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Through a Wire Fence

By Manya Friedman

The news that something had happened at the packing station during my cousin’s shift made me rush to her barrack to find out if she was well. Though we were in the same camp, we seldom met each other because we worked on different shifts and were assigned to different barracks. Sometimes when I saw her returning from work, I did not recognize her because her face was a black mask. We worked in a factory that produced soot (carbon).

The Germans were in desperate need of that product, which they used to make synthetic rubber for the production of tires for the military. The production was divided into three departments. Although each department had detrimental effects, the packing station was the worst.

In the first department the oil used in the production of the soot had to be heated to a certain degree to produce fumes for the burners in the next department. The girls working there had to inhale the noxious fumes. The second department’s job was to clean the burners to produce larger flames for the production of the soot. The temperature there was unbearable. And in the third department—the packing station—the soot coming in through the pipes had to be packed into bags. The dust settled on the girls perspired bodies, and when they wiped their brows a black mask was created.

Before I managed to reach my cousin’s barrack that day, something caught my eye.

Across from our barracks was a wire fence separating us from the men’s camp. While rushing to my cousin’s barrack I noticed a man sitting on the ground wrapped in a blanket. As I was about to pass him I hesitated for a moment. His face seemed familiar. He had been our neighbor back home, from one of the families evicted from Germany shortly before the war. He and his wife and daughter arrived in our city with only their luggage. The Jewish Committee rented a place for them in a neighboring building, and some people donated furniture. My father and several other neighbors helped them settle in. Their daughter later dated our neighbors’ son—that was how we became acquainted.

I asked him how he was, but in my mind I already imagined what his future would be. The men in our camp were working on construction. It was a brand new camp and only partially finished. Their lot was even worse than ours. They had to carry heavy loads, which their emaciated bodies often rejected. And if they dropped a load they got a beating. It was an outdoor job, in the summer heat and in the winter cold, wearing only the striped garments.

Every few weeks a new group of men was brought in to work, and at the same time the sick and those unable to work were loaded on the same truck and taken away. If we were in camp when this took place, we sadly watched them leave, knowing what their future would be. As I was talking to our neighbor while thinking about his lot, someone from the back approached and slammed my face against the fence. It was our German Lager Fuhrerin (camp leader). We were not allowed to speak to the men.

I continued to my cousin’s barrack and was glad to learn that she was not hurt. She in turn became concerned about my face.

For several days I had on the left side of my face the design from the fence. It did not hurt me nearly as much as the thought of our neighbor’s fate.

©2011, Manya Friedman. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.