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Into the Night
Author's note: I wrote this story for a school project. I took a few months to finally get it decent enough to post. I hope you enjoy it and I hope the meaning and feeling of the piece gets through to you.
As the synagogue bell struck at seven o’clock, Halina and her brother, Edmund were on their way to the town square.
“I wish Mother and Father were here walking with us. It’s kind of creepy out here on the street alone.” Halina said.
Edmund laughed. “You know that mother and father left earlier to help set up for Tobias’s birthday,” he answered. “But, why are you scared? You have me to protect you.” They turned the corner and Halina could see lights up ahead in the town square.
Halina’s brow suddenly furrowed and she tugged at a strand of her hair. Edmund turned his head. “What is bothering you?” he asked. “Usually, you are not that quiet.” Halina grunted and pulled at the Star of David armband she wore around her upper arm.
“I hate this thing!” she said. “Why do we have to wear it!?”
Edmund looked and her and rolled his eyes. “You know perfectly well why we have to wear these armbands, Halina. The Governor General issued a decree stating that we are, by law, supposed to wear these things. Now cheer up…I know that’s not what’s troubling you. What’s wrong?”
“I have been wondering what Father got for Tobias all day… I don’t like him keeping it a secret.” As they entered the town square, Edmund said, “Don’t worry, you’ll find out soon.” He winked and walked over to help Piotr, Tobias’s father.
“Not soon enough…” Halina muttered. There was a tug on her arm and she looked down. It was little Anichka, Tobias’s younger sister.
“Anichka, there you are!” Halina swung her up into the air and gently let her back down onto the ground. Anichka held onto her hand and said, “It is Tobia’s urodziny* today!”
“Yes it is,” Halina agreed. “Let’s go tell him happy birthday.” Anichka led her to the other side of the town square. Standing with his father in the middle of a crowd was Tobias.
“Źyczenia urodzinowe** Tobias!” Anichka screamed. Tobias looked up and grinned. Halina waved and was about to walk over when they were interrupted by a shout.
“Time for Tobias to open his birthday gifts!” Anichka began to pull Halina to the small wooden table that they had carried to the town square. Tobias came running and climbed onto the seat set in front of the table.
Halina tapped on her father’s arm. “Which one is ours?” Halina asked. He pointed to an irregular shaped package sitting on the top of the small stack of gifts. Halina stared at it intently, trying to look through the paper at the gift.
Tobias reached for a small parcel just to the left of the gift Halina’s father had brought.
“To Tobias. From, Krystopher.” he read.
Halina and the others watched as Tobias ripped open the package. Inside was a metal gyroscope.
“Cool!” Tobias exclaimed. “Thanks Krystopher!”
Krystopher smiled shyly and said quietly, “You’re welcome.”
Tobias grinned and reached for the irregular shaped package.
Yes! Halina thought. I get to see what it is. She watched Tobias impatiently as he took the gift out of the paper. It was a wooden airplane with smooth, long wings and a sleek body.
Halina turned to her father. “Did you make that?” she asked. Her father smiled and nodded his head.
The small crowd squeezed in closer to get a look as the rest of the presents that were opened eagerly by Tobias. Minutes later, an array of books lay on the table along with many different toys.
Tobias looked up. “Thank you!” he said happily. He started to turn away to play with the other children, but his father put a hand on Tobias’s shoulder.
“I believe you have one more present, son.” he said pointing at a small package peeking out from under the torn paper. Tobias moved the paper aside and picked the package up.
“To Tobias. From, Father.” he read slowly. Tobias tore the paper and held up a stuffed bear. “What’s this?”
“It was made by your mother. She told me to give it to you on your sixth birthday.” Piotr said. “Turn it over Tobias.”
Tobias turned the bear over and saw that something was sewn on the back. It read Tobias- Made with love. Love, Matka* He looked up at his father.
“I miss mother.” Tobias whispered. Piotr picked him up and Tobias clung to him with tears streaming down his small face. Piotr had tears in his eyes, but held them back. After a minute, he set Tobias down and Tobias walked slowly with his friends to the field. Halina saw him wipe his nose on the sleeve of his tattered shirt.
Once she found Anichka, Halina walked over to the field where the boys and girls were playing ‘Statue.’ They watched them for a while until even the hyper children lay on the grass and closed their eyes. Anichka was already asleep, so Halina lay next to her thinking of Tobias’s birthday and of the armband bearing the Star of David. She tried to keep her eyes open, but unsuccessfully fell asleep with her check against the cool grass.
It only seemed like 10 minutes had gone by when she was awaken by a man in a uniform. It was still dark outside. Halina rubbed her eyes and got a better look at the soldier. Her eyes followed the medals, to the pins, and finally up to his face. It was handsome, but his eyes were striking and not in a good way. They were cold and hard and he smiled as though it hurt to do so.
The soldier offered his hand and pulled her up. She looked down to where Anichka should have been and didn’t find her. Halina opened her mouth to shout her name, but the soldier raised his hand slightly and she shut it quickly.
“All Jews are being relocated. Go with your family and pack your bag. It doesn’t need to be large. Your relocation area will provide you with everything you need.” he said curtly.
Halina nodded quickly, backed away, and ran into someone. She turned and saw glad to see Aleksander, Tobias’s and Anichka’s older brother. Alek grabbed her arm and Halina was reassured by someone else’s touch besides the soldier’s.
“What’s going on?” she asked him.
“We have to go pack our bags. Come on.” He pulled her out of the town square and towards their homes. After a minute, he asked, “So, what did you think of the soldier?”
Halina peered at his face, trying to read his expression, but it was unreadable. “Well…” she began. “He seemed a bit curt. I mean, he helped me up, but I saw his eyes and they really ruined his handsome face. Behind the pale blue, I saw what looked like a cold wall. You know what I mean?”
“Yes.” he replied. “I suppose that’s true.” Alek’s jaw was clenched and he began to pick up his pace. Halina hurried to keep up with him. They arrived at Halina’s house quicker than she thought.
Alek put slid his hands into the pockets of his pants. “I’ll wait for your family,” he said. Halina headed toward the front door and turned back.
“Thanks for finding me,” she said. “I would have been lost.” Halina looked at him, but he wouldn’t make eye contact. She frowned and shrugged slightly. Stepping into her house was like stepping into a hospital. It was clean and there was no dirt or dust on anything. Halina’s mother spent every Saturday tidying up the house. Edmund liked to joke that their mother’s hobby was cleaning the house.
Halina walked through the house to her tiny room at the end of the hall. She pulled her suitcase out from under her bed and threw an old dress, stockings, and underthings into it. Halina looked around her room one more time and grabbed her Star of David locket. Inside she had a photo of her parents and a photo of Edmund. She pulled it around her neck, snapped the clasps together, and headed back down the hallway.
Before going out the front door, she checked her parents’ bedroom and found drawers opened and clothes on the floor. Her mother was quickly packing a small suitcase. She looked up and saw Halina in the doorway.
“Your father is at Waj* Hajnrich and Ciotka** Genowefa’s house,” Halina’s mother told Halina as she stood up. “I’ll be heading on my way there in a moment. Edmund is helping Piotr. He will meet us as the relocation area.”
“I’ll go with Alek, if that’s alright. I can meet you at Waj Hajnrich’s house.” Halina said. Her mother thought about it for a second, “I suppose. But, Halina, you must hurry. These German soldiers do not like to be kept waiting.”
Halina nodded and satisfied, her mother whisked out of the room and out the door. Halina followed and ran down the steps towards Alek. He turned and they walked quickly to his house, which was a block away from hers. Halina turned her head and saw her mother disappear into another house.
Once they arrived at Alek’s house, Halina asked him, “Do you want me to wait out here or come in?” Alek bit his lip and replied, “You can come in, but my room is quite messy. You might not want to go in there.”
Halina smiled and followed him inside. Alek was right; his room was messy, but not as bad as Halina thought it would be. She sat on the edge of his bed while he packed clothes into his bag.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked him. “You seem…upset.” Halina fingered the blanket, looking at him. Alek hesitated and replied, “Sorry, just my nerves I guess. The Germans make me nervous.” After a minute he asked her, “Was he really handsome once you could see what kind of man he really was?”
