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To my grandchildren, Henry, Nathan, Jack, Rachel and Ashton
Never forget the courage, the love, the hope given to us by those who survived and those who did not.
This is a work of fiction based on what I learned from the first-hand testimony of Lale Sokolov, the tattooist of Auschwitz, about Cecilia “Cilka” Klein, whom he knew in Auschwitz-Birkenau; from the testimony of others who knew her; and from my own research. Although it weaves together facts and reportage with the experiences of women survivors of the Holocaust and the experiences of women sent to the Soviet Gulag system at the end of the Second World War, it is a novel and does not represent the entire facts of Cilka’s life. Furthermore, it contains a mix of characters: some inspired by real-life figures (in some instances, representing more than one individual), others completely imagined. There are many factual accounts that document these terrible epochs in our history and I would encourage the interested reader to seek them out.
For more information about Cecilia Klein and her family, and about the Gulags, please turn to the end of this novel. I hope that further details about Cilka and those who once knew her will continue to come to light once the book is published.
—Heather Morris, October 2019
Auschwitz Concentration Camp, January 27, 1945
Cilka stares at the soldier standing in front of her, part of the army that has entered the camp. He is saying something in Russian, then German. The soldier towers over the eighteen-year-old girl. “Du bist frei.” You are free. She does not know if she has really heard his words. The only Russians she has seen before this, in the camp, were emaciated, starving—prisoners of war.
Could it really be possible that freedom exists? Could this nightmare be over?
When she does not respond, he bends down and places his hands on her shoulders. She flinches.
He quickly withdraws his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He continues in halting German. Shaking his head, he seems to conclude she doesn’t understand him. He makes a sweeping gesture and slowly says the words again. “You are free. You are safe. We are the Soviet Army and we are here to help you.”
“I understand,” Cilka whispers, pulling tight the coat that hides her tiny frame.
“Do you understand Russian?”
Cilka nods yes. She grew up knowing an East Slavic dialect, Rusyn.
“What’s your name?” he asks gently.
Cilka looks up into the soldier’s eyes and says in a clear voice, “My name is Cecilia Klein, but my friends call me Cilka.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” he says. It is strange to be looking at a man who is not one of her captors but is so healthy. His clear eyes, his full cheeks, his fair hair protruding from beneath his cap. “Where are you from, Cilka Klein?”
Memories of her old life have faded, become blurred. At some point it became too painful to remember that her former life with her family, in Bardejov, existed.
“I’m from Czechoslovakia,” she says, in a broken voice.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, February 1945
Cilka has been sitting in the block, as close as she can get to the one stove that provides heat. She knows she has already drawn attention. The other able-bodied women, her friends included, were forcibly marched out of the camp by the SS weeks ago. The remaining prisoners are skeletal, diseased, or they are children. And then there is Cilka. They were all meant to be shot, but in their haste to get away themselves, the Nazis abandoned them all to fate.
The soldiers have been joined by other officials—counter-intelligence agents, Cilka has heard, though she’s not sure what that means—to manage a situation the average soldier has no training for. The Soviet agency is tasked with keeping law and order, particularly as it relates to any threat to the Soviet State. Their role, she’s been told by the soldiers, is to question every prisoner to determine their status as it relates to their imprisonment, in particular if they collaborated or worked with the Nazis. The retreating German Army are considered enemies of the State of the Soviet Union and anyone who could be connected to them is, by default, an enemy of the Soviet Union.
A soldier enters the block. “Come with me,” he says, pointing to Cilka. At the same time, a hand clutches her right arm, dragging her to her feet. Several weeks have passed and seeing others being taken away to be questioned has become part of the routine of the block. To Cilka it is just “her turn.” She is eighteen years old and she just has to hope they can see that she had no choice but to do what she did in order to survive. No choice, other than death. She can only hope that she will soon be able to return to her home in Czechoslovakia, find a way forward.
As she’s taken into the building the Soviet Army are using as their headquarters, Cilka attempts a smile at the four men who sit across the room from her. They are here to punish her evil captors, not her. This is a good time; there will be no more loss. Her smile is not returned. She notices their uniforms are slightly different from those of the soldiers outside. Blue epaulettes sit on top of their shoulders; their hats, placed on the table in front of them, have the same shade of blue ribbon with a red stripe.
One of them does eventually smile at her and speaks in a gentle voice.
“Would you tell us your name?”
“Where are you from, Cecilia? Your country and town.”
“I’m from Bardejov in Czechoslovakia.”
“What is the date of your birth?”
“The seventeenth of March, 1926.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I came here on the twenty-third of April in 1942, just after I turned sixteen.”
The agent pauses, studies her.
“That was a long time ago.”
“An eternity in here.”
“What have you been doing here since April 1942?”
“Yes, but how did you do that?” He tilts his head at her. “You look like you haven’t starved.”
Cilka doesn’t answer, but her hand goes to her hair, which she hacked off herself weeks ago, after her friends were marched from the camp.
“Did you work?”
“I worked at staying alive.”
The four men exchange looks. One of them picks up a piece of paper and pretends to read it before speaking.
“We have a report on you, Cecilia Klein. It says that you in fact stayed alive by prostituting yourself to the enemy.”
Cilka says nothing, swallows hard, looks from one man to the next, trying to fathom what they are saying, what they expect her to say in return.
Another speaks. “It’s a simple question. Did you fuck the Nazis?”
“They were my enemy. I was a prisoner here.”
“But did you fuck the Nazis? We’re told you did.”
“Like many others here, I was forced to do whatever I was told by those who imprisoned me.”
The first agent stands. “Cecilia Klein, we will be sending you to Kraków and then determining your fate from there.” He refuses, now, to look at her.
“No,” Cilka says, standing. This can’t be happening. “You can’t do this to me! I am a prisoner here.”
One of the men who hasn’t spoken before quietly asks, “Do you speak German?”
“Yes, some. I’ve been in here three years.”
“And you speak many other languages, we have heard, and yet you are Czechoslovakian.”
Cilka doesn’t protest, frowning, not understanding the significance. She had been taught languages at school, picked others up by being in here.
The men all exchange looks.
“Speaking other languages would have us believe you are a spy, here to report back to whoever will buy your information. This will be investigated in Kraków.”
“You can expect a long sentence of hard labor,” the original officer says.
It takes Cilka a moment to react, and then she is grabbed by the arm by the soldier who brought her into the room, dragged away, screaming her innocence.
“I was forced, I was raped! No! Please.”
But the soldiers do not react; they do not seem to hear. They are moving on to the next person.
Montelupich Prison, Kraków, July 1945
Cilka crouches in the corner of a damp, stinking cell. She struggles to register time passing. Days, weeks, months.
She does not make conversation with the women around her. Anyone overheard speaking by the guards is taken out and brought back with bruises and torn clothing. Stay quiet, stay small, she tells herself, until you know what is happening, and what the right things are to say or do. She has torn off a section of her dress to tie around her nose and mouth in an attempt to minimize the stench of human waste, damp and decay.
One day, they take her out of the cell. Faint from hunger and exhausted by the effort of vigilance, the figures of the guards and the wall and floors all seem immaterial, as in a dream. She stands in line behind other prisoners in a corridor, slowly moving toward a door. She can lean, momentarily, against a warm, dry wall. They keep the corridors heated, for the guards, but not the cells themselves. And though the weather outside must be mild by now, the prison seems to trap cold from the night and hold on to it through the whole next day.
When it is Cilka’s turn, she enters a room where an officer sits behind a desk, his face bathed in greenish light from a single lamp. The officers by the door indicate she should go over to the desk.
The officer looks down at his piece of paper.
She glances around. She is alone in the room with three burly men. “Yes?”
He looks down again and reads from the paper. “You are convicted of working with the enemy, as a prostitute and additionally as a spy. You are sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labor.” He signs the piece of paper. “You sign this to say you have understood.”
Cilka has understood all of the officer’s words. He has been speaking in German, rather than Russian. Is it a trick, then? she thinks. She feels the eyes of the men at the door. She knows she has to do something. It seems she has no choice but to do the only thing in front of her.
He flips the piece of paper and points to a dotted line. The letters above it are in Cyrillic—Russian script. Again, as she has experienced over and over in her young life, she finds herself with two choices: one, the narrow path opening up in front of her; the other, death.
The officer hands her the pen, and then looks toward the door, bored, waiting for the next person in line—just doing his job.
With a shaking hand, Cilka signs the piece of paper.
It is only when she’s taken from the prison and pushed onto a truck that she realizes winter has gone, spring never existed, and it is summer. While the warmth of the sun is a balm to her chilled body, her still-alive body, the glare of it hurts her eyes. Before she has a chance to adjust, the truck slams to a stop. There, in front of her, is another train carriage, on a cattle train painted red.
A train bound for Vorkuta Gulag, Siberia, 160 km north of the Arctic Circle, July 1945
The floor of the closed railway wagon is covered in straw and each prisoner tries to claim a small space on which to sit. Older women wail, babies whimper. The sound of women suffering—Cilka hoped she’d never have to hear it again. The train sits at the station for hours, the heat of the day turning the inside of the compartment into an oven. The bucket of water left to share is soon gone. The infants’ cries turn wretched and dry; the old women are reduced to rocking themselves into a trance. Cilka has placed herself against a wall and draws comfort from the small wisps of air that make their way through the tiny cracks. A woman leans on her from the side and a back is shoved up hard against her raised knees. She leaves it there. No point fighting for space that doesn’t exist.
Cilka senses that night has fallen as the train makes its first jolting movement, its engine struggling to pull the unknown number of carriages away from Kraków, away, it seems, from any hope of ever returning home.
So, she had allowed herself just one moment of hope, sitting in that block back in that other place, waiting. She shouldn’t have dared. She is destined to be punished. Maybe it is what she deserves. But, as the train gathers speed, she vows she will never, ever end up in a place like Block 25 again.
There must be more ways to stay alive than to be witness to so much death.
Will she ever know if her friends who were forced to march out of the camp made it to safety? They had to. She can’t bear to think otherwise.
As the rhythm of the train rocks the children and babies to sleep, the silence is broken by the howl of a young mother holding an emaciated baby in her arms. The child has died.
Cilka wonders what the other women have done to end up here. Are they Jewish as well? The women in the prison mostly had not been, as she gleaned from overhearing various conversations. She wonders where they are going. By some miracle, she dozes.
