The bell tolled like a siren, sending out sound waves in every direction. It rang alarmingly into the ears of anyone within twenty feet. I looked at the people scattered before me. Their eyes looked like those of a trapped vixen in the clutches of a hungry wolf. I could almost smell the fear that hung in the air, mixed in with so much suspense it was difficult to breathe. My eyes darted from one person to another, hoping for an explanation, a reassurance that everything was okay. But it was no use. Everyone around me was doing the same.
“Max, what’s going on?” I asked my older brother, who looked just as confused as I was.
“How the hell am I supposed to know, Helga? We’re Polish Jews in a Nazi concentration camp, for God’s sake!” he retorted defensively.
I cast another look at my surroundings. High iron walls, barbed wire at the top. The guards that stood against the walls, every ten or so feet apart. Wait. Something wasn’t right. What…? The bell, the confusion, the guards…
I focused on a guard that was standing a mere five feet away from me. He had tousled blond hair, sky blue eyes, and a well-shaped face. His name was Hans. He would almost have been handsome if not for his permanent scowl.
But today, the scowl was not there.
Instead, it had been replaced with a smile. A smile so cruel and horrifying it pierced my heart. It was a smile that knew, knew, knew….
It was a smile that relished pain and torture and suffering.
It was a smile that sealed my fate.
Then, as if I knew it would happen, the guards, all of them with terrible smiles on their faces, were moving in. each guard walking at the same pace, in the exact same direction. Towards the centre. Towards us. The Jews. The filthy Jews.
I heard screams in the sleeping area as mothers and children were thrown out of their only sanctuary, their tears grazing the ground as they were thrown towards the floor. The guards started yelling in heavy German, not filtering any abuse or disgust they could throw at us.
“Stay close to me”, Max said in my ear, and gripped my hand as if to never let go. The guards were right behind us now, and they started pushing and swearing. They didn’t care who they hurt. I pictured monsters in Nazi uniforms; their strong hands grasping for flesh, for clothing or for hair- anything they could toss, hit or maim. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lady with a swollen belly tumble to the ground, blood beginning to seep down her legs.
“My baby! My baby-” she had started to scream in agony, but one of the guards kicked her in the face.
As we were rushed into a cold stone chamber, we were told to take our clothes off.
“No!” I protested, my head swelling with a million thoughts. Take our clothes off? What the hell? Were our clothes to be washed? Were we getting a bath?
I looked at the people around me, who thought the same, and were taking their clothes off with relief at the thought of being clean again.
When Max pulled at my sleeve with worry, I screamed “No!”
Pain shooted up my back.
Behind me, stood a grinning Hans.
He tore half my shirt open with so much force, I’m sure some of my skin tore off too. He then grabbed my neck and whispered in my ear.
I could hear it despite the noise and confusion.
“You’ll smell even worse when you burn”.
Stripped naked, none of us had time to reflect or feel embarrassed as we were tossed into a crowded room. Max held me close, and I heard a prayer and felt a splatter of his tears on my cheek.
As the room filled with thick, bloated green gas, I too murmured my own prayer and gasped my final breath.