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?Freedom is never given, it is won.?
My eyes fluttered open silently. I looked around at the bleak lighting and the white florescent paint. My family was packed around an unfamiliar bed.
?Where am I,? I stammered, barely coherent.
?Ellie, you?re in a hospital,? spoke the unfamiliar nurse without emotion. ?Time for more medicine," she stated matter-of-factly. My mind fluttered with instantaneous questions.
?Mama!" I heard a young girl shriek from across the otherwise quiet hall, obviously in pain. Then, as my eyes closed involuntarily from the medicine, all I remember is my mind drifting off in a much different direction than questions.
?Mama!? I screamed, tears in my eyes, a red hot brander poking into my skin. The pain ran through my veins until it was like a hungry dog, snapping and tearing me apart waiting for me to give up. The Nazi officer?s eyes bored into mine. They held loathe and contentment while his commanders seemed tentative and in pain. I guess I know who was drafted.
My mother approached me immediately bur apprehensively. Her outstretched hand shot back when her eyes flickered to the Nazis gun. It lay there, inactive, but it was still the most threatening thing I?d ever seen in my 12 years at Aushwits. It was like a bomb, waiting to go off at just the right, or wrong moment. I looked around at the barren dessert land and the pain in my back ceased. The sky was an endless blue and the sun was a scorching blister of heat. It would have been a beautiful day, if I were anywhere but here. My dark hair, a symbol of the religion that now trapped me in my own person Heck, stuck to the back of my sun burnt neck. Don?t get me wrong I'm proud as anyone to be Jewish but sometimes the price seemed too big to manage.
I stumbled, still in nearly unbearable pain, toward the other women who had already been marked. There were screaming children clinging to their wasting mothers legs. I looked towards the men?s work-camp.
?Papa,? I wailed almost soundlessly. Of course the last time I?d seen my father was in our apartment in Poland, right before the invasion. I was four years old, just barely old enough to remember my former life that now seems like a dream that?s too good to come true. Sometimes, when I dream I can remember the tread off steel boots on our doorstep and my fathers pain as he was hit and fell to the ground. I could feel tears coming to my eyes, just as whenever I remember that memory that seems more like a nightmare. My mother was soon at my side, waking me from my trance.
?Just wait leibling, when the United States has over thrown Germany we will be free again.? She sounded like she was also reassuring herself. My mother was once beautiful with stunning, dark eyes and thick framing lashes. She had almost black hair like a cat on Halloween. She was petite but with giant ambitions. Since we had gotten to Auschwitz she always looked tired. But not tired like she was lacking from a sleepless night but tired on the inside too, like this experience had taken all the life from her. Her head was shaved and her cheeks were hollow like she was biting on the inside of them to keep quiet. The rags she wore were dirty and smelled awful, she was no longer my mother but she was my warrior, constantly fighting for our survival.
We started our way to the battery plant along with the other women that were still ?usable? as the Nazis referred to us as, like we were animals. Frau Alojzy joined my mother and I as we marched.
?Another day, another loss,? she sighed. My mother heaved a heavy breathe. I looked at my hands as we walked. They were burnt from acid and raw from factory work. My first job was to pull batteries apart for more ?usable? parts. I parted from my mother to turn into the first doorway that led into a long ominous looking corridor.
My mother gave me a long, meaningful look as if she were afraid I wouldn?t come back. I paddled down the hallway. It was lined with guards left and right. Where do they think were going to go? Home? As if that were and option. They looked like unresponsive statues, dormant, but still all the time ready to pounce. I reached the doorway I was to go in.
?Name.? said the guard without looking up from his clipboard. His voice was husky and deep, with thick accented German.
?Uhh,? I stuttered, looking at his gun that was just a foot away from my face.
?Are vou stupvid gurl?? he shouted at me. ?Vhat is vour name?!?
?Ellie Shalkin,? I squeaked.
?You may proceed,? he gestured, still harsh. As I walked past him he spat at my dirty, bare feet. His laught was shrill ad cruel. I bit my tongue until I could taste blood to keep myself from retaliating. I sat down next to Mebbe Talkon, a girl I had known in Warsaw. She nodded warily at me. ?Frau Meci died of influenza last night, late,? she sighed heavily and tears came to her eyes.
