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Out of the Darkness, Into the Light
Author's note: I love reading books from different perspectives, and this was my first writing attempt with different points-of-view. Hopefully, readers will be able to sympathize with both Serena and Meredith; I know I do.
I used to hate the Jews not so long ago. They were barbarians to me, not worthy to live on the same land as civilized people. I couldn’t understand how my brother could support such vermin. But that was 1943. A year later, I’m a different person after experiencing the horror of Auschwitz.
I’m glad the person I once was has been put to death.
“Come on, move your vile, worthless bodies! Get going!” a Nazi guard shrieked at us over the roar of an approaching train. The Nazis were shepherding us into the dark, ominous cattle cars of the train. I turned to my father, taking in the thousands of Stars of David sewn onto the clothing of every person in the endless crowd of imprisoned Jews, myself included. I used to be proud wearing that star; now it felt more like a curse.
“Where are they taking us, Fa?” I asked, my voice trembling.
My father stared out across the throng of people being transported from the ghetto, perhaps thinking of how life used to be, before Hitler and the Nazis. “I wish I knew, Serena. I wish I knew.”
The Nazis started screaming and shoving us closer to the cattle cars again, and soon, my family and I were forced onto the cramped cars. We were pressed up against a rusty wall as more and more people jostled in. There was no room to sit, hardly any air to breathe. The heat from the eighty-some people in the cattle car was nearly unbearable, and the walls of the train seemed to close in around me. I clutched at my older sister, Mindy, and held tight to her wrist. Not long ago, Mindy would have teased me to no end for being so childish. I could practically hear her voice, high pitched and lilting sarcastically: “You’re nearly seventeen, Serena, don’t tell me that you still need to hold Sis’ hand!”
Those days, however, were long gone. About a year ago, my family and I were forced out of our house and into a ghetto at the edge of town. We could only take what we could fit in a bag with us; Ma had buried her precious watch, a gift from her father, in the yard. If she left it in the house, the Nazis would have taken it, along with any other item of worth they could get their greedy hands on.
We were a relatively normal family—Ma, Fa, Grandmother, my eleven year old brother Alan, Mindy, who is almost nineteen, and me, Serena. We were a Jewish family, like the majority of ghetto dwellers. I couldn’t see why we were so hated here, in Germany. In the ghetto, we were rats in a maze, ensnared by the wicked Nazi guards. I glanced up at the sound of Grandmother’s hacking cough; the overcrowded, dirty conditions at the ghetto had taken its toll on her aging body. We had been through so much, so quickly. The food we were given was hardly even edible, and we all had rings under our eyes from the lack of sleep, due to the ghetto’s pathetic excuses for beds.
The train whistle sounded as the last of the prisoners piled onto the cattle cars. The train began to move, slowly at first, then lurching and gaining speed. The cattle cars screeched and rattled down the tracks, away from the horrid ghetto. I stared at my former prison through a crack in the side of the car; a mixture of triumph, hope, and fear battled within me as the hated slum area faded into the distance.
Wherever they’re taking us, I thought to myself, it can’t be any worse than here.
I was preparing schnitzel for supper when my brother, Andrew, burst into the house like a hurricane.
“Andrew?” I asked, surprised and rather alarmed. “What are you doing back so early? You’re supposed to be at Auschwitz!”
“I can’t take it anymore, Meredith!” Andrew shouted, his eyes glittering like a madman’s. “So much death!”
I sighed. Andrew had been working at Auschwitz for nearly six months now, as he was a Nazi soldier. He had begun this position as the brother I knew: eager and willing to do his part to rid our country of the Jews. Now, however, I hardly recognized him: he talked about the Auschwitz prisoners like they were good people who deserved respect. Respect! Now, I’m not a Nazi soldier myself, but I haven’t hesitated to take a few belongings from formerly Jewish property; in fact, a few weeks ago I retrieved a gorgeous silver watch that was buried in the yard of the Jews that got booted out a year ago. They didn’t even deserve such a thing, the filthy beings they were. For my own brother, a Lutheran like me, to suggest that the Jews deserved respect!
If he isn’t careful, I thought shrewdly, he’s going to wind up tried for treason!
“I’m dead serious, Mer,” Andrew continued as I set the table. “Just yesterday, I whipped a girl who was the spitting image of my little Tracey. It felt like I whipped my own daughter, and today, she was sent to the gas chamber!”
