Echoes (28 page)

When Amadea finally made it through the endless line, she was sent to one of the barracks with a dozen other women. There were numbers over doorways, and men and women inside. She was assigned to an area that had originally been built for fifty soldiers, and was inhabited now by five hundred people. There was no privacy, no space, no heat, no food, and no warm clothing. The prisoners themselves had built beds stacked three high, and close enough so the people in them could reach out and touch each other. Couples shared single beds if they had been lucky enough to come together and not get separated before they got here. Children were in a separate building, monitored by both guards and other prisoners. And on the highest floor, with broken glass in most of the windows, there were sick people in the attic. One old woman told her in hushed whispers that they were dying daily from the cold and disease. Both old and sick alike had to stand on line with everyone else for as long as six hours to get dinner, which consisted of watery soup and rotten potatoes. And there was one toilet for every thousand people.

Amadea had fallen silent as someone showed her her bed. As she was young and strong, she was assigned to a top bunk. The weaker, older people got the bottom ones. She was wearing wooden clogs they had given her during her “processing,” when they had taken her boots and given her camp identity papers. They had ordered her to take off Véronique's custom-made leather riding boots, which had instantly vanished. Another guard had taken her warm jacket, and said she didn't need it, in spite of the freezing weather. It was a welcome that consisted of terror, deprivation, and humiliation, and reminded Amadea once again that she was the bride of the crucified Christ, and surely He had brought her here for a reason. What she couldn't imagine was her mother or sister enduring an existence like this, and surviving. She forced herself not to think of it now, as she looked at the people around her. It was nighttime by then, and everyone had come back from their jobs, although many were still outside on line, waiting for dinner. The kitchens cooked for fifteen thousand at a time, and even then apparently there was never enough to feed them.

“Did you just come on the train from Cologne?” a thin woman with a raging cough asked her. Amadea saw that her arm had been tattooed with a number, and her hair and face were dirty. Her nails were broken and filthy. She was wearing nothing more than a thin cotton dress and clogs, and her skin was almost blue. The barracks were freezing too.

“Yes, I did,” Amadea said quietly, trying to feel like what she was, a Carmelite, and not just a woman. Knowing that and holding fast to it was her only source of strength and protection here.

The woman asked her about several people who might have been on the train, but Amadea knew no one's names, and people were all but unrecognizable in those circumstances. She recognized none of the names or descriptions the woman offered. Someone else asked the woman as they came in if she had been to the doctor. Many of the doctors and dentists who had been forced out of practice earlier had wound up here, and were doing what they could to help their fellow inmates, without benefit of medicines or equipment. The camp had only been open for two months, and already it was rife with typhoid, as someone warned her. They told her to drink the soup, but not the water. And as was inevitable, given the numbers living there, there were almost no facilities for bathing. Even in the freezing cold, the stench in the room was overwhelming.

Amadea helped an old woman get onto her bed, and saw that there were three women in the beds next to her. The barracks she'd been sent to were a mixture of women and children under twelve. Boys over twelve lived with the men separately. Some of the very young children were housed somewhere else, particularly those whose mothers had been sent on to other camps, or been killed. There was no privacy, no warmth, and no comfort. But in spite of that, there was the occasional burst of good humor, as someone said something, or cracked a joke. And in the distance, Amadea could hear music. The guards walked among them from time to time, kicking someone roughly with a boot, or shoving someone, with their guns in evidence at all times. They were always looking for contraband or stolen objects. Stealing a potato, someone had told her, was punishable by death. If anyone disobeyed what rules there were, they were severely beaten. It was essential not to anger the guards, in order to avoid the inevitable reprisal that would result.

“Did you eat today?” the woman with the cough asked her. Amadea nodded.

“Did you?” Amadea was suddenly grateful for the fasting that had been a way of life in the convent. But there, their fasts had included healthy food and vegetables and fruit from the garden. This was literally starvation rations. Amadea noticed too that a number of people did not have tattoos, and she didn't know what the difference was between those who did and those who didn't, and was hesitant to ask them. They were already suffering so much, she didn't want to intrude on them further.

