It seemed far away, then, as it does now, as if waking from a dream when the darkness is fading, before reality comes into focus, and the vision dissolves into fragments of shadow and colour. Each incident was significant, crystallized and perfect, yet seen through the wrong end of a telescope, across an unbridgeable chasm, yet close, so that our very breath mingled.
I speak in riddles.
It was a relief to step from the train, to inhale without being assailed by the rancid smell of unwashed bodies or the floor, slick with overflow from the bucket and the offerings of agitated stomachs aggravated by the endless pitching of the train.
But relief turned to confusion and chaos as children were wrenched from parents, husbands from wives, friends from friends.
I was lucky, but perhaps luck has no influence on the matter. Maybe, it was the way the sun shone that day or my number in the roster. I do not know.
We didn’t know what happened to the other people herded away, to another barracks, perhaps. We were marched in the opposite direction, stripped, shorn, and fed our first meal in days.
I vomited. My shrivelled stomach rejected that which it needed. Hanneke, my bunkmate, held my head over the slop pail, wiping my face with a rag. She whispered comfort, but also a plea.
“Quickly, you must stop. You understand?”
I did not. Better that I died on the train than suffer this heaving torment.
In the morning, the warden’s appeal was more adamant.
“You are not grateful? You want I should dump your breakfast straight in the pail and send you to join your unworthy comrades?”
I choked back bile.
The women from my barracks worked in a long building sorting clothing. Dresses, trousers, children’s sweaters, fur coats. We plucked buttons, unstitched zippers, rolled lace, and unravelled vests. Pressing, folding, stacking piles into mountains. Then, returning to our bunks, exhaling lint and the scent of a thousand, ten thousand people.
Each morning, the warden drove us along the road parallel to a fence several meters away. She delighted in reaching out with her stick, goading, repeating her action when her victim yelped. Hanneke and I stayed at the rear, far away from the prodding stick. I wanted to die.
One day, a men’s work detail was sent out on the other side of the fence, to where, I did not know.
“Look, someone is staring.” Hanneke nudged me.
A man was looking at me, but he glanced away. However, the tiniest smile remained. Hanneke raised her eyebrows. “You know him?”
The next day, the men were sent out again. The smiling man was there. He slowed and stooped, as if checking his boot.
“He set something near the fence, Maritje. I’ll watch Warden.”
Nestled in the sparse grass was a smooth stone, polished to silken fineness by the caressing of flowing water. I looked for the man, but the line was moving away, and I saw only the backs of shaven heads. I showed Hanneke.
“So. A gift.”
I blushed and hid the stone from Hanneke’s grin.
Almost every day, I saw the man. I did not know if he was a Pieter or Lev or Dmitri. Was he Ukrainian, Dutch, or French? His gentle eyes followed me as we walked our parallel paths, and soon his group would stride ahead and through the gates. I learned to understand by his smile to check beneath a certain tuft of grass or by a post, and I’d find a crust wrapped in a leaf or, perhaps, a miniature nosegay of grass, buttercups, or berry blossoms. A bouquet of roses in that wretched place would not have been grander.
Working with clothing granted me bits of odd fabric and I stitched socks. I was pleased to give him something.
“Maritje, will you speak to him?” Hanneke asked.
It was impossible under the sharp eye and stick of Warden.
Yet, was there ever a love more fervently declared, and had it been given a voice in that obscene place, would it not have been sullied?
I thought not again of dying in the midst of such death, not even when his smiling face no longer came, for one who has been so loved once can be loved again. When the roiling clouds ascended in coils of greasy smoke, I refused to think of what had perished, but what had been born.
Faith in despair. Love, even in loss.
Accept Jesus as Your Savior Right Now and be Certain of Eternal Life.
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