We have to go into the despair and go beyond it, by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.
– Elie Wiesel
Lodz, Poland – 1943
I looked up and through the dirty window at the Luftwaffe plane as it passed overhead, it’s engines inaudible, drowned out by the metal-on-metal sounds of the workhouse – where bullets were being molded in huge trays of steel forms, blackened by the heat’s effect on the lead alloy, and carbonaceous grime that more or less coated everything in the huge open room. I wondered what the ghetto looked like to the German pilot as he passed overhead. The fence that had demarcated our world for the last three years would not be visible from his perspective, just the geometric shapes made by street blocks in this northwest corner of Lodz.
The last whistle blew, and we all trudged out and into the grey cobblestone street in front of the plant, a large three-story building that up until a year ago was a hospital – the one in which I had previously worked as a surgeon. No one spoke. There was nothing new to speak of. We just hung our heads and moved mechanically forward – silenced by fatigue, muted fear and near-complete resignation. What day was it? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. I knew the year was 1943, and that the Russian winter was marching over the Steppes toward us. The sky overhead was the same color as the stones underfoot, and had been for some time. Too bad the Russian army’s advance is not as predictable, I mused.
I stared down at the cobblestones, stopped walking for a moment, and looked up at a distant intersection. There were no vehicles, as we had no petrol for private use, and no children, dogs or cats. All children under the age of ten had been deported a year prior, and the pets were dead of starvation, or more likely killed and eaten.
The children, the children, I muttered to myself, God in your mercy, the children!
I clenched my eyes and fists tight and tried not to see what I could not bear to see but could not stop seeing, could not avoid seeing – in my mind. Again and again – the toddlers and the older ones at the Children’s Hospital, unable to walk down the stairs due to illness or simply too young to do so, hurled from second and third story windows by the SS into the backs of waiting trucks below…
Their tiny little hands open, grabbing at the air as they fell, trying in vain to somehow slow the descent.
For those few mothers who by tragic chance happened to be on the upper floors when the SS arrived… it was the worst. We could all hear their screams from below.
…little ones literally ripped from their mother’s arms, reaching out of the windows above desperately to grab them back somehow… reaching out… the hands…
They taught us in medical school in Gdansk, during gross anatomy, that the hands and the face are the two most difficult areas of the body to dissect, and that is why they are saved for last, when the initial repulsion of this first unnatural act as a physician has passed. Our faces and our hands are what we know of ourselves, they are what we see, of ourselves.
…those mother’s hands. I had never seen hands look so expressive – so desperately empty…
I wiped the moisture from my eyes. I was breathing hard. I leaned against a lamppost, buffeted occasionally by those moving past me and into the night. One large man, walking bent over at the waist almost knocked me over, but did not stop. We had long since given up on the frivolity of courtesy. What did it matter?
It struck me standing there that when one looks down a cobblestone street, the stones appear more and more uniform, and take on a pleasing pattern from a greater distance. This was in contrast to actually seeing them directly beneath your feet, and walking on them – hard, uneven, and difficult to maneuver predictably. In the Luftwaffe pilot’s eyes earlier, the pleasing geometric shapes below concealed the same things – the stone cold hard effort to survive, and the unpredictable fate for each of us. Perhaps the Lodz ghetto simply looked like a cobblestone street from a distance to the entire world – how else could this be allowed to happen?
Our apartment, the entire building, smelled terribly of mildew. We were not allowed to open the windows any longer, and in fact had been told to nail them shut a year ago, after a fortuitously accurate brick had been thrown at one of Chaim Rumkowski’s judenrat cronies – a Jewish council enforcement policemen, from the third story, killing him instantly. The closed-in heat of the summer that followed would have been disastrous for the elderly living there, but the majority of them had been sent to Chelmno, and the gas chambers, along with the children last year – leaving only the “able bodied workers” behind.
