Like most people, my life began with the sound of a cry; the cry that every newborn cries when they enter the world, the cry my mother cried when she first touched my face, and the cry my father cried when he held me against his chest. It was a cry that started my beautiful life here on earth. But it was also a cry that changed it forever.
I wake with a start. My mother is standing over me, fear written all over her face. Her eyes have dilated to thrice their normal size, and her face gleams with perspiration. I glance at the window and notice that the night is still black as coal in my familiar Hungarian sky. It must be the middle of the night. Across the room I see my big sister Rachel frantically shoving clothes into her school backpack.
“What is it Mama?” I mumble, attempting to rub the sleep out of my eyes.
Mama glances at Rachel with a nervous smile and then turns to me. “It’s nothing honey,” she says, as if trying to convince herself, “Just get your school bag and go with Papa.”
I quietly obey, taking my school bag in hand and running out to the kitchen where Papa is packing away food in the big purse that Mama had in our attic. My school bag is much heavier than usual, and when I open it, I see that most of my clothes are carefully packed into it, causing it to almost spill over if I do not carry it carefully.
“Marta,” Papa whispers, grabbing my little hand with his strong one. “Don’t be afraid. We are just going to live with your cousins until the war is over.”
The War. My little eight-year-old heart stops cold. How could I have forgotten? At school that was all we ever talked about. There were rumors of horrible things happening, but it all seemed so far away. Surely we were safe in our little Hungarian house, so many miles from the heart of Germany.
“But…” I stammer, still trying to make sense of it all, “Why?”
Before he can answer, Mama rushes into the room, practically dragging Rachel. Both of them have a bag in one hand, which I presume is full of clothes. Rachel looks terrified, so I look at Papa, who remains peaceful. Mama glances around the house for one last time, and a silent tear slips down her cheek. She quickly wipes it away, but it wasn’t quick enough. Papa and I both saw it fall. Papa rubs her shoulders with his strong hands and quietly tells us to take our bags. Then, without even one look back, he opens our door, and escapes into the black night, with us all following after him.
For the next few hours, all I see is darkness and all I feel is fear. Why are we fleeing? Are we in danger? Are we going to get caught? My entire body shakes from the cold, and my eyes water from the wind, but I take comfort in the fact that Papa is next to me, and try as hard as I can to be brave.
After what seems like years, we arrive at my cousins’ house. It is a modest little brick building near the edge of a small town called Pálháza. Mama quietly knocks on the door, and immediately, my Uncle Aaron opens it. He and Mama exchange some secret words, and then we all enter. Inside, my Aunt Hannah and cousin Rebekah are sitting at a wooden table, clearly relieved that we have arrived safely. Papa takes out his pocket watch and I see that it is five in the morning! “We got out right in time,” I hear Papa say to Uncle Aaron. “I could hear gunshots as we fled.”
By this point, I am exhausted, and Mama wants to unpack our bags, so Aunt Hannah and Rebekah show us to our room. All four of us are to share a tiny compartment in the basement behind the staircase. It has its own bathroom and two beds: one for me and Rachel, and one for Mama and Papa. It is so much smaller than our lovely house back home, but I am beginning to understand that we are some of the few Jews lucky enough to have a safe place to hide. Before I can even take my shoes off, I am sound asleep next to Rachel on the small, scratchy bed.
The next morning, I wake up to Mama’s voice, singing quietly. I look down at my feet and notice that I have not changed my clothes since last night. However, my shoes are lying neatly on the ground next to my bed. Mama must have removed them after I had fallen asleep! Rachel is still sleeping next to me, so I slip out of bed, careful not to wake her. Papa is sitting on the ground in front of his bed slicing some of the bread that we brought with us. I tiptoe over to where he is sitting and lean against him without a word. He hands me a piece of the bread and says, “Good morning, Marta! Enjoy this lovely breakfast bread, made just for my lovely little girl.”
I laugh and gratefully take the bread from him, as Mama comes over to us. “This will be our home for a while, Marta,” she says as she, too, accepts a piece of bread from Papa. “Your Aunt and Uncle have been so kind as to let us stay here until the danger passes.”
Danger. War. So many thoughts rush through my mind. “But, we are safe… Right?” I ask, anxious for someone to quell my fears.
“The Germans want to get rid of all the Jews,” Papa explains. I know this from school of course, but I let him continue. “They are trying to imprison us, thinking that if they can contain us, they can contain our religion. But as long as we stay here, we will be alright.”
I smile at him to show that I understand, but I can see fear in his usually placid face, and I hear uncertainty in his voice.
All of a sudden there is a crash upstairs, and I hear Aunt Hannah scream. I hear another loud sound from upstairs that I’ve never heard before. Aunt Hannah’s screaming stops and the fear in Papa’s face increases exponentially and he holds me a little tighter. Rachel jumps out of bed and hides herself in Mama’s arms. “It’s okay, It’s okay.” I hear Mama whisper.