I was shocked, and somewhat cross, to see that tears were running freely down his cheeks. Swallowing my anger—why should one get so worked up that a Jew died for a greater cause?—I walked over and rested my hand on his shoulder. However, living with Andrew and his family for seven years allowed me to sympathize with him. After my husband died, Andrew offered me a home on his farm with his wife and his two children: sixteen year old Tracey, and thirteen year old Arnold. I knew how much Andrew loved his children, so I did see where he was coming from.
But the next thing he said changed everything.
At first, it came out in a mumble; I didn’t catch a word of it.
“I said that I want to free them,” Andrew replied, more strongly.
I was dumbfounded. Freeing Jews, giving them any liberty at all went against everything Germany’s Fuhrer, Hitler, stood for. Everything.
“I want you to help me, Mer. I can’t do this on my own. I don’t even know how to begin; I just know that Auschwitz is turning me into something terrible. After I free some prisoners, I’m never going back.”
“Are you insane?” I replied, my voice rising. Any sympathy I previously had for Andrew evaporated in an instant. “Andrew, you joined the Nazis to free Germany from the Jews. They don’t deserve to be saved, they don’t belong with—“
“Yes they do,” Andrew cut in. “I don’t support the Jewish religion, but that does not mean that thousands of people need to die. What if it was us in the camps, Mer, the Lutherans?”
Lutherans in concentration camps? How ridiculous! Our religion has no quarrel with Germany! What would be achieved by putting Lutherans to death? But the Jews, the Jews deserve to be killed, considering they—
My furious train of thought broke off as I stumbled upon this fact. I ran the sentence over in my mind: the Jews deserve to be killed because…because why? No big revolutions or abuse to other citizens filled in the blank.
“Andrew, why are we killing the Jews? There must have been something they did to Germany.”
“No, Meredith,” he replied grimly. “There is no reason, no reason at all for this slaughter of men, women, children and babies who might have been us if the situation were different.” His eyes turned hopeful. “Now that you see where I’m coming from, won’t you please help me free them?”
Andrew must have read the stony look on my face, because he continued on.
“I’m turning into a monster. I seriously thought about shooting myself, Mer. I had the gun held up to my head. The only thing that stopped me from pulling the trigger was the thought of my family, of you. What would you all think if I shot myself like a coward, without doing a single thing to fix my mistake?” His voice dropped. “Please don’t let me down, Meredith. Give me a reason not to pull that trigger. I’ll ask again: will you help me free prisoners?”
I was shaking with emotion by the time he finished speaking. I had no idea he felt this strongly about the people in Auschwitz. I had no idea that he had come so close to killing himself, how close I had been to losing the brother that I loved so much. In that moment, I realized that whatever I thought about the Jews, I needed to help Andrew.
“Alright,” I whispered. Andrew’s face lit up, and he closed his eyes in relief.
I continued. “But I’m doing this for you, Andrew. Not for them.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the train we were contained in screeched to a halt. The doors were hauled open by Nazi guards, and every prisoner struggled to be the first one out of the train. I kept a firm hold on Mindy’s wrist; we made a pact after we were forced into the ghetto that we would face everything together. I wasn’t about to break that promise.
Alan saw an opening, and our family darted after him, out of the cattle car. We were greeted by Nazi guards shouting insults and commands; German Shepherds snarled viciously at their sides. The vast crowd of people emerging from the train was being herded through an open archway that was set in a seemingly endless barbed wire fence. I glanced up at the sign hanging from the arch; it read, “Arbeit Macht Frei”—Work Makes You Free. This kindled a spark of hope within me. Perhaps, if all of us worked hard enough, some day, the Nazis would let us go! We could live normal lives again, and be happy and free!
My fleeting thoughts of freedom were extinguished as I noticed that the Nazis were driving my family apart: Ma, Mindy, Grandmother and I were being sent in one direction, while Fa and Alan were being marched another way. Alan was desperately clinging to Ma’s wrist, but was ripped away by a cruel Nazi hand. I realized with a growing horror that all the women and men were getting separated; I couldn’t see Fa or my little brother anymore.
I stopped, trying to determine their location. We can’t get separated, we just can’t!
Thwap! I winced, biting back a cry of pain as a hand slapped me hard across the cheek. I stared up into the face of a Nazi soldier, cowering and holding a hand up to my face.
“Move it!” he barked at me. “There is to be no stopping, you little piece of vermin! You aren’t in some ghetto anymore, you are at Auschwitz!”
