Obviously, this post is not about training or healthy recipes, but I wanted to share my story that will be read at a Holocaust Remembrance at the end of April. It’s haunting story about survival, and I wrote it after my first child was born almost 20 years ago. The story, edited down for the reading, still possesses the same power of raw emotion that appears in my fiction writing. I wrote this story after reading a specific sentence from Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. When I read that sentence, I knew that the horrors which he saw were not exaggerated, and it changed my life.
“Survival in Screams”
My reality changed when I heard my child scream for his first breath of life one week before deportation to the camp. I should have aborted him, but I brought life into a world full of death. I have committed a grave sin. In the dark woods of my life, I found myself stranded in guilt and looked for guidance, but all I could hear were screams from my child. Screams of life, screams of survival.
I held the child for the first time: his warm, naked body, still bloody from the entrance into the world. He screamed and screamed because he was cold and hungry. I wrapped him in a blanket and held him to my full breast, where he sucked down the warm, life-giving milk.
What could I have done with the child? My first thought as he lay suckling at my breast was to give him to someone, anyone to sneak him out of the ghetto. I did not care about my life, but his–he was my child. What plans I devised in my head. Many times, I thought of plans to sneak him out–baskets, coats, etc. But there were guards everywhere, and I had no outside connections. When the guards came to take us away, it was like preparing for the ride to Hell. I tried to hide as much food as I could because I knew that I had to eat to maintain my milk for the child. I had to survive, so the child could live through my milk: my life-giving nourishment, the key to his survival.
I already hated myself and the child. All I could think of was Charon’s raft in Inferno, and how we were like the sinners that Charon transported across the river Styx. However, we would not be going to some Elysian Fields but Hell and, literally, fire. Of course, I was right. Charon’s boat in the guise of black trains lay ahead of us. Were we all going to fit in the boxcars? Boxcars. Those were for animals. Surely, we were not . . .
We were crowded in the boxcars like animals. God, my child’s screams were so loud. I tried to stifle them, but I could not. I was scared that someone would beat him to get him to stop; lord knows I wanted to. The rage filled my heart when he screamed, but the sorrow overshadowed it. The child screamed and screamed for the life-giving milk, but his screams soon died into a whimper. He was getting weak, as all of us were. How much more could he take? I didn’t care about myself, but he was so strong–you must hold on, little one. But for what? I supposed for life, for survival. His voice haunted my ears, but what terrified me even more was when the screams fell silent.
Finally, the boxcar stopped; it was the end of Charon’s ride. We had crossed the waters of Styx and had come to the other side. We were about to enter the City of Dis and await for Minos to decide our fate. Here, the name was Auschwitz, another name for Dis. But I knew we had arrived in Hell. My guilt grew even stronger.
The child was dead. He slowly starved to death. I held his limp, skinny body to my breast. He would drink no more, no more of my life-giving milk. I looked at my child: his eyes, dark brown, with no light; his mouth, open for no milk. I ran my hand down his face to close his eyes, to shut his mouth. What terror he must have felt, more than I would ever know.
The doors of our cart were flung wide open and artificial lights almost blinded us; the shouts in some unknown tongue ordered us to get out. But among the shouts, I heard the ringing in my ears of the child’s screams. The cart was emptying. Do I leave my child in the car and possibly have a chance for survival or do I stay with him and die? His screams were in my ears. I looked at him and he was dead. I placed the swaddled bundle in the corner next to a dead man that I knew. I emptied with the living but glanced back into the yawning darkness of the boxcar.
“Rest in peace, my son.” I hated myself.
I had death in my eyes, and so did the man with the baton. He was Minos, that mythical creature who used his tail to draw circles in the dust that placed sinners in Dante’s circles of sins, but this Minos decided our fate with a swing of his baton to the left or right. I looked at him, not really caring which way to go. I stepped to the left and somehow was chosen to stay alive. What irony. I did not deserve to live; I left my dead baby in the boxcar.
I remembered reading that Dante climbed out of Hell on Satan’s back and was left with some redemptive qualities that made him a better man, and he crossed the river of Lethe to wash him of sins. There was no climbing out of Hell for me, no river of Lethe, no redemption. I did survive, but I was not Dante. I did not come out a better person, having seen death and walked through Hell. I did not come back as a prophet with the need to tell the tale. What I came back with was the insanity that I had to live a normal life without family, without anything, except memories.
I knew that I was not an animal yet because I could feel. Every hour of my day was filled with the thought of the child and his struggle to live. When I worked, I thought of his body: weak, fighting to survive. When I ate, I thought of his mouth: open, sucking the life-giving milk. When I dreamed, I saw his eyes: dark brown, pleading for more milk, for more life.
I suppose my son was the one that kept me alive; his screams reminded me of my guilt for bringing him into this world, a world where I starved him to death. Such a small one gave me the strength to live. It was in his screams that I survived.