But it’s not. With the sound of another deafening crash, the hidden door under the stairs falls to the ground and I see three young men in crisp German uniforms standing in front of us with their guns pointed. Past them, I see Uncle Aaron lying on the ground unmoving with Rebekah lying next to him. Aunt Hannah is nowhere to be found, but deep down I know that she too was a victim of this Nazi invasion.
“Come. With. Us.” One of the men says in bad Hungarian.
Fearfully, we obey. The men hit us with the butts of their rifles and shove us up the stairs. When we reach the kitchen, I can hardly believe what I see. The table that Aunt Hannah and Rebekah sat at last night, while awaiting our arrival is stained with crimson blood, and I see a mangled female’s body on the ground right next to it.
“Oh no. Hannah, no!” I hear my mother say as she turns and sees the bloody table. One of the men slaps her across the face and tells her to stop talking.
I notice Papa tense up as the man hurts Mama, but he can do nothing without the risk of giving her the same fate as Aunt Hannah.
I can feel my feet walking but my brain can hardly fathom what is happening. The soldier’s cold rifle against my soft dress is a constant reminder of the fear in my heart, yet at the same time, my heart isn’t quite sure what it is fearful of. Am I afraid of deportation? Of separation? Of death? I feel almost too numb to even be afraid.
Outside, the men shove us into the back of their army truck where there are already at least twenty other Jews who must have been uprooted from their safe places as well. I notice my school teacher, Miss Coleman, and a few other children from my classes, but I do not have the heart to greet any of them at the moment.
Before I can sit down, the truck starts moving and I topple over onto its hard floor. Miss Coleman gives me a heartfelt look of pity, but we both know there is nothing we can do to escape this devastation. Papa is sitting next to me, but even he cannot placate me. The fear erupts within my heart and I begin to cry.
After hours of traveling by truck, we are finally allowed to get out at a large building, just to be transferred onto a train. Where we are going, and why we are going remains a mystery to me and I cannot seem to quell the fears that have risen up within my heart. The train ride seems to go on for ages and I can’t help but wonder if this will be the last time that I see the countryside that passes through the window.
Finally, the train stops. We are forced off in groups, some being sorted to the left and some to the right. Unlike many families, mine remains together. It pains me to see the young girls, no older than me, screaming in distress as their mother or father is ripped from their side and sent in the opposite direction.
I think back to yesterday morning when the familiar cry of Mama woke me up in my familiar bed in our familiar little house. So much has changed in such little time. I think back to arriving at Uncle Aaron and Aunt Hannah’s house at five in the morning, and settling into our little room for our last decent night of sleep. I think of the fear that overcame me as I sat in the back of that Nazi truck on the way to this steel prison and I think of my wonderful schoolmates and lovely teacher who all are subject to the same fate as I am. And I realize that if I should fear anything, it should be fear itself. For it was fear that sent my family fleeing our house and endangered my aunt and uncle. It was fear that caused Aunt Hannah to be killed and it would be fear that caused my own obliteration, too. I was sure of it. So, at that moment, as I stepped into the jail that would almost definitely claim the lives of my family and many others, I made a promise to myself. I promised that as long as I was subject to this Nazi rule, I would not let them win my fear. They could take everything from me, yet I would not acquiesce the fear that they were so driven to steal from me.
And honestly, I think that is what killed me.
It was an early morning, like most were in that concentration camp. The sky shone bright red as the sun began to rise. It had been two years since my arrival at the camp. I was now ten years old, and still determined as ever to not allow the Nazis to win my fear. I had watched unafraid as my older sister was taken from my family and escorted to a room from which she never returned. I had stood strong as Mama was deported to a different concentration camp. And I had been brave as Miss Coleman was shot right in front of my face. It was only Papa and I now, but we had grown closer than ever.
The German soldiers who I had grown so accustomed to seeing, knocked loudly on our little barrack and knocked down the door, grabbing Papa by his hair and holding him at gunpoint. I could feel the fear that I had tried to suppress creep up in my throat. Not Papa! They could take anything else from me. But Papa was my world. They couldn’t take him.
Without even thinking about it, I rushed towards him. I knew it was reckless and I knew I was putting both of us in danger, but I also realized that if I did not act, Papa would be gone. And I couldn’t let that happen.
“Marta, no!” Papa hissed as I tried in vain to reach him with my arms.
But I knew that I must try to save him. I pushed every ounce of fear back into my stomach and leapt at him with all my might. The last thing I saw was one of the German men lifting his gun, and silent tears flowing down Papa’s face.
And Papa cried.
It was a cry that brought me into the world, and a cry that brought me out of it.
Sometimes I wonder if I was wrong to try and save Papa. Maybe if I had just let him go, I would have been able to escape and meet Mama at her new concentration camp. But ultimately, I have come to the realization that just standing there and watching someone else suffer is almost as evil as causing them the suffering in the first place.
For, you can’t make a difference if you don’t at least try.