An intense journey from youthful hopes and dreams, to the edge of despair and terrible death
On a cold and snowy winter day, in 1943, the last transport from the ghetto of Wloszczowa, a small town in the south of Poland, is getting ready to leave. It is transporting the last remaining Jews to the Treblinka death camp. There, on a concrete platform fenced in with barbed wire, German soldiers stand guard, some holding onto fierce attack dogs, exposing their intimidating teeth. With the butts of their rifles, they shoved the frightened people who had just disembarked from the train they had been squeezed in for two days in sealed wagons without any food or water. They are led into a large concrete structure and commanded to undress and get ready to shower. Completely naked, they are told to run into the “cleansing” hall; when it was full, the doors were shut. Among dozens of Jews who were crammed into the sealed chamber I spotted Lilly, my young and beautiful aunt, standing there naked, trying to hide her nakedness with her hands, shivering with cold and fear. Almost complete darkness reigns inside with people pushing, praying, crying and screaming in despair.
After a few minutes a small hatch opens from the ceiling and a single beam of light penetrates. Everybody looks up and watches as a small canister is thrown down into the room. Suddenly a pungent smell rises from the floor and engulfs the room. People grab their throats, choking, coughing and vomiting. They start climbing one onto the other as they try to reach higher levels where there is still some air.
After a few moments, there is complete stillness; no groaning or suffering. Deathly silence takes over.
The sound of creaking hinges is heard and the doors open. Guards wearing masks peek inside and see that there are still some bodies twitching and fluttering as white foam drips from their mouths. The guards quickly move away, allowing the gas to dissipate and evaporate before other prisoners arrive to remove the bodies and move them to the crematorium where they will be burnt. Among those bodies is the body of my aunt Lilly, who was only twenty-seven years old.
I recognized her image from the many pictures that were found in perfect order in her personal album that was hidden by a Polish family. I also felt I knew her from stories that I heard about her from my father – her older brother.
Ever since I saw her image, I began to dream, and the dream haunts me; those frightening recurring images. Nearly always, at the point when her body is thrown into the oven of the crematorium and the metallic sound of the iron door being locked, I wake up sweating with my heart pounding.
I lie awake in bed and think and imagine what those poor souls, who went like lambs to the slaughter, must have experienced. Those were real people, many of whom were from my large and diverse family. Those thoughts provoke anger in me and a strong desire to take revenge. My body aches and refuses to believe that all this really happened.
But I have been there several times, to Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau. I saw everything; the barracks, the crematoria, the execution wall, the platform and train tracks. Although seventy years have passed, it seems as if it were yesterday.
Lilly was murdered four years before I was born, and two years before the Second World War ended.
Fragment of the book
When Lilly woke up, she found that her mother and aunt were already awake and reading books.
“What is the book you’re reading about?” Lilly asked Berta.
“It is a book that I found in the library in Warsaw. It takes place during the fifteenth century and is about a young Russian girl named Rukslan Aleksandra, who was brought to Constantinople and placed in the harem at the Topkapi Palace. It tells of the great love that developed between her and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent,” Berta replied.
“It sounds like an interesting story. When you have finished it, I would like to read it,” Lilly said.
“Are you implying that I should hurry up?” Bertha asked.
“No,” Lilly replied. “You can continue at your own pace. I find it difficult to read on trains with all the vibration and shaking. I feel sick and cannot concentrate on reading.”
“Stop chattering,” Ida interrupted. “What would the two of you like to eat? I was just at the restaurant and had some tea and toast.”
“If so, I will go too. But first I must go to the bathroom and freshen up a bit” Berta said.
The speeding train passed through villages and vast green plains. As they approached Bucharest, they saw the village farmers plowing their fields with primitive wooden plows drawn by oxen. There were no vehicles in sight and poverty was evident everywhere. All they saw were animals pulling cartloads of straw.
“It is so much fun to be a tourist and to travel in luxury. The only person I know who can afford to travel in this style is Aunt Cesia,” Lilly commented. Her mother and aunt did not answer her, either because they did not hear her, or because the comment did not warrant a response.