A sudden braking of the train throws its passengers around. Heads bang, limbs are twisted, and their owners cry out in pain. Cilka braces herself by holding on to the woman who has spent the night leaning into her.
“We’re here,” someone says. But where is here?
Cilka hears train doors clanging open up ahead, but no one leaves their compartments. Their carriage door is flung open. Once again, brilliant sunshine stings Cilka’s eyes.
Two men stand outside. One hands a bucket of water to grabbing hands. The second soldier tosses in several hunks of bread before slamming the door closed. Semi-darkness once again envelops them. A fight breaks out as the women scramble for a piece of the bread. A too-familiar scene for Cilka. The screaming intensifies until, finally, an older woman stands up, raising her hands, saying nothing, and even in the semi-darkness the stance takes up the space, and is powerful. Everyone shuts up.
“We share,” she says, with a voice of authority. “How many loaves do we have?” Five hands are raised, indicating the number of loaves of bread they have to share.
“Give to the children first, and the rest we will share. If anyone doesn’t get any, they will be the first to eat next time. Agreed?” The women with the bread begin breaking off small quantities, handing them to the mothers. Cilka misses out. She feels upset. She does not know if it’s the best idea to give the food to the children if where they are going is like where she has been. It will only be wasted. She knows it is a terrible thought.
For several hours the train sits idle. The women and infants fall again into silence.
The silence is broken by the screams of a girl. As those around her attempt to quiet the girl, to find out what is wrong, she sobs, holding up a blood-covered hand. Cilka can see it in the flickering light coming through the gaps.
The woman nearest her looks down at the blood staining her dress.
“She has her period,” she says. “She’s all right; she’s not dying.” The girl continues sobbing.
The girl sitting at Cilka’s legs, a bit younger than her and wearing a similar summer dress, shifts to standing and calls out, “What’s your name?”
“Ana,” the girl whimpers.
“Ana, I’m Josie. We will look after you,” she says, looking around the compartment. “Won’t we?”
The women murmur and nod their assent.
One of the women grasps the girl’s face between her hands and brings it toward her own.
“Have you not had a monthly bleed before?”
The girl shakes her head: no. The older woman clutches her to her breast, rocking her, soothing her. Cilka experiences a strange pang of longing.
“You’re not dying; you’re becoming a woman.”
Some of the women are already tearing pieces off their garments, ripping sections from the bottoms of their dresses, and passing them along to the woman caring for the girl.
The train jolts forward, dropping Josie to the floor. A small giggle escapes from her. Cilka can’t help but giggle too. They catch each other’s eye. Josie looks a bit like her friend Gita. Dark brows and lashes, a small, pretty mouth.
Many hours later, they stop again. Water and bread are thrown in. This time, the stop brings additional scrutiny and the young mother is forced to hand over her dead infant to the soldiers. She has to be restrained from trying to leave the compartment to be with her dead child. The slamming of the door brings her silence as she is helped into a corner to grieve her loss.
Cilka sees how closely Josie watches it all, with her hand against her mouth. “Josie, is it?” Cilka asks the girl who has been leaning against her since they first got on the train. She asks her in Polish, the language she has heard her using.
“Yes.” Josie slowly maneuvers her way around so they are knee to knee.
Their conversation opener seems to embolden other women. Cilka hears others ask their neighbors their names, and soon the compartment is filled with whispered chatter. Languages are identified, and a shuffling takes place to put nationalities together. Stories are shared. One woman was accused of aiding the Nazis by allowing them to buy bread from her bakery in Poland. Another was arrested for translating German propaganda. Yet another was captured by the Nazis and, being caught with them, accused of spying for them. Amazingly, there are bursts of laughter along with tears as each woman shares how she ended up in this predicament. Some of the women confirm the train will be going to a labor camp, but they don’t know where.
Josie tells Cilka that she is from Kraków, and that she’s sixteen years old. Cilka opens her mouth to share her own age and place of birth, but before she can, a woman nearby declares in a loud voice, “I know why she’s here.”
“Leave her alone,” comes from the strong older woman who’d suggested sharing the bread.
“But I saw her, dressed in a fur coat in the middle of winter while we were dying from the cold.”
Cilka remains silent. There’s a creeping heat in her neck. She lifts her head and stares at her accuser. A stare the woman cannot match. She vaguely recognizes her. Wasn’t she, too, one of the old-timers in Birkenau? Did she not have a warm and comfortable job in the administration building?
“And you, you who wants to accuse her,” says the older woman, “why are you here in this luxurious carriage with us going on a summer holiday?”
“Nothing, I did nothing,” comes the weak reply.
“We all did nothing,” Josie says strongly, defending her new friend.
Cilka clenches her jaw as she turns away from the woman.
She can feel Josie’s gentle, reassuring eyes on her face.
Cilka throws her a faint smile, before turning her head to the wall, closing her eyes, trying to block the sudden memory flooding in of Schwarzhuber—the officer in charge of Birkenau—standing over her in that small room, loosening his belt, the sounds of women weeping beyond the wall.
* * *
The next time the train stops, Cilka gets her ration of bread. Instinctively she eats half and tucks the rest into the top of her dress. She looks around, fearful someone might be watching and try to take it from her. She turns her face back to the wall, closing her eyes.
Somehow, she sleeps.
As she floats back awake, she is startled by Josie’s presence right in front of her. Josie reaches out and touches Cilka’s close-cropped hair. Cilka tries to resist the automatic urge to push her away.
“I love your hair,” the sad, tired voice says.
Relaxing, Cilka reaches up and touches the younger girl’s bluntly chopped hair.
“I like yours too.”
Cilka had been freshly shaved and deloused at the prison. For her a familiar process, as she saw it happen so often to prisoners in that other place, but she supposes it is new for Josie.
Desperate to change the subject, she asks, “Are you here with anyone?”
“I’m with my grandma.”
Cilka follows Josie’s eyes to the bold older woman who had spoken up earlier, still with an arm around the young girl, Ana. She is watching the two of them closely. They exchange a nod.
“You might want to get closer to her,” Cilka says.
Where they are going, the older woman may not last long.
“I should. She might be frightened.”
“You’re right. I am too,” Cilka says.
“Really? You don’t look frightened.”
“Oh, I am. If you want to talk again, I will be here.”
Josie steps carefully over and around the other women between Cilka and her grandmother. Cilka looks on through the slats of light coming through the carriage walls. A small smile breaks free as she sees and feels the women shuffle and shift to accommodate her new friend.
* * *
“It’s been nine days, I think. I’ve been counting. How much longer?” Josie murmurs to no one in particular.
There is more room in the compartment now. Cilka has kept count of how many have died—sick, starving or wounded from their prior interrogations, their bodies removed when the train stopped for bread and water. Eleven adults, four infants. Occasionally some fruit is thrown in with the dry husks of bread, which Cilka has seen mothers soften in their own mouths for the children.
Josie now lies curled up beside Cilka, her head resting on Cilka’s lap. Her sleep is fitful. Cilka knows of the images that must be racing through her mind. A few days ago, her grandmother died. She had seemed so strong and bold, but then she’d started coughing, worse and worse, and shaking, and then refusing her own ration of food. And then the coughing stopped.
Cilka watched Josie standing mutely at the compartment door as her grandmother’s body was roughly handed down to the waiting guards. Cilka experienced a physical pain so intense she doubled over, all her breath leaving her. But no sound, and no tears, would come.
Hundreds of girls are marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau on a hot summer day. Four kilometers. A slow, painful march for many who have ill-fitting boots, or worse, no footwear. As they enter through the large imposing brick archway they see the construction of blocks. Men working there pause to stare in horror at the new arrivals. Cilka and her sister Magda have been at Auschwitz for around three months, working among other Slovakian girls.
They are turned from the main road through the camp and into a fenced-off area, with several buildings complete, and others under way. They are stopped and held, standing in lines, as the sun beats down upon them for what seems like hours.
From behind, they hear a commotion. Cilka looks back to the entrance of the women’s camp to see a senior officer, with an entourage of men following, walking up the row of girls. Most of the girls keep their heads down. Not Cilka. She wants to see who warrants such protection from a group of unarmed, defenseless girls.
“Obersturmführer Schwarzhuber,” a guard says, greeting the senior officer. “You’ll be overseeing the selection today?”
The senior officer, Schwarzhuber, continues walking down the line of girls and women. He pauses briefly as he passes Cilka and Magda. When he gets to the front of the row, he turns and walks back. This time he can see the turned-down faces. Occasionally he uses his swagger stick pushed under the chin to raise the face of a girl.
He is coming closer. He stops beside Cilka, Magda behind her. He raises his stick. Cilka beats him to it and lifts her chin high, looking directly at him. If she can get his attention, he will ignore her sister. He reaches down and lifts her left arm, appearing to look at the numbers fading on her skin. Cilka hears Magda’s sharp inhalation of breath behind her. Schwarzhuber drops her arm, walks back down to the front of the line, and Cilka notices him speak to the SS officer beside him.
* * *
They have been sorted, again. Left, right; hearts banging, bodies clenched in fear. Cilka and Magda have been chosen to live another day. They are now in line to be painfully marked again—to have their tattoos re-inked so they will never fade. They stand close but not touching, though they desperately want to comfort each other. They whisper as they wait—consoling, wondering.
Cilka counts the number of girls in front of her. Five. It will soon be her turn, and then Magda’s. Again, she will hand her left arm over to someone to have the blurred blue numbers punctured into her skin. First she was marked on entering Auschwitz three months ago, now again after being re-selected for the new camp, Auschwitz II: Birkenau. She begins to shiver. It is summer, the sun blazes down on her. She fears the pain she will soon experience. The first time, she cried out in shock. This time, she tells herself she will remain silent. Though she is still only sixteen, she can no longer behave like a child.
Peering out from the row of girls, she watches the Tätowierer. He looks into the eyes of the girl whose arm he holds. She sees him place a finger to his lips and mouth, shhh. He smiles at her. He looks down to the ground as the girl walks away, then looks up to watch her moving on. He takes the arm of the next girl in line and doesn’t see that the previous girl turns back to look at him.
Four. Three. Two. One. It is now her turn. She glances quickly and reassuringly back at Magda, then moves forward. She stands in front of the Tätowierer, her left arm by her side. He reaches down and gently lifts her arm up. She surprises herself by pulling it free, an almost unconscious reaction, causing him to look at her, to look into her eyes, which she knows are filled with anger, disgust, at having to be defiled, again.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he whispers gently to her. “Please, give me your arm.”
