Chance

by Emily Grekin

 

had no choice. I had to leave her. My little Sarah, my innocent baby girl. They were coming, an unstoppable force. I was stuck. They would kill my baby Sarah, no questions asked. I could handle the pain that I would soon face. I could grit my teeth and suffer through the concentration camps. If I faced death, so be it. I would join my seven brothers and sisters in Heaven with Adonai, bless their precious souls.

But I would not allow them to take my baby Sarah and kill her. So I did what I knew in my heart was the only real option: I left her. I went deep into the damp woods in my village and wrapped her in my purple shawl that I had crocheted myself years before. I wrapped her tight, arms and legs pressed close to her red prune-like body. I never knew pain like I faced on that day. I never experienced pain like that ever again, and I don’t think I ever will. What else could possibly cause the sobs that make my eyes and throat raw? What else could cause me to feel that I was abandoning the one living thing that was a part of me, that had grown inside me? Now I am eighty-seven years old, and I can still feel that pain as if I left baby Sarah in the woods only yesterday.

But I left her nonetheless. She needed the chance to live.

I had this image, this dream, that kept me alive through the terrifying nights that soon followed. The image was that the Nazis had swept through my village without entering the woods. And whoever was left, whoever had survived the attacks or who would later travel into the town, would find my baby Sarah. They would find her and take her in as one of their own, and she would grow up to be a happy child. To know love. To not remember me at all or that I abandoned her.

It was foggy the day I left her. The mist coated my face and stung my arms as I softly crept through the woods. I placed her in a nest of leaves, next to a towering, grooved tree–whose wrinkly bark looked like my skin does now–and I walked away. Her staccato cries wove their way through the fog and pierced what was left of my desire to live.

Then the Nazis came.

They took me away. I was placed in the Janowska transit camp and then in the concentration camp in Belzec, where I was put in the administration section. 600,000 Jews perished at Belzec. When that many of your people die, you train yourself to block out the pain, to not feel anything at all. You learn that to say the Mourner’s Kaddish that many times is impossible; to dwell over every death would be impossible; to dwell on the greater concept of death is to ask for your own, for it eats away at your sanity. You realize your previous perceptions of the beauty of life have always been false. And so in the face of such tragedy, you become paralyzed. I was paralyzed.

But I survived.

I thought every day how thankful I was that I chose to leave my baby Sarah in the foggy woods. Because I was content not knowing her fate. The small chance that she had been saved kept me going.

And I don’t know why Adonai chose to watch over me. Why did I survive when so many others very similar to me were killed? Why did I deserve to live? Does it help to ask questions? No. I learned, over time, that to ask such questions is to spark an inner, blazing fire that will never be extinguished. It is just better to accept reality as it is and move along with the flow of time.

I was placed in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp for four years. What I remember most from that time was a mixture of conflicted tears, tears everywhere. People were so struck by their new surroundings, in such disbelief that they had survived, that joy flooded the body and spilled over in tears, much like soup boiling over the rim of a pot. The tears also were tears of memory: colorless flashbacks from the camps, continuous thoughts of loved ones who were killed. But together we knew that we had been blessed with precious life, and we knew, together, that we had to move on. There averaged twenty weddings a day while I was at Bergen-Belsen, one of which was my own. Only a few months after liberation, 2,000 children had been born in the camp, one of which was my own as well. I married a man named Sam, and we gave birth to a beautiful baby girl we called Rebecca. I never told Sam about my baby Sarah; the words would stick in the back of my throat and refuse to dislodge themselves. To speak of what I had done would make the situation real. I did not want it to be real. In 1949, British authorities allowed free departure from the camp. Sam’s older sister had moved to America, to New York, before the war had started, and he had always dreamed of moving there as well.

And so we made our way across the Atlantic. We were people of small villages, people of modesty, who had faced a horrific tragedy over the past few years. Now, suddenly, we were people of a huge city. Everywhere we looked, concrete buildings towered over us. The Statue of Liberty gazed down at us, silently promising us that in America, we would be safe. That Rebecca would grow up and know only freedom and opportunity. That she would never have her life suddenly ripped away from under her in only a matter of minutes.