“What?” Halina paused. “The soldier?” When Alek nodded, she continued. “Well, not exactly. He had handsome features.” Halina glanced at him. “But, the eyes…I don’t know, they were like ice: cold and hard.”
Alek looked relieved. “Good, I’m glad you don’t like him. You don’t want to be friends with a German soldier. I don’t like them and neither do our families.” She held out her hand and pulled him up. Halina followed him out of the house and they walked out into the street to Waj Hajnrich’s house.
“I’ll drop you off and go look for my father, Tobias, and Anichka.” he said when Halina was about to open the door. Alek was halfway down the sidewalk when Halina told him to come back.
“I just remembered…Edmund is helping your father find your siblings. You can stay here. They were going to meet us once they found Tobias and Anichka.” she called. Halina saw Alek nod and he walked back to the house.
She waited for Alek and then opened the door. The house was mildly disheveled with people running around gathering a last couple of belongings. Alek and Halina set down their bags next to the front door. Halina’s mother and Ciotka Genowefa were in the kitchen making sandwiches. Halina walked into the room and picked up some apples and tossed them to Alek, who put them in the sack of food.
Halina’s father was helping Waj Hajnrich pack his bag. When Halina and Alek looked into the room, they saw the men arguing over whether Waj Hajnrich should bring a medium size bag or a small size bag. Halina looked at Alek and rolled her eyes. They left the men to their bickering and went back to the kitchen.
“Is Edmund back yet?” Halina asked her mother.
“No,” her mother replied. “But, you can go wait next to the front window for Piotr and the children. Edmund will be with them.”
“I’ll go with you.” Alek said. They walked over to the low window next to the front door. Halina eased herself onto the ground and crossed her legs.
“They’d better hurry.” she told Alek. “I don’t want to get on the German’s bad side.”
Alek sat down with a thump and leaned back on his hands. “You don’t get it, do you?” he asked with exasperation. “The Germans already don’t like us! They hate us! Wherever we’re going, it’s not good.”
Halina’s eyes narrowed. “Since when did you know what the Germans like and don’t like?” She crossed her arms and looked out the window.
“I don’t! It’s just a hunch. You saw the soldier’s eyes, right?”
“Yes,” Halina replied. “I did. Yes, they were cold. Yes, I didn’t like them. But, that doesn’t mean that all of the German soldiers are the same way. One German soldier is different from another… and that one is different from yet another soldier.”
“Fine. Believe what you want. I know I’m right.” Alek retorted.
Halina was about to argue when she saw two small figures running down the street. Two larger figures ran behind them, trying to keep up.
Halina jumped up and ran to the door yelling, “They’re here mother! They made it!” She threw open the door and raced to Edmund, throwing her arms around him.
“I didn’t know where you were,” she told him. “I thought you’d left.”
Edmund opened his mouth to reply, but Halina was hit from behind and felt two small arms wrap around her the back of her legs. She turned and saw Anichka staring up at her.
“Anichka, I couldn’t find you when I woke up. Don’t run off like that.” Halina said, shaking her head and failing to keep a straight face. She picked Anichka up and hugged Tobias who had appeared by her side. Piotr walked up, breathing heavily and looked around.
“Where is Alek?” he asked. “I thought he was with you.” Halina looked towards the window and saw Alek sitting there, frowning.
“Oh… He and I, we sort of…” Halina hesitated. Edmund looked at her, pointedly. “What?” she asked. Seeing his face she said, “No, not like that, Edmund.”
She turned back to Piotr and finished her sentence. “We’ve been arguing, I suppose.”
Piotr sighed. “What about?” He started towards the house and the children followed.
“The German soldiers.” Halina replied. Piotr looked surprised, but didn’t ask any more questions. When they got inside, Alek was waiting for them and he hugged his father. Piotr smiled and then walked with Edmund, Tobias, and Anichka to the kitchen.
Halina stood looking at the floor. After a minute of uncomfortable silence, Halina looked up, “Sorry about earlier. We both had different views, but I guess they were quite similar.” Halina noticed that Alek had looked up and continued, “What I was trying to say was that some of the soldiers recruited by the Germans might not have wanted to join the army or what was the other called?”
“S.S.” he replied.
“Not all of the German soldiers have a bad heart. Hitler might have influenced him.”
“He’s a powerful speaker, Hitler is.” Alek stated. “My friend, Krzysztof, heard Hitler speak in public. He said that Hitler was quite persuasive.”
“I don’t think that’s a good thing.” Halina said.
“Right.” he agreed.
“I wonder if…” Halina paused. “What’s that noise?” She turned her head and gestured for Alek to do the same. “Is that a stampede?”
“No…” Alek breathed. “Soldiers.”
A minute later, there was a loud rap on the door. Piotr and Halina’s father were at the door in a flash. Waj Hajnrich came up behind them with Halina’s mother and Ciotka Genowefa. Piotr opened the door and came face to face with five Nazi soldiers.
“You were right.” Halina whispered to Alek. He motioned with his head and they moved next to Edmund who held Anichka in one arm and held Tobias’s hand with the other. They looked out at the soldiers who were waving their hands and speaking harshly in a language that was unfamiliar to them. Waj Hajnrich was nodding slowly. Then, he asked the soldier who had spoken, “Eben*?”
“Edmund,” Halina asked quietly. “Do you know what they are saying?”
One of the soldiers made a sweeping gesture towards the suitcases on the floor and back outside. “Schnell!”**
Waj Hajnrich picked up two of the suitcases. “They say to get our bags and come with them…quickly.” Halina’s father followed Waj Hajnrich after taking two other suitcases. Piotr grabbed the last bag and took the food sack from Halina’s mother. The rest of them followed the men out of the house.
Outside, Halina saw that the street was crowded with people getting into trucks or walking south. All of them were bundled up and holding one suitcase each. She turned her attention back to the soldiers.
One of them led the group to a truck with two soldiers flanked on either side of group, and two more stationed to follow and make sure they all got into the truck. The lead soldier opened the back door and Piotr loaded all of the bags into the truck.
“Wo sitzen wir***?” Waj Hajnrich asked. He looked around the truck. One of the soldiers pointed to the back of the truck. Halina could see the shock register on Waj Hajnrich’s face. He shook his head quickly as if to clear his mind and climbed into the truck. Halina’s father helped Ciotka Genowefa and Halina’s mother into the truck and then climbed in after them. Edmund scrambled up and took Tobias and Anichka from Piotr when he lifted them up. After making sure they were safe, he helped Alek up and lifted Halina into the truck.
It took Halina’s eyes a while to adjust to the darkness of the truck even though it wasn’t much lighter outside. She blinked and took one last look at her house down the road. A second later, Piotr climbed into the back of the truck and the door was slammed and locked behind him.
Halina was squeezed between Edmund and Alek, so there wasn’t much personal space.
“Why are we shoved in the back of the truck?” she asked Edmund. “We should be sitting in the front.”
“Don’t trust the soldiers. I already told you.” Alek said. Halina glanced at Edmund and found that he was nodding, agreeing to Alek’s words.
“I don’t trust them,” she replied. “Really, I don’t.” Alek looked at her skeptically. “I’m going to sleep.” Halina told them. She leaned against Edmund and was soon lulled to sleep by the vibrations of the truck. Across from them, Anichka and Tobias leaned against each other fast asleep next to their parents.
Hours later, she was awaken by a jolt. Halina opened her eyes and blinked once, letting them adjust to the darkness around her. She felt a body leaning against her left side. Halina glanced at her side and saw that Alek had also fallen asleep. It took her a minute to shake him awake.
“Something’s going on.” she whispered. “I felt the truck jerk.” Alek felt the bottom of the truck with his left hand and then pressed his ear against the side wall.
“We’ve stopped.” he said, surprised. “Wake up Edmund. Maybe he knows.” Halina shook Edmund and he bolted awake, his eyes wide.
“What?” he gasped.
“Alek and I think that the truck has…” Halina was interrupted by a loud click and the truck door was thrown open. Sunlight poured through the open door. Halina shielded her eyes and turned away.
“Get out.” The soldier ordered in Polish, as he gestured from the truck to the ground. The Nazi appeared to be the leader because of how many badges and pins he wore on his uniform.
