by Zhanna Slor
You know the story. They show up in the middle of the night. They are armed, gray-uniformed, burning with fury. They are covered in unearned metals. They are drunk on power, high on ideas. They blow whistles, they bang drums. They scream into the cold winter air:
“Jude! Jude! Jude!”
Even though it’s in German, you all know what they’re saying: All Jews must exit this building. It’s 1940, 1941, 1942. You’re in a small town in Ukraine, or Belarus, or Moldova. It’s too late in the game to be unaware this was coming — to be surprised. It’s the only thing everyone has thought about for years; the only thing everyone has tried not to say out loud. You were just hoping they forgot about you; that you had hidden well enough. Your town isn’t well known; it has only one main road. One cemetery, one synagogue, one way in or out. But no one can hide from them. Not anymore.
You’re only thirteen, a little boy, the son of butchers. You have two siblings, both older than you. You don’t like your brother much, because all he does is tease you, but you adore your sister. She lets you sleep in her bed when you have nightmares. She kisses you goodnight. She’s not embarrassed by you around her friends. Her name is Riva. Riva is the one that wakes you that night — not the screaming, not the gunshots. You’re a deep sleeper. Everyone always jokes that you could fall asleep mid-sentence, standing up, mouth wide open. It won’t last much longer though. Not after tonight. Not after Riva tells you to get dressed, to go hide in the closet with her. Your parents and your brother, on the other side of the door, beg you not to step foot outside that closet. Your father paces back and forth, putting on shoes, a coat, looking for his gun.
“It’s going to be fine,” your mother whispers then, her voice trembling; this is when you know everything is not going to be fine. You have never once seen your mother cry before. In the closet, surrounded by wool and leather shoes and your sister’s sweat, you understand right away that something big is happening. Something bad. Outside you hear more screams; not just in German now. In Russian, Romanian, and Polish. Children are wailing. There are sirens. You think you hear boots coming up the stairs. Still, it’s a surprise when they burst through the door and you hear them inside your own apartment.
You know what happens next.
At least five men pour inside, swastikas emblazoned on their forearms like sparkling jewels. They drag your parents out of the kitchen, along with your brother; they are screaming in fast, irate German. Once in a while they scream “Out!” in Russian too, just in case you might not get it.
They pillage through your belongings, finding almost nothing of worth. A silver candlestick. A necklace with a broken chain. A hat made of real fur. You are not wealthy people. Not that this matters anymore. You are all going to the same place; you are all empty-handed. From the closet, you pull down your winter coat and put it on. You put on the first boots you can find in the dark; they’re one size too big; they might be your brother’s. Your sister watches you and does the same. Your heart is beating so fast you think the entire German army can hear it. Your hands are shaking. Your sister squeezes you with all her might. Then you curl up into a ball, thinking maybe, just maybe, if you become small enough…
But no, you are not so lucky. Only seconds go by until they find you too. Did anyone really think they wouldn’t look in the closet? Of course they looked in the closet. You would be stupid to think they wouldn’t find you.
“Aussteigen!” they scream. “Jude!” they scream. Their faces are all white and pale, poorly shaven. Their hands are rough and calloused. They have belts around their waists and gray woolen pants that puff out at the sides. Some of them have glasses, others have mustaches. For a moment you can’t believe they’re real; that bodies can hold such hateful voices. That the whispers you’ve heard for years are true—how can it possibly be true? And yet, it is: there they are, right in front of you, sour breath and all. You hardly have a moment to process the reality of it before they’re pushing you. Even though you are walking out your door—looking, for the last time, around the home you’ve lived in since you were born—they push you and push you, nudging their rifles into your backs, screaming the same two words over and over like a poorly written song. “Get out,” they say. “Get out you stinking Jews!”
You know what happens next.