“It took me four hours to get dinner.” They started serving in the morning. “And when I got there, they had no more potatoes, just soup, if you can call it that. It doesn't matter, I have dysentery anyway. The food here will make you sick quickly,” the woman warned, “if you aren't already.” Amadea had already seen that the toilet facilities were alarming. “I'm Rosa. What's your name?”

“Teresa,” Amadea answered without thinking. It was so much a part of her by now that even after her months of seclusion with Gérard and Véronique, Amadea was unfamiliar to her.

“You're very pretty,” she said, staring at her. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.” Amadea would be twenty-five in April.

“So am I,” Rosa said, as Amadea tried not to stare at her. She looked forty. “They killed my husband on Kristallnacht. I was in another camp before this. This one is better.” Amadea didn't dare ask her if she had children. For most it was a painful subject, particularly if they'd been separated, and sent to another camp, or worse, killed before or after they'd been taken. The Nazis only wanted the children who could work. The younger ones were useless. “Are you married?” she asked with interest, as she stretched out her thin legs as she lay on her mattress. She had an old scrap of clothing she was using as a blanket. Many had none.

“No, I'm not.” Amadea shook her head and smiled at her. “I'm a Carmelite.”

“You're a nun?” Rosa looked first impressed, then shocked, and outraged. “They took you from the convent?”

“I left the convent in April. I've been with friends since then.”

“You're Jewish?” It was confusing.

“My mother was. She converted …I never knew …” Rosa nodded.

“Did they take her?” Rosa asked softly. Amadea nodded, and for a moment couldn't answer. She knew now what it meant, and what it must have been like for her mother and Daphne. She would have done anything to spare them if she could have, even if it meant taking on more suffering herself. She had no doubt that she had come here to help those she could. It meant nothing to Amadea if she died here. She just hoped that her mother and Daphne would survive it, and were still alive wherever they were. She hoped that they were together and that she would see them both again someday. Although Gérard had admitted to Amadea, before she left, that her mother and Daphne's complete silence since the previous April was not a hopeful sign. There had never been a postcard, no message, or any kind of word.

“I'm sorry about your mother,” Rosa whispered. “Did they tell you where you will work?”

“I have to go back tomorrow for a job assignment.” Amadea wondered then if, when she did, they would tattoo her, and finally she got up the courage to ask Rosa about it, as they lay side by side in their bunks, close enough to speak in low whispers and still hear each other. The noise in the stone-walled room was tremendous.

“I got my number at the marshaling station before I came. They're supposed to do it when you get here, but there are so many of us and the camp is so new, they keep telling people to come back when they have more people to do it. They'll probably give you one tomorrow when they assign your job.” Amadea didn't like the idea of being tattooed, but she was sure Jesus hadn't liked the idea of being crucified either. It was just one more small sacrifice she would have to make for her Father, in her “small way.”

They lay in silence on their beds after that. Most of the people were too weak and tired and sick to talk, although a lot of the younger ones were very lively, despite the heavy work they did all day, and almost no food.

Later that night, after most of the inmates had gone to bed, there was the sound of a single harmonica playing. The random musician played some Viennese tunes, and some old German songs. It brought tears to people's eyes as they listened. Amadea had already heard that there was an opera company in the camp, and several musicians who played in the café, as many of the inmates had been musicians, singers, and actors before they were sent away. Despite the hardships, they tried to keep one another's spirits up, but the real terror for all of them was being deported elsewhere. The other camps were said to be much worse, and more people died there. Theresienstadt was the model camp that the Nazis wanted to use as their showpiece, to demonstrate to the world that although they wanted the Jews removed from society and isolated, they could still treat them humanely. The open sores on people's legs, the chilblains and the dysentery, the wan faces, the random beatings, and the people dying from conditions there said something very different. A sign above the camp at the entrance said WORK MAKES FREE. Death was the final freedom here.

