Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Lock and Key (08/21/14)
TITLE: Sanctuary of Silence
By Ann Grover
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Once a day, Tante Ilse unlocks the closet and gives me bread and milk. Sometimes, a piece of cold potato or cheese or a bit of stew. She lays her fingers on my lips, gently but firmly. Her hands smell of soap and onions and cinnamon.
I must not speak. I must not cry.
I try to be as quiet as a mouse, but I know mice are not always quiet. I can hear them scrabbling in the cellar, and I hope one finds a way into the closet. I will name her Susi, and she will be my friend.
Before Tante Ilse, there was Tante Birgitta. When my mother went away, Tante Birgitta took me to her home, an apartment in our building. I cried often, for I was a very small girl. At night, I curled beside her in the tall bed, but as soon as grey light peeked through the heavy curtains, she locked me in the linen cupboard with the tablecloths and blankets. How happy I was when I heard the rattle of the key each evening.
Then, one day, deafening thunder. The floor shook, and dust swirled in the throbbing air. Tante Birgitta wrapped me in a blanket and ran into the smoke-darkened street. I struggled to breathe and pushed the heavy material away from my face. I will never forget the broken and burning houses. Tumbling bricks. Screaming people. And people lying very still.
So I came to be with Tante Ilse and the closet in the cellar. There is no tall bed, not even a cot, only a thin mattress and a blanket, the mice, and the smell of coal dust. Tante Ilse says I must pray, that God can hear me, even from the secret place in the damp cellar. But the words feel strange on my lips. Vater unser im Himmel...
Numi, numi yaldati. Sleep, sleep, my little girl.
The lullaby is all I remember of my mother, her lilting voice and the caress of her breath on my cheek. I have forgotten her face, her scent, the colour of her hair.
Soft footsteps. The click of the turning key. Tante Ilse helps me stand and takes me upstairs to have a bath beside the kitchen oven. It is nighttime, and a single lamp gleams in the curtained room. There are other children in the house; I have heard them laughing and talking on these brief excursions upstairs, and there is often evidence of their presence. A puzzle. A sweater. A doll. Meine liebe verschmitzte kinder, she whispers now, as we hear a muffled giggle. She towels my shivering body and slips a clean dress over my head. They are not so quiet as you. Even in the dim light, I see Tante Ilse's eyes telling me not to speak. If I do not ask any questions, she will not need to give answers I will not understand.
All too soon, I am taken downstairs into the gloom, to the secret closet. I'm sorry, Tante Ilse murmurs, but all the same, she closes the door and fastens the lock. The key turns.
I know nothing of time. My life is measured only by the opening and closing of the door. A shadowy dawn each time the door is opened, and then it's night again, everlasting silent night.
Numi, numi yaldati.
I am awakened by thudding and banging. I press my ear to the door, terrified, then cower at the back of the closet as the sounds come closer. A jiggle of the key, and the door is wrenched back. A soldier, buttons shining on his chest, holds out his hand to me in the shadows. Wet warmth floods the mattress beneath me. Then Tante Ilse is beside him, smiling. Come, come.
The soldier carries me up the stairs and out into the bright sunshine. I have not seen the sky, clouds, trees for so long. Tears run down my cheeks, a mingling of joy, fear, and pain. My feet are unsure, and I hold Tante Ilse's hand tightly. We will find your people.
Tante Ilse. My jailer. My saviour.
During World War ll, an unknown number of Jewish children were hidden by "righteous gentiles" in cellars, attics, secret compartments, and closets, thereby saving their lives.
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