Two years later, your father is dead. Your sister too—died in your arms one night in Rogoznica. She took care of you until her last breath—even on the four-day march to Poland through Ukraine, when she could barely move anymore. She told you, No matter what, just keep moving. You were lucky enough to end up together. Your father, barely alive by the time you arrived at Gross-Rosen, died in a gas chamber. You don’t know where your mother is. You were separated upon arrival, before you and Riva were taken to a smaller, newer camp hundreds of miles away. Your brother did not come—he is sixteen, practically a man; he would be of better use at Treblinka or Auschwitz. He is strong and muscular, an athlete.
He’s probably dead too.
You’re alive, but you don’t feel like you are. All day long you wait to die, certain you will be next, like the bodies that keep piling up in the yard between the shoddy brick barracks and the fence. And the smell! You will never get that smell out of your nose until the day you die. Burning, rotting corpses, hundreds of unwashed bodies, open sewers. You’ve had to learn to only breathe out of your mouth to avoid smelling it. You’ve had to learn a lot of things.
You know what happens next.
You know what camps are like.
People work, people starve, people die. Life goes dreadfully on; your body disconnects from your brain. Then one day, at the end of your second winter in Poland, you befriend another boy your age; at least, you think he’s your age. It’s hard to tell how old anyone is at this point, all bones and sharp points and eyes that have seen too much. His name is Joseph. Joseph is sick and tired of these Polish winters and this war and waiting to die. He is sick of farming and starving and sleeping on the floor next to twenty other people. You are too. Everyone is.
But here’s when things get interesting. Joseph has an idea.
“Most of the fence on the southeast border doesn’t have barbed wire on it,” he tells you one morning. “And the guards aren’t always there. I’ve been looking at it for weeks.”
“So?” you say.
“So let’s climb it and get the hell out of here.”
You’re hungry and tired and have a cold that never goes away. You’re covered in dirt and piss and smell almost as bad as the bodies piled in the dirt they’re preparing to burn. You’re fifteen years old, and you feel one hundred. Everyone you’ve ever known is likely dead.
“Okay,” you tell Joseph. The two of you briefly discuss a plan; though most of it just involves running. An old man beside you drops to his knees. Moments later, a soldier is there, kicking him in the chest. A cold, bitter air slaps you both across the face. You get back to work.
Later, Joseph asks you, “What’s your name?”
“Nikolai,” you say. “But most people call me Kolya. Well. They used to call me Kolya.”
“Where are you from, Kolya?”
“Zhovka,” he says. “Not quite as far as you. Did you also walk here?”
You shrug. It already feels like another lifetime ago.
“Kolya. We’re going to get out of here,” he says. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a small piece of stale bread. “Take this. I stole it from a soldier while he was sleeping. I already ate mine.”
You look at the bread. You eat it slowly over the course of the day, enjoying every bite. You wonder if it’s the last thing you will ever eat.
Over the next few days, you watch and wait for the perfect moment, but eventually you realize there will never be a perfect moment in a death camp. Daily life is daily life; it rarely changes, even here. Roll call, work, the smallest amount of food, work again, another roll call. A terrible, dreamless sleep.
People scream, people die.
“We just have to go for it,” Joseph says one morning. Around you, people are working in fields; pulling out weeds, picking fruit. You are too; you don’t notice anymore what your body is doing.
“Now?” you ask.
“Now,” Joseph says. It’s been three days since you first discussed leaving. The sun is beaming overhead. Beyond the stink of the dead and dying, you can smell that spring is near. Something about this makes you even more certain; if today is the day you die, so be it. You’re not sure you even care anymore. No, that’s not true. You care a lot. If you die, they win. You don’t want them to win.
You nod at your friend, and the two of you begin walking.
At first, no one even notices you. It’s not until you get onto the chain-link fence and start climbing that the shouts begin. You’re already halfway up the fence by the time you hear gunshots. At least five, right in succession. All of them miss. Bullets are flying everywhere. You must have angels on your side, or perhaps Nazis are just bad shots—each and every one misses. If someone had told you such a thing, you probably wouldn’t have believed him. But the fact remains: you are alive. A bullet flies right past your ear, another between your legs. Soon you’re at the top of the fence, drenched in sweat, German screams coming at you from every direction. You look at Joseph, and both of you have the same thought: jump!