?I?m so sorry Mebbe.? I couldn?t think of anything I could say. I had lost my father but I had not watched him die.
?Mother says to be strong and that the United States will brake through France soon,?
?I just don?t know anymore.? I said without tone. ?It?s so hard to believe in something that may never come true.? I whispered intently, away from the man on guard.
?We must believe,? she said harshly and turned back to her work.
?Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.?
I walked back up the same corridor that haunted me. I heard a musical flow of words that I didn?t understand. My mother joined me at the end of the hall. Her face weary with another day of work gone and worry from being away from me I suspected. We walked silently toward our barracks.
?Leibling,? she whispered intently, ?You must know that whatever happens to me, you have to be strong, there are things going on at this camp, things that if you get involved in we will both not live to see our freedom.?
?Mama, don?t talk like that?? I said stubbornly, she cut me off.
?Ellie,? she said sternly, ?You must hope for the best but always be prepared for the worst.?
With that, she turned away and climbed into her bunk. My mother was getting sick, she was losing more weight, coughing up blood, and she was wasting away before my eyes. I couldn?t sleep that night. I was nervous about the upcoming events and my mother was talking in her sleep.
?NO! Don?t take Ellie!? she would scream. ?NO!?
I couldn?t stand listening to her pain, especially because I was causing it?
I woke up to the uncomfortable feeling of lice scurrying through my hair. Sometimes I wish they?d?ve cut mine like they did Mama?s hair. I layed in bed, motionless, not willing to start another day. Then I heard hushed whispers from what I could guess, was across the hall.
?They can?t help what they?re born into!? boomed a dark deep voice. I could hear the German note in his tone.
?I vill kill vou like dat, if you do anything or even vink about hurting out Fuehrer or the fatherland!? spoke a man who I recognized from the corridor at work.
?All I'm saying is why are we fighting this war for a man who has fallen through on everything he has promised Germany?!? replied the other man.
Suddenly I heard a gun shot. My blood froze solid in my veins but my heart thumped like a freight train.?
?You?re lucky,? said the man from the corridor. ?Next time it may be fatal.?
I hadn?t realized I was holding my breathe until I noticed my lungs screaming in protest, I gulped in as much air as possible. I got out of the bed in slow motion like my body was in shock but my mind was racing.
Is the man shot? Who was he? Why were they arguing over us? The more I thought the more questions I had and less answers. I silently walked across the barrack to wake my mother but I stopped myself. She didn?t need to worry about this too. I sat back down in my wooden bed; waiting for the horn to sound that would wake the rest of the camp. Unfortunately this gave me more time for my mind to wander.
Are there good Germans? I asked myself over and over. I didn?t know much school wise since my education came to an abrupt halt when I was brought here, but I did know Germany was bad, Hitler was worse, and if USA lost the war I would be doomed to this life until I waste away like so many before me, that wasn?t exactly my first choice.
Suddenly the bell sounded. I layed back in my bed quickly so no one would know I had been up. Everyone around me sat up warily and rubbed their eyes. My mother swept her lanky legs over the side of her bunk.?
?Hello Ellie? she yawned.
?G-good morning Mama,? I stammered. I always stutter when I keep something from her, it always gives me away. She walked slowly across the room then out the door. I guess I got away with it...
I followed her out the door to get what little breakfast I could. Some people took the rotten fruit and vegetables gratefully but if I had any other choice I would throw it at the officers. But unfortunately this food was my lifeline. I picked it up with a scowl on my face but took a bite ruefully.
It tasted exactly like the time I was dared to eat a rotten fruit back in Warsaw, I had been sick for days afterwards and had broken out in an awful facial rash because I was allergic to the mold growing on the fruit. As I ate I could feel an attack coming on but I had learned to turn the other way and do my best to ignore it. Nazi officers don?t have much grace even for a girl who can barely breather her face is so swollen. I headed off away from the rest of the people getting breakfast and trudged to the battery plant like any other day.