I scuttled back toward my mother, grandmother, and sister like a spooked cat. I didn’t dare look up to try to spot Fa or Alan for fear of getting hit again. My cheek hurt pretty bad, and I knew it was going to get red and swell up. All around me, prisoners who tried to cling to loved ones going in a different direction were torn away violently. My heart cried out for a young woman who was screaming as her little boy got ripped out of her arms.
Surely someone will do something to put a stop to this! I thought desperately.
But then it came to me: anyone who stopped was immediately hit. Every single prisoner was as scared as I was. Fear. It was always fear with the Nazis. Fear made their victims helpless to fight back. I turned my back on the sobbing woman; I was too afraid to help her, just as everyone else was.
The crowd of women was pushed and beaten into a single file before one Nazi soldier. This Nazi seemed to possess an aura of power, and it appeared that he had a very important role. He held a conductor’s baton in his right hand, and wore his Nazi uniform with obvious pride. As prisoners approached him, he would speak to them and send them either to his left or right. The steady flows of people to either side of him were quite different. In the line to the right of the man, the prisoners appeared to be fit, healthy, and strong, at least considering the circumstances they had been through. To the left, however, the line consisted of young children, elderly prisoners, and those who were obviously ill. A shudder ran up my spine. A voice deep within me said that I really didn’t want to be sent to the left.
It was almost my turn to be sent one way or the other. There was a girl in front of me, who looked to be about my age. The Nazi with the baton asked her age and occupation. His voice was stone cold, completely devoid of emotion. He could have looked at you straight in the face, said that he never cared about a single person in his whole life, and you would have undoubtedly believed him.
The girl replied, “Sixteen, and I cook.”
The Nazi pointed to the left.
The girl left the line of selection, and I was up next. I was sixteen, so if I wanted to go to the right line, I would need to say I was a few years older. I didn’t know quite why, but I knew that being put in the left line would be bad, very bad.
The stone-faced Nazi glared at me. “Age?”
“Nineteen,” I replied. I should be able to get away with that. I’m pretty tall for my age.
I thought for a moment. If they are asking for our occupations, they would want to use us for something. I needed to think of something useful. I’m a pretty fair hand at sewing. It was the best thing I could come up with; hopefully, it was enough to get me out of the left line.
“Seamstress,” I replied.
Without changing the expression on his slate-cold face, the Nazi gestured to the right.
I quickly hurried in that direction, half afraid that he would change his mind, relief exploding in my chest only to be crushed by the sudden realization that this place seemed to be more of a prison than the ghetto ever was. The Nazis were at the height of their power in this place, able to make us do and feel whatever they pleased.
Ma and Mindy caught up with me in no time at all, but Grandmother had been sent to the left. I longed to run to her, to pull her back to us, but the Nazis held me in their web of fear; I couldn’t go anywhere except where they wanted me to. Even though I was with Ma and Mindy, I never had felt so helpless and alone. We were all ensnared by the Nazis. The feeling of complete hopelessness, the certainty that any rebellion would be futile was absolutely staggering. The Nazis would do whatever they wanted.
Little did I know, this was only the beginning of my misery while I was at Auschwitz.
“So how are we going to free them?” I asked Andrew bluntly.
“I-I don’t know yet,” he replied. “Do you have any ideas?”
“This was your idea in the first place! If you seriously want me to help you completely disobey Hitler, the least you can do is actually come up with a plan!”
“I don’t know where to begin, Mer! The reason I asked you to help me is so we can do this together!”
I gritted my teeth in frustration. It was nearly eleven o’clock at night; the last thing I wanted to be doing was coming up with ideas to free these blasted Jews. I vaguely wondered how I had gotten dragged into this scheme when the memory of our conversation yesterday crashed into my mind. I needed to do this for Andrew.
“Sorry, Andrew. I’m just frustrated. I don’t want to get in trouble with the Reichstag, and I don’t want you to either. Is there any way to avoid completely going against Hitler and still free some prisoners?” I can’t believe I’m actually thinking about this!
Andrew ground his knuckles against his skull. “Can we really have it both ways? If we smuggle out some people, we could run away with them to Sweden and—“
“No.” I replied flatly. “There is a worldwide depression going on! If we leave the home we have now, what are the chances of getting another one? Running away isn’t the answer, Andrew.”
He looked at me with dead, hopeless eyes. “Then what is?”
