Abraham Horowitz thought he was dead. Maybe this was what death was like, desolate and bleak, no different than his last few years of sheer misery, humiliation and pain. He already felt he was in Hell, for Buchenwald was a Hell on earth, but what was going on now? Just where was he exactly? His glasses had been smashed by a **** guard months ago, and now he couldn't understand why he could not make out the hazy figures of the guards barking out orders and smashing the butts of their rifles into the heads and backs of tormented inmates. All that seemed to exist were walking skeletons aimlessly drifting about in the blowing wind.
His situation was always dire, but today was an indescribably odd day. It wasn't good or bad. Lately, little aroused Abraham to ponder upon as he had long ago begun to believe that he was an animal and not a man. After all, different walks of life were thrown away like subhuman trash—left for the flies to feast upon—and it had powerfully defined the ghastly surroundings of his disgraceful existence. People who once were somebody to someone had soon become nobody in the world. The rotting corpses proved that out. Since he was deemed as a beast, Abraham no longer thought or reasoned like a human being. There was no longer any reason to think or to feel or to imagine anything that could inspire his will to thrive.
The inhumanity had taken its toll. Too weak to stand, he had been fading in and out of sleep and consciousness when much of the chaos of forced marches took place. The Nazis were desperately trying to avoid encountering the allied forces that opposed them. They weren't going to give up easily as they'd sooner shake their fists and make all the prisoners suffer to the bitter end. Many of prisoners were moved out as possible, but not all went willingly. The remaining prisoners—those who weren't half dead—now had their chance to resist.
Abraham's back was leaning against the splintered, wooden wall of one of the barracks. He had tried to prop himself up in an attempt to sit up and then stand up. He only succeeded in sitting up in an awkward slouch, much to the discomfort to his bony backside. The sun beat down on him, his only solace to warm up his frail, battered body, his only comfort in his state of wasting away to the shell of the man he once was. Soon the sweet sun was quenched as he was engulfed in the shadows of a soldier standing before him.
There was nothing left in him, no more will to live. He was done. No more fear flooded his mind, only thoughts of nothingness that gave him an actual period of relief. If he was still alive—he had thought—the best thing to happen would be that the soldier now in front of him end his miserable life with a bullet to his head. What once was deemed a horrendous fate now seemed like a welcome surrender
"Hey there... sprechen sie Englisch?", the man asked him. It was the worst German accent that he ever heard, but it might as well have been the voice of God.
Did he speak English? Oh, yes, he did! "Ja…Englisch", he managed to utter, in sheer bewilderment. He struggled for words to say, but they could not leave his mouth.
The man crouched down and said, “It’s okay now. You can say whatever you want, buddy.”
Abraham still struggled to speak. "That is yes...I...I... do....I do...and Hebrew... and Yiddish... German and… a bit... Polish", he answered with a parched, throaty voice. Abraham had enough strength left to place his quivering hand up to his eyes. He simply cried as the light went on in his mind. The rumors going around the camp were true! The Americans had come!
Tears are for little boys. The image of his father, scolding him for crying as a youth, dashed into mind. Abraham tried to contain himself. Weeping was one satisfaction that the inmates wanted never to give to the Nazis. Only the irrevocably broken ones begged for mercy, wailing uncontrollably as they were laughed at, mocked and scorned by their enemies. Conditioned to show no emotional response was one up on the Germans, the only control and dignity that a man had left. Self-restraint meant you were never owned by anyone.
Soon a slightly cool cup of water was placed upon Abraham’s shaking lips. He slurped at it—getting more on the ground than in his mouth—like a man coming out of years in the desert. Oh, how precious was that water! He could have drunk it by the gallons, splashed in it, played in it—danced in it! If he could only stand and be given the chance!
"Easy now, buddy”, the American advised. "My name's John, by the way". The young, freckled-face private smiled proudly, stating,”John Dunn from the good, ole USA—from Jersey...New Jersey, that is."
He was only the second soldier that Abraham ever met in this entire ordeal of brutal capture and madness of war that had a heart. The soldier was rare sight in that he showed him even an ounce of kindness. John Dunn reminded him so much of Otto Brumler that he began to weep, again. He didn't know he even had it in him, for he had stopped crying so long ago that it was as if he had forgotten how. Lately, there just weren't any more feelings left—not even hate. Oh, how he used to hate! There were only numb movements of a dead man walking about. The tears felt cleansing upon his dry and ***** face.
