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What The Forgotten Left Behind
I used to think that dust was something that gathered on surfaces when you neglected them for too long. A combination of forgotten dead things- dust mites, skin cells and who knows what else. Something my mother would sweep off the top of our burgundy bookshelves when we returned from a vacation, coughing when some of it unavoidably skipped down her throat.
Now I know another meaning of dust. Here, in this place where we are all the same hollow-eyed skeletons, the dust is everywhere and constant. It is no longer comprised of useless leftovers, but emotions and hopes that we’ve had to shed alongside our tears, unable to do anything but stand aside and watch as they fell.
I wake at dawn. I’ve been shivering since the sun fell over the barbed wire fence, but the fact that it’s risen again has done nothing but tell me I have survived another day. It is December 1940- as cold a winter as any.
“Wake up, Lena,” I whisper to myself. “You’ve got to go line up with the others.” I force myself out of the windowless, cement building we’re housed in like cattle preparing for slaughter. Rubbing at the sleep that never seems to leave my eyes, I join the throng of bony, bruised bodies heading to the lines.
Not dressed for the weather, we quake and tremble, praying that our captors will be in a good mood today.
It is not to be. Halfway down the line a soldier stops. “One of ‘em’s missin’,”
he announces. “Where is it?” he directs the question at the girls flanking the empty space in the line.
They don’t even think of us as people.
When the girls don’t answer, he raises his gun.
“We don’t know,” the bravest whispers. I realize she can hardly be older than my sixteen years, though with everyone’s shaved heads it’s rather hard to tell.
She will never be any older.
The guns pops twice but there are no screams as she falls, from her or the others. There’s no point. In this place, to show emotion is a death wish.
We are released to find food. The ‘cooks’ at the table they call a kitchen give us half a piece of gray bread each.
“Eat up,” they say. Though we stare in disgust at the green fuzz clinging to the edges, we are so desperate it is all gone in seconds. No one is full. A fight breaks out when one woman’s piece is larger than another’s. The two scrape at each other with ragged fingernails.
The bodies are left on the ground. Within minutes, their clothes are in the hands of whoever managed to snag them first, hoping for a bit of extra warmth.
Dignity, as emotion, has no place in times like these.
Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a chef like my grandmother. I was going to call my restaurant “Bright Star” because that was the nickname my grandmother gave me. She passed when I was eleven, but in the years before my parents and I would have dinner at her house every Sunday. I’d walk over earlier in the day to the house with the red shutters and chickens running around to help prepare the meal. Some days I would knead the dough for poppy seed bagels or fold pretzels out of long strand of dough. Other times I would shell peas, or watch as she chopped walnuts and dried cranberries with some feta cheese into a bowl of lettuce tossed with a raspberry vinaigrette.
Sometimes when I had a bad day at school, I’d take out my notebook and sketch out an idea for a new recipe. After class I’d run over to her house, where she would let me use her kitchen for whatever crazy scheme I’d come up with.
“No, Lena, you sift the flours together so all the clumps even out,” she’d say. Or, “Here, taste this- should I add thyme or rosemary?”
Once I attempted a chocolate soufflé. It seemed as though everything was going wrong- the eggs wouldn’t crack properly, we were fresh out of lemon juice. When the soufflé collapsed as I pulled it from the oven I just about lost it.
“I can’t do this anymore!” I had yelled, stomping my feet in frustration.
My grandmother sat me down while she bustled around the kitchen pulling things out of cupboards.
“Don’t simply give up like that, Lena,” she said. “Never. A good chef can always find a way to make things better. A good chef can fix anything that’s gone wrong.” With that, she dumped the soufflé out of the pan and chopped it into squares. She put a few chunks in two glass dishes, covered them with chocolate pudding, whipped cream and strawberries, and handed me a spoon.
“See?” she said as we savored the flavor. “There is nothing you cannot fix if you have a moment or two to think about it.”
After I force down the bread, trying futilely to imagine it as a roasted potato, I awkwardly maneuver over to a patch of ground where no one is sleeping, sitting, crying or dead. It’s harder than you’d think to walk a few yards when you’ve scarcely had any food or water for days. I hear the moans of the sick trudging out of the building to my left, but I push it out of my head. Using my finger, I draw a picture in the dirt. There’s my mother, and my father. There’s me, standing on Papa’s shoulders in the orchard to reach an apple at the top of a tree.
A tear slips from my eye and I quickly swipe it away, streaking dirt across my reddening cheeks.
“Where are you, Mama? Where are you, Papa?” I whisper to the air, hoping the wind will carry my questions like paper birds to my parents’ ears. Trying to will myself not to cry is useless. The tears slip from my grasp and I watch as the dry land gobbles them up. It’s seems I’m not the only desperately thirsty one here.
