October 19, 2008
By Estelle Laughlin
At dawn, the train jerked to a clanging halt. Those close to the bullet holes and cracks in the walls reported what they saw: “Armed German soldiers and Ukrainian guards, people—our people—behind barbed-wire fences, and chimneys. Oh! Borze drogi! Gotinew!” (“Dear God!”) People sighed. Icy fear spread from my chest to every cell in my body. I could not stop trembling. I felt as if it were the world shaking with a ravage force. I clutched my parents, forced myself to sit upright, and tried hard to stay alert. My mind was no longer entirely mine. It was doing things as if in a nightmare. After a short wait and solemn postulations about our future, we heard unbolting bars and rude shouts. “Raus! Raus! Schnell!” (“Out! Out! Move!”) And then they were upon us.
The train had brought us to Majdanek, the infamous extermination camp located among rolling wheat fields in Lublin. In no time our tormentors rushed us into a fenced-in field jammed with bedraggled people. We had had nothing to drink since they had chased us out of our bunker. We pleaded for water. The soldiers playfully picked up garden hoses, aimed streams of water above our heads, and let the water arch to the ground. Unable to withstand our thirst, we bent to the ground, dipped our hands into the muddy puddles that formed around us, and scooped out droplets of water to moisten our lips.
In this field of annihilation, I saw a faintly familiar figure of a young woman clutching a motionless child. I looked again and called out, “Mama, look! Piotrek’s mother!”
In her vomit-stained arms lay our beloved Piotrusz, the last hidden toddler we had known in the last days of the ghetto. He lay as motionless as a clay doll with a tousle of black curls. Piotrek’s mother turned her ravaged face to us, pale as death. She moaned like a wounded animal and stammered, “I killed him. I killed him. I swallowed the cyanide too. I did not want him to die alone. God, why did I have to vomit? I want to die with him.”
“Achtung! Aufstehen!” (“Attention! Rise!”) A band of guards began to shove us into groups, separating men, women, and children from each other. “Manner hier! Hunde! Frauen dort!” (“Men here! Dogs! Women there!”) They ripped screaming children out of the arms of hysterical parents. “Kinder da!! Los! Schnell!” (“Children here! Move!”) Wham! Kick! Shove! And my father was torn away from us.
Unable to hold onto him, we called, “Tata! Tata!”
Mama screamed, “Samek! Samek!”
Tata called back our names, “Mania! Fredziuchna! Estusiuchna!”
We shouted encouragements: “Hold on! Endure! Stay alive! I love you! I love you!” We craned our necks not to lose sight of Tata. With guns pointing at us—I could hear the click of the weapons’ safety catches—we were ordered to sit on the ground and wait for fate to roll over us. Gusts of biting wind lashed across the open terrain. Tata pushed himself to the front row and sat cross-legged on the muddy ground with the group of exhausted and grief-stricken men. We three sat with the group of women directly across from Tata, locking eyes with him. A short distance from us, children remained confined behind a wire fence in a muddy enclosure resembling a pigsty. I could not bear to look in their direction. I feared that I too might be taken away from Mama and Fredka and thrown in with them. The children clung to the fence, pleading and yammering, “Mama! Tata! Where are you?” Their cries horrified me. They milled around in their isolated space desperately, frantically.
Tata was ill. He had a high fever and shivered with a chill. He took off his jacket and wound it around his head to quell the chill. I could not stand the look of suffering I saw in his worn face. I was accustomed to looking into his eyes to find comfort—they always held kindness, steadiness, and reassurance. How filled with pain they were now!
I broke loose from the group of women and dashed across the field that separated us from Tata. He motioned me back, his face contorted with fear for my safety. I reached him and knelt down on the ground in front of him. “Please, Tata,” I said. “You need not worry about me. They will not get me.” I flipped the lapel of my coat and showed him the tiny vial of cyanide sewn to the lining. We all had it to use as a last resort. “They will never get me, Tata. Remember I have cyanide?” I meant to reassure him.
He shuddered, his eyes burning with anguish and love. He pleaded, “No, no! Don’t do that! You must live!”
All life was coming to an end for me, crushed under the boots of barbarians. All lessons of nobility and sanctity of life were piled on a pyre. From these ashes came Tata’s message to me: “Live!”
Tata vanished like a dream, sheathed in the radiant light of virtue and unyielding values.
He remained my archangel of humanism, calm and gentle as a whisper, dignified as the Masada site. He remained an immortal voice, a mantra as eternal as the current in a stream. “Yes, yes, there is a separating line between the worst and the noblest in men; neither purges the other.” He vanished during a Walpurgis Night, leaving a pulse of goodness when the wrath of evil danced like Satan, setting my world in flames.
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