There was not a single cloud in sight to contrast with that clear blue sky as I stepped off of the train and onto the ramp. My aunt Natasha followed me silently, not exactly as carefree and laid back as I was when it came to the war. This ain’t my first rodeo, I thought to myself. I was an adventurer, I’d been to half a dozen countries in the matter of a few months, and while a labor camp wasn’t my idea of the ultimate adventure, I assumed that it would mean that we’d be safe from the war during our stay. Nobody on the train had known exactly where we’d been headed except that we were going there to work. The soldiers needed supplies and apparently I was the person for the job. I guess it meant doing something meaningful, be it for the enemies, that’s all I could really think of. On the ramp the men were separated from the woman and from there we were split into smaller groups before being subjected to what I heard some inmates calling the selection.
“How old are you?” a seasoned inmate asked me in a serious tone of voice.
I hadn’t even noticed him pop up next to me like that. Clown suit and everything, he wasn’t clowning around. He stared dead into my eyes, his face into inches from mine.
“Twenty,” I replied blankly.
“Good enough,” he replied sternly before asking my aunt the same question.
“I’m thirty five,” she answered in her usual gentle lady voice.
“Good,” he replied and with that he disappeared just as fast as he’d shown up.
It was literally impossible for me to distinguish who was who amidst an enormous crowd of people stepping off of that long train and the inmates in striped uniforms walking around us carrying out our luggage into the camp. The immaculately dressed men of the SS stood in the front giving out orders. There was a lot of commotion going on, that train had been packed like a can of sardines! Once we were all put into our respective groups the chatter died down as an officer walked up about to give us instructions.
“Do you think we should’ve told him the truth?” my aunt whispered to me in a worried tone of voice.
“This is the truth,” I reminded her as I rolled my eyes.
My aunt was somewhat of a prude compared to me I guess. She was cautious, never got in trouble, lived a moral life but I on the other hand was wild at heart. I’d always had an uncontrollable urge to run and feel the wind blow through my hair. I fully and freely gave into those desires. That’s partly how I ended up here.
“You’re now in Blankenport concentration camp,” the commanding officer spoke in a stern tone of voice, “you’re here to work so you’re expected to be productive and to follow orders. You’ll first go through the selection process, you’ll then be registered and afterwards you’ll go take a shower. From there you’ll be assigned a job and some living quarters and your kapo will guide you through your first day here.”
Selection consisted of being quickly examined by a doctor at a crossroads on the ramp and then either being sent to the left or to the right and from there groups of people headed in different directions. It felt good to stretch my legs out after two straight days of being on that train having to sit and sleep in shifts because there wasn’t enough room for everybody to be down at the same time. There was no proper toilet of any kind, just a bucket in the corner that was dumped out the window every now and then either when it got too full or smelled too bad. The food had run out a long time ago and people had fought over the remnants in the train basically trashing our already dingy cattle car. Honestly, I’d been looking forward to working. The camp had been a roadblock on my trip but I hoped to gain skills or learn a new trade. I was an intellectual and although I’ve had plenty of schooling, my thirst for knowledge never seemed to be satisfied. When my turn came I walked up to the doctor and greeted him politely.
“How old are you?” he asked in a formal tone of voice.
“Twenty, sir,” I replied neutrally.
“In good health?”
“And your profession?”
“I have credentials in language and chemistry sir, but I have many skills and I’ve studied many subjects. All of my papers are in my suitcase.”
He didn’t say anything, he pointed to the right and I walked over to the side and waited for my aunt. She was sent to the right too so she came with me and we latched on to each other. Small groups of people at a time were taken inside the camp to a section of the administration building so we could be given inmate IDs and have them tattooed on our arm. I was no longer Margareta Lazareva, I was inmate number S-22079 from that moment on. The shower was cold as hell and on top of that they completely shaved my head. That wasn’t the first time I’d had a shaved head though. During my very rebellious teenage years I’d gotten so angry at failing to be the perfect 1930s girl with the perfect hair that I’d just gotten rid of all of it completely. You don’t have any hair dilemmas when you don’t have any hair. I’d made peace with my hair and myself since then, but that wouldn’t matter anymore.