I learned to speak English as best as I could. English is a difficult language to learn, but I picked it up as I talked to our neighbors in our new apartment building, to the American grocers, to Sam’s sister, who had a very good ear for languages and could speak English better than I could. Sam was also more confident with the language. Sometimes, when Rebecca was taking a nap on Saturday afternoons, I would make a pot of tea and Sam and I would sit at our little kitchen table in our musty apartment trying to talk to each other in our broken English.

“No, no. The correct word is ‘ugly,’ not ‘chalcious,’” he said to me once, gently, placing his hand on my knee. I was trying to come up with the right word to describe bathrooms at the subway station. “Most persons in New York do not comprehend the Yiddish words.”

“The bathrooms at the subway are ugly.” I tried again, slumping against the wooden chair. Very quickly, I lapsed back into Polish, and our conversation continued with much less strain.

Before I knew it, Rebecca started kindergarten, and my favorite part of every day was when I picked her up at school and we walked home together.  My big hand would swallow her little hand, her little finger nails, and as we walked past smoky factories and hotdog stands and chain-link fences surrounding parks, Rebecca would tell me about her classmates and teacher. “We learned the alphabet song today,” she told me once. “And I painted you and Daddy a picture of a cat. I really want a kitten, Mommy!”

I noticed a red smudge of paint on her cheek, right below her eye, and a brown crusty dab of paint on her chin. I reached down and tried to rub them away with my thumb, and then kissed both of her cheeks. “I know. But, ah, bubbala, you know how difficult it would be, in our itsy bitsy apartment.”

Rebecca started singing the Itsy-Bitsy Spider and she skipped along the cracked sidewalk to our apartment.

* * *

We joined a synagogue walking distance from our apartment building. Sam’s sister lived in the same building as we did, and she had three children who became Rebecca’s best friends. We had Shabbat dinner together every Friday night, alternating between apartments. Rebecca knew the Hebrew prayers over the challah, the wine, and the candles by heart. My brass candleholders became tarnished with time. My life had a comforting rhythm, and I was content in New York.

But I never forgot Sarah.

Every day I awoke and wondered if she would be waking up underneath the same sky, if we were both rubbing the sleep from our identical hazel eyes. The image of baby Sarah swaddled in my purple shawl was permanently trapped by my memory. When Rebecca was seven, I knew Sarah would be thirteen. I loved Rebecca more than any other mother loves her daughter. I know so many mothers say that, but for me, it was the truth. Every time I found myself trying to picture what Sarah would look like as she grew older, I felt strange emotions–some mixture of sadness and hope–that spread throughout my chest and I would decide, for the hundredth time, that I would throw every last drop of my love and warmth into Rebecca. I now admit that I felt as if I needed to make up for the fact I abandoned one daughter by giving twice the amount of love to the other. More than twice. Three, four, one hundred times the amount of love. I would bend down and squeeze my Rebecca, stroking her honey blonde hair, and she would giggle and flash a smile at me, her fleshy lips pulled taught from ear to ear. And, like a dried crispy leaf carried off by the wind, almost all of my hurt would float away.

Almost.

I have this memory. During the fall, when Rebecca was in first or second grade, I took her shopping for new clothes, to a fancy department store downtown. It wasn’t even winter yet, but sparkling Christmas decorations were displayed everywhere. As we made our way through the counters of makeup and expensive jewelry, I noticed many women with fur coats and pearl necklaces waltzing through the store. I felt embarrassed, in my rough brown sweater and brown skirt and black boots. I would never look like them, could never afford to look like them. But it didn’t matter. I was shopping for Rebecca, not for myself. Her cheeks flushed as she raced through the children’s department, grabbing a purple fuzzy sweater here, a lacy pink skirt there. “I want this, Mommy,” she gushed as she ripped a light blue satin dress off of a hanger. I laughed. “Rebecca! Let’s go try these on before we buy them.” A Christmas tree, with red and gold shiny ornaments and tinsel, was displayed outside the dressing room. We went into the small room together and I helped Rebecca try on her dress. I zipped it up for her and she squealed at she felt the smooth blue satin against her skin. “Beautiful, you are so beautiful,” I told her. “You look like a doll.” Then I glanced at the price tag. The dress was far too expensive for us. I forced a smile and looked at the price tags on the other clothes Rebecca had grabbed. The sweater was much more affordable. “Try on the sweater, Rebecca.” I pulled the dress up over her head, messing up her hair, and helped her work her arms into the sleeves of the purple sweater. We looked at our reflections in the tall mirror and I gasped.

