This story is by Natalie N. Aydin and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I was 18 years old when they brought me to Auschwitz. The metal banner arching over the camp as we entered read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” in German (“Work will make you free”). The only thing I had been told was that we were going to a “work camp.” I didn’t know anything about these “work camps” except that we were going to be working.
How wrong I was.
Nor would work make us free.
I arrived at the camp with my parents and my two sisters. We were scared. At least we were together, I surmised. If I knew then that this wouldn’t always be the case, I would have hugged my family even more.
In point of fact, my parents would later be separated from us and be shipped to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where they would ultimately perish. I learned (years later) that My Father and Mother were both sent to the gas chambers.
I was able to remain with my two sisters, who were later murdered. Genevieve was my favorite sister (she was the oldest). I’ll never forget how her eyes burned bright like candles with the vivaciousness of life, even when times got tough. She had a beautiful soul. She was the type of person who would offer her last bit of bread to a stranger.
So you can imagine how absolutely horrified I was the day that I was forced to watch my sister Genevieve literally walk to her death, waiting in line, inching slowly towards the crematorium. For whatever reason, my name was not on the list. Shortly before that, my younger sister Liesel had succumbed to her injuries, at the hands of an SS guard wielding a baton. Genevieve and I cried that day, holding each other and absolutely sobbing, inconsolable. The next day was when Genevieve’s name got called while we were in a line. That was the second to last time I saw her.
Therefore, I ended up being the lone survivor from my entire nuclear family.
Once we were liberated from the camps, I felt hopeful. At the same time, though, I had a really bad case of survival guilt. It was like I was a prisoner in my own mind, even years after I had been freed from being at the hands of the Nazis. In some ways, you could say that I had been assigned a fate worse than death–to have seen what I’d seen, and was still going on living. For a long time, waking up to my reality everyday was like living in a nightmare from hell, having experienced what I had.
For years, I really felt badly after the war because it still seemed so fresh in my mind…like it was only yesterday. I remember everything clear as a bell.
Once I got out of the camp, I got a job at a small restaurant, waiting tables. I saved my money, and before I knew it, I had finally socked away enough cash and had obtained the proper papers to travel to America.
For a long time, I had wanted to be free–not just to have autonomy of movement, but also be psychologically stronger. I wanted to be free from the jail of my own mind.
So I started to write–a lot.
I didn’t tell anyone anything for a long time; I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want other people to have to know about my own problems, my own pains, my own shame. So I kept it all bottled up inside.
I had spent one year in the camp before liberation, and I was as thin as a rail. I looked at myself in a full-length mirror. My skin looked very sallow, and I constantly felt ill. There were days where I had to run to the bathroom to throw up at a moment’s notice. I had nightmares…flashbacks…there seemed to be no end in sight to my psychological pain.
In short…I was an emotional wreck. Even with all my problems, though, I was able to get a job as a secretary in a law office. It was a big firm. No one knew my name, and that was the way I liked it. I just wanted to stay under the radar. No one even knew I was Jewish, either. I had my reasons for keeping the true nature of my heritage a secret.
Time passed. The war became more and more distant in the tapestry of my past. But I still had nightmares every night, seeing the face of my sister Genevieve dying. She pleaded with me to help her, but I could not. Then I would wake up in a cold sweat and remember my parents going to the gas chambers, and how my other sister Liesel was beaten to death by an SS guard, right in front of my own eyes, me being powerless to stop it.
I had had the same or similar dreams for the entire nine years I was at the law firm. I was trying so hard to keep it all together, trying to remain sane.
This was when I met Andrew Holliday–“Drew” for short. In nine years of working at the firm, I had never actually seen his face, because he worked in a different office of the law firm.
So, one day, I was at the office, as usual. This was the day after one of the many nights I woke up drenched in sweat from fear…
Drew walked by my desk and greeted me kindly. He was a nice guy, really classy–not to mention calm and reassuring. He was wearing a black suit, a white collared shirt, and a light blue silk tie, complete with matching silver cufflinks with a light blue stone embedded within each of them.
“Annelise…what a nice surprise to see you today. I’ve heard a lot about how you keep everything running like a well-oiled machine here…”
I smiled politely, but tried to remain humble…
“Oh, thank you. And your name is…?”
He extended his hand. “I’m Mr. Holliday. But please, feel free to call me Drew.”
“Okay,” I replied, nervously. At the time I was really not interested in getting involved with anyone, romantically or otherwise–so I tried to cut short the conversation. “Well, I should probably put my nose back to the grindstone here.” Inwardly, I cringed right after I said that. The word “grindstone” reminded me of the camps. I had to excuse myself to run to the ladies’ room.
“I’m sorry, I’ll be back soon.” I put up my “Be back in five minutes” plaque and barnstormed into the bathroom.
I didn’t make it to the stall, so I just spit up right there in the sink. I was pathetic.
Also, I had soiled my fancy new white blouse with a ruffled ascot. I wiped it off quickly and thought I would let it dry for a few minutes. I started crying uncontrollably, trying to muffle my voice with my hands so no one would hear me.
My eyes were red from sobbing. I had to throw cold water in my face with my palms a bunch of different times. My carefully applied makeup had come completely off. I took a few deep breaths and tried to get back to baseline.
Once I felt like I had gotten myself together, I opened the door hesitantly, checking to see if the coast was clear for me to exit unnoticed. No one was in the hallway at the moment–perfect! I made a discreet trip to my desk and continued working as though nothing had happened. I loved my job because it kept my mind focused, busy, and away from thoughts about the war. I was so ready to be over all of that.
The next day, Drew dropped by my desk again. “You know, Annelise, there’s this event I’m going to this weekend. There’s a wedding this Sunday, and I want to go with a guest.”
“Oh?” I said, noncommittal. To be honest, I didn’t want to go out with anyone, much less be a guest at a wedding. But I felt like I wanted to give Drew a chance.
So…instead of skulking into the back of the office with some lame excuse…I found myself saying, “Yes, I’d love that! Thank you.”
Many years later, I now often think of how that invitation to simply attend a wedding changed my life. I found happiness with Drew. We would later get married ourselves. I had found forever love. I also had my life. This is something my sisters or parents could no longer say, as they were not given the chance to live out the rest of their lives. While I sometimes try to forget the hell that it was, I’ll always remember the ashes of what once burned so brightly.