I sighed and turned away so I was facing the window, and my thoughts drifted off towards our farm. We had so much land, and too few people to take care of it. Andrew hired some workers to cultivate and farm the land, but it always seemed like there was more that needed to be done. It would be wonderful to have more people working for us. We would have a neater property and more food.
Why don’t we ask the S.S. if they will kindly give their prisoners to us so those Jews can work on our land? I thought wryly to myself. I almost chuckled as I pictured the conversation: “You see, sir, my family could really use some extra help around the farm, so were wondering if we could have some of your prisoners…”
I looked back at Andrew, who was staring blankly at nothing in particular. This conversation wasn’t doing us any good. We were both too tired and distracted.
“Let’s turn in for the night, Andrew. I don’t believe any good ideas will hit us at this hour.”
He sighed. “Alright. We can try again tomorrow when I get back from Auschwitz.”
I watched Andrew as he walked up the stairs towards his bedroom; I slept on a cot in the living room. He looked so defeated. His motions were slow and reluctant, his face was always melancholy. He looked old and tired, like death would be a relief.
Auschwitz did this to him, I thought suddenly, and anger at the camp filled my spirit. Auschwitz was slowly killing my brother, rotting him out from the inside. Every day we didn’t think of a way to free a few prisoners, the more days Andrew would remain at Auschwitz.
My thoughts turned to a new direction, a darker direction. Despite my hatred for the Jews, my stomach twisted uncomfortably. If this is what being at Auschwitz does to a Nazi, what could it be like for the prisoners there?
I heaved yet another enormous rock onto the growing pile, and paused for a heartbeat to catch my breath. I glanced wistfully at my skinny arms; a year ago they were strong and toned, and I would have been able to clear these wretched rocks twice as fast.
Whissss! I heard the whip whistle through the air a moment before a line of pain seared across my back. I groaned in agony, but stooped to pick up another rock. If I stopped again, odds were in favor that I would receive more than a single lash from the whip.
I had been at Auschwitz for two weeks now, or was it three? I hardly cared anymore. After being sent from the selection line, all of us prisoners were forced to take our clothes off, and were shaved. Every single hair was cut off our bodies, while we stood naked and helpless before the Nazis. The humiliation was unimaginable. Never in my life had I been so completely and utterly stripped of my sense of self worth. Tears were running freely down my cheeks, and I bit my cheek hard so that I wouldn’t cry out.
Then we were marched towards another building, the winter air freezing against our bare skin. We were given prison clothes in this building: wooden shoes that bit into your feet, and a striped smock-like dress. I’m still wearing the same dress I was forced into on that very first night.
Next we were taken to a “registry barrack” where we were forced to tell the Nazi guard everything about ourselves. Afterwards, each prisoner was marked with a tattoo on the inside of their left forearm. The wicked Nazi looked me straight in the face as he tattooed my number—A-19358—a cruel smile on his face the entire time. I know that I will never forget my number until the day I die, for no prisoner was ever called by name, only number.
At last we were ushered towards the barracks, which were lined with triple bunks along each wall. At times, three people would share the same bunk to sleep in; rarely would you get the luxury of sleeping in a bed by yourself. Every person in our barrack got assigned work positions. Mindy and I were going to work several kilometers away in order to clear rocks from an area the Nazis wished to use as farmland. Ma was assigned to make prison clothes, so we only got to see her early in the morning or at night after work was over. This was a bitter blow for both Mindy and me; Ma had always been there, looking out for us. Now she hardly seemed part of our lives anymore.
Early every single morning, we needed to report for roll call. We stood outside for hours in any sort of weather, waiting for our number to be called. Once, roll call was in the middle of a violent, freezing rainstorm, and Mindy developed a bad cough after that. After roll call, we would be given a “breakfast” of only vile coffee or tea. Then we were sent to work. All the prisoners who were working with Mindy and me needed to walk the five or so kilometers to where the Nazis wanted us to clear out the rocks.
I shuffled over to a prisoner who was struggling to lift a boulder that appeared to weigh more than she did. The poor woman was as gaunt as a ghost; every rib showed, and her skin was pale and shriveled. I shuddered as I helped her pick up the rock; the last thing our barrack guard had told us was, “It’s work, or the crematory. Once you can’t work for us, you will be sent to the crematory.”
