“I run to the closet where my little brother, Carl, is crouching. I slam the door shut just in time and lean back against some dusty winter coats, my heart pounding against my chest. We are Jews, so maybe they are here to kill us.”
“Klara! Carl!” my mother screeches. I wake with a start.
“Wha… Oh, hello Mom.”
“Oh, Klara, they are here! Hide with your brother! Quick, hurry! NOW!” I run to the closet where my little brother, Carl, is crouching. I slam the door shut just in time and lean back against some dusty winter coats, my heart pounding against my chest. We are Jews, so maybe they are here to kill us. I am only sixteen! My brother is eleven! Surely they can’t take us away! I press my ear to the door and catch snippets of the conversation.
I hear, “8:00 tomorrow… All Jews… One knapsack… Transported.”
Suddenly, I feel something that I didn’t even know was there, a dawning realization. They want to take us away! To camps! What’re they called? Concentration camps? I don’t want to go! I don’t want to die! What will we do?
RING!!! RING!!! My alarm clock wakes me up. I focus my eyes. 5:45. Why did I get up this early? Ach, the call-up notice, I remember, and roll out of bed. “AAARRRGGGHHH!!!” I keep forgetting that I sleep on the top bunk. I rack my brain for something to do, and as I can find nothing, I grab blindly at the air.
My fingers hook onto something. My mattress! I slowly lower myself to the floor. I breathe a sigh of relief and start to get dressed. I wander over to the breakfast table where my mother, looking very pale, shoves a piece of buttered toast into my hand. Wait… buttered toast? We are one of the better-off families in the ghetto, and I have buttered toast for breakfast? “What is this?” I ask.
“It’s buttered toast, can’t you see?” my mother answers. “Klara, do you know where your brother is?”
Ach, the call-up notice, I remember, and find Carl in his bed. “C’mon, sleepyhead! Time to get up! I’m gonna yank the covers off of you… stupidhead!” Carl jumps out of bed.
“Klara, you are the only stupidhead I see at the moment!”
“Get a mirror.”
“Why’d you get me up so early? It’s 6:15! I — mmmph!”
I had cleverly tied my handkerchief tightly around his mouth. I sigh as I haul him into the living room. Mother gets up and sits down on the couch next to us. “I suppose you should know,” she says. Carl and I glance at each other. I take my hankie off of his face. Mother takes a deep breath. “We’re going into hiding.”
My life is changing forever.
Carl and I have very different techniques for handling this statement. He freezes in his position and rolls back onto the couch. I press for details: “Where? When? How? For how long? Who’s helping us? Are we hiding with anyone else? How do we get there? Why are other people helping us? Why are they agreeing to hide and help us? Why is… ”
“Relax,” my mother says. “I’ll tell you all about it when we get there. Pack your knapsacks. Act like you’re going to the cattle cars. Wear lots of clothes. Pack your prized possessions in your knapsack. We have half an hour. Go!”
I run to my bedroom and take my diary into my hands and my carved wooden box that Opapa made for me. I use it as my fountain pen kit. I keep my three fountain pens and my 30 ink cartridges in there. I grab my first aid kit and my favorite books and shove them in. I put in my pillow, but then take it out.
I put in my fountain pen kit and flip through my diary before putting it in. I put in my stuffed bear and stuffed dog that I still sleep with even though I am sixteen. I pull on four more shirts, three more pants, two coats, and a scarf that I use to cover up my yellow star that says that I am Jewish.
I put in my pack of cards and a few joke books. I also grab my camera and film. I shove them in with a flashlight, extra batteries, a second pair of shoes, another coat, a pair of pants, a blouse, my spare pair of glasses and the cloth I use to clean them, my hair brush and spare hair ties, and a headband. Miraculously, this all fits, leaving just enough room for my essential toiletries and some underwear and a little bag of… er… private stuff. I zip the knapsack shut. I am ready. I know that we could be leaving… forever.