Marta, my baby sister, had mixed a small chopped potato with some stale onion, and was moving it around on the gas stovetop in our one cast iron pan. These were all the ration card would buy today at the exchange. She did not hear my entering, but I could see her from the doorway. She was seventeen, the youngest among us, and the only girl. I was the oldest, at thirty. We had two other brothers between us in age, but they had both been lost. Jakob, the younger of the two, had succumbed to dysentery last year – I wasn’t sure who suffered more after he became delirious once the dehydration inevitably drove the level of sodium up in his bloodstream until his own briny blood basically pickled his brain – he, or I. I could have cured him easily with some clean water, some salt, and some belladonna. Instead, I stood by, a University-trained doctor, as helpless as a janitor,
and watched in silent, strained desperation as he shat himself to death.
Simon, the next eldest, was apprehended and made to disappear on a random raid of our apartment building by the SS. He had always been rebellious, and would have likely been spared, but his invective spilled out one day on them as they went about their ghastly door-to-door deportation quota business. They had been instructed to leave the young men like him alone, as they were the best and most reliable labor. However, he took a swing at one of them when the bastard picked up a recent photo of our white- haired parents and asked him, in broken Polish, “Where are these worthless Jewish idiots? They don’t look like workers to me.”
Our parents, bless them, had been deported along with many other elderly only two months before this… Simon simply could not control himself, and now joined them in oblivion.
This left only Marta and I.
For a while, we were able to use Simon’s ration card to obtain additional food, but that had been discovered and taken away. Marta was lucky to have survived the deception’s discovery. She was distressingly thin – her bony elbows moved back and forth like skeletal pistons as she stirred our meager meal, her hipbones clearly visible through the thin worn and faded cotton dress. It looked almost as if her legs were suspended from her waist by a large coat hanger, its two angles jutting out at the sides, and draping the fabric beneath.
“Hello sister”, I called out to her. She turned, and waved, smiling. I always thought that the yellow star looked most unusual, and out of place on the dresses of young women – like some sort of accessory that only a psychotic person would wear volitionally, like the patients on the third floor mental unit of my old hospital.
Sill smiling… the optimism of a teenager, I thought, “so, sister, did you talk to any boys today?”
“No brother,” she laughed, “just work, and a thousand more paper cuts.”
I asked her about boys, but I knew from my medical training that during periods of starvation, that sexual drive was attenuated, even in teenagers. There was a connection between luxury and attraction that was biochemical, and not just monetary – the steroid hormones that drove us to procreate required fats in the diet to be produced. Marta worked at the paper workhouse, or “ressort” as it was called, and I worked in a munitions workhouse, where we made bullets for German weapons. At times, I would look at the small projectiles, coming off the assembly line by the hundreds, trying to discern which among them was perhaps marked for me, or for Marta.
The ghetto originally recreated most of the social structure of our larger, pre-confinement world, when we were first squeezed into its roughly two kilometer area in 1940, and
fenced away from the rest of the world. There were schools and hospitals, and even some small markets, along with the workhouses. However, the Germans had made a decision in the last year that only those capable of working should be allowed to remain. Thus, the hospitals were emptied of the sick, and these converted to manufacturing, and then the children and the elderly were all deported. We had heard for a time that the children were “working in gardens in Germany”, and that the babies had been “adopted by wealthy German families”. However, when their shoes and clothing arrived back at Lodz by train for “recycling” within a few days of their departure, we knew better. There were a number of suicides among the surviving parents on that particular day.
So Lodz had become a work camp, and nothing more. There was no need for schools or other social structure. There was no need for hospitals, as those who fell too ill for work were simply shot, or deported. Obviously, the sick had great motivation to get better, and even though we had no clinics or hospitals in which to practice, as physicians, we were sought out.
“I heard from one of the women in the paper house that you had a nickname,” she commented, still working at the stove.
“Really,” I responded, “what’s that” “Aniol amunicji,” she replied, “it has a ring, don’t you think?”
“Angel of munitions?” I asked, incredulously, “sounds a bit pretentious to me, little sister, and better not to draw attention, you know that.”
“I thought it was cute, brother,” she replied, moving the potato and onion gruel from the stove to two tin plates, “don’t be so serious all the time – anyway, everyone knows that now-a-days you must go to heaven to see an angel.” We both laughed and nodded knowingly at one another; it was one of our mother’s favorite sayings. It struck me that it had never been more true than in this very moment. Even fully cooked, the onions were slimy, and tough, and the bits of potato tasteless – there were certainly no spices or condiments to add to anyone’s cook-pot these days.
