Winter Daisies

Hastily I rubbed my eyes; it was hardly morning when I awoke. Stunned and shivering from the frigid air and the overwhelming pain in my head, I took a moment to let my eyes adjust to the room. The salty taste of blood sat evident in my mouth, a constant reminder of my place here. How long have I been here? What have they done with my family? My mind was a broken record of nagging questions. While wiggling my way off of the cold pine that was meant to be my quarters, the repulsiveness of rotting flesh and emesis flooded my senses. My eyes burned, my mind moved faster than my quivering, exhausted limbs. The echoes of sobbing and the redundant whisper of prayer flooded my mind like a slow poison. With a heavy ‘thud’ I hit the ground not knowing where I would go or what I was seeking to accomplish; I just had to get away from here. Small emissions of light shone through spaces between the boards in the wall and illuminated small pieces of my bunkmates faces. Young, scraggly skeletons of men and boys crammed together, packed four and five to a small cubby space. Some had bandages on their heads and scraps of cloth used as makeshift slings. In the far corner a few boys were bouncing around like corn in a kettle, chasing a rat out of their space; or maybe their hunger had gotten the best of them, I wasn’t entirely sure. Coughs and moans emerged from every direction and the stench was unbearable. I felt myself suffocating for lack of oxygen in the tiny space that I was to call my temporary home. Outside the walls of our housing unit I could hear the pitter patter of German Shepherds, muffled spits of German and heavy footsteps making slosh out of the newly fallen snow. Secretly, I knew that the possibility of freedom was only to be found in death. The only real chance of escape was to submit to the powers of the SS outside the door. After all, I was a winter daisy; somehow in this cold, I will survive. I must survive.

I have never known an evil like that of the Nazis and I find myself forsaken by God in this Hell. Each day I spend digging graves, ones that I wish were my own. Each night I am kept awake by the sounds of train whistles and gunfire searing through the cold December wind. Each night I must listen to the disheartening chaos; I must relive the day I arrived here. With a quick look over and a point of a finger, right or left, the doctors are the executioners. Each cattle car held the same promise; by the time we were forced out of bed in the mornings, most of its unfortunate passengers will have been heard but will never be seen again. Some will be my neighbors, some my friends and others my family. All useless lives in the eyes of the Nazi Regime. It will be tomorrow when I will see them again, simply because tomorrow, I bury them.

To my best knowledge it is December 1944, at least it was when I was captured. I do not know the day; any sense of time spent here is lost and I find myself drifting off into in a constant daydream. I think back to when I was a boy. I place myself in the warm spring air on long walks around our crowded city streets in Krakow and playing cards with my mother. I think back on the bitter cold of December 1915 when the local doctor came to visit her. I remember bolting outside so fast I felt like my feet had taken the pine wood floors of our apartment with them. Like a wall of glass the wind hit me, much like the frigid wind bites my cheeks each day as I work here, a prisoner to my captors. I ran all the way to the sidewalk before my knees buckled and I found myself face first, buried in the snow. It was dusk and the busy streets of Krakow were business as usual. The sounds of vehicle engines, screeching brakes and muffled meaningless conversation whirled around me like a vertex of color and sound. Collapsed there, surrounded by a million people, I was all alone; a feeling that I feel all too familiarly every day in this prison. By the end of that month, the Cancer had spread. By the New Year she was gone. I grasped my wrist to steady my hand from shaking as I placed a single red rose on the crest of the mahogany casket. Tears stung my eyes and fear and uncertainty clouded my childish mind. My life would never be the same.

Grasping tight to my suitcase, I looked upon my new home. My grandmother’s house was a small cottage tucked away in the Carpathian Mountains, not far from where I had lived with my mother. Covered in a light dust of snow, the two room cabin was dressed with thick Cedar columns supporting a covered porch and garnished with hanging ferns between each one. Beautiful flowers filled the homemade flower boxes nestled under the antique windows. The smell of pecan pie and rosemary drifted out the open door and into the crisp mountain air. I took a deep breathe in and let everything consume me. It was at that moment that I noticed something odd. As I approached the cottage, I could feel my grandmother’s eyes move to mine as she stood in the open doorway, “Sam, are you alright?” Grandma called as I purposefully walked right past her and to the flower box to her right,

“Ah,” she said with a grin, “I see you’ve found my snowdrops.”

As she threw the kitchen towel over her shoulder she left her post braced against the doorway and gently handled the flowers with her fragile fingers,

“Winter daisies.” She beamed.

I had never seen anything like it. The white bulbs of petals fell downward like tiny lamp shades illuminating the flower box. Their long green stems stood strong and evident through the snow covered soil,

“I didn’t know there was any flower that grew in this cold?” I asked, puzzled.

“Why my dear, there are many more reasons to embrace the cold, rather than to wilt from it.”

With that she left me there, shivering on the porch pondering the resilience of such a beautiful, little flower.

I lived there with my grandma until it was time for me to go away for university. It was 1925 when I received my acceptance letter to Humboldt University in Berlin, my grandmother was so proud. I remember her scooping me up and dancing around the living room, the soft afternoon light streaming through the open windows illuminating her wrinkled complexion and bouncing, curly hair. For a moment, time stood still. I remember thinking how proud my mother would be and the thought brought tears to my eyes. I was eighteen years old, ambitious and ready to venture out into the world. I took in the moment with a bittersweet feeling in my stomach and the realization that my life could be better than I had ever dreamed.

