I turn my head in the direction of the harsh voice shouting in a foreign language and see a German soldier waving a rifle from left to right to let us know we were all being threatened. An officer in a peaked cap leaned against the black motorcycle they had been riding until they stopped next to us.
The skull insignia, familiar to me from previous raids, was missing from their caps. One of the men seemed more friendly than the other, maybe he smiled at me, maybe I wanted to believe that he did. I was still innocent enough to trust adults. I was sure that they were supposed to smile at a nice little girl…
I awoke from the dream in a cold sweat; but it wasn’t just a dream. It was a real incident and it comes back to me at night. Maybe writing about it will bring relief.
We were standing beside a road on the outskirts of a forest in Slovakia. Our eyes still unused to daylight, we stood blinking at the view of the plain after coming down from our hiding place on the mountain. There were six of us: my parents, my uncle and his wife, my sister Aliska, aged twelve, and myself, aged eight.
This was not how I imagined our emergence into light and space from the ‘bunker’ we dug for ourselves. I had pictured this moment during the hours, days and months while we lay motionless in the dark, wrapped in all the clothes we had managed to put on ourselves when we fled to the forest. But it was cold. Our pit was covered with a sheet of canvas and sometimes the wind blew in, sometimes melting snow seeped in and the leaves were always damp.
A few strips of light entered through cracks in the canvas. During the day I tried to keep my eyes closed, believing that if I did not look at the light I would not be seen and they would not discover us.
When the German patrol ended its search of the forest and the adults decided that we had no alternative but to abandon the improvised bunker, I was actually happy. I was frozen, my whole body hurt and my stomach rumbled.
Deciding that the way down the mountain was clear, we shouldered our packs. There was no food left in them and they were light, but we were weak and hungry and had difficulty in carrying them. We were unsteady on our legs from the moment we set out. Our muscles were weakened by the long period of near immobility and we had to cling to branches with every step we took.
I, the youngest, enjoyed the change. It is true that every step I took was accompanied by sharp pain from infected frostbite, or maybe because my shoes were now too small for me. My sister and I were not included in the adults’ deliberations. We had no idea where we were going and why we had left the hiding place that had proved “safe” for months – after all, the Germans had not discovered us.
The aunt, known to be obsessive about cleanliness, looked at us and declared: “We are so filthy, I only hope we aren’t mistaken for Gypsies.” At the time, the Gypsies were considered inferior – unreliable, thieves, to be shunned. Even now, I am ashamed of the prejudice. Jews and Gypsies shared a common fate in the concentration camps, we were persecuted to the same extent and by the same methods. Although in German eyes we were equally inferior, sub-humans who did not deserve to live, we Jews were even more hated than Gypsies.
We are a sallow-complexioned family, but we were pale and our black-rimmed eyes bulged with hunger. I have an upturned nose like my father – the rest of the family have the characteristic Jewish nose. When we encountered the soldiers and were asked what we were doing in the forest, it was my father who answered.
“At your service, Commander!” he said to the oldest among them, entering the character of the Good Soldier Schweik. He was an accomplished story teller. As a rule, it was a pleasure to listen to him. Even exhausted and afraid as he was, knowing that our lives were in danger, he assumed a light-hearted, friendly manner, with a story for the soldiers.
“Commander,” he said. “The thing that happened, happened like this…” and he explained at length and in detail that we were on our way home from work in a factory that produced nails for horseshoes. He explained to the officer that because of the war, the factory where he and his brother worked was moved to Potok, a town some kilometers from our home in Ruzomberok. He did not forget to go into detail concerning the number of kilometers between our house and the factory before it was moved, compared to the number of kilometers between our home and the present location of the factory in Potok. Nor did he forget to go into detail about the condition of the roads and the need for cart horses owing to the pressure on the railways. He described himself and his brother as veteran skilled workers in the only factory for horseshoe nails in the whole of Slovakia. “And here you can see for yourself, Commander,” said my father, “how we are forced to go home on foot after exhausting shifts, just because all the horses have been taken into the army…” at this point the officer interrupted him with a roar, both hands covering his ears. Although the shout scared me, I could hardly stop myself from laughing at the sight of the soldier with his hands over his ears.
The story was based on a few facts and many improvisations, but one look at us was enough for the soldier to see the truth. The fact that father spoke German was also reason to suspect that we were actually dirty Jews, since it was unlikely that a simple worker would know the language. Father and his brother possessed special work permits allowing them to work in the factory commandeered by the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Father showed the papers to the soldier. It had saved us from a number of raids in the past, but had since expired following new orders related to the Final Solution for the annihilation of the Jews of Slovakia. The document was not worth the paper on which it was written.