“Delicious, Marta,” I mumbled as I chewed, mustering up a disingenuous grin. She rolled her eyes at me, and shook her head.
The munitions workhouse where worked had been created in the lower floor of the previous hospital building. Most of the non-weight bearing walls had been knocked down to make room for the lead smelters. The entry-level lobby originally had a high ceiling, and this allowed the smelters to be constructed to vent most of the heat up and out the windows above via large rounded tin conduits. On either end of the great room were some smaller rooms that had been left intact due to weight bearing columns making up a corner, or part of a wall. In these rooms we stored the components of bullets that we did not manufacture there – brass casings recycled from the front, and gunpowder. We were in the business of creating the lead projectiles, the primer ends, and then the
assembly of all the pieces into the final product. One of these small rooms that was used primarily for stacking old wooden boxes, had a closet in the corner – and this was my “clinic”, replete with an old wooden desk that served as an examing table, and some shelve where I could keep a very modest inventory of items that had been squirreled away from the hospitals as they were closed, or quietly brought to me by others who knew that I was seeing patients there. I was optimistic at first, after the hospitals were closed, that I would be able to continue to relieve the suffering of some. In time; however, it became obvious that the Germans would not restock medicines or supplies. I had become a proficient surgeon prior to the war, but I was reduced now to dressing wounds, applying the occasional home remedy, and giving advice or some measure of ridiculously insufficient solace.
Increasingly, the patients I saw there were in the terminal stages of tuberculosis – the deceptively healthy appearing red-cheeked face of “consumption”… the all too familiar death rattle breathing – audible without the bell stethoscope from across the room, and the dried blood on the handkerchief and at the corners of the mouth. Many were simply starving to death, having entered the phase during which the body, unable to be nourished from external means, eats at itself with a billion ravenous mouths, until it is no longer able to sustain the spark of life.
Month after month they came, one after another, some literally begging for my assistance – deportation at risk if they were found absent from work for more than three weeks. There were no hypochondriacs here, for certain. Regardless, I failed them, again, and again. My co-workers continued to cover for me; however, and watched anxiously as the patients came and went, finding it hard to count their own blessings, but doing so.
Then one day it happened, a patient that made me realize the ridiculous folly of what I was doing – the ludicrous futility of it all. It was Marta’s best friend – Bogumila Petrov. She was three years older than Marta, but from the same school. Her father had been a good friend of mine as well, a Russian émigré that worked as a pharmacist in another hospital in Lodz before the occupation. He had been murdered over a year ago trying to get back into the hospital when it was summarily closed by the SS, shot in the back with a machine gun in front of a large crowd, no doubt as a deterrent to others. Bogumila’s mother had succumbed to tuberculosis several months ago, and she was an only child. Marta had told me the night before that Bogu, as we called her, had been complaining of abdominal pain for a couple of days – they worked together in the paper house.
I instructed Marta to have Bogu tell the foreman at the paper house that one of the supervisors at the munitions house had asked for a new sheaf of production forms, and to ask to deliver them. He agreed, and she showed up a couple of hours prior to last whistle. When she entered the door, I caught her attention by waving a red cloth above my head (our agreed upon signal), and pointed to the rooms at the side of the large main floor. She walked purposefully in that direction and I met her at an outer door. No one was watching, so we stepped inside, around the wooden crates of casings and into my “clinic”.
In the days prior to the ghetto, Bogu had been a beautiful young woman – long Auburn hair, and emerald green eyes, and also an athlete – a gymnast of unusual grace and aesthetic. Now, her hair was shorn close to her head, as was everyone’s, to keep the unavoidable lice at bay as much as possible. Her eyes were a dull gray, her face was drawn, and her lips tight and thin. There were small wrinkles around her eyes – the face of pain. I motioned to the desk, and she very slowly climbed up onto its surface. Like Marta, she was dangerously thin, and moved like an old woman rather than a previously lithe athlete. She lay perfectly still, with her knees flexed, her hands grasping them and holding them so tightly that her fingers blanched. I knew that this was the position, the habitus, of peritonitis – inflammation of some sort of the tissues lining the abdominal cavity. Something was amiss there, something bad.
“How long?” I asked.
“Three days,” she replied, flatly.
“No more than usual,” she replied.