After stuffing what little I had in my knapsack, a few shirts, the Tora my mother gave me when I was a child and an apple my grandmother and I loaded into the taxi. As I sat staring out the dirty window at the countryside, I wondered how life will be like living on my own. I daydreamed about all the new people I would meet and what my studies would be like. I thought about grandma and how she will fair without the extra hands around the house. Most of all, I pictured myself in a long, white lab coat, a fancy pen tucked in my breast pocket and a stethoscope around my neck. I longed to save and to heal those who were sick like my mother had been; I was going to be a doctor. Berlin reminded me of Krakow and the business and noise brought me back to my childhood. Once again the vertex of lights and sounds surrounded me only this time the sun shone through the trees that lined the dry bustling city streets. I was worried about living on my own but ready to fulfill God’s purpose here.

A few years into my schooling I received a letter that my grandmother was ill, Pneumonia they said. That was a one of the worst days of my life. I immediately called a taxi but by the time I reached her, she had already passed. It was on my way home from visiting her grave that I first remember seeing it, in awe of and completely ignorant to the consequences at the time. There he was, on the front page of every newspaper in Berlin. It was January of 1933 when Hitler first came into power. It was my last semester in medical school, eager to graduate. My studies had kept me from engaging in too many politics but I did know who he was; I knew what he believed. It wasn’t until April of that year that the impact was heavily felt in my sector of such the small world that it was becoming. I was no longer allowed to attend University, thrown out like trash to the street. I was once again displaced, nowhere to go, no one to fix it. I felt as if my whole being was worthless, irrelevant and unimportant, a feeling I would only continue to obtain until Hitler’s reign was ended.

In the years that followed the devastation only worsened. Little by little people were being forced to move into the newly established ghettos like the one at Warsaw. Hundreds of Jews were forced to live in small, ill equipped apartments sometimes sharing with other families. No privacy, little food, and no protection from the cruelty and viciousness of the Nazi SS. Only under the good graces of Dr. Adelbert, one of my university professors I am clothed, fed, and sheltered. He tells me that the SS are hunting Jews like me and that my quietness and displacement while in the house are essential if we are to survive this and grave danger lies with him if he is to be caught providing me aid. The confusion and chaos that has plagued the city and to insure their own safety, German citizens participate in Jew hunts and riots against Jews and the other undesirable in the cities. People are being beaten in the streets, even murdered. Unpunished and encouraged this war rages on, a result of chaos and confusion among the people and the state. I fear it is only a matter of time before we are found out and my fate is sealed like so many of my friends. Every sound in this house frightens me. From the occasional mouse which serves as my only company to the creaking of the floor boards below my feet, every small sound could serve as alarm for my presence. I prayed that when this is over, I will be able to start anew. I only wish to resume my studies and repay my host for his mercy and kindness.

“Bis Sie schmutzige Juden!” I felt a sharp stab in my side as I was awakened from my day dream. Once leaning up against the doorway I now lie crumpled on the floor. My side ached with pain as I felt another blow hit the back of my head,

“Holen Sie sich die Hölle ich gesagt!” Groggy and dazed I began to crawl.

The warm blood dripping down the sides of my face served as a harsh comparison to my frost bitten skin. With the one last blow, I was there again. All at once I could smell the sweet, savory scent of Pecan pie. I could see the ice capped mountains and the cottage below, beaming with charm and elegance. I could see my grandmother standing in the doorway like she had the first time I ever saw her; and then there was my mother. Like an answered prayer she opened her arms to me, a smile plastered ear to ear. Behind her peeked the white, silky petals of Grandma’s snowdrops. I looked down upon my feet, now dressed with my best Sunday shoes, my toes nestled sweetly in heavy wool socks. I reached up and felt my head warmed by the cover of my favorite wool Tyrol cap. Suddenly my grandma’s words played overlapping in my mind, ‘There are many more reasons to embrace the cold, rather than to wilt from it.’ Slowly, I awoke. Stunned from the overwhelming pain in my head, I took a moment to let my eyes adjust to the room. Lying there on the floor, I peered through the cracks in the wall at the falling snow outside. Suddenly something caught my eye; I tried harder to focus my eyes as my heart pounded increasingly fast. Hastily, I began to scoot closer to the wall, bracing myself for the pain from my freshly beaten body. I cautiously pushed my arms forward and then drew them back to my side slowly. Motion by motion I crawled, moving inch by inch toward the tattered wood frame of my quarters. Finally I reached the wall placing my face up against the 4 inch gap between me and the rest of the world. The white glare reflecting off the snow burnt my eyes and sent my head into orbit. I winced as I tried to get my eyes to focus once again, and then, there it was. I stared in disbelief at the tiny patch of green and white just feet from my bruised face. My mind flashed back to my grandmother. I could see her smile, I could almost feel her,“Winter daisies.”

The salty taste of blood sat evident in my mouth, a constant reminder of my place here, but it was that moment I was reminded what I was. It was that moment I knew that I would survive.

 

Author’s Note

This Historical Fiction work is a product of research and sources regarding life in Nazi Germany and the hardships faced by those in Concentration camps. It is in no way a first hand or true account of personal events during this time. Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27 of 1945. 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners and others were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; at least 1.1 million were murdered.

 

snowdrops

 

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