The shaved head would’ve somewhat suited me had it not been for the fact that everybody had the same dang haircut and matching blue and white striped uniforms. I had never been a sophisticated or lady-like young woman in any way except that I liked expensive shoes and scarves. Northeastern Russia had a frigid climate so my hair had almost always been flattened out under a hat or left exactly the way it had been when I’d woken up in the morning. I loved it when the wind blew through it in the summer as I running in the fields or by the water in the mountains. For me there was no greater freedom than that. Large fields with forests in the distance surrounded Blankenport, but do did barbwire fences. It seemed like there would be no running around. There wasn’t even any wind! It was an immaculate day, to the exception of that thick black smoke in the distance.
“What’s that?” I asked another inmate who had been in the camp for months.
“They’re burning bodies,” the young woman named Greta replied grimly, “no matter what happens, you never want to set foot in Westfalen.”
Westfalen was a sub-camp of Blankenport, that was, of course, to the west. Another sub-camp named Hagen-Schulz was farther to the east. Blankenport city was to the south but we couldn’t see it from the main camp. Greta explained to me that Westfalen was an extermination camp, all the weak, useless and sick prisoners along with the too old and two young were sent there to be gassed and then cremated. Hagen-Schulz was the location of all the military factories and chemical plants where slave laborers made materials needed during the war, anything from tires to rifles to bombs. Greta also went on to say that the best jobs in the camp were either an office job, working in the storage units or Hagen-Schulz. I had never imagined a concentration camp being like what I was seeing. I’d gotten on that train going into the unknown and that had been fine by me. Staring out the window on the long journey to Blankenport the scenery had been compelling.
“Blankenport!” I’d shouted when I saw the sign.
Nobody on the train had ever heard that name before. I was one of the few in that car that could read and write and I was probably the only one who spoke many languages. I hadn’t really seen anybody else that I knew on the ramp. There had been way too many people running around. In the caravan there had been twelve of us including myself and in our hideout there had been at least a hundred people. We’d all been picked up at the same time but I hadn’t seen them since then. Only my aunt Natasha and I had managed to stick together but that was in part because she was the one always glued to me and that hadn’t changed since our arrival in Blankenport.
“Here are the kapos Margareta,” Greta pointed out.
Four men and one woman walking together in a group showed up in the distance. We were about to find out where we’d be working for the next few months. How long would we all be in this place? Nobody had really told us that. The war couldn’t last forever. They’d put all of our luggage in storage so surely we’d see it again, we’d take it home and the train would take us back to where we came from.
“If you end up in Derrick’s group,” Greta began in an exasperated tone of voice, “don’t end up being the object of his wrath. He’s prone to fits of rage and is extremely hot-headed.”
As I looked around I wasn’t so excited anymore. I was surrounded by barbwire fences, heavily armed guards in watchtowers all around the perimeter, dirty and zombie-like prisoners at various stages of emaciation all around and more trains still arriving and unloading more people. Brownstone buildings in various shapes and sizes stretched out in formation as far as the eye could see. Barracks for both the inmates and the officers in different sections, administration buildings, storage warehouses, factories. Blankenport was almost like a little city in itself. There was a large garden, a medical research facility, some construction project going on in the distance, an on-site tennis court and even a theatre! Of course that wasn’t for us though. The kapos had lists of the new inmates who would work for them and began calling us by our numbers to form groups and get ready.
“S-22079,” one tall and skinny man yelled out, “Hagen-Schulz!”
“But we have to stay together!” my aunt protested as she latched on to my arm.
She’d been selected to work and live in the main camp while I’d been picked for factory work. Unlike me, she didn’t take well to new and strange environments. I was some type of guardian or protector to her, someone fearless and bold who was skilled and intelligent. I was able to make it on my own without a problem but I also felt a sense of obligation to her because I knew she couldn’t. She hadn’t chosen to accompany me in the caravan for nothing.
“I can live in the barracks here and work at Hagen,” I proposed, “that’s not a problem for me.”
Everybody turned to look at me like I was completely crazy. Why not? The camp wasn’t lightyears away, we could see the huge buildings clearly from the edge of the main camp.
“That’s a half and hour trek to get there and another half hour to come back,” the kapo got in my face, “every single day. The train is only taking you there once. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” I replied nonchalantly as I nodded my head.
