“Hope is a fiction. It’s a dream that tomorrow will be different or some miracle will happen to save you. It’s not sufficient, it’s not enough to keep you alive in the ghetto, the camps. When a person is drowning and they reach for air, it’s not hope that propels that fight.
“The drive to live is what pushes us toward life, but it’s stronger in some and can make the difference between life and death. Why stronger in some? It’s always love. Love is what allows us to keep our humanity and know that someone needs us to survive.”
-- Estelle Laughlin, Holocaust Survivor
I remember the cold and hunger, cruelty and death, but I still feel Mama’s love. That’s the story I want to tell. It’s a story of love.
Our last morning in the ghetto, Mama was gentle as she woke me.
“Musia, darling, time for us to go.”
She brushed a wisp of hair from my eyes. Her trembling fingers lingered against my skin.
“Come, you need to open your eyes, Neshomeleh.”
I breached the surface, but let myself drift back into the warmth of somnolent waters.
“My Neshomeleh, you must wake up. We have to go.” The softness in her voice belied Mama’s intense need. “Please, Musia.”
I opened my eyes and in one deep breath the acidic odor of human rot burned my nostrils, eyes and throat. Mama’s face hung above me like a dimmed, emaciated moon, her eyes smudged by exhaustion.
“Musia, do you remember how to get to the Voitenkos?” she whispered.
“They live in Skobelka.”
“I know, Mama.”
“When we cross the river we walk across the field until we reach the road to Skobelka.”
“I know, I know, Mama; you’ve told me so many times…”
“Musia, please, whisper.” Her eyes wandered toward Mrs. Joselewicz, sitting on a bed of wood laths torn from a wall and supported by scavenged bricks. At forty, Mrs. Joselewicz’ sallow, jaundiced face and withdrawn eyes made her look like an old woman.
Mama continued, “You must not forget—”
“I remember their farm from before—”
“—because if you lose me, you will have to find the Voitenkos on your own.” Mama’s eyes welled.
“I know, Mama. I’m twelve, not a little girl.”
She took a deep breath and seemed to regain some strength, “Promise me you will go to the Voitenkos.”
I sat up and looked into Mama’s eyes, “I promise.”
“Okay, we have to go now.” She steadied herself with one arm and stood. Her dress swayed as if draped on a wooden clothes hanger.
An aching nausea roused itself in me. I held my arms against my belly to soothe the pain and hunger, but they were little comfort.
“Put your clothes on like I told you,” Mama said as she wrapped a sweater around her body. “Do you remember?”
“And wear your winter shoes.”
“It’s August, Mama, they’ll be too hot.”
Mama looked to Mrs. Joselewicz, who was taking more interest in our conversation. Mrs. Cukier looked up as well. She lay on her own bed of lath and brick, cradling her wheezing five-year-old daughter Ania to her withered bosom. Ania’s body was bony and pitted; head shaved and flecked by abscesses that wept rancid yellow pus where lice had burrowed into her skin. Florid blooms of reddened skin covered the rest of her body. Her eyes were glassy and impassive; mouth fixed in a gaping, oblong O. She was more cadaver than child.
“We’re never coming here again and it will be cold soon,” Mama whispered.
“I’m worried about Tchiya, Mama.”
Mama’s fingers ran through her coarse, gray streaked hair and tied it into a loose knot.
Before the ghetto, her hair was thick and sinuous, black as India ink, and she wore it braided into a tight chignon. In the evenings, she brushed her hair so it flowed back from a slight widow’s peak and fell along the natural curve of her cello-esque body to her waist. A smile passed over her lips; she was aware that Papa glanced up from his book every so often to admire her.
“I am too,” she said. “Now please, get dressed.”
“Will we see Tchiya?”
A thin, dust-flecked beam of moonlight diffused into the room. It shone like a little star through a knothole in a board.
“No, Neshomeleh. Tchiya will have to remain hidden with the Yelenyuks until its safe for us to get her.” Mama’s ashen face and pustule scars were accentuated by a halo of moonlight.
I pulled a sock over my foot—there was a hole near the heel—then put on the other one, and wiggled my big toe as it poked through. I rubbed the aching stub that was my ring finger and remembered the SS officer who stabbed it off in a fit of rage.
“Does it hurt?” Mama asked.
I nodded and she reached out to me and I gave her my hand to rub. “You need to wear all your socks,” she said then let my hand go. “Be quick, please.”
There were only three threadbare pairs, but among them, they covered my feet. I pushed my foot into one of my ankle-high winter shoes. The black leather was well past scuffed, the low heel worn down to bare wood. I looked up at Mama. “Do you think she’s alive?”
“Tchiya’s a bit older, perhaps a bit wiser than you.” She smiled. “I think, too, that your sister has a healthy sense of fear.”