Moments pass. He makes no attempt to touch her. She raises her arm and offers it to him.
“Thank you,” he mouths. “It’ll be over quickly.”
With blood dripping from her arm, though not as much as last time, Cilka whispers, “Be gentle with my sister,” before moving on as slowly as she can so Magda will be able to catch up. She looks curiously around for the girl who’d been in front of her. She glances back at the Tätowierer. He has not watched her walk away. She sees the girl who’d been five in front of her standing outside Block 29 and joins her and the others waiting to be admitted into their “home.” She studies the girl. Even with her head shaven, the baggy dress hiding whatever curves she may have, or once had, she is beautiful. Her large dark eyes show no signs of the despair Cilka has seen in so many. She wants to get to know this girl who made the Tätowierer stare. Soon, Magda joins her, wincing from the pain of the tattoo. They’re temporarily out of sight of any guards and Cilka clutches her sister’s hand.
That evening, as the girls in Block 29 each find a space in a bunk to share with several others and cautiously inquire of one another, “Where are you from?” Cilka learns the girl’s name is Gita. She comes from a village in Slovakia, not too far from Cilka and Magda’s town of Bardejov. Gita introduces Cilka and Magda to her friends Dana and Ivanka.
The next day, following roll call, the girls are sent to their work area. Cilka is pulled aside, not sent like the others to work in the Kanada, where they sort out the belongings, jewelry and heirlooms brought to Auschwitz by the prisoners, and prepare much of it for return to Germany. Instead, by special request, she is to report to the administration building, where she will work.
Vorkuta Gulag, Siberia
The temperature is dropping. It hasn’t been sudden, more a gradual change noticed at night when Cilka and the others have found themselves snuggling into each other. They are all in summer clothing. Cilka doesn’t know what month it is, though she guesses August or September, and she does not know where they are going, though the language at each stop is Russian.
One day bleeds into the next. Illness creeps through the carriage. Pitiful coughing drains the women of what little energy they have. Conversations become fewer and shorter. At the last few stops, men had taken pity on the cargo, had stripped and thrown in their kal’sony, as they called it, off their own bodies. Cilka and Josie had pulled the loose, still-warm undergarments up over their goosebumped legs, waving a weak thank-you.
It has been three days since they last stopped when the train screeches to a halt, the heavy doors flung back. A vast, unpopulated landscape of dirt and yellow-green grass lies before them.
This time it isn’t one or two guards greeting them. Dozens of men in uniform, rifles at the ready, line the length of the train.
“Na vykhod!” they yell. Get out!
As the women struggle to their feet, many collapsing on legs no longer capable of bearing weight, the shouting continues.
Cilka and Josie join the others outside for the first time in weeks. They link arms with two older women who are struggling to stand. They don’t need to be told what to do; with a line forming in front of them they know which way to face. They can see some crude buildings in the distance, on the broad, flat plain. Another camp, thinks Cilka, surrounded by nothingness. But the sky here is different—an impossibly vast gray-blue. They trudge along with the flow of the others toward the faraway buildings. Cilka tries to count the number of carriages, some disgorging men, some women and children; people of all different ages, in varying states of ill health and distress. Some who’d been on the train since the beginning, some who’d been added along the way.
Time stands still for Cilka as she remembers lining up to go into the other place. That line led to an existence that bore no end date. This time she knows her end date, should she survive to see it. Fifteen years. Will having an end date make the labor more endurable? Is an end date even to be believed?
Before long, Cilka is standing in front of a large woman dressed in a thick khaki uniform. Her own clothing is still too light for this weather. They must be far north. She can barely feel her hands and feet.
“Imya, familya?” the woman barks at Cilka, scanning a list on a clipboard. Name.
Her name ticked off, Cilka follows the line into a large concrete bunker. Immediately she looks to the ceiling for the telltale signs of showers. Will it be water or gas? Her relief at not seeing anything threatening is palpable and she holds on to Josie to steady herself.
“Are you all right?” Josie asks.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. I thought we might be going to have a shower.”
“I’d love a shower—it’s what we need.”
Cilka forces a small smile. There does not seem any point in explaining what she had feared. Looking at the bafflement on the faces around her, it dawns on her that few of them will have gone through something like this before. Only survivors from that other place, or those from other camps, carry the burden of knowing what may be in store for them all.
As the room fills, several male guards enter.
“Clothes off. Now.”
Women look around for guidance. The words are whispered through the gathering in different languages, and they catch on as several slowly start removing their clothes.
Cilka whispers to Josie, “You have to take your clothes off.”
“No, Cilka, I can’t, not in front of men.”
It seems Josie had only had her head shaved in prison, not the full ordeal. Cilka knows that all the hair on their bodies will be shaved.
“Listen to me. You have to do as you’re told.”
Cilka starts undoing the buttons on the front of Josie’s dress. Josie pushes her hand away, confused, looking around at the other women in various stages of undress. The naked women hold their hands in front of their pubis and across their breasts. Slowly Josie begins to undress.
“Hurry up,” Cilka says. “Just drop your clothes where they are.”
Cilka looks up at the men standing in front of the doors, yelling out instructions. The smirks and nudges between them sicken her. She looks down at the pile of her clothes at her feet. She knows she will not see them again.
The men in front of the doors part as four other guards enter, each dragging with them a large hose. The blast of freezing water sends the women crashing into each other, screaming, shouting, as they are knocked down, bundled together by the force of the water. The smell of chlorine becomes overpowering and the screaming changes to gagging and coughing.
Cilka is smashed up against a cracked tiled wall, grazing her arm as she slides to the ground. She watches as sadistically the guards target older, frail women who attempt defiance by trying to stand firm. They go down fighting. Cilka curls up in the fetal position and stays there until the hoses are turned off and the laughing guards leave.
* * *
As the women pick themselves up and shuffle toward the door, several grab at a dripping article of clothing to cover themselves. They exit the building and are handed a thin gray towel to wrap around themselves. Barefoot on the gritty cold ground, they walk to a nearby concrete building identical to the one they have just left.
Cilka sees Josie in front of her and hurries to catch up.
“Will they give us new clothes now?” Josie asks.
Cilka looks at Josie’s drawn, desperate face. There is much worse to come, she thinks. Maybe, momentarily, she can cheer her.
“I hope so—gray is not my color.” Cilka is pleased when Josie stifles a snigger.
They are roughly pushed into four lines and screams of protest inside are heard by those waiting to enter. Several terrified women break from their line, scared by the screams ahead. They become game for the warders to fire at. The shots miss but send the women scurrying back into line. A source of entertainment.
She feels Josie trembling beside her.
Cilka and Josie enter the building and see what is happening to the women in front of them. Four men stand behind four chairs. Several strong, large women, also dressed in khaki uniforms, stand nearby.
She watches as the woman in front of her approaches the chair and is forced to sit down. The woman’s hair is roughly gathered together and swiftly cut close to her head with a large pair of scissors. Without missing a beat, the man exchanges the scissors for a shaving blade and scrapes it across the woman’s scalp. Blood trickles down her face and back. One of the nearby women is yanked to her feet, turned around and placed with one of her feet on the chair. Josie and Cilka watch in horror as the man, with no sign of emotion or care, shaves her pubic area. As he lifts his head, indicating he is done, the female guard pushes the woman away and motions for Josie to come forward.
Cilka quickly moves over into the next line so she is next to be shaved. She can at least be beside Josie as this humiliation is played out; she has been through it all before. Together they walk to the chairs. Without instruction, they sit. Cilka keeps her eyes on Josie as much as she can, wordlessly offering comfort, her heart aching as she sees tears falling helplessly down Josie’s cheeks. She can tell this is the first time Josie has been subjected to anything this brutal.
Their heads shaved, Josie is slow to stand and the back of a female guard’s hand slaps her across the face as she is pulled to her feet. Cilka places her own foot on the chair and stares at the man in front of her. Her glare is met with a thin toothless grin and she knows she has made a mistake.
As Cilka and Josie walk away, gray towels their only cover, blood trickles down Cilka’s inner thigh, her punishment for daring to be brave. Josie begins to vomit. Gagging, bile and watery liquid is all she can throw up.
They follow others down a long corridor.
“What next?” Josie sobs.
“I don’t know. Whatever it is, don’t argue, don’t fight with them; try to be invisible and do as you are told.”
“That’s your advice? Just take it, whatever it is, take it?” Her voice rises, anger replacing shame.
“Josie, I’ve been here before, trust me.” Cilka sighs. But she also feels relief at Josie’s display of strength and defiance. She will need that fire in a place like this.
“Does this have something to do with the numbers on your arm?” Josie asks.
Cilka looks at her left arm, which is holding the towel across her body, tattoo exposed for all to see.
“Yes, but don’t ever ask me about that again.”
“All right,” Josie says. “I trust you. At least no one is screaming ahead of us now, so it can’t be so bad, right?”
“Let’s hope it’s getting something warm to wear. I’m frozen. I can’t feel my feet.” Cilka tries to bring lightness to her tone.
As they approach a room at the end of the corridor, they see piles of gray towels dropped at the entrance. Once again, blank-faced female guards stand nearby. Ahead of them they hear male voices.
“Ty moya,” Cilka hears a guard call to one of the women just ahead of them in the queue. You are mine. The woman behind her, older, shuffles forward. Cilka and Josie are coming up to their turn.
“Move on, you old hag,” a guard shouts at the woman. Cilka’s heart thumps. What is happening?
“Hey, Boris, what are you waiting for?”
“I’ll know when I see her.”
The woman in front of Cilka turns back to the younger girls with a look of pity, whispering, “The bastards are picking who they want to fuck.” She looks Cilka and Josie up and down. “You’ll have no problem.”
“What does she mean, we’ll be picked?” Josie asks.
Cilka shakes her head in disbelief. Can this be happening again?
She turns to Josie, looks her in the eyes. “Listen to me, Josie. If one of the men chooses you, go with him.”
“Why? What does he want?”
“He wants your body.”
She hopes she will be able to explain to Josie later that he can have her body and that is all; he cannot have her mind, her heart, her soul.
“No, no, I’ve never been with a boy. Cilka, please don’t make me. I’d rather die.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You have to live. We have to live. Do you hear me? Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand. I didn’t do anything, I shouldn’t be here.”
