Posted in Books & Stories

Lost Thoughts — Volume One: The Heshin Immigrant

April 17th, 2017

Dear Tamar,

You may not remember me since we haven’t seen each other in many years but I’m you’re cousin Jasmine. I am your mother’s youngest sister’s daughter, we used to play together a lot before your family moved to Tehran almost a decade ago now. As I’m sure you’ve heard, we live in America now and we have been since the end of October last year. I’m sorry that we haven’t written earlier, I know dad said we would keep in touch so it wouldn’t feel like we left at all but things have been hard these last few months.

New York isn’t really how I imagined it would be. It’s not bad, not at all, but it’s been very difficult for all of us to adapt. When I imagined America I imagined all of these big mansions with private pools and endless prosperity but reality hit me hard when my childish and superficial fantasies crumbled one by one. I imagined having everything I’ve ever wanted but so far there’s been nothing but poverty. All of our savings are already gone. Neither one of us could’ve imagined how expensive this city would be. Both mom and dad work two jobs and I had to quit school to take on a part-time job and do only a few correspondence classes through an alternative school so Amir, Erwin and Fatima can go to school.

I want so much to make my dreams come true Tamar. There was nothing left for me in Heshin but at least it was familiar. Here everything is so new and strange and I don’t know anybody, I literally have no friends and I still don’t speak English all that well. I have so many big dreams that I want to pursue and make happen for me and I know that it will take a lot of hard work and perseverance and I hope to get your support because I don’t really have any here at home. My parents are always at work and when they come back they are completely exhausted it’s almost like they are strangers now and Fatima and the twins are much too young to understand or process the full weight of this situation.

The neighbor in our crowded duplex is also tough to deal with. Although our house in Heshin was crowded too at least there was harmony inside. We’re really blessed to all get along so well when some people don’t even speak to their families but right now I need more than that. Derek, the guy next door is noisy and disrespectful and has absolutely no consideration for anyone other than himself. At first he ignored us, then he started calling us towel heads, and now he has no problem harassing us. In just five months I’ve already had to call the police on him twice but they do nothing and the situation hasn’t changed.

I had such high hopes for this new life when I arrived but now I’m discouraged. I’m not giving up though, and I’m not going back. I’ve never wanted anything more than I’ve wanted this and I’m going to pursue it no matter what but of course that is much easier said than done. Although I’m literally surrounded by millions of people I’ve never felt more alone. It’s only really now that I’m discovering the frailty of humanity and all the confusion and contradictions within me when it comes to just who I want to become.

I need a hope for the future. I have so many dreams but for now that’s all they are, dreams. In the face of much adversity I must hold on to the hope that one day they will all come true because otherwise I have nothing good to live for and I might as well just kill myself right here, but at the same time I don’t wanna die here. I don’t wanna die in this dirty and dark place in which I am writing this letter right now. When I close my eyes for the last time I want to do it with a smile on my face knowing that I’ve lived a good life and accomplished everything I set out to do. The thought of it is so beautiful, but I must open my eyes and turn this into a reality.

How are you and your family doing? It doesn’t seem like we’ll be able to come and visit you for a while unfortunately. You are all however welcomed to come by and see us at any time as it would be wonderful to see some familiar faces. Have you completed college yet? The last I heard you wanted to be a nurse, if that’s what you ended up pursuing after all. I know how sometimes there’s so much we want to do that it’s hard to choose just one thing to chase after at a time. As for me it doesn’t seem like I’ll be able to study law in the near future but I want to take the opportunities America is giving me to become a writer.

I hear that it’s very easy to get published here as long as you take the right approach. I know I’m getting ahead of myself because I don’t even have a single word written yet but at least that door has opened here in New York. I don’t seek fame and fortune (although I’ll admit it would certainly be very nice to get out of poverty and be able to afford a proper education for myself and my siblings), I only really want to accomplish a lifelong dream. Remember when we used to write little screenplays as kids at your paternal grandma’s house?

For now I don’t really know what else to say, I feel like I’m only repeating myself and I don’t want this to be all about me, so I’m going to end this short letter now and put it in the mail tomorrow. I hope to hear back from you soon and I hope that you have some good news to share with me.

Much love and blessings,
Jasmine

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Posted in Books & Stories, The World Wars

Lost Thoughts — Volume One: The Vessel

“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.”
“Me too.”

