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Day After Night, Page 2

Anita Diamant

  A nurse in a white uniform rushed forward, a syringe in her hand, but the woman wheeled around, fists raised, suddenly a crouching, punching, spitting dervish. She spun and circled so fast that Tedi thought she actually might rise into the sky, carried off by her own rage.

  And then it was over. Two soldiers grabbed her so the nurse got the needle into her arm. The screaming gave way to heavy, heaving sobs, as the sum total of her misery surpassed its unnamed and unnameable parts. A shiver passed through the crowd, as though there had been a sudden drop in temperature.

  A word emerged from the weeping, whimpered and repeated over and over.

  “What is she saying?” people asked in a polyglot murmur.

  “Is it Russian?”

  “Is it a name?”

  The translation was made and passed.

  “Barbwire,” she wept. It was Czech. “Barbwire.”

  In the Westerbork transit camp, Tedi had stood beside a barbwire fence and shivered for hours in the sleet, staring silently at an endless icy gray marsh. Beside her, a small, white-haired woman had wept softly. She’d worn an enormous man’s overcoat, with only bedroom slippers on her feet. “They didn’t let me find my shoes,” she’d apologized, again and again.

  Finally, she’d asked Tedi to help her sit down on the ground, where she gathered the coat around her like a tweed tent. No one saw her scrape her wrists against the razor wire. By the time she’d fallen face forward onto the fence, her body was cold.

  When Tedi arrived at Atlit, she had been shocked and frightened by the sight of barbwire, too. But they had given her clean clothes, warm bread, a pillow, and amid so many reassuring smiles, she had forgotten. Now all she could see was the fence: a million razor-sharp thorns telling her that she was still something less than free, something less than human.

  The nurse cradled the weeping woman in her arms, rocking her like a tired child. She signaled to one of the guards, who picked her up and carried her to the infirmary.

  “Poor thing,” said Hannah, tears on her cheeks. “They will take her to hospital straightaway.”

  “Humph,” said Lillian, a plump Austrian girl with a weak chin who was never seen without lipstick. “She is crazy like a fox. That performance will get her out of here in a hurry.”

  “Aren’t you the heartless one,” Hannah said.

  “Not at all,” she said. No one liked Lillian, but she was tolerated because of the hoard of cosmetics in her suitcase. “I’m only being honest. We all look out for ourselves in this world.”

  “That woman is never going to be right in the head,” Hannah said. “And it’s all the fault of those damned English for putting her into a prison camp all over again.”

  “I’m not so sure about that,” Tedi said, placing her finger on a spiky barb. “Aren’t we all hanging by the same little thread that snapped for her?”

  Hannah grabbed Tedi’s hand. “Enough of that,” she said. “You can help me get the new ones settled in.”

  The main gates were closed now. All the newcomers stood, huddled together, staring at the biggest structure in Atlit, an imposing wooden barn that the inmates had dubbed “the Delousing Shed,” or just “Delousing.” Prison guards and translators from the Jewish Agency were trying to move them into two lines: men in front of the doorway at the right, women in a queue by a door on the left.

  Tedi caught the strong, sweat-soaked smell of fear even before she saw the faces fixed in horror at the spectacle of men and women being separated and sent through dim doorways on their way to unseen showers. Beside both doors, twelve-foot-tall drums clanged and hissed, exactly like the ones near the entrances in Auschwitz, where they had also been told to surrender their clothes to be cleaned and fumigated.

  Some of the women wept. Some of the men mumbled prayers. Couples called to each other with words of encouragement or farewell.

  One of the translators asked Hannah to see if she could do anything with a stoop-shouldered man who refused to move or speak and was holding up the men’s queue. Hannah grabbed Tedi’s arm and pulled her along, too.

  “Excuse me, sir,” she said gently. “But this is not what you think.”

  He glanced at the machines and shook his head.

