This story is based on first-hand accounts of my family members. I dedicate this story to my Mother, Grandmother, and late Grandfather, all survivors of a German WW2 Arbeitslager (work camp). The Nazis deprived many of a future, but what they underestimated was the human will to survive and the relentless desire to thrive if given the option to live. A German word that many survivors of Nazi cruelty remember is Bereit, because it was used often to address prisoners to get them out of their quarters and assembled in a line. In different contexts, it means many things like prepared or willing. My Grandmother still uses the word to ask us if we are ready. Are we ever really? Survivors of loss and tragedy discovered they were, when they needed to survive. To channel my beloved Babcia (Grandma) Sophie ... Bereit?
He stared at her beautiful, bare neck. It was graceful and one of the most alluring things he had ever seen. Her scarf had come undone near the base of her neck and a few strands of her thick brown hair peeked at him through the modest covering. It glistened in the sunlight streaming in through the windows high above the sanctuary. Sitting a few pews behind her family, as he had for the last two years, he admired her from afar, silently pleading for an opportunity to meet her ... to discover her name.
His father's eyebrow quirked knowingly, tilting his head repeatedly towards the priest, reminding him to redirect his attention where it belonged. But his father's unguarded smile revealed that he understood his thoughts. He was certain he would be teased for it later.
He watched her as she kneeled on the floor, hands clasped and head bowed in intense prayer.
Every Sunday, he prayed for a chance to meet her. Every Sunday, her father would give him a glare of death, intimidating him by lifting his jacket to reveal the hunter's knife in his belt.
This Sunday would be no exception, yet this Sunday offered a glimmer of hope. As she followed her younger sister out of the pew after mass, she looked at him and offered a shy smile, her cheeks blushing the shade of ripe berries in the summertime.
He smiled in return, his eyes shimmering with promise and hope.
She nodded at him and hurried after her retreating father.
She had just given him a reason to believe.
His father warned him to stay far away from the tree line, to remain hidden deep within the woods on the trail that could not be detected from the main road. His task was to pick up cheese and bread from his aunt's home at the other end of the village. He was adept at this task because he remained low to the ground and quick, running through the tall birch trees and berry bushes. He was stealthy and swift.
He watched the stunning Tatra Mountains reveal themselves over the break of the tree line as her cottage came into view. Laden with large baskets under each arm, his aunt greeted him with a smile as she observed him approaching the back door of her cottage.
"Edek Cullenski, your stride has increased. You are getting faster on these errands. How much could you have grown in a week?"
He laughed in response, reaching to remove the burden of the weight of the baskets from her small frame.
"I am a man now, Aunty. Boys are expected to become men, are they not?"
Her boisterous laugh enveloped them both as he leaned in to kiss her cheeks.
But the jovial moment died abruptly as a strong, acrid smell of charring carrion drifted in on the breeze, assaulting their senses and frightening them both.
"We are down wind. It's coming from that factory they were building. Have you gotten a good look at it Edek?"
He nodded silently, looking in the direction of what the villagers called Birkenau.
"They completed that tallest chimney on that large structure many weeks ago, Aunty. The workers are thin and are wearing stripes. None had hair. The soldiers threatened us after they caught us looking for mushrooms near that large gate to the West, so now none of us leave the house and we ..."
He halted his speech mid-sentence, startled at the sensation of something slight grazing his forehead. They both looked up to the sky to realize the whisper light, gray ashes drifting silently down from the cloudy sky. The ashes densely smothered the air, coating the leaves and roofs of the town. The grass was turning white.
"Aunty, are they cooking meat for the soldiers and workers?"
His aunt looked at him in response, tears forming in her eyes.
"Edek, please listen to me very carefully. Your uncle spoke with a shopkeeper from Oświęcim. The Jews have been ripped from their homes and sent to work in that brick factory ..."
She nodded in response. "Edek, the Nazis will come to our village soon. We have just gotten word that your cousins in Zakopane have gone to Germany to a work camp, and they were released after a one year sentence, as promised. As repayment for their service, their family remained unharrassed by the soldiers. Promise me you will listen to your father, Edek. Promise me you won't resist, you do whatever is asked of you, and work your hardest. Do whatever they say. The soldiers will threaten and expect compliance. If you go willingly, they will be kinder to you and your family. Your cousins have said so. Just cooperate ..."
She looked in the direction of the putrid smell, her forehead scrunching under the weight of her obvious concern.
"Edek, those workers in Oświęcim ... they've never come out. The ovens for the bricks have been reported to be for ... the entrance gate states that work will set you free but the only freedom for them comes ..."
She was crying freely and his tears began to slide down his face in response to her words, mingling with the ashes clinging to his skin. She could not complete her sentence.
"Run home quickly, be wise. To live, do whatever they ask of you. Go now, before they catch you alone in the woods. I love you nephew ..."
He kissed her cheek soundly, his lips leaving a visible streak on her face from the mixture of tears and ash.
He looked at his beloved aunt one last time, fearful that he would never see her again. Their eyes locked in their last goodbye, wordless and fearful pleading of a family that was about to be ripped apart.
"Run, Edek! Be brave. Be safe!"
The baskets secured under his arms, he ran faster than he ever had before, progressing up the path to the back of his cottage. As he passed the empty bucket his family used to collect mushrooms sitting in the marshy soil, he realized that it was filling with the unthinkable. He stopped and stared at what he knew to be the horrific truth. He did not know what compelled him to reach for the small bible in his pocket, but he drew it up and found the small envelope that he used as a bookmark. He noticed the rain clouds overhead and he could not imagine allowing those ashes to remain there as their final resting place ... at the bottom of a dirty bucket, destined to become nothing more than a muddy puddle, diluted and forgotten.
He skimmed the open envelope over the ashes and drew as many as he could into the thin casing, sealing them in a new resting place. He closed the envelope and replaced it inside his bible to keep them secure.
He moved quickly towards the house, quickening his pace further when he heard yelling near the front of the yard. Eight soldiers stood arguing with his father, hands flailing about as the language barrier was being traversed. Edek approached with the baskets, his mother running from the cottage to embrace him. She was weeping into his ash covered chest, pleading with him to listen to the soldiers without a fight. He dropped the baskets to the ground and brought his arms around her quivering form.
"They will offer us protection if you go with them, son. There is a work camp in Germany that will place you. The young men and women of the surrounding villages will be traveling with you. In return for your labor for three years, we may remain here, protected and secure in keeping all we have worked for. I'm afraid that if you don't go with them, they will kill all of ..."
"I'll go, Mama."
His father approached them and wrapped his arms around them both.
"Son, no matter what happens, we will always love you. If something should happen to our home or our family, you know how to reach your cousins in Zakopane, and you can always seek us out with the help at a Polish consulate wherever you end up."
They stood weeping under the falling ashes, possibly saying goodbye for the final time.
The rain poured down on the group of young adults as they huddled together, searching in vain for any semblance of warmth. The disparate dirt roads sent the large wagon rocking in an exaggerated motion, throwing them into one another with every bump and sway.
They were agitated and exhausted. They were frightened most of all. Their wagon would pass other wagons on the road, carrying passengers wearing their yellow stars heading towards the direction from which they came.
Edek and his fellow laborers would try to smile at the passing groups, attempting to show kindness and acknowledgment to the scared families bunched together. When the passing group was out of sight, many in Edek's cart would weep, imagining what horrors awaited the families at those factories. They had smelled the stench and witnessed the ashes. They heard the recent stories too.
It was impossible not to lament for those headed to those destinations ... to hell on earth ... only to become ashes in the sky.
Edek could feel the tears trace their way down his cold face. He leaned into the side of the rocking wagon and fell into fitful lethargy.