Otto Brumler was a rare anomaly. He just didn’t seem to make sense in this sea of insanity. A **** guard, he liked to talk with some of the inmates, discreetly giving them gifts to pass around—some cigarettes, chocolates, cheese, bread and sausages. How peculiar to be coming from a German soldier! Some of the inmates were suspicious that he was a spy that was out to trap them and feared him even more than the most loathing of the guards. Abraham was one of them who at first thought the man was purposely trying to get them in trouble.
Trouble abounded in the camps. If the men couldn't work hard enough, they were daily beaten and tortured, so badly beaten down that many could not get back up again. If it wasn't an act of harsh aggression, it was starvation and disease that got them. Herded up like animals, the filth from their ****** fluids and human waste was an ever noxious presence, their ragged clothes soiled in the foul mess. The stench that was once unbearable eventually became to define them as trash to be thrown away, and they had forgotten what a clean existence smelled like.
Abraham would sometimes wake up in the morning and find the one next to him had not made it through the night. Sometimes, it was on both sides that dead bodies had sandwiched him in-between. If not those succumbing to the horrible conditions, the weaker ones were taken away while alive, never to be seen again. And some would give up the will to live by refusing to press on, passively taking a bullet or a fatal beating. Then there were those who would end their own lives as the only means of escape. It seemed one less triumph for the Nazis, to deny them the sick satisfaction of killing yet another, wretched soul. Yet the Nazis always won the victory of a victim’s life ending. Regardless of how the death of any of the undesirables occurred in the camps, it fed their ideology of superiority just fine. Many of the prisoners lay awake at night wondering how this barbarism could flourish and go unnoticed. When would it end? Had the whole world gone mad?
"We survive and that’s how we win”, one of the Polish prisoners, Jan, encouraged some around him. "We make it to the end because they will be defeated. They cannot last forever. You mark my words!"
"And how do we do that?" “a doubtful Jewish teen, Eli, insisted. He once was so spirited, and he had great plans to travel the world one day. "I lost my whole family. I'm the only one left and it will just be a matter of time before they get me, too. We are all doomed!" His gaunt face and hallow eyes spoke for themselves.
Abraham needed to believe he'd have even a glimmer of hope to be free one day, or he'd have lost the battle by now. His sanity would not hold out. Many already had no hope and that was like a death in itself. Most of the men knew that to hold on, they'd have to defy logic and hold out for hope. They'd pray with each other, regardless of being a Jew or Christian or even the agnostics, sometimes losing the meager hope that they were had. It grew as scarce as their rations of crusty bread. Nevertheless, they prayed.
One time, Abraham was grabbed by a guard by the throat and hurled to the ground for being too slow. He had been dumping out human excrement from the campgrounds. The guard berated Abraham as he kicked him over and over again while the poor man curled up into a ball in helpless submission. Protecting his face and head, he soon found himself sheltering his groin, writhing in pain in that sensitive area that had been attacked by a heel of a boot.
It was Otto Brumler who astounded him. Why wasn't he like the others? As a Jew, the disgust the Nazis had for Abraham was as obvious as the gloom hanging over the camp. Hatred defined Abraham’s world ever since ****** took power and convinced the people that they would be better off without his kind. Otto was looked upon as being too soft on those he guarded, reprimanded for not being too tough and rough on the prison ****. He did not go above and beyond his duty, nor did he take pleasure in anyone's pain and suffering.
"My best friend was a Jew", he confessed to Abraham one night, sneaking him some salve for his cuts and abrasions from that last beating, providing him some meat to satisfy his longings to fill his stomach.
Abraham actually showed a real emotion that was a rare sight these days, a slow expression of surprise. "So why are you here at the camp?" he asked him.
Otto puffed on his cigar and passed it to him. He laughed a little, replying, "I think ****** is a little man...but a big bully. I would have gladly be no part of this greedy thirst to devour other nations, but I was forced into it." He looked at Abraham and smiled a bit with sad eyes. It was quite the contradiction of mirth. Otto had a ruddy complexion and dark blonde hair. In his youthfulness, there still an air of innocence about him, a kindness that the ugliness of the war had not killed in him.
"I love my country", he admitted. "I just hate what they are doing now and how blind we have become. It will be to our ruin."
