“Did you hear what Churchill said on the radio Leopold?” Eleonora asked for what seemed like the millionth time. “He said that we can have a brief period of rejoicing now that Germany has surrendered!”
As much as I would have liked to rejoice, I was still far too tired to feel anything other than precisely being tired. Eleonora had also neglected to mention the fact that Churchill also said that there was still a long and hard road ahead. The Japanese continued to fight and the journey across the Pacific would be a long one.
“Honestly I don’t know how we can rejoice when there’s nothing left of the entire continent.” I grumbled. Eleonora had learned to breathe again, but I had not. I still smelled the smoke, I still tasted the grime and I even still wore my stripes.
“Life in America will be so amazing,” Eleonora continued on. She too was still wearing her stripes but the smile on her face seemed to distort them. I didn’t really see them anymore. I knew they were there, but I couldn’t see them. “Although the vessel will be arriving in New York I really want to go to Boston. Some of the Americans in the port were talking about what life is like there and I really want to go.”
I had no choice but to admire her for her big dreams. They hadn’t taken them from her, despite everything, she still had a good heart. But the big question was, how would she make a life for herself all alone in a foreign country at just fifteen? We had nothing except the clothes on our backs and our souls, if we had any left.
“And what if the boat sinks on its way to New York like the Titanic?” I mused as both Eleonora and I sat on the deck in the open air waiting for the vessel to depart.
“Leopold,” Eleonora grumbled herself, “the Nazis couldn’t kill us, do you think the ocean will?” It wasn’t like her to be annoyed, and especially not with me, but I could not bring myself to share her hope for the future. “I know it’s hard,” she put her hand on mine, “but we’re free now. You can close your eyes and rest easy at night now knowing that our British and Russian friends and allies will stand up for justice for us.”
The boat kept on filling up with other passengers, many also wearing stripes just like us. I said nothing for a while as I looked up at the fluffy white clouds in the sky. My entire family had gone up in smoke, literally. My home had been completely destroyed. Rubble was the only thing left of my house that had been taken over by some Germans after we were forced out. The entire street had been leveled too. There was nothing left.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to Palestine?” I asked Eleonora after an extended moment of silence.
“You’re not a Jew.” She replied emotionlessly. Eleonora was an Italian Jew but I was only a Pole. Palestine didn’t have much to offer me. There was nothing left of my own country either, or much of any country in Europe for that matter. “But you are.” I added dryly.
“I can’t leave you behind Leopold! You risked your life for me. You gave me your extra rations, you even took a beating from the SS for me in the factory. And you expect me to run off you and never think about you again? I have nobody else. You have nobody else. Who are we if we don’t have each other?”
Tears rolled down my cheeks for the first time since liberation. When the Russians opened those gates I was right there and collapsed into the arms of the first Red Army soldier I saw. I didn’t understand a single word of what the disheveled man told me but no words were necessary in a moment like that. I then grabbed Eleonora by the hand and we walked out. Just like that we were free. Just like that we’d also been deported almost two years earlier too.
“Are you alright my son?” An older man asked me as he passed me by on the vessel. “Here, have some chocolate,” he went on as he handed me a bar, “it makes anybody happier!”
“Thank you,” I said as I took the chocolate bar and split it with Eleonora.
“It’s true that chocolate makes anybody happier,” she sad joyfully, “I mean, as long as it’s not milk chocolate when you’re lactose intolerant.”
We both began laughing. How long had it been since I laughed? Since the war began? Six years? More than that? Eleonora and I both ate the delicious chocolate and licked our fingers afterwards. I also hadn’t seen any in years, and out on the streets it was a luxury very few people could have with the food shortages and the destruction left in the wake of all the bombings. A fortunate few had gotten rich off the black market but I’d already given up all of my remaining golden teeth that the Nazis had missed to buy Eleonora and I tickets to New York.
“You still have thirty seconds to change your mind about Palestine.” I said blankly as the last few passengers boarded the vessel.
“Look, Leopold, if you hate me that much we can part ways when we get to America.” Eleonora replied, equally blankly.
“What makes you think that I hate you?” I chuckled with chocolate still in my mouth, “I just want you to have a good life. You don’t owe me anything. I did what I did because I wanted to.”
She scooted over to me and laid her head on my shoulder as the boat horn sounded announcing the departure. People waved at those still on land and everyone except me had a smile on their faces that stretched from ear to ear.
“I could’ve missed out on the camp but that also means that I would’ve had to miss out on you,” Eleonora spoke softly through the cheers echoing all over the vessel, “and I wouldn’t wanna miss you for the world.”