“Finally,” Halina muttered. “Someone who speaks our language.”
“Shh…” Edmund hissed. Piotr climbed out of the truck and helped Anichka and Tobias down. Anichka’s parents followed. As the rest of the family got out, five more Nazi soldiers advanced toward them and stood at attention around the group, awaiting instructions from the Nazi officer.
Halina looked around and found that they stood in front of a large gate constructed out of stone and iron. Two arches were constructed in the middle of the street. Above them were the words, ‘Yiddisher Woynbezirk’*. An iron Star of David was mounted in the middle of the two arches. Wooden doors swung inwards toward the other of the stone walls that surrounded the town inside. There were two smaller entrances guarded by Nazi soldiers.
“Follow the rest of the Jews.” the captain said, spitting the words out as if they tasted terrible.
Halina saw her father’s face twitch and Piotr’s eyes filled with anger. The adults moved with the crowd slowly, but Halina stayed where she was.
“Shnell!” a soldier yelled at her, slapping her cheek. Halina cried out and fell to the ground.
“Stop it!” Alek screamed. The soldier stepped toward him and struck him on the mouth. A trickle of blood ran down his chin. Edmund stepped forward putting a protective arm around his sister and Alek.
“Come.” he said quietly. Anichka was crying and Tobias stood with his jaw dropped open. Halina’s aunt and uncle had the exact same expression. Halina’s mother raced toward her.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Are you all right?” Halina’s mother put her hand to Halina’s cheek. Piotr picked up Anichka and reached for Tobias with his other hand.
“I’m fine,” Halina grunted angrily as she slowly stood up. “Let’s go.” Halina’s mother jerked her hand back and looked at Halina’s father, but he was watching the Nazi and trying to control his anger. Fuming, he looked at the rest of the group and turned, leading them into the relocation area.
The whole group was forced to share two small apartments. The wall in between had been knocked down, so the apartments became one medium sized room.
“Well…” Piotr began. “I suggest that the kids take the floor over on that side of the room.” he said as he pointed to the left. Piotr looked at the single bed against the wall. “Who would like the bed?”
“We can switch every day.” Halina’s father suggested. The rest of the adults nodded.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door and a Nazi soldier barged into the room. “You are expected outside every day at 6:00 in the morning to begin renovations of the area. This means everyone…including children. If you are not present, we will see to you ourselves.”
Halina and Alek exchanged a look and Alek touched his cut lip softly.
“You are all to be outside in a matter of five minutes. Make sure to be present.” He glanced once at the dry blood on Alek’s lip and marched swiftly out of the room.
“We might as well go now.” Waj Hajnrich remarked. They walked out of the room and stood in the street. Other Jews stood in front of their apartments awaiting instructions from a Nazi official.
After another minute, the Nazi spoke. “I hope all of you are out here. Some work needs to be done. If you walk down the left street,” he said, gesturing to his left. “You will find a long dirt path. I want that dug two meters down into the ground by sunset. Then, and only then, will you be able to go back to your quarters. If it is not dug to two meters, you will have to dig an additional meter tomorrow. Do I make myself clear?”
The group of Jews nodded.
“I said, do I make myself clear?!?” the Nazi shouted.
“Yes, sir!” the Jews shouted in unison. Halina looked at Edmund with alarm. He smiled reassuringly.
All at once the gathered group surged forward, walking through the narrow road towards the dirt path. Hundreds of shovels lay scattered on the ground. Halina and her family went to one area and picked up their own shovels. Halina watched Anichka struggle to lift hers and went to help her. They worked until sunset, but they had not yet dug down two meters.
Edmund jumped down into the narrow pit with the grown-ups and reached up to help Halina down. She leapt down, landing slightly less gracefully than she would have liked. Alek jumped down beside her and landed heavily. Piotr lifted Anichka and Tobias down into the pit.
“You two rest, but stand and hold the shovel. If a soldier comes, begin digging again until he leaves.” he told them. Anichka and Tobais leaned heavily against the wall of the dirt trench.
“It’s unfair that they have to help too.” Halina said to Alek.
“I don’t think that the Nazis even know what the word ‘fair’ means.” Halina’s father muttered. Halina didn’t reply. The group worked for another hour without talking.
“Two meters,” Waj Hajnrich announced. “I’m about two meters tall and it’s just above my head.”
It took them a few minutes to get out of the pit. By then, many of the Jews had already begun to head back towards the apartments. Everyone slouched and walked with stiff legs.
Halina looked at her hands and counted the blisters. “I’ve got eight blisters.” she told Edmund.
“Seven.” Alek said.
Once they arrived at their one room apartment, the children collapsed onto the ground. Piotr had carried Anichka back and laid her gently on the floor. Tobias fell next to her, instantly asleep. Edmund slept in the middle of Anichka and Halina.
Halina’s mother and father were the first to sleep on the bed.
“Should we give the children the blanket?” Halina’s mother whispered urgently to her husband. He nodded and draped the blanket over the children and brushed Halina’s hair from her face.
Piotr glanced down at Anichka and Tobias. They were sound asleep. He began to turn around, stopped suddenly, and knelt down next to Tobias. Reaching over him, he placed his hand on Anichka’s forehead. It was streaked with sweat and felt hot to the touch.
“Oh no.” Piotr whispered to himself. Halina’s mother sat up.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Anichka.” he replied. “She’s feverish.” Piotr stood up and looked at Halina’s mother.
“Wait until morning. That’s all we can do for now.” Halina’s mother said, softly. Piotr sighed and lay down on the ground next to the bed.
Halina woke up screaming and clutching her stomach. Sitting up, she opened her eyes and saw that it was still dark out. Halina looked around and assured herself that her dream wasn’t reality. She tried to calm her breathing, but it came out in rapid gasps.
Halina screamed again when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright.” she heard Edmund say soothingly. “What’s wrong?”
“I…I dreamed…I can’t say it…” Halina stuttered. “I know it’s not real…” She let out a sob.
“Shh…” Edmund said. He pulled her down and she lay against him, putting her head on his shoulder.
“It was terrible.” Halina whispered. “Nazis were everywhere. One came up to me and hit me in the temple with the butt of his gun. I fell to the ground and another pulled out a sword. They don’t carry swords, do they?”
When she saw Edmund shake his head, she continued. “He stabbed me repeatedly in the stomach. I was screaming at him to stop, but he kept stabbing me as if he hadn’t heard. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. My stomach felt like it was on fire.”
“It’s alright now, Halina.” Edmund told her. “It was only a nightmare.”
“It certainly didn’t feel like one. It felt real. I still feel the pain in my stomach.”
“You’re just frightened and that makes your stomach feel like it has knots in it.”
Halina heard another voice, “What’s wrong, Edmund?” Halina clutched Edmund’s shirt.
“Halina,” Edmund whispered. “It’s only Alek.” To Alek, he said, “Halina had a nightmare.”
“It must have been a pretty bad one; I heard screaming.” Alek told them.
“I was getting stabbed in the stomach by a Nazi. I think that should qualify as terrible, not bad.” Halina said.
“Alright then, it must have been terrible.” Alek said. Halina could sense that he was smiling.
“Please don’t mention this to mother or father.” Halina begged Edmund. “It will only make father angry and mother will be scared out of her wits.”
“Yes,” Edmund agreed. “That is typical of her.”
“It’s hot…really hot.”
“You must be still half asleep! It’s about 3 degrees Celsius outside.” He felt her forehead. “Maybe you’re sick. That would make you and Anichka both. Just get some rest.”
Halina drifted off and was awaken later by Alek. “It’s 5:50.” he told her. “We have to assemble outside soon.”
Halina stood up and swayed back and forth until Alek took her arm and led her to the wash basin. She splashed cold water onto her face. Cupping her hands, she brought the water to her lips and drank.
“Are you alright?” Alek asked Halina.
She raised her head, “I’m a bit dizzy, but I think it was the dream. I felt like I was on fire last night.”
Alek held onto her arm to steady her and led Halina outside where her family was waiting. Piotr held Anichka in his arms. Halina saw that Anichka’s face was red and sweaty.
“Piotr,” Halina asked. “How’s Anichka?”
“Her fever’s gotten higher. We still have a minute. Can you bring her inside and put some cold water on her face? Just don’t get it in her nose.”