I felt her forehead – it was very hot.
“Period?” I asked.
She looked at me quizzically. “I haven’t had one for more than a year, but none of the girls do.., I.., I was told that it was due to the poor diet.”
“That’s okay, that’s okay,” I replied, softly, “but have you had any discharge from down there, anything at all?”
She turned her head away in shame, “no, nothing… no.” I bumped the table, on purpose – to jar the tissues surrounding her abdominal organs. “Oooooh,” she said, sharply, and began to cry.
It was definitely peritonitis, and with the fever I surmised that there was infection rather than just irritation of some sort in the abdominal cavity. I touched her abdomen – it was rock hard, and tender everywhere. There was mass effect in the right lower quadrant. Ruptured appendicitis, with abscess, I thought to myself, almost reflexively. I had seen this many, many times before.
And I knew that there was nothing I could do. Nothing.
She begged me to not take her out of the room, as she was afraid she would be seen, and deported.
“I would rather die in this room, than in Chelmno” she said, “go home to Marta, and tell her that I am okay.., please, do this for me.”
She lasted three excruciating days there. I had a tiny amount of morphine, and gave her half of it the third morning. She died shortly thereafter. Marta was devastated. Despite the fact that she had been literally surrounded by death, this was her best friend, and for the first time she seemed to sense her own mortality. At her age, this was a difficult realization. Just as it was with Bogu, I had no poultice to offer my baby sister, nothing to cover this new wound.
I closed the clinic.
“You can’t close the clinic, brother,” Marta implored several days later, over a dinner of limp celery and old dried beans, which seemed to disintegrate into a wet powder when chewed, “people depend on you, and on your kindness, even if you cannot cure them. Mother always said that the best medicine is a good doctor, and that the pills and potions don’t do much of anything. I think she was right.”
“Depend on me for what?” I asked, “I am a charlatan, I have no medicine, I have no tools. I slammed my fist on the table, causing the tin plates bounce and rattle, and Marta’s eyes to widen in fear. I PROVIDE NOTHING OF VALUE! I… I am a worker in a munitions plant. I am no longer a doctor. It doesn’t matter, Marta… it doesn’t matter.”
The next several months were a blur. The patients eventually stopped coming as word got around that the “aniol amunicji” was no longer an angel – just another ghetto inhabitant like them, working, literally, to stay alive as long as possible. I had known that my mother’s admonition regarding where angels were to be found was true – only in heaven, and not on this earth. How could I have been so arrogant as to think otherwise?
More and more people were sent to Chelmno, and one day, word came down from the elders that the camp would be “liquidated.” There was great discussion regarding what exactly that this meant – were the Russians nearby? Were the Germans worried? Were they going to free us and run? I knew; however, exactly what it meant. I had been told by several of those coming into our camp over the last year with news from the previously “liquidated” Warsaw ghetto just ninety kilometers north of here, one of which was a doctor like me in his previous life, what that implied – all living Jews would be gathered up, exported to death camp, and exterminated. Marta quizzed me incessantly about it, and I could not be honest with her. The young men and women were least prepared for this inevitability, and the most deserving of delusion – so I fostered hers as convincingly as I could, manufacturing stories, as well as bullets, as I worked each day in the munitions house.
“We had a new worker placed into the munitions house today,” I said, “from the Russian front – he tells us that the Red Army is only twenty kilometers away.”
“That is wonderful, brother,” hope welling up in her dark brown eyes, “they are coming, and King David himself is going to be with them! Perhaps mother was wrong – there are angels on earth after all!”
As the summer of 1944 wore on, the final, larger exportations began. Several thousand were sent to Chelmno, but the sick and lame were targeted initially, as the Germans attempted to wring out every last ounce of productivity from the ghetto possible. It was during this time that I met Abraham Bursztanin, the man who would save my sister’s life.