After haling out that rock, I worked closer to Mindy. We wouldn’t risk speaking to one another—the price for getting caught talking was normally three lashes—but we comforted each other by staying together. As long as Mindy and I had each other, we could last through anything. Mindy coughed continuously, and I risked those three lashes a few times to ask if she was alright. I prayed that she didn’t have pneumonia. Lord, if she had pneumonia, she was as good as dead. I had seen guards take sick, injured, and weak prisoners to a particular building, a building that if a prisoner went in, they never came out.
Three long, cold, gruesome hours passed until we were told to stop for our day-meal, a bowl of watery soup. Mindy and I talked quietly over our bowls; our guard would allow a bit of conversation when it didn’t “interfere with the work.”
“You know, Serena, you are one of the bravest people I know. You really mean a lot to me, and I want you to know that,” Mindy said with a little smile.
I looked at her questioningly. Mindy was an incredible sister--supportive, hardworking, and always honest—but she was never one to go out of her way to give affection like that. It made me happy and nervous at the same time. I looked at her in alarm when she went onto a hacking fit, and realized that she was beginning to take on the gaunt look of the other woman.
“Why do you say so Mindy?” I asked.
“I just wanted you to know in case I won’t be able to tell you later,” she replied hoarsely.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Please get better, Mindy. I love you, and we need each other.”
The soldier shouted that mealtime was over and to get back to work. Nothing out of the ordinary happened for the next hour, although I noticed that Mindy was stumbling more and more as time went on.
In just a few seconds, everything changed.
Mindy turned to me and whispered, “I’m sorry, Serena. I love you. Please make it out of here alive.” Then, she sank to her knees and collapsed, letting out a ragged, sickness-tainted breath.
“Mindy! Mindy, get up! Get up! You can’t die!” I shrieked. The whip sang through the air and branded a line of fire across my chest. I hardly felt it. This wasn’t happening. Mindy would get up any minute now, she had to!
The guard sauntered over to Mindy, shook her hard by the shoulders—how dare he even touch her!—and began whipping her over and over.
Mindy still lay motionless.
The guard’s next words would haunt me for the rest of my life, even though he was only speaking to himself.
“No sense in bringing this one to the chamber. She’s hardly alive as it is; no way will she get any work done.”
Then, the guard pulled out a gun, and shot my sister through her head.
Mindy jerked, and then was still. Completely and utterly still.
I wanted to throw up.
I wanted to tear off my fingers until I was insane with agony.
I wanted to die, for my sister’s deep brown eyes, so like mine, were staring sightlessly at the cold, gray winter sky.
My eyes snapped open as I awoke from my restless sleep. Andrew and I had been trying to come up with a way to free the prisoners for more than four weeks now. The idea came to me suddenly as I sat up on my cot; it seemed almost too good to be true. We’d be able to get prisoners out of the camps and avoid getting into trouble with the Reichstag.
“Andrew. Andrew, wake up!” I shook his arm to wake him. It was nearly five o’clock in the morning, but I didn’t want to wait any longer to share my idea.
“Mer? What is it?” he asked, his voice muffled with sleep.
“I know what to do,” I told him, the words tumbling from my mouth of their own accord. “We can buy prisoners from the S.S. to work here on the farm! The prisoners will be out of Auschwitz, and the S.S. will get money. We’ll be able to stay out of trouble and free the prisoners!”
Andrew eyed me oddly. “Buy them like slaves to work on our property?”
“Yes! Only we don’t have to treat them like slaves; we could give them food and payment if we wanted…what is it?” I broke off my string of conversation as Andrew’s expression changed.
He was smiling the fullest, purest smile I had seen in six months. He had smiled that largely before, but it never reached his eyes. Now, he was smiling with his whole face, eyes sparkling, and his laugh lines stood out prominently.
“You’re actually starting to change your mind about the prisoners,” he said softly. I couldn’t tell if he was speaking to me or to himself. The wonder and hope in his voice didn’t allow me to argue at all.
Or maybe, he was speaking the truth.
“You will come with me, won’t you? You can ride on the train as a guard. I have another uniform that you could wear,” he said eagerly.
“Why?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just went by yourself?”
“Yes, but I want you to see what these people are going through. Then, I think you’ll completely understand where I’m coming from, and why I needed you to help me do this.” He smiled again at me. “Thank you, Mer. You have no idea what this means to me.”
I ruffled his hair, like I used to do when we were little children. “You’re right, Andrew. I don’t have any idea yet. But I think I will once we go.”
