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My Mama's Garden
My earliest memory is of my Mama’s garden. We were planting the sunflowers since it was almost spring. I remember sitting on a blanket watching my mother as she planted each bulb, seeming not to care about the dirt underneath her pink fingernails. Everything was happy in my Mama’s garden. The bright green ivy planted on the metal fence that enclosed our small garden seemed to shelter us from the war and horror that was occurring behind it. The surface area of the garden was just as big as our house, which wasn’t very big. I clearly remember the red poppies and white chrysanthemums that looked like the Polish flag. Other than that all I recall is the vast array of purple, orange, green, and yellow colors. It was a beautiful garden. We had a small porcelain birdbath in the middle of it where the occasional moorhen would stop by for a sip. Along the outskirts of the garden my mother planted tomatoes and squash. My other siblings did not have as close of a connection to nature as my mother and I had. I remember that clearly, I do. They would stay inside and play board games wondering how we could possibly sit in one place for so long planting flowers.
One of the few things I remember about my mother is how she loved nature. But even more so she loved to nurture, whether it was her four children, stray kittens, or flowers. She tried to water and protect us from all the harm in the world but in Poland in 1942 that was just not possible.
Mama taught me how to write my name and the first place I practiced was on the wooden tool shed in the garden. Katya is what it said in white letters, the Y out of proportion due to its long tail. Katya meant pure and at age four that is exactly what I was.
I don’t remember what our house looked like; I think it was two stories, maybe one. But I do recall the red velvet couches and chairs in the living room. I remember the cold metal buttons that were punctured into the material of the seat part, giving it a comfy appearance and feel. And I remember the front door, the one that we were forced out of. I remember the last I saw of our house was the metal and turquoise mezuzah that hung in our doorframe. I kept my eyes on it until I was pushed in a truck where I could see it no more.
I was with my mother and sister. My father and brothers were taken elsewhere. I never saw them again.
“Where to?” asked the driver.
“Auschwitz,” said the soldier in the front seat.
I didn’t know what or where that was. But by the look on my mother’s horrified face I knew it could not be good. She embraced my sister and me. We huddled closer in the crowded truck seeing and hearing the despair of the other people in it.
We pulled up to a large gray building that looked like a factory. There were two large smoke stacks with black smoke coming out of them. The air smelled bad. My mother pulled us in closer squeezing our hands tightly as if we were going to fall of a cliff any second. There were many large red houses positioned in rows at the camp. They looked nice.
Two men took the shipment of us into a room and removed all of our possessions. They took away my white dress, my sister’s silver platings, and my mother’s rings along with any other valuable that we had on us. A Nazi’s wife would receive my mother’s diamond ring as a birthday present.
They gave us dirty clothes to put on and showed us to our house. It was one of the pretty red brick ones that I saw earlier. But my view of this house changed when I realized that there were about three hundred other women in its tightly cramped quarters.
Everyday we worked with the motto arbeit macht frei in our heads. We hadn’t eaten in a very long time. Every night my mother, sister and I would sleep together on our tiny bed. Often I would not sleep. I’d look around at the other starving women and then up at the ceiling, thinking about the white chrysanthemums of my mother’s garden. The hours, days, and months passed. My mother was getting frailer and frailer each day. I’d often hear wailing at night or suppressed whimpers. Sometimes there would be a scream or a shotgun sound.
One day they asked us to line up outside the big gray factory that we first saw what seemed like ages ago. We were all huddled together in our thin clothes and thin skin watching a man shut the metal door firmly as we waited for a few minutes. He opened it again to let the next amount of people in. That’s when I saw the many dead bodies of women on the white tile floor. The door slammed shut and so did my eyes. I stood there frozen looking at the metal door and realizing my own fate. I prayed so hard that my sister, mother, and I would not be sent in there. But if there one person who had to go in, I decided it should be me. I was almost five.