I was cleaning one of the steel forms at work, standing on two layers of scaffolding. From the corner of my eye I saw two men enter the great room from the back entrance. One was limping, but they were moving quickly, and scanning the room anxiously – both were obviously scared. My educated eye told me that the one that was limping was trailing drops and small smears of blood from his right foot onto the concrete floor. I looked down at the form and scrubbed it more aggressively with the wire brush. I wanted nothing to do with this business. Luckily for the two men, the foreman was taking one of his extended smoking breaks, which at times now lasted entire half-days, and included drinking with the SS guards stationed nearby at the perimeter of the ghetto. I could hear a murmur building on the floor, and then the scaffolding jostled beneath me. I reluctantly set my brush down on the scaffold, and glanced down to see the two men there, surrounded by a semi-circle of workers. I could feel my heart racing from the both the burst of exertion, and from what I was afraid I was about to hear. The production line had stopped, and dozens of eyes were fixed alternatively on the two men, and on me.
The one that wasn’t limping spoke, “don’t try to ignore us… we know you are a doctor. We need help.”
I picked up my brush, and began cleaning the form again – slowly, but purposefully. “I am a worker, that’s all, a worker like everyone else. I have nothing to offer you.”
“It is important, many lives are at stake,” the one who was bleeding said, “please, we do not have much time.”
“Many lives at stake?” I replied indignantly, and looked down directly at them for the first time, “as if there aren’t many lives at stake here every single day, with no ability to influence this.” I shook my head and chuckled nervously, and then shook the brush at them, “I said that I have NOTHING to offer.” The murmurs from the crowd of workers, now ten or more deep on all sides around the scaffolding, increased in volume.
“You have a younger sister,” the first one spoke again. “What does that have to do with anything?” I asked, “have you done something to…”
“No, but please step down and help us,” the first man implored, “it could be meaningful to your sister.”
I stared at them angrily, and then climbed slowly down the scaffolding to the floor. The workers at the front of the large crowd were just standing around, looking at me expectantly. “EVERYONE GO BACK TO WORK!” I yelled, waving my arms, “the foreman could return at any time!”
I pushed several of them aside and trudged toward the room where I used to hold my worthless clinic, and the men followed. The familiar metallic working sounds resumed behind us as the workers picked up the line – a hundred mute iron skeletons suddenly embracing and dancing in rhythm to a song that only they could hear.
The man with the limp hopped up and onto the makeshift table. It was covered in dust, and there were rat droppings on the floor – it hadn’t been swept since Bogu.
“Nice clinic, doctor,” he growled sardonically, wincing as he swung his legs up and over the edge and onto the flat surface, causing the powdered dirt and metal particles to lift up into the space between us, reflecting the dim light. I reached up to cover my mouth and nose, but too slowly. I wondered whether some of these particles were from Bogu’s own dry and flaking skin as she lay there dying, and felt as if I might throw up for a brief moment.
“What happened?” I asked, coughing, “did you fall?”
“Not exactly,” the patient replied. He rolled up his pants leg to show an obvious gunshot wound, halfway down the shin. It was plugged with a large ball of lint, and blood was escaping around it.
“Who…?” “SS,” he replied, “but they do not know I am here. Can you stop the bleeding?”
“I’m not sure”, I replied. I rolled his shin over onto its side. The man winced again, and then just nodded, as if signifying that I should go ahead. “You stink,” I said, “and around here, to notice that above the smell of the rest of us is something.”
“I have been in the sewer,” he replied, “please, keep working.”
“The sewer?” I stopped, and sat up. “No,” I replied, “not until you tell me what my sister has to do with any of this.”
“I can save her. I can spare her from the final deportation,” he replied, “but I have to be alive to do so.”
I looked up and into the eyes of the other man – his expression was grim, but earnest. He nodded his head in agreement, and then nodded at the other man’s leg.
I looked back down at the wound. There was a bottle of alcohol left behind from before on a top shelf, and a few milliliters had somehow escaped evaporation around the cork stopper. I splashed a little on the wound. “Brace yourself,” I said to the man, and inserted my finger.
“There is a bullet lodged in the bone, your tibia,” I explained. “I think that one of the major branches of the artery to your lower leg is severed by the bullet, but it is in the way of repair – I cannot stop the bleeding unless I remove it.”
Once, as a senior registrar, I had accidently placed a screw through this vessel, the posterior tibial artery, when working to fix a fracture in the adjacent bone, the tibia, and had witnessed the massive blood loss resultant.
“Will my leg survive?” he asked.
“It should,” I replied, “there are three branches, as long as your anatomy is normal. The other two will suffice.” I had already had a look at his toes, still warm and pink, supporting this assumption.
