I Never Saw Them Again

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

A compelling story depicting life in one of the worst genocides in history, the Holocaust.

I Never Saw Them Again

"Ah, Brenica!" the weathered man sighed. He looked up from his letter and stared out in thought, "So much has changed in that place. Our traditions, our stories, our livelihoods. We will never be the same." I, who was leaning against the doorpost, sipping at what remained in my cup, started towards the man. I pulled a chair from the table and sat next to him. In doing so, the man looked up from his lowered glasses and smiled, "You, my friend are part of this new generation, where our traditions have been forgotten", he lowered the piece of paper and glanced towards me, "I don't understand, why let this happen", he said, shaking the letter in his fist.

Unable to understand the man's thoughts I ventured out to ask him. Perec Urs, was from a small village called Brenica, in Eastern Poland. Perec was a wealthy banker and owned vast portions of land around the town, which seemed to be in a very profitable agricultural region, judging by his upper class mannerisms and the healthy stomach stretching comfortably over his belt. I was enthralled by this man. Coming from a poor city background I mainly conversed with people of the lower social classes and rarely had the chance to speak with people who were educated past high school. The man spoke with great pride of Brenica, smiling at every word. He described the place as "a piece of heaven on earth", with fields of beautifully scented flowers on scorching summer afternoons, a quaint stream that ran past the thatched, Waterwheel Inn and a bustling market centre open during weekday mornings. Though, through his description I could feel a certain level of coldness, something different to that of the Jewish discrimination we experienced, something more personal. I couldn't help but wonder why, although I knew asking would break all social boundaries between us. Instead, being the educated man he was, I felt as if my mind was read and he asked me to speak with him after work that evening. I politely agreed. At that moment the incessant bell that rang our breakfast of sorts to its close, abruptly finished our conversation. The day's work had begun.

I grew up in the inner city areas of Warsaw, working my way up the ladders in the banking industry. My apprenticeship from high school brought me all the way to the level of Junior Office Reports Manager, where I worked as a slave to the higher ups in the bank, rushing around making coffees and sending letters for them. It was tough work, but I thought it would lead me to get a wife, a family and a comfortable house in the suburbs. I was blissfully unaware of the changes in Germany. At the time I had tunnel vision, I wasn’t concerned for politics and was purely focused on getting out of the stream of poverty that I grew up in, so much so that I did not realise the growing danger of the situation. In Poland, everything seemed normal, I remember people speaking about Germany’s anti-Semitism as a passing phase, and that Poland was free from the reaches of the dictatorship, we even had a peace treaty between them!

Continuing my life with its daily routine, the German invasion came as a complete surprise. In the months following the invasion, the bank where I worked was bombed, our community was destroyed. Warsaw and Poland were in chaos. One afternoon I came home from a day’s shopping and was ordered to pack all the necessary things I could carry and leave to a square near to where I lived. Here a large group of my Jewish friends and extended family were met with confusion and panic, as a number of soldiers separated and shuffled us around until we were all given a room in the Ghetto. We were told no further.

Being only one person, the period in the Ghetto wasn’t particularly difficult for me in a physical way. I was in a constant state of hunger and tiredness, due to the long hours of work and small rations, but unlike the other, older people or people with families to care for, I was of the luckier few. The Ghetto did damage me emotionally, seeing starving children, the abuse to men and women and witnessing such terrible humiliation of an entire ethnic community being carried out in such ways put a drastic strain on my mental health. I was allotted a room in the portion of the Ghetto where people went to work to death, the other being where people starved to death. I worked ten hours per day in a factory making clothing for the soldiers; we didn’t get paid money, for it was useless instead we received food, one morning and one evening ration, usually a watery soup and 200grams of bread. After a few months of this and after seeing much of the people who I first met here perish, we were sorted and shipped out here, to this labour camp not far from Warsaw. In fact I knew this area quite well as child, we would come to this forest for picnics and to leave the busy city life. Then, it was a peaceful place, full of fond memories of me and my family. Today the place remains an ice cold, systematic machine of death.

Being only the second day here we were given our work allocations today. A large tunnel is to be dug out of the hillside and we are the ones ordered for the task. There are around 500 of us, half of whom were at the Ghetto with me, the others being New Arrivals, like Perec. They are mostly from small villages or towns and from all levels of social classes, though here we are, all in the same miserable mess. When we returned from the tunnel, I met with Perec at our bunker. We never did get our evening ration.

Our bunker was about 5m long by 3m wide, with two bunk beds against each wall. The room was only a concrete box with a small square opening on one end closed by a simple slated shutter. There was around ten of these huts arranged in a linear pattern along the dirt road which lead to the camp office. The other workers were in communal bunker behind ours. We arranged ourselves so that Perec was on the bottom bunk, and I on the top bunk. The single light in our hut automatically switched off and gradually each hut quietened. We continued where we left off, Perec was speaking of his life leading up to the German invasion, a particularly hilarious meeting that he had with an eccentric businessman, by the name of Olaf van Hullensburg in Belzec, when suddenly he stopped:

“What is it Mr. Urs?” I exclaimed,

Perec shuffled in the bed,

“I was aware of the tensions rising between Germany and Poland, but the day before I arrived back home, I was sent a letter, from a friend of mine in Brenica. He said that the Nazi’s had entered the town, taken out the Jews and shot them; men, women, children, everyone.”

He reorganised himself so that he was now looking up at me from the bottom bunk;

“Among those shot were my wife and daughters, both of them,”

“But that letter you received, who was that from?”

“That was him, my remaining son, he is in hiding with the friend who initially contacted me,”

There was a moment of respectable silence. Clearly changing the topic, Perec grinned a content smile and darted his head left and right, leaning in closer as he said in a barely comprehensible tone,

“We are getting out of here, I have devised a plan,”

“What! Are you mad?”

“Shh! This has to remain between us, only us. As much as I would love to bring the others I simply can’t.”

“The others” I replied,

“I heard if one escapes, another fifty get shot in return!”

“That’s if you have the wrong connections.” Perec’s grin widened.

He was to, was bribe the camp’s guards with an amount of gold that would rather never be disclosed. They know that we will never get far, so what has happened in the past is the guards alert other patrolling officers and you get rounded up and sent back to a camp. But, thanks to Perec’s connections in the non-Jewish world, we are able to be driven out of here with new ID’s and then get a direct trip to the United States, on the same day with no questions asked. I didn’t dare question what or who these connections were, but that was the beauty of it all.

I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking of our escape, thinking of freedom, thinking of my hunger finally disappearing, my strength returning. I couldn’t help but think of the many thousands that have died and will die in this war that has us Jews caught in the middle. I thought of the sights and smells of yesterday, when we were picked for the labour and the death camps. The bitter smell of burning in the air, the red brick smoke stacks in the distance, the cattle trains, it seemed all too surreal. How could people be so cruel? Why would the same God who put us on this earth put us through this hell? I also felt terribly selfish about my escape, why me, why do I get to escape? I have no family to look after, no friends. Plenty of people here have families who they need to live, yet they remain here to die. In spite of this I cannot resist the temptation of freedom.

Whether the plan goes well or ultimately fails, I know one thing,

I will never see them again.


1,647 words

Submitted: April 25, 2015

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