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.”

Posted in Books & Stories

Eye of the Storm – Chapter 2: Lucky Sometimes

Once upon a time my aunt Natasha and I had been beautiful women. That wasn’t really the case anymore. We’d only been in the camp a single week and already things had taken their toll on us. Even I couldn’t run anymore. I could still walk and I didn’t mind that but I’d lost my edge unfortunately. The stale bread with the butter suddenly became very appealing. We had that in the morning, thin soup that was more like water and some coffee at noon, and a piece of often moldy cheese and a few crackers in the evening. They somehow expected us to survive on that. Gus, the work kapo brought us as much food as he could under the guards’ noses at work but it was just a muffin here or a carrot there and the recipient was never the same person. Some days there was no food at all because he needed it for himself. If he wasn’t well enough to look out for us, as best as he could at least, who would?

Across the camp the kapos were often just as feared as the SS themselves but I’d gotten lucky with Gustaw it seemed. Throughout my life I’d always thought of myself as lucky enough, if there was such a thing as luck. Some people called that karma; you get out of it what you put into it, while others called it God; a divine plan masterfully crafted by the One who created you. Whichever it was, the right things fell in the right place at just the right time for me. They always had. I trusted in the universe. I’d gotten lucky in the first caravan, with Tolik, in Russia and now with Gustaw. Despite the incredibly putrid situation, I counted my blessings. I wasn’t in Westfalen, I wasn’t sick, I hadn’t been beaten up and Gus was always up for a good conversation. I felt completely comfortable around him. He was on my side.

The head of the barracks I lived in though, a Belgian woman named Minsa Durand, wasn’t as kind. Yes, it could’ve been worst, but she still wasn’t my favorite. Being kapo or some other prisoner authority figure was like being both the victim and the perpetrator; both a prisoner and an SS; both us and them. They were one of us but did their job. Some of the kapos were cruel, regularly beating and even killing inmates just to get the remnants of a pack of cigarettes from their favorite SS. Men like Gus on the other hand, treated everyone decently at work. I didn’t know what he did when I wasn’t around but it was to my understanding that he wouldn’t be kapo if he was overly kind all the time. Unless, in a million to one chance, a decent SS looked out for him the way he looked out for us. It was highly unlikely but I didn’t believe in impossibility. I never had and I promised myself that I never would.

The world isn’t black and white, that I knew for a fact. There was no doubt in my mind that life would’ve been easier if the world was black and white, but the shades of grey in between are precisely what made it interesting. For those like me who like to color outside the lines, grey was my favorite color. The only shade of grey I didn’t like was that one in the sky when the rainclouds approached. I loved snow, but not rain. I never liked being soggy, much less soaked to the bone by the sky. Thunderstorms scared me. I, who behaved like I was invincible, was afraid of those dark grey clouds in the sky. But I had a good excuse for that! When I was young, the lightning had hit the house and I’d been terrified of it ever since.

The barracks I lived in were made of stone and metal bars covered the windows. Most of the glass was scratched but you could still see outside just fine. Inside endless rows of bunks were lined up side by side. The bunks were made of wood, triple-stacked like typical military bunk beds, and two people slept in each bunk. My aunt and I shacked up on the very top bunk right in front of a window so I could see the stars and the moonlight on clear nights. It reminded me of the long nights I spent out with Tolik by the water, just walking underneath that big blue moon in the cool night air. My aunt, a lady afraid of the dark, was also comforted by the light the stars and the moon provided. Our barracks had no lights except for a handful of portable oil lanterns the elite, such as the kapos, had. Not having one didn’t bother me at all because I couldn’t sleep if the room was too bright. Sometimes even the moonlight falling right over me kept me up.

Our bunks had no mattresses so we slept on the cold hard wood without a pillow either, but we had an old dingy fleece blanket not good enough for the soldiers that we had to share with our bunkmate. It was a one-person blanket on a one-person bunk but we made it work. My aunt Natasha and I mostly always got along well. I generally got along well with most people. I’d always been easygoing. I didn’t know how else to be. I tried my best to not let my circumstances pollute the essence of my soul but of course that was much easier said than done. Everything around me was shrouded in despair, confusion and dysfunction. Several trains arrived on a daily basis, the camp had a severe shortage of staff everyone were losing their minds. During the afternoon of my very first Sunday in the camp the ashes from Westfalen fell like snow all over the place. Add ashes to the list of grey things I don’t like.