“I’m sure most of us shouldn’t be here, but we are. If you get chosen to be the property of just one man, the others will leave you alone. Now do you understand me?”
Josie’s face is tight, puzzled. “I-I think so. Oh, Cilka, this has happened to you before, hasn’t it?”
“Lift your head up, don’t look afraid.”
“A moment ago you told me to be invisible.”
“That was then, this is now; that’s how quickly things can change.”
Cilka raises her own eyes toward the men.
Birkenau Administration Block, 1942
Cilka is sitting beside Gita, each working diligently, their eyes meeting fleetingly, small smiles shared. Cilka was pulled out of the selection line, and chosen for this work, rather than the Kanada. And she is grateful Gita is now working here, too. But she hopes she can also get Magda into the warmth, somehow. Gita’s hair is still cropped close to her head but for some reason Cilka has been allowed to grow hers. It feathers down over her neck and ears.
She doesn’t see the two SS officers approach them and with no warning she is grabbed by the arm, jerked to her feet. As she is dragged away, she looks back at Gita, her eyes pleading. Every time they are separated it could be the last time they see each other. She sees an officer approach Gita and strike her across the head with her hand.
She tries to resist as she is dragged outside and across to the women’s camp. She is no match for the two men. It is quiet in the camp—the women all out at work. They walk past the barracks where the women live until they come to an identical building, but this one is surrounded by a brick wall. Cilka feels bile rise in her throat. She has heard that this is where women go to die.
“No … Please…” she says. “What’s happening?”
There is a shiny car parked on the dirt road outside. The officers open the gate and go into the courtyard. One of the officers knocks loudly on the door to the left-hand building, and as the door opens, they throw her inside, slamming it behind her. Cilka is sprawled on a rough dirt floor and standing in front of her, in front of rows of empty crude wooden bunks, is the man she recognizes from the selection, the senior officer, Schwarzhuber.
He is an imposing man and is rarely seen in the camp. He taps his tall leather boot with his swagger stick. From an expressionless face he stares above Cilka’s head. She backs up against the door, feeling for the door handle. In a flash, the swagger stick is hurled through the air and strikes her hand. She cries out in pain as she slides down to the floor.
Schwarzhuber walks to her and picks up his stick. He stands over her, dwarfing her. He breathes heavily as he glares at her.
“This will be your new home,” he says. “Stand up.”
She gets to her feet.
He takes her behind a wall where there is a small room and a single wooden-slatted bed with a mattress on it.
“You know each block has a block leader?” he says.
“Yes,” she says.
“Well, you are to be the leader of Block 25.”
Cilka has no words, no breath. How could she—how could anybody—be expected to be the leader of this block? This is the block where women spend their final hours before being sent to the gas chamber. And will she ever see Magda, see Gita again? This is the most terrifying moment of her life.
“You are very lucky,” Schwarzhuber says.
Taking off his hat, he throws it across the room. With his other hand he continues to hit his leg firmly with his stick. With every whack Cilka flinches, expecting to be struck. He uses the stick to push up her shirt. Oh, Cilka thinks. So this is why. With shaking hands, she undoes the top two buttons. He then places his stick under her chin. His eyes seem to see nothing. He is a man whose soul has died and whose body is waiting to catch up with it.
He holds out both his arms and Cilka interprets this gesture as “undress me.” Taking a step closer, still at arm’s length, she begins undoing the many buttons on his jacket. A whack across her back hurries her up. He is forced to drop his stick so she can slide his jacket off. Taking it from her, he throws it after his hat. He removes his own singlet. Slowly, Cilka begins undoing his belt and the buttons beneath it. Kneeling down, she pulls his boots off from over his breeches.
Pulling the second one off, she becomes unbalanced, falling heavily on the bed as he pushes her. He straddles her. Terrified, Cilka attempts to cover herself as he tears her shirt open. She feels the back of his hand across her face as she closes her eyes and gives in to the inevitable.
* * *
“They’re the trusties,” a guard with a cigarette clenched between her teeth whispers.
The voice brings Cilka back to the present.
“The men you’re about to be paraded in front of. They’re the trusties, senior prisoners who have high positions in the camp.”
“Oh, not soldiers?”
“No, prisoners like you, who have been here a long time and work in the skilled jobs, with the administrators. But these ones are also of the criminal class. They have their own network of power.”
Cilka understands. A hierarchy between old and new.
She steps into the room, Josie behind her, both of them naked and shivering. She pauses to take in the rows of men she must walk between. Dozens of eyes look back at her.
The man first in line on her right takes a step forward and she turns to meet his stare, boldly sizing him up, making the judgment he would have been the leader of a gang wherever he came from. Not much taller than she, stocky, clearly not starving. She thinks he must not be much older than his late twenties, early thirties. She examines his face, looking beyond the body language he is throwing her way. His face betrays him. Sad eyes. For some reason she is not afraid of him.
“At last” is shouted out somewhere among the men.
“About bloody time, Boris.”
Boris puts his hand out to Cilka. She doesn’t take it but moves closer to him. Turning back, she encourages Josie to walk on.
“Come here, little one,” another man says. Cilka looks at the man ogling Josie. A large brute, but hunched. His tongue darts in and out of his mouth, revealing badly colored and broken teeth. He has more of a feral energy than Boris.
And Josie is chosen.
Cilka looks at the man identified as Boris.
“What is your name?” he asks.
“Go and get some clothes and I’ll find you when I need you.”
Cilka continues down the row of men. They all smile at her, with several making comments about her skin, her body. She catches up with Josie and they find themselves outside again, being ushered into another concrete bunker.
At last, clothing is thrust at them. A shirt with missing buttons, trousers in the roughest fabric Cilka has ever felt, a heavy coat and a hat. All gray. The knee-high boots several sizes too big will come in handy, once she’s wrapped her feet in whatever rags she can get to help with the cold.
Dressed, they leave the bunker. Cilka shades her eyes from the glare of sunlight. She takes in the camp resembling a town. There are clearly barracks for sleeping, but they are not neatly lined up like those in Birkenau. They differ in size and shape. Beyond the perimeter she sees a small hill with a large, crane-like piece of equipment rearing above it. The fence enclosing them is scattered with lookouts, nowhere near as threatening as she has experienced in the past. Cilka looks closely at the top of the fence. She does not see the telltale insulators that would indicate it is electrified. Looking beyond the fence to the barren, desolate terrain stretching as far as the horizon, she accepts no electric fence would be needed. There could be no survival out there.
As they trudge toward the buildings that will become home, following the person in front, unaware who is leading them or directing them, a woman with a broad, weathered face sidles up to them. The sun might be attempting to shine but the windchill bites into any exposed skin—they are so far north that even though it is late summer there is snow on the ground. The woman is wearing layers of coats, strong-looking boots, and has her hat pulled down and tied beneath her chin. She leers at Cilka and Josie.
“Well, aren’t you the lucky ones! Got yourselves men to protect you, I hear.”
Cilka puts her head down, not wanting to engage in or encourage conversation with her. She doesn’t see the leg extended in front of her, tripping her, so that with her hands in her pockets she falls flat on her face.
Josie reaches down to help her up, only to be hit in the back and sent sprawling herself. The two girls lie on the damp, frosty ground, side by side.
“Your looks won’t get you anywhere with me. Now get moving.”
Cilka pulls herself up first. Josie stays lying on the ground, eventually taking Cilka’s hand as she is helped to her feet.
Cilka risks looking around. Among the hundreds of women, dressed the same, heads shaven, faces buried in coats, it is impossible to identify the others from their train carriage.
As they enter a hut, they are counted off by the gruff woman. Cilka had thought maybe she was a guard, but she’s not in uniform, and as she walks past her, Cilka notices the number sewn on her coat and hat. Must be like a block leader, Cilka thinks.
The room has single beds lining one side, a space in the middle with a stove throwing out a version of heat. The women ahead of them have run to the stove and push and shove, hands extended toward it.
“I’m your brigadier, and you belong to me,” the leader says. “My name is Antonina Karpovna. An-to-ni-na Kar-pov-na,” she repeats slowly, pointing at herself, so no one can misinterpret her meaning. “All right, you lucky zechkas, I hope you realize you have one of the best prisoner huts in the camp.” Cilka thinks she must be right. No bunks. Actual mattresses. A blanket each. “I’ll leave you to sort yourselves out,” the brigadier says with a wry grin, before departing the hut.
“What’s a zechka?” Josie whispers.
“I don’t know, but it can’t be a good word.” Cilka shrugs. “Probably means prisoner or something like that.”
Cilka looks around her. None of the beds have been claimed; the women ahead of them ran straight to the stove. Grabbing Josie’s arm, Cilka pulls her away to the far end of the hut.
“Wait, let’s find beds first. Sit on this one.”
Cilka claims the end bed, pushing Josie onto the one next to it.
They both examine what they are sitting on. A thin gray blanket over an off-white sheet covering a sawdust-filled mattress.
Their rush to find somewhere to sleep doesn’t go unnoticed by the other women who now also scramble for beds, pushing and shoving each other as they too claim the place they will sleep tonight and for however many more nights they survive.
It becomes obvious there is a bed for everyone. Hats are taken off and placed where a pillow would be, had one been provided.
Cilka glances to the space across from the end of their beds.
Two empty buckets look back at her. Toilets. She sighs. For as long as she remains in this hut, she will be reminded of her greed to secure what she considered the best place to sleep. She thought she would have a little privacy: a wall on one side of her, Josie on the other. There’s always a catch to a good position, to comfort. She should know that by now.
Having established their place, Cilka nudges Josie and they move toward the stove, hands outstretched. Cilka senses she has made some enemies already, on day one.
Josie is shoved in the back by a large, tough-looking woman, her age indeterminate. Josie sprawls forward, smashing her face on the hard, wooden floor. Blood seeps from her nose.
Cilka helps Josie to her feet, pulling the girl’s shirt up to her face, covering her nose, staunching the blood.
“What did you do that for?” a voice asks.
“Watch it, bitch, or you’ll get the same,” the bully says, getting in the other girl’s face.
The other women observe the exchange.
Cilka wants to react, to defend Josie, but she still needs to know more about how the place works, and who these women are, whether there’s a possibility of them all getting along.
“It’s all right,” Josie splutters to the girl who defended her, a young, slight woman with fair skin and blue eyes. “Thank you.”
