REVEALED by Atara Vogelstein
I stood bare naked in the depths of hell. Shivering, with my arms caressing my frail body, I closed my eyes. Memories flooded my shaven head. I imagined the train ride, the creaky floorboards, the suffocating walls, and the looming doom that awaited us. I remembered the mother beside me, holding her baby to her chest and murmuring prayers. I remembered the father with his two little girls, one in each hand, both peering up at him with baffled stares. I remembered the whining little boy with a tummy ache, already famished and cranky.
And I remembered my mother, her wide, gentle brown eyes, auburn hair, and nurturing words. The way she used to tuck me in at night, sing me a lullaby and tell me she loved me. And my father, who read me stories and knew how to make me laugh. And my sister, almost identical to my father, with straight, black hair, and hazel eyes. Her picturesque face that found me in hide-and-seek, put ribbons in my hair, and was my best friend.
But weeks had passed since I had last seen them, along with many of my friends. I left the apartment that day for the market, a shabby row of carts with rotting fruit and vegetables and bread as hard as cement. As I made my way back through the Ghetto, feeling a little uneasy, I cautiously approached our new home.
The Gestapo had just placed us there, in this dilapidated structure they called a building, filled with far too many families. If a baby cried in the middle of the night, everyone awoke, and any wind at all crept through the cracks and crevices of the walls, making us tremble in our beds. In a matter of weeks, my life in France grew progressively miserable. Each day more of my friends disappeared. My parents lost their bakery. They threw me out of school. But I had been eager to leave. I felt relieved, actually, the day I got expelled. I couldn’t take the bullying anymore. Even my teacher made me feel inadequate…I turned in my homework and she would laugh…this crass little laugh…was it funny to her that I did my homework? But then we lost our home, and nothing seemed funny anymore. They took our house and everything in it—my childhood, my aspirations, everything sentimental to me. Yet, the day I climbed those stairs in that foreign structure they called a building, I sensed more emptiness.
Every apartment I passed, with its door flung open, with clothing, pans, hairbrushes, books and bed sheets strewn across the floor, screamed invasion. Every step I took, I felt more and more alone. No one coughed, whined, or even breathed. Suddenly, I collapsed to the floor, apprehending the desertion all around me. I knew they were gone—every member of every household that once stood happily in a neighborhood, peacefully living their lives, had been snatched away by those German guards obeying orders from the Devil himself. Had they no soul?
I don’t know how many hours or days passed before I mustered enough strength to look out the window and see sunlight again, but, unsurprisingly, the sun was nonexistent. As I gazed at the clouds, I wondered where everyone had gone. What happened to their souls? Were they still alive? Would I ever see them again?
Heavy footsteps down below interrupted my thoughts. I heard voices, deep, male voices, speaking harshly and rapidly. Before I had time to think, a German guard stood sternly in the doorway with a baton in his massive hands. He yelled at me in German, but I couldn’t understand a word. As he continued barking, I fainted.
When I opened my eyes, I could see only dark spots. I shut them again. After a few moments, I felt movement beneath me. My body bumped up and down and my head throbbed as if I had run headfirst into a brick wall. Realizing where they trapped me, inside a musty, wooden boxcar, overflowing with strangers, I felt a cold hand around my wrist. In shock, I pulled it away, and the middle-aged woman hovering over me let out a sigh of relief. “Thank Goodness you’re alive,” she whispered in Italian. “The way that guard thrust you onto the train…you hit your head so hard…must’ve knocked you unconscious.” My head continued throbbing as I tried lifting it off the floor, so I relented and just lay there. The woman stayed by my side, asking me how I felt every so often. I reassured her that I would be fine, just as my stomach started growling obnoxiously loudly. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten anything, and felt woozy once again.
Hours or maybe days later, the train came to a reeling stop. The doors slammed open and everyone visibly shuttered. As we filed off the train, one by one, the guards checked us up and down, patted our clothing, searched for weapons. One guard lingered on my breast for longer than I deemed necessary, and I slapped his hand away. Immediately, he lifted that same hand and struck me across the face. My check burned, and I yelled out in pain. “Filthy Jew! You’ll think twice before you ever strike me again,” he spat. “Go! To the right with you,” and he shoved me in that direction.
As we shuffled off the train, anyone who refused the guards’ instructions faced cruel punishments, namely whippings, beatings, and even shootings. With every gun shot, I recoiled. Men and women alike yelled from every direction. Others stood petrified. We all awaited death, and death awaited us.
The air reeked of something burning. Children began coughing and whining while their mothers wept. In the distance, I saw barracks and cabins, lined up one right after the other, for miles on end. Fences surrounded the camp, thrusting themselves through the earth like swords. I wondered, where are our shields? With rifles slung across their uniforms, the guards surrounded us, lions hunting their prey. I could almost hear them growling. I just stared back at them with a gaze so loathing I hoped it would burn a hole through their hollow chests.
