By Tracey L Stein
The rain is a welcome visitor in an otherwise too quiet room. Anna lies awake in her makeshift bed, her mother blanketing her with her thinning body. Her mother pushes her forehead tight against Anna’s and begins their nightly prayer. Hebrew spills out of her lips, eager to hit air. The words dance and swirl in scented memories of lavender and cinnamon that Anna can still cling to if she tries hard enough.
She wraps her growing thirteen-year-old arms around her mother as she always has. This time she will not let go. She will not let her mother leave. This time, her mother will stay. But all too soon the weight of her mother lightens, her arms slowly slipping through Anna’s desperate grip. “No!” shrieks Anna. “Stay with me!” But it’s too late. Her mother is gone. And Anna is alone. Again.
It is dark. A still night, the only light in the Krakow hotel room peeks through thick hotel drapes from a streetlamp eight floors below. Krakow sleeps as Anna feels the warm burn of tears against her cheