This story is based on first-hand accounts of my family members. I dedicate this story to my Mother, late Grandmother, and late Grandfather, all survivors of a German WW2 Arbeitslager (slave labor 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. Able-bodied Polish Catholics from the Gorale region of the Carpathians were forcibly removed from their homes during WWII to serve as slave labor in Germany. 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 used the word to ask us if we are ready. Are we ever really? Survivors of loss and tragedy discovered they were. 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.
He would ...
Updated July 20, 2022: THIS STORY IS BEING ADAPTED AS A SCREENPLAY, A CHILDREN'S BOOK AND THREE BOOK NOVEL SERIES SLATED FOR PUBLICATION IN 2023. MORE INFORMATION COMING SOON.
Original Story End Notes (edits for clarification):
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 American soldiers who liberated them from southern Germany's "American Zone" 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.
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 and blue eyes, so she passed as Aryan. 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 when she could've been easily assimilated into a German family's home (many of whom lost their children during the war). It's an unanswerable question that still lingers, so many years later. She's grateful for her blessings, for the beautiful life she's been able to live, surrounded by the survivors in her family. As her daughter and author of this short story, the Swastika on her birth certificate and all of their surviving documents are chilling reminders of their strife and suffering. It's a visual reminder of my own blessings.
The last scene of this short story 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 and were among the last Displaced Person's to receive the green light to enter the US. They arrived at Ellis Island on May 9th, 1951. Like so many immigrants during that time, the years spent as Displaced Persons, seeking a new, safe home, became a challenge that tested their resolve to pursue their hopes to never return to the dangerous and dauntingly heavy iron curtain that had become Communist Poland. Because of their convoluted trek through war-ravaged western Europe, their traveling beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty to land on Ellis Island was the beginning of a life of liberty as they pursued their own happiness, on new and freedom-affirming terms. Ellis Island's records show their official designation as Stateless - It's a designation that lasted for as long as they traveled from the east coast and planted their roots around Chicago, which has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, the capital of Poland. The Goral's have a strong presence in Illinois to this day, and it's where they still call home.
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.
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.