I walked slowly down the familiar corridor. A dirty, limp ribbon fell out of my hair and floated aimlessly to the ground. My father had given me the once beautiful ribbon on my 3rd birthday and now it?s the only thing that I had left of him. Of course my mother always says I look like a mirror image of him but prettier, and every time I start to miss him I should look inside myself and chances are I would find him somewhere. I bent down silently and picked up the ribbon. I heard marching to the beat of a whistle behind me and began to jog quickly, if I ran into them? I shuttered at the thought. Suddenly a strong leathery hand forcibly grabbed my wrist and pulled me into a dark room. A rag that tasted like dust and dirt was stuffed into my mouth before screaming had even crossed my mind. The unidentified person led me down dark hallways and dirty inclines. I guessed we were going further and further underground because I could feel an ominous chill go down my spine every few minutes, or what I could guess.
We could have been trudging down those inclines for seconds, minutes or hours, it made no difference. The man huffed every few flights of steps and would mumble something unintelligible.
Finally, we reached what seemed to be the end. There was an old fashioned card table and many different mismatched chairs sitting around it with one single candle sitting in the middle. With wide scared and confused eyes I watched the man pull out a chair. He gestured for me to do the same.
?My name is Albrecht,? said a gruff voice I recognized from my room this morning. He was a strong man; obviously, he had very blonde hair and blue eyes. What Hitler?s stereotypical idea of the perfect German was suppose to be. He folded his hands over the table in a very comfortable but professional way.
?Your questions will soon be answered.? He said his crystal eyes bored into mine.
Right on que, four more officers with children just like me joined us around the table.
?To hope is to risk pain. To try is to risk failure, but risk must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.?
Albrecht stood formally and nodded to the other officers. As the atmosphere around me settled I could sense that everyone in the room knew something I didn?t. My eyes flickered from face to face to find nothing familiar. Someone cleared their throat and we all faced Albrecht.
?Well,? he said looking at only me, ?I guess we?ll start from the beginning. As you know I am Albrecht, this is Ruth Sletcht,? he said gesturing to his left. The girl was rather small and her eyes were heartbreakingly sad but with the smallest glimpse of hope. They were a sky blue that made her pupils very distinct, it made her eyes look huge and beautiful. She smiled at me but it didn?t touch her mournful eyes. She looked slightly familiar but I was sure I had never seen her. Albrecht proceeded around the table without a pause.
?This is Adolf,? he continued.
?Wow,? I thought, ?That?s ironic.?
The man had a boyish figure with dark buzzed hair similar to Mamas. He looked about seventeen or eighteen. He had striking green eyes and a crooked Jewish nose. The man nodded once in my general direction. He came off as a rebellious teen that would do anything to get out of this prison, but then again, wouldn?t we all? He was dressed in a Nazi uniform.
Albrecht looked to his left and introduced to me the last of the group.
?Adele and Alina,? he said in a concluding way. The girls were auburn haired and pale skinned. They were taller than I, but obviously considerably younger. They were twins which surprised me because families were often separated.
?Oh, and you are?? said Albrecht raising his eyebrows at me.
?Ellie,? I said quickly. ?Ellie Shalkin.?
?Well I hope you choose to join us, I, in metaphorical ways, am the leader of our?? he hesitated, ?Resistance. To make it short, we?ve found a way out and were taking it,? he said plainly.
My mouth was agape for at least five seconds until I realized my throat went dry.
?I-I-I? I stammered, ?Don?t understand. Where are we?? I said gesturing to the tunnel-like structure around us. Albrecht sighed, and then started to explain.
?This was a secret tunnel used for transporting soldiers in and out of Poland. Part of the tunnel caved in creating this room. Nobody else knows about it. I was sent down here to see if it had completely caved in but didn?t tell any other Nazis because I knew it would be perfect for our little meetings. In case you haven?t guessed yet we plan to brake out of Auschwitz and go to America to report it, no one in Europe will dare question Hitler so we are going somewhere bigger than Hitler himself.?
I bit my lip thinking. ?So were underground,? I asked apprehensively.
?Half a story,? he answered plainly.
I took a deep breath before continuing. ?If you plan to brake out, then how are you going to do it? I mean there are guards everywhere, every exit, and every fence. Where do we go??
?Right through the front door,? answered Adolf with a smile. This was the first time I?d heard him speak. He had a husky voice that didn?t fit his face.
?Uhh, I don?t mean to pull your chain, but I think they might see us.? I said with derisive in my tone.
Again he smiled a menacing smile, and pointed to the swastika on his uniform, ?I have connections,? he said, still smiling.
?I doubt they?ll let you out with three captives and a fellow ?officer? to go paint the town red in America!? I said unbelieving.
