This is officially a disclaimer. This story may be difficult for some to read. It was difficult for me to write. It began with a simple photograph in a book of train tracks heading toward a building, and suddenly I was on a train on those tracks. It was a story I could only write part of because it was so vivid for me and then had to stop and return to it later. There is actually a shift in the tone of the story between the first writing and the second when I was able to come back to it from a new perspective. I thought it was important to leave it as it was, as I experienced the writing of it.
Before the story though came a poem that I have put on my website. It was a reminder of joy, a reminder that I very much needed after writing the story. I am posting the story now because I saw a documentary at the Rappahannock Independent Film Festival this week about a Polish woman who save the lives of 15 Jewish people during WWII by letting them live for 20 months in a hayloft and in a hole dug under her kitchen floor. After watching the film it just seemed like the right time to share this story.
I can feel the rumble of the train in my body and I can smell that scent that I can’t identify on the air, an acrid smoke that stops my breath with fear and I don’t know why. Hundreds of other eyes crammed close together trying to see and yet knowing that they don’t want to see what approaches. So they try to look behind us to get a last glimpse of a world they can understand, a last breath of air that is clean. But it’s too late, there is nothing clean anymore. All is grey and lost and full of hate. You cannot feel any humans around the train at the station because the souls that would give them true life have left what would have been their bodies far behind in the horror on the ground. If the weight in their hearts can be described, I haven’t the words for it. All that is describable is the screeching of the wheels, iron upon iron, the hissing release of the steam and smoke; and even that sinks slowly to the ground rather than drifting toward a heaven that can’t be felt in this place.
On the train their hope sank too, in each heart but one, for there is always one, one who would dream and see beyond, to where the smoke can’t venture. If not for that one, things might have been different now, they might even be different in some alternate version of what happened here, who knows. Maybe in another universe they broke her spirit, but in this one, thank God, she held fast, body and Spirit joined and whole. Because of her I exist to hold the memory of that place. While that is not a role I would have chosen; to be the keeper of the memory of horror, still someone must live on to speak the truth of it or none would believe it could be true and it could happen again. Even so, it has happened again. Have I failed in my mission since now there must be another and another who hold the horror of another place? I could not have let her down, I could not. I speak the story again and again of this place called Auschwitz. Sometimes I speak it at night to her when she visits me in my dreams. I try to convince her that it was not in vain, but it is me that I’m trying to convince, for the horror lives on. Does the story being told bring it back to life? Or does it help in some small way to prevent a repetition? Her eyes give me no answer but they do dance with joy. She has found peace. Perhaps I should have found mine there too, often I wish I had. But if by my story one less person feels the rumble of a train they can’t stop, then my peace must be found in that for now. One day I will share her joy and tell my story no more, for it will no longer be needed. Clean again all.
She had no tears that day. Her eyes were open and dry though tears flowed all around her. She knew the purpose of this place, within her being she knew. Yet she met their eyes, those who would actually look. Most didn’t look on purpose because few ever looked back, so they hadn’t expected to meet her eyes. It was they who had to look away when their eyes met. They could not withstand the light they found there, the angle of how she held her head. It was not anger or defiance or fear in her demeanor, it was freedom. Freedom despite the crush of humans, despite the scent of fear and death, despite the hard barrels of guns and harsh voices. She was free and they could see that.
They could not understand it though for they were not free themselves. In their way they were as trapped as those they imprisoned. They would not be released soon by death but would be imprisoned in the cells of their memories of what they had done for the rest of their lives. She knew that, she saw that in them. She saw the shells they had become, souls gone in sorrow. And she forgave them. In her freedom came the gift of forgiveness, even before the crime had been committed she forgave them. She forgave them for every life they had extinguished. And so they feared her. She who brought light and forgiveness was the one they feared the most. It was the path they didn’t know how to walk for themselves and there she was showing it to them, showing them compassion.
There was only one that day who could meet her eyes even briefly. His name was Josef. He saw her moving forward, the only one with her eyes looking ahead instead of down. She held his glance and he saw his fate in that instant, he knew he would choose it. He didn’t know how he would find the courage but he knew that it would be there when he needed it. Many days after that day he tried to deny it, he tried to tell himself he imagined it but each time he saw her he knew it afresh.
Normally there would not have been many days between her arrival and her death, but that was how much they feared her. They found reasons to let her live while those around her were called forward and never returned. Never did her eyes waver. So they tried unsuccessfully to break her.
It was not that she had left her body in this place and yet she was somehow distant. She had her feet on the ground and could feel the pain of the Earth in this place. She could feel the collective fear and hatred and ache. But she could feel more strongly the truth within her. The truth of the hearts of all who passed through this place and who were becoming this place. She did not carry their pain for them but somehow allowed it to leave them through her a little. Somehow she helped lighten the collective pain simply by being and knowing her truth.
She loved them all in a way that did not seem possible. Those going to their deaths gladly received her love and carried it with them on their journey. Those who lead them to their deaths couldn’t look at her love let alone receive it. All those except Josef that is. He received her love and she gave it freely each time she saw him. I don’t know if she too knew what he would do when her turn came. Maybe she did but didn’t know the courage would be there like he did. It did not distract her even if she did know. She went about her daily assignments and tasks as if it were a normal day, not the day she might die at the hands of those who hated her without reason. She did not do her work cheerfully but with dignity and grace. That was what her name might have been if one could have chosen it for her at that point, Grace, but it was Maria. She carried her light with her to each task and that was all she did.
Finally they could stand the light no more. They couldn’t look at it or extinguish it and it drove them mad. So one stepped forward to make the choice. It was Josef. He led her that day to the gas chamber and as with all things she walked forward with eyes ahead and light and forgiveness in them. He waited beside her as she, with the others, took off her clothes, the last remnants of their protection and dignity. She turned to look at him and he looked back, full in her eyes.
He did not take his eyes off hers as he bent to lay down his gun at her feet. He did not take his eyes off hers as he removed his own clothes. He did not take his eyes off hers as he took her hand and walked with her into that chamber.
Not one other guard moved. They stood in shock as he walked away. No one thought to pick up his gun and use it, so resigned were they to their fate. They were grateful to be near her at this moment of their deaths. As was he. Together they stood hand in hand as the door closed behind them, a finality to the sound of the lock moving into place.
There were no tears in the group that day, no pleas for mercy, no terror. They were all lost in the two that were at the center of the room. All lifted up by the connection found there, the truth revealed in hearts met that knew they were one, no matter their assigned roles or places of birth.
With Grace they died that day and for a moment or an eternity brought Grace to a place that never thought to see it again. Still it lingers in the sound of the wind in the trees around that place of sorrow, lightening it in some way, allowing it to move and be Free - As she was Free.