My son is dead. He died in a concentration camp near our home where my husband was stationed. When we moved there, I expected a nice, small home where Ralf could commute back and forth to is station. But when we got there, the house was small and also dirty. It was covered in vines and made from slate grey bricks. My daughter, Gretel, didn't mind. She was proud of her father and agreed this move was for the best. She stayed within the bounds I set for her and her brother. She often stayed in her room playing with her dolls. My son, Bruno, however didn't like it at all. He often tried to go into the back garden even after I told him not to. One day he built a swing made from an old tire and some rope, which he fell off of, resulting in a scraped knee. I came home from town and found one of our Jewish servants bandaging him up. He was from a neighboring camp that often sent prisoners to work at our home. Bruno often talked about that camp as being a 'farm with no animals and strange farmers in pajamas'. All of the servants are to keep their heads down and not to talk to anyone. Now I really had nothing against Jews, but I knew if anyone found out about him helping Bruno, he would be killed for sure. I told Bruno to go upstairs and took the blame for everything.
Over the weeks, I began seeing a change in my family. Gretel was becoming increasingly interested in the war and current events.I found all of her dolls striped and in the cellar one afternoon and her room plastered with newspaper clippings and Nazi propaganda posters. I felt terrible that not only my husband was consumed with this nonsense, but the daughter too? My baby girl? I also found Gretel hanging around Lieutenant Kotler, a young Nazi soldier. Bruno, I noticed, was changing as well. He would disappear for periods of time, only to come back and say he was on his swing. I began to wonder what he was doing. If only I had known what was really going on. Ralf's attitude was very different. he seemed to be harsher and more strict. He didn't smile very much anymore and was always preoccupied with his job. And lastly, I began to notice a change in myself too. I was getting out the family cab one day when I smelled an odd oder. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it smelt a bit like burning flesh. One of the soldiers noticed me wrinkling my nose and leaned over. "They smell even worse when they burn, don't they?" He commented. I turned around bewildered. I knew about the concentration camp, but what I didn't know what it was an execution camp. I looked up to see the sky thick with the smoke from the burning bodies. I went inside and immediately demanded to my husband why he never told me. I cried and screamed, but what he said was no console. He said that we were in war, and this was just a part of it. But I knew it wasn't; this was disgusting, cruel, and evil. I couldn't believe my husband, the man I fell in love with, was a part of this.
Over the next few weeks I began to fall into a deep depression. With every breath I took, I knew that that was one breath those prisoners at that camp wouldn't have. That every breaths of air I took in was filled with human ashes. I felt no will to do my hair or put on my make-up. Why should I continue my life of luxury when innocent people were being denied of it? I cried constantly and couldn't go to my husband. Gretel was continuing to transform into a younger version of her father, and Bruno was almost never around. I should have tried to entertain him myself, but I couldn't bring myself to. He seemed so much happier, had more light in his eyes, that I just didn't want to risk ruining it.
My relationship with Ralf was continuing to falter. We fought a lot and he never tried to comfort me or even attempt to change his ways. I begged him to let us move back home--I didn't want to raise my children in this contaminated environment. He eventually agreed, but only me and the children would go. And not back to Berlin, butto my sister's home in Heidleburg. I began packing as soon as possible. Ralf announced it to the kids the next morning. They're reactions were the same as last time; Gretel agreed to go and Bruno wanted to stay.
The next day after lunch was when we were scheduled to go. An hour before the cab came, Bruno asked if he could take his lunch out to his swing on last time. Something in me said to tell him no, but for whatever reason I ignored it and let him. It was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.
When were we packed and ready to go, I checked the swing outside. Bruno was not there. I called his name only to hear silence. I asked Gretel if she'd seen him recently. She said she hadn't. I began to get frantic. We searched the entire house and the outside area. The soldiers hadn't seen him, but they agreed to help search. Just when I was about to give up, I noticed the door to the back garden was ajar. My heart sank. I began to run and the sky opened up, raining bullets on us. We ran though to forest, the soldier with their dogs, and Gretel and I on foot. Ralf and the soldiers reached a fence with separated that us from the concentration camp. On the ground there was a small shovel, a hole leading under the fence, and Bruno's clothes in a pile in the dirt. We then realized the horrible truth: Bruno for some reason had crawled under the fence and into the camp. Ralf raced inside and desperately searched for Bruno. I could see soldiers lead a group to the gas chambers. I hoped and I prayed that my son was not among those seconds from death. It was when Ralf cried out that I knew that Bruno was among those heading for the showers. I fell to my knees screaming as I watched a Nazi in a gas mask pour the poisonous granules into a small opening in the chamber. I sobbed as I heard the screams and desperate pounds on the door die down with the people trapped in there. I sobbed and clutched Bruno's clothes to me, no caring if mine were getting muddy. All I cared about was that my son was dead, and I could have prevented it. If only I didn't let him go outside hours earlier. That was a mistake I'll never forget.
I later learned that Bruno had befriended a small boy his age at the camp. Everyday he would go to that fence and bring games or food with him. The young boy's father had gone missing and Bruno felt he should help him find him. He decided to put on a prisoner's uniform and crawl under that fence. He made the fatal mistake of going into the hut that happened to be next for the gas chambers. He didn't run when they were being lead--he didn't know what was happening. He didn't go up to a soldier and explain who he was if he ever did. He stuck by his friend through death. When they cleaned to bodies from the chamber, they found Bruno and the boy side by side on the ground, their little hands clasped together. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think of my little boy, and what he sacrificed to help a friend. ~ Elsa, 1948