This short story was inspired by a screenplay I wrote. Having lost family to the Holocaust, I'm always inspired to write about this subject.
After I finished the screenplay, my story of two Jewish brothers continued to burn in me, so I took another turn with it and visualised a few scenes which were untold and I came up with two different short stories which actually created one story from two different points of view.
The first is is from the younger brother's point, remembering the Holocaust in his late 70s while the second is from their mother's point, shortly before she was murdered in the gas chamber in Auschwitz.
Eventually I would like to consider writing a fiction novel from what's in my head together with family history that I know of.
For now I thought I would just share this little sad tale that grew in my mind.
This is a fiction piece, however I believe that many went through similar ordeals during the war; including my ancestors.
It's not a happy tale but I do hope that through it, I have reflected the tragedy that was World War II during the Jewish Holocaust because no one should ever forget the fallen.
ALDRICH REMEMBERS, JUNE 2014, MISSOURI USA
I remember matka calling out to Pasha and I. My beautiful mother. Her melodic voice, mixed with tears. I was seven, Pasha ten. We were still boys then. Innocent. Free. Before we understood what war meant.
That morning was piercingly cold. So cold you could see the frozen dew covering the unforgiving barren landscape. So cold our toes were blue within our worn boots. Not even our mended socks were enough to heat our little feet.
Iced over birch branches cracked as they slowly descended to the frozen earth. There were no sparrows; not even crows. All the birds migrated south long before the winter came.
We were men. It is how I saw us back then. Men enduring mother nature’s punishment. Like toy soldiers in the palm of an infant’s hand. We were on dziadka’s farm in Krakow. Babcia had passed away. From tuberculosis matka said, but I am an old man now who sees the truth; suicide. Babcia would have rather killed herself than let those bastards win.
She cried all day when dziadka’s letter arrived in Berlin. We didn’t know why. Ojciec was away at the time preparing for a Barmitzvah. One he would not return from. Matka packed our clothes and we caught the train to Poland. The tips of our noses dripped as we arrived. Our hair frozen, white at the ends from the frost.
Matka was inside packing all of dziadka’s belongings into several old suitcases. The leather kind with solid brass locks. She said he had to leave; some special place where he would be taken care of. She told us we may never see him again. I didn’t understand then. I asked if we could visit him but matka said we could not go where he was going. We had to return to Berlin as quickly as possible. If only we went with him I could have saved myself a life of loneliness.
She chased us out of the house when we tried to come in that morning, warning us to stay away. We knew she was crying over babcia’s lifeless body. We had snuck into the room earlier to see babcia and found matka kneeling in front of the bed; her head on babcia’s hands. A motionless vessel, still as the frozen lake outside. Her fragile form looked as if she were sleeping. I expected her to awaken any moment, asking us if we wanted some challah. I still remember her challah. The sweetness of the precious braided white bread she used to make for us, even if it wasn’t a holiday. I miss babcia. Dziadka too, I miss them all.
That day we played Klasy near the old barn where dziadka’s stock horse Maurycy sheltered himself from the winter elements. He stood and stared while we threw our stones, jumping around. I once asked matka why dziadka named him Maurycy. She said Maurycy meant ‘dark-skinned’ in Polish, and when she was still a little girl, he was born in that very same barn; black as the midnight sky at the coldest time of year. An unusual time for a horse to foal. I never found out what happened to him but I always envisioned him running through the fields of Poland and leaping over the boarder to freedom. It was better that way. It gave me hope for a long time.
This day on the farm was that same time of year. A time where days began later and nights arrived sooner. Where a warm summer’s day was just another illusion buried deep within our hearts. When lake swims at Zakrzowek Lake became yet another dream, tucked away to keep us warm at night. Nostalgic times spent reminiscing hot summers while waiting for that short period to return; allowing its embrace to seep into our souls with the sun’s warmth. I of course, am now alone. With only memories for comfort.
That winter when babcia died was one of the coldest I remember. Maybe it was because it was the first time we had seen a corpse. Maybe it was because it was the last time we would see dziadka. Yet maybe, just maybe, I remember it because it was the winter I first heard the name Hitler. The year everything changed.