I’m heading downstairs to get a glass of water from the kitchen. I’ve just shut off the faucet when a banging at the door makes me jump, dropping the glass. The crash it makes as it shatters seems enough to wake the dead.
“OPEN UP! Open up, we can hear you!” a voice blasts through the door. Moments later, a foot follows. My parents rush downstairs, calling.
“Lena! Lena, are you alright?”
“They’ve come!” I whisper, terrified, as the door crashes to the floor. The light from the streetlamps floods in, illuminating the bulky body of a man in uniform, massive fists seemingly unharmed from their battle with the front door.
He stalks in without missing a beat, headed straight for us. I have the urge to run but my feet are frozen to the hardwood floor. The glass shards on the floor crunch under the Nazi’s boots but he takes no notice, simply grabs my mother by the wrist and yanks her away. She cries out in pain before he covers her mouth with a hand the size of a rabbit.
Suddenly, my father and I burst into action.
“No!” he pleads at the same time I do. It hurts me deep inside to see him, usually so strong, on the verge of tears. He falls to the floor and begs. “Please, take me instead!”
“You filth,” growls the soldier. “We’re taking every one of you.” His beady eyes bore into me and I cross my arms over my chest, defiant. But what I have not noticed is the man that sneaks up behind me. I shriek as he twists my arms around my back. My father is grabbed in the same instant.
Our neighbors say nothing as they watch us pulled across the lawn and into a van where a dozen other Jews are already squashed together. Why they’ve pulled themselves out of their comfortable beds at this hour simply to watch I’ve no idea.
I am yanked to my feet by a rough hand. Instinctively, I cower, and hear a harsh laugh. My arms are tied behind my back.
“What’s going on?” I don’t mean to speak aloud, but I do. I am kicked for it, a blow to the knee that I nearly collapse from, but I am also answered.
“Shirking your duties, that’s what!” the words lodge themselves in my brain, where they frantically try to connect with a memory. They come up with a shock- I’ve forgotten to scour the beds for lice.
Four other girls join my in the back of a muddy cart. It reeks of waste and blood. Judging by the look on one of the girls’ faces, it will look smell even worse.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” the youngest asks me. She looks about thirteen, but with the terrors of a war veteran etched across her features.
I don’t know what to say. Do I lie and tell her we’ll all be fine? Or should I go with the truth?
Finally, I nod.
She bursts into tears, and I immediately feel terrible.
“I’m sorry,” I say, the most pathetic excuse.
“It’s… it’s alright,” she weeps. “I thought.. I thought so. I only hoped.,,”
“Don’t cry,” I tell her. To comfort her, or to help myself? “I’m Lena.”
It’s amazing. I am talking, and the only soldier around cannot hear us over the turning wheels.
“I’m Hannah,” she whispers. We look to the other girls.
“There,” I say. “Now we know each other’s names.” I’m not sure what good that will do, but it’s all I can do to fill up the dreadful silence that brings us closer to our fate.
“It’s no use,” cries Becca in frustration, her dark eyes watering. “No one else knows them. Who will care, after we’re gone? Who will remember us?”
“I’ll remember.” I say.
“But you’ll be gone too,” she protests.
I flinch, knowing it’s the truth.
“Then let’s make them remember us,” I say. “Be strong. Don’t cry. Don’t scream, or yell.” I look around. There’s no way we will escape. We are nearing a yellowed clearing with… they must be bodies, strewn about.
We are here.
“Be strong,” I tell them again. “Hold your head up high.”
Their eyes shine with tears, but they swallow and nod. Anything is better than the hopelessness that blankets us like a fog.
The last thing I see is the sun. the bright, cold sun, full of lies and false hope. It promises heat but I feel none. It promises light but in my future, there is only dark.
I am the first. Maybe it is only chance. Maybe it is destiny. I hold my head proud and high for the other girls to see and shout to the sky, “I am ready!”
The crack of the gunshot splits the sky in two as it breaks through my olive skin, pushing me over. The pain registers slowly, as does my fall onto the hard, dusty earth. All I can think as I gasp for one more breath is, how? How can this be it? My life, that life I once thought destined to be so full of happiness, ended here, now? I am in denial of my death as surely as it is occurring, suddenly acutely aware of every millionth of a second that passes. It’s as though my mind is trying to collect a life’s worth of memories in the last fleeting moments of my world. My death, it would seem, as I hear more gun shots echo through the wind, is nothing more than the tossing of one more departed soul among the thousands of others upon the yellow, bloodied grass.