“Oh, Mommy, it’s so soft! I want to wear it to school tomorrow.”

I tried to take a deep breath but found I could not. “No, no!” Rebecca looked at me with wide, startled eyes. “No, you cannot. It is a chalcious color. It is ugly!” I lied. My voice shook. The truth was I had never seen Rebecca in purple before, and in the mirror before me, she melted into Sarah. I couldn’t stand it.

Rebecca rolled her eyes, as she often did when I used Yiddish words, and I thought she might cry.

“Let’s buy you the blue dress,” I blurted without thinking. “You can wear it to Shabbat dinner on Friday. It is so beautiful on you.” She smiled and clapped her hands together.

When I handed over cash to pay for the dress, I realized I had spent over half of our grocery money for the week. Rebecca gripped her shopping bag with pride. I buttoned Rebecca’s coat and pulled her knit hat over her ears as we emerged into the chilly air and walked to the subway. My thoughts swirled as we pushed our way through crowds of people, and I tried very hard to think of ways I could justify this large expense to Sam.

When we got off the subway, we still had quite a ways to walk. Rebecca’s black shoes clacked against the sidewalk and she swung her shopping bag at her side so it hit my hip at regular intervals. We passed Kowalski’s Market, the only place in New York that felt at all like home. The store was bustling, with a constant flow of people entering and leaving with large grocery bags. Normally, I would stop in and pick up some cheese and potatoes to make Pierogi, or some cabbage to make Golabki. But that day we walked past the store, and the tantalizing scent of Kielbasa followed me for what seemed like blocks.

* * *

When Rebecca was about ten years old, I started to have haunting dreams. Some of them were nightmares. I would lie in bed at night facing a dark shadowy wall, with Sam’s arm draped around my waist, lacing his fingers between my own. As I entered the eerie twilight between wakefulness and sleep, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to fall asleep in my old village, without the many noises of people shouting in the streets, the cars whizzing by, the lights of the city that never seemed to dim.

Then I would rush into the dreams. My older brothers and sisters would circle my bed, staring at me, frowning, pale, with stringy hair. Their stares revealed their sadness and disappointment that I had left our tight-knit community in Poland. I had abandoned my old life completely. They would shake their heads, my sister cradling her face in her hands, sighing.

I would awake with my heart pounding, with a fear that the life I had grown up with was now completely gone. To try to calm myself a little bit, I would tip-toe from the bedroom to our tiny dark kitchen and make myself a pot of tea. I would take the kettle off of the stove before the water began to boil, because I never wanted the shrieking steam to wake up Rebecca. She needed a full night’s rest for school.

I would reach for a teacup from the cabinet and with glazed, tired eyes I would admire the thin gold rim, the smooth loopy handle, and the pads of my fingers would absorb the smoothness of the cold china. I bought this china set because it reminded me of my mother’s from when I was growing up.

It was one of those nights, when I was sipping tea alone in the kitchen, that I realized I wanted to go back to my village in Poland. It hit me all at once. I didn’t want to go back to live there—I just wanted to see it, to make sure it was still there, that my childhood had not been completely erased. I found myself reminiscing about my old house and my old school. Who knew which of my friends had lived? And of those who had, I did not know how many had chosen to stay in Poland. I needed to reassure myself that my roots were not completely plucked from the soil. I decided I would speak to Sam the very next morning.

Of course, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I felt nervous and when I did begin to drift off, I would snap back awake, sometimes kicking Sam in the leg. He would barely stir. When the sun began to rise, I could wait no longer, and I shook Sam awake.

“What?” he murmured, rubbing his eyes. “What is it, dear?” He asked me a bit louder, in Polish.

“I…I want to go back to Poland. I want to see my village.”

He squinted, as if he thought he might be dreaming. “By yourself?”

“I think I would have to go alone. You would need to be here for Rebecca.”

He sat up, threw his legs over the side of the bed, and stood, slowly. He paced the length of the bedroom three, four, five times before he stopped and looked me in the eye.

“Why? Why would you want to go back? Our life is here.” His expression was one of concern, and of curiosity. His ruddy face did not look the least bit angry. “We are happy here.”

I was careful as I thought of what to say to him. I had never told Sam about Sarah, and I wasn’t about to do so. Sixteen years had passed already. We were happy. I did not see any logical reason to bring the past into the present. Sarah was my glowing secret.