"Of this group, do we know where each laborer will go?"
Their voices were bare whispers, yet he was near them enough to hear them. Edek was glad that he had taken the time to learn German. Many of his countrymen were defiant in their Polish pride but Edek believed it was better to understand what the invaders were saying rather than guessing. Guessing often equated death in war. He was willing to learn for that reason alone. He believed in being prepared.
"The single females of this lot will be sent to headquarters to warm beds. The smaller boy in the back, huddled with his sister and wearing the blue jacket, will go for the same reason. The remaining males are going to Ebersberg. The married couples are the lucky ones. They go to the Arbeitslager in Landshut. Bauersfrau Schwarz gets a new batch to work over. She told the commander she only wants married couples this time because they seem to work the hardest with the guarantee that they can remain together and ..."
Their voices grew quieter and Edek sat up to stretch the stiffness from his muscles. His eyes traveled over the single women in his group, resting on the young man they mentioned. He was sleeping with his head in his sister's lap. Edek shivered in response and felt fear creep into his bones, uncertain if what he overheard was factual.
The carriage pitched to the right in sudden stop and the inhabitants sat up to see what was happening.
There, standing on the side of the road, was the beautiful girl from the church surrounded by soldiers. They were leering at her as the tears descended down her face.
A soldier opened the low gate at the back of the cart, the rusted hinges creaking in the damp, cold air. His voice carried loudly as he announced the next prisoner boarding the carriage.
Edek stood up so that she could see him clearly and she smiled, relieved to see a familiar face. He moved quickly to the back of the carriage to offer his hand in assistance.
"Sir, there is mistake. This is my wife, Izabela Cullenski. She was visiting her parents when you collected me and they must have made an error in not telling you she would be picked up here. We were to go together for our three year term."
The soldier holding the clipboard looked again at the roster and scratched out her last name, correcting the error.
She looked up at the handsome young man holding out his hand to her in confusion, but the silent warning in his eyes instructed her to remain silent and comply. She grabbed his warm hand and was lifted into the carriage, falling into his strong, muscular chest.
His whisper tickled the freezing cartilage of her ear.
"It's the best fate for you, please follow my lead ..."
She reached up on the toes of her boots and kissed his cheek in response.
They held onto each other as they sat on the bed of the wagon as it began to move. They whispered quietly, trying to keep their conversation from the others.
His smile reassured her. She knew from that moment that he was trustworthy, that she should listen to him.
Drops of rain once again began to crash against their shivering bodies and they huddled further into each other, trying desperately to claim some warmth as their own.
"Pity about that last one. I would have made a visit ..."
The Soldiers were talking loudly in German and Edek listened to them crudely debase the women in the cart. Edek knew then that he made the best decision for the beautiful woman huddled against his chest.
He knew he had done the right thing. He was ready to protect her at all costs.
"Edek and Izabela Cullenski!"
They stood up quickly, holding onto each other for dear life, hoping they would not be ripped apart as they saw happen to an earlier couple.
"Train Nine! Move!"
They moved together swiftly, her fingers grasping desperately into the waist of his slacks as her arms clung to his waist in a tight embrace. He would have bruises from the pressure of her knuckles later.
She turned to look at her fellow travelers one last time, noticing those remaining in the holding area were all women, excluding a couple of boys standing off to one side. She returned her gaze forward, tears threatening to release from her eyes once again as her mind began to race.
They followed the soldier to their platform and boarded the train, stepping carefully on the slippery hay shrouding the wet slats of the degenerating wood floor. There were no seats. They were being herded like animals. They chose a corner so that they could rest their backs against something solid and they sat in unison, never breaking the contact between them.
When the soldier left them to get more laborers, she turned to him to speak, her voice tinged with angst.
"Edek, what would have happened to me had you not ..."
He answered her question before she could continue.
"They would have ... The soldiers said that the single women were intended to warm beds, so when I saw you ... Izabela ... I could not allow that to happen to you. After seeing you every Sunday and pining for the opportunity to know you ... I couldn't ..."
She hugged him with all her strength, shocking him into silence. When she pulled back, she was smiling.
"I'm glad you made me your wife, Edek. I also wanted to meet you, but my father ..."
"... His knife was on display whenever he got the chance to show me."
They both chuckled and settled into an awkward silence. When that silence was interrupted by a screaming soldier on the next platform over, they gripped each other as tightly as they could.
"No eating! You will not be fed until we deem it necessary! Give me that bread!"
Edek moved quickly to slip his arm out from around her torso. He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a burlap bundle.
"Quickly, my mother slipped me some cabbage and Oscypek before they carted me away. Take this and eat it before there are others to observe us. We may not eat again for days."
He handed her a large portion of the cabbage leaves and cheese and they both shoved it into their mouths, chewing as quickly as they could. When there was nothing left, he lifted the burlap to his nose, tears forming in his eyes.
"I can still smell my mother. I wonder if I will ever see her again. She knew to feed me. She always knew how to ..."
She held him as he sobbed into her already drenched clothes, his shoulders quivering from the intensity of his emotions.
"I will be there for you now, Edek. I will take care of you."
He wiped his eyes and looked into hers, which now threatened to spill over with tears.
"And I will, you."
His voice was certain and she smiled in return. With the promises lingering between them, they molded into each other again and succumbed to their exhaustion.
They woke up in a new land and they were at the mercy of those that were perfecting the machinery of war and hatred. They were herded onto carts by shouting soldiers.
The language was different but, as they looked at the rolling hills and meadows, the landscape seemed familiar to them. It was enough like Poland to make it easy to imagine that they were closer to home.
Their journey by cart took many hours.
When they arrived in front of the large white farmhouse surrounded by barbed wire and watchmen, they were debilitated and trembling.
A portly, blond woman wearing a crimson apron observed from the front steps. The husbands jumped off the wagon first, lifting their weakened wives onto the ground. Couple by couple, they made their way to the area where the soldiers were directing them.
Her voice was loud, demanding attention.
"Who among you speaks German?"
Edek rose the hand that was not tightly grasping Izabela's.
"Then step forward and translate. They will either learn German quickly or die. You may tell them that."
He turned to look at the group of exhausted travelers behind him, to deliver her message. When he was done he turned to look at her. She was smiling. She seemed pleased at the level of his German.
"I am Bauersfrau Schwarz and you will call me that whenever you address me. I will treat you fairly if you treat me with respect. You will be taken care of in exchange for your submission. You are now officially laborers of the Third Reich and your service will be considered fulfilled when you prove you are faithful to your post for the duration of your term. Your service and responsibility here is also to each other. If one of you flees, your mate will be killed without pause. If you both manage to escape undetected, your families in Poland will suffer the same fate. Any attempts at escaping here will be met with a swift response. In return for your service, you will be kept warm and well fed. You will not go hungry. You will work hard and you will neither complain nor resist. Do you understand?"
They all nodded their heads in unison.
"There is a meal awaiting you in the barn. You will eat and rest after your journey. Work begins at sunrise. Who among you can cook well?"
Izabela raised her hand timidly when no others chose to. She enjoyed cooking with her mother and she knew she was good at it.
"Excellent. You both remain here."
She turned to address the soldiers.
"These are Prisoners One and Two. Males will be odds and females will be evens, each couple grouped together. You may register each prisoner starting with the number Three. Deliver them to their quarters and then you are free to go. Thank you for your delivery, gentleman."
They watched the group of twenty travel slowly in the direction of the large barn and outbuildings. She turned to address them.
"Häftling One, I will need to keep you close due to your fluency in German. You will be placed on a trial basis to serve as my Foreman. Häftling Two, you will be my cook. It is a lucky thing that you are married, as this solves a potential dilemma. Now that we have a matched pair, you may claim the room above the kitchen as your own without two couples to accommodate. You will have privacy. The rest sleep in the barn on hay bunks in the loft above the cows in bug infested, cramped quarters. Do you see the advantage you now have?"
"Yes, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
"I hope you do. When you have proven yourselves I may choose to address you with more respect. As of this moment, you are just a number. Follow me."
She turned and walked through the doorway, the Cullenskis closely behind her. Izabela's hand trembled in his. As they traveled down a long hallway lined with family pictures, they were able to see bright light streaming into the room beyond. When they entered, it was a bright kitchen that was both large and well appointed. Izabela immediately noticed the large pots that sat near the stove. They were large pots that would hold a quantity of food that would feed many.
"I see you noticed the pots. Do you speak any German?"
"Very little, Bauersfrau Schwarz, but I'm a very fast learner."
"I expect you to be ... In all things, Häftling Two. It's imperative that you are. Now, both of you follow me. I will show you the areas of my home and facilities that you need to be most familiar with. Do not tarry or I will replace you for these coveted positions."
They sat at the small table in their room eating stale bread and white bean soup. After days of dehydration and lack of substantial sustenance, they felt full for the first time in days and it was as if their heavy bellies led to heavy eyelids. They sat across from each other in an awkward silence, both fixating on the small bed they would have to share.
When they looked at each other, they both realized they were blushing. They chuckled.
"I will sleep on the floor, Izabela."
"No! And risk Bauersfrau Schwarz entering to find that we do not share a bed? She would discover our deception and then we would be killed. Please, Edek, I don't want to risk it. We will have to remove our damp clothes to dry them. The blankets will keep us warm and being near one another with our body heat will warm us best. "
"Izabela, you must know that I won't ... I don't ..."
"Edek, stop. Even though I just met you, I trust you. I'm not afraid."
"But I have been admiring you from afar for years. You shouldn't say that Izabela ... I could ..."
"What, Edek? Are you afraid of your body's reaction to me?"
His voice cracked with embarrassment.
"Well, Momma told me all about things I may ... encounter with a husband one day. It doesn't matter to me at the moment. I'm too exhausted to argue with you further and I expect you feel the same way. Undress under the covers and give me your damp clothing. I'll take this blanket and undress over there. We are lucky to be alive, fed and in a warm bed. Please give me your clothes."
He got under the covers and began removing his clothes,piece by piece, timidly handing them to her as he went.
She walked over to the area of the floor directly above the stove and placed his clothes flat on the wood floor slats to absorb the heat. She opened the blanket and flung it over her back so that she could undress without being seen. After she repeated the actions of laying out her own clothes, she turned and made her way swiftly to the bed. In the moonlight, his face was peaceful in sleep. She felt relief that no more awkwardness would occur between them after the day they had.
Climbing into bed quickly, she was asleep before her head could touch the pillow.
"Wake up! Quickly! The sun is about to break the horizon!"
His frantic pleading reminded her of where she was. She jumped out of the bed, leaving the blanket behind and running across the room for her clothing. She wanted to be in the kitchen to greet Bauersfrau Schwarz. She wanted to make a good impression.
Edek stood transfixed as this beautiful, naked woman stood before him getting dressed. He was ashamed that he was not a gentleman enough to move or turn away. Now, with her neck, her bare back and the side of her breast exposed as she drew the dress up her body, he couldn't.
He had never seen a naked woman before and his body began to react in unfamiliar ways. What he did not know was that she could see his reaction in the small mirror that hung on the wall. He was also unaware that she felt pulled in a new direction as well, and that direction also included the swelling of her heart.
"Häftling Two, what is your age?"
She stopped kneading the dough on the table to answer her.
"I'm seventeen, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
"Also seventeen, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
"When were you married? You could not have been married long."
She returned to kneading the dough, nervous about this line of questioning and afraid they may have made a misstep or would be discovered. She knew she needed to be as vague as possible.
"A few weeks before we arrived here."
"Ah, newlyweds. You are both so young, that is what I imagined happened. You are the quietest workers I have ever had in my home. You have been here three months and yet I never hear you, not during the day, and especially not at night. You are both so quiet."
Izabela could not tell if that was a compliment or a criticism. She feared that the sweat forming on her brow would give away her anxiety about their true situation being discovered.
"Häftling Two, turn and look at me."
She turned to face her fate. Someone had escaped a few weeks earlier and when they apprehended him, they all stood to watch Häftling Seventeen and Häftling Eighteen terminated. She was afraid she was next. Straightening her spine, Izabela squared her shoulders and looked the portly woman directly in the eye.
"I understand this is awkward but I know that men can be weak minded regarding such discussions. I know that I can be more direct with a woman, and I believe I can be direct with you. I want you to know it's acceptable if you make some noise Häftling Two. Especially at night. I requested for married couples this term because they work well together and productivity increases. Where there is a sense of commitment, there is an abundance of yield. Where there is commitment, there is a familiarity in how to keep one another happy. Despite what you may assume, I want you all to flourish here. If you are content enough, you are more likely to work and give me your best efforts. Häftling One is on edge and has forgotten to complete a few simple tasks in the last few days. He needs his wife."
"Yes, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
She was certain that she was blushing redder than Bauersfrau Schwarz's crimson apron.
"Excellent. I must also commend you. Your German has improved quickly ..."
She paused, contemplating a new train of thought.
"Your face, when you blush ... you remind me of my late son Jacob's wife. I believe that my late husband Willem would say the same, if he were still with us. You remind me so much of her just now. I will find a picture of her to show Häftling One, to see if he agrees with me. You are a hard worker and I am pleased with you. You may continue what you were doing."
Izabela silently sighed in relief and returned to kneading the dough, her mind slipping into a labyrinth of thoughts. Suddenly anxious and needing to move, she asked if she could retrieve the potatoes that were required for the stew. When Bauerfrau Schwarz had given permission, she grabbed the large bucket and left for her walk to the storage shed that held the potato supply. Her mind wandered further with each step.
She became increasingly aware of Edek. Her hand in his felt magical and her body reacted to every brush against her, every gentle touch, every moment his skin came in contact with hers. Her eyes continually sought him out when he was in the field and she felt excitement every time he looked her way.
After three months in this wretched place, her desire to be near him had only grown stronger.
She was certain that they fallen in love with one another, but she also knew he was hesitant. He did not know she was aware he watched her dress in those frantic moments each morning, and he did not know that she was deliberately taking her time in recent days, turning her body more to his advantage. He always stayed below his cover, sheltered in his cocoon of innocence, while she remained in hers.
He did not know that she was ready to shed that cocoon weeks ago. She knew it was not proper, to entertain these thoughts outside of marriage, but the situation they found themselves in was now beyond their control and she knew that desperate times now required revised plans.
She yelped and dropped her bucket on the ground of the cool, dark shed as she felt a familiar, calloused hand graze her bare neck.
"I called your name many times but you were deep in thought. Your brow is knit in concern. What is the matter, Izabela?"
"It's something that Bauersfrau Schwarz said to me earlier. We must discuss it tonight."
His mouth opened in shock when she turned around and reached behind his neck, drawing his mouth towards hers. Their lips met tentatively for the first time, their arms wrapping around the other in a new kind of embrace...one laced in promise, newness and exhilaration.
Under their shared cover of darkness, they were able to explore with their mouths, gentle breaths mingling with silken tongues and burgeoning heat.
Then she remembered where they were and what she was supposed to be doing. She pulled away quickly and leaned down to grab her fallen bucket. Picking up the few potatoes that escaped after the drop, she walked quickly back to the main house, leaving Edek standing speechless in the darkness.
She re-entered the kitchen. As she prepared the ingredients for the stew, she took notice of how her body reacted after their first kiss. She was feverish and she felt new sensations in areas of her body that she was unaccustomed to feeling. She was happy that today was the day they were allowed a bath. She wondered if Edek felt as though he needed one, as she now did.
She understood that there would be very little discussion tonight. There would be a lot of doing. She felt they were ready.
His eyes followed her eagerly as she approached the bed wrapped in her usual blanket. She was not aware of the fact that he looked forward to watching her sleep. He would laugh at the sighs and words that escaped her mouth when she was deep in slumber, and he would marvel at the beauty of her bare shoulder and neck as she would toss and turn, her lustrous hair splayed on her pillow. She did not know that he would take a few silken strands between his fingertips and mingle them with the sensitive skin of his fingers as she slept, fascinated at how soft she appeared, how soft the strands felt between the calloused pads of his fingertips.
She did not know how much he wanted to touch her bare skin...but the look in her eyes as she gazed down at him now, as she stood at the side of the bed, made him wonder if she did know after all.
She dropped her blanket and climbed under his, her naked body visible for a moment in the dim candlelight.
He scooted farther beneath the covers and she followed.
"You saved me when you claimed me as your wife. Can I now claim you as my husband?"
His eyebrows met the middle of his forehead in consternation, his mouth once again open in shock.
"You want us to..."
"Edek, every time you touch me, hold my hand, graze my arm...every time you look at me, I find myself wanting more from you. The kiss we shared today...I want more of that. I want everything with you. Everything ..."
"Izabela, I'm ... I'm afraid. I don't know what I'm doing ... I don't even know where to begin..."
"And I do? Please, Edek. Just touch me and I'll touch you. Kiss me like you did earlier."
He raised himself up on his forearm to look down at her, her smile and wet lips glowing in the moonlight streaming in through their window.
"Izabela, I'm afraid I'll hurt you."
She reached up to cup his cheek with the palm of her hand.
"Edek, I'm in love with you. Let me make you my husband before God. In this room, right now, I'm not afraid, and you shouldn't be either. Let me show you how I love you with my body ..."
He reached with his left hand to cradle her head as he leaned in to kiss her, sinking his hand into the hair he desperately wished to have between his fingers again.
"... And I'll show you with mine."
The kiss became more passionate as their naked skin began to slide against the places that ignited the intense burn neither knew how to control.
They didn't. They moved erratic in this unfamiliar dance, hands and legs pushing and pulling, tugging and gripping for more.
His mouth left hers and made a scorching path down the nape of her neck, his tongue and lips discovering what she tasted like there.
"Every Sunday, since I was fourteen years old and first noticed you...I would look at your bare neck and wondered what it felt like to touch ... to taste ..."
His tongue left his lips once more and drew a wet path to her collar bone. She moaned when she felt his fingertip trace the base of her breast, drawing a gentle path up the slope to graze her nipple.
"When you would jump out of bed in your frenzied state, I would watch these bounce as you ran, teasing me for months. I wondered if they would be as soft and full in my hands as they appeared ..."
His lips descended further, his tongue slipping against one nipple as his hand played with the other.
"... Or what they would taste like."
She was unable to understand what her body needed but, by the way she was moving under him, it clearly was asking for more. Her legs spread further apart. As he sank between them she felt that part of him pushing against her thigh, large and very warm.
She trailed her hands through his hair and over his strong back, muscled and broad from the months of hard labor. Her hand traced his waist to his firm stomach and he moaned when her fingers made contact with the length of him. He was wide, heavy and long in her hand, and he bucked against her movement as she explored him for the first time. She was surprised at how different and soft the skin felt against the hardest part of him, the hot part that seemed to be growing further.
When she felt him slip a finger between that part of her, she was unable to concentrate and dropped her hand, bringing it back to his hair, pulling at it until he raised his mouth to kiss her again.
"You are so warm here. So small. I'm afraid I am going to hurt you."
She could feel the pad of his finger slip into her slightly and she lifted her hips to encourage his finger deeper, sighing loudly at how good it felt to be touched there. She opened her legs even wider to encourage him and he surprised her when he slid the tip of his hardness in instead, slightly stretching her.
"Are you ready, my Izabela?"
She looked into his eyes and nodded, watching his face contort in surprise as he slipped in slowly.
It did not hurt her as she thought it would. The deep stretch was transforming into a new fervor and she urged him to move, to chase this indescribable heat swelling between them. Her legs lifted and wrapped around him as he sank deeper into her unfathomable, penetrable warmth.
She smiled as she watched him concentrate, the look of awe evident on his face.
"You are so small, so tight ... I ... I ... ugh!"
His hips moved quickly as hers responded. The bed rocked below them loudly as they moved. She could feel his muscles building and then he was pushing harder, faster until he froze, his brow furrowed in surprise as he beamed in ecstasy, his body shaking in release.
It was unlike anything he could imagine. When he looked down at her smiling face, her eyes shone with gaiety.
He pulled out of her slowly, rolling to the side and dragging her head on to his chest.
"Izabela, did what happen to me happen to you?"
"I don't think so, but Momma said it can be harder for a woman."
"Your momma was very open with you. Mine never mentioned this. We will have to keep trying until it's easy for you too ..."
She laughed loudly and he lifted a finger to his mouth in a motion to quiet her laughter.
Izabela shook her head in defiance and laughed even harder.
"I'm being serious, wife. What if Bauersfrau Schwarz hears us?"
She lifted herself to straddle his hips and leaned in to kiss him, dragging the blanket over their awakened bodies.
"I'm hoping she does, husband."
Izabela stepped carefully, noticing the lingering soreness she experienced with each step. It was a precious reminder of what they shared hours before.
She could not wait to do it again.
When Bauersfrau Schwarz walked past her in the kitchen, she winked at Izabela and exited to check on the cows. Izabela could not help but smile after her.
Izabela was grateful that she did not need to deal with the other prisoners often. Edek would come home from the fields with stories of discontent among the couples.
The competitiveness between the prisoners was unrelenting. They would go to extreme measures for an extra ration of meat, for an extra slice of bread ... for any positive acknowledgment from Bauersfrau Schwarz or the other soldiers. The most accomplished thing that could happen in their day was being commended and rewarded. It pitted couple against couple ... number against number.
The competitiveness grew worse as the wives grew with child. The husbands were given the priority of leaving their posts if their wives were in need of care, and the pregnant prisoner was given extra rations of the most coveted provisions.
By the end of the first year of their term, six couples were expecting. Bauersfrau Schwarz prepared for the newest numbers by transforming one of her storage areas into a large nursery. The walls were painted yellow and cribs were assembled around the room.
As the months passed, the cribs began to fill, and soon two more Prisoners were expecting.
The mothers could come and go as they pleased, making breastfeeding easier for them. They continued to receive extra rations to maintain the nourishment for their children and some became pregnant for the second time in their term.
Izabela observed the happiness that seemed to surround everything that involved the yellow room and she began to desire a child of her own. It had been so long since she felt true happiness. She understood that war was not an ideal circumstance to bring a child into the world but she no longer thought in those terms. Her rations had been decreasing due to the increase in new mothers. The pang of hunger grew stronger every day. She cooked their meat while she was only allowed beet paste. The disparity was angering her and she was growing weak. She knew that Edek was experiencing the same levels of hunger.
Desperation began to take root.
"Edek, I'm so hungry. Look at the skin over my bones. There is nothing left of me."
He did not need to look at her in the bed next to him to know how thin she had become. She appeared frail and her cheeks sunken in.
"Izabela, I found some old newspapers in the shed. I hid them under our bed. I thought that we could shred pieces into our broth. It will fill us. I tried it yesterday and it wasn't..."
He stopped speaking as he felt her weeping into his chest, her sobs filling the room.
Agony began to take root.
Edek ran towards the fallen crate, her crimson apron visible beneath the edge of the massive, toppled box.
"Why are you not moving? Help me lift this!"
No one moved. They stared at him with contempt.
"Let her die there. Maybe then we could be free of this horrid place."
For a brief moment, he considered what Häftling Five was insinuating.
"The guards have no idea this has happened. You know your way around her home, Häftling One. Go in search of her guns. Let her bleed out on the floor and we can take the gate guards by surprise. We can be free of this bitch!"
He could hear Izabela's footsteps in the courtyard as she ran along the stone.
"What happened to her? Edek, help me lift this crate! Why are you all not moving? We must hurry ..."
Häftlings Five and Six ran towards the house, the others remained reticent. They stood motionless in their defiance.
Izabela was not shocked by the conflicting emotions she saw cross their faces. She felt them too. Yet she would not become a murderer. She would not stand back and watch Bauersfrau Schwarz die when she could do something to save her.
She grabbed Edek's trembling hand and they moved together, bending and lifting with all of their might. They were only able to lift it slightly.
"Edek, try to hold it up while I attempt to drag her from her feet!"
He strained with all his might. He was strong enough to hold it up just long enough for his wife to pull Bauersfrau Schwarz from beneath it.
The others remained motionless until gunfire was heard from the direction of the watchtower.
Edek picked up Bauersfrau Schwarz from the ground and Izabela held her hand as they watched the other prisoners run towards the front gate, thinking that Häftlings Five and Six managed to shoot the guards. The remaining prisoners knew that if they could get to the gate, they had a chance at freedom.
Edek and Izabela stood back while the others ran towards the gate. Those fleeing no longer cared about the threats Bauersfrau Schwarz made in regards to their remaining families in Poland, or what would happen to them personally. They no longer considered their children in the nursery. They were no longer thinking beyond the aspect of individual survival.
They did not get far. When they got to the courtyard they could see that the guards had fortified the gates and were standing over two bodies, they stopped their attempt at rebellion.
When the guards saw Edek carrying Bauersfrau Schwarz, they left the dead Prisoners and came running.
Edek shouted towards them, his voice echoing throughout the courtyard.
"A crate fell on her. Häftlings Five and Six seized the opportunity for an uprising. They ran into the house and found her weapons. You must get a doctor here right away if she is to live!"
The Guard lifted his gun and aimed it at the other prisoners.
"All of you, back to work! The entertainment is through for the day!"
They turned quickly and returned to their individual tasks.
Edek and Izabela brought Bauersfrau Schwarz up to where they knew her room to be and placed her carefully on the bed, the watchman close behind them.
"A doctor will be brought right away. Until then, stay within this house."
They nodded in understanding as he turned and fled down the stairs.
"Edek, I'll clean her wounds. Will you please bring me some warm water and a cloth from the kitchen?"
He left without a word and returned a short time later. She had already removed the bloody layers of clothing from Bauersfrau Schwarz's body and covered her with a sheet.
That is when Bauersfrau Schwarz began to moan in pain. She opened her eyes to look at them both.
"You did not leave me to die."
Her voice was weak, barely audible.
They shook their heads to answer her.
"I was conscious for a time. I heard everything. Herr Cullenski, I am grateful that you were strong enough to lift the crate on your own. Frau Cullenski, I thank you for pulling me out without the assistance of the others. You have...you have shown me a great kindness. I will not forget it. I ..."
She slipped out of consciousness, leaving them to stare at her in shock at what she had just said.
Izabela placed the rag in the warm water and continued to clean her wounds. Edek helped his wife in any way he could.
When the doctor arrived, he complimented the two for the job they had done.
From that evening on, they were fed a double ration of beef while the other prisoners were given the barest of rations, with no meat at all.
"Frau Cullenski, here is that picture I once mentioned to you, the one of my Jacob and his wife."
Bauersfrau Schwarz had become more conversational with Izabela as she convalesced. Her recovery was slow-going but she was able to sit up and walk short distances. Izabela would sit with her and aid her in anything she needed.
Izabela took the picture from Bauersfrau Schwarz's extended hand and looked at the happy tableau within the frame.
"There is Jacob, the woman I spoke to you about and my husband Willem ... I used to call him Billy."
"You were a beautiful family, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
"We were. And yet ... Do you know that our last name means Black? It is fitting. We had very little happiness in our lives. It was as if a black cloud settled permanently over us."
Izabela sat silently, looking at the picture in her hands. She was reminded of her own family. She wondered what they looked like now. She wished she had their picture to hold.
He had been crying. She could tell that there was something terribly wrong by noticing that fact alone. She did not understand why he was coming towards the house at this time of day, when he was usually out in the fields.
When he stepped into the kitchen she flew into his arms.
"Edek, what is the matter?"
"Bauersfrau Schwarz just got word from Poland. She wanted me to be the one to tell you...My parents have fled after my house was burned to the ground...Your father...he also escaped."
Her body was trembling against his chest.
"My mother? My sister?"
"They ... they were brought to Aushwitz after your Father fled. He refused to come here, as we did ..."
She collapsed to the ground, her head in her hands.
"Izabela, they ... perished."
She succumbed to the darkness. She did not know if she could ever resurface.
She woke up surrounded by her husband. His warmth was the only thing she could feel anymore. It was the only thing that felt real.
"Edek, do I hear women wailing, or am I hallucinating?"
He pulled her tighter to him, her back snug against his chest.
"You are not dreaming, but it is a nightmare ... they are out in the courtyard comforting one another. The soldiers just came to retrieve the children."
She remained motionless, trying to digest his meaning.
"Bauersfrau Schwarz said that she was assigned a quota at the beginning of our term, to breed slave laborers. It was one of the stipulations for allowing couples to come here. An edict was applied to her request. The children will not be returned ..."
Izabela moved her hands protectively over her belly. It had just begun to grow noticeably with the young one within her. His large hands moved over hers, resting on her womb.
"Why did you not tell me? Bauersfrau Schwarz told me she suspected a few weeks ago. Did you not think I would be happy?"
"Does it even matter, Edek? It's only going to be taken away from us when it's born. It no longer matters ..."
"Don't say that Izabela! Bauersfrau Schwarz said she will not take it away from us. She says she has a plan ... to trust her about this. She said that she's going to be feeding you meat three times a day and that your duties will be lightened."
She shook her head in disbelief.
"She did that with the others and look what happened. We should have let her die, like the others wanted...we should have taken that chance to escape when we had it."
He pulled her tighter against his chest, his hands firmly against her swollen abdomen.
"I believe her, Izabela."
She did not move. She could not cry. She could not find her voice. When she did, it was weak and laced with doubt.
"I hope you are right."
"It's a beautiful day. The warmth of the sun will feel good on our skin. Bauersfrau Schwarz has given us a few minutes of rest. Let's go sit in the field, Izabela. I'll tell her now where we are going."
She waited for him to return, standing up slowly from her seat. Her huge belly was a hindrance at this point and she was sure it would take her forever to waddle to the field.
He returned and picked her up easily, carrying her away from the house. The tall grass was beautiful as it swayed in the wind, golden waves cascading along the hillsides.
He lowered her to ground and then kneeled at her feet, unlacing her shoes to remove them. He removed her stockings and began rubbing her swollen ankles.
"Edek, if you keep doing that I will fall asleep."
He chuckled and sat down next to her, removing his own shoes and socks.
He watched her curiously as she leaned back and lifted the bottoms of her feet towards the sun.
"What are you doing, wife?"
A smile crept across her face.
"I used to do this as a child. There is something about the summer air blowing through my toes ... the warmth of the sun heating the soles of my feet...look at the contrast of my skin against the blue sky. I used to imagine that I was walking on air ... walking with angels. Try it, Edek."
He leaned back and tentatively raised his feet in the air to mimic hers. He agreed that it did feel good ... deliciously so.
They were thankful to have little moments like this. Reports were surfacing about the war intensifying at Germany's doorstep. They did not know what the future held so they tried to enjoy the little things when they experienced them. They were few and far between, but they were special to them nonetheless.
"Frau Cullenski, are you feeling the contractions?"
"I am, but I feel so weak."
"Izabela, you must listen to me. You can and you will get through this. You are a strong woman, and you are made for this. Try to breathe through the contractions and the baby will be here soon. I'll return shortly. Herr Cullenski, come with me."
He followed quickly, eager to know what she wished to tell him away from his wife.
"Something is wrong. I will get the wagon. When you hear it come around the house, go in but do not alarm her. Pick her up gently and bring her to the wagon. Understood?"
He nodded in response. The panic was setting in.
When he heard the wheels move over the gravel, he went into the sitting room, lifting his wife off of the couch.
Bauersfrau Schwarz was waiting with blankets. It was a moonless night, so he had to step carefully on the uneven ground without the benefit of seeing where he was going.
"Bauersfrau Schwarz, what if they take the baby when we return?"
"Herr Cullenski, you both saved my life. You will not loose your child. I will claim it as my own and the child will not leave this premises once you return with it. Do not take Frau Cullenski to the hospital because they will keep better records and may come here looking in a few days. Go right to the Convent. They will birth the baby there and remain discrete. They try to stay apart from the authorities. I am round already and so the authorities will believe I bedded a soldier to further the cause to breed Aryans. Leave under the cover of darkness and take the road north into town. It will be the first steeple you see. Hurry, get her in the cart! She looks deathly pale ..."
She wrapped another blanket around her as he placed her gently in the back of the cart.
"Return the cart before dawn and you may return for her tomorrow evening, after the child comes."
"I wish to stay with her, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
"It is not done here in Germany, Herr Cullenski. You must trust me or you will raise suspicion and they will call the soldiers, who will take your child. I give you my word that you can return to collect her and the child tomorrow, after dark. They will care for them well at the convent."
She turned to direct her voice to the moaning woman in pain.
"Izabela, you must remain as silent as you can. This trip will not be pleasant but remember that you silence is paramount. Once you are on the road you must withhold all sound. I will cover you with a blanket and an empty potato crate so that the guards on the tower will not think twice. Your husband will move swiftly."
She placed the empty crate over Izabela and latched the back of the cart shut.
She turned back to Edek, handing him money.
"Herr Cullenski, load the crate with supplies before you return. The guards won't question you."
He thanked her and jumped behind the reigns quickly, setting the horses into motion.
When they arrived in front of the convent, two nuns came running towards them.
"My wife is about to give birth. I will come back to retrieve them tonight. Please take care of her...them. Please..."
"Son, we are experts at this by now. What is your name?"
"Edek Cullinski, this is my wife Izabela ..."
"Izabela and the baby will be well. Pray in the meantime. When you come back later, you will have a new child..."
"It's our first."
"More the blessings, then. God will be with her. I'm sure your wife is hearty and determined."
He nodded in response, hugging his wife to his chest one last time before passing her to the nuns, who carried her into the stone building.
He stood there many minutes before he had the strength to turn away from the entrance ... to leave the woman he loved in the hands of complete strangers.
He began to pray. It was all he could do.
"She's gorgeous, just like her mother. Look at her blond hair and blue eyes. My mother told me that I was very blond, like this, when I came into the world. What did you decide to name her, Love?"
"Maria Alicja Cullenski. For my mother, my sister ... I'd like to call her by her middle name ..."
She was weeping into his chest as she held her sleeping bundle between them, hoping that they were witnessing this moment from above, wishing desperately that they could be alive and present with her to experience this blessed moment of welcoming new life.
The physical pain of the delivery was nothing to the emotional pain she felt at their absence. The bereavement was almost too much to bear. She wanted her mother and sister desperately, yet she would never hold them or see them again.
"Izabela, there two more things that we should do while we are here and have the chance."
She looked at him in understanding, grateful that he was able to think of happier things.
The nun that was helping Izabela after the birth returned to their area wearing a fresh white habit. She was bringing Izabela a glass of water.
"Sister, may we please speak with a priest?"
"You wish to baptize the child now?"
Edek and Izabela smiled in response.
"Yes. But we also wish to be married officially before a man of God."
"Sarah, imagine my shock when I heard that you had a baby. You hid it so well, and what a beauty! Look at that blond hair! She's a perfect Aryan! What Commander is her father? Franz has been asking me who he should congratulate when he is next at headquarters. He has been begging me to have another but I told him I am done after our ten. When he sees this little one, though, I'm sure he will try to change my mind."
Both women laughed in response as they sat in the front room sipping their tea.
"Have you had help with her? How are you managing the farm and all of the prisoners with your new responsibilities?"
Izabela stood motionless over the stove, the spoon halted mid-air as she listened to the friends converse in the next room. They were unaware that she could hear them.
"I have a great deal of help. And those that aren't efficient I kill. It's simple, Gretta. Quite simple. You should think of applying for some prisoners of your own. I'm sure that Franz would appreciate the extra help on your farm as it's even larger than ours. The Poles work the hardest so I advise you to submit your requests now."
"Sarah, I can't get over the fact that you've had a baby at your age!"
"I'm sure that Billy is laughing at me from wherever he is, Gretta."
"Well, I must be going, but congratulations again on your daughter. I'm certain that Franz will be by when he returns from the Front. Thank you for the tea!"
Izabela heard the footsteps in the foyer and front door close.
Bauersfrau Schwarz appeared in the kitchen, cradling Alicja carefully to her breast. She handed the baby to Izabela and began to stir the soup.
"That is one of the chattiest women in Germany. You and Herr Cullenski are fortunate that your little one has blond hair and blue eyes. I have no doubt that will lay to rest any speculation, if it existed. By sundown, word will have spread to headquarters. She'll be safe here Frau Cullenski. You no longer need to worry. Go feed her. I'll finish what you were working on but I expect you back soon."
All that was left on the farm was the newspaper under their bed, and the water from the well. No food remained and no edible supplies could be found. They were starving to death and weak. Power lines had been cut, as well as the gas lines, so there was no heat and they could not use the stove.
The sound of the bombs dropping from the sky forced them to remain huddled on their bed. As the bombs struck the buildings of Landshut, the violent tremors of each impact would shake free the ice forming on their bedroom walls, sending the icicles crashing against the wooden floor.
It was after sunrise and the smell of burning cinder and gunpowder was permeating their bedroom window. Bauersfrau Schwarz told them to gather their things and prepare to leave on a moment's notice.
They had only the clothes on their backs and Edek's small satchel to worry about, so there were no further preparations for them at all.
They heard a large horn unlike anything they had ever heard before.
When they ran to their window to look outside, they could see large groups of soldiers off in the distance. They were dressed differently than the soldiers they were familiar with around the work camp.
That is when they realized that they were not looking at Nazis.
They were looking at Americans.
Bauersfrau Schwarz's voice was frantic, so they ran down the stairs, Izabela carrying the sleeping child in her arms.
"Here, take this. Leave quickly before they riddle the house indiscriminately with bullets."
They looked down as Edek opened the envelope to reveal a large amount of money.
"We can't accept this, Bauersfrau Schwarz."
"You can, and you will. The sum will reunite you with the family you have left ... to give you a new life. It is all I have left to give you as..."
"All the more reason for you to keep this, Bauersfrau Schwarz ..."