Sure enough, what they had said was true. They were burning bodies after all. For the amount of ashes coming down I could only imagine that thousands of bodies were being burned. No longer distracted by work or futile worldly pleasures, I got my first harsh taste of reality. I still couldn’t believe that they had gas chambers over there and were executing people for no reason though. I was standing out in the falling ash and it still seemed to surreal. In the ghetto some people had told us stories of concentration camps, but they’d always come back. Some unfortunately died of disease or natural causes but being gassed? Nobody had ever said anything about that. Plenty of rumors swirled around in those places, most to intimidate us and keep us compliant, but the concept being killed in extermination camps had never made its way to our ears. Since it was Sunday and I was off of work and not overly tired that afternoon, I decided to take a walk to Westfalen myself.

Before we’d gotten picked up by the Gestapo my family and I had been traveling in an underground caravan from Russia headed towards Switzerland, a country not involved in the brutal war. We’d only made it to Poland when we were tipped off that the Nazis were on a trail so we went into hiding but they found us anyway. Since there was no other place to put us with the overcrowding of the political prisoners in institutions, they shoved us into some melting pot of a ghetto as we all awaited deportation. The majority of ghettos were for the Jews and the Gypsies and the rest of the persecuted minorities were put in prison but since Germany had turned its back on Russia, the prisons were filled with Soviet prisoners of war and the only place to put us was one of the few remaining ghettos awaiting liquidation in eastern Poland.

All sorts of nationalities were shoved in that tiny space; Jews, Gypsies, Soviets, Poles, homosexuals, foreigners, and whoever else that was unwanted. That included both us and those who had attempted to smuggle us in the caravan. They’d most certainly face the death penalty for doing that because there had been several Jews in that clandestine caravan but nobody had said a word about the rest of us except that we’d be going to camp to work and make materials needed for the war. That was that, simple enough. Nothing about it sounded stressful and much less scary by the way they spoke. On liquidation day they made us line up outside before making us march to the train station and cramming us into cattle cars and off to Blankenport we went. We were insulted and humiliated, harassed and threatened but we hadn’t been harmed. Maybe we’d just gotten lucky, but nothing indicated that Blankenport was a killing factory.

“Oh honey,” Minsa spoke in a sharp voice, “you don’t want to go there.”

Her green eyes glared at me menacingly. Some of her black hair stuck out from under her pink and black plaid scarf wrapped around her head and tucked into the collar of her civilian clothes. She’d never been mean to me personally but she wasn’t the friendly type either. She wasn’t the warm one that you could go talk to. She was a very small woman, barely five feet tall but her demeanor made her seem ten feet tall. She said she was twenty-seven years old but she looked more like she was seventeen. She was a woman of authority but not really one to abuse it unless you got on her bad side. I did everything I could to stay on her good side. After all, we were all crammed up in the same barracks so we might as well get along.

“Go to Hagen and see Gus instead if you’re too bored to sit around here and nap.”

No thanks. I wasn’t going to see Gus. I was going to Westfalen to look at what was going on there for myself. Whatever they were burning, they burned a heck of a lot of it and it smelled atrocious. I’d be back in time for my late afternoon shower and my cheap and nasty supper, if I could even call it a supper to begin with. I’d even be back in time to lend my writing skills to those who wanted to send letters back home (those who had a home to send letters back to that is) but did not know how to write anything more than their own name in exchange for their food. It might have sounded cruel, but since we had no money food was the currency of the camp. If I wanted something, my food was the price I had to pay and like everyone else around, I didn’t work for free.

During the week I was too busy putting guns and ammunition together in a massive factory complex that I didn’t have time to think much but now that it was Sunday, I almost had all the time in the world. My body was reasonably tired but my mind was wide awake and sitting in my bunk doing nothing only seemed to drain me more than actually going on and taking a walk. My aunt Natasha was passed out sleeping in our bunk and I swore that nothing could wake her up. She’d been a heavy sleeper for as long as I’d known her. Her big round dark green eyes shut as often as they could. In public she always kept her medium-brown hair stylish with whatever was trendy and beautiful at the time but behind closed doors when she was sleeping you might as well could have been looking at a grizzly bear.