Will we all survive this?
I swing my sack onto my back. We are trudging through crunchy snow. It is only 0 degrees Celsius, but I am sweating for two reasons. One is that we are sneaking away to go into hiding. The other is that I am wearing way too many clothes.
Suddenly, I feel something in my back. Thinking it is Carl, I say, “Oh, stupidhead, do you speak English? No? Good. I hate — wait… ”
We are loaded into a stuffy box which I later find out is a cattle car. There is a horrible stink, and the heat is unbearable. I see a woman slump to the floor. A baby’s high-pitched wail rings out, and then its whimper, and then… it is quiet. A tear rolls down my cheek as I sit on the dusty floor.
Now we only have 72 people left out of the 90 people that boarded this musty… portmanteau. (I counted.) I shouldn’t have assumed that the Nazi officer was Carl. I shouldn’t have insulted him.
Carl starts to sniffle. Soon, he is sobbing. “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to go!”
“Oh, be quiet, crybaby!” I say, even though I feel like crying myself.
“Who’s a crybaby?” Carl asks, wiping at his eyes vigorously. I laugh at his blood red eyes and him trying to be angry while his bottom lip is shaking more than a jitterbug dancer.
Mother raises her eyebrows at me. “Sorry.” I only half mean it. Carl nods, satisfied.
“You should be sorry.” I can tell he only half means it, too. I pull one of my coats off and use it as a pillow. The rocking of the floor soon lulls me to sleep.
I want to go home.
So hungry… where am I… I want to go home… help… my leg hurts… I must have fallen asleep on it…
“Bewege dich schneller!” (Move faster!) cry the guards. I stumble out of the car, not used to the bright daylight and the sudden cold. Ouch. I’m limping. Why am I limping? Oh, right. I fell asleep on my leg. All these people, traipsing outside… oh, it’s so horrible. And to think we could all be dead soon!
“Schneller!” (Faster!) a guard barks at me. I feel the shattering, hot sting of a whip on my back. Oh, the hot pain! It hurts like nothing has ever hurt before. My knees buckle, and I fall over. Tears spring to my eyes, and a few roll down my cheeks.
“Das wird dich lehren, mir nicht zu gehorchen!” (That’ll teach you to disobey me!) the guard cries.
“Klara!” cries my mother, helping me up. The guard silences her.
“Ruhig! Das ist deine erste Warnung.” (Quiet! That’s your first warning.)
Another guard steps up. “Warnungen, Schmarrings. Sei still oder wir werden dich verletzen. So einfach ist das. A-ya!” (Warnings, schmarnings. Be quiet or we will hurt you. It’s that simple. Aya!) With that, he kicks my mother in the shin with his steel-toed boot. I look and with horror see a big bruise blossoming there. She is brave enough not to cry, but I see her lower lip tremble. We are quiet and well behaved after that.
When will we get out of here?
We are brought into a room. I am forced to lie down in a chair while they bring out razors. I watch in horror as they, with a snip, cut off my thick braid. They then shave the rest of my head so I am completely bald. The floor is soon littered with golden-brown bits. Then, they hold my arm down. A needle goes into it again and again, tattooing a number. A-7630. I’m so scared that I don’t feel anything, although I see Carl writhing in pain. We are led manhandled into another room. A guard kindly instructs us to, “Nehmen Sie ihre Kleidung und gib sie zu uns. Oder sterben,” (Take off your clothes and give them to us. Or die), which he punctuates with a menacing smile.
I yank off my blouse and skirt, leaving my bra and underwear on. I reach for the shower tap and I… stop. A guard is pointing his gun at my head. “Es Abnehmen,” (Take it off), he snarls. Then, he walks away, surveying the scene with the same menacing smile that the first guard had. I slowly pull off my underclothes, and I don’t want to go into detail about it. I take a shower, and the guards give us all wooden, hard clogs, burlap underwear, and an itchy gray dress with a yellow star on it. The men are given the same underwear and clogs, but instead of a dress they have a black-and-white striped shirt, pants, and cap. The shirt has a yellow star on it. Then, we are led outside again. Without my coat, the cold hits me like a slap in the face.
