to the camp’s ground. In the distance she heard angry shouts and pounding feet. She looked to the side of freedom, a haven of safe trees that could carry her away from this place. And then she gazed down at her people’s last hope.
She was straddling the fence when the men arrived, her arms held out in a pose of defeat.
The next morning a boy came across a barbed wire gate in the middle of the forest. Curious, he looked inside, twelve dark buildings stood out in severe contrast to the light blue of the early morning sky. One lone girl stood barefoot in the snow, a deep gash ran along the left side of her face and her body was crumpled in at an awkward angle. She stared at the boy with such intensity, a pleading in her brown eyes. She stepped closer to the fence, sliding her hand into a small opening and opened her palm. In it sat a crumpled piece of paper, stark white in contrast to the mottled purple and green that danced along her skin. The boy turned to go, a small flame of fear beginning to burn inside of him at the alien buildings and strange little girl. As he swung out his leg to dash home his foot hit a rock, stubbing his toe. Glaring angrily at the object of his pain, he leaned down to hurl it into the trees; a crumpled ball of paper lay next to it. The boy picked up the small parchment and turned around, searching for those brown eyes, only to find them gone. Perplexed, he carefully unfolded the wad and smoothed out the creases. His eyes skimmed the page, and then he disappeared into the trees with the secret of hope in one hand.
“What happened then Grandfather? What did the boy do? Did the girl get out of the camp?” Hanna looked earnestly into my eyes, somehow grasping the importance of this particular story.
“The boy took the paper to his home in the nearby village and called the U.S. government. The U.S. and the Soviets were able to invade the camp and free all the people inside them.”
“What happened to the girl? Was she okay?” She asked urgently.
“The girl died the day before the camp became free.” I grimaced, hating to tell her, but knowing this was a lie I could not hide. Tears fell down her cheeks, but she stayed quiet, fighting to stay composed.
“What was her name?”
“Hanna, my sweet girl, her name was Hanna.” I picked her up and held her close. She buried her head against my shoulder, placing her little hand over my heart she said, “You were the boy in the story, weren’t you grandfather?” She pulled her face up and looked me in the eye, reaching out her other hand to catch a tear that had slipped down my well-lined face. I looked into her blue eyes, full of a vibrant light of innocence and yet a spark of wisdom beyond her years. In that moment I had no doubt that this Hanna would live up to her namesake.