He looked at me in surprise. “You are going to come?”
“Yes.” It was my turn to smile. “Whatever I think of the Jews, I need to do this for you. Maybe my opinion will change about them once we go. I’ll admit, there is a chance.”
“Tomorrow then?” Andrew asked.
“Yes, Andrew. Tomorrow, we’ll free those prisoners.”
…hope to not wake up again.
It seemed as though one minute, Andrew and I were talking in the kitchen, and the next, we were riding the train to Auschwitz. Of course, Andrew, the other Nazis and I weren’t riding in the cattle cars, as those were filled with a new batch of prisoners. My feelings about the Jews were fighting a war within me; I didn’t know if I should hate them, feel bad for them, or want to help them. The sorry conditions of the prisoners in the cars made me lean towards helping them, but then another part of my mind reminded me that these were the people who were the enemies of Germany. I just didn’t know what to think.
The Nazi uniform was stiff and uncomfortable against my skin, and my hair was put up in a bun and jammed under the Nazi hat; I didn’t want anyone to know that I was a woman. After nearly a day of nonstop train riding, we finally arrived at Auschwitz. As we exited the train, urging the prisoners out of the cattle cars, an unbearable stench wafted over me. It was a rotten, charred smell, so pungent that I nearly gagged.
“What is that smell?” I whispered to Andrew.
He looked at me with haunted eyes. “Burning bodies.”
I looked around. There were prisoners rushing about in every direction. Surely Auschwitz was the location of so many deaths that the Nazis burned the bodies of the dead ones!
Andrew seemed to read my mind. Whispering, so as not to be overheard, he said, “We work the prisoners until they can’t go on anymore. When they can no longer do labor, we bring them to the gas chamber. The doors get sealed shut, and all the prisoners in the chamber die from breathing in the poisonous gas, sometimes one hundred at a time.”
I felt sick. This wasn’t killing for a noble cause to serve Germany, this was slaughter!
“Come on,” Andrew said. “Let’s talk to an S.S. member.”
We walked among the countless prisoners who just arrived at Auschwitz, Andrew weaving through them with apparent ease. After a few minutes of walking, we soon left the new prisoners behind. We strode across several fields, venturing farther and farther away from the entrance. I couldn’t even see the countless rows of barrack buildings anymore.
“Andrew, where are we going?” I panted. We must have gone two kilometers by now. “We’re supposed to be buying prisoners, remember?”
“I know what we’re doing, Mer,” he replied. “I want to buy the ones doing heavy physical work. The prisoners who sort and make things have a chance of surviving, not a very large one, but a chance nonetheless. The ones doing the physical work—farming, clearing areas, lifting machinery—those people almost always wind up in the chamber.”
We walked on in silence for a while, my mind whirling as it tried to process everything going through it. After we had traveled almost five kilometers, we arrived at a work site where a Nazi soldier—probably a member of the S.S.—was shouting at a group of prisoners to lift heavy rocks and throw them into a pile. Andrew walked over to speak with the soldier while I looked at the prisoners more closely.
Not until that moment did I truly understand what Andrew was experiencing.
Every single prisoner lifting the rocks was a living skeleton. They wore a gaunt, haunted look in their eyes; it seemed as though life had lost all meaning. Only stubs of hair grew on their heads, and many prisoners were bloodied. One girl in particular, who appeared to be about seventeen or eighteen, was in especially horrible conditions. She appeared to be dead already, not in her body, but in her spirit. She moved in such a way that I didn’t think she wanted to live anymore. And her eyes, her beautiful, dark brown eyes, showed a world of agony. Instead of a child’s eyes, this girl’s eyes resembled those of an ancient woman who had experienced the most severe pain imaginable.
“Stop gawking,” Andrew hissed into my ear. “I got him to agree on a price: one thousand three hundred marks for fifteen prisoners.”
I jumped, not noticing that Andrew had come back. He started walking away, back towards the way we came from. I had no choice but to follow him.
“But why are we going back? We have to get those prisoners out of here now! Some of them won’t even last another day!” I cried, once we were out of earshot.
“We are going to bring them home on the train. The S.S. members will bring the prisoners to us. Once we get home, we can start taking care of them,” Andrew replied, looking straight ahead.
“How could people like us do this to others?” I exploded. “They rip apart families and destroy lives!”
“I know,” said Andrew quietly. “I know.”
