My mother was thirty-one at the time. I was sixteen. It was not uncommon to marry young in those days. The terrible uncertainty of war sent many couples in love to the altar, in desperate hopes that their vows would give them some heaven-blessed protection from the horrors that were whispered of behind barred doors; the whispers that rose to screams in the years that followed.
Because I was past puberty, clearly no longer a child, I was sent to the women’s division of the camp. Only the intervention of God, I believe, allowed me to be placed with Mama. My Papa and younger sister, Marie, were not so fortunate. Months later, my Papa’s anguished cry and Marie’s screams, as they were being dragged away from us, would still tear me from the peaceful hiding place of my dreams: dreams that all too often became nightmares—reflections of the hell of my waking hours.
My memories of Bergen-Belsen, now long years past, are always colored smoky-gray. I see the scenes behind my eyes through torrents of bone-numbing rain. Always, it is raining in my memories; nearly solid sheets of icy water, turning the camp yard into a cesspool of stinking mud, which clung to our frozen feet and made our dragging steps even slower. The only benefit of the rain was the blessing of the puddles: a source for water to drink and to wash our filthy bodies and clothing. And too, the rain helped keep the smoke from burning our eyes and funneling down our throats to our always empty stomachs. The sickness in our guts then came from the heavy, acrid fumes, but much more from the terror of knowing what fed the fires.
Mama was my filter. The rain only dampened the constant cloud, but Mama could weave a quilt of fantasy with her words and touch, blanketing the hateful smoke and rain with summer breezes and the scent of wild roses.
The first time I was taken in the night, Mama was waiting afterwards to croon away my terrible sobs and sooth my bruises with her caresses. She taught me that it was not me that they were using, only an empty body. It was easier after that. My heart and mind stayed within Mama’s safe arms. I disowned my body, it was no part of me during those times.
After more than two years though, starvation, terror and torture finally began to gnaw away at Mama the way the rats in our building would gnaw at our clothes and feet as we slept. First, it was her youth and beauty that were devoured, leaving little more than a ghostly negative of the face and body of the mother I’d believed invincible. The light of strength in her brown eyes flickered for a while then ultimately died when the lantern of her mind was finally extinguished by the rain of Bergen-Belsen. I would hold her then and hum those same tuneless melodies, but it was comforting only to me because she wasn’t really there anymore.
Not long after she died, the Allies came. The war ended and our camp was liberated. Those of us still alive were free; family-less and homeless, but free.
And now, years and a lifetime later, I think of Mama and Papa and Marie… all gone. I remember my childhood, our home and our love. The memories have kept me alive.
But always, when it rains, I turn on all the lights in the house and play loud, happy music. And I pray for the rain to stop.