“Of course,” Halina answered. “Alek will help me.” Alek took Anichka from his father’s arms and led Halina inside, letting her rest her hand on his shoulder to steady herself.
“Here,” Alek said. “I’ll hold her if you dab water onto her face.” Halina wet her hands and began to touch Anichka’s face with cold water.
After a minute, she looked up at Alek.
“Done?” he asked her. Halina nodded and Alek lifted Anichka higher.
“Let’s go. I don’t want to find out what the Nazis will do to us if we aren’t there.” Alek said. Halina followed Alek out of the room and Alek handed Anichka back to his father.
“Thank you son. My thanks, Halina.” Piotr told them. He turned back towards the street just as a black car stopped in the middle of the road. A Nazi officer stepped out of the car and cleared his throat.
“It will be my pleasure to take fifty of you Jews to another relocation site. The rest of you will stay here. It will take me only a moment to choose who I will take.”
The Nazi officer walked down the street and chose random apartment groups to stand in the middle of the street and wait further instructions. He stopped in front of Halina’s group.
“You will come.” he commanded and moved on to the next group. Halina looked at Edmund and Alek and then walked forward with her family.
It took only a few more minutes for the officer to choose fifty Jews to be relocated.
“Now…”he said. “Follow me.” The officer turned to the Jews that hadn’t been chosen and yelled, “The rest of you, get to work!”
Halina walked with the rest of the group out of the gate and found herself in front of multiple black trucks.
“Not again.” she moaned. “I do not like these trucks.” Alek shrugged his shoulders and turned back toward the officer.
“I don’t care how you get in, but make it quick. Schnell!” he commanded. “No more than ten Jews per truck. We can’t make it too comfortable or too uncomfortable.” the officer said, smirking.
Piotr moved quickly to a truck and helped everyone up. As Halina was lifted into the dark truck, she looked out at the sky one more time. The sun was just beginning to rise.
She was shoved by a Nazi and fell onto Edmund.
“Sorry.” Halina grumbled. She picked herself and moved over in between him and Alek.
“Quite alright, Halina.” Edmund replied.
Halina looked at Alek. “I really, really hate these trucks.” she told him.
“I suppose I don’t fancy getting shoved into black trucks that lack windows.” he replied. Halina rolled her eyes and tried to imagine her home, before they were taken away. She sighed.
Halina was startled by a hacking cough and opened her eyes to see Anichka bent over in Piotr’s lap. Tobias moved closer to Edmund.
“She’s fine.” Halina heard him whisper to Tobias. “It’s just a small fever.” Tobias didn’t look convinced. Worry clouded his usually bright smile.
“Edmund is right,” Alek said. “and anyway, we should all sleep. We need rest.” He looked at Halina and whispered, “It worked the last time.”
“Well, that was when we didn’t know where we were going and the only thing we could think about was getting some rest.” Halina replied.
“I know.” Alek said. “I don’t like this either, but it seems like the only thing that we can do.” He shifted his weight and leaned against Halina for support. “Just try to sleep, ok?”
“I can try.” Halina rested her head on Edmund’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
Hours later, Halina was shaken awake by Alek.
“We’re here.” he whispered. “Wherever here is.” Halina rubbed her eyes and yawned.
A moment later, the truck door was unlocked and opened roughly.
“Here comes the sunlight.” Halina muttered. A few rays of sunlight crept through the open door. Halina looked at the sky and saw that the sky was slightly gray, as if there was smoke drifting by from a fire.
“Get out.” a soldier commanded. “Quickly. Schnell!”
“They are really fond of that word,” Halina heard her mother say. “All they say is, ‘Quickly! Schnell!’ Everything is fast, fast, fast!”
When no one made an attempt to get out of the truck, the soldiers outside raised their guns. Halina’s father slid across the floor and jumped to the ground. Piotr and Waj Hajnrich followed quickly. They helped the others out of the truck.
When Piotr bent down to lift Anichka up, one of the soldiers said, “No, she will have to walk. Everyone walks.” Piotr stood back up and glared at the soldier. When he turned, Piotr reached a hand down and held Anichka up while the soldiers marched them to a wooden platform next to a train. Attached to the end of the train were ragged looking boxcars.
Halina noticed that there were hundreds of other people standing around, many of them holding bags or suitcases. There were other suitcases that looked as if they had been torn from someone’s hands.
Halina stopped to look at what was inside one of the bags, but was pushed with the rest of her family toward the group that stood on the platform.
One of the Nazi officers stepped forward and said, “Listen you Jews. Cooperate and you will not get hurt.” People around Halina had begun to whisper and she felt the group move closer together.
“Now, Jews, lie down and my men,” he said, gesturing toward the Nazis behind him. “Will walk among you and gather your jewelry, bags, and papers for safekeeping while you are traveling on the journey.”
“Safekeeping?” a man shouted from behind Halina.
“That’s what I said, Jew!” he said sharply. “Lie down.” The commander pointed at the ground with his pistol and a few of the other Nazis did the same.” Halina saw some people glance at the dirt and back at the officer with either a look of disgust or confusion.
“On the ground?” a woman cried out.
“Yes, you Jews! Now lie down!” he commanded.
“But, it’s filthy!” a man protested.
People in the group had already begun to slowly lower themselves to the ground. Some lay on their stomachs and others simply crouched. Halina and her family along with many of the Jews hadn’t moved at all. Halina looked at the soldiers.
The commander pointed his pistol at the ground in front of where many Jews still stood. He shot at the ground next to a man’s foot and dirt sprayed Halina’s face. The man dove to the ground, shielding his head with his hands. Tobias screamed and Piotr gathered Anichka into his arms, covering her ears with his arm.
Halina heard other screams echo throughout the group, which fell silent when the commander spoke again.
“Next time…” he paused. “I will not miss. Now, lie down or I will allow my men to open fire in this area.”
Almost immediately, people lay down on the ground.
“Lie down, Halina. Edmund and Alek, you too.” Halina heard her mother say. Piotr laid Anichka down next to Tobias. Waj Hajnrich pulled Ciotka Genowefa down and Halina’s father crouched down next to Halina’s mother.
“Lie down, Shmuel.” Halina’s mother said as she sighed. Halina’s father slowly lay down.
As Halina lay next to Edmund, she shook as she tried to calm her breathing. Her heart was beating like a thousand gun shots. Halina closed her eyes tightly until she heard footsteps coming toward her. Then, she slowly opened her eyes to a pair of black leather boots.
Halina looked up and the soldier scowled down at her. He indicated to his neck and said, “Your necklace.”
She shook her head. “No,” Halina said in a small voice. “Please.” She clasped her necklace in her hand and looked away.
“You can give it to me like a civilized Jew or I can rip it from your neck. It’s your choice.” he scoffed.
“Please,” Halina begged. “Don’t take it away from me.” She placed her hand on her neck, anticipating that the soldier would promptly rip it off her neck.
“Give him your necklace.” Halina heard Edmund whisper. She shook her head slightly.
“Halina!” he whispered urgently. Halina felt the cold hand of the Nazi on her neck and shivered. He curled his hand around the chain and Halina tensed her body. Her head whipped back as he yanked the necklace from her throat.
Quickly, she tucked her head back towards her body and tried to stop the flow of tears. Her hands were wet, warm, and sticky, from what she knew was blood. Halina heard the soldier move on to Alek and listened to the clothes rustle as the soldier searched his pockets.
Halina closed her eyes and pulled her hands to her chest, trying to stop the pain.
Another hour passed until they were allowed to stand again. Halina stood up slowly and glanced down at her hands. Thin, red lines remained on the back of her hands. The blood had dried and was clotted on the wound.
A single tear splashed down on her hand and Halina narrowed her eyes.
Why am I still crying? she thought, angrily. Halina wiped her face with her sleeve, which now had a collection of pebbles and dried mud from digging the pit. She turned to her left when she heard the officer’s voice.
“Now, my men will show you to your means of transportation.” he commanded, loudly.
She saw Edmund and rushed toward him. He wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m sorry.” she whispered. “But, I’m not sorry that I didn’t take the necklace off. I’m just apologizing to you.”
“You should have taken it off.” Edmund replied as he stepped back. Noticing her hands, he grasped her arm. “You’re hurt.”
