I’ve Been Here Before
I’ve been here before.
I can remember each warped and worn step creaking beneath my feet, producing a different note. A musical instrument, making a splintering melody. The distorted, threatening soundtrack that accompanied my escape. It had been so long since I left. So long since I felt the cold air of freedom after so much pain and suffering.
The little girl is calling me a dirty Jew. She’s picking up horse crap from the muddy streets and throwing it at me. She’s small, maybe eight years old. She’s wearing a red jacket and white buckled shoes. I can see mud on the fronts of those white shoes. And there’s so much malice in her eyes. I know she doesn’t understand why she hates me so much, she can’t. Hatred is taught, and I know that somewhere nearby is her mother or father. They may have both taught her that Hitler was right, and all Jews are filthy and need to be exterminated.
I don’t know why I’m so at peace with this. I don’t know why I’m okay being herded into a boxcar with hundreds of other poor souls. But I’m okay.
I have no family. My wife left me long ago, before the Final Solution was a thing. We never had kids. And my mother, father, and sister all died in a fire on our farm ten years ago. I’m at peace because right now, I want someone to tell me what to do. Where to go. How to behave. So, we push against each other in dozens of hot cars on a hot summer afternoon.
The German soldiers herd us with the butt of their rifles, but they look annoyed and uncomfortable. I smile at a young girl near me. She has been crying, and her face shows dirty tracks down her cheeks. I got my arm up despite too many bodies pressed against me. I reach forward and wipe away the dirt on her cheeks. She looks somber, attempting to smile at me. But I can tell she is dead inside. Her soul is crushed. There is no fight left in this one.
The surrounding smells are horrendous. There’s the stale odor of sweat and the rancid smell of feces. But there’s something else in the air. It’s fear. And it stinks. None of us can imagine the horror that Hitler and his Reich have planned for us, but we know something is wrong. Every one of us knows that we will suffer before we’re allowed to expire. The Gestapo will see to that. I’m very aware that I, too, am scared enough to stink.
The Soviets liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. It took me many years before I went back. Many nights being on a train, determined to finally face my past until I could brace myself for the horrors that would come roaring back into my memory. And if I wanted to have any semblance of a life, long after those nightmares, then I would need to face it one last time, and hear the musical notes of those steps. If for no other reason than to remind myself that I am free at last.
There is so much shouting as I wake. I hear voices, loud and screaming, outside the camp window. My bunkmates are all scrambling to their feet. We are all too skinny, emaciated from starvation, and terrible working conditions. None of us has seen a German soldier in almost three days. Outside the window, more screaming, and the sound of trumpets. I hear Russian voices.
The door to our cell opened with unseen hands. I remember how bright the sun looked pouring in through that doorway. I’m unable to raise my arm to cover my eyes. And then my feet are moving of their own accord. They’re carrying me towards the open doorway. And with each step, I hear the creaking, despite the noise coming from all around the camp. It’s as if I’m in a vacuum. I hear each creak of the stone steps beneath my feet. Each one, making a sound like a musical note. And then I can feel the cold air hit me. I’m naked, but I don’t even think about it. I scratch my ribs against the door frame as I stumble outside. I’m free. I’m alive.
The Russian soldiers herd us back onto trains, but it’s different this time. We are going home. They are thoughtful and patient with us. They give us blankets and offer us bread and water. It is a stark contradiction to the German soldiers.
Some of us are returning to our families, while others will try to salvage what little time we have to mend.
After so much pain and suffering.