Tolik and I had encountered our fair share of grizzlies out in the rural sections of the Soviet Union outside of Moscow. My family lived on a large piece of land in a small mansion while Tolik lived a few kilometers away in a dingy farmhouse that belonged to his father. He was returning home from Italy when I first met him some seven or so years prior. I was only thirteen at the time and him twenty-eight but I was drawn to him immediately. A true magnet attraction. At first he didn’t feel the same way but he never turned me away. I credited none other than him for saving my life and giving me the life I’d always dreamed of and more. Back in the 1930s Stalin was quite cruel to the intelligentsia but in a strange twist of fate, the rapid industrialization had actually helped my family prosper. It had utterly ruined others but I’d gotten lucky. My life back then was somewhat like that seven years of bad luck superstition, except that I’d gotten seven years of great luck. But seven years had passed since then and it seemed like my luck had finally run out.

It was a warm and sunny day in Blankenport as I walked towards the gate leading to Westfalen. A lone guard stood by the metal gate, covered in ashes with that same stone-faced look 99% of the other SS always wore. The other 1% weren’t very far away though; they were the ones that either looked tired and annoyed or completely clueless. A lot of these men weren’t really men at all. They were just boys. What kind of young man would actually like working in a place such as Blankenport? What kind of person would even create a place like Blankenport?! It was filthy and dysfunctional among a long list of other complaints that I had about it. There was nothing pleasant about being a slave in a nation of fear. That’s how they controlled us. They scared us, terrorized us and although my living quarters had been relatively quiet considering a few hundred women from various backgrounds and nationalities were crammed in there, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear commotion going on elsewhere nearby.

There was just one SS that wasn’t stone-faced like the rest. They called him Smiling Sven because he was always smiling. Smiling like he genuinely enjoyed what Blankenport had to offer him. That was something I could never understand. He must’ve been on drugs, or, on second thoughts, maybe he was off his medication. At first he looked like the rest of them; immaculate blond hair, blue eyes, a uniform decorated with various pins and medals and very athletic. But then you saw him walking around joyfully and smiling at the people he crossed and you realized that there was something off about him. Who does that? I only ever saw one person ever return his smile on his greeting, a Jewess named Maya Hartmann who was shacked up in the barracks right next door. She must’ve been around for a long time ⎯ or had skipped the head shaving upon arrival ⎯ because she had long wavy mocha hair that was the envy of every female around.

There was no doubt in my mind that running a concentration camp wasn’t an easy job but Blankenport had a serious discipline problem with its officers. That wasn’t hard to see because first of all there were very few for the amount of inmates and those we did have did more or less what they pleased. If one didn’t want to show up for roll call he just left us standing there until somebody else noticed and had us counted. Then of course that guy got angry and took it out on us. A handful of times in just a week the party in the staff quarters was so loud that we could hear it all the way from our block. And then guess who had the task of cleaning up after them when they woke up and saw that there was vomit and urine everywhere. I couldn’t really blame the head honcho for being grumpy but I still would have liked to punch him in the face.

The SS at the gate made me lift up my sleeve so he could note down my number and let me pass without saying a thing. Westfalen wasn’t far at all, the dudes in the watchtowers had perfect aim on everyone coming and going at all times, plus signs with skulls and cross bones indicated that there was a minefield ahead and that there was a danger of death. Beyond there there were only trees. Trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees and trees. And beyond Hagen-Schultz there was a river but beyond that more trees. The nearest civilization was miles away. Surely if we tried to escape we would perish before we even got to town. There was no use even thinking about trying that. I didn’t know what creatures lurked in that forest anyway.

As I was walking I pulled up my shirt over my face because the odor coming from Westfalen sucked the air right out of you. It smelled worst that something decaying in the forest and there was of course that thick black smoke, and several plumes of it. Very few people worked on Sundays in the camp but whatever they were doing back there, they were really going at it. As I got closer I appeared to see a different kind of smoke, like one coming from a fire somewhere on the ground. The large metal gates surrounded by a large brick wall, almost like a castle minus the castle part, partially obstructed my view but I still noticed a couple of other things. It seemed as though a line of almost a dozen SS officers were looking at something burning there. That was where they all were! Not that I was happy to find them, but Blankenport could’ve used a few people doing their job once in a while.