  “I know,” Hannah said. “They look like the ones in the concentration camp. But no one here will be killed. Here you will get your clothes back, I promise.” He let her lead him up to the door so he could peek inside. “Look,” she said, pointing to the ceiling. “You see the open windows there? None of the rooms here is enclosed. The shower is only a shower. The water may be cold and the disinfectants are unpleasant, but there are no gas chambers. And once you are cleaned up, you will have food and hot tea and delicious fruit grown by the Jews of Palestine.”

  Tedi could see that the man wanted to believe what this glowing Jewish girl was telling him, but he could not reconcile what she was saying with the testimony of his eyes and ears.

  “Like Terezin,” he muttered at last, naming the Potemkin village that the Nazis had used to fool the Red Cross, showcasing Jews playing in symphony orchestras and mounting operas for children—all of it a stage set on top of an abattoir.

  “This is not Terezin, comrade,” said Hannah. “Remember, you are in Eretz Yisrael. You will not be killed. You will be taken care of. If you are ill, the doctors will look after you. I promise.”

  He sighed. “You promise,” he said with a sad shake of his head, but he followed her to a table where an English soldier, barely old enough to shave, had been watching them. The young man got to his feet, offered his hand and said, in Hebrew, “Shalom. I am Private Gordon.”

  “Is this man a Jew?” he asked Hannah, incredulous.

  “I don’t think so.”

  Tedi was struck by the young soldier’s kindness, and then watched as his eyes wandered down toward Hannah’s chest.

  “Thank you, Private Gordon,” Hannah said, showing off her English as she sternly ignored his attentions. “This gentleman is ready for you now. My friend and I go to help with the girls who get ready. Yes? Okay?”

  “Okay.” He grinned.

  As she followed Hannah into Delousing, Tedi had to stop so that her eyes could adjust to the dimness. It was much cooler inside the building, but the noise was overwhelming. Hissing machines, running water, and voices rose up to the distant metal ceiling, magnified and distorted as they bounced between the bare walls. A burst of shrill laughter issued from somewhere deep in the back of the hall, a demented grace note that made her shudder.

  In the changing room, they walked into a loud argument between one of the newcomers and a woman from the Jewish Agency who didn’t speak enough Yiddish to make herself understood.

  “What’s the matter?” Hannah asked the distraught girl.

  “I’m not putting my dress into that thing,” she said, pointing to the revolving dumbwaiter that ferried clothes into the machine on the other side of the wall. “It’s the only thing I have left of my sister.”

  “You will get it back,” said Hannah. “Listen to me, all of you,” she said, trying to make herself heard. “My friends, listen. They are only getting the bugs out of your clothes, getting them clean. There is no reason to worry. Lunch is waiting for you. Maybe you’ll sit next to a handsome boy; there are many here. If you can understand me, translate for someone who does not.”

  The women seemed to respond to Hannah’s smiling certainty and did as she asked. She is a natural leader, Tedi thought. She will run a school, a kibbutz—maybe even a government agency. And for a moment, she was sorry that she would have to forget Hannah, too.

  Hannah handed her a pile of worn towels and led her to a row of open shower stalls where Tedi dropped her eyes to avoid the blur of gray flesh stretched tight over ribs and hip bones, scars and scabs. The girls faced toward the walls, hiding themselves as best they could. Some held their arms tightly against their bodies, like injured birds.

  “It’s the numbers,” Hannah explained in a whisper. “They are ashamed of the

  In one stall, three Latvian girls, rounder and hairier than anyone else, soaped each other’s backs, laughing and groaning with pleasure. “Good, good, good,” they said, rolling the Hebrew word around in their mouths. They washed between their legs without embarrassment, pointing and joking with each other in a way that made Tedi blush.

  She handed out the towels, confused and dizzy. Surely she had been in this same loud room with a group of girls like these, just weeks ago. Someone must have asked for her papers and put a stethoscope to her heart. She must have sneezed at the DDT powder and showered in one of these stalls. Someone had given her the dress she was wearing. Yet she remembered none of it.