With that we were told to line up outside to be counted for roll call and then we were each given a single slice stale bread with a clump of butter on top. I suddenly wasn’t so hungry anymore but the inmates who’d been here a while didn’t hesitate to swallow whole their ration. I absolutely abhorred any and all food that wasn’t fresh and just the texture of the bread in between my fingers grossed me out. I looked on in disgust at those who devoured that crap and seemed to want more.
“Believe me, you want to eat that,” somebody whispered to me from behind.
No, I don’t.
I finally gave the nasty piece of bread to an older lady next to me who politely thanked me in French and swallowed my ration seemingly without even chewing it. By that point time seemed to slow down. The black smoke was still rising up in the air but they couldn’t possibly be mass-murdering inmates there, could they? Weren’t we here to work? How was any labor supposed to get done if they were executing us? Certainly, whatever they were burning over there, they only wanted to scare us, to bully us into submission, to frighten us into cooperation. If that was the case then it was working because the rest of my fellow new prisoners just had the fear of God thrown into them.
“Alright,” the kapo commanded to all those who were going to the factory in Hagen, “follow me!”
The kapo, a Polish Jew named Gustaw Ostrowski, was a man spoken highly of among the prisoners in the camp. Unlike other kapos who were basically just as brutal as the SS, Gus cared about his crew. I’d been lucky to have scored him, or so I was told. The small group selected for Gus’ crew followed him to the edge of Blankenport where there was a massive metal gate with an electric fence and a waiting train going to Hagen-Schulz. There were several hundred people waiting there, men women and even some older children.
“We’re riding in the first car,” Gus ordered, “don’t get separated because you’ll get in trouble if you do.”
I wasn’t interested in riding on the train though. I wanted to extend my tired legs and run to Hagen-Schulz. Yeah, run. When I told Gus that he gave me the death stare but he didn’t say anything. He motioned with his head for me to get a head start because I didn’t want to arrive late at the sub-camp.
“Building 29A,” he said gently before handing me a partially squished muffin from inside his jacket.
I thanked him and with that I darted running across the open gate. My legs were sore and my muscles ached at first but soon I got back into my pace. I held the muffin that was almost has hard as rock in one hand and my clown hat with the stripes in the other so it wouldn’t fall off while I was running. Running with a bald head was colder than I remembered it but feeling that cool breeze again brought me back to a time when things were easier, life was better and the muffins were softer. My aunt made the best raspberry muffins that existed. I could almost taste one in my mouth. They were soft and chewy with just the right amount of fruity. Even if I’d been taught by the best, I never mastered how to cook anything more than toast and grilled cheese sandwiches. Cooking was really a mixture of basic chemistry and art and despite being very knowledgeable in chemistry, the art part still escaped me.
When it came to art I loved to look at it, and I especially loved to read, but I wasn’t much of one to create art. I liked to write stories here and there like in my diary once in a while but mostly I was one who wanted to experience life. I didn’t just want to imagine running while writing a story, I really wanted to run. And believe when I tell you that I ran. When I ran my mind went blank. The only thing that was left was the wind. I didn’t feel the ground beneath me, only the air. I didn’t consciously have to think about putting one foot in front of the other, that’s something that happened by itself without any additional effort on my part. The terrain also didn’t matter; the streets, the fields, the mountains, I’d conquered them all. In my younger days I’d even tried to run on water, believing that if I went fast enough I wouldn’t sink but unfortunately that hadn’t turned out quite the way I’d imagined it would. As embarrassing as that had ended up being, that was also the day I met Tolik.
The folks at the clothing exchange must’ve forgotten to take my shoes because I had nice shoes, perfect to run and comfortable for the lazy days too. They’d taken everything from me, even my hair, but they’d forgotten my shoes apparently. Or maybe it had been deliberate. Maybe that skinny little guy let me keep my shoes on purpose but I couldn’t really fathom the reason why. Even if they were women’s shoes surely someone he knew and cared about could’ve worn them. He could’ve traded them for food with someone who could wear them, I didn’t know. All I knew was that I still had them and I was still running. I’d started out slow but my pace picked up within just a few minutes. The plaster molds around my legs broke off and I ran at full speed next to the railway. Soon enough I also heard the rumble of the train behind me and the ground all around me began to vibrate at the rhythm of the engine. That only gave me more momentum.