?Which is why Adolf and myself are going to report you dead and pretend to export you through the trains, well that?s the plan at least.? said Albrecht.
I couldn?t say anything. I was going to be free, I was going to live, I was going to get out of here and at the time that?s all that mattered, then the worst possible thought crossed my mind.
?What about my mother?? I asked without thinking, panicked.
?She will be in the second group exported along with all of our family,? he said gesturing to the people surrounding us.
?What about Grandmamma?? said one of the twins, I thought it was Adele, or maybe it was Alina.
?Her too,? reassured Albrecht. He was, as he said, clearly the leader of the resistance. He acted fatherly to the twins, who I suspected had no parents other than ?Grandmamma?, he brought us all together, and planned to get us all out.
?Why me?? I asked suddenly, ?Why did you choose me out of all of Auschwitz??
For the first time, Ruth spoke directly to me.
?I chose you,? she said matter-of-factly. ?You helped my family on the trains the day we were sent here. You gave my sick mother your water, so I chose you for letting me have her that much longer.? She said, her eyes bored into mine and I could tell what she said was true because I remembered the day.
We were packed into the trains like animals and were very seldom given food, the healthy were stealing from the sick, and the old were stealing from the young. In the chaos the sickliest woman I had ever seen had missed her chance at water. Even at four years old it was obvious that this woman was to die, soon, so I gave my water to her, a gesture that may have saved my life.
?Thank you,? whispered Ruth, obviously meant for only me.
?No,? I said shaking my head slightly, ?Thank you.?
?We will leave tomorrow? then we will export our families and so on? until it gets to suspicious, we will only do two groups a week, just incase.? Interrupted Albrecht.
?How will we do it?? I asked.
?I will seek you from your first stations tomorrow morning, you do not need to know any more, very soon we will all be free again, sleep well tonight, it will be very exhausting both mentally and emotionally.? With that Albrecht stood and turned to proceed back up the dirt skews and hallways.
I still had many questions but I knew they were unimportant and would all soon be answered. I kept to myself as we walked up and up; I suspected the silence between the rests of them was because they were afraid someone would over hear as we came nearer and nearer to ground level.
As we got to the top I suddenly asked Albrecht, ?Should I tell my mother??
?No,? he replied in a whisper, ?She will know soon enough.?
I nodded once as we came to the top of the landing. Ruth creaked open the door just an inch to see if anyone was visible, or more important, if we were visible to anybody. She very quickly slipped through the door and disappeared through the long corridor. A moment later went the twins, then Adolf, myself, and lastly Albrecht.
I did my work quickly, and then returned to my barrack. I slept well that night, knowing my mother and myself would be safe and together soon. I dreamed of America that night. I dreamed of the statue of liberty and the right to practice my religion. I dreamed of reading from the Bible and going to school with my new friends. But most of all I dreamed of not having to see Hitler?s face glaring out from every street sign on every corner on ever road.
So say it loud and let it ring
We are all a part of everything
The future, present and the past
Fly on proud bird
You're free at last.
When I woke up to the bell, it seemed to ring a little higher, my hunger seemed to be a little less, and our barracks didn?t look quite as bad, and then it all came crashing down.
I yawned involuntarily and looked at my mothers bunk to wish her good morning. She wasn?t there.
?Where?s my mother?? I asked the rest of my cabin mates.
?Where?s my mother?? I asked again, breathing heavily.
Again, no answer.
?Where?s my mother?? I screamed, with tears running down my face.
?She?s in the hospital barrack,? replied Frau Lithienthal, ?You must go about your business in a normal fashion, she will be fine with time.? She said calmly but sternly. It angered me that she could be so calm about my mother being one of a million others being murdered by Hitler and his German army. ?No,? I whispered, she wasn?t gone yet and I wasn?t leaving without her.
?Okay,? I answered quietly, the tears ceased. Everything would go as planned, I would be exported today and Albrecht would come back for our family tomorrow and we will be in America together. This thought comforted me and brought me through breakfast, more rotten food, and it made me trudge down the too-familiar corridor I had walked for over 12 years. It brought a smile to my face knowing I would never again be forced to exile myself to this place again.
I pulled apart less than twenty batteries before Albrecht appeared in the doorway. He looked like a ideal officer, blonde hair, blue eyes, steel boots, green uniform, red and black swastika.
