Digging for goldPublished
The Nazi guard tells me I should do this or I will die.
I cannot believe what I see, bodies piled on top of each other like pieces of clay.
The smell of carbon monoxide still hovering over them, still oozing out of their open mouths with their last breaths.
I am so hungry I could gnaw off my own arm. I have already seen others die, who have eaten more than I have.
Some from my synagogue hate me for what I am doing.
But what choice do I have?
In this world swimming with death, I must do all I can to keep alive.
The Nazi guard assures me he will protect me if I do what I am told.
I have no desire to becoming one of those I saw, bones stretched tight with flesh over which even the rats won’t feed.
Others, even some from my old shul would do the same if given the chance.
Although I have seen many who have refused, and then glare at me as I pass them in the compound.
They look at me with hate for the few extra morsels of food the guard gives me as my reward.
Most laborers are rewarded for the work they do, but others see my work as monstrous, saying Jews should not pick the bones of Jews.
Nor do I keep the guard happy with my meager offerings.
He always demands I come up with more than I can find, telling me some of the bodies must have gold teeth he can melt down or hidden trinkets he can sell.
So day after day, I pray open death mouths, yank out dead teeth, weave through dead stiff limbs seeking treasures, while by night their dead faces haunt my dreams.
If I come up with nothing, I get no food.
If I come up with too little, I get beaten.
Yet I remain alive, finding just enough in the dead of my own brethren to keep from starvation.
Sometimes, I even come up the faces of dead who earlier condemned me.
No judgment remains in their dead eyes.
After a time, the routine becomes less odious, and my wit – dulled by lack of food – allows me to drift off.
I might be digging ditches instead of bodies.
Then I wedge open the dead mouth of one man and a silver Star of David falls out.
He had kept it hidden under his tongue even as the fumes consumed him.
I know this treasure will make the guard happy enough to feed me a piece of meat.
But I decide to keep it, not for the silver it contains, but for some reason I can’t fully explain.
Perhaps like the man who owned it before me, I need some marker to tell me that I am still a Jew.
The Nazis have stripped us of everything and this one sign becomes as critical to my survival as food or warmth.
Of course, I find nothing else today, and this makes my guard all the more furious, beating me more than usual, and leaving me nothing to eat.
He warns me that if I do not come up with something tomorrow, I will join the bodies in the piles with someone else to dig in my mouth for bits of gold.
In the night, I take the star out to look it.
In glints with each sweep of the camp search light.
I am cold. I am hungry. I feel the ache of my beating.
Yet I do not care.
Crowded as I am with the others in our coffin-like bunks and two others sharing my bunk to keep ourselves warm, I cannot keep the star a secret.
And suddenly, others are around me, looking down at the star as well, touching it reverently with their bony fingers.
In this single moment, I feel a power I have never before felt in my life, even when I was a child and still held my faith close to my hear.
It is as if all the guards in all of the world cannot steal from us what is most sacred, even if they beat us, gas us, and burn our bodies.
Inside of me, this power stirs saying that I will prevail over such evil, even if I should die the way so many before me have.
Maybe this is insanity, distancing me from something so inhuman my mind can no longer deal with the horrors.
And yet, I feel whole.
I wake to the sounds of gunfire, and the chill of cold air blowing in on us.
Someone says the Russians are coming.
My guard yanks me aside and tells me that I must hurry and collect all I can for him.
I see the Nazis fleeing the camp; I see them killing everyone they can so as to leave as few witnesses to their crimes for when the Russians arrive.
I have seen people shot, beaten and gassed before, but now it is all speeded up, and the body after body falls before my eyes, all of it spinning in my head so that I am dizzy and confused.
I can not see the star but feel it inside my cheek, hidden in my mouth the way the previous owner hid it, poking against my flesh, its pinch reminding me that I am still a Jew.
Around me, the camp is a turmoil of dying Jews, as if mass slaughter had not been enough before, but must be accelerated to an even faster pitch.
I can no longer ignore it.
I am angry. I may not be sane.
And this is perhaps why when the guard comes to collect the treasures I have collected, I rush at him with the shard of a leg bone and plunge it deep into his chest, hearing the shots I know must kill me, but feeling no pain, only release.