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Feet. They are the parts of our body that brave the ground. They are what help to propel us forward, to allow for movement. Mine are covered by the crisp army boots that just last week I loathed. Being so new, they caused searing blisters almost immediately. The blisters burned my skin like watching the countless deaths of the innocent burned my eyes, even when I was wearing three pairs of socks. Right now, these boots are my best friend. They are strong, sturdy, and nearly weather proof. Back home, my family purchased all of our shoes from a merchant just around the block. We were some of the lucky ones. My family’s wealth was never fatally harmed by the economic depression that had engulfed Germany for what seemed like an eternity. The owner was of the star, but his boots were the best around. They were strong and sturdy, but flexible from the care he put into making them. He treated those shoes like a mama bird treats her newly hatched chicks. He put everything he had into his shoes and his business. His shoes never caused blisters. I take a quick glance behind me and I see feet. Feet that stretch on for what seems like eternity. There are big feet, dirty feet, rough feet, smooth feet, and small feet. Very few of these feet are even close to as well protected as mine. Most are barely covered, let alone protected by the flimsy sandals they bear. The effects of the cold on the feet are already visible. Those fully exposed are starting to become purple and cracked. I let my mind wander some more until I hear my Kapo inform me of our need to change direction in order to find a suitable place to stop for the night. After another hour has passed, we come across a seemingly perfect resting place. Incredibly serene and bursting with life, it almost makes you forget why we are here, to kill the innocent as punishment for our own mistakes. That is, of course, until I see the first body go down. As I crawl into my sleeping bag, I try to shake the image of the lifeless corpse cascading through the air and landing with a thud on the cold, hard ground. My thoughts shift to back home as my Kapo pours me a cup of cocoa. I almost burn my tongue trying to swallow it all at once. It warms me from the inside out as it slides down to my stomach. With the last gulp of cocoa, my mind leaves Poland and enters my dreams.
Soft and energetic, quick and light, Heidi’s footsteps echo as she runs for one last goodbye. It’s incredibly painful for me to think that this is the only life she knows. Being only four years old, my sister knows not of the livelihood that Germany once had. The only life she knows is one of a tightening noose, a life in which the introduction of new laws is to be expected. The night I left for training camp, my father’s eyes gleamed with pride. Born and raised in Germany, he had spent his whole life surrounded by the propaganda of my country’s flawed views. Though I too had spent my entire life in Germany, I was different. The exact cause still remains a mystery to me, but I have always questioned the words of the emerging propaganda. Quite possibly it is the result of a childhood spent with a large diversity of children, including many Jews. I had witnessed first hand how the Jewish people of my town lived, and it was all parallel to the way in which we lived our life, only with a few added traditions. The day I left was a turning point in my life. I left behind everything I had known, including the small trance of hope that maybe the world could be different. I caved into the pressures surrounding me, and it is because of this that I am a coward.
Footsteps have become a constant. The once brisk and distracting sound has become more of a dull roar acting as the soundtrack to my thoughts. This past night was hard on them. At least fifty or so were left on our camp ground, lifeless and frozen. My Kapo tells me that today we should be leaving Poland and entering Germany from the South East. I try to imagine my hometown, which must be just a few miles from where I am now. Just a few years ago, it was a quaint neighborhood, filled with a sense of community and joy. Now, I imagine, it is as lifeless as the camp that we left from. Most of the shops have been closed by the police. Just before my deportation I saw that of the shoe merchant be taken over by the Nazis. I remember the look of terror on the merchant’s face. It was that of a beast whose pups had been taken away, only he didn’t have the strength to fight back. The rest of the townspeople are now like me, soldiers fighting in a war that seems everlasting. I hear a thud followed by violent sobbing. As I turn, I see a young woman kneeling beside what I assume to be her mother. I turn toward my Kapo and then I notice that he is in front of them. Two sharp blasts indicate that both of the women are no more. I shake the sudden pang of guilt and instruct the rest that they should use the two women as an example of our character, or lack there of.
The footsteps are accompanied by coughing. We walked straight through the night and it hit them hard, the women especially. The coughs sound deep and raspy. Almost as if they are the soul of each person trying to escape the physical boundaries of their ill bodies containing them. We slowly approach our next stop and I start to shake. Not from the cold, but because I know what is scheduled to happen here. My Kapo hands me a gun and instructs me to “pick my group.” I settle on the cluster of women that have been coughing the hardest. In 11 minutes, these women, all of them, are gone. It is to my fault that they are dead, and I am congratulated for it, much like my father congratulated me when I told him of my plans to become a soldier. We march on, leaving the bodies where they lie. Stone cold and lifeless, it’s hard for me to grasp how these people, these lives, are no more. The sun begins to set and the reality of my being dawns on me. I am a killer. A rabid beast created by my training and my beliefs. Based on my beliefs, well, the beliefs of the society in which I was raised, what I have just done is right. They were the wrong ones who kept all of the money during a time of economic depression. I am told it is they who are to blame, not myself. If this is true, then why do I feel guilty?
After stopping for a brief rest, we begin to head out in the direction of Gross-Rosen. My Kapo tells me that once there, we will be joined with another group of them and two more Nazi soldiers to journey with us. He explains how these people will be in better condition, having been in a concentration camp while the others have been marching with us for what has now been three and a half days. He tells me that we will have to weaken them quickly and show no mercy. It is at the mention of mercy that I am overcome with fear and anxiety. I worry about them, and I wonder what terrible things they must have done to receive this punishment. I notice that they have become increasingly slower as the day has progressed. Most are lethargic and dejected, their faces lacking emotion as they trudge through the frost covered ground. I address my Kapo and suggest that we take a break.
He responds “What? You are not tired already, are you soldier?”
I tell him that the rest would be not for me, but for them. This was clearly the wrong thing to say because his face becomes crimson with anger.
He barks “ Their well being is not of your concern, soldier! You are here to fulfill orders from me and orders from the party!”
I stare down at my feet in shame. Have I been remiss in my duties as a soldier? Surely I’ve been doing my part, have I not? We march on into another sleepless night, and I know that the condition for both them and me, will not be improving.
It is near midnight and I am physically drained. Though we stopped just fifteen hours ago, I feel as though my feet have not stopped moving for weeks, like I have been walking this path for my entire life. The past few hours have been devastating on their numbers. The once strong and steady beating of their footsteps has nearly diminished. The patterns are irregular and often broken by the sound of another body hitting the floor. I turn back and see that a few have taken to cracking their toes off. They detach so easily, like they were meant to be removed and reattached from the beginning. My Kapo informs me that we have done a good job. The numbers are now somewhere around three hundred. I do the math, that means at least seventeen hundred people are lying lifeless on the path we have walked. I look ahead at the barren land ahead, and wonder where it will end. It seems as though we will be walking for the rest of our lives. For some of them, this will be true.
I hear the sound of a gun being fired and jump. I turn around and I see that my Kapo has decided to do “some quality control,” as he calls it. He begins shooting at the weakest and the strongest. Leaving only a few left standing. He reloads his gun and I can tell that he has decided to finish this group off. I impulsively jump in front of those left standing. My Kapo’s serious glare has been replaced by a menacing smile. I hear the sound of gun shot as my body hits the ground. I see him lead the rest off beyond the trees. As I lie in my blood and the blood of others, I realize that I am dying like the other nineteen hundred have died. However, I am not like them. I am not innocent, I am a killer, and I have been beaten by my own game.