Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Chapter 2 from "The Lace Makers"

     To complement Sapphire's introduction in chapter one, here's chapter two, in which you meet Karin Vogel, a nineteen year old girl surviving in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in the days before it's liberation.  On April 9th, it will be the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and on April 15th, it will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen.  THE LACE MAKERS  bridges the gap between slavery and the Holocaust, interweaving Sapphire and Karin's narratives into a vivid account of two young girls living in bondage...but also anticipating the hope of imminent freedom.


It's four o'clock in the morning and Aufseherin Grese, the notorious guard known as "The Beautiful Beast," kicks my bunk that sits near the open door of the barracks.  I struggle to get up quickly because when I don't wake fast enough, she hits the bottoms of my feet with her baton so bruises won't show on my body.  Kapitan Dieter would beat her if she left a mark that he could see.  But he doesn't seem to take notice when I hobble around for days with swollen feet. 
"Number 811, get up!" The Beast growls.  "Kapitan Dieter wants you!  NOW!"  She sharply pokes me in the ribs and shines a flashlight in my eyes.  I can see the outline of her angry face frowning down at me.  I hate The Beast...everyone does...and not only because she smiles when she beats one of us for not moving faster.  For not washing thoroughly. 
For still being alive.
Kapitan Dieter calls for me before the Appellplatz where we must stand and be counted, sometimes waiting for hours to make sure the calculations are correct.  The dead must be accounted for, the bodies taken from the barracks by unfortunate prisoners while the rest of us wait in agony.  But this morning I'm not sure what will happen, if we will have to meet for roll call or not.  There's been intermittant gunfire in the distance and sometimes a loud explosion.  I'm not sure is the war has come to our decrepit doorstep, but everything feels different since the S.S. ordered most of the prisoner to be evacuated last week, since the officers started packing their belongings and rushing around the camp yelling, "Schnell!  Schnell!"
Faster, faster. 
Even the executions were done hastily and the bodies piled up near open pits or stacked in wagons.  For weeks the unholy flames of the crematorium never seem to stop and cannot keep up with the coutless corpses littering the camp.  Still, the smoke continually rising from the chimney scatters the ashes of the poor souls who longed for freedom and finally found it in death.
When The Beast pokes me once more, I rub my eyes and rise to my feet, careful not to wake Simka, my friend who traveled with Mutti and me from Buchenwald a few months ago.  We share the bunk, one of the better ones such as it is, lined with straw and filled with bugs.  Mutti always says I'm lucky to have it.  Lucky to be near the door where I can breathe fresher air, unlike so many others crammed into their bunks where the air is dank and rotten and heavy. 
I don't sleep well anymore, and when I finally nod off, I dream of steam whistles screaming in the distance that startle me awake.  I dream of cattle cars crammed with too many men, women, and children all crying out for water, for bread, for air.  I have nightmares in which spruce and pine trees are set afire, their elongated branches bursting into flames so they can keep the endless piles of corpses burning.  I used to love the scent of the forest, but now the earthy sweet smell of evergreen will forever be tangled with the putrid odor of death.
Before The Beast can stomp on my feet for her own sadistic pleasure, I quickly shove them into a pair of decrepit wooden shoes and follow her out of the barracks.  I don't say a word, don't make a sound as we pass the piles of corpses, left to rot in the open air.  An uncontrolled typhus epidemic claims hundreds of lives every day and the S.S. have taken to burning bodies on grids of timber to make up for what the crematorium cannot accomplish. 
Like always, I pretend I'm walking past stalks of corn, harvested from Mutti's vegetable garden.  Every autumn Vati would stack them in his wheelbarrow and bring them to the back door for shucking.  I imagine that the corpses rotting on the earth are piles of corn my mother will soon grind into flour.  But in truth I know these bodies will soon be turned into ashes, that never-ending human smoke will once more rise from the chimneys and dust the camp with the souls of so many people, I cannot count them all.
The stench is unbearable.  The sight, even more so.  Yet the barbed wire and filth have become as commonplace as my mother's garden and it still shocks me how much I have grown accustomed to seeing the walking carcasses the prisoner have become, their eyes glazed, their will to live all but extinguished. 
