Echoes (29 page)

“The doctors can't do anything,” Rosa said. “They have no medicine.” She shrugged and then looked around. She had a conspiratorial look as she glanced at Amadea. “Look,” she whispered, and pulled something out of her pocket. Amadea realized it was a sliver of an apple that looked as though a thousand people had stepped on it and probably had.

“Where did you get that?” Amadea whispered, loath to take it from her, but her mouth watered when she saw it. There were no more than two bites there, or one good one.

“A guard gave it to me,” she said, breaking it in half, and slipping it to Amadea. She already knew that stealing food was punishable by death. Rosa quickly put her half in her mouth and closed her eyes. Like two children sharing a single piece of candy, Amadea did the same.

They said nothing for a few minutes, and then a number of the other residents came into the room. They looked exhausted. They glanced at the two women and said nothing.

None of the men she'd encountered outside working on the construction crews had bothered Amadea in the short time she'd been there, but standing on line all afternoon, she had heard stories from the other women, several of whom had been raped. The Nazis thought the Jews were the lowest of the low, and the scum of the human race, but it didn't stop them from raping them whenever they wanted. The other women had warned her to be careful. She was too noticeable and too beautiful, and she looked as blue-eyed and blond as they did. They told her to stay dirty and smell as bad as she could, and stay away from them, it was their only protection, and even that didn't always work, if the guards got drunk enough, which they often did, particularly at night. They were young and wanted women, and there were a lot of them in the camp. Even the old guards couldn't be trusted.

Amadea tried to get to sleep early that night, so she would be ready for work the next day. But it was hard sleeping with so many people around her. It even distracted her at times when she tried to say silent prayers. She tried to stick to her routine of the convent, as much as possible, just as she had while she was hiding at the
It had been easier there. But at least it was quiet when she got up at three-thirty. She had slept in her clothes, and for once there were only about thirty people waiting for the toilet. She was able to go before she left for work.

She made her way to where they had told her the gardens would be. There were about a hundred people reporting for work when she got there, mostly girls and some young boys, and a few older women. The night air was freezing, and the ground icy. It was hard to imagine what they would do there, as the guards handed them shovels. They were supposed to be planting potatoes. Thousands of them. It was backbreaking work. They worked eight hours straight until noon, their hands frozen and blistered as they pawed at the ground with the shovels, and the guards walked among them poking them with their guns. They let them stop for half an hour for some bread and soup. And as always, the soup was thin and the bread stale, but the portions were a little more plentiful. After that, they went back to work for another seven hours. As they left the gardens that night, they were searched. Stealing from the gardens was punishable by either beatings or death, depending on the guard's mood and how resistant they were. They searched Amadea's clothes, patted her down, and had her open her mouth. And as the guard searching her patted her, he grabbed her breast, and Amadea said nothing. She looked straight ahead. She said nothing about it to Rosa when she got back. She was sure she had endured worse.

The following week Rosa was moved to another barracks. A guard had seen them talking and laughing on several occasions, and reported them. He said they were troublemakers and needed to be separated. Amadea didn't see her after that for months, and when Amadea saw her again, Rosa had no teeth. She had been caught stealing a piece of bread, and a guard had broken all of them, and her nose. The life seemed to have gone out of her by then. She died of what someone said was pneumonia that spring.

Amadea worked hard in the garden, doing what she could, but it was hard to get results given what they had to work with. Even she couldn't make miracles with the frozen ground and broken implements, but she planted row after row of potatoes every day for her fellow inmates. And in the spring, she planted carrots and turnips. She longed to plant tomatoes and lettuce and other vegetables as she had in the convent, but they were too delicate for what they needed. Some days all she got to eat was a single turnip, and more than once she was longing to steal a potato, and turned her mind to prayer instead. But on the whole, her stay there had been uneventful, and the guards left her alone. She was always respectful of them and kept to herself, did her work, and was helpful to the other inmates. She had started visiting some of the sick and the elderly at night, and when it rained too hard to work in the garden, she went to help with the children, which always buoyed her spirits, although many of them were sick. Most of them were so sweet and so brave, and it made her feel useful working with them. But there were tragedies even there. A whole trainload of them was shipped off to Chelmno in February. Their mothers stood by the trucks that took them to the train, and those who clung to them for too long or tried to fight the guards had been shot. There were horror stories every day.