“It could have been my neck. It could be a lot worse.” Halina said.
“Exactly!” Edmund cried and when several people glanced at him, he lowered his voice. “You could have been seriously injured. Next time, just do what they say and don’t defy them.”
Suddenly, they were pushed from behind. A soldier eyed them and said sharply, “Follow the crowd.” Halina and Edmund caught up to their parents. Alek appeared silently beside Halina.
“What happened?” he asked. Halina showed him her hands and Alek lifted it to his face. After a minute, he let go, looked at her neck, and back to her hands.
“You didn’t give the soldier your necklace.” Alek stated. When she gave a single nod, he continued, “Of all the stupid, idiotic ideas! Why didn’t you?”
“Alek,” Halina said. “I didn’t because I chose not to. They can’t manipulate me and they will never break my spirit.”
“Or your stubbornness.” she heard him mutter under his breath.
They were interrupted by more Nazi soldiers. Halina, Alek, and their families were shoved towards a line of boxcars.
“Are we going in there?” Halina said, as she recoiled. The smell was awful. The boxcars reeked of human waste and though Halina had never smelled it before, death.
Women and children were pushed into the first few boxcars. The elderly were forced into the back three boxcars and the men were crowded into the remaining boxcars.
Halina got one last glimpse of her father and gazed at the waiting boxcar. “Mother, we can’t all fit in there.” she said.
Halina’s mother didn’t answer, but Halina heard her mumbling, “With God’s help…God will help…God will help…”
Halina’s mother stepped into the boxcar in front of Halina. When, Halina stood staring at the boxcar, a soldier shoved her and she fell, reopening the wounds on her hands. Halina winced and crawled into the boxcar. Her mother wrapped her arms around her after she had settled to the ground.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.” she said softly to Halina. Halina leaned against her mother and sighed slowly.
The door of the boxcar was shut and bolted, blocking out the sunshine. It was suddenly dark inside the boxcar. Almost immediately, many women began to yell and bang against the walls of the boxcar.
“My God!” a woman wailed. “We’ll suffocate! Someone help us!”
Cries for help filled Halina’s ears.
A minute later, the train began to move and slowly picked up speed. The women sat down, defeated. A few near the door banged it a few more times and then, exhausted and crying, they slowly sank to the ground.
Halina leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. Soon, she was asleep.
Halina awoke hours later and looked around. “Mother, it’s too hot…and it smells terrible in here.”
“It’s just the close quarters and sweat.” her mother replied. Halina didn’t believe her. She looked to her left and saw a woman lying on the ground with her eyes closed. Her cheek was purple and swollen. Halina’s eyes moved to the arm that was draped over the woman’s stomach. It was caked with blood and grime. Halina began to avert her eyes and then whipped them back. She took a long stare at the woman’s arm. It wasn’t moving. Halina placed her hand in front of the woman’s nose and felt no air coming out of it.
Halina’s eyes widened and she screamed.
“What’s the matter?” her mother asked, urgently. Halina’s mother peered over Halina’s shoulder. Halina was too shocked to say anything, so she just pointed at the woman.
“What?” Halina’s mother said. “She’s just sleeping. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Halina just pointed at the body again and stuttered, “D…d…dead…” She shook and her hand wavered in the air.
“Oh…my…God.” her mother gasped. “May God almighty bless her.”
Halina buried her head in her mother’s shoulder and wept.
The next day, the boxcar slowed to a halt.
Halina heard Ciotka Genowefa yell something from the other side of the boxcar.
“Mother,” Halina whispered to her mother. “Ciotka Genowefa is here.”
“Thank God.” her mother replied. They stopped talking and listened to Halina’s aunt.
“I see something! One of the boxcars is being dropped off at another platform!” Several women gasped and began to cry out questions.
“Can you see who they are?”
“Where are we?”
“What’s going on?”
“Are we going to get out?”
Ciotka Genowefa continued, “Yes, they are getting out. I can’t see exactly who but… Oh my God…one woman is holding a dead child.” The silence that followed was so pronounced that Halina swore she could hear her heart beating. Everyone remained quiet after that.
They traveled for another two days. Halina could only think about her family… and the constant heat during the day and the cold at night. The smell of sweat, urine, and feces was a reminder of the unpleasant conditions in the boxcar.
By midday, the boxcar slowly rolled to a stop. Halina heard the wheels shriek in protest. She felt another stab of pain in her stomach and doubled over. They hadn’t had water or food in two days. Her tongue felt thick and dry.
Suddenly, Halina heard a loud click and the boxcar door was thrown open. She ducked her head, looking away from the light.
“Schnell! Out, out, schnell!” a soldier commanded harshly.
Quickly, they scrambled out of the boxcar and stood blinking and shielding their eyes from the light. Halina’s legs trembled and painfully straightened them. Halina’s mother had her hand on her shoulder. Halina was glad for the support, but her mother’s hand felt like a lead weight. She breathed in heavily and then covered her nose. The fresh air made her head ache.
Another boxcar was opened and Halina’s eyes swiveled to watch the men exit the boxcar. They looked as shaky as Halina felt. But, when she saw her family emerge, she cried out and ran to her father.
“Halina!” he breathed. “I’ve been so worried. I feared it was you that got dropped off at the earlier stop.” Halina just wrapped her arms around his muscular frame and closed her eyes.
Halina’s eyes sprung open when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned around and fell into Edmund’s arms. “Edmund!” she cried. Halina buried her head in his shirt and breathed in his familiar scent.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I suppose…I’ve had no water or food for two days, but other than that, I’m alright.” Halina replied.
A second later, she heard someone say her name. Halina looked up and stared at Alek. He looked thinner than before and smiled weakly. When he held out his arms, she walked towards him and hugged him.
Halina heard her brother clear his throat and she hastily broke the embrace. “How was the ride?” she asked him.
“Just a bit unpleasant.” Alek replied. He turned around and picked up Tobias who stood behind him. Halina’s eyes widened and she looked at Ciotka Genowefa, who had appeared beside her with Halina’s mother.
“Where’s Anichka?” she asked. When Ciotka Genowefa didn’t answer, Halina tried again, this time with more force, “Where…is…Anichka?”
Then she heard a woman near the entrance of the boxcar shout, “There are a few dead in here!”
A man outside of another boxcar nodded his head and yelled, “In here too! About ten or fifteen bodies!”
“Leave them!” a soldier commanded and he slammed the butt of his gun into the man’s leg. The man fell to the ground and when the soldier kicked his side, he got shakily to his feet.
Halina whipped her head back to Ciotka Genowefa. “Tell me!” she screamed. “Where is she?”
Ciotka Genowefa put her arm around Halina, but Halina shook it off.
“Anichka was sick. You know that much. Halina, you do realize that when a person is ill with a fever, they have to have water. Those monsters did not even give the sick child water. They…” Ciotka Genowefa sobbed.
“She’s dead, isn’t she? Dead.” Halina said, her voice dangerously low. “Those soldiers are going to pay for what they’ve done.”
“Halina,” Halina’s mother said, softly. “You can’t do anything about it. Look at your hands. That is only a reminder of what they are capable of doing. But, if you try something worse than defying them…say rebelling or attempting to harm them…the consequences will be much more severe.”
Halina turned away and glared at a soldier that was looking at her. She allowed Edmund to put his arm around her. Halina took a deep breath.
“I will not cry. Never.” she promised. “I will not be weak.” Halina blinked back tears and listened to the command a Nazi officer was shouting.
“Listen, Jews.” he said. “Follow my men. No falling behind and do it quickly. Schnell!”
“They seem to make a lot of use out of that word.” Edmund whispered. Halina nodded and shuffled forward.
Halina followed the group toward a large encampment with a black, iron gate. She looked past the gate and lines of barracks. The whole area was surrounded by a barbed wire fence that hummed with electricity. On the sign above the gate were the words: ARBEIT MACHT FREI.
“Work makes one free.” Halina mumbled to herself.
“Remember,” Halina heard a man say. “We are in God’s hands.”
“More like the Devil’s hands.” Another man muttered.
One of the soldiers yelled, “Men to the left! Women and children to the right!” All of the soldiers had begun yelling the command. Halina crowded closer to her family.