Amadea lay in bed and said her prayers as she listened to the sound of the harmonica, and much as in the convent, they woke the inmates at five the next morning. There were lines for hot water and thin gruel, but they took so long that most people went to work on empty stomachs. Amadea went back to the processing center where she had been the day before for her job assignment. And once again, she stood on line for hours. But they told her that if she left, she would be punished, and the guard who said it to her shoved his gun into her neck, which was a clear indication that he meant it. He stood there for a long moment, looking her over, and then moved on to the next one. She heard noises outside shortly after that, and saw three guards beating a young man with clubs, as an old man in line behind her whispered.

“Smoking,” he said softly, shaking his head. It was a crime punishable by severe beatings, although to the inmates even finding a cigarette butt was considered a rare treat. One they had to keep carefully concealed, like stolen food.

When Amadea finally reached the officer who was dispensing job assignments, he looked like he'd had a long day. He stopped for a moment and looked up at Amadea, nodded, and reached for a sheaf of papers. There were several officers lined up at desks next to him, and official stamps and seals being put on everything. She had been given camp identification papers the day before, and she handed them to him, trying to look calmer than she felt. No matter how much she was willing to sacrifice for the God she served, standing in front of a Nazi soldier in a work camp was a frightening ordeal.

“What can you do?” he asked tersely, making it clear he didn't care. He was trying to weed out doctors and nurses and dentists and people with construction and carpentry skills, who would be of use to them. They needed engineers, stonemasons, cooks and lab technicians, and thousands of people to serve as slaves.

“I can work in the garden, cook, and sew. I can do a little nursing, although I'm not trained,” but she had helped frequently with the elderly, sick nuns, at the convent in Cologne. “I'm probably best in the garden,” she added, although her mother had taught her some of her needlework skills, but the nuns she had worked with said she could make almost anything grow.

“You'd make someone a good wife,” he joked, glancing at her again. “If you weren't a Jew.” She was better looking than most of the inmates he saw, and she looked healthy and strong. Although she was thin, she was a tall girl.

“I'm a nun,” Amadea said quietly. As soon as she said it, he looked up again, and then glanced at her papers, which said that her mother had been a Jew. He saw too then that her name was French.

“What order are you?” he asked suspiciously, as she wondered if there were other nuns there, and from what orders.

“I'm a Carmelite.” She smiled, and he saw the same inner light that others noticed about her. Rosa had seen it too the night before, even here.

“There's no time for that nonsense here.” She could see that he looked unnerved as he wrote something on her papers. “Fine.” He looked up at her with a scowl. “You can work in the garden. If you steal any of it, you'll be shot,” he said bluntly. “Be there at four in the morning tomorrow. You work till seven.” It was a fifteen-hour day, but she didn't care. There were others being sent to other rooms, other buildings, other barracks, and she wondered if some of them were getting tattoos, but he seemed to have forgotten hers. She had the distinct impression that her being a nun had unnerved him. Perhaps even Nazis had a conscience, though given what she had seen so far, it seemed unlikely in the extreme.

She stood on line for food that afternoon, and was given one black rotting potato and a crust of bread. The woman just in front of her had been given a carrot. The soup had run out hours before. But she was grateful for what she got. She ate around the rotten part of the potato, and quickly gnawed on the bread. She thought about it on the way back to her room, and reproached herself for gluttony and devouring it so fast, but she was starving. They all were.

When she got back to her barracks, Rosa was already there, lying on her mattress. Her cough was worse. It was freezing that day.

“How was it? Did you get a number?”

Amadea shook her head. “I think they forgot. I think I made him nervous when I told him I was a nun.” She grinned mischievously and looked like a young girl again. They all looked so serious and so old. “You should see one of the doctors for that cough,” Amadea said, looking worried. She tucked her feet under the mattress then, they were freezing in the wooden clogs, and she was bare-legged in her riding pants, which felt paper thin in the freezing air. She'd been wearing the same filthy trousers for over a week. She had meant to go to the laundry that afternoon and see if she could trade for some clean clothes, but there hadn't been time.

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