I poured a little more of the alcohol on the lint, and stuffed it into the opening, staunching the flow of blood momentarily.
I grabbed a metal hanger from a coat rack in the corner of the room. “I am only doing this for my sister,” I said, “as I no longer consider myself a physician… in this place that designation is meaningless.”
“Please, proceed,” the first man implored.
I took some thread, and prepared a needle, and placed a pair of now rusted and blunt surgical scissors next to the man’s leg. I took the hanger and fashioned an open loop from the metal, slightly larger at its opening than the bullet I had felt. I doused it into the last of the alcohol, and reached it into the wound. I was able to encircle the bullet with the loop in the hanger, and by using a twisting motion, dislodge it from the bone and out of the wound.
The blood now gushed out wildly, like a faucet had suddenly been turned completely open. I thrust my left index finger into the wound and pressed the vessels against the bone. I could hear his blood dripping down onto the floor beneath the table.
“Hold him,” I told the first man, “tight.”
I took the scissors with my right hand, and cut the top third of the skin on the back of the calf open, down toward the heel. The skin made a crunching sound in the dull blade of the scissors, and the man lurched up and almost off of the table. I spread the muscles apart, down to the bone where my finger was positioned, and put a large looping stitch around both ends of the severed artery, no bigger in diameter than a blade of hay. I lifted
my finger from the wound. The bleeding stopped.
I sutured the skin edges closed loosely, and cut a strip from my own shirt and shoved it into the wound. I had some ancient and decomposing Russian bandage material that someone had brought in since I closed the clinic, and I used that to wrap the leg.
“I have to go back on the floor, and finish my shift,” I said the men, “wait here and I will examine him again before you leave… and, I need to hear from you the explicit details of your proposition for my sister. If you do not, I will turn you in to the SS. You have not offered me anything personally, and so I have nothing to lose myself at this point, do I?”
After the last whistle, I made out as if I had to clean one more steel plate, and the foreman, who had ambled back in drunk shortly after I came to the floor, left me and a few other workers to finish our tasks.
I went back to the clinic room. The man who had been shot was sleeping, and the other was whittling a piece of wood with a knife.
“I could have used that,” I told him, incredulously.
“You didn’t tell us what you were going to do, doctor,” he replied, “I’m sorry.”
“I want you to understand this for the last time – I am not a doctor, no more than you are what ever you used to be, whatever that was, and now are not,” I replied, “now, what are you going to do for my sister, provided that this does not get infected, and your friend does not die from sepsis before you can do it?”
The two men then told me the plan. They had been working for several months, ever since they had heard of the plans to liquidate the camp, on a hiding place, and the construction was more than half complete. Both had been placed on the sewage detail – a horrible job, but as it turned out, an important consideration for the plan.
Serendipitously, the man that had been shot had been sent to that detail originally as punishment for refusing to collaborate with the judenrat, and work as a ghetto policeman.
They were building a cement bunker which would be underwater when certain sewer valves were open and therefore undiscoverable, and it could hold up to fourteen adults. The men had been caught stealing the last needed sacks of cement just outside the ghetto, and one of them was shot by an SS guard in the process, re-entering the compound from a rent they had cut in the fence with a pair of pilfered wire cutters. The man who had been shot was Abraham Bursztanin. Abraham was a construction foreman of some renown in his previous life, and knew how to do this sort of job.
“We have room for fourteen, and had all of those places reserved, but one died with tuberculosis last week,” Abraham reported, “I am sorry… I cannot save you, but I can save your sister.”
Several weeks later, I walked up and into the railway car. I had been told that day before that my sister and I were to report at daybreak for deportation to Auschwitz. As she lay sleeping, I pinned a note to the yellow fabric star that she kept on her nightstand, so as not to forget to pin it to her dress each morning. I knew that she would find the note this way.
To prevent her from deviating from the plan, I lied and told her that I would be spared as a physician, and that I was being deported this morning to the Russian front to treat German casualties, but that this plan was her only hope of survival.
I looked around carefully as I climbed the steps up into the large opening of the rail car… Marta had not shown up with our housing group at the train station. I smiled and looked up at the heavens before I crossed the threshold. This realization, that she must have read the note and was now acting on its instructions, was the greatest relief of my life.