Suddenly, Tobias was ripped from Alek’s arms and shoved towards the women’s line. Halina and Ciotka Genowefa were pushed after him. Halina’s mother clung to her husband. Edmund, Alek, Piotr, and Waj Hajnrich were forced into the men’s line.
Halina screamed for Edmund and Alek. Edmund gave the ghost of a smile as he was shoved deeper into the group. Halina looked back at her father and mother, who still stood in the middle of the lines. They weren’t the only ones. Many families were attempting to hold on to their loved ones.
Finally, Halina’s mother was ripped out of her husband’s protective hold.
“Shmuel!” she cried, as she was drug into the line next to Halina and Ciotka Genowefa.
“Anja!” he shouted back. Halina struggled against her aunt’s hold.
“Ojciec! Father!” she cried. “No! No! Let go!” Halina shouted at Ciotka Genowefa. She tried to wrench her arm out of Ciotka Genowefa’s grip, but couldn’t escape her aunt’s hold.
After a few minutes, the crowd was rearranged into two different groups.
“Now, Jews, listen up!” a Nazi shouted. “A doctor will examine you to make sure that you are healthy and ready for resettlement. Then, you may proceed into the buildings.”
The line moved slowly and Halina watched as the men were taken to another part of the camp, away from the women. Eventually, she stood in front of the doctor. He took one look at her and gestured towards the concrete building behind him.
“That’s it?” Halina asked indignantly. She was answered with a slap on the cheek.
A Nazi soldier stood above her. “You will not speak unless spoken to.” he said as he pushed her towards the building. Halina gritted her teeth and walked slowly, waiting for her mother.
Once inside the building, a woman in a pale blue dress and a string of blue numbers on her left arm, walked into the room. She scowled and wrinkled her nose. “You Jews are filthy! Undress and you will take a shower. Quickly. Schnell!”
The women looked at one another, uncertain whether they would be undressing now.
“Here, in front of each other?” Halina asked her mother. Halina’s mother looked at Ciotka Genowefa, who shrugged.
“Well?” the woman in the blue dress said. “Get undressed!”
Halina looked around and saw that other women had already begun to take off their clothes. Halina sat down on the wooden bench and untied her shoes. Everyone had undressed and had sat on the benches for almost an hour, shivering, when the woman in the blue dress returned and said, “Now, into the showers. Once you are done, you will visit the barber in the next room.”
Halina followed the other women to the showers and stepped into an open one. The ice cold water sprayed out of a nozzle. At first, she shivered, but then began to gulp down the water. After a minute, she decided to try and scrub the grime and filth off of her body.
The showers were abruptly turned off and the women were issued back into the cold room. Their clothes were gone and they were given nothing to dry off with. Halina sat next to her mother on the wooden bench, shivering.
Just then, the door in front of a wooden bench opened and a soldier with short blond hair and blue eyes walked in. Halina and several other women screamed and turned away.
“Now, you will visit the barber. Follow me.” he commanded. The women walked behind him.
“You will line up and he will cut your hair one at a time. No talking and I expect cooperation.”
Halina moved into the line in between her mother and aunt. She looked around for Tobias, but was unable to find him. Halina watched as her mother’s dark, curly hair was chopped off of her head. She cringed and then stepped forward.
Halina stood in front of the barber with her back to him. The barber looked like he was also a prisoner. He wore blue and white striped clothes and you could clearly see his bones. The man’s head was shaved and he held blunt scissors in his right hand. Halina closed her eyes and listened to the snip of the scissors and the soft thud as clumps fell to the ground. She opened her eyes slowly and located her braid. Her mother had always said that it was the color of a sepia tree.
Her braid wasn’t the only one laying on the floor. Chunks of wet hair lay scattered around Halina. She saw blond hair, brown hair, black hair, curly hair, and braids.
Once the barber was done, Halina slowly raised her hand and felt the short stubble that now covered her head. She looked around for her mother, but was unable to find her. All of the women looked the same without their hair.
“Mother,” she cried. “Where are you?” Halina looked around wildly until a woman rushed toward her.
“There you are Halina!” Halina’s mother kissed her softly on the head.
“Why does our hair have to be cut off?” she asked her mother.
“I asked the same question. They said ‘no hair means no lice’. But do we have lice? No.” Halina’s mother answered.
Once all of the women had gotten their hair cut by the barber, they were sent to a long table piled high with grimy clothes.
“Now, you must have clothes.” the woman in the blue dress called to the women. “Choose, you Jews. This is no time to be picky about what you wear.” Halina looked at the ragged clothes with wide eyes.
Halina moved toward the table and plunged her hand into the pile and came up with a gray dress with a white band at the waist. At least…it had been white when it was new. Now, it was a dark gray with dirt specks scattered on it. There were sweat stains under the arms and it was worn in many parts. Grimacing, she pulled it over her head and sighed. It was a bit big, but it was too late to choose another.
Halina’s mother had put on a green dress with brown trimmings. Halina looked for her aunt and saw that she wore a deep red dress speckled with small white flowers.
The women were brought into another room and were commanded to line up single file. On the other side of the room next to a wooden table, sat a prisoner holding a metal tool. Another empty chair sat next to him. When Halina got closer, she saw that the prisoner was using the tool to write a string of numbers on the women’s arms.
“Next!” one of the guards called. Halina walked up to the table and sat down. She looked into the prisoner’s sad eyes. Halina attempted to smile, but it didn’t feel right to smile in such an awful place.
“What is your name?” the prisoner asked her. “I will give you a number instead.”
“Um…Halina…Halina Osinski.” Halina told the prisoner. He placed the tattooing pen on her arm and wrote J139407. The tattooing pen burned into her arm. She held her head high and remembered her promise. She would not cry and give the soldiers what they wanted.
“Now you are J139407.”
“Next!” the guard standing near the table yelled. Halina looked at the guard. He frowned at her and then abruptly turned away.
After waiting for the other women to get their tattoos, the women were assigned to barracks. Inside, the walls were lined with wooden shelves stacked up to three levels. There were no blankets or pillows.
“Is this where we sleep?” Halina asked her mother. She looked around and saw that there were some women already lying down on the shelves with their eyes closed.
Halina’s mother sighed and said, “Yes, these monsters certainly don’t plan on using these shelves to store things.”
Halina crawled onto the second shelf next to her mother and another girl. She lay awake for hours thinking about her old home and of the men’s camp. What were the men doing? Were they being forced to sleep on shelves just as the women were? Halina tried to ignore the constant ache in her stomach. It rumbled and she turned, closing her eyes.
Slowly, Halina fell asleep.
Halina was woken up at five in the morning. She lined up with the rest of the women in the Appellplatz for roll call. Halina was forced to stand for over an hour while the Nazi guards accounted for everyone.
After roll call, the women lined up to go to the food line. At the first table, a young woman handed them each a small metal bowl. When she handed one to Halina, she said, “You must take care of your bowl. You use this bowl to eat, wash, and drink. Without it, you cannot do any of these. It could mean life or death. Remember which one is yours and do not lose it.”
Halina nodded her thanks and moved forward in the line. Watery potato soup was poured into her bowl and she was handed a piece of stale bread. Halina sat down at a table and ate quickly. After a moment, she looked down. The soup was already gone and it still hadn’t satisfied her hunger.
Immediately after the meal, the women were lined up by the woman in the blue dress. Once they lined up, an officer arrived and stood in front of the women. “You will be expected to work from now on. You will not talk back, complain or ask useless questions. There will be no attempts to escape. There is no way to escape. Listen to me Jews, you will do this…or you will die.” The officer nodded to the woman in the blue dress, turned, and left.
The women were then split into working groups. Halina was separated from her mother and aunt. She stood with five other girls around her age. They were assigned to build another barrack near the back of the camp.
Halina walked with the other girls towards the back of the camp, keeping her eyes on the ground. When they got to the building site, all six of the girls looked at each other. Mounds of wood lay on the ground.
“I guess we are supposed to build another barrack out of these materials.” the girl next to Halina said. The girl had brown eyes speckled with green. Halina realized that this was one of the only ways to tell the girls apart from one of another. It was still hard for Halina to see other women and girls without any hair.