I no longer remember the smell of clean air as the cloying stench of death remains lodged in my throat and presses on my chest as a relentless warning.  For I know that with one swift decision, my life could be extinguished.  Yet every night, I close my eyes and say to myself, If God wills it, I will wake again tomorrow.  It is hard to know what is the real nightmare...what I see in my dreams or what I experience upon waking. 
As we pass the Appellplatz, I see corpses still hanging in the gallows - a warning to us all about the dangers of escape.  I watch Leah's body swing from the rope and remember what she had told me last week...that her name means to be tired.  She was tired of living in this hell on earth, this hideous place called Bergen Belsen.  Leah said she would rather die trying to escape than die waiting for the war to end.  But death is an every day occurrence here and my mind has become as tough as shoe leather, even though my heart still cries out every night for the ones who have died.
When we reach the disinfection building, I shudder helplessly in the scalding shower I'm ordered to take whenever Kapitan Dieter sends for me.  There's been no fresh water for the prisoners for over a week, but somehow Deiter manages to find a way for me to wash.  I gag as The Beast throws a cup of delousing powder on my head.  It stings my eyes and mouth, but kills whatever bugs that have invaded my skin and hair since the last time I had the treatment.
I rinse my legs and arms, scrubbing harder at the number tattooed on my left arm, pretending the disinfectant will wash it away.  It should have been five numbers long, but the S.S. man with the needle was interrupted when I heard Mutti screaming from the next room,  "Wir sind Deutsch Christen!  Deutsch Frauen!"
We are German Christians...German women.
And then I heard her one more time:  "Meine Schwester is Deutsch!"
My sister is German!
Mutti lied to the S.S. when we arrived at Auschwitz.  She knew we would be separated if the S.S. thought she was my mother, so she told the guard that she was my sister and he let her live.  He let her walk with me to a room where we were ordered to strip naked and shower.  He let her watch as a guard laughed while shaving my head and body, then endured the same humiliation herself. 
The S.S. officer in charge of tattooing also believed Mutti when she told him we were German citizens.  Our identification papers had disappeared during the transport, so there was no way to prove this.  But Mutti had heard that they didn't mark German prisoners and she tried to save me from one more degradation.  The man who had a death grip on my arm put down the needle, then shoved me out the door.  Still, I was left with 811 inked in bluish grey over the triangle of freckles near my wrist, and no matter how hard I scrub, the number never goes away.
I will never again be simply Karin Vogel. 
Even if I survive this war, there will always be a truncated number to remind me of what I've become.
There's no towel with which to dry myself, so I quickly throw a thin dress over my head, then wrap a kerchief around my chin, thankful for even that bit of warmth.  The wooden shoes rub layers of blisters on my heels and toes.  I can't walk properly in them, so trying to get from the barracks to the workhouse or to the Appellplatz or to Kapitan Dieter's room is hell on earth.  It's been an uncommonly frigid winter with temperatures well below zero, and even though I work inside making lace near a cast iron stove, I'm never warm enough.  I'm never full enough, though I eat more than most because Kapitan Dieter is an important man and always gets what he wants.  And he doesn't want me to be skinny and dirty like so many of the poor girls in the camp left to rot and die in their own filth. 
I'm not allowed to speak in his presence, but I know his name - Herman.  And I know I'm nothing more than his prostitute because he told me once, "Your payment is you get to live."
I'm supposed to feel grateful, but I don't.  And I don't know why I've lived this long while so many others have perished.  I'm nineteen years old.  I've endured years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and this horrible place, but now I don't even know if I want to live.
But Mutti says I have to survive. 
I have to do whatever the guards want.  Whatever Kapitan Dieter wants.  Whatever Kommandant Kramer wants.  Whatever The Beast wants.  I have to do what they say in order to stay alive so I can bring more food to Simka. 
"You're young and pretty and that's what Dieter wants," Mutti once told me. 
So I do what he says.  I do what he wants, staring at the wall or the ceiling or the knobs on the glass cabinet in the corner that's filled with cans of evaporated milk and chocolates and creamy caramels...the one Herman said I must never touch.  I know he wouldn't hesitatate to shoot me with the pistol he keeps strapped to his leg.  I've seen him kill a man more than once, and he's deadly when he's angry and drunk. 