They led us into a concrete room and one by one, shaved our heads. I whispered goodbye to each auburn lock of hair that fell swiftly to the ground, the last remnant of my mother. Once more they divided us—men to the left, women to the right—tearing children away from parents, husbands away from wives, sisters away from brothers, and lined us up and forced us to strip off whatever garments we wore. I hesitated, embarrassed to shed my last shred of dignity. In my hesitation, a familiar face stalked up to me. “Shall I remove your clothes for you?” he barked again, and began unbuttoning my sweater. A creepy, almost satanic smirk formed between his lips as he ran his hands down my shirt, making me shiver in the already bitter air. I jumped back, and he released me. “I can do it myself,” I muttered. He just stood there, watching me undress, mocking me as shame befell me. As I slowly peeled off my stockings, I noticed smoke emanating from the chimneys about a hundred yards away. It swirled in the air as a putrid smell filled my nose. Everyone around me stood in silence, petrified by what lay before them.
With my hands wrapped around my body, concealing what parts of me I could manage, I noticed the same menacing guard coming toward me once more. “You will not take a shower today,” he said rather confidently. Yanking me by the hand, he dragged me in the direction of the barracks. Terrified, I said nothing, and just followed him like a lost child. At sixteen, I was not prepared for what would soon follow. This guard looked about twenty years of age, had bleach-blonde hair, and blue eyes—a replica of every picture I’d seen manifested on every shop window and newspaper article for the past few months, depicting the perfect, Aryan young man. I decided that if I fought back or protested, it would make matters worse, especially in my fragile state. Abashed, I went with him, hating myself every step of the way.
We entered a dark room, containing a desk, a bed, and a single window. Shadows crept up the walls and floor. This stockade seemed fitting as his quarters. He threw me onto the bed and commanded me not to make a sound. I obliged. In his forcefulness, he defiled me, penetrated through the very essence of self-respect I had maintained so methodically while embracing womanhood. It was excruciating. My soul sundered into six million pieces with every eternal, every prolonged, every deprecating moment.
When he finished with me, he rose from the bed, and went to light a cigar. The smell of smoke distracted me from the smell of blood beneath me, but served as a reminder to what lay outside the imprisoning walls. I felt defeated, angry, disgusted, and horrified. He just stood there, staring at me, with the cigar between his lips.
This regimen continued for nearly two weeks. He acted like it was part of his military training. Every morning he would dress, sling his rifle across his chest, demand that I be a good little girl and remain inside, and would lock me in. A few hours later, he would return with bread and cheese, which I ate willingly, and occasionally, he brought back milk instead of water. Then, he would add more bullets to his gun, lift it and say, “Successful day. Those damn Jews deserved every blow they got.” Sitting silently, I shook every time those words left his mouth, trying not to imagine what lay beyond the doorway but also resisting the urge to look.
Most nights, he slept with his rifle in his arms, caressing it like a child. But one night, as he rolled over in his sleep, nearly knocking me to the floor, the rifle escaped his grasps. Seizing the opportunity, I quietly climbed out of bed and lifted the rifle. Heavier than I’d expected, I almost dropped it, but caught it before it clattered to the floor.
As I raised it, I thought of his rough, groping, bearlike hands; the grotesque expression on his face even as he slept. I thought of the kind-faced woman hovering over me in the train; the young girls with confusion in their eyes as they endured their final moments of childhood; the hungry little boy with longing on his lips. I heard a scream in the distance and immediately my teacher’s awful chuckle echoed through the air. I heard the jeering voices of my classmates, my lab partners, my former friends, my neighbors, scoffing and hissing and shouting, “Jew!” whenever I passed through the halls or the stores or the library or the streets. The word, “Jew!” reverberated against my skull, pounding in unison with my heart. I heard these voices become silent as I entered the ghetto walls, only to be replaced with the shrieks of ill children, the cries of grieving mothers, the wails of praying men. I thought of my mother, my father, and my sister. I thought of how I could now explain their unexplainable disappearance even though it made no sense to me and probably never would.
With those dear faces in mind that had been slaughtered, so victimized and tortured, I aimed right at his chest, and pulled the trigger.
“Now someone got what they deserved,” I said aloud. “You will never touch me again.” And with that, I drenched myself in clothing, layers upon layers, struggled into his boots, and planned my escape. Some of his friends would soon feel my wrath, and perhaps some innocent lives would be saved.
As a student of the imagination, Atara Vogelstein lives to create. She especially loves to create through writing, acting and directing. She wrote, directed, and starred in her one act play, “One’s a Company,” at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School in Baltimore, Maryland. As homage to the victims of the Holocaust, the Baltimore Jewish Times published her short story, “Revealed,” on Israel’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day. Atara will attend New York University this fall where she looks forward to contributing creatively to the community.