“Well,” Halina said. “I guess we should get started. Does anyone know what we should do first?” The other girls shook their heads.
The girl with the brown and green eyes spoke up. “I think we should introduce ourselves. My name is Eva.” She turned to Halina.
“My name is Halina.”
One by one, the girls said their names.
“My name is Katarzyna.”
The girls began to pick up the boards and nailed them to each other. After a few hours, they had built one wall of the barrack. While they worked, Eva talked to Halina.
“What city are you from?” Eva asked.
“Is that in Poland? I’ve never heard of it.”
“No,” Eva answered. “It is in Czechoslovakia.”
“Oh. You came all that way to this…place?”
“Well, it is not that far away. It’s just across the border.” They were interrupted by Katarzyna, who saw that Halina was struggling to lift a long wooden board.
“Do you guys need a hand?” Katarzyna asked. She walked over and helped Halina.
“Thanks.” Halina said, gratefully. Together, they lifted the board upright and nailed it to the others.
Just then, a soldier walked over. “It’s time for your meal.” he said with a smirk.
“Meal,” Eva scoffed. “More like a morsel.” The girls followed the soldier back to the kitchen and got in line.
“Guess what?” Katarzyna asked, smiling.
“What?” Eva and Halina replied.
“It looks like we are having watery potato soup again and...”
“How is that a good thing?” Halina interrupted, confused by Katarzyna’s smile.
“Well,” Katarzyna said. “They decided to give us a piece of brown bread too…and it’s not stale.” She grinned again.
Halina looked at Eva, who looked pleased by the idea of having that meager meal. Halina shrugged her shoulders and forced a smile. A small piece of bread and watery potato soup still did not satisfy her.
“I know you might not think that this is a lot, Halina, but we have been here for a while and it is a privilege to get bread along with soup.” Eva explained. “On some days, those terrible soldiers give us only a bite of bread with one sip of water and sometimes, they don’t even give us water. We went a week depending on the rain to quench our thirst.”
Halina smiled and handed her bowl to a young woman, who filled the bowl with the watery potato soup. Halina saw another woman holding a tray of bread. She went over quickly and grabbed the largest piece she could find. Katarzyna and Eva did the same.
Minutes later, they had just finished eating when they heard a man from the men’s camp yell, “Commandant! The Commandant is coming!” A woman in the camp continued the call.
Halina looked at Eva who beckoned to her. “Hurry!” she said. “We have to get to the Appellplatz!”
Katarzyna rushed towards the courtyard and Eva followed. Halina looked around and seeing that all of the women were running, followed Eva.
“What’s going on?” she asked Eva, breathlessly.
“The Commandant comes and choses prisoners for proceeding.” Eva answered.
“What?” Halina said out of the corner of her mouth.
“Chosen for d…death.”
“He doesn’t usually come at this time either. It is usually during roll call.”
Once they arrived at the Appellplatz, Halina, Eva, and Katarzyna slid into line. They watched the Commandant’s black car drive up into the middle of the camp. The Commandant stepped out and began to walk along the line, stopping occasionally to look at the women with a smirk. He walked past a pretty young woman and pinched her cheek, leaving a bright pink mark. The woman glared at him until the Commandant broke eye contact.
The Commandant walked down the rows. Half an hour later, he walked back to the front of the group of women. “J139412! J25694!”
The women looked around at each other frightfully. Halina let out a sigh of relief. Eva exhaled softly. But, Halina’s relief didn’t last long. She looked up and gasped.
“Ciotka Genowefa.” Halina breathed. She watched as her aunt slowly came forward. Suddenly, she stopped and doubled over, coughing. After a minute of hacking coughs, Ciotka Genowefa stood back up and walked to stand in front of the Commandant along with a pregnant woman.
Halina stared in horror as the Commandant smiled at the women and led them to his car. The Commandant slid into the driver’s seat and drove silently out of the camp. The soldiers commanded the women to get back to work and the lines broke up.
“No!” Halina sobbed. She ran ahead of Eva and Katarzyna back to the work site. But, instead of working, she fell behind the wood pile and lay curled up in a ball.
Eva and Katarzyna walked cautiously behind the wood pile and stopped when they saw Halina.
Eva gestured for Katarzyna to continue working as not to attract any unwanted attention from the soldiers. Carefully, she knelt down next to Halina and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Halina,” she said softly. “That’s how all Selections are. A few women are chosen for proceedings. This happens often. It’s…”
“You don’t understand!” Halina cried.
“Why? Why don’t I understand?” Eva continued in a soothing voice. She looked Halina in the eye.
“That…that was my aunt, Ciotka Genowefa,” Halina took a deep breath. “First, Anichka and now Ciotka Genowefa…”
“Anichka?” Eva asked.
“She was a friend I’ve known since she was born. We lived on the same street and her brother, Alek, is in the men’s camp along with my father; my brother, Edmund; Piotr, who is Alek’s father; and Waj Hajnrich. Tobias, Anichka’s other brother, is in this camp, but I haven’t seen him.”
“Tobias was probably assigned to another working area. Don’t worry.”
“Where do the chosen people go? After they were chosen, I mean.”
“I’m not sure.” Eva answered. She stood up and offered her hand to Halina. Halina took the outstretched hand and stood up slowly. Tears continued to roll down her face. “It’s alright,” Eva said as she hugged Halina. “Now we’d better get back to work. We don’t want the soldiers coming after us.”
The next day, the soldiers stopped the girls about an hour after they had begun working. “Assemble at the Appellplatz!” soldiers yelled. “Schnell! Quickly!”
Halina ran with Eva and Katarzyna to the Appellplatz.
“I wonder what it is this time.” Eva said. “There was just a Choosing yesterday, so I doubt there will be another one today.” They found their place in line and stood up straight.
An officer stood in front of the women.
“The Commandant isn’t here. That means that this is not a Choosing.” Katarzyna whispered.
The officer began to speak. “There was an attempted revolt last night. I hope you all remember about cooperating and not talking back, complaining, or asking useless questions. That also meant no attempts at escape and no revolts. Now, my men will demonstrate what will happen to women who try to disobey our command. The women who attempted to revolt against us were shot immediately. My men have some volunteers.” He gestured to the window in a three story building behind him.
Halina saw a soldier look out and nodded his head curtly. Just then, Halina watched as a screaming woman flew out of the window and landed with a crunch on the ground in front of the line of women. Halina’s jaw dropped and Eva muttered, “Oh dear God.” Another woman sailed through the air and fell onto the ground, moaning. Woman after woman was thrown from the window until Halina had counted ninety women.
The women in line were screaming and crying. Halina didn’t move and Katarzyna stood with her eyes closed. Ninety women lay on the ground, dead and unmoving.
Halina felt arms wrap around her and looked up to see her mother.
“Mother…” she whispered.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.” her mother said soothingly.
“Where have you been?” Halina asked. “I never see you except for at night.”
“I’ve been assigned to clean the kitchen and the barracks. Filthy work, but better than most. Have you seen Genowefa?”
Halina’s tried to hold back tears. “She’s…she’s…”
“Get back to work!” a soldier yelled. “Schnell!” Halina stepped back from her mother’s embrace and whispered, “Dead.” Then, she hurried away, back to the work site.
The next week, Halina awoke to a siren. Seeing that none of the other women had moved, she thought nothing of it and quickly fell back asleep. When she woke again at five in the morning, Halina went straight to roll call. She lined up next to Eva. This time, her mother was told to stand on Halina’s left.
Halina had her eyes half closed until she felt her mother shake her.
“Halina,” she whispered urgently. “Wake up.” Halina opened her eyes quickly and looked up. The Commandant drove up in his black car and got out.
Eva looked surprised, “It’s the Commandant…and he is here before roll call.” The Commandant positioned himself in front of the women.
“I cannot impress how much you Jews continue to disobey us. This time, I decided to bring three men who tried to enter this camp to save their families. They were going to attempt to escape. Where would they go? To the woods? They would starve! There is no one near this place; we are alone and we are in the middle of nowhere. Listen to me Jews. There is no escape. There is no way out.” The Commandant gestured to a soldier who opened the door to the back of the Commandant’s car.
Halina heard her mother stifle a cry as her father, Edmund, and Waj Hajnrich stepped out of the car. She could see where the Nazis had whipped her brother. They shuffled towards a brick wall.