Abraham admired his honesty. "I guess there are a few good men in this world", he admitted. "My father taught me that it isn't where you come from but who you are that counts."
"That is true, my friend." Otto patted him on the back and added, “My old friend, Avi, had saved my life." He was speaking of his Jewish friend from childhood. "Many years ago, he rescued me from a lake in my hometown. We went there to cool off from the summer heat. I couldn't really swim, but I became overconfident and dove in like I was the best swimmer in the world. There, I found myself in water over my head and didn't end up so well. I would have drowned without Avi rescuing me. Unlike me, he was fearless."
"So now you know we Jews aren't devils." Abraham remarked, with a hint of a twinkle in his eye.
"Of course not! Avi was like a prizefighter, a real proud kid. He never backed down from a fight, and there was always a challenge for him..He had to fight off the boys who picked on him for being different from most of us—for being a Jew. So he learned how to stand his ground. I was a fat boy, and Avi would defend me from the bullies who picked on me, too. He was a good friend to me. I know a a bully when I see one, Abraham” He pointed his finger all around, “Bullies everywhere, but they are not men…just weak, little boys who need someone to kick around to feel better”
Abraham knew he had a genuine friend in Otto. “What happened to your friend?”he asked about Avi.
Otto just shrugged his shoulders. “I hope he hasn't lost the fight. I wonder what has happened to him quite often...if he is alive now…if he has made it this far."
It was nighttime, but it seemed even less secure to come together like this than if mingling in plain sight. There was never a time where anyone could feel safe, not one minute. Abraham knew this encounter was risky, deadly for sure if caught. He talked about his lovely, young wife, Rivka, and how she felt she was not blessed with having a child. Now it seemed like it was a blessing not to rear up a child, not to have it cruelly ripped away from them and mourn the aching loss and its tragic demise. Rivka was already dead, herself,. Women and children were often the first to go. All Abraham had now was her memory, the image of her sweet face in his mind. Otto talked about his young sweetheart, Gretchen, and his dream of starting a life with her once the war was over. He still believed in a bright future.
That wish would never come true. It wasn't long before Otto was found out about for his secret encounters with some of the prisoners and shot before a firing squad as a traitor. When Abraham found out, he wanted to weep over the loss but the tears wouldn't come. They couldn’t even come for his lovely Rivka. They only came now when Private John Dunn had given him water, mirroring the same kindness that Otto had once done, redeeming him from an animal to a man once more.
Abraham was eventually placed on a truck with other survivors and transported to more humane conditions. Allied soldiers were fully in charge the camp now, and there was no going back to that hellhole ever again. At last, he was truly a free man, though a heartbroken one who was not the same man as he arrived. He had not died—this was not just a dream—but he still was not convinced he would have the will to go on. The breeze on his face felt wonderful, the sun in his eyes, miraculous. That held some shred of promise for him. He passed by trees and mountainous views that he was never convinced he would ever see, again. No more smell of death, but even the most fragrant flowers could not mask the memory of the horrible stench of his war-torn memories. Some things did just not die away that easily. Memories had a stink of their own that could not be masked by beauty. He had seen things that few could bear, much less go on to tell about it. He'd never forget being penned up like pigs for the slaughter and made to have no hope. But by the front of the truck, there was Jan, the Pole who once said that the Nazis would be defeated and everyone could mark his words.
Abraham looked at him until Jan's eyes met his and they both managed a smile. He had come too far to give up. He would not win the victory if he did not survive. He owed it to those who did not make it—to his people, to his fellow inmates, to Rivka, and even to Otto Brumler. He had no clue, no answers of where to go or how to conduct himself in the world, again, but he would continue to hold onto hope that he would make it.
It suddenly dawned on him that his wife had a few cousins in Chicago that she grew up with. His mind was alerted with the remembrance of Rivka exchanging pictures, postcards and letters throughout the years, All he had of her was robbed from him in the war—everything. To lay eyes on her image—once again—and the possibility of maybe holding her actual words in his hands began to overwhelm him. His imagination could barely contain the thoughts, and he began to weep yet again. As once, crying was weakness to a man, the tears just now meant he was alive. To be counted among the living—to belong somewhere—it was the closest thing to pure joy. Thoughts of America started a small spark within—just enough to start a little fire in his soul—to lead him on to a path with a hopeful purpose. There was no turning back now.