An errant flake of snow drifts lazily in front of my eyes, and I try to focus on it, shifting my weight from one frozen foot to the other. There is no relief for my numb legs and my deadened mind.
The snow reminds me of Hanukkah. My thoughts wander.
The kitchen would be filled with the aromas of crisp golden potato latkes, apple sauce, and funny, lumpy sufganiyot, dredged in sugar and cinnamon. We laughed while we played the dreidel game, and each night, we lit another candle in the menorah. “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, who has kept us alive...”
Mama, may I have another latke with sour cream?
The intense cold invades the warmth of my memories, and I reluctantly drift back to the present.
There will be no Hanukkah this year.
I see movement out of the corner of my eye. There is a louse crawling along the collar of the woman in front of me. I consider how her body is his universe, and he is the emperor of his domain. He might tunnel through the folds of her clothes, or hide in the thicket of her frayed hair. Maybe he would care to explore the bony ridges of her spine. I envy him his freedom. He disappears under the collar and then emerges further along on the edge of her shoulder.
“Achtung!” The daily roll call finally begins, and the numbers are called. I don’t turn my head to see who steps forward. We have already said our good-byes.
The soldiers prod the hesitant with their rifles and encourage the weak with the flats of their hands.
I am not called. I feel the terrible wrenching in my soul, of relief that it is not my turn and guilt that I am spared again. But, perhaps, today the draw is different. Maybe today’s chosen are tasting liberation, even now being led to the gates of freedom.
Is it too cruel to hope?
Days pass. Two? or twenty? A monotony of sour bread, relentless cold, and endless standing in the yard. By day, I separate soles from used shoes. My hands are raw from picking at stitching and pulling at the leather. I distract myself by inventing tales for the former shoe owners. These ones belonged to a teacher. These, a concert pianist. My knuckles are rapped back to reality.
At night, we whisper the Shema and sing. Sometimes, we cry soundlessly and rock each other to sleep.
Soon, the snow is deep and heavy in the yard. It’s bitterly cold, so the snow does not melt through the rags tied onto my frozen feet. The merciless wind blows through my rough fringe of hair. I no longer dream of Hanukkah. I forget that I can dream. I am not hungry.
My number is called.
We are led to a brick building surrounded by an electric wire fence. Even now, I think this may be a new work assignment, that the rumours we hear are not true. We are crowded into a small anteroom and ordered to remove our garments. We take off the last shreds of our filthy, tattered clothing. Our girlish modesty has been put aside long ago. Even our souls are naked.
Another door opens, and we are pushed into a cold, barren room. The door is locked behind us. We stand in expectant silence. There is a faint hiss. Some of the women begin to whimper and moan. The woman next to me slumps and falls.
I breathe deeply. I am carried away into the brightness of a Prussian blue sky. The larks are singing and daisies are swaying gently. I smell fresh bread and ripe peaches, roses and newly mown grass.
I am light.
I lie down in the grass and I sleep.
The flame is kindled in me, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe.
I am completely consumed for You.
I become an olah, an offering, and I arise as a sweet-smelling savour.
And God breathes...
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