“Alle Rechte, Erwachsene, Kinder und alte Leute auf der linken Seite. 16 Und sie sind Kinder, 17 bis 59 Erwachsene und 60 bis sind die alten Leute. Jetzt wechseln! Ich habe mich nicht zu wiederholen,” barks a guard. (All right, adults to the right, kids and old people to the left. 16 and down are kids, 17 to 59 are adults, and 60 and up are the old people. Now move! I’m not repeating myself.)
Carl and I run over to our parents. All four of us are crying. I say goodbye to my father and mother. “Klara, Carl,” says my father, “never forget how much we love you. We will think of you every day and always, always be with you. No matter how far apart we are, your mother and I will always be right beside you, helping you through life. There is a chance we will never see each other again. But we will always be right here beside you.”
My mother musters up a frail, “Goodbye, wonderful ones…” and we part… perhaps forever.
When will we be together again?
Carl, some 50 other kids, 25 elderly people, and I are led to another spot where girls and boys are seperated. Carl and I cry a million tears, and we go off in separate directions.
Suddenly, a guard comes up to our group and says, “Sechzehner sind keine Kinder mehr. Der Kommandant sagt. Alle, die sechzehn sind, heben die Hand.” (Sixteens are not kids anymore. The commandant says. All of you who are sixteen, raise your hand), the other guard says. I raise mine tentatively, and the guard pulls me and a few other girls out of the group. He leads us to another barrack and pushes us in. I look around hopefully for my mother. I knew she wouldn’t be here. I had raised my hand just so I could see her one last time before she died.
Yes, my mother is going to die. I could tell, in the ghetto, that she was weak and waning. She is hanging on to life by a thread, and if she has to do the work I have seen people doing, the thread will snap. I wanted to be with her while she died.
I squeeze into one of the shelves that I’m guessing are used as beds and fall asleep. I’ll have a long day tomorrow. I need my sleep.
I open my eyes. Where am I? Oh right, a… concentration camp. Oh, Lord, help me! Help me, Lord. A shiver runs down my spine, and my blood curdles. After a breakfast of a small chunk of stale bread and an egg-cup-sized-cup of “coffee,” which is actually just polluted water, we are led outside and paired up to haul boulders. I’m with a girl who doesn’t acknowledge me except to nod. We haul the boulders back and forth. I ache all over, and my hands are raw and blistered. I’m glad when we go back to the bunk for supper — and even more glad when I see Carl’s line of boys parading past mine.
But then he makes a vital mistake — he waves at me. My eyes widen with fear. His eyes widen too, after he realizes that the guard was watching. “In dieser Gruppe wird es keine Kontakte geben!” (There will be no socializing in this group!) the guard cries. He raises his gun. What can I do to stop him? Carl died painlessly, and his body was left on the ground.
And I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move, couldn’t make a sound, couldn’t cry out in grief, or…
I laugh, the bubbly feeling rising from my stomach. My skates slip around on the wet ice. Carl snickers at my fail. “I’m going to show you how to really do it!” he cries and leaps onto the ice. His right leg goes out and his left in the opposite direction, and he lands in a split. RRRRRRIP! his pants tear. His face scrunches up. Oh no, I think, here come the waterworks, but to my surprise, the tears that run down his face are not from crying, but from laughing. Once I see that he’s fine, I sink down under the weight of much hilarity. Carl’s head rests on my shoulder, for with his guffaws, his neck no longer has the strength to hold up his head. We both fall down on the ice. I forget about everything in that moment but the happiness of laughing with one of my favorite people in the world. Then we go inside to huddle by the fire with hot cocoa, chocolate chip cookies, hot water bottles, blankets, and books.