“Are you all right?” the girl asks in Russian-accented Polish. She keeps touching her own shaved head.
“She will be,” Cilka answers.
The girl examines Josie’s face with concern.
Josie and Cilka introduce themselves.
“You are Russian?” Josie asks.
“Yes, but my family was living in Poland. For many decades. Only now they decide that is criminal.” She lowers her head for a moment. “And you?”
Josie’s face crumples. “They wanted to know where my brothers were. And they wouldn’t believe me when I told them I didn’t know.”
Cilka makes soothing sounds to Josie.
“I’m sorry,” Natalya says. “Perhaps let’s not talk about it now.”
“Or ever,” the bully says from her bed, turned away from the rest of them. “It’s all just variations on the same sob story. Whether we did something or not, we have been branded enemies of the state and we are here to be corrected through labor.”
She stays facing away from them. Sighs.
The fire crackles in the stove.
“Now what?” someone asks.
No one is prepared to suggest an answer. Some of the women wander back to their chosen beds and curl up, going deep into their own silent thoughts.
Cilka takes Josie by the arm and leads her to her bed. Pulling the blanket back she urges the girl to take off her shoes and lie down. Her nose has stopped bleeding. Cilka goes back to the stove. Natalya is carefully placing more coal from a nearby bucket into the red-hot cavity, using the end of her coat to open and close the door.
Cilka looks at the coal pile. “There’s not enough to get us through the night,” she says, as much to herself as to Natalya.
“I’ll ask for more,” Natalya says in a softly spoken whisper. She is rosy-cheeked and delicate-limbed, but looks strong. Cilka can see in her eyes she thinks everything is going to work out. Cilka knows how quickly that feeling can be taken away.
“We could perhaps just watch and see what they do. Ask for nothing and you lessen the risk of a beating.”
“Surely they won’t let us freeze,” Natalya says, hands on hips. The whisper is gone. Several other women push themselves up onto an elbow in the beds where they lie, listening to the conversation.
Cilka takes a moment to look around at all the faces now turned to her. She can’t accurately tell all the women’s ages but thinks she and Josie are among the youngest. She remembers her own words spoken only a matter of hours ago. Don’t stand out, be invisible.
“Well?” is thrown at her from the bully at the front of the hut.
All eyes are on her.
“I don’t know anything more than you. I’m just guessing. But I think we should go easy on what coal we have left in case we don’t get any more today.”
“Makes sense,” says another woman, who lies back down and turns her head away.
Cilka slowly walks back to the end of the hut to her bed. The small drop in temperature from the middle of the room to the end, only a matter of a few meters, has Cilka rethinking the decision she made in placing perceived privacy over warmth. She checks Josie, who appears to be asleep, before lying down.
The sunlight goes on and on. Cilka has no idea what time it is. She watches as Natalya approaches the fire, which is cooling, throwing a small amount of coal into the stove. Funny how people naturally fall into roles.
She falls asleep at some point, while it is still light, or light again … she’s not sure.
Cilka is startled awake by the loud clanging outside. The door to the hut opens and the brigadier, Antonina Karpovna, is back.
“Up and get out, zechkas.” She gestures with her head, her hands staying firmly entrenched in the pockets of her coat.
Cilka knows the drill. She is the first to stand but doesn’t move, hoping those at the front of the hut will leave first. She knows that standing somewhere in the middle is the safest place to be. She helps a drugged-looking Josie to her feet and pulls the blankets up on their beds.
Pushing her way forward, she guides Josie along with her and out of the building.
They see others like them exiting the huts all around. Where were they when we arrived? The women from Cilka’s hut huddle together outside in a ramshackle manner until they observe orderly rows of women walking around them. Copying, they form into two rows of ten.
With the hut empty, they follow the lead of the others slushing through thick mud toward a larger building. The rough fabric of her new clothes is chafing Cilka’s skin. Mosquitoes bite at her exposed neck.
She notices the stares, both sorrowful and threatening. She understands. Another hut filled with inmates, more mouths to feed, more people to fight with for the better jobs. It is the newest arrivals who will have the hardest time adjusting and finding their place in the pecking order, until they are no longer the newest arrivals. She had been a long-timer in that other place—her and the other surviving Slovakian girls. They had seen it all. They had stayed alive. She wonders if she can find a way to advance her status, and Josie’s, without standing out. Or maybe she is here because of thoughts like that. Maybe hard labor is what she deserves.
They enter the mess building, observing the established tradition of lining up, accepting what is given to you, finding a bench to sit on. Eyes down, don’t stand out.
A tin mug is thrust into her hand. She checks on Josie. Her nose is swollen, bruising beginning to appear. Shuffling along, something resembling soup, full of little white unidentifiable bits, is slopped into the mug, a chunk of stale bread thrust at her. Josie’s hands shake and she spills half her food in her attempt to grab it. Soup and bread lie on the floor. Slowly Josie bends down and picks up the bread. Cilka has a horrible urge to yell at her. How much these small portions are worth!
There are not enough tables and benches for all to sit. Many women stand around the walls looking, waiting for someone to finish and vacate their seat. Several eat while they stand, too hungry to care about table manners.
One of the women from Cilka’s hut sees a space being vacated and hurries to reach it. She is met with a backhand from the person sitting next to the vacated spot, sending her mug flying, its contents splattering over both the floor and nearby diners.
“Wait your turn, novichok! You haven’t earned the right to sit with us.”
The pecking order is on display for the newcomers to observe and learn. Just like in Birkenau, with the swarms of new arrivals. She and Gita and the other Slovakian girls had dwindled from thousands, having lost all of their friends and families. And the new ones didn’t understand, couldn’t understand what their bodies and minds had been through, what they had done in order to survive.
“Eat your soup, then have your bread or save it for later,” Cilka says to Josie. “Sometimes it is better to save it, just like we did on the train, until we know how often and how much we are going to be fed.”
She can see from looking at some of the women’s sunken faces that it won’t be frequent or nutritious.
The two girls slowly sip the brown liquid. At least it is hot. There is no real substance to it. Josie notices others sitting at the table with spoons, scooping out what look like bits of potato or possibly fish.
“They didn’t give us a spoon.”
“I think that might be something we have to obtain for ourselves,” says Cilka, seeing the beat-up-looking utensils some of the old-timers are using, “when and however we can.”
Soon, Cilka and the other newcomers are gathered by their brigadier. Antonina Karpovna corrals the women together and leads them back to their hut.
As the last woman enters the room, Antonina watches them wander either to their beds or to the stove in order to be comfortable.
“In the future, when I enter the room you will immediately go and stand at the end of your bed. Do I make myself clear?”
Women jump up from their beds or scurry to them, and all stand to attention at the foot.
“You will also turn and face me. I will give instructions once only and I want to look into your eyes and know you have all understood. Who understands what I am saying?”
Several hands meekly rise, including Cilka’s. The rest had seemingly just followed what the other women were doing.
“Then those who understand better teach the rest, quickly.”
She pauses to watch the women look to the person standing next to them and a few of them pass on what had been said, mostly in other Slavic languages.
“These are the rules you will live by while you are here. We have already determined when and how you will work, receive food and how long you will sleep. Lights will go out at nine p.m., though in summer you won’t really notice … Between now and then is when you will clean the floor in here, restock the coal for the next day, shovel any snow away from the front of the building, do any mending of your clothes, whatever is required for you to live here. I will not stand for this place looking like a pigsty—I want to be able to eat off the floor. Do you hear me? You will hear the wake-up call, you won’t be able to sleep through it. Two of you will empty the toilet buckets, I don’t care who does it, just make sure it is done. No one will eat until it is.”
Not a word is spoken, but all heads nod.
“If you fail to do any of this, but especially if you fail to do your share of work—letting down my brigade—you will be thrown in the hole.” She sniffs. “The hole is a solitary confinement cell in the lagpunkt. It is a dank, moldy place where your body is forced into a crooked shape whether you stand, sit or lie down. There is no stove, and through a barred open window the snow will come in on you from outside. You’ll be lucky to get a bucket for your waste, as there’s a ready-made stinking hole in the floor. You will receive barely a third of your normal ration—and a black, hard piece of bread at that. Do you understand?”
The heads nod again. A shiver runs down Cilka’s spine.
From a bag draped over her shoulder Antonina produces strips of rag, and removes a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket.
“When I call your name come and get your number. You have two: one you must put on your hat, the other on whatever outer garment you wear. You must never be seen outside without your number visible on at least one garment.”
As names are called out the women respond and take the two rags handed to them, examining the number roughly written in paint.
Another number. Cilka subconsciously rubs her left arm; hidden under her clothing is her identity from that other place. How many times can one person be reduced, erased? When her name is called, she takes the fabric handed to her and examines her new identity. 1-B494. Josie shows Cilka hers. 1-B490.
“Sew the numbers on, and do it tonight, all of you. I want to see them all in the morning.” She pauses, lets the translations come through, looks at the confused stares. “I expect to see some interesting needlework; it will tell me a lot about you,” she sneers.
A brave voice pipes up. “What do we use for needle and thread?”
From her bag the brigadier produces a small piece of fabric with two needles punched through. They look like they’ve been fashioned from wire and sharpened to a point. She hands them to the nearest woman.
“So, get to it. I’ll be back in the morning. Tomorrow, you work. Six o’clock wake-up.”
“Excuse me,” says Natalya, “where do we get coal from?”
“Work it out for yourselves.”
As the door shuts behind her the women gather around the stove. Cilka is relieved no one received a beating for their questions.
Josie offers, “If we go outside, we might see the others getting their coal; then we will know where to go.”
“Knock yourselves out,” says the bully, Elena, lying back on her bed. “This could be our last day off.”
“I’ll come with you,” says Cilka.
“Me too,” says Natalya. “The rest of you start sewing.”
“Yes, master,” says Elena coldly.
Josie has placed the remaining few pieces of coal beside the stove and picks up the empty bucket.
The three of them cautiously leave the hut, looking around. Darkness is closing in, and searchlights illuminate the yard. It is cold. They can see prisoners darting here and there between buildings, and a group of young women walking quickly toward the hut near them, carrying buckets brimming with coal.
“This way,” says Cilka.
Natalya steps in front of the women. “Can you tell us where the coal is, please?”
“Find it yourself,” is the reply.
Natalya rolls her eyes.
“They came from here,” Josie says, pointing to a building. “From behind there somewhere. Let’s go and look.”