About halfway there I got a cramp in my left foot so I sat down on the railroad tracks and massaged it a little bit. I was sore and stiff but I wanted to keep moving. If Tolik had been around he would’ve just scooped me up under his arm and carried me the rest of the way. Where was my Tolik after all? During the past week I hadn’t had much time to think about him since my brain had so much to absorb about camp life and by the time I got back to my block I was exhausted both mentally and physically and I only wanted to eat my moldy food and go to sleep. Tolik and I hadn’t been traveling in together, he’d been traveling with my parents and my little brother in the caravan right behind mine but we hadn’t seen each other since we’d left. I’d seen the guys in front in the ghetto but after that it seemed like everybody vanished. I figured that they’d been sent to a different concentration camp, but then again Blankenport was so huge I couldn’t expect to see everybody in it!

As for Tolik and my folks though, I had no clue. I could imagine that they were also picked up by the Gestapo but I could equally believe that they’d made it to Switzerland, or at the very least gotten closer to our final destination. We’d all been contemplating going to Switzerland for a while since they were a nice neutral country in this mess called World War II but we were still comfortable where we were. The fighting didn’t overflow to our little town, we had every reason to believe that the Red Army would kick the asses of anyone who tried to step on our turf and for my folks and I life went on with few interruptions. Adjusting to times of war hadn’t ruined us or made us crazy. I guess maybe we’d just been lucky but for me personally, my peace of mind hadn’t been affected, at least not back then.

Sweden was also a neutral country but nobody in my clan spoke a word of Swedish. On the other hand, we all spoke French and Tolik and I even spoke German. Tolik had been in the army for most of his youth where he learned maybe skills and languages as he travelled around believing that he was saying the world. Then he’d been injured in combat and lost his right eye so he was honorably discharged from the military and once his money ran out he had to go back home and make a living as a farmer. He’d never been particularly fond of that lifestyle but he was good at what he did. He always had the nicest plants around and he was one of the greatest cooks I knew. I had always thought that tea was disgusting but after drinking the one he’d grown himself, I wanted more! Not to mention that he was incredibly intelligent. Most of what I’d learned, I’d learned from him.

Despite the expensive private tutors my parents paid for so my brother and I wouldn’t have to attend conventional school, Tolik was my favorite teacher. He liked me because I was a very receptive student, I got it the first time and I was eager to learn more. We got along well and I never dared to argue with him because I knew that he was right. He’d never let me down. Never. I couldn’t help but wonder about him as I walked. I knew it wasn’t good to get such things into my head as they would ultimately only make me crazy but I simply couldn’t help it. I held on to the belief that we’d be reunited again in Switzerland once I either got lucky again or the war ended. It couldn’t last forever could it? It had started in 1939 and it was now 1943, that was long enough. I contemplated sending a letter to Switzerland to see if it would reach Tolik but I decided against it because realistically he probably hadn’t arrived yet.

To my aunt our plan was absolutely brazen and insane, and she was probably right, but in recent weeks our quite area had been affected by the war raging across most of Europe and we decided that it was time to go. We could’ve headed farther east deeper into the Soviet Union but I’d gotten another idea: I wanted to shack up in Switzerland permanently. That meant going underground and outsmarting the Nazis that had once been our allies but were now our enemies and emerging in Switzerland without their knowledge. It sounded dangerous and unrealistic, I was well aware of that, but U-boats were living all over the Reich as pretend-Aryans, wannabe-Nazis and fake Germans. The people who had helped the people in my caravan get fake papers and cheat the system wore swastika armbands and had pictures of Hitler hanging all over the place.

That was a part of their disguise the same way hiding in plain sight was part of ours. We travelled during the day, conducted seemingly normal affairs as we passed through, ate among them and spoke their language. It just so happened that many of us looked just as Aryan as anybody else including me, but others in the underground group did not, and because the pretend-Aryans had been caught helping the obvious non-Aryans the penalty had to be strict. Except that I didn’t believe that they’d caught us all. Only the first couple of vehicles (and mine unfortunately) had been stopped and our identities had been discovered but God only knew about the ones behind us. No matter what happened I knew that Tolik would take excellent care of my folks the same way that they trusted I could handle my aunt Natasha. Despite my wild side that took over most of the time, she trusted me completely. She had no reason not to. I’d always been honest and trustworthy and when I landed myself into some trouble I either got out of it myself or went whining to Tolik. Or maybe I just got lucky.

