Rachel climbed abroad the second truck amidst German curses and shouted orders. When her lorry was packed, it joined the caravan heading southeast from Piatowka. The SS cargo moved past fields and through dense forests. Villagers on nearby roads avoided eye contact with the serpentine procession. After a day and night of travel, the Jews were unloaded and pushed bodily into the swelling ghetto of Lublin.
Amidst the squalor and overcrowding of so many Jews already, the addition of more Jews from the countryside, who brought nothing but empty stomachs and fear, exacerbated tensions. Rachel and her mother and sister were jammed into a three-room flat already overcrowded with sixteen people of various ages and sizes. With no fresh water or toilets, the flat offered few amenities against the stench of unwashed bodies and waste accumulating in nearby corners or down the hall.
The next day most Jews who could walk were rounded up for work details, while yesterday’s incoming were ordered to register at tables set up. Rachel, her mother and sister pushed past the groups of Jews clustered to get in line. Registration took moments after hours of standing and shoving just to have some German or Jewish scribbler collect names, ages, places of origin, occupation, and basic health data.
Bewildered as to what to do next, the women looked for someone, anyone, to help them get through this nightmare. People moved away from strangers, though. A few had looks of anger and arrogance for new arrivals whose clothing looked better than their own. Others tugged at Rachel, or her mother and sister, for information, a scrap of food, anything to give as charity in this portal to hell.
Rachel spotted a line of Jews waiting for soup. She quickly beckoned her mother and sister to follow. When they reached the end of the line, voices trailing back announced the soup was gone. People began to break out of the line and drift about, while SS patrols and blue-capped Jewish policemen with rubber truncheons dispersed any foolish enough to linger.
Hungry, dirty, and exhausted, Rachel’s family eventually went back to their overcrowded flat. The next day was slightly better when they got some soup that looked more like dirty bathwater than something edible. The ladler told Rachel to get a work pass or she would ‘disappear,’ because the Germans had it in for “useless eaters” who were marked for killing otherwise. Finding the work assignment table from another helpful Jew, Rachel endured a SS woman barking obscenities and insults about Rachel being a Jewess, and a “Polish piece of shit” for good measure. Surmounting her shame and rising hatred, Rachel got a work pass to clean the SS women’s latrines with five other women lucky enough to obtain a work assignment.
Rachel’s mother and sister had no such luck.
Torn from her arms, Rachel watched in horror as her mother and sister were corralled with other Jews destined to be evacuated from the Lublin Ghetto to God knows where. Shoved back by SS guards and their enraged dogs, Rachel and dozens of other Jews saw their loved ones pushed into trucks outside the gates to ride off into oblivion.
Five months after that tragedy, Rachel was on a transport to Sobibor.
Two days later in a crowded cattle car filled with miserable, praying, frightened and unwashed Jews, the train pulled alongside shunt tracks next to the death camp. After rough and often violent detraining, most Jews who were able to stand, huddled until guards pulled and hauled them to stand in rows. Rachel was in the third row and able to observe what happened next.
Two SS officers with death-head skulls on their caps walked slowly up and down each row. One or the other would point to a Jew, and have them step away and go to the side of a row. When some 50 or 60 old people, young mothers with infants, or children, were separated from their rows in front of a cattle car, other SS hustled them away and through the gates. Baggage and bundles were tossed out from each cattle car by men in filthy, striped pajama-like garb. When that was done, the officers at each row waited for a more senior SS official to approve the rows being marched into Sobibor in some orderly fashion.
Rachel ended up in a holding pen with other young and middle-aged women.
After processing, showering and getting a tattooed number on the left forearm, Rachel followed her new sisters to a barracks where another SS woman with a whip waited outside the door.
“Jew bitches!” the SS barrack’s leader screamed. “Get inside and find an empty space on any bunk shelf. You will be silent. Anyone making trouble here will feel my leather until she faints or is dead. Now move!”
The barracks reeked of human suffering and assorted foul smells. The few empty bunk spaces on tiered shelves were gross from continuous habitation and lack of cleanliness. Rachel spotted one at the bottom and moved to take it when a hand seized her arm and a voice whispered, “That one is taken. For your own safety, take the one I am pointing to. Trust me.” Then the voice and hand slipped away. Rachel saw a woman about her age looking at her, and pointing with her chin to the second row and one of the empty bunk slots. Rachel hesitated, filled with doubt. From the corner of her eye, she saw the SS sergeant with a whip start moving towards a knot of women milling about. Fearing a whipping, Rachel quickly climbed up to the proffered bunk slot and slid in, just as another inmate screamed from the first lash across her unfortunate’s shoulder.
The hand and voice sidled next to Rachel. In Yiddish her protector said, “My name is Judit. I am from Hungary. Where are you from?”
“Piatowka, a small village near Lublin,” Rachel replied in the same language.
Judit asked, “Do you know what this place is?”
“No. Not exactly.”
“It is a German torture camp. But we work to death here. The Germans are building another camp nearby. Rumor has it that when this is completed, all Jews sent there will disappear upon their arrival by transport.”
“How do you know this?” The question hung in the air, unanswered. Judit looked at Rachel and turned away for a moment, as the SS sergeant prodded the last of the new inmates to get in a bunk space.
“I said it was just a rumor, but Sobibor does not build anything the Germans need for the war effort. Most of the women here die like flies from hunger, sickness, or suicide, if they are lucky. The SS like to torture and maim us as sport. A person can be killed just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I tell you this because Bela, my friend from our town Csipel, was beaten to death two days ago because she came out of the latrine late when called by one of the guards. He shot her in the face and then laughed as he walked away. Bela’s body was dragged to a pit with others that day. That is why.”
Rachel adjusted to Sobibor because Sobibor would not adjust for her. Days followed nights, fear tempered by hate; the waking hours never seemed to end because of scanty restless sleep. In a few months Rachel was no longer a young woman. Her body aged slowly, yes. Her mind aged years as the months dragged on in the universe that Sobibor was.
One warm spring night in 1942 Judit gently touched Rachel in a way both women knew religion and decency forbade. Rachel at first tried to push Judit’s probing fingers away. In time she relented.
That time, no one else noticed or cared.
Weeks later after the first encounter, someone noticed and reported Judit. When Judit was pulled from rank during roll call, an SS sergeant calmly walked over and slapped Judit again and again viciously. Then the whip uncoiled like a mamba. Her tormentor laid on the lash until blood splattered the guard’s face and uniform. Unable to stop, she continued whipping the prone body with increasing pleasure. Finally, Judit lay beaten to death, while all those in roll call stood by, silently, ashamedly. When Judit’s body was dragged away by two inmates, the SS sergeant, tired from her exertions, dismissed the rest of her charges to attend their day’s labors.
Rachel fought nausea and hatred for what happened to Judit. That night she grieved like she never did for her dead mother and sister, father and brother. By morning Rachel felt hollowed out, like her soul had fled and left its shell behind.
A week later Rachel was sent to the death camp to be an aide. How this wonder came to pass, she never knew. Why she was spared death from the labor and death twins at Sobibor, Rachel never understood.
Each day she could see the billowing smoke from crematoria whose furnaces never ceased spewing. The smell of death saturated the buildings, the grounds, even the barbed wires and fence posts. SS and inmates went about their daily dance of life and death, boredom and anguish. Rachel saw all, remembered all, and survived all. Her gray eyes became windows never shut against evil. But they were also mirrors to everlasting bitterness and torturing memories.
When Sobibor was eventually abandoned by the retreating SS, most of the feeble prisoners were killed where they stood or lay. Rachel and some able inmates were hustled into trucks heading away from the approaching Red Army.
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