"You can take the bread and cheese from my trunk," Herman told me the first time I was ordered to his room.  "But if you touch that cabinet, you'll be dead before you can turn around." 
I hate Herman and yet I owe him for saving Mutti's life and my own.  Often in the middle of what he does to me I think, How can a man be both a sadist and a savior?

This morning, Herman is quick about it, his tight, angry body all at once on top of me and then not.  He doesn't make me sing before or after, neither does he mock me by calling me his little songbird.  I stare at the calendar on the wall while Herman gets dressed and wonder why the compound is so busy at this hour. 
Usually activity doesn’t begin until after Appellplatz; however, the past few days have been unlike any I have survived here at Bergen Belsen.  There has been no Appellplatz.  Anyone who is living is made to carry corpses for burial.  Those of us who are able to work continue our labors while the S.S. rush here and there, burning papers and yelling at each other to be prepared for the end.
The end of what?  I wonder.  The war?  This camp?  The end of our misery or the end of our lives?
The calendar says it's Saturday, April the 14th, 1945.  Days ago when thousands of inmates were ordered on a forced march with most of the guards, Mutti insisted that I hide, that I not leave the camp.  She knew what would happen to the prisoners who were herded like cattle and prodded like pigs as they made their way southeast toward Theresienstadt.  They were the weakest of the men, the frailest of the women.  Why waste a bullet when the S.S. know that starvation and the elements will do the job quickly? 
“I’ve been good to you, 811...Karin,” Herman says as he buttons his coat.  “You’ll tell everyone how good I’ve been to you, yes?”
I frown.  He's never called me by my name before and I'm surprised he even knows it...or cares to.
“I’ve never beat you or hurt you,” Herman insists.  “I let you take extra food whenever you wanted it.  I saved you and your sister from the gas.”
I nod.
He knots his tie.  “So if anyone asks, you will tell them I am a good man.”
I wonder why he's saying this.  No one in power asks me anything.  Not who I am.  Not what I want.  Whenever I am yelled at it’s because someone is giving an order as if they are the supreme power of the universe.
“Get up!”
“Work faster!”
“Get back to your barrack!”
“Stand up straight and sing louder!”
When I say nothing, Herman comes to the bed where I sit pulling my dress over my head.  He sits down and gently strokes my face.  “I’ve always been good to you.”  He kisses my forehead.  “I love you.”
I cringe and curl away from him, but Herman presses his warm, damp lips to my ear.  “Remember what I said," he whispers.  "I have always been a good man to you.”
I look at the floor and nod my head in compliance.
“Good girl,” Herman says, rising from the bed.  Then he struts out the door as if he has won the silent war between us. 

A grey light gradually fills the room where I've been sitting for more than three hours...waiting for orders from the guards.  After I dressed, made the bed, and hid some food for Simka in my kerchief, The Beast deposited me and the other lace makers in a small room next to the Kommandant's kitchen.  For almost four months I have spent eight hours a day, six days a week knitting hats and mittens and scarves.  I knit cable-knit jumpers and woolen socks.  I knit yards and yards of lace that are sewn into curtains and sent to all corners of Germany where the S.S. live in luxury while those of us slaving in the camps can barely remember what our parents' faces look like.
I shiver in my decrepit dress and wonder, How many girls wore this rag before me?  Are they all dead?  Will I be soon?  My shawl slips to the back of chair, and as I pull it up over my shoulders, I study the other women's faces as we endure the harsh silence of this cold, dank room, our knitting needles clicking and clacking while we do our duty for the Fuhrer. 
They've all become shadows of their former selves...and I know I have as well.
Simka sniffs and wipes her nose.  Dark circles shadow her eyes as she pushes a curl behind her ear.  Kapitan Dieter let all of us grow our hair back so we would look more presentable, more womanly.  He says women in his service are to look like women, and yet my breasts and curves aren't like Simka's.  We've only been here since January, but the food her friend steals from the kitchen and the additional bread I bring her from Kapitan Dieter's room keep her healthier than the rest of us.  She needs it more than we do.  Even though I long to taste the sweet yams and mashed potatoes Vitya smuggles to her in little tin cans, I cannot ask Simka for even one bite of her extra nourishment.   
The gnawing hunger never goes away.  The camp has had no food or fresh water for almost six days and the meager rations I take from Kapitan Dieter's cupboard are for others, not for me.  There are women here who have killed for any scrap of sustenance, only to die themselves in a few day's time.  When we were in Auschwitz, my mother used to slip me her bread before the guards could see.  Before any one else could grab it out of my hands and shove into their eager mouth. 
If there were a stray pea at the bottom of her soup bowl, Mutti would press it into my palm and beg me to swallow it, saying, "Eat, Karin.  Survive, Karin.  Live one more day.  Then live another.  One day when we are liberated, we will remember what we saw here and tell others so that this madness will never happen again."
But I know the world of men.  I know of their brutality and their lust for power and domination.  I know of their insatiable hunger for vicious cruelty.  I know that as long as there are men in this world, there will be madness also.
Now Simka winces in pain and I'm afraid of what will happen when the pain gets worse.  I've seen what the S.S. do to people who can't work, who show any type of weakness.  I try not to remember it as I mindlessly work the yarn back and forth.  My hands ache, but the bony knuckles and tissue-paper skin toil until I can no longer feel the pain in my joints.  Instinctively, I work my needles back and forth in a rhythm that still has the power to calm me, even now when everything is so uncertain.
As my hands work, I think back to when Mutti taught me how to make lace.  Her sister, my Tante Sabine, lived with us in Baden Baden back then while her husband, Onkel Erik, traveled extensively for his work.  She was having her first baby, and as a nine-year-old girl, I was excited for its imminent arrival.  During the last few months of her pregnancy it was decided that Tante Sabine would stay with us until the baby came.  Then she would move to Stuttgart with Onkel Erik and live with his parents where she and the baby would be well cared for.
At that time, everyone was worried about Hitler and the uprising of the Nazi Party.  In 1935 work was scarce.  Money even more so.  It was cheaper to light the stove with the paper money my father had hidden in his fishing tackle box than to use it to buy kindling.  Vati worked hard at the theater he owned with his friend, Herr Zweig.  They had known each other since before the Big War when they were just Junge, boys in short pants who kicked a tattered ball back and forth through the schoolyard. 
Herr and Frau Zweig had three boys of their own, Heinrich, who was my age, Georg, who was seven, and Fritz, who was only three.  They would often visit on Sundays after we came home from church.  The Zweigs went to Temple on Saturdays, so they arrived with a nice brisket or a basket of freshly baked apple dumplings while we were changing out of our good clothes.
Vati, Mutti, and Tante Sabine would visit with Herr Zweig and his wife while I played tag in our yard with Heinrich and Georg.  Fritz preferred to hunt for worms and bugs and other dirty things in Mutti's garden.  She would give him a small trowel and a metal pail, saying, "Just make sure you don't harm my vegetables."
In the evening all of us would go back to the theater for an evening of Volkslieder...folk songs.  Vati invited a host of people from the neighborhood and welcomed them warmly at the door.  Mutti would play the piano, Frau Zweig the violin, and I would lead everyone in song. 
Vati especially loved to hear me sing "In stiller Nacht" all by myself to end the evening.  Tears would fill his eyes, and like Mutti who loves twilight, he seemed to be carried away into the imminent darkness of the words, the lament of the lyrics that would soon foretell what our lives would become.