In my time running I’d never ran to beat a train, but I had ran to catch a train on more than one occasion. Tolik and I regularly hitched rides to other cities by hopping on freight trains. We both lived in rural areas, my family had a car but his didn’t, and we couldn’t go everywhere we wanted but the train solved that problem to some degree. We picked the train but we didn’t pick the destination. Then his father passed away and he needed to take care of the farm meaning that he had to be home literally 24/7 and riding the train alone didn’t appeal to me. As the train caught up to me I turned to look, almost imagining that I would see Tolik cheering me on, but in reality I didn’t want to see Tolik. Not in Blankenport. My Tolik was the absolute last person I wanted to see. I saw several other unknown faces on the train though. Many looked at me like I was crazy, and they were right about that, but many others cheered me on. I smiled and waved at them, but maybe then again they were only screaming for my muffin.
As long as you reported in for roll call at the appropriate time, worked your quota of whatever you were supposed to do, and didn’t do anything incur the wrath of the SS there were few movement restrictions at Blankenport. I could loiter around in another building, run up and down the train tracks like a madwoman or sleep in your bunk, the only problem is that there were few opportunities to do such. A work day was ten hours, three meals and three roll calls which could end up being quite lengthy, plus my additional trek from one section of the camp to another. It was safe to say that there would be no time for screwing around. We’d work six days a week, from Monday to Saturday, and Sunday we’d take a group shower and get the opportunity to send a letter back home, if one knew how to write. A heck of a lot of people in the camp were uneducated farmers who only spoke the language of the land. Most of them ended up getting the hard labor jobs while the intellectuals were sent to places like the factory, or so they had told me.
Honestly, I didn’t know what was the truth and what wasn’t. It was safe to say that I was one of those I’ll believe it when I see it type of people. Everyone around you wanted to make you believe their version of something as if to get under your skin and control you. They made you believe a beautiful deception only to suck you in and consume you. It was useless for me to argue with people who did not have the mental capacity to understand anything beyond what they chose to hear so I let them believe whatever they wanted to and continued on by myself on my own path. I live my life the way I want and choose and nobody tells me what I can and cannot do. That was my motto and I lived by it. I would’ve been a hypocrite to say that such was my motto and then adopt a completely different lifestyle.
Sure, there were restrictions in life and plenty of them but one was only a prisoner if they chose to be. My body was in a camp but my mind was far away from Blankenport. It was running off somewhere in the clouds far away from all the things that were out of my control. I’d always had a distain for authority and I never made that a secret but I also understood that there was a time and place for everything; a time and place to follow orders and a time and place to run off and do my own thing. The secret to survival was knowing when to work and when to run away. Doing that had done wonders for me in the past. This time around I hadn’t gotten so lucky but people didn’t stay stuck in camps forever. Wars didn’t last forever. Years didn’t stretch on forever. People didn’t feel pain forever. At least I didn’t. How could I be displeased with running under the shinning sun? That was my greatest pleasure in life.
The gates at Hagen-Schulz had just opened up for the train and the very lengthy thing had come to a halt when I arrived. Passengers flooded off but there weren’t nearly as many as there were on the trains that arrived at the main camp. I slowed down to a walk, put my hat back on and ate my stone-like muffin. It crunched like crackers in between my teeth but it was much softer further on the inside. It didn’t taste like much of anything but it was definitely more appealing than that stale bread. I’d have to get something for Gus in return because I knew that nothing in life came free. I knew that he’d done something very selfless for me by giving me that muffin because he’d made it very clear that in the camps it was every man for himself. We each had to do whatever we could for ourselves because we couldn’t ask anybody for help.
A man of just thirty years of age, Gus looked more like he was forty. He was tall and skinny, dark green eyes sunken into his head, a big pointy nose and medium brown hair sticking out from underneath his beige beret. He wore civilian clothes and not a clown uniform, perks of being the kapo. He had his own room in a special set of barracks, extra portions of food and even some rewards like cigarettes if they gained favor with the SS. Most of ‘em kept the perks for themselves but not Gus. He hadn’t let camp life get to his head. His heart had remained golden among that thick black smoke come from Westfalen. Another plume just as big as the first one was headed in our direction and some disgusting smell accompanied it. It smelled somewhat like garbage, only much worst. I didn’t know what that smell was since I’d never smelled anything like that before. It was worst than burning rubber. I knew they weren’t burning rubber because the soldiers needed it in the war.