  What little Tedi could recall of the past two years took the form of snapshots, black-and-white and a bit out of focus, like the pictures in her family’s leather-bound album. She remembered the magnificent head of hair on the Greek boy who took care of her on the boat to Palestine. She remembered the way the barbwire had sliced into the eyebrows of the woman who committed suicide at the Dutch transit camp.

  Tedi had just arrived at Westerbork, betrayed to the Nazis after two years in hiding.

  They had told her she was going to Bergen-Belsen the next morning. Had that happened, she might have been like the others who were terrified by the steam machines and showers of Atlit. More likely, she would have been killed there.

  But they never called her name for that train, and she languished in Westerbork for a week, or maybe it had been only a few days; the cold and fear warped all of her senses. She could not recall eating anything there or lying down to sleep.

  Finally, she was shoved into a boxcar with seventy-five other starved and frozen souls headed for Auschwitz. No one spoke as the train gained speed. Already as good as dead, they did not even try to comfort one another. But in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, the engine stalled. A boy with a knife pried through the rotten floorboards and Tedi had been the second to squeeze through.

  “Come on,” Hannah said, taking Tedi’s hand again and pulling her back into the noisy present. “Let’s help them get dressed.”

  In the room beyond the shower stalls, damp piles from the steamers were heaped on a low table. A dozen dripping women rushed over to claim their clothes.

  “You lied to me,” wailed the girl who had not wanted to surrender her sister’s dress. “Look at this,” she said, holding up a shrunken, faded remnant.

  “I’m sorry,” Hannah said. “Sometimes the machines are too hot. But we have many clothes for you to choose from. The Jews of Palestine have given clothing from their own closets. You will have everything you need, better than what you brought.”

  Just then, the nurse ran in looking for Hannah, who, after a brief, urgent conversation, held up her hand and announced, “My friend, I have to go with Nurse Gilad, but my comrade, Tedi, will take care of you.”

  Twenty-two faces turned toward her. They were more curious than frightened now, and Tedi decided to pretend that she knew what she was doing. She led them through a door at the back of the building into a makeshift tent made out of old parachutes. Long wooden planks set on sawhorses were piled with stacks of underwear, dresses, blouses, skirts, shorts, and trousers.

  The women rushed forward and began trying on clothes and offering each other advice. “Look at this,” someone shouted, waving a pair of bloomers from a hundred years ago. They all laughed except for one girl who was pregnant and could find nothing to fit over the firm drum of her stomach. Tedi suspected that Hannah would have walked into the men’s tent next door and grabbed a shirt and a pair of pants. She lacked that kind of nerve but felt responsible for the poor girl, who was on the verge of tears and seemed to have no friends in the group.

  Tedi rummaged through the pile of clothes again with no better luck. But when a flap of yellow-gray parachute silk hanging from the side of the tent caught her eye, she grinned. “I’ll be right back,” she told the distraught girl and ran into Delousing, now deserted and so quiet that the sound of her sandals on the floor echoed behind her as she ran.

  As she reached the front door, she stopped the young soldier who had shown such kindness earlier.

  “Can you help me, sir?” she panted, first in Dutch and then in garbled Hebrew.

  “I don’t understand,” he said.

  Tedi grabbed his sleeve, made scissors with her fingers and pretended to cut. Then she pointed to the back of the building, and put her hands together as though in prayer.

  “Ah.” He smiled, pulled a tiny pocketknife from his pocket, and put his finger to his lips to make it a secret between them.

  Tedi answered with a thumbs-up, took the knife, and dashed away.

  She cut a swath of silk from the parachute and folded it so cleverly that the skirt she created looked pleated. One of the other women surrendered a blue scarf to use as a belt, to fasten it around the girl’s belly. Tedi’s efforts were met with praise and pats on the back.

  “She looks like a bride,” said one of the girls.

  “A little late,” someone else said, slyly, but as the comment was translated, it turned into a joke that made everyone laugh—including the “bride.”

  Tedi did her best imitation of Hannah and announced, “Come along, friends. Follow me.” As they filed past her, one girl stopped and kissed her cheek, leaving behind a trace of fresh lavender. The smell of hope.