“Hosen herunter!” shouted the officer. “Pants down!” Again the shameful order.
What a disgrace! Did my father have to undress in public? My strong, proud father had to lower his trousers and display his private parts to the soldiers? A shocking humiliation. I was so embarrassed, I pinched my sister.
Then Father spoke to the soldiers in a calm, quiet voice. He admitted that we were Jews and whispered something I could not hear.
The German was not annoyed; he took a deep breath and even seemed pleased that the matter was ending in a reasonable, relatively decent way. To my immense relief, Father was not told again to lower his trousers.
The soldiers explained where we had to go in order to join the group of Jews being held in the area. “Continue along the path for a few kilometers till you come to a village named Liptovska Osada. In the churchyard you’ll find more Jews. You’ll be given further instructions.”
As we walked away, I heard my parents blessing our good luck. “If they were bloodthirsty, they could have shot us,” they said, “like the SS, or the Slovakian National Guard.”
The Slovakian National Guard knew that the escaping Jews hid money and jewelry on their bodies and lay in wait to murder, strip and rob them. How lucky we were to have fallen into the hands of the German Wehrmacht soldiers and not those robbers.
Slowly and painfully, we carried on; I was limping because of the sores on my feet. When we were some distance from the soldiers, my uncle began to shout, “Now we’re going to the slaughterhouse! They’re going to slaughter us in that church!”
I believed him. I was so terrified that I burst into tears and said I couldn’t walk. Actually, I had lost all will to struggle against the pain and fear. My sister also began to cry. We were all exhausted. None of the four adults was able to offer us any support.
I believed my uncle, after all, he was a grown up and he knew! We were going to be slaughtered. And I knew what slaughter was. During the Easter holidays, when we visited Grandmother in the village where my mother was born, I heard the shrieks of the pigs. Once, following the sound of the awful screams, I even peeked into the neighbors’ yard. A horrible sight! Quantities of blood! And now my blood would be spilled in the churchyard where they were going to slaughter us.
As we dragged ourselves along the path, I started wailing that I could not go on.
My uncle, negative as always, devoid of any sensitivity to children, complained with a suffering expression on his face, “Can’t you shut her up!”
His negative, pessimistic nature would eventually lead to his death beside my father in the concentration camp when they were sent to Sachsenhausen. He refused to listen to my father’s encouraging words and committed suicide by throwing himself onto the electrified fence. Whereas my resourceful father, in the midst of all his suffering, exchanged shirts with the corpse of a political prisoner and stayed alive.
Nevertheless, even he, the optimistic one, was helpless in the face of the terrifying prospect and my mother was actually the one who proved to be alert and resourceful. She stepped off the path, turned her back to us and withdrew a gold brooch from her corset. In my mind, the action remains as magical as Alladin rubbing the lamp.
Apparently, she had noticed an approaching horse and cart. She waved the driver to the side of the road and exchanged a few words with him, after which we were permitted to climb onto the cart loaded with wonderfully fragrant hay.
That cart saved us. It is doubtful whether we would have had the strength to reach the village otherwise. I sat at ease on the pile of hay, listening to the soothing clatter of the horse’s hooves while I chewed a thick slice of the loaf of village bread that the driver divided among us. I was still apprehensive about the threat of slaughter in the village church and I was still afraid they might humiliate my father and uncle by ordering them to take off their clothes. I had seen my mother naked on a few occasions, when she pushed herself into her corset and asked me to close its
many hooks, but I had never seen my father or my uncle unclothed. Meanwhile, I chewed the bread and made the most of the moment.
In the distance we could see the ominous silhouette of the church where, as my uncle promised, slaughter awaited us. I was shaking with fear as the cart approached the crowded churchyard.
Yet the place bore no resemblance to the slaughterhouses I had seen in the past. If we were indeed about to be slaughtered, where were the hooks, the butchers’ knives, the blood and the cries of the dying? The horse entered the yard with measured, dignified steps. The cart came to a halt. The driver gave me a friendly smile, held out his strong arms, swung me high in the air and gently set me on my feet. I felt that we were the focus of all eyes, as if we were members of a noble family arriving for a ball.
It quickly emerged that this church really was not a slaughterhouse!
I remembered it for over sixty years as the place where the first real hug was engraved on my memory.
“It can’t possibly have disappeared,” I said to the taxi driver, determined not to give up. The church was real! It belonged to the time of the bunker, the hunger, the fear.
The directions from the priest of the Pravoslavic church were clear: “To reach the Catholic church, you must go left and then straight up to the fence. From there you’ll see the cross on the church.”
