Historical Fiction by Anthony M. Davis
On a cold January morning in a concentration camp, liberation is near. Through it all, some things keep a person going.
A fresh snow has fallen on this cold January morning. The familiar whistle used to awaken the prisoners at 3:00 am each morning remained silent. Maybe it had finally found death like so many of the interned here that now lay in piles at rear of the camp. It had such an odd scream. The piercing cry reverberated through each man's bones with an evil warning, "On this day you'll learn to suffer and then… you'll learn to die." With each morning's outburst, its prophecy rang true.
As the afflicted came near their end, the fever and delirium would slowly destroy their ability to secure that last breath, reaching for an invisible hand from the world they are entering. Occasionally their eyes would manifest another hell still unseen. Then, the closing breath was drawn.
Last night was different. The captors fled the camp, secured the gate and disappeared into the darkness. During the last two weeks there had been an urgency to remove the sick and dying and transport them to a neighboring rest camp. Most likely, they met their demise at the Mauthausen camp 100 kilometers to the east. Last night, three men slept on a board that normally held eight.
As the prisoners slowly descended from their cold cramped quarters, they were amazed that no one came to get them. Wearily each man grasped the wooden railing that secured his bed, striving to gain balance and again meet the pain in his feet and legs from the edema. The swelling seemed to stretch the last layer of skin on their skeletonized bodies. Cautiously, they huddled together in an effort to gain some warmth and take turns peering out the few holes in the thin walls that separated them from another day's horror, only to find…no one.
For weeks the sounds of battle drew closer. Twice before there had been an urgency for the Schutzstaffel, or SS to depart the camp. With each departure they took with them 250 or more of the weakest members of the camp, never to be seen again. The guards would return only to replay the same egress. With each cycle the population lessened and the chances of extermination of those left behind increased. Previously, there had been a small contingent of guards left behind. Now it seems they all are gone.
For the last three years each man had become accustomed to the frantic orders, the noise, various cruelties (many times by the smallest of the guards), famine and affliction. These had become a pattern of life, the certainty of uncertainty. Yet, the stillness in the camp today was odd. It pained the soul, like the longing for a loved one.
Emerging from the shabby structures moved a slow wave of skeletal frames. Their skin so gray in color, the fresh snow was dimmed by their presence. Closer they cautiously stepped near the empty unguarded gate still afraid to touch it. Far too many had "run into the wire," only to meet their fate with the electric fences. Yet, even the transformers relented from their constant deadly moan. The enslaved stood waiting… waiting for an answer to the silence. Some had found their way to the Kommisar's office in search of food. Others, in the habit of being driven, picked up tools as if to begin work. To them, the ornate iron sign that adorned their previous camp at Auschwitz burned into their memory; Arbeit macht frei (work makes one free.) Here, liberation was only a memory, a moment in time that no man can steal. Ultimately, it came as a final breath.
A sound began to emanate from the distance. Vehicles could be heard as they began to near the camp. The thought of liberation ended and the reality of life in a concentration camp again became real; aptly named as truly the only freedom a man could enjoy…concentration. As the transport neared, there began a stir. Those in the rear could only struggle to gain view of what lay ahead. Slowly a car and four trucks emerged around the turn just down the hill. Closing in from behind followed a truck displaying a large Red Cross on the side panel. These were not the returning captors. Some of the men recognized them as Russian and their transit to the gate seemed like an eternity.
The Russian Officer in charge sat in his vehicle staring at the skeletal remains of a once thriving population. No words were spoken. The longer he sat the weaker he began to appear. He wiped his eyes and quickly drank from a bottle that he extracted from his overcoat. Cautiously he stepped from the vehicle and slowly moved toward the gate. The snow was about nine inches deep. That and his sense of shock seemed to slow him. Finally, he stood at the ominous barrier and spoke in a broken voice. Another stir began to move through the camp; some understood his meaning. He turned and barked an order to his men who quickly arrived around him. That morning stood two masses of humanity, the captive and the free, staring at one another. Both sides began to weep. One from pity, the other, from hope.
The gates were broken loose and help had arrived. Food and medicine began to flow into the camp. Each man was to register with the identification tent prior to departing. However, where was a person to go? Had liberation really arrived? For many the heart of a wife or loved one held the last thread of life; the future days that will be shared together. Until the objects of their dreams rejoin them there is no reclamation of life. Anticipation and uncertainty now took preeminence. The women had been taken far north to another camp, Ravensbrück. Where are they? Are they still alive? Most of the men are soon informed of their loved one's demise. The news had cut through each man's heart like a hot knife. How does a person set out to live a life alone, and with nothing? As each man exits the gate they slowly begin to hear the loved one in their dreams calling to them, "Live a life that is worthy of our sufferings, and know that love has no boundaries."