?I must see that one? he said, pointing a long finger at me. His eyes narrowed and the hand at his side clenched. I went weak at the knees, all for show; I knew that man would have never harmed me in any way he could get around it.
I slowly walked towards him. When I was within reach he grabbed my wrist firmly but kindly, and dragged me out of the room.
Once we were out of the corridor he bent down and whispered in my ear, ?Good job, you looked as scared as the dickens,? he said smiling.
?You were very scary looking!? I whispered laughingly.
?This is where we get the twins.? He added seriously, ?Hide in that room and do not come out whatever you do until I come and get you.?
?Okay,? I nodded.
?He performed the same scene as he had with me; the twins came out of the room looking terrified.
Albrecht came and got me and without speaking. We all then went to get Ruth. Now, we had almost everybody?
We went to Adolph?s side of camp where he worked, I had never been into the men?s barrack and I was sure it would be quite a hat trick to get in and out without being seen but given today?s and yesterdays events, I had complete trust in Albrecht.
?Ellie,? he spoke quickly, looking directly at me. ?There is a fence directly on the other side of the woman?s camp, which is where you must go. If anyone asks questions you must say that you, Ruth, Adele and Alina are scheduled to be exiled at midday. Adolph and I will meet you soon. If you can avoid it, do not be seen.? With that he turned and marched toward the barracks.
We were left there, alone, abandoned, and scared.
?Well,? I said shakily, ?Let?s start making our way.?
We scurried from bush to bush, from tree to tree, like mice across a wooden floor. Finally we got to a tree where the fence was close enough to touch. I had never been to this part of the camp before. This was where the sick, the old, and the betrayed were shot. There was a long line of people standing in line next to the largest tree. Some were weeping silently, some looked almost happy at there long awaited death, but the face that tortured me the most was blank. Terror crept up on my stomach and diffused throughout my body and shut down my mind. I looked again to my mother, seventh in line to her death. She was leaning against a smaller tree and staring off in to the distance. Her arms hung limply from her shoulders and her collar bone was protruding through her skin. Her ribs were clearly visible through her worn clothes and her frame was shaking completely. She stood in a way that made her look like a frightened child at the grace of a stern teacher or parent. Big fat tears rolled down my face and gathered at my chin to drop silently one by one.
Adolph and Albrecht then arrived.
?What?s wrong?? whispered Albrecht tensely.
?My mother.? I sobbed. My voice broke.
I could feel all eyes on my back as I sunk down onto my knees behind the protection of the tree.
?Mama.? I whispered over and over as I looked through the concealment of the tree. I watched strangers be tied to the tree and shot. My mind was succumbed under layers of darkness with each bang I heard.
Through tears and branches I could see my mother?s frail figure approach the large oak. Albrecht, obviously understanding she was the one, gripped my shoulders with his leathery hands in a fatherly way. I gripped the branch of the tree with all my might. I heard a gun go off; the sensation of anger filled me so rapidly I almost didn?t recognize it. I opened my mouth to shriek in anger, agony, loss? I didn?t know. Probably a mixture of all but regardless I screamed and as quick as it started it ended. Albrecht had tightened his grip on my shoulder not as condolence but as to restrain me. And Adolph had cupped his strong hand over my mouth. Then in the blink of an eye, the men disguised as officers carried all of us out from behind the tree, Albrecht spoke fluent German to the other officers and as I was crying continuously and shrieking often, they led us out of the fence and into our freedom. Adolph took his hand gun from out of the pouch near his waist and shot at the ground four times. Now, as far as the people on the side of the fence knew the four children who just left them were dead and gone.
I looked at the tall fence that had separated me from my freedom for twelve long years. I thought of it now as the gates to heaven. And I was on the other side.
I heard voices that at first didn?t make sense.
?The tumor has spread throughout her whole stomach; at most she had twelve hours.? sighed a kind male voice.
?Should we tell her?? asked, what I could guess, was a nurse.
?Of course, it?s her right to know.? answered the man.
I blocked out the rest, I had lived seventy wonderful years from escaping Auschwitz and I knew it was my time to go to my true heaven, whether it is because of cancer, grief, or Hitler. I had lived for my freedom, because of my freedom and because of the courageous souls who put grace on my life. I know I owe my life to them because the risked their lives? for freedom.