The train finally arrived at Bucharest and stopped at a platform crowded with people. Interestingly, nobody got off the train nor did anybody board the train. Many had come either out of curiosity just to see the luxurious train, or perhaps to glimpse the aristocrats who were known to travel in the front super-luxurious carriages. When the horn of the locomotive sounded, people began waving their hands as if saying goodbye. Lilly waved back to them until the train pulled out of the station and the human landscape changed to one of endless corn fields.
By estimating the number of kilometers and hours already travelled, Ida calculated that the train was due in at the last stop towards evening.
Ida was right. As they approached Bosphorus Bay they could see the city lights and they knew that they had arrived.
When the train finally pulled into the station it was already midnight. They hired a porter to help them offload their suitcases and put them on handcarts that were scattered throughout the station.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Isabella appeared, running towards them. Ida recognized her from the many photographs she had sent. They ran into each other’s arms and hugged each other warmly. Isabella then walked over to Berta and Lilly and hugged them too.
Although Isabella’s apartment was small, there was space for everybody. Ida slept together with Isabella in the double bed, Lilly slept on the sofa in the living room, while Berta slept in the hallway on a folding bed.
Due to the late hour, apart from a brief conversation and a glass of sweet black tea, the guests, one after the other, got into bed totally exhausted and fell asleep.
In the morning, they could hear the cry of the muezzin from the minarets of the mosque: Allah Akbar, God is the greatest.
They all ran to the balcony of the apartment to see the what the noise was.
Isabella laughed and said, “That is the call for morning prayers. Nothing to be alarmed about.”
The view from the balcony was almost magical; the bay and the bridge that connect the two parts of the city, the churches and mosques along with fishermen in their decorated boats. Everything looked so special. The view was totally different from what they were used to seeing in Poland.
Isabella, who was nearing seventy years of age, walked with difficulty, and it was evident that she suffered from pain in her knees. Her mind however, was young, sharp and full of life.
“What is the attitude of the residents towards the Jews?” Berta asked.
“When Kemal Atatürk was elected leader of Turkey, he introduced a series of political, legal, cultural, social and economic policy changes that were designed to convert the new Turkey into a secular, modern nation. One of the clauses in the new constitution stated that all religions are equal under the law. In every speech, he mentioned that they must protect the Jews and accept them as brothers. As early as 1836, the Ottoman Empire had announced in one of its hatti humanyun (imperial decrees), that all citizens are equal before the law including the Jews. Hundreds of Jews from Germany and other European countries arrived to enjoy the freedom of religion and expression in Turkey. I am so glad that I moved from Odessa to Constantinople, which incidentally was renamed as Istanbul,” Isabella explained.
“I am surprised by what you say, as we have never heard about it at all. After all, they are all Muslims here” Berta said.
“Yes, they are indeed Muslims, but the new leader aims to get closer to Europe. He has introduced swift changes to the ways of life. He has outlawed the face veil as well as polygamy, and even replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet. It is interesting to note that there has hardly been any opposition. The Turkish people view these changes as progress and have a desire to connect to the West,” Isabella expounded.
“What about your relations with the Bahai?” Berta questioned.
“I wrote a play on the subject of the Bahai which became a big hit and was shown in many countries. A number of years ago I was invited to go to Egypt and even met with the Bahai community leader,” Isabella answered with a smile.
“You were in Egypt?” Lilly interrupted. “Have you seen the pyramids?”
“Yes, I saw them and they are of enormous proportions. I did not go in any of them. I settled on a visit to the museum in downtown Cairo, where I saw the findings from the excavations near the pyramids,” Isabella answered.
“Who are the Bahai that you wrote about”? Lilly inquired curiously.
“The Bahai are a sect that originated in India. They are pacifists, lovers of nature and beauty, and believe in the absolute equality between the sexes. One can say that their religion is very similar to the Hindu religion,” Isabella answered patiently.
This time it was Isabella who turned to Lilly with a question.
“Lillinka, tell me a little about yourself. What do you do? Or better yet, what are you planning to do with your life.”
Lilly blushed when she heard the question. She really did not like it when people delved into her private life, especially not in front of her mother and her aunt Berta.
After a moment she regained her composure and replied.