“I need to.” It was all I could think to say. I stood up so I could look at Sam’s eyes. “My brothers and sisters come to me in my sleep. It scares me.” My eyes began to water. “I don’t want all the years I spent in Poland to disappear. I need to know that they were real.”

We talked and talked and talked, as the sun rose higher and higher and higher in the sky. He said we had some money saved, that we could begin to put some money aside for my trip. We lay in bed next to each other, holding hands. He kissed me on the forehead. “I need to get ready to go to work.”

Kocham Cię,” I told him, with tears streaking down my face.

“I love you, too,” he said to me.

* * *

Months passed, but, with the help of Sam’s sister and brother-in-law, we managed to save enough money to buy me a ticket on a ship back to Europe. During that time, I began to make preparations. I wrote to old family friends in the next village, and to my surprise, they responded. After the war, they had decided to stay in their town, even though most of their surviving family and friends had come to various places in America. They said they would be happy to have me as their guest when I made the journey back to Poland.

I arranged for Rebecca to stay with her aunt and cousins in the hours after school, and Sam would come get her when he was done with work for the day. Since we lived in the same apartment building, this would be very convenient. I made sure to tell Sam’s sister that Rebecca liked to have milk and cookies every day after school. She laughed, telling me that Rebecca would be fine, that she would be well fed.

In the weeks before I left for Europe, my anticipation drastically increased. I spent long hours walking through Central Park on cloudy mornings, just thinking. I told myself that I had the perfect family and that my life was full of mazel, of luck. I was lucky to be alive at all. Though there was a part of me that wished to question the remaining villagers, to spend the rest of my life searching for baby Sarah, I knew I could not do so.

The truth is, I did not know if I was strong enough to face my baby Sarah. I did not know if I would want to be strong enough to face her. Either she lived or she died, black or white. Most likely she died. But if she had lived, if by some miracle she had been rescued, then I liked to imagine that she was happy and loved, with a mother who cooked hot matzo-ball soup for her when she was sick and stroked her hair when she was sad. I wanted to believe that she did not need my presence.

But I still craved for her to be my daughter more than anything.

I also considered that she might have been taken in by a Christian family. As difficult as it was for me, I came to realize that religion’s value is much less than the value of life. Then I would feel ridiculous for dreaming such dreams in the first place.

I didn’t want to confirm whether or not she had lived. I liked to cling to my worn, unraveling thread of hope that had remained tied to me tightly throughout the years.

These were my thoughts as I walked.

* * *

I was gone from New York for one month. After I traveled by ship, I took trains and buses. It was a long journey.

* * *

I do not know how to exactly describe what I felt upon reaching my village. When I first stepped off the bus, the smell of the air hit me hard. I was so used to the smog of New York City, the gritty floating dirt, that this air seemed almost fake to me. It was the smell of my childhood, sweet and perfumed, and I inhaled deeply. I felt like I was being pulled back in time; I shrank one foot and I was ten years old again, playing jump rope with my older brother, a very different brother than the one who haunted me in my sleep. Everywhere I looked was green. There was no green in New York. Only concrete.

The roads were still mainly dirt, but there was one paved road now that was new. There was a new grocery store, too, much bigger than the Kosher Market I had grown up with that was literally a shack.

I walked down a dirt path toward my old house. The sun shone in my eyes, and I rested my hand on my forehead to reduce the glare. I dragged my small suitcase behind me, wincing when a sharp stone made its way into my shoe. The bus that would take me to my family friend’s house didn’t come for several hours, and so I had plenty of time to explore the remnants of my crumbled childhood.

I didn’t have any expectations for what I was to see, really. I was sure my house had burned down or that another one had been built in its place.

But after walking a little ways, I turned a corner. And there it was, the house from my youth, catching me off guard. There were still little yellow flowers growing between blades of grass in the yard. The front door was still made of the same knotty wood I had memorized so well. The rims of the window were painted a bright white. Even the thatched roof looked as if it was intact. I ached to see the inside. So, I closed my eyes for a moment, puffed out my chest, and then marched to the front door. And I knocked, harder than I meant to knock.