Three years later, here I am, huddled under a thin blanket, in a concentration camp, slowly starving. The fire in me has completely gone out. I take out a thick blue book and a pencil.
It’s the only thing.
I had taken my diary with me. I hid it under the chair, under my clothes, and behind the shower nozzle. Now, it’s under my pillow. I pick up my pencil and write.
Carl is dead. I don’t know what to do, Diary. Never again will I see Carl, see his hair as it is rumpled in the mornings, see his messy neatness, even his fist as it flies toward my arm in a fight.
I pause and look out the door at the crematoria. I see smoke rising.
They are probably burning his body right now. Diary, is this what humans were born to do? Kill each other because of race, gender, or ethnicity? I’m not sure what Hitler thinks he’s doing. Because of him, Carl is dead. No, I don’t blame the guard who killed him. Diary, I blame Hitler, because he is the one who started this mess of tears that I am. Mangled bodies are everywhere, usually. I never thought Carl would be one. And, Diary, you know what really riles me up? I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye
Klara F. Schmidt
O Lord, bring Carl to heaven.
The block leader opens the door and another girl walks in — I know many fourteen-year-olds, and I can tell she’s fourteen. Fourteen? She’s tall for her age, but why did she join here? She’s a kid, by their standards. Since there are no more shelves left, the block leader puts her in with me. “Cześć,” she says to me.
“I don’t speak Polish,” I answer. I know it’s Polish because of how it sounds, but that’s really all I know.
“Je parle polonais… et allemande,” another girl, in the next shelf, says. “I said that I speak German and Polish. She said hello,” the French girl says to me.
“Powiedziałem że mówiȩ po niemiecku i po polsku. Powiedziała, że nie mówi po polsku,” she says to the other girl.
“Czy bȩdziesz naszym tłumaczem?” the Polish girl asks.
“She asked if I would be your translator.” The French girl turns to the Polish girl and says, “Tak.” She turns to me and says, “Yes.”
Through the translator, the Polish girl says, “My name is Aleksandra Lisowski.”
I say, “My name is Klara Schmidt.”
The French girl says, “My name is Cadence Laurent.”
Klara, Aleksandra, and Cadence. The Three Musketeers.
Not even the promise of new friends can give Carl back to me.
It feels good to have friends. Through Cadence, Aleksandra and I have many conversations. When Cadence is talking to either one of us, she talks in our language. When she’s talking to both of us, she has to say things twice. One day, I ask her why she knows all three languages.
In Polish, then in German, she says, “Well, my father was German, so he decided that I should learn the German. My mother was Polish, so I learned the Polish, too. And, of course, we lived in France. So I had to do the learning of the French language. I can speak the English, as well. Mother used to teach it to students at the… school in the middle. I know not what the Germans call it.”
“Middle school!” Aleksandra cries, and we all laugh. But that night, all I can think of is how she talked of her parents in the past tense.
The next day, I ask her, “Cadence, why did you talk about your parents in the past tense?” Her eyes well up with tears. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s fine,” she answers. She translated what I said for Aleksandra and says something else to her, too. She widens her eyes and covers her open mouth. Cadence then turns to me, but then the block leader rushes us outside and puts us three together to haul rocks.
She quickly whispers, “My dad was visiting a German Jew’s business on Cristal Huit. He was killed. My mother died in our bunk, next to me.”
“What you Germans call Kristallnacht.”
“Oh, Cadence… I’m so sorry.”
“It was bound to happen anyway. You can’t change it now.”
I turn to Aleksandra. Cadence has been teaching me Polish and has been teaching Aleksandra German. I use my newly learned Polish to say, “To jest smutne.” (It is sad.)
Aleksandra answers, “Yes it is.”
Cadence looks at us. “But now I have you two,” she says in both languages. She reaches out and hugs us… and suddenly the block leader is right behind us.