They arrive back in the hut after taking turns carrying the heavy bucket. Natalya goes to place it on the floor. Her soft hands slip from the handle, the coal spilling on the floor. She looks at the other women, apologizing.
“It’s all right, I’ll sweep up,” volunteers Josie.
Two women are quickly sewing their numbers to their hat and coat.
“Where did you get the thread from?” Natalya asks before Cilka gets the chance.
“From our sheets,” says the older woman, speaking a halting Slavic, close to Slovak, and repeating it in Russian. Possibly the oldest in the hut, a lifetime of hard work and making-do evident in her abrupt words. She tells them her name is Olga.
Cilka looks around and sees other women carefully stripping away thread from the ends of their sheets.
“Hurry up. What are you doing taking so long with the needle, Olga?” Elena asks, looming over the older woman.
“I’m trying to do a good job. If you do it properly the first time, you won’t have to do it again.”
“Give me the needle now, you stupid bitch. There’s a time and place to show off your embroidery skills and it’s not here.”
Elena reaches her hand out impatiently.
“I’m nearly there,” Olga says calmly. Cilka admires the way she’s dealing with the hot-tempered Elena, but she also understands the urge to lash out when all is not going as planned. This must be Elena’s first camp. Olga increases her sewing speed, snapping off the end of the thread with her teeth before handing the needle over. “Here you go. Tuk krava.”
Cilka suppresses a grin. Olga has just called Elena a fat cow in Slovak in an endearing voice. She winks at Cilka.
“My father was Slovakian,” she says.
Elena scowls, snatching the needle.
Cilka sits on her bed, looking at Josie, who forlornly fiddles with her number patches. She seems to go from capable to overwhelmed in a matter of moments.
“Hand it over,” she says.
Josie looks pained.
“One day at a time,” Cilka says. “All right?”
Cilka starts stripping threads from her sheet. When a needle is handed to her, she quickly sews the numbers on Josie’s and her own garments.
Each time she stabs the needle through the fabric she feels the pain of a needle stabbing into her left arm. Another number. Another place. She grimaces.
To have lost everything. To have had to endure what she has endured, and be punished for it. Suddenly the needle feels as heavy as a brick. How can she go on? How can she work for a new enemy? Live to see the women around her tire, starve, diminish, die. But she—she will live. She does not know why she has always been sure of that, why she feels she can persist—keep picking up this needle even though it’s as heavy as a brick, keep sewing, keep doing what she has to do—but she can. She starts to feel angry, furious. And the needle feels light again. Light and quick. It is this fire, then, that keeps her going. But it is also a curse. It makes her stand out, be singled out. She must contain it, control it, direct it.
The fearsome clanging of a hammer on metal wakes the newest arrivals at Vorkuta Gulag at 6 a.m. Antonina was right—it is an unmissable wake-up call. The women have taken turns putting coal in the stove throughout the night, just enough to keep it burning. Though the sun still shines through most of the night, there had been frost on the ground when they walked back after their meager evening meal in the mess. They had all slept in the clothes they had been given the previous day.
The door opens, sending in a blast of cold air. Antonina Karpovna holds the door open, watching the women run to the feet of their beds, their eyes turned to her. She nods approval.
She walks up the hut inspecting the newly sewn numbers on the women’s coats. Pausing at Elena, she barks, “Do it again tonight. That’s the worst needlework I’ve ever seen.”
When she is back at the door, she turns to the two nearest girls. “Grab the buckets and I’ll show you where to empty them. Tomorrow, one of you take another zechka and show her where to go and so on, you follow?”
The two girls scamper to the toilet buckets at the rear of the hut, directly opposite Cilka’s bed.
While Antonina and the two girls with the buckets disappear, the rest of the women stay standing, no one prepared to move. When the girls return, ashen-faced, Antonina tells them all to head to the mess for breakfast and be back by 7 a.m. for roll call.
Outside, the two girls who emptied the toilet buckets bend down and rub their hands across the frost in an attempt to wash the stench and urine away.
If this is the end of summer, Cilka thinks, as she walks with Josie over to the mess hut, and there is already light snow on the ground and air like ice, then none of them will be prepared for what is to come. Working outdoors will be unbearable.
Breakfast is a thick, tasteless gruel. Josie remembers to place her precious piece of bread up her sleeve. Like the day before, there are no vacancies at any of the tables. This time, the newcomers know what to do, and lean against the walls.
It is obvious the gruel cannot be drunk. The women look around. There are others using two fingers for a spoon. That will have to do for now.
* * *
Roll call. This is very familiar to Cilka. She only hopes with the twenty of them it will go quickly. That no one has gone missing in the night. She remembers a night standing out in the cold—all night—until an inmate was found. The ache in her knees, her anklebones. And that was not even the worst night in the other place. Not even close. Antonina Karpovna starts calling out names. Names. I’m not a number. And yet I have a number. Cilka looks at her covered-up left arm and the number now emblazoned on her brown, scratchy coat. I have a name. She answers loudly, “Yes,” when it is called. They are told to get into four rows of five.
Groups of women file past them, each headed by a brigadier. Groups of men are also coming from the other side of the camp. Cilka and her hut fall in with them as they march to the gates that lead out of the compound. From what Cilka observed on arrival, there was only one way in and one way out. A simple barbed-wire fence defines the boundary. Groups of men and women swarm forward.
They slow down, coming to a halt as they near the exit and see for the first time the ritual of going to work each day. As Antonina’s turn comes, Cilka observes her approaching a guard or administrator and showing him the list of names. Antonina then beckons for the first row of women to approach. The guard walks along the row, counting out five, roughly patting them down in a search, and then pushing them onward, before doing the same with the next three rows. He nods to Antonina, who goes along with the women, telling them to keep walking behind the others. They follow a train line, occasionally tripping over the rails, thinking it will be easier to walk on them than to pull their feet through the sucking mud that drains them of energy they know they will need for work.
Guards walk up and down the rows of men and women trudging to the large mine that looms ahead of them. It looks like a black mountain with an opening that disappears into hell. Piles of coal tower beside small ramshackle buildings. At the top of the mouth of the mine they can see the wheel that is drawing coal up from the depths below. Open train carts line the track as the women get closer.
As they reach the mine, those in front peel off, going to jobs and areas they are already familiar with. Antonina hands the new arrivals over to a guard before following some of the women from the other huts, who are also part of her brigade.
Walking among the women, the guard pushes several to one side, separating them out.
“Hey, Alexei,” he calls out, “come and get this lot. They look like they can swing a pick.”
Another guard comes over and indicates that the fifteen women should follow him. Cilka, Josie and Natalya remain behind. The guard looks at them.
“Couldn’t swing a bloody pick with all of ya hanging on to it. Follow me.”
They walk over to one of the mountains of coal, arriving just as the crane dumps a load on the top. They are showered in dust and small chunks of the hard, sharp coal.
“Grab a bucket each and start loading. When it’s full, take it over to one of the carts and dump it in,” he says, indicating the carts sitting on the train rails. Others are already at work, and again it seems a matter of following their lead.
The women pick up a bucket each and start filling them with pieces of coal.
“You better go faster or you’ll find yourselves in trouble,” a woman says. “Watch me.”
The woman takes her empty bucket and uses it as a scoop, half filling it. Steadying it on the ground, she uses her cupped hands to fill it to the top. The women attempt to copy her with varying degrees of success. They all fill their buckets before attempting to pick them up. None of them can; they are too heavy.
“Empty some out and just put in as much as you can carry. You’ll toughen up the longer you do it,” they are advised.
Cilka and Josie can only manage half-filled buckets, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the guard standing at the cart. It was one thing to carry them, another trial to lift and empty them.
The guard monitoring them looks at the half-empty buckets.
“You lot don’t get a break. You have to make up for being such weak bitches, and get moving.”
At various points, Cilka sees Antonina writing in a little book, conferring with the guards, answering for her brigade’s productivity.
* * *
The work is so grueling that Cilka, Josie and Natalya are beginning to groan and huff out loud. They watch enviously when the others get ten minutes to down tools and take a break. There is a burning sensation across Cilka’s shoulders, neck and back. When the next clanging bell sounds several hours later, buckets, picks and other tools are dropped where they are. Men and women trudge over to the train tracks, sorting themselves out as they find the others from their brigade—those they share a hut with and those from the surrounding huts. They stand, waiting to be led by their brigadiers, waiting for the signal to walk.
Once they are allowed, they silently trudge back down the track, stopping again outside the compound gates. Antonina Karpovna hands her piece of paper to the administrative guard, who counts the women in. They follow Antonina back to their hut, shuffling and sore, where a few embers glow without giving off any heat. Natalya throws some coal into the stove to reignite it. Cilka is amazed she can find the strength to even look at the coal, let alone lift a scuttle of it. They all fall onto their beds, pulling blankets up over their heads. No one speaks.
What passes for their dinner does nothing to restore their energy. Returning to their hut, many retreat back to bed, but some hover around the stove.
“What are you looking at?”
Cilka, lying on her bed, recognizes the voice. Elena.
“Not your ugly face,” she hears Natalya reply.
Cilka pushes up on one elbow to see where the exchange of words will go.
“I’ll take you out, bitch, if you don’t keep out of my face.”
“Leave me alone, you bully. Leave all of us alone,” a defiant Natalya snaps back, standing up from her bed.
“Natalya, sit down. She’s not worth it,” Olga says.
Elena gives out a hiss.
Exhaustion has flattened Cilka. She understands the anger, the lashing out. When the rage can’t be targeted at your captors, for fear of death, it finds other ways out. She wonders how old Elena is, what has happened to her. Maybe it is that nothing has happened to her before. Like Cilka, before that horrible place. She’d had all the love, food, clothing, comfort she could possibly need. When it is all taken away overnight … Well, no one knows how they will react.
She must stop herself from thinking back. Tomorrow … Tomorrow will be a repeat of today, and the next day, and the next week, and for Cilka the next fifteen years.
Despair overwhelms her.
Wrapped in a warm, full-length coat, Cilka stands in the snow outside Block 25. As she had feared, her block contains women who are spending their last days on earth, often too sick to move, the life already gone from their eyes. This is Cilka’s world now, and she exists within it in order to stay alive. Similarly dressed kapos approach her with women and girls trailing behind—emaciated, wraith-like figures, many holding each other up. Each kapo tells the women they have escorted that Cilka is their block leader, they are to do as she says. They are instructed to wait outside in the cold for the SS officer who will do the roll call.