I heard muffled Polish from inside, and I worked to steady my palpitating heart. A short, round woman answered the door. “Cześć,” I said. I explained to her that I was from America, and that I used to live in her house when I was younger. But oh, she would not listen to me. She was scared of my clothing and confidence. I was an unfamiliar face in an inbred village. She turned around and ran into the house, returning to me in a fluster, pushing papers into my face. I looked at the papers. They were settlement papers. She was worried that I was trying to reclaim my house. With an admirable strength from such a short woman, she insisted that the house was rightfully hers, and that I should leave. Disheartened, I backed away. I did not want to cause any trouble.

As I turned around and began to walk away, I remembered a small graveyard that had been located a few hundred feet behind my house. So many summer nights my brothers and sisters and I had chased each other through the graveyard, and then been scolded by our parents for being so disrespectful of the dead. I wondered if the graveyard was still there, if I could still find it.

Still dragging my suitcase behind me, I walked down the dirt path a little further before searching for the graveyard. I did not want the woman in my old house to think I was sneaking into her backyard. So I cut through a field a little further away, behind some large trees, and there it was. The graveyard, with it’s cracked stones and uneven ground and overgrown pale green weeds and dandelions.  I could almost see one of my brothers hiding behind a stone, his large ears sticking out ever so slightly, giving away his hiding spot. But now, an old man, wearing a kippah on his head, was hunched over a grave, holding a young boy’s hand. Together, they stooped to the ground, picked up jagged rocks, and placed them on the flat top of the gravestone. They did this in silence. I wanted to read the words and dates on the gravestone. I wanted to find out who they were mourning, to see what their faces looked like. The gravestone was very old. In all likelihood, the child probably had not known the deceased. The grave was most likely from years before the war. But I knew that if I were to creep closer toward them, I would be ruining their beautiful, private moment together. I did not want to be responsible for that. So I left, heading in the direction of the bus stop.

But I slowed as I neared the woods. I had been anticipating this moment for months, dreading and looking forward to confirming its existence–and there it was. The woods hissed at me, looking very different today than it did the day I left. There was no fog, only pure sunlight streaming through the branches and leaves. A bird chirped, and a mixture of sadness and comfort settled around me. The woods were so peaceful. I was glad that of all places, I had chosen to leave my baby Sarah there.

I still had some time before the bus came, so I decided to walk through the town center marketplace. I felt as if I had completed some form of a pilgrimage, that my life had finally come full circle, and I smiled. A small hole had been filled and I had experienced closure, of some sort. That, and triumph. My tour through town had been so short, only several hours, but it was all I needed. I felt satisfied, and proud that I had come from such a small community and had survived in New York City. I missed Sam and my Rebecca.

So I continued to drag my suitcase behind me, through the marketplace, and it’s zipper caught on my wool skirt. I frowned at the new rip from my left ankle to my knee. And then I realized it didn’t really matter. Who was I trying to impress?

I gazed around the marketplace at stained wooden barrels of wheat and grain covered by large canvas umbrellas. There were shades of brown and beige everywhere, surrounding me everywhere I looked. Many people wandered through the market, speaking Polish words that danced through the air and washed over me like a light rain. They exchanged money for grain.

And then I saw, within the mounds of blandness, purple.

There was only one time I had ever seen this exact purple before.

I couldn’t breathe.

The girl stood about fifty feet away from me. She had long dark hair trailing down her back in waves, glittering in the sun, and through her locks of hair, a fuzzy purple shawl was visibly wrapped around her shoulders.

Suddenly my feet were numb and every bone in my body turned to challah dough. So many thoughts rushed through my mind, I could never sort them out now. Thoughts of hope, thoughts trying to not get my hopes up, thoughts trying to grasp the concept that maybe, just maybe, all of my dreams I had for Sarah while I was in Belzec were actually reality.

I was watching myself from a far distance. I had no control. I forgot that I did not have the strength, the will, or the right.

I left my suitcase sitting next to a barrel. Shaking, I slowly walked up to the girl with the purple shawl.

___

I hold a B.A. in English with a subconcentration in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. During my senior year I wrote an 80-page fiction thesis and was a semi-finalist for the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards for Creative Writing. I recently moved to Athens, Ohio to pursue my M.A. in Creative Writing (fiction) at Ohio University, and I began reading for theNew Ohio Review in September. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Eunoia Review, The William and Mary Review, and has been highlighted on Fictiondaily.org.

 


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