“The Devil’s Wall.” Eva breathed. Three Nazis stood at attention in front of the men.
“Edmund! Father! Waj Hajnrich!” Halina cried. Her eyes went wide and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Thankfully, the Nazis ignored her.
“They expected that kind of reaction.” Eva whispered. Halina let her hand drop. Edmund gave a sad smile and her father mouthed her name. Waj Hajnrich just hung his head. He seemed to be in the worst shape out of the three.
Halina nodded her head towards her mother and Halina’s father said, “Anja.”
“Shmuel.” Halina’s mother whispered. Halina heard her mother whisper something that sounded suspiciously like a prayer.
While she watched her family standing against the Devil’s Wall, Halina saw Edmund smile and mouth, “Piotr.” Halina looked around. Her eyes widened and she turned to her mother.
“I think Piotr has escaped.” she whispered. Halina’s mother smiled sadly and they stopped talking when the Commandant began to lecture them again.
“Now, Jews. Listen to me. I am tired of saying this: Do not disobey, do not talk back, complain or ask useless questions. You will work or you will die. Here are men who disobeyed…men who thought it was alright to try and escape from this place.” The Commandant paused. “Now listen, Jews. This is what happens if you attempt to do what they did.” He gestured to the soldiers and they raised their guns.
“No!!” Halina cried. She flung herself towards Edmund, but Eva held her back. “Let go!” she screamed at Eva. Eva’s grip was like iron as Halina struggled to free herself. Halina’s mother just wavered where she stood. Then, she kissed her fingertips and raised them towards her husband, Edmund, and Waj Hajnrich.
“Please!” Halina screamed. “Don’t shoot them!” But, the soldiers ignored her, took aim, and fired.
Bang! Waj Hajnrich fell to the ground. Two more gun shots followed the first. Halina stared at Edmund and her father. A second later, they lay on the ground, blood pouring from a bullet wounds in their chests.
Halina crumbled to the ground, sobbing. Her mother knelt next to her and kissed her forehead.
Eva knelt next to Halina’s mother and placed her hand on Halina’s shoulder.
“Schnell!” a soldier yelled. Eva and Halina’s mother hastily pulled Halina to her feet and scrambled into line, just as a soldier came around for roll call. Halina quickly wiped her eyes and smiled. The soldier took one look at her, smirked, and moved on.
Halina’s eyes wandered to the Devil’s Wall and looked one last time at the three bodies that lay on the ground. She heard a soldier say to one holding a gun, “Call the Kommandos.”
A minute later, three Kommandos walked around the wall. Two of them picked up Waj Hajnrich and Halina’s father. The third Kommando hesitated.
“Alek!” The Kommando turned at Halina’s voice. His jaw dropped and he whispered, “Halina.” Then, he glanced down at Edmund’s dead body. Halina looked down too and fresh tears began to fall.
“My father?” he mouthed.
“Escaped.” Halina mouthed back, smiling, tears still streaming down her face. Alek nodded his head and smiled. A soldier frowned at him and Alek picked up Edmund’s body. With one last glance at Halina, he walked after the other Kommandos.
After a meager breakfast, which was a small chunk of bread, Halina trudged to her work site. After a minute, she fell behind Katarzyna and Eva. I broke my promise. Halina thought. I said I would never cry. Now, constant tears slid down her face. She kept her eyes trained on the ground and her head bowed. Halina did not want to risk the soldiers seeing her.
She worked, went to the kitchen for the midday meal, back to work, and then to roll call at the end of the day. Halina walked like a lost spirit and she refused to talk. Eva tried to comfort her, but Halina would just shake her head as tears rolled down her cheeks.
That night, she lay on the shelf thinking about her family. She never stopped thinking about the times before being relocated and deported to this awful place. Halina thought about Edmund teasing her, her father swinging her into the air when he arrived home from work, and Waj Hajnrich walking with her in the park. He would show her different types of plants and animals. They used to lie on the grass and gaze at the clouds. At night, he would point out constellations. She remembered when her life was normal and she wasn’t in some god forsaken land, starving with most of her family murdered.
Halina dreamed of Tobias’s birthday and when she woke up, her arms were wet with tears. She rolled off of the shelf and stood up. Halina took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. Today she would hold her head high and stay strong…for her mother, for Alek, for Eva and Katarzyna, and for Tobias. Halina was still unsure of where Tobais was. He was assigned a separate barrack and worked on the other side of camp…somewhere.
When Eva stood in line next to her at roll call, Halina tried to smile. Eva smiled back and stood tall when the soldier came by.
Suddenly, the Commandant’s car pulled up into camp. Halina watched him get out of the car and she tried to hold back her tears. It was hard to describe her hatred for the man. He had murdered four members of her family and poor Anichka, who only lived for four short years.
“Selection,” Halina’s mother muttered. “Stay strong, Halina.” Halina shook her head. Tears streamed down her face.
“Mother,” she said. “I love you.” Halina leaned over towards Katarzyna who stood on the other side of Eva. “Take care of Tobias and my mother. Once this is over, look for a boy named Alek. He is Tobias’s older brother. Alek will know what to do.” Katarzyna looked confused.
“Are you going somewhere?” she asked Halina. Halina turned away, took a deep breath, and waited for the Commandant. He walked towards her and Halina’s heart began to beat fast. The Commandant stopped in front of Eva and smirked.
“You.” he said. Eva’s eyes widened. “You are too thin and sick.”
“No,” Eva said. “Please…I am strong and I am healthy. You need people that are useful.” The Commandant laughed a harsh laugh.
“Get to the car.” he commanded. Eva bowed her head and slowly walked towards the Commandant’s sleek black car.
The Commandant watched her go and then looked at Halina. “And you…you are too weak. Stop crying. Get to the car.” Halina looked at Katarzyna and tried to smile.
“I’m going to see father.” she whispered to herself. Halina wiped her eyes and turned to her mother.
“Stay strong matka.” She stepped toward her mother to hug her, but was pulled away by a soldier and was shoved into the back of the Commandant’s car next to Eva.
Eva was crying softly and she turned when Halina was pushed into the car.
“Together?” she whispered. Halina took Eva’s hand in hers.
“Together.” Halina promised. The Commandant slid into the car and drove the car silently out of the camp. Halina turned and looked for her mother, who was sobbing in the arms of another woman. Halina thought for a moment and realized that her mother had lost everyone: Halina’s father, Edmund, and now Halina. Halina’s mother’s brother, Waj Hajnrich was dead, as well as his wife, Ciotka Genowefa. She had lost everyone.
They arrived in front of a large, brick building. A smoke stack on the side of the building billowed out black smoke. Halina and Eva were told to exit the car and they walked toward the building, hand in hand. The Commandant watched them from the car. He smirked and the soldier sitting in the passenger seat jeered at the two girls, shouting rude words.
Halina looked at the building and back at Eva. Eva gave a small smile and looked at the sky.
“Jmenuji se Eva*!” she shouted.
“Nazywam się Halina!**” Halina cried. They stopped in front of the door, where a guard stood. He gestured impatiently for them to walk down the stairs into the dark room. It was as black as night and almost as cold as ice.
Halina and Eva looked at each other one last time. Halina muttered, “God, bez nas… bez nas wszystkich.***” After a shaky breath she whispered, “Gotowa czynie, tu dochodzimy.****” and together, they walked into the night.
Halina Osinski (J139407) and Eva Moravek (J92148) were murdered in a gas chamber at Aushwitz-Birkenau. Both were only 13 years old. Eventually, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27, 1945. Halina’s mother, Anja (J132497), Tobias (J139705), Alek (J137952), and Katarzyna (J98921) survived the terrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Katarzyna managed to find Alek and Halina’s mother, Tobias, and Alek return to Kraków, Poland. Katarzyna found her father, the only surviving member of her family and they returned to their home in Bielsko-Biała, Poland. Piotr (J137964) is eventually reunited with his children. Halina’s mother moved in with Piotr, Alek, and Tobias to help care for the children.
After the soldiers in Auschwitz were arrested by the Soviets, the surviving prisoners were given medical attention. It took many of the prisoners a long time to recover because of disease and malnutrition.