Cilka feels as inanimate as the snow. Her eyes blur over the bony, bowed bodies, but her feelings have been taken away. It started when Schwarzhuber placed her in that tiny room at the front of Block 25 and began his regular visits. She found she could become just a series of limbs, just bone, muscle and skin. She didn’t choose it. It just happened. She thinks it might be a bit like when she was a child and badly scraped her knee—though she saw the blood it took a long time to register the hurt.
Cilka stands there, saying nothing as she waits to be told that all the women coming into Block 25 that evening are present. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day if the Nazis decide they have something better to do, they will all be taken to the gas chamber that looks like a little white house. And they will be killed.
A senior SS officer approaches, along with the last group of ten women. His swagger stick strikes out, randomly hitting unsuspecting women. Something breaks through Cilka’s glazed state and she hurries over to meet them.
“Hurry up, you lazy good-for-nothing bitches!” she calls out. “I’ve got them,” she says to the SS officer, stepping in front of him as he is about to bring his stick down on the head of a nearby girl. Cilka gives her a hard shove, sending her sprawling face-first into the snow.
“Get up and join the others,” she screams at the girl.
The SS officer watches, nods to Cilka and walks away. He doesn’t see Cilka bend down and hoist her arm under the girl’s armpit, helping her to her feet.
“Quickly, join the others,” she says more gently.
Cilka sees the SS officer turn back, and screams out at the women.
“Get inside now! I’m staying out here freezing because you’re too slow and lazy to move. Go, go!” she calls.
Turning to the SS officer, she gives him a big smile.
She follows the women inside, shutting the door behind her.
The women have found places to sit or lie down, though there is barely room. Sometimes they spill over into the courtyard, stacked like animals. Gaunt faces stare at Cilka—looks of terror and helplessness. She longs to explain that if she screams at them the SS won’t come in.
The words won’t come.
She is sixteen. Possibly the youngest person in the room at that moment. And she will live longer than them all.
She sees one woman with sick crusted across her cheek. Whatever feeling she let in a moment ago closes back over. She is as flat and blank as the snow, as the walls. As the women’s noises rise—the wailing and crying and the beating of palms on walls, the praying and calling the names of the loved and lost, Cilka turns and goes to the front of the block, into her room, and lies down.
* * *
The days have been long and achingly difficult. Cilka is having to draw on reserves of physical strength she never knew she had. Cilka and Josie have been trialing different methods for how they parcel out their bread ration across the day for best energy efficiency. At night the women often talk about food. When they broach topics of family, home, they stay close to this—of meals shared. Sauerkraut and mushrooms, cottage cheese, sausages, pierogi, fresh fruit. Cilka has to reach back years into her memory to join in, and she has to fight a feeling of envy that comes from knowing these memories are much closer for the women around her.
It doesn’t seem that any of them are ready to go into great detail about their arrests, about recent events, about where their families are now. Or perhaps they haven’t worked out whether they can really trust one another. Though they do wonder aloud about the missing. Margarethe, in particular, a young Russian woman with a round face and dimples who Cilka instinctively likes, cannot stop worrying about her husband. Josie thinks of her brothers; and Olga, though she knows where her children are, worries she will not hear from them, will not know whether they are all right. Cilka thinks about everyone she has lost, but she cannot even begin to express it.
One night, Olga says to Cilka, “Klein … that’s quite common as a Jewish surname, isn’t it?”
Cilka nods. “I suppose it is.” She stands. “I’ll go and get the coal.”
As the women return from work one week into their stay, Elena announces that Natalya is to empty the shit buckets tomorrow, for the second day in a row. The first heavy snow has begun, and as Elena says this, she snuggles down tighter into her coat.
“I’ll do it,” Josie says. “It’s been a while since my turn.”
“I’m in charge here,” Elena says, standing. “I’ll say who does what.”
“No, you’re not,” Josie fights back. “No one put you in charge. We’ll share the work.”
Cilka is surprised when Elena doesn’t continue the exchange. She simply narrows her eyes and sits back down, huddled in the coat.
The women stand around the stove, letting the heat ease their aching muscles, waiting for the clanging on metal to indicate that it’s time to go to the mess for dinner.
From behind, Josie is violently shoved in the back.
She reacts by raising her hand, reaching for something to brace herself against, and it lands on the stove flue. Her scream echoes off the walls.
Josie holds her arm out, like it’s something she wants to shake off. A thousand thoughts run through Cilka’s head, images of sick and injured women and what happens to them. No, not Josie. Cilka grabs her, propelling her out of the building, burying her burned hand in the snow that now covers patches of the ground outside. Josie hisses through her teeth and starts crying audibly.
“Shush now,” Cilka says, a little harsher than intended.
After a few minutes, she pulls the hand from the snow and examines the damage. The palm and all four fingers on Josie’s right hand are an angry red, her thumb the only untouched part.
Cilka pushes the hand back into the snow and turns Josie’s face toward her. It is starkly pale, as white as the ground.
“Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
Cilka storms back inside, pausing, staring at the women gathered around the stove.
A plaintive, “How is she?” goes unanswered.
“Who did this? Who pushed her?” Cilka had only seen the quick movement of Josie ejected from the huddle, falling. She has her suspicions though.
Most of the women look away, but Cilka notices Natalya glance toward the culprit.
Cilka walks up to Elena sitting snug on her bed.
Elena snarls at Cilka, “I could break you in two.”
Cilka understands the difference between an empty threat—a display of power borne of helplessness—and a true intention to harm others.
“Plenty of people scarier than you have tried to break me,” Cilka says.
“And I’ve fought men ten times your size,” Elena says.
The women around them move away, giving them space, certain a fight is about to start.
“Get up,” Cilka demands.
Elena continues staring defiantly. A fire is flaring inside Cilka.
“I will ask you one more time. Get up.”
The two women face off for several moments before Elena slowly stands up, pouting her lip a little, like a child.
“Elena, I am going to take your blanket off, hope the sheet underneath is not riddled with lice, and tear the end off. You will not try to stop me. Do you understand?”
Elena huffs, but nods slowly. The other women have closed the space again, standing behind Cilka now that the dynamic has revealed itself to be in her favor.
With one eye on Elena, Cilka pulls the blanket free. She takes the bottom of the sheet and brings it to her mouth and tears at it with her teeth until she has made a small rip. Using her hands, she pulls a strip free.
“Thank you, Elena. You can remake your bed.”
Cilka turns to the doorway.
Antonina Karpovna is standing there, her arm against the door frame barring Cilka from leaving.
“Am I going to have trouble with you?” she asks.
“Nyet.” Cilka answers in Russian.
Antonina removes her arm. Cilka walks back outside, where Josie sits in the snow as the sun goes down, her body rocking from the cold and pain. Cilka wipes the snow from her injured hand before wrapping it in the torn sheet. Helping Josie to her feet, her arm around her, she steers her back inside. It feels strange to be so close to someone. The last person she had voluntarily touched like this had been Gita. Those gathered around the stove move aside to let them get as close as they can to the warmth.
The dinner alarm sounds. Josie refuses to leave her bed. Cilka feels a beat of frustration, anger, at her helplessness. She almost leaves her there. Then she thinks of how much worse it will be if Josie doesn’t eat, loses strength.
“Josie, come on,” she says, and helps her up.
In the mess, Cilka hands Josie her mug of soup. She takes it in her left hand. When a chunk of stale bread is thrust at her, Josie can’t accept it. It falls onto the floor.
A mess guard watches, waiting to see what Cilka, next in line, will do. If she helps, she can probably expect to be punished. If she doesn’t, Josie’s strength will suffer. Josie bends down, holding tight to her mug, looking pleadingly to Cilka to help. With their eyes connected, Cilka places her own piece of bread between her teeth, holding it there—a silent instruction. Josie carefully puts her mug on the floor, picks up the piece of bread, and grips it between her teeth, before picking up her mug and moving on.
Once they find a place to stand, away from the guard’s stare, Cilka takes the piece of bread from Josie’s mouth and helps her tuck it up the sleeve of her coat.
* * *
Back in the hut, the subdued women all ask Josie how her hand is. She bravely tells them it will be all right. Cilka is glad that eating has made her more hopeful.
Sitting on her bed, Cilka watches as the snow turns liquid on the outside of the window, tears running down the glass. She asks Josie to show her her burned hand. Carefully she unwinds the makeshift bandage, the last layer sticking to the blistered skin. Josie shoves her other hand in her mouth to keep from crying out in pain.
“It looks better,” she says, trying to comfort Josie with the words she doesn’t believe herself. She knows how important it is to not give up.
Natalya comes over and sits down beside Cilka, looking at the wound.
“I’ll ask Antonina tomorrow if there is a hospital or sick bay here. If there is, they will be able to help you and put a proper dressing on it.”
Cilka knows anyone wanting to get out of work won’t be looked kindly upon. But if Josie’s hand doesn’t heal, things will be much worse. She nods.
“Thanks, Natalya,” says Cilka.
They all settle in their beds. The night envelops them, but dawn still arrives early and Cilka wakes with a jolt, heart racing, before the silence and stillness puts her back to sleep.
* * *
Antonina arrives in the morning, looking tired. She wordlessly indicates for them to get moving. Natalya goes to say something about Josie but catches Cilka’s shake of the head. As they walk, Cilka whispers, “Let her have breakfast first, otherwise she might miss out.” She’s also very aware of Antonina’s mood. She has learned to read the faces of captors, guards, those with power over the rest.
When all names have been checked off at roll call Natalya looks over to Cilka. Cilka and Josie have had their gruel, and both have bread tucked up into their sleeves. Antonina’s face has a little more color, too. Cilka nods to Natalya.
“Excuse me, Antonina Karpovna,” says Natalya. Cilka hears the formal use of first name and patronymic.
The brigadier gives Natalya her full attention.
“As you may know from your visit in the evening, Josie has acquired an injury on her right hand. Is there a sick bay she can go to?”
“How did it happen?” asks Antonina.
Natalya looks reluctant to reveal who is at fault. Despite the nastiness of the act, they don’t want to get anybody thrown in the hole—the punishment cell. Starvation, disease, madness could result. Despite Cilka’s fury at Elena—particularly at her cowardice; a push in the back—she thinks she deserves another chance.
It seems Josie does too.