By the time Amadea turned twenty-five in April, the weather was better, and she was moved to a new barracks closer to the gardens. They were working longer hours in the lengthening daylight, and sometimes she didn't get back to her barracks till nine o'clock at night. Despite the meager rations and continuing dysentery, Amadea was rail thin, but strong from her work in the gardens. And remarkably, like a few of the others, she had never been tattooed. They had just simply forgotten. They asked for her papers constantly, but never asked to see her number, and she was careful to wear long-sleeve shirts. Her hair was long by then, bleached even paler by the sun, and she wore it down her back in a long braid. But all who knew her knew that she was a nun. Among the inmates, she was treated with kindness and respect, which wasn't always the case for others. People were sick and unhappy, they watched tragedies happen constantly, the guards terrorized them frequently, beat them randomly, and sometimes even provoked them to fight with each other over a carrot or a parsnip or a piece of stale bread. But for the most part, people showed remarkable compassion toward each other, and once in a while even the guards were decent to them.

There was a young soldier who came to work as a guard in the garden in May, who was mesmerized by Amadea. He was German, from Munich, and he confessed to her one afternoon when he stopped to talk to her that he hated being there. He thought it was filthy and depressing. He was hoping for a transfer to Berlin, and had been asking for it since he arrived.

“Why do you always look so happy while you work?” he asked, lighting a cigarette, as some of the women eyed him with envy. But he didn't offer them any, although he had offered Amadea a puff and she declined. His commanding officer had left early that afternoon to attend a meeting, and the young soldiers unbent a little after he left. The one with the cigarette had been waiting for an opportunity to talk to Amadea for weeks.

“Do I?” she asked pleasantly, as she continued her work. They were planting more carrots that day. The ones she had planted so far had done well.

“Yes, you do. You always look like you have a secret. Do you have a lover?” he asked her bluntly. Some of the younger inmates had become involved with each other. It was a small ray of sunlight and warmth in a dark place. A last remnant of hope.

“No, I don't,” Amadea said, and turned away. She didn't want to encourage him, and remembered the warnings the other women had given her. He was a tall, good-looking young man, with sharp features, blue eyes, and dark hair. Much like her mother's coloring. He was considerably taller than Amadea, and he thought her beautiful with her big blue eyes and blond hair. He suspected correctly that cleaned up she'd be a spectacular-looking woman. Even here, it was easy to see, with their filthy ill-fitting clothes and often-dirty hair. But in spite of that, many of the women were still pretty, especially the young ones, and Amadea certainly was.

“Did you have a boyfriend at home?” he inquired, lighting another cigarette. His mother sent them to him from home, and he was the envy of his barracks. He often traded them for favors.

“No, I didn't,” Amadea said, removing herself mentally. She didn't like the turn of the conversation, and didn't want to encourage him in that direction.

“Why not?”

She stood to look at him then, and gazed right into his eyes without fear. “I'm a nun,” she said simply, as though that were a warning to him that she was not a woman, but exempt from his attentions. For most people in the world as she knew it, that was a sacred state, and the look in her eyes said that she expected him to respect that, even here.

“You're not.” He looked amazed. He had never seen a nun as pretty as she was, not that he remembered. He had always thought them rather plain when he'd seen them.

“Yes. I am. Sister Teresa of Carmel,” she said proudly, as he shook his head.

“What a shame. Did you ever regret it? …I mean before you came here?” He assumed correctly that someone in her family had been Jewish, or she would never have come here in the first place. She didn't look like a Gypsy or a Communist or a criminal. She had to be a Jewess, to some degree.