In the quiet night, at the first watch,
a voice began to lament; sweetly, gently,
the night wind carried to me its sound.
And from such bitter sorrow and grief
my heart has melted.
The little flowers - with my pure tears -
I have watered them all.

Back then, like Tante Sabine, Mutti was expecting as well.  My brother, Jurgen, was tucked inside her belly and I loved to feel his little hands and feet kick and punch through Mutti's dress.  I would sing "Guten Abend, Gute Nacht" to him, leaning against our mother's side, rubbing the little knobs and bumps of his elbows and knees.

Lullaby and good night, with roses bedight,
With lilies o'er sprad in baby's wee bed.
Lay thee down now and rest.
May thy slumber be blessed.

When Mutti saw how much I loved Jurgen, even before he was born, she gave me a ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles, saying, "Karin, let's make something for our baby." 
For years I had watched Mutti create intricate patterns and our modest home was filled with lace tablecloths, placemats, and doilies.  Several delicate shawls hung on a post near the door so Mutti could wrap one around her shoulders when she walked into the garden for some fresh air.  My favorite was Queen Anne's Lace pattern interwoven with open stitching.  Mutti carefully added the delicate stems to accent the gentle blossoms and I could almost smell their spicy, sweet fragrance every time she wore it. 
So I was overjoyed when she placed the polished rosewood needles in my hands.  First she taught me how to cast on, then how to knit and purl.  After that I learned how to make little hats and booties.  Next came a simple jumper for Vati.  Then a pair of socks for my baby brother.  By the time Jurgen was two, I asked Mutti to teach me how to make lace.  Under Mutti's gentle guidance, I learned how to yarn over and knit two together.  To pick up stitches and create tiny hearts and leaves and shells.  Mutti marveled at how quickly I garnered the skill. 
"Wie deine Gesangstalent, deines Stricken ist auch ein Geschenk, Karin," she said proudly. 
Like your singing talent, your knitting is also a gift.
Now this gift is saving my life, such as it is.
Now, with every stitch, with every row, I weave in the memory of those who have lost their lives.  A stitch for Olga.  One for Anne and Mary and Elisabet.  A stitch for the woman who died of typhus in the bunk above me just last night.  A whole row for Frau Daiga and her daughter.  Rows and rows for the Zweig family who all perished long before I came to this place.
Countless stitches for Vati and Mutti and Jurgen.

And always...every stitch for Bruno.