  Zorah tried to focus on the footsteps of the sentry making his midnight rounds, but the screams of the woman who had broken down at the gate still echoed in her head.

  It was so quiet in the barrack, Zorah could hear the soldier clear his throat and the wind in the cypress trees outside. It was a sound, she supposed, that others might find beautiful and soothing but to her, it was just more proof that the workings of the world were random, that beauty, like suffering, was meaningless, that human life was as pointless as waves on sand.

  Zorah hated the sea as much as she hated the wind in the trees. She hated Tedi, on the far side of the room, for the ease with which she fell asleep. But most of all, she hated the way people kept thanking God. Even now. Even here, where they were imprisoned for breaking rules made in a distant, irrelevant past, in the time before words like “boxcar” and “lamp shade” could chill you to the bone.

  So many words had come unmoored from their old meanings. The English called them “illegal immigrants,” but Zorah recognized the term for what it was: a polite version of “filthy Yid.” What other explanation could there be for a place like Atlit?

  She squeezed her eyes shut and dared God to stop her from hating everything in His creation, including this Palestine, this promised, this holy land.

  In April, when Zorah had heard the news that Hitler was dead, the Hebrew blessing had nearly slipped out of her mouth, but she had fought the reflex and bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. She would never again say, “God be praised.” Her mother and father would have said it. Her grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins would have said it, along with the professional beggars who had worked her street in the poorest of Warsaw’s Jewish neighborhoods. Zorah cursed everyone in Atlit who said those words, especially the men who prayed, morning and evening, wrapped in their dirty prayer shawls. How dare they?

  In the cots lined up between Tedi at the far wall and Zorah near the door, eighteen women sighed and tossed. And if none of them slept as soundly as Tedi, none burned like Zorah, who used the hours of her sleepless nights to calculate the insults of the day, all of which added up to the same thing—that no one cared to know what had happened, and not just to her, but to each of them. To all of them. What they had seen, what they had suffered, lost, and mourned. The British couldn’t care less, of course. But it was no better among the Jews who took care of the day-to-day administration of the camp: the Jewish Agency bureaucrats, the kitchen workers, the doctors and nurses, the Hebrew teachers and calisthenics instructors, the bleeding-heart volunteers who were free to come a
nd go.

  Zorah knew why they avoided talk of roundups and forced marches, mass graves and death camps: if you hold a piece of rancid meat under a person’s nose, he cannot help but turn away. That is an animal reflex, pure and simple, an act of self-preservation.

  But the local Jews were two-faced about it, greedy for scraps of news about their own relatives, their own hometowns. They accosted dazed newcomers with questions about their parents’ old neighborhoods in Riga or Frankfurt.

  If you had no information, they rarely bothered to ask your name or where you came from. After that, it was all about Palestine. Where are you going? Do you have any family here? Are you a member of one of the Zionist youth movements with the fantasy names, doctrinaire politics, and summer camps that taught the fine points of ditchdigging and hora dancing? Are you ready to throw yourself, body and soul, into Avodah Ivrit, the work of building up the land? So avodah, a word for prayer, becomes the dirt under one’s fingernails. But holy dirt, after all. Sacred dirt!

  Zorah’s scorn included her fellow survivors, too, who changed the subject after they determined that you had no knowledge of their Aunt Tzeitl or Cousin Misha. But them, she forgave.

  She knew they were reluctant to tell their own stories because all of them began and ended with the same horrible question: Why was I spared? Everyone’s mother had been gentle and devout, every sister a beauty, every brother a prodigy. There was no point in comparing one family’s massacre to another’s. Every atrocity was as appalling as the next: Miriam’s rape, Clara’s murdered husband, Bette’s baby, who was suffocated so the rest of the family would not be discovered.

  It was unspeakable, so they spoke of nothing. Every day, the girls sat and sighed over the physique of the fellow who led them through morning exercises, or shared tidbits about the newest pair of pants in the men’s barracks, or whispered about Hannah’s breasts, which were growing larger every day. They clucked and preened like hens on a roost.