She stood out, like a lily among thistles, when she stepped off the train. It was more than the fur collar on her coat or her leather shoes; her regal and reserved bearing set her apart amidst the anguished and frenzied chaos.
How she’d kept so clean on the train was beyond my understanding. My own clothing was stained with vomit, sweat, and urine, and I reeked of smoke and fear.
“Please deliver my bags to my room,” I heard her say to a guard, who laughed, especially when the stately woman rifled through her handbag, I presumed for a coin or two.
She did not flinch when commanded to remove her fine clothing and shoes, nor when they sheared away her hair and flung delousing powder over her. Rather, she suffered the indignities and ministrations with serene composure.
We were assigned to the same barracks.
“I am Irena Wawelberg, wife of Doctor Antoni Wawelberg. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” She inclined her head gracefully and shook our hands. Gazing about at the crude bunks and planked floor, she asked, “When will the dining room be open? Has the concierge delivered my bags?”
We were speechless.
Irena, though elderly, was assigned to the clothing building, sewing Nazi uniforms, and her fingers bled from working with the stiff fabric, especially in the cold. Most people her age were taken away when they arrived, and at the time, we’d had no inkling of their destiny.
Each morning, in darkness that hid our shivering, we stood long hours for appel, waiting to be counted, and sometimes, recounted, to the accompaniment of slaps and strikes of the guards’ cudgels. Irena remained steadfast, never recoiling, and hideous bruises often discoloured her petal-soft skin.
Irena would request fresh cream for the tepid and disgusting ground acorn coffee we were given and she’d ask why her makowiec was stale, yet she accepted any deficiencies with stoic grace. She’d stir her watery soup, searching for a nugget of moldy potato or turnip, and the tiniest smear of butter for our hard bread was greeted with triumphant rejoicing.
“Shall I tell you about the time we had a picnic by the sea? My husband, a doctor, you know, ordered fresh asparagus and the chef created a special pastry for us.” She’d ramble on, with captivating charm, regaling us with stories of another time, another life, one we’d never known and never would. Her reminiscing allowed us to taste fragrant szarlotka, caress damask tablecloths with our dirty fingers, and arrange roses in crystal vases. We dreamed and hoped of a place beyond the barbed wire, where women strolled, pushing plump babies in prams and pansies still bloomed in lush gardens.
Our kapo called Irena “The Countess,” out of respect, not derision, and blows from the kapo’s baton were merely token taps.
Yet, there were moments when I know Irena understood, for her eyes would become distant and shadowed, and her smile would fade. She never mentioned going home or seeing her beloved Antoni again; with unwavering persistence, she asked about the train schedule, resolute in her determination to relocate to accommodations with heated water and clean linens. Amenities in this place, she said, were deplorable.
Irena weakened, as we all did, becoming more frail, her skin more translucent, her fingers gnarled and twisted. Her hair had grown back in fine silvery wisps, like the down from milkweed. We knew it was but a short time before she’d be taken from us, one way or another.
Finally, on a bone-chilling and snowy morning, a guard pulled her roughly from the lineup during appel.
“Move out,” he snarled, striking her across the shoulders.
“The train has arrived? Please, I must see the concierge immediately,” Irena declared.
“Everything has already been arranged for you.” The guard spit and smirked.
Irena turned to me, her eyes deep and moist. “Thank you for a very delightful time, Katarzyna. I shall leave a forwarding address when I settle my account with the hotelier. Perhaps we’ll meet again under more felicitous circumstances. Farewell,” she cried, as the guard pushed her forward.
Regal and graceful as always, and hidden within her safe cocoon of elegance and dignity, Irena walked ahead of the guard through the drifting snow and entered the narrow passageway, not of deadly electrified wire, but of gleaming wood, marble floors, and shimmering chandeliers.
Snowflakes melted on my cheeks and mingled with hot tears.
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