I knew I had no time to waste so I began walking around the equally big sub-camp, with even bigger buildings and more commotion as there were people all over the place. I was too late to catch my people coming out of the first train car so I walked up and down the intersections until I found Building 29A. It was a large red stone building with three floors and big metal doors. I arrived just in time to find Gus giving instructions to the workers outside, directing them to which room they would work in. I got room 209 on the second floor. One thing I never understood was the reason why there was the need to have room 100 but not room 1. Why didn’t people just call it room 1? They had Block 1 at the main camp after all.
“You sure are fast aren’t you?” Gus nudged me with his boney elbow as I walked by him.
His tone was rather upbeat but he had a you’re-running-now-but-you’ll-be-walking-later kind of look on his face. I said nothing except another thank you for the muffin that I had taken the time to actually chew and taste. He nodded his head and I went on my way up the metal staircase to the second floor and into a massive room with wide tables where people sat two by two and assembled various guns.
“But I thought I was going to the chemical factory!” I whined once I saw that I didn’t get the kind of job that would stimulate my brain.
“You have small hands S-22079,” Gus pointed out, “big men’s hands can’t assemble such tiny pieces.”
“You can call me Marie,” I muttered.
“Marie,” he repeated calmly, motioning for me to take a seat.
I sat at the first free spot at the first table I saw in the front row. The girl sitting next to me looked around seventeen, with long wavy blond hair wearing a Jewish star. She glanced at me briefly and gave me a little smile from the corner of her mouth but she didn’t say anything. When Gus walked in, the SS supervising the production walked out and soon came back with another plaster-faced older one who immediately began yelling the moment he walked into the room.
“Who the hell brought these rats in here?!” he grumbled angrily as he pointed at a group of workers with shaved heads on the other side of me, “Who brought them into this building without putting them in quarantine first?!”
“Quarantine is completely packed!” the younger one grumbled back in protest, “All of the buildings are overcrowded and we have no more tents! Plenty of these piglets are laying in the lawn because we have absolutely no other place to put them and we desperately need workers! If we’re gonna meet the quota we’re gonna need some workers!”
“Didn’t tents just come in the other day?”
“Yes but they were stored in the building that went up in flames before they sent us the cockroaches from Gross-Rosen along with our usual shipments of new prisoners! We just don’t have the staff or resources to process such a huge influx of inmates all at once!”
They argued back and forth like that in front of everybody for a while until the big guy finally gave into the little guy. I didn’t know the entire context of the conversation but apparently we hadn’t been supposed to be outside of the quarantine section at the main camp, a section that I hadn’t even seen.
“How in the world do you think I’m supposed to run a camp like this?!”
Defeated, the big guy got some laborers in other sections of the building to bring in more parts to the new slaves could get to work right away. We were already here and ready to go after all.
“Now listen to me you goddamn new pests,” he grumbled angrily as he stomped around the enormous room of endless rows and workers sitting at the tables, “you got lucky here, so now you’re gonna get to work. On the table in front of you there are instruction manuals on how to assemble to various firearms that will pass through this room, make use of them. Half of the work day is already over so today you’re gonna learn from your partners on how to make these guns but tomorrow your special first-day privileges expire and you’re all going to work a full day and will be expected to meet the quota of production. We’re already behind so get to work you bastards!”
He stormed out of the room angrily and for me at least it was almost comedic to see someone get so angry over getting new workers. You’re behind on production but you’re angry to get new employees? Really dude? I bit my bottom lip so I wouldn’t be tempted to inappropriately laugh or smile. I knew that could get me in trouble but I had a hard time taking life seriously. Nobody made it out alive in the end anyway. Shortly thereafter the little guy walked out and yet another different one came in. The Jewish girl next to me let out what sounded like a sigh of relief when she saw him.
“What is it?” I whispered to her.
“At least this guy doesn’t harass us,” she whispered back in the sweetest voice that was almost like singing, “just don’t talk to him or look at him.”
Alright. I wouldn’t want to talk to any of them anyway. They looked down on us like we were less than human. Like we accomplished less than them. And who exactly was doing all the labor around here?
“Just so you know, you didn’t miss out on anything by not being in quarantine.”