He tried to hand it back to her, but she pushed the envelope back at him and stared him straight in the eye.
"The only thing I need where I'm going is forgiveness and I doubt that is forthcoming because I do not deserve it."
The sound of bullets striking the metal gates nearby rung through the air.
"Go now, quickly! Grab your child and flee from this place! You are free!"
She reached into the drawer in the hallway and withdrew a revolver as the sound of shouting soldiers neared the courtyard.
Edek and Izabela ran from the house as quickly as they could, raising his hands in the air as Izabela clung her daughter to her chest.
They were steps away from the soldiers when the lone sound of the gunshot echoed out of the front door.
The soldiers raised their guns in response, charging into the house.
When they crossed the threshold, they found the source lying in a pool of her own blood on the floor.
Edek's quivering hand was placed on Izabela's back as they walked along the side of the road, following the slower pace the Americans had set. He looked at his wife and recognized the shock he also felt. She was pale and trembling with Alicja snuggled into the nape of her neck, attempting to find sleep after all of the commotion in the courtyard.
"Let me carry her for a bit, Love."
She shook her head, refusing to let her go. He understood that she would not relent, so he turned to look at those following behind them.
There was no emotion, no vibrancy or life ... nothing. It was as if they were all made of stone.
A concrete burden weighed heavily on their hearts as the white farmhouse grew to a speck far in the distance.
They assumed that with liberation, came rejoicing. It did not. As they dragged their weary bodies behind the American soldiers, they could do nothing but stare ahead blankly. The desperate fact was that while they were free, their families had been destroyed. Everything they knew was no more.
As they arrived in Landshut, there were dead bodies along the side of the road. The smell of smoke and of death hung around them like the specter of evil that created the nightmare that had become their lives, shrouding all in unrelenting despair.
Being liberated from the work camp meant facing the fact that they had survived when so many had not.
Their moral dilemma became infused with unanswered questions about their future. They lacked answers or understanding as they walked through the destruction of the bomb blasts that riddled Landshut's streets. They knew not where they were headed or if they should be happy or frightened or sad...they knew nothing but the physically exhaustive agony it took to place one foot before the other. Their sudden guilt of survival weighed heavily on them as well...an immeasurable, crushing burden that loaded their hearts and minds.
They each began collapsing from the weight of it all.
The American Soldiers began lifting them and carrying them towards the wagons that would transport them to the American Base set up nearby. They kept apologizing for the fact that the liberated prisoners had to walk at all, but the bomb craters prevented the carts from going beyond the church. Survivors were left to make their way in any manner they could. Shoeless, deathly thin, pale, cold ... nearly lifeless.
The liberated prisoners were loaded on the large wagons, the wood slats covered in blood and the smell of gunpowder.
The ruins around them were smoking cinders of destruction and despair, mirroring how the survivors felt as they rocked back and forth as the cart traveled away from this hell. They were reminded of the day that they arrived in this place and their fear resurfaced, just as it did years before.
Where would they go? What would they do? Were they ready for what would be required of them now that they had freedom to choose?
They soon arrived at the Base, welcomed by smiling men offering helping hands as they were lowered from the wagons.
They were offered water, soft bread and morsels of chocolate.
It was the sweetest, most decadent treat they had in years, and the warm smiles and kindness of the Americans inspired them to smile in return. It was a language unobstructed by borders or battle lines. It was a language that cut through the barbed wire barricades that had been their world ... that had slowly become their hearts regarding humanity.
It was a language of human kindness and decency.
They were settled into a barrack and all three crawled into a single bunk, allowing the exhaustion to overcome them. When they stirred the morning after, they arose to the smell of cooking bacon, coffee and the smell of soap. They filed out of the barrack and were greeted in German by a volunteer who gave them each a sack, a towel, large blankets and a sliver of soap.
"You may bathe privately in there. Remove your clothes and wrap yourselves in the blankets when you are done. Place your items in this parcel, along with your towel. We will launder your clothing and bring them back to you in short order. You may eat breakfast while you wait for your things."
Edek was skeptical.
"Sir, I beg your pardon, but how do I know we will receive our clothes? They are all we have left."
The soldier smiled in return, nodding, "I will place your names and your barrack number on this parcel, your belongings will remain secure. They will be returned to you fresh and in short order. You have endured so much. Allow us to care for you now. Allow us to make you comfortable by showing you a little kindness."
The look of shock on Edek and Izabela's face could not be masked. They were unused to others offering kindness without payment. They had forgotten what it felt like to have kindness offered freely.
When Izabela touched his arm in encouragement, Edek smiled at the soldier, wordlessly accepting the bag and other items. They made their way to the bathing tent, where makeshift privacy areas were positioned next to one another, troughs of steaming warm water and bins between them.
Carefully emptying their only worldly possessions from their meager pockets, they placed their rancid clothes into the bag and began to wash the last of their imprisonment from their calloused flesh. The warm water and fragrant suds on their skin brought tears to their eyes. The warmth was comforting. It seeped into their bones as a new sacrament of hope, their desperation and their fears pouring off of their bodies at last, seeping into the Earth already battered by bombs and blood.
Their cleansing had begun.
They smiled as they washed their hair and scrubbed each other's backs. They chuckled as Alicja shrieked in surprise at the sensation of the water contacting her naked body. They laughed boisterously as their little cherub, rosy pink with warmth and a fresh scrubbing, began splashing her giddy parents with excitement from this new experience.
As they dried off with the towels and placed them in their bag to launder, they reached for the warm blankets. They were scratchy on their naked skin upon contact, but they were still comforting and clean. As Edek grabbed his satchel from the floor, the envelope that Bauersfrau Schwarz gave them fell out. Izabela reached for it cautiously, her happy mood forgotten.
Leaning forward, huddled over the opened envelope in their hands, they began to count. When they got to the last note, they realized that they held a sum far greater than they ever imagined. They hugged their daughter between them as they shook in disbelief, frantic crying giving way to unencumbered joy.
They knew that they could now afford to travel wherever they wished. The sum of freedom was now theirs.
They replaced the envelope in Edek's satchel and walked to the dining hall, their shoes scraping along with their blankets dragging behind them. They were each given a piece of bacon, a hard boiled egg and some coffee. A soldier passed Alicja some chocolate as he was leaving the area, remarking at what a beautiful little girl she was.
They left with full bellies and lighter hearts, returning to their bunk to nap.
This time, when they rose from sleep, their clean clothes were waiting for them, along with a list of options regarding where they could go once they left the base.
"We can return to Poland. They say here we can take a train to Krakow in two weeks time."
"There is nothing left for us there, Edek. I'm not certain I will ever be able to return to Poland."
He nodded in agreement and continued reading aloud.
"It says here that all ports are currently closed in France...but I think that if we could get to Belgium..."
"... We can board a ship for America?"
He nodded in response, his eyes dancing with the burgeoning possibilities before them.
"It may take some time, Izabela, it may be months ... even years ..."
"Edek, we will be together. We will do what we must."
"Then France it is. I will speak with the soldier there to see who will arrange this for us."
She turned to look at her sleeping daughter, who had a small smile on her angelic face.
"Imagine what her life will be like, Edek. She will never remember this horror. She will grow up remembering happier things, happier times."
"That is my hope, Love."
She brushed Alicja's bangs from her forehead as she watched her husband across the tent.
She hoped they were ready.
The destruction across Europe traversed borders, engulfing the region in continued chaos and sadness. Reconstruction was slow-going and Edek found work easily. He was used to debilitating hard work, as were all of the survivors that chose the same path to France, and yet nothing was as terrible as their years of torture at the hands of the Nazis. Nothing. He did whatever he could to get his family into Belgium.
Due to the political climate and lack of available options to America, they worked hard and bided their time as new policies were enacted and more options became available to them.