“Healthy?” I pulled the frayed laces tight, careful not to break them.
“She’s a careful girl.” She wet her lips and whispered, “It’s been three days since she left, so I’m sure she’s made it to the Yelenyuks. We would know if she hadn’t, right?”
Mama’s eyes wandered down to her hands. “The people you love can’t completely disappear.”
“Papa did.” My lower jaw jutted out.
Mama looked into my eyes, “Get dressed, Neshomeleh.”
“I don’t want you to ever lie to me again, Mama”
Mama looked at the two women, who pretended not to listen. “Musia Perlmutter, please be quiet.”
“Papa disappeared, poof.” I popped open the fingers of both hands.
“I know, Neshomeleh.”
“Please promise me you won’t lie to me again.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Neshomeleh. Now, please, put your clothes on.”
Satisfied, I pulled my two best dresses over my body and tied the arms of a brown sweater around my waist. No matter what Mama said, the sweater was too thick to wear in August. Mama handed me one of her long-sleeved blouses to wear over the dresses. I frowned, but put it on. I had argued with her enough.
I lifted my coat from the corner of my bed and felt the weight of a few gold coins—the jewelry was already used—Mama had sewn into the seams.
“Those things are for a rainy day, nothing else.” Her stern eyes, deep in their sockets, focused on me. “Wherever we go, whatever we do, you take that coat.”
On the front and back of the coat there was a ghost of the Star of David. The Germans forced us to sew these on all of our clothes when they came to Horochów, but mama removed them during the night.
I kept a small penknife in the breast pocket of my coat and the heavy, brass key to our family’s home in Horochów. It had a pendant heart etched in the bow and notched teeth at the end of a cylindrical shank. When the Germans forced us to leave our home, I slid it off its hook as I passed through the front door, without Mama or Tchiya seeing.
I checked both pockets to be sure my things were still in them and buttoned them closed. Then I folded the coat so the pockets wouldn’t spill and held it in my arms. The air was so warm and the coat so much bigger than me, it might make me trip, or make noise as it dragged on the ground.
Mama pulled together two bundles made of two worn scarves—one for her and one for me—wrapped with food she’d managed to scavenge: a few potatoes and a small block of dense, hard bread. She picked up both and cradled them in one arm.
“Let’s go,” she said.
My stomach ached and my body shook. Suddenly I was afraid to leave the ghetto. “Mama?”
Mama ran her fingers through my hair and caressed the nape of my neck. “Each day there are more Germans, more Ukrainian guards, more dogs wandering through the ghetto. Outside the walls they are busy preparing for something horrible.”
“Maybe if we hide they won’t find us.”
Mama gave a brief, worried look toward Mrs. Cukier and Mrs. Joselewicz then whispered into my ear. “There is nowhere to hide that they won’t find us.”
I pressed my coat tighter to my aching belly. “If they catch us they’ll kill us.”
“Then we’d better not let them catch us.” Mama grasped my hand in hers. “Remember, to get to the Voitenkos’ we cross the river then go across the field until we reach the road that goes to Skobelka.”
“I know, Mama, I know.”
Aged floorboards creaked as we stepped toward the door. Mrs. Cukier and Mrs. Joselewicz watched us pass through the ray of silver moonlight. No one spoke. Mama’s hand tightened around mine as she opened the door. I looked into Mrs. Cukier’s bitter eyes. She pulled Ania’s panting body closer to her chest. We had our plan for what was to come, she had hers.
The brass latch clicked as Mama closed the door behind us. Plaster dust coated the hallway floor and walls. A wide shaft of moonlight shone through a lone window at the end of the hall, creating an iridescent quadrangle on the floor and up one-third of the wall. Anything white glowed with a violet hue, including our dirty white blouses.
“Put your coat on,” Mama said as she pushed her arms through the sleeves of hers.
The wool felt heavy and the hem dragged in the dust. “Mama, if we run, I’ll trip.”
“We won’t run.”
Mama crouched so she wouldn’t cast a silhouette in the window. She reached back with one hand and fluttered it for me to do the same. We made the first few steps, then stood. The stairs were dark and bits of plaster and paint chips, swept aside by passing feet, lay piled along the edges.
On the second floor landing Mama stopped and pressed her hand to my chest. Lit by an elongated, uneven shaft of light was the emaciated body of a young girl. Her legs splayed in dust and paint chips, her back tilted against a wall, her hands rested on either side of her hips, palms open. The soft darkness gave her blouse and pitted face an ethereal appearance. The girl’s face tilted toward us; her vacant eyes staring at Mama.
I pushed Mama’s hand from my chest, “Its Nava.”
Behind a door across from Nava’s body, the floor creaked. “Nava?” a woman’s voice called.