I walked into Westfalen and walked right into the quarantine camp. The barracks marked as quarantine were horribly overcrowded to the point that several thousand prisoners camped out around it in the fields and head stretched out as far as they eye could see. Half of them looked sick and they all looked depressed but at the same time I was grateful to have been able to luckily skip that. I walked further down Westfalen, passed buildings and buildings and finally came to the large fire burning in a hole dug in the ground. Several SS men gathered around it and were talking amongst themselves as they supervised whatever was burning inside it so I discretely walked up to take a look but one officer pointed for me to go to the living quarters and not wanting to incur his wrath, I obeyed. As I walked near the fire towards the wooden barracks of Westfalen I did take a quick peak into the pit and I swore I saw bodies.

That was the first time I witnessed what they did in those burn pits. A handful of people wearing clown uniforms were in Westfalen but most were still in their civilian clothes and most were young children, women and elderly people. I hadn’t previously noticed that before but in Blankenport there were zero children and seniors. In Hagen some older children worked miracles in the factories with their small fingers but apart from that, none. I took cover near one of the barracks and looked on as the SS made several hundred people line up along the massive pit of burning flesh and a firing squad shot them from behind so they would fall into the flames. Those that they had missed, were still alive, and the children were violent grabbed and thrown in whole. I completely froze right there where I was. They can’t be alive, I thought to myself. Had I experienced anything other than numbness I would’ve gone completely crazy in that moment.

These were perfectly fine people, there was nothing wrong with them! And these SS went about their killing business without a second thought. They mechanically carried out their brutal executions like a farmer would pile hay into a stack. Just like that. Nothing more and nothing less. The air left me completely and I knew that if I didn’t want to fall to the ground and end up just like them I had to get away and fast. I ran behind the block I’d been leaning on and vomited yellow liquid with multicolored chunks of I didn’t want to know what as I fell to my knees on the ground. This can’t be real, it can’t be. I was too shocked to be able to completely process what I had just seen. I’d been caught completely by surprise and the worst part was that I’d been told several times that this is what they did in Westfalen. I’d dismissed it as northing but hearsay or intimidation tactics.

But they were right. They’d been right all along. Would that be my fate too? Was that where my family members and Tolik had ended up? I never could have imagined that even people like the Nazis were capable of something like that. My head was spinning and everything around me was changing shape and color. I knew I had to get out of there. I wished I could just have woken up from the nightmare but when I opened my eyes that was what I saw. Disoriented and coughing from the overwhelming smoke, I ran in the first direction I saw but what I found there wasn’t any better. I came face to face with a gas chamber, a crematoria. Face to face with the gas mask-wearing SS on the roof dropping pellets of poison and then the bodies heading hauled in by the hundreds to be burned. Their screams were defeating as their lives slowly slipped away in there and if I was screaming too I couldn’t hear myself.

I turned around and ran as soon as I could get a hold of my brain. Close your eyes! Close your eyes! Close your eyes! My body didn’t respond and I needed a great deal of mental effort just to put one foot in front of the other and not fall as my legs first felt like rags and then I couldn’t feel them at all. Part of me wanted so badly to scan the faces of those I saw around me to rescue somebody that I knew but doing so would’ve only made me crazy. I couldn’t look at them like they were people because I couldn’t accept what was happening to them. I couldn’t accept that other people were doing that to them. A person couldn’t possibly do that to another! Nobody who did that could be considered a person but I couldn’t deny what I’d just seen. As much as I would’ve loved to forget about it or pretend that nothing happened, my mind was in overdrive and the only thing I could bring myself to do amidst my mental chaos was run back to Blankenport and after that I hadn’t thought about that yet.

And I ran. I ran faster than I’d even run when I chased that train. I ran so fast and with such force that I didn’t even know I had that it required another intense mental effort on my behalf to stop before I crashed into the gate and broke my neck between those metal bars. I could not feel the ground beneath my shoes, in fact I felt completely weightless, like I was finally one with the wind, but I wasn’t the one going up towards the sky in the form of black smoke. Those ashes in various shades of grey coating everything around me were people. People literally fell from the sky and landed all around me no matter how fast I ran to escape them. Burning the bodies of people who died natural deaths was one thing, but that was far from what they were doing in Westfalen.

No words would ever be enough to describe the horrors I saw that day.

Posted in Books & Stories

Eye of the Storm – Chapter 1: Arrival

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?”
“Yes sir.”
“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.”