“I tripped near the stove,” Josie says, “and put my hand out to break my fall.”
Antonina beckons Josie over to her, chin raised.
Josie approaches the brigadier, her bandaged hand outstretched.
“How do I know you’re not just trying to get out of work?”
Josie understands her. She begins unwrapping the bandage. She can’t stop the tears that accompany the pain as she removes the last layer, revealing the raw blistered hand.
Cilka steps forward so she’s beside Josie, not wanting to stand out but wanting her to know she is there, to comfort her. Antonina looks at the two of them, sizing them up.
“There’s not much to either of you zechkas, is there?” She looks at Cilka. “Take her back inside. I’ll be back for you.”
Cilka is startled. Worried. But she does what she’s told. They hurry back inside the building, Cilka casting a backward glance at the others as they shuffle off to work. The snow whips up, enveloping them, and they disappear from sight. What has she done now?
Cilka and Josie huddle by the stove, blankets wrapped around their shivering bodies. Cilka desperately hopes they will acclimatize. It’s not even winter yet. An icy blast smacks them from their contemplation. Antonina stands in the doorway.
Cilka nudges Josie and they walk quickly to the door and follow Antonina out, Cilka making sure the door is securely closed behind her.
She has often seen Antonina with another brigadier—with whom she shared a hut in the cluster of huts that make up their brigade—so she supposes they must share responsibility for the women. Or perhaps the other woman was an assistant to Antonina. Either way, she must be the one keeping track of the brigade in the field while Antonina takes on this duty.
While the distance to the sick bay and hospital is not far, the blizzard conditions make walking slow and painful as the snow is so deep they are forced to push their legs through it, rather than take steps. Cilka tries to gain an understanding of the size of the complex by the number of huts that resemble theirs. The other, larger buildings that stand a little apart must be administration or stores, but there is nothing to indicate their use. The hospital building Antonina points out to them also has no outward sign of its purpose.
A guard stands outside. Antonina, her eyes barely visible, is forced to remove the scarf wrapped around her face and shout into his face. Cilka wonders what he can possibly have done to be punished with this duty. It doesn’t seem much better than being a prisoner, though he probably has better living quarters and more food. With apparent reluctance, he opens the door and pushes the women unceremoniously inside. Presumably he is under instruction not to let any snow in.
The warmth of the building hits them immediately, and they unwrap their scarves, Josie using her good hand.
“Wait here,” Antonina tells them. They stand just inside the door, taking a first look at the room they have just entered.
It is some kind of waiting room. Prisoners—men and women—sit on the few available chairs, with more on the floor, hunched over, pain etched on their faces. Others are curled up, sleeping, unconscious, dead—it is not obvious which. Several groan quietly, a distressing sound, a too-familiar sound for Cilka. She looks away from them, up at the portrait of Stalin on the wall.
Antonina is at the desk at the front of the room, speaking quietly to the matronly figure seated behind it. With a nod of her head she returns to Cilka and Josie.
“You are number 509 when it is called.” She repeats the numbers slowly in Russian: “Pyat’sot devyat.”
Without further word, Antonina walks back to the door and is replaced by a sheet of fresh snow, which quickly melts into the puddle on the floor.
Cilka takes Josie’s arm and steers her to a small patch of bare wall they can sit against. It is only as they slide down to the floor that Cilka notices several heads lift and fearful eyes appraise the newcomers. Is there a hierarchy even here? Cilka meets their stares. They look away first.
* * *
Cilka hears their number, accompanied by some yelling.
She startles from a daze. “Last chance!” the matronly woman is saying.
Disoriented, she sees Josie is asleep, her head resting on Cilka’s outstretched legs.
“Here! We’re coming!” she calls as loudly as she can.
She shakes Josie and they scramble to their feet, heading quickly to the desk and the scowling woman behind it.
She stands, thrusts a clipboard at Josie, and walks to a door leading to the back of the room. Cilka and Josie follow.
Through the door, the woman leads them past beds that line both sides of the room. A ward. Cilka glances at them. The sheets are white. The blankets gray, but possibly thicker than those they have in their hut. Pillows are tucked beneath the heads of the men and women lying there.
Through the ward, they enter a clinical area screened off from the rest of the room. The smell of disinfectant assaults their nostrils.
Josie is shoved into a chair next to a table laden with bottles, bandages and instruments.
The woman indicates the clipboard Josie is holding, and hands Cilka a pen. Cilka understands that they are to fill it out. The woman turns away and is gone.
“I can’t do this,” Josie whispers. “I write with my right hand.”
“Let me,” says Cilka.
She takes the clipboard, pushes some of the instruments on the table to one side and places it down.
And then she sees it is in Cyrillic script. The letters are like tunnels and gates, with surprising added curves and flourishes. It has been a long time since she has read it. Writing in it will be difficult.
“Right then,” she says. “The first entry is always your name. What is your family name, Josie?”
“Kotecka, Jozefína Kotecka.”
Cilka writes the name slowly, as best she can, hoping the doctors will be able to read it.
“Let’s see, I believe this is date of birth?”
“November 25, 1930.”
“And this asks for your place of residence.”
“I don’t have an address anymore. They arrested my father after he missed a day from work. He was a forest worker, and he went looking for my brothers, who had been missing for three days. They arrested my mother next. My grandmother and I were so afraid, all alone together in our house. And then they came and arrested us too.” Josie looks pained. “No one in my family lives there now.”
“I know, Josie.” Cilka puts a hand on Josie’s shoulder. She was the same age when everyone was taken away from her too.
“They put me in prison.” Josie begins to cry. “They beat me, Cilka. They beat me and wanted to know where my brothers were. I told them I don’t know but they refused to believe me.”
Cilka nods to show she is listening. It’s strange how and when the past wants to reveal itself, she thinks. But not for her. There is no way she could find the words.
“Then one day, they loaded me and my grandmother onto a truck and took us to the train station, and that’s when I met you.”
“I’m sorry that I’ve brought it all up, Josie. Let’s…” She looks down at the form.
“No, it’s all right,” Josie says. She looks up at Cilka. “Will you tell me why you’re here? All I know is that you are Slovakian. And that woman on the train said she’d been with you somewhere … Did your family get arrested too?”
Cilka’s gut clenches.
“Perhaps another day.”
“And you knew what to do, when we got here.” Josie’s brow furrows, puzzling.
Cilka ignores her, makes out she is studying the form again.
Cilka and Josie hear someone behind them and turn to see a tall, slim, attractive woman wearing a white lab coat, a stethoscope hung around her neck. Golden yellow braids encircle the back of her head and her blue eyes crinkle at the edges in a smile.
She looks at their faces and immediately addresses them in Polish, a language they can both understand. “What is it I can help you with?” Her accent is unlike any Cilka has heard.
Josie goes to stand up.
“No, sit, stay sitting. I take it you are the patient.”
“And you are?”
“I’m her friend. I was asked to stay with her.”
“Are you having trouble with the form?”
“We were getting through it,” Cilka says. And then, she can’t help asking, “How did you decide what language to address us in?”
“I’ve been a doctor for a long time in the camps and I’ve learned to make a good guess.” The doctor smiles warmly, and confidently, the first open face Cilka has seen since she arrived here.
“Let me look,” she says, taking the clipboard from Cilka.
“Why don’t you finish filling it out? I’ll read you the questions.”
“Do you know any Russian?”
“I can speak it but writing is a little more difficult.”
“Okay, I think you should continue in Russian in that case, yes. The quicker you learn it the better in here. What other languages do you know?”
“Slovak, Czech, Polish, Hungarian and German.”
The doctor tilts her head. “I’m impressed.” Though she says it quietly. “The next question on the form is: What is the purpose of your visit to the hospital?” She asks it in Russian.
Cilka goes to write something.
The doctor looks over her shoulder.
“Hmm, close. Why don’t you try asking the patient and then writing down what she says?”
Cilka feels panicked. She’s not sure if the doctor is playing a game with her. Why is it that she always stands out, no matter how hard she tries not to? She asks Josie in Russian. Josie looks at her, puzzled.
Cilka tries to write “burned hand” in Cyrillic on the form.
“Not bad,” the doctor says. “Enough of that for now. I can take care of the rest. I had better take a look at the patient.”
Josie holds out her hand. The doctor pulls a nearby chair in front of her and gently starts unbandaging.
“Who wrapped this up for you?”
The doctor turns to Cilka.
“And you’re Cilka?”
“I made her hold it in the snow for a while first, then got some sheeting and wrapped it as best I could.”
“Well done, Cilka. Now let’s have a look at the damage.”
With the bandage removed the doctor turns Josie’s hand over, examining it closely.
“Wiggle your fingers for me.”
Josie makes a painful attempt to wiggle her fingers, the swelling preventing much movement.
“It was very lucky you had someone with you who knew to get something cold onto the burn straightaway. That has saved you from a far worse injury. As it is, you have what looks like a first-degree burn to fifty percent of your hand and eighty percent of your four fingers. Your thumb seems all right.” She looks up into Josie’s face. “You’ll need daily dressings for two weeks, and no work is to be attempted inside or outside.”
She turns to Cilka. “Pass me that tube … the one that says maz ot ozhogov.” Burn cream.
Cilka hands her the tube of cream, taking the top off as she does so.
Gently, the doctor applies the cream to Josie’s hand.
“Now look on the shelf behind you and find me a large bandage.”
Cilka does as she is told, handing back the correct item.
It is expertly wrapped around Josie’s hand, the end placed between the doctor’s teeth as she tears a small section in two, tying the ends together to hold it securely.
“Now, hand me that pad and pen on the table. I had better write a note.”
Cilka watches as she writes, folds the note and gives it to Josie.
“I have written here just what I said. You are not to work inside or outside and are to come here every day for at least the next two weeks to have the dressing changed. We will see how you are healing after that time.
“Now, Cilka…” the doctor says, “I am impressed that you were so helpful to your friend, and your writing is not as bad as you think.” She studies Cilka. “You have a capacity for languages. You know, we are understaffed here at the hospital with these new intakes. Would you like to work here?”
Cilka realizes the opportunity. In a camp there are the bad jobs—the outdoor, manual labor jobs—and then there are the good jobs. In the other place, a “good” job meant more food, and warmth, but in Cilka’s case, it also meant being repeatedly and incessantly used, and witnessing the very worst conditions in the camp. Her role as leader of Block 25 was a punishment, but one she also still feels she ne