There was frenzied commotion at the station, as many were not willing to board without being forced. There were a number of gunshots, which shook me from my temporary private mirth, and much screaming. Several people were tossed onto the floor of the car around me by the SS guards below, and some were injured in the process. I moved over in the crowded, stinking car next to an older couple as the heavy door was slid shut, and locked from the outside. There were slit-like openings in the upper half of the wall of the car on both sides, and stripes of dim light partially illuminated those surrounding me. I felt the car lurch forward slightly, bump up against the one in front of it at the coupling, and ricochet back on the coupling of the car behind. Then, we were moving down the rails.
I looked away from the door, and at the couple. The woman had suffered a large scalp wound, likely from a rifle butt, and was actively bleeding. The man had a long white beard, and was cradling her head in his hands, rocking and chanting a prayer.
A young woman, Marta’s age, pushed her way over to the woman, knelt down and looked at her head wound, offering to help. A man lying on the floor nearby pushed himself up on one elbow, and said, “why do you minister to her? Do you not know where we are, where we are going? Why bother? Let her bleed. It doesn’t make any difference at this point, it does… not… matter, you idiot.”
The man, I assumed the wounded woman’s husband, then moved to all fours, asked quietly for assistance to stand, and was helped to his feet by those nearby. He was obviously extremely weak, and steadied himself initially by grabbing the loose coat of one of those assisting him. I wondered how he had avoided deportation this long.
His once white shirt, turned grey by the repeated washings without soap, was splattered in blood, and his hands, which he waved above his head were blood-soaked as well.
“IT DOESN’T MATTER? IT DOESN’T MATTER? It matters. IT MATTERS! HUMAN DIGNITY… human dignity matters, kvod habriot, KVOD HABRIOT! This is
what separates us from our oppressors, this is why we have the promise – and they do not – kvod habriot…, HUMAN DIGNITY – THERE IS NO OTHER REASON!
Many that had been lying on the crowded, filthy floor, most with eyes closed, raised themselves up as best as possible, and grew attentive. There had been a constant refrain of moaning and sobbing before, but the car grew quiet.
A few men wedged at the periphery of the car stood up, grabbing onto the metal rods supporting the frame to steady themselves against the rhythmic rocking of the car on the rails beneath, as it moved inexorably toward death.
His voice grew stronger. “WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM, THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM. WE HAVE A PROMISE, WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN A PROMISE. WE MUST DESERVE THAT PROMISE, EVEN NOW, IN THIS PLACE OF DEATH, AND SUFFERING, AND FILTH. IT MATTERS!” He shook his finger at everyone, and at no one in particular, “WE MUST DESERVE!”
He was yelling now, and his voice carried, “SIMON THE JUST…, HE TAUGHT US – THE WORLD RESTS UPON THREE THINGS: TORAH, SERVICE TO GOD, AND BESTOWING KINDNESS – BESTOWING CHARITY – BESTOWING CHESED.”
He then dropped to almost a whisper, but somehow still audible throughout the entire car.
“Unless we do these things, we do not deserve. Unless we do this, we do not deserve our promise…, we do not deserve the promise… of Abraham and Isaac.”
He now looked directly at me, his body trembling – a combination of righteous indignation, and the malnutrition that had wasted the muscles away in his aged, gnarled legs. His wife’s wound was bleeding profusely, and I knew that in her debilitated state that she had lost too much blood to survive.
I hesitated for a long moment. I then reached over and grabbed a dirty discarded shirt, ripping it into strips. I tied it end-to-end quickly. I could feel the eyes of the entire rail car upon me, watching. I wrapped the cloth around the woman’s head, and up and under her chin as I had been taught, forming a pressure bandage. She was unconscious now, but the bleeding was abated.
I stood up slowly and looked around me at the hundred or so faces staring back. They were dirty, gaunt, somber – and they were waiting.
Tears welled up in my eyes and ran down to the corners of my mouth, so that I tasted them – I noticed that unlike those I had shed for the children, for my parents, for my brother Simon, and for others before I stopped bothering to cry – that these were surprisingly not bitter.
“Can I help anyone? Does anyone need… a doctor?”