And then there you are, running through the large open field, through grass and hay and dirt and crumbling road. Things you once thought you might never see again. Behind you, you can still hear gunshots and screams. But you are younger and faster and you have more at stake. You get away.
You get away.
The following day, as you’re walking through yet another Polish meadow—you haven’t stopped once since your escape—you see, in the distance, Nazi troops sent to look for escaped prisoners; sent to look for you. The ground is still frozen, and the beige stalks bend and break toward it. You’ve shed most of your dirty brown clothes from the camp, so as to draw less attention to yourselves. You’ve wrapped yourselves in dirty blankets you found on the road. Perhaps this too draws some attention, because moments later a soldier sees you in the field. He grabs you by the arm, staring right into your eyes.
“What are you doing out here?” he says. “No one is supposed to be here.”
Your friend Joseph, always quick with the ideas, speaks up behind you. “We’re looking for our lost goat!” he says, in Polish. He’s picked some up at the camp, all those years being in Poland. Goat is the only animal word he remembers. He points in front of you, towards a bright red shed. “That’s our farm.”
The soldier looks at Joseph, then at you, then at Joseph again. You can tell he’s not sure whether or not to believe you. His brows furrow, and his jaw clenches. But for whatever reason, he lets the two of you go. “Leave the goat,” he says. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s not safe.”
You both nod enthusiastically. Then you run as fast as you can toward the farm. But it doesn’t end there. By the time you get within arm’s reach of the shed, there’s another German officer who’s spotted you. They must be everywhere; the Nazis really don’t like it when people escape. You and Joseph run inside, up a shaky wooden ladder. You settle on a shelf below the roof, lying on a hay mattress. You are not well hidden. This will probably be the end for you. Still, you have hope—you always have some hope that you will survive. So you hold your breath, silence your tired, sore body, every muscle cramped or stinging. You wonder if by some miracle you’ve saved yourself; that for a moment you might be safe. But seconds later, the soldier bursts into the shed looking for you. He is quiet, panting for air from running after you. He looks old and not in the best health; he’s likely been away from home for many years too. He glances around, and sees the hay-covered shelf near the roof, and begins to climb the ladder. All that work, only to be caught the next day! You can’t go back to that camp. You would rather let this man shoot you than go back to the camp. You start eying his gun as he climbs the ladder, debating how hard it would be to take it from him. He’s so close you can smell his sweat. Outside, you hear a cow mooing, a truck passing through gravel. Birds are twittering above the shed as if it is just any other day, as if the world is not completely upside down. As if there is not a man just inches away from you, ready to end your life. Then you realize you could probably take him, if he’s alone, you and Joseph. He’s on a ladder. It could be as easy as a small push. Why not? You’d already made it this far. How would it be any worse than what’s been done to you? Wasn’t that what you did in a time of war; kill your enemy? You wonder for a long time—rather, what feels like a long time, but must have only been seconds—if you are capable of such a thing.
All these thoughts are buzzing through your mind—you’ve even looked to Joseph in silent agreement to fight—when out of nowhere there is a loud thud. The soldier starts swearing in German; you look down briefly to see he has hit his head against a piece of wood sticking out from the ladder, just under the shelf you’re on. He starts rubbing his head and muttering to himself. Then, instead of climbing up one more foot and seeing the tops of your heads, the man climbs back downward, swearing all the while. That’s all it takes to make your life not worth the hassle—a headache. That piece of wood saved your life. You will have a child because of that piece of wood—a boy named Igor. You will have grandchildren because of that piece of wood—two girls, named Zhanna and Dina. One day, you will move to America because of that piece of wood. And you will live a long, long, healthy life.
All because of Joseph, and luck, and that piece of wood.
Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to Wisconsin in the early 1990s. Currently, she lives with her husband in Chicago, where she is finishing up a young adult novel about Ukrainian-born twins with unusual superpowers. She has been published in numerous literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Bellevue Literary Review, Sonora Review, Tusculum Review, Hobart, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which published a group of essays that later received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014.