“I wanted to rip their lives apart, too.” I continued miserably. “I’m sorry, Andrew, I was wrong. I don’t know how I could have been so stupid!”
“It’s fine,” replied Andrew gently. “You helped me anyway, and that is the most important thing.”
We didn’t speak after that. We arrived at the train and loaded the fifteen prisoners into the cattle cars. I couldn’t believe that the poor, pathetic looking prisoners were going home with us in cattle cars, but Andrew said it was necessary, that way nothing would look suspicious.
I saw the brown eyed girl coming onto the train, guided by a woman who greatly resembled her. Andrew must have done his best to reunite families. We would have to wait until we got home to reveal our true motives to them. The dead-looking eyes, the skeleton arms and legs, the backs striped with raw, red lines from countless beatings, it was all too much. I never thought my country, a country I was proud to be a citizen of, could commit such atrocities.
I walked over to a corner of the train, sat down, buried my face in my knees, and cried.
Two Nazis had bought us. At least that was what Ma said. I didn’t care. Nothing really seemed important now. Seeing Ma and knowing that there might be a way for us to stay together had helped a bit, but there was still a gaping hole in my heart where Mindy had been just weeks before. Nothing could truly be right ever again.
We were unloaded off the trains at a station I had never seen before. We were told by one of the Nazis that we were going to walk about half a kilometer east to our destination, not that it mattered.
Our destination turned out to be a kind-looking house on a large farm. There was a dull feeling of homesickness within me, for this house did not look so different than the one I had once called home. But I hardened my heart. We would probably be whipped, and cursed, and forced to work here, like a miniature Auschwitz, until we all collapsed just like Min—
A fresh wave of grief flooded over me. What did any of this matter? The curses, the work, the lashes? Let the whip fall.
We were brought into the nice house without any roughness. I found it rather strange that neither of the Nazis seemed to be carrying weapons.
Once the door was shut, all of us prisoners waited silently for our commands, heads down, legs unsteady; no one dared to move or speak. I glanced around discreetly; the look and feel of this house, which was very similar to the house I lived in over a year ago, was very soothing.
One of the Nazis, the taller of the two, spoke to us very softly, “It’s alright. We will protect you from the Nazis.”
Kind words? A flutter of hope bubbled up in my chest, the first in ages, but I didn’t let it show. Everyone had been through far too much to believe that a savior would come and protect us. I hardly had the energy to want to hope.
The taller Nazi removed his hat and smiled a true smile that reached all the way to his eyes, a smile that held no malice, only kindness and pity. Some of my mistrust left, but I couldn’t believe him. The Nazis killed my sister. I would never forgive them.
But the other Nazi, the shorter one who hadn’t spoken at all, removed his hat and long, bronze colored hair fell onto his shoulders. Everyone realized that he was actually a woman. Maybe, just maybe I could trust her. As far as I knew, no Nazis at Auschwitz were women. Despite myself, the flutter of hope burst inside my chest, and I turned to Ma and buried my face into her warm, familiar body.
Maybe, just maybe, things would be a little bit better.
As soon as the former prisoners realized that we weren’t giving them orders, whipping them, or abusing them in any other way, they seemed to relax the slightest bit, and much more so when I served them each a plate of schnitzel. They fell on the food like wolves, not even bothering to use utensils, but then again, who could blame them? This was probably the most food they had eaten in who knows how long. It sickened me to think that not very long ago, I would have been disgusted at the very thought of Jews and other “inferior” groups eating the same food as I did. That certainly wasn’t the case anymore.
The Auschwitz survivors were much more at ease with me then they were with Andrew. One young boy even hid behind me when Andrew approached him, trying to tell the boy that he could wash up in the bathroom.
“Don’t let him take me away!” the boy begged me, clutching my wrist.
I glanced apologetically at Andrew before replying softly. “No one is going to take you away, child. Now come, let’s get you washed up.”
The boy followed me up the stairs, nervously glancing back at Andrew.
I tried my best to explain to the former prisoners that Andrew saved them as much, if not more than I did, but it was obvious that they’re still afraid of him. A few of them are just beginning to warm up to him, but I know it is going to take a long time before they are truly at ease with him.
After we initially brought the former prisoners into our house, Andrew and I explained that they were going to live in an empty house next door. Once they were healthy again, they would work on our farm; they would eventually be plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and doing other sorts of farm chores. Andrew and I did our best to reassure them that no one would do any work until they were ready.