I saw the man who was opening and closing the heavy metal door. He looked like my Uncle Henyrk. His eyes settled on mine for a while and I could see the recollection in them. His eyes cleared and watered. He looked down at the floor. I ran out of line over to him and gave him hug. He was my favorite Uncle and we had a very close relationship. My small hands clung to his stiff uniform.
“Hey! What do you think you are doing!” shouted another army official.
He pointed his gun at me about to pull the trigger.
“Stop!” said my Uncle “I got this one,” he said.
You could see the ache in his eyes the millisecond before he struck me with his wrist. My nose was bleeding. I stood there with my big blue eyes staring up at him as I cried. My mother pulled me back in line and held me close to her.
Mama was now at the front of the line. My Uncle told the guard that there was no more room. Recognizing the relationship between him and our family the guard said,
“Nope I think you can fit just one more into the load. How about the little one over there.”
I stood tall and proud ready to sacrifice myself for the lives of my mother and sister.
“No!” said my mother, “she is still young and can work, I can hardly lift a shovel, take me instead.”
“No!” I was screaming by now. “No mama, No!” The tears welled up in my eyes as I started to sob. I reached to hug her but the army official held me back. My Uncle escorted his sister into the room placing her under the other dead bodies. It was all he could do, for death was faster when you were closer to the bottom. As the metal door creaked shut I saw my mother’s mouthed words, “I love you.”
“All right that’s it for the day. Get back to work!” said a voice.
My sister and I held hands as we walked back to do more work. I was crying so hard that every part of me ached. There is nothing more damaging than losing a mother. My eight-year-old sister tried to take her place and held me in her arms as we walked back to fields.
The next few weeks I was traumatized. I felt numb. I didn’t say anything. I just did the work and went to sleep. I held on to the idea that I still had my sister. I assumed my father and brothers weren’t living anymore. My sister and I got closer; we were all each other had except for our Uncle. He had been forced to be a soldier in the camp since he was part of the Polish army and the Nazis needed his skills.
Every night I heard a tapping at my window. I would go outside trying to hide in the shadows of the barracks and find a bundle of food, usually an apple, a hunk of cheese, and a piece of bread. In the apple were the initials HJ inscribed. It was from my uncle.
One night my sister and I got into a fight. I’m not sure what it was about. We didn’t talk to each other for a while. I could see her depression grow each day. She would try to reach out to me but I was stubborn and young and so I pushed her away. She was nine at the time and had been put into an older group where the work was more rigorous. For her there was no reason left to live. She thought I hated her. So one night I suddenly woke up to find that my sister was not with me.
“Helena!?” I whispered. There was no response.
I searched through the other skeleton-like bodies for my sister but couldn’t find her. I went outside hoping to see her getting some fresh air. Where could she be? I thought. And that’s when I saw the electrified fence that was illuminated by bright lights. There were the guards at their posts in high posts. I got the chills and that’s when I saw a small black thing that looked like a little girl right near the bottom of the fence. I heard screaming from a guard as he pointed in my direction. I scurried inside the barrack and lay down on my bed, not moving, afraid they would come in and hurt me. I was frozen because I knew I indirectly killed my sister. Just a month later the camp was closed. The Russians had come. Where would I go?
I now live in Long Island with my husband and daughter who I named Irena, after my mother. I hadn’t gone back to Poland for thirty years until just last month. The first place that I went to was our old house. The foundation was still there but no structure existed. There was that same metal gate around the garden though. I looked at the scrawny weeds, the unfertile soil, and the birdbath that no longer had that porcelain glossy look to it. I stood in the center of the garden and thought of everything I had been through. I spotted the tool shed and ran over to it, seeing my name was still there. I sat on it and traced my fingers over the carved letters that no longer had the white paint in them. “Katya.” I read as tears welled up in my eyes, “Katya.”
My childhood was damaged and my soul, though healed, is still scarred. I looked around the desolate space remembering all the horrors I had been through but also the short yet perfect infancy that I had in my mama’s garden.