A fresh start grew closer with each passing month, yet they often were overcome with a sense of sadness and guilt ... the guilt of survivors who wondered why they were one of the lucky ones.
"I was told earlier that the tickets for the ships will be made available tomorrow."
Izabela looked at him in shock at his announcement. She was expecting to spend many more months in Belgium, at the very least.
"Do you ever wonder if we could have done more when we were younger? Could our parents have done more, to stop them from building, from exacting the genocide and torture? I feel guilty that we are able to buy these tickets when so many did not survive to get the chance to do the same."
His voice was cracking with emotion, tears running down his face. She realized that there was an open newspaper on the table before him, and she understood that he was reading the latest reports about the war.
She understood the guilt he was experiencing because she felt it too. There was more they all could have done and yet, as reports came out daily, it appeared that humanity had failed in so many ways that it was hard to accept the scope of the pain, suffering and death.
Izabela understood what Edek was feeling, and yet how could anyone change the past? Was one survivor's suffering quantifiable over that of another? Should they be? Could anyone have stopped the maniacal plans put into place by Hitler and his Nazi regime? These were questions in the news article before her husband now, and she wished she had the answers.
She stood up quickly and walked over to Edek's side, hugging him tightly as she sat in his lap.
His tears soaked her blouse and hers drenched his hair as his head was tucked under her chin.
"Edek, we will never have those answers. We must all endeavor to never repeat our mistakes. Do you know I cry every day for the lost? After you leave for work, I crumple to pieces, often while I watch Alicja play. I think of all of those we saw in those carts as we were being taken away from Poland. The families ... the little ones ... even those from the Yellow room ... my mother and sister ... our neighbors and our childhood friends ... we are here and we must remember them ... we must live for them, to honor their memory. We must do what they can't."
"I know you are right, Izabela, but it doesn't make my heart hurt any less. We escaped the clutch of death when millions..."
"Edek, I think our hearts may always ache because of it. We have to put the scattered pieces of our lives together one by one. We will help each other heal from this. We will have to prepare for big changes, to be ready to embrace our painful past as well as the promise of a future. Don't you see it? We have so much to live for."
He kissed her neck in response, hugging her tighter to his chest.
"How have I become so lucky, Izabela Cullenski? You are everything that matters to me. You and Alicja ..."
"No, Edek. I am the lucky one. When you chose me to be your wife and you saved me, you changed my life forever. I have never loved you more or felt more grateful."
The next morning, he rose before dawn to walk to the office where he would buy their passage to America. Placing the three travel documents into his bible, he clutched it tightly to his chest, his heart pounding with excitement as he stepped onto the sidewalk. There, stretching out for as far as the human eye could see, was a line of people waiting to do the same ... fellow Nomads prepared to pay for passage to a better life at whatever cost.
They all shared the unprecedented experience of displacement. Order was now forming out of the disorder that was their lives. This single file line was not to devalue their existence, to have their hair shaved, or to become a number, to receive a food ration or to receive a death sentence. They were in line to receive a Life sentence. They were claiming their second chance at their pursuit of happiness.
They believed they were ready.
"Esteemed guests of the New Amsterdam, we encourage you to make your way to the Captain's deck, Port side. New York City is on the horizon and we will pass by the Statue of Liberty in a few minutes."
Edek swung his daughter in the air as he picked her up from her seat. She laughed at his strength, her little arms flung around her adored Papa's neck. He reached for Izabela's hand and lifted it to his mouth, kissing it gently.
Their family of three ascended the stairs along with the other passengers. A sense of excitement teemed in the chatter echoing off the narrow passages leading to the main deck.
As they entered into the sunlight, they had to shade their eyes from the brilliant, blinding glare.
When they reached Port side, they looked on in awe at the buildings springing up from the horizon as they were pulled closer to their new destiny. Everyone was pointing in various directions as the buildings grew and grew, the expanse of the cityscape before them unlike anything they had ever seen, touching the sky in ways they could not imagine.
And then they saw her off in the distance, and a decipherable hush slowly descended on the ship. The sound of the waves slapping against the sides of the beautiful vessel and the cull of the Seagulls the only things disturbing the silence.
As they drew closer, no one moved. It was as though every passenger was paralyzed with the shock that they were here to witness her with their own eyes, that they managed to escape their worst nightmares and see this moment come to fruition.
Many started holding the hands of strangers next to them, while others joined in unexpected embraces. Survivors joining hands with others who understood, who knew...Who would never forget.
They were all part of a family joined by devastation. They all witnessed the worst of mankind, and also the best.
And here she stood ... Liberty. Life.
They understood that nearing this beautiful symbol of freedom, they were being given a gift that many would never know. Everyone looking upon her understood that they owed it to all of those that lost their lives to try to carry on, to brave the unknown and chase whatever happiness was left in this life, because so many died never having this chance.
The sun descended behind her, casting her towering shadow onto the bow of the ship.
They all stood in awe as their individual shadows mingled with the imposing shadow of this beacon of hope. Every being present had a story to tell - a story of bravery, of sorrow, of indescribable loss. The monolith of the shadow these travelers lived beneath for so long was a darkness and pain that tortured and tainted years of their lives ... and yet, under this new shadow of Liberty, it felt as though she was blessing them, her only way of embracing them as they made their way into the port of new dreams and of new adventures.
She was welcoming them by allowing her shadows to mingle with theirs.
Edek reached into his pocket and took out his bible, removing the small envelope he had kept close to his heart. He opened it and many watched as the ashes drifted in the air as they danced in the wake of the vessel, flying free on the wind as Lady Liberty looked on.
Many closed their eyes to pray that the spirits of those poor souls would know that they had touched liberty, and that they would experience it wherever they were now.
For those on the ship, their final port was ahead and the new world beckoned.
They were ready.
Almost every scene in this story is based in some part on the survival stories of my extended family members, some of whom survived various camps and still live in Poland & America. My Grandparent's and mother have an Ellis Island family plaque commemorating their journey from terror to the blessed freedom of America. Like so many in their situation, they felt extreme gratitude to the soldiers who liberated them and took care of them after the war, while they were still considered displaced persons. They consider their life in America one of the greatest gifts given to them, where they live in freedom and without the horrific fears of their past.
My Grandparents swore that Newspaper soup helped them stave the constant hunger of their most desperate times in the Arbeitslager in Landshut. My Grandfather would offer to make Newspaper Soup for us whenever he heard us complaining about the trivial things that were going wrong in our lives. We always declined. His point was not lost on any of us, however. It effectively silenced our complaining.
The story of Alicja's (Alice in Polish) birth, as well as her being passed off as Aryan to allow her to remain with her parents is how my mother's life began, and how she remained with my Grandparents. My mom was born in Landshut in 1944. She was one of the only children allowed to remain in that Arbeitslager, partly due to the fact that she was born with light blond hair. The other children were removed by the Nazis. Most were never reunited with their parents after Liberation. My mother still wonders why she was allowed to remain. It's a question that still lingers, so many years later.
The last scene is a direct account of my mother and Grandparents. It is how they viewed their passage beneath the Statue of Liberty as passengers on the New Amsterdam liner, which set sail out of Rotterdam. It took them a few years to get the clearance to enter the US from Europe. They arrived on May 9th 1951.
A link to personal pictures of my family's experiences through the war years, as well as others relating to this story specifically, can be found in my Author's profile.
שלום...Shalom...the deepest of peace. No matter what our ethnicity or spiritual affiliation, we are all a family in humanity. May humanity remember that our history still speaks to us and guides us...warns us...that we remember and never repeat our worst mistakes. May we never forget the lessons, the suffering or the lost. May we always aspire to be ready.