I was aware of an inner voice warning me that it would be better for me to remember the church as a place that had warmed both heart and belly with the flow of hot milk.
I recognized nothing. It looked abandoned. The gateway that I remembered was gone. I came across a little house in the yard and knocked on the door a few times. It was opened by a faded, bent old man, perhaps a priest, a survivor of World War II who had slaved from morning to night in a Communist government project, but Jesus had waited and watched over him. He tried to smile at me, but it was a bitter smile. No, he was not prepared to open the church for me.
“It hasn’t been renovated yet. What’s there to see in that ruin?”
He tried all sorts of evasive tricks, but I persisted. I had to go in and sit on the second last bench, to look at the colored windows from the inside, to look at the crucifix. In the end, a twenty dollar bill softened his resistance.
He turned the key in the lock, pushed and pulled and grew red in the face, until the door opened with a grating sound. I had already come to an agreement with him to be allowed to sit alone once I was inside.
He was right: gloom and shadows. The windows had long since lost their transparency. I recoiled at the sight of the dust and grime. The stench thickened the air. Spider webs filled every possible corner… I looked at the bench I had kept in my memory with longing, wanting to stroke it with my fingertips. Instead of the shine of the wood, I encountered worms stretching towards me from its many fissures…
Only the structure with its cruciform interior remained undamaged. Gone were the windows that had so impressed me; some broken now and replaced with panes of ordinary glass with only sections of the original stained glass in place. It was impossible for me to sit in my old place. I turned. The priest was gone and I fled from the worms and disappointment.
Still, that church represented a turning point in my life. It was there I realized for the first time that adults could be mistaken. My uncle’s prophecy was not fulfilled. The walk on excruciatingly painful feet was unbearable until we met the cart, but in the end I was not led to the slaughter.
Instead, we reached the church, where I experienced the pleasant sensation of that hug on the second last bench, where they seated me. I was the smallest of the Jews they had already rounded up. Possibly, that soldier who was older than my father had left a granddaughter in Germany. Anyway, he suddenly hugged me to his chest with a warm smile, as if he wanted to pamper me. I seem to remember that he even bounced me on his knees, playing ride-the-donkey, while he sang a children’s song in German. I felt wonderful.
I am sure I received hugs and kisses from the whole family before the war, after all, I was the smallest. But they were all forgotten. In the last two years of fear and anxiety, my parents were unable to pamper, console or promise me better days. They were themselves barely able to function, mustering all their strength to survive, to keep silent lest we be discovered.
And behold, against all expectations of the evil about to befall us, an anonymous soldier seated me on his knee, undeterred by the filth and the lice crawling in my hair, he gently stroked me and ordered; “MILCH!!”
A German soldier hugged me and ordered “warm milk for the little girl!” For me? Warm milk!? Unbelievable. It barely remembered the last time I had warm milk to drink. It tasted heavenly.
Amazingly, I had found a moment of loving kindness in the church. Beneath the high, strong ceiling I felt protected against the cold. Here, maybe because I was the smallest of all, people smiled at me. The smile is etched on my memory because it came at a time when I was unaccustomed to smiles, to warmth. Two years earlier, I was marked with the rest of my family and my mother sewed patches with yellow Stars of David for all of us. We were all marked. .
There were quite a number of Jews in the church who were as happy as if they were celebrating a holiday when they found one another and knew that they were among the living. The atmosphere was calm and someone saw to it that we had warm food. Later, with the help of money she produced from her treasury, my mother managed to buy some food from the peasants.
I was happy. First of all, they did not slaughter us and we were not sent to the slaughterhouse, as my uncle threatened when we left the hiding place and were caught by the German patrol. A church is not a slaughterhouse! What’s more, the hug from the German soldier was comforting and we had a soaring roof over our heads to protect us against rain and snow, all of which even without taking into account the beautiful painting of the Madonna and child.
I was happier and more satisfied than I had been for a long time. Everything was turning out well for me. In the evening, they moved us into a barn full of fragrant hay that was as warm and reassuring as the German soldier’s smile. I was tempted to think that life was beautiful and everything looked wonderful…
It was just as well that I didn’t know that the church served as a temporary holding place for Jews rounded up before being sent to the Sered concentration camp. But still, even though the warmth in the church was nothing but an illusion, sometimes the illusion is an interim of sanity.
When I returned to the priest’s office he asked me what was so special about the abandoned church.
I told him.
When I stopped talking he looked at me with infinite sadness. Then he went to an old table and took a postcard from the drawer. It was a faded sepia photograph of the church in those days, with the village in the background. “Now I understand,” he said, giving me the postcard.