Thursday, 27 January 2011


Today is International Holocaust Memorial Day. This repost is my attempt at keeping one story alive, honouring one memory, and teaching just one extra person, in the hope that if we remember our history and learn from it, we are unlikely to repeat it. 

Like a herd of elephants, we charge into the sanctuary that has been their home for the last forty years, maybe more. Eyes withered with age and a hand crippled by arthritis, a tattooed number just visible below the three-quarter length sleeve, pointed us in the direction of the upstairs rear bedroom. She lay there, exactly as she had done for probably several hours, a peaceful look on her immobile face. There was nothing left for us to do. Back downstairs, waiting for confirmation of the inevitable, was the person who had lived with her and cared for her for the best part of seventy years. 

As soon as we broke the news, the lifelong protector broke down in tears, and after a minute or two, composed herself, and began a breathtaking monologue.

"She's my baby sister, younger than me by three years. She was five years old when our parents were dragged out of our house, along with our six other siblings, and machine-gunned. I saw it, couldn't help but watch in warped and terrified fascination, through a darkened window in the cellar of a neighbour's house. Eva was still hiding in a drain when they marched off. To this day I don't know how she ended up there."

Rosa's perfect English is betrayed every so often by a Germanic twang to some of her words, labeling her for all eternity with a past she'd rather forget.

"When it was all done, they were dumped into large wheelbarrows, taken just past the tree line not fifty paces away, and thrown into a mass grave. As a parting gesture, the soldiers fired on them again, silencing the few voices still calling for help. Or praying for the end. Whichever would cease their suffering quicker.

"After they disappeared to look for more fun, I ran out of my hiding place and went to find Eva. We had seen death around us, heard it, tasted it, but this was the first time it hit us directly, and we knew we had no-one left. For a few days we hid where we could, and once a day I left Eva and went to steal any food I could. One day, when we heard more soldiers coming, we ran into the woods, and never looked back. 

"For over a year that forest was our home. We even hid in the graves, where we learnt to play dead if we heard anyone coming. Bodies were dumped on top of us, and we'd have to dig our way out. We slept in barns when we could sneak in, found abandoned houses where they at least had a roof, even if no windows. We stole food, ate dead animals that we found, every so often a friendly home owner would give us something small, but they'd never let us stay. The fear in their heads ruled the compassion in their hearts. 

"About two years later, we were finally caught. It was a blessing in disguise. We were taken to a camp and forced into different jobs. The Kommandant's wife took a liking to Eva, and decided she'd take her in as a maid. It saved her life. All other children her age were taken away, often literally snatched out of the arms of screaming mothers, and never seen again. I was put to work in the camp itself, anything from scrubbing floors to sewing uniforms and repairing soldiers' socks. Beatings were a regular part of life, but so was a daily slice of bread and clear soup. No more fighting for food, or stealing it. I saw Eva every few days, when one or other of us managed to sneak across the camp.

"We survived so much that others didn't. We were the lucky ones. At the end of the war, after we were liberated, we eventually found our way to London. I was fourteen, and Eva eleven, but our life up until that point gave us a look of several years older. We were taken in by a children's charity and cared for until we decided we'd never again trust anyone else. We worked hard, saved some money, with it we bought our own home, and have lived here ever since.  I don't know how I'll live without her here."

Once again, the tears flowed. Rosa's mainly, but we weren't doing a great job of hiding ours either. I sat, pen and paper in hand to fill in the necessary forms, but as Rosa's sobs ended her story, I found that I'd not written a single word.

"I'm sorry", she said, wiping her face dry. "I have more than sixty years worth of crying to do. This is the first time since."

At her request, we contacted a friend who arrived within minutes of our call. We left the room to allow them to talk and grieve together. To comfort each other. To shed those reluctant tears. Whilst they did, we reloaded the ambulance with our equipment, sat in silence as I completed the paperwork that I'd struggled to fill in while in the house, and fought to comprehend all that we'd heard. After writing the empty words that described all that had clinically occurred, we returned to the house one last time to explain to Rosa what would now be happening.

Once we'd finished and offered our condolences, Rosa got up and saw us to the door.

"Don't worry about me", she started. "I've got my friends and neighbours. They'll help look after me".

And as we stepped back out over the threshold, as a farewell comfort from her to us, she called us back again.

"I'll be fine", she said. "I'm a survivor".

I know she is. I just hope I've done her story justice.


Matt G said...

There are so many stories like this though fewer and fewer people left to tell them. Thank you for passing this one on.

Ian D said...

Thank you for posting this. Stories like this need to be retold least we forget and allow it to happen again.

Anonymous said...

Gave me chills.....Thank you Rosa and thank you for posting such a great story :-)

Anonymous said...

I have followed your blog for a while now and find your writing to be very expressive. At times you have made me smile and sometimes laugh aloud. You have made me sad and at times shed a tear. Above all you have made me think.
Thank you for sharing this increadibly moving and powerful experience.

oneunder said...

Another great post.
You have not done her justice, no one could and no one should be able to but people should continue trying.

Lest we forget.

RD said...


Anonymous said...

Chapter 1, Page 1, if it happens. Gave me chills and really puts a lot of stuff into perspective. Some things in life are so pointless when you compare them to this sort of thing. Dr Abuse.

Anonymous said...

Haunting. You did her justice.

Unlimited-Unscheduled Hours said...

Very nicely done piece. Hang onto this one somewhere so you can read it and remember in 10-20 years.

Fee said...

You did her justice by telling her tale. By caring, by doing what you could at a harrowing time for her. By allowing the rest of us a glimpse into her life, to remind us that we shouldn't take our incredibly easy lives for granted.

nicola said...

sends chills up your spine, just goes to show the will to survive was sometimes stronger and overcame the nazi murder machine and thank heavens for that...never forget..

Just Me said...

I've stewed on leaving a comment for a bit and have decided I would leave you with just this: You did do this story justice. My grandfather was in the resistance in The Netherlands during the war and he was captured. He always wore long sleeves even if it was 30 degrees. And when his children or grandchildren - even his wife - asked him for "war stories" (because kids find this fascinating) he always said: I will not be responsible for another man's nightmares. Not a word more. So thank you for this post.

Rebecca L.K. said...

I had a bad day today. Then I stumbled here. This made me put my feelings in check and hold my baby closer. God Bless you. My husband is also a paramedic.