The dry desolate dirt crunched under my brown loafers as I marched between the empty buildings with their hallow windows following my every stride. The stench of stale air surrounded and covered me and although my greatest desire was nothing more than to leave, my heart and mind forced my feet on their march onward.
65 years ago In 1943 my mother had boarded one of the many trains, which always ran on time, to this very camp. Her tiny size four feet had marched in this very square. Her head had rested, if only briefly, in one of the beds big enough for two, but forced to sleep four. Finally she was one of many, who in their time here left via the tall brick chimney’s which still stood as monuments to those who had passed through them.
I forced myself to stop at the building marked only with the number “4.” I placed both my wrinkled hands on the door frame and forced myself to look into the dingy room. It smelled of mold and age. The room was one of five marked as “women’s buildings.” I tried to imagine my mother, 5’3” with her long black hair, but all I could see were those images of the ladies with their hair put up under their scarves looking bone thin. This place reeked of death and I longed to leave.
I had no intention of letting these images be how I would remember her, yet I needed to see this part of what she had gone though, I needed to see what she had saved me from; my short little Jewish mother who had fallen in love with my tall, clean cut Catholic father. They had only been married a year before I was born in 1932. My father was a professor of ancient history at Munich University,
I had been eleven when they took my mother in the middle of her morning shopping. I had been in trouble that morning so I wasn’t allowed to go with her or they would have taken me as well. My father, a full bearded history teacher whose jacket elbows were constantly caked with powdery white chalk, had shuttled me away to live with his brother, wife, and two children, while he left to go fight for the resistance. I slept each night in their attic listening to my uncle and aunt fight over what they should do with me, the half Jew whole problem.
After nearly a year of living and staying quite with my aunt and uncle I was awakened one night by Peter climbing the ladder. “Wendell…Wendell! Wir mussen jetz gehen. Wendell…Wendell! We must go now.” Peter whispered, placing his fingers to his lips, telling me not to make a sound.
I climbed down from the old, creaky wooden ladder trying to place as little weight on them as possible. Peter directed me out the side door towards the alley in back of the house. I followed him keeping my mouth shut. One of the lessons I had quickly learned was to keep quiet. I knew Peter was trying to help me, but I couldn’t figure out what could be so drastic that I needed to be gone in the middle of the night, unless someone had told the Gestapo about my aunt and uncle.
Peter, it turned out was helping the resistance, under his mother and father’s right winged, red armband wearing noses. He took me to stay with some of his friends Grada, and Stephen, who had traveling papers for a boy my age, whom they had lost in one of the bombing. They had accepted Peter’s plea to take me with them as their child.
I found out years later that Peter had been caught by his very brother, the young blond haired Hitler youth Marcus. Marcus, with the fire of youth and hate burning inside, turned in his own parents in an attempt to clear his own new family’s name. Grada and Stephen raised me for the next seven years. After the war I tried to locate both my mother and father. It turns out my father was writing for Die Weisse Rose, The White Rose. In 1943 he was captured and beheaded, like some plague infested dog. I found the records of my mother’s name that lead me to this dreadful camp just outside Berlin, Sachsenhausen
I put my hand into my tweedy pocket and pulled out a crumbled piece of hard paper, and unfolded it for the millionth time. It was the only thing I had left to remind me of a time before I learned about hate and pain. Although the image was blurry and yellowed with age, staring back at me were the eyes of my mother and father, and a much younger image of myself. Their eyes shone with such joy and my mouth was open mid laugh.
I turned to the gate of the concentration camp. I had flown here 2 days ago. It had been the first time I had been back to my “Heimat” Home land since my escape. I walked under the gun towers and sighed; as their tremendous shadows consumed me .I pulled a copy of the original picture from my other pocket and with a push pin stuck it in the cork board next to the entrance. Under it I had written. “In these moments remember the peace, but never forget the pain or loss that follows for it may come again.” It was a line my father had taught me, it was spoken in Athens after the city fell.
As I exited the hallway back onto the street across from the concentration camp was a grassy park, there two children waited looking up at me. “Grandpa!” Sophia and Jacob, ran to me and grasped my old wrinkled hands. The color of the grass the blue of their eyes seemed so vibrant compared to the gray I now had finally left behind me. I got down on one knee and hugged them both.
“Father?” Whispered my son Joseph, placing a hand on my shoulder. I put the children down, and placed my hand on his, and wiped at my tears with the other.
“It’s okay Joe.” I looked into his ,yes and saw my pain reflected. “What do you say we get these good kids some ice cream?” The children squalled as they should and pranced around my legs. Joe smiled up at me and put his arm around me.
I glanced back one last time at the gate to the camp. “Arbeit macht frei.” I would never be free of this, no mater how much I worked. I could see the small building through the gate and frowned as my mind began to drift again towards the memories and horror. I was pulled back into the reality of the grass and the park by my two grandchildren pulling at my fingers in their desire for ice cream.
“Come on grandpa …lets goooooo” Sophia strained to pull on her old grand papa. Yes the youth needed ice cream not…yes ice cream. We walked down the red brick streets and it started to drizzle, and finally, as we were blocks away the air cleared and smelled fresh again.