“No. It's a wonderful life. I will go back one day.”

“You should find a husband and have children,” he said firmly, as though she were his little sister and he was reproaching her for being foolish, and this time she laughed.

“I have a husband. My husband is God. And these are all my children, and His,” she said with a sweeping gesture at the garden, and for a moment he wondered if she was crazy, and then knew she wasn't. She meant it. She was unshakable in her faith.

“It's a stupid life,” he growled at her, and went to check on the others. She saw him again that night as she left, and hoped he wouldn't be the one searching her. She didn't like the way he looked at her.

The next day he was back again, and without saying a word, he slipped a piece of chocolate into her pocket as he walked past her without even acknowledging her. It was an incredible gift, but a bad sign, and a dangerous one. She had no idea what to do with it. If she was found with it, she could be shot, and it seemed desperately unfair for her to be eating chocolate when others were starving. She waited until he walked by again and said that she appreciated it, but he should give it to one of the children, and discreetly handed it back to him while no one was looking.

“Why did you do that?” He looked hurt.

“Because it's not right. I shouldn't have anything better than the others. Someone else needs that more than I do. A child, or an old person, or someone sick.”

“Then give it to them,” he said tersely, shoved it back into her hand, and walked away. But he knew it would melt in her pocket, and so did she, and then she would get in trouble. She didn't know what else to do, so she ate it, and felt guilty for the rest of the afternoon. She begged God to forgive her for being greedy and dishonest. But it had been so delicious, the taste of it haunted her all day. It was all she could think of until she left. And when she did, he smiled at her. And in spite of herself, she smiled at him. He looked like a big mischievous boy, although he was about her age. He came to talk to her again the following afternoon. He said they were going to make her the leader of a group because she worked so well. But what he was doing was granting her favors and putting her in his debt, which was an extremely dangerous thing. She had no idea what he wanted from her, but it was easy to guess. She tried to avoid him at every opportunity for weeks after that. The weather was getting warmer when he stopped to talk to her again. She had just finished her soup and bread, and was on her way back to work.

“You're afraid to talk to me, aren't you?” he asked softly as he followed her to where she had left her shovel. She turned to look at him.

“I'm a prisoner and you're a guard. That's a difficult thing,” she said honestly, choosing her words carefully so she wouldn't offend him.

“Perhaps not so difficult as you think. I could make life easier for you, if you let me. We could be friends.”

“Not here,” she said sadly, wanting to believe he was a good person, but it was hard to tell here. Another trainload of inmates had been deported the day before. She knew one of the people who made the lists. So far her name wasn't on it, but it could be at any time. Theresienstadt seemed to be the gateway to other camps, most of which were worse. Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Chelmno. They were all names that struck fear in everyone's hearts, even hers.

“I want to be your friend,” he insisted. He had given her chocolate on two other occasions, but the favors were dangerous, and she knew it, and so was this. She didn't want to be put in the position of rejecting him. That would be even more dangerous. And she had no experience with men. She had been in the convent, sequestered from the world, since she was a young girl. At twenty-five, she was more innocent than girls of fifteen. “I have a sister your age,” he said quietly. “I think of her sometimes when I look at you. She is married and has three children. You could have children one day too.”

“Nuns don't have children.” She smiled gently at him. There was something sad in his eyes. She suspected he was homesick, as many of the others were too. They got blind drunk at night to forget it, and the horrors they saw on a daily basis. It had to bother some of them too, though not many. But in some ways, he seemed like a sweet man. “I'm going back to my order when this is over, to take my solemn vows.”

“Ah!” he said, looking hopeful. “Then you're not a nun yet!”

“Yes, I am. I was in the convent for six years,” it had been almost a year since she left. If all had gone well and she hadn't been forced to leave the convent, she would have been a year from final vows.

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