It was June 1940. Nine months after war broke out in Poland and the month I learnt where dziadka went. Auschwitz. The very place which robbed me of my entire family; still haunting my dreams today. Yet here I breathe while babcia, dziadka, matka, ojciec and Pasha do not. I now myself await the sandman to ask him for eternal sleep.
A MOTHER’S FEARS, JUNE 1943, AUSCHWITZ
The letter arrived three years ago in June. With it; my worst fears confirmed. They had come for my matka and ojciec. The Nazis gave them a week to pack before they would return and take them to Auschwitz. The new camp set up under Hitler’s rein. It was over, I would lose my parents. I had to return. Jakub, my beloved husband and I fled in September 1939 when war broke out. It was the last time we were all together.
I had to risk everything just to see them once more. The most difficult part; bringing my boys with me. Pasha yes, but Aldrich? Could he cope with what was about to happen? I’d been lying to my children for so long. My precious little boys; handsome like their father.
I wasn’t sure what would be best anymore. Soon they would come for us too, I knew that. We were branded. Not just by the yellow star I hand stitched on every jacket, but because in our veins ran tainted blood. I knew then it was over. Now we survive day by day, waiting for our bodies to surrender.
We arrived on the farm on a cold winter’s morning; like the ones I remembered growing up on the farm. Ojciec was crying and I thought it may just be the situation. I was so very wrong. Matka refused to let Hitler win; always was a stubborn woman. She took her own life that morning. Ojciec said he found her unresponsive when he returned from the barn. He was feeding Maurycy. My dear old friend, my horse. Born twenty three years earlier, on a winter’s day such as this. What would become of him once they returned for my father, I wondered that day.
Ojciec said he found an empty bottle of barbiturates and an empty glass nearby. I could not even comprehend what he must have felt when he returned that morning to find her dead. I could not tell the boys the truth; not then nor now. The fear in their eyes would have broken me. At the time I needed every shattered piece of myself for the punishing journey ahead. I was alone, without the support of my husband; taken two weeks prior. Another lie. My boys knew nothing.
The tears would not stop that day. I cried for every Jew, for every one of us doomed. There was nowhere to hide. They would always find us. They found everyone. All our friends, our neighbours, loved ones.
I kneeled over my matka's lifeless body wondering if I would be strong enough to do the same if I didn’t have the children. Could I do it if I knew then what I know now? Yes. Now, I would happily take those pills with my boys for eternal peace. It won't be long now so it doesn't even matter. My husband gone, my body weak, my children looking to me to save them. And I cannot. I cannot save them, nor myself. All I do is wait for this nightmare to end.
If I had courage, I would walk to the gates and pray the bastards shoot me swiftly, inflicting mercy upon me. But I have no courage left. I merely exist because my children still breathe beside me at night in this rat infested disease riddled hell.
I look back on that day and realize I should have paid more attention. Pasha and Aldrich; still so free and innocent, believing their babcia died from tuberculosis. I could not speak the truth. I could not break their spirit. Not yet; I knew life was going to break us soon.
Pasha my oldest, Pasha the brave. He isn’t doing well here. I fear they may come for him soon. Gas him with the weak who cannot work. And I will have to sit in this prison, inhaling the burnt fumes from his body as it escapes the oven chamber, knowing that as a mother I failed him. After that, it will be my last comfort as a mother; knowing he suffers no more.
Aldrich, my darling Aldrich. Now ten, surprisingly strong and even more surprisingly healthy. I know Pasha has been giving his food rations to him to save him. My brave boys. If I had just one wish, it would be for them to survive this god-forsaken war and live.
I close my eyes and still see them strong and healthy playing Klasy with smiles on their faces. A game my ojciec taught them when they spent the summers at the farm. How I miss those majestic sunsets; the colours of fire and rain. What I wouldn’t give to go back. Even to that cold June morning just to see them smile once again.
The hunger is the worst part. You feel empty all the time. You're not even hungry anymore, just empty, dead already.