A member of our family (Andrew’s wife and children supported our plan, too) would bring the survivors food every night, and once they were able to work, we would pay them. We would sell our produce once the harvest came in, and this was how we planned to live out the rest of our days.
Best of all, Andrew would never have to return to Auschwitz, unless we decided to free more prisoners.
Only three weeks had passed since we brought the people home from Auschwitz, and already the change in them was staggering. Three weeks of sufficient nutrition and care had helped them to recover incredibly, in both mind and body. They were now almost completely at ease with both Andrew and me.
But the girl with the dark brown eyes, whom I found out was named Serena, still worried me. Though her body was healing, I could tell that her mind was in a far worse state than those of the other freed prisoners. Now, she was sitting at the kitchen table at the worker’s house (that was what we now called the place where the former prisoners lived) staring blankly at her clean plate. Supper was finished, and everyone had left the table except for her.
“Serena?” I asked her. “Are you alright?” Ugh, that sounded so naïve! Of course she’s not alright!
Serena jumped—as most of the Auschwitz survivors did when they didn’t notice someone approaching them—and shook her head.
“If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”
Serena didn’t reply.
I paused for a moment, then tentatively reached out my hand and rested it on her shoulder, like how my mother did to me when I was young. Serena flinched slightly, but then relaxed and sighed.
I took a breath. “Serena, I’m sorry.”
Serena looked at me with dead eyes. “Why? You saved us.” Her voice was dull, completely devoid of feeling.
“Because I didn’t do anything to stop this from happening in the first place. I wanted you all dead just because I didn’t accept you, because I thought you were different. But it turns out that you Jews are just like us.” A tear trickled down my cheek. “You didn’t do anything to deserve being put into that Hell on earth.” The tears fell faster. “We should have been there instead, me and all the other people who did nothing except hate.” I broke off, unable to say anymore.
Her brown eyes bored into my blue ones, and when Serena spoke, I could tell that she had never said these words to anyone else.
“I saw my sister die. She was sick and collapsed one day while we were working.” Serena was crying now, too. “The guard walked over to her and shot her. She was still alive!” Serena was wailing now, and I couldn’t understand her anymore. Tears were still falling down my cheeks, too. At that moment, I did something I would have never imagined doing before. Slowly, so as not to startle her, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. Her tears wet my shirt just as mine fell into her hair, a scene that seemed to defy the world around us. Here we were, Christian and Jewish, comforting each other like sisters. I knew that I could never take the place of Serena’s sister, but I would do everything I could to mend her spirit. I owed it to her and to all the good people who had done nothing to be put into concentration camps.
After a time, it could have been minutes or hours, we broke apart. It warmed my heart to see that Serena’s eyes had lost some of the death-like appearance, and her whole body seemed to have been relieved from a great weight. I, too, felt lighter throughout my entire being.
Without knowing why, a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. “Thank you, Serena.”
Serena smiled back at me, the first real smile I had seen from her since she left Auschwitz; a smile that reached her eyes. “Thank you Meredith.”
A few weeks went by without anything unusual happening. Our “guests” were getting more at ease every day; in another month or so, they might be able to start working like Andrew and I had planned. As I was getting ready to go out for the day, my fingers paused on the silver watch I had stolen from that Jewish household. I had slipped it on so many times before without a thought. Now, however, it brought about an overwhelming sense of guilt.
I don’t deserve this, I never did. It belongs in rightful Jewish hands, not my sinful ones. Perhaps I should give the watch to Serena…
I used to hate all non-Jewish Germans not so long ago. They were terrorists to me, people who deserved to be flung off the surface of the earth. I couldn’t even fathom the idea of a good non-Jewish German. That was before my experience at Auschwitz. Now, I can’t imagine life without Andrew, and especially without Meredith. Two years have passed since I left Auschwitz. Ma, the other workers and I are doing wonderfully working on the farm. Best of all, there is news that all the camps are going to be liberated soon, and all of the Jews can come out of hiding.
I wish Mindy were here with me now. Fa, Alan, and Grandmother, too. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about them. Meredith is always helping my mind to heal, but I know that I will never be the same person again. I’ve been through too much. I hear Meredith saying the same thing; she will never be the same person she was before she rescued us. I think we’re both a bit scared, becoming new people, even though it may not be such a bad thing. We’re both still trying to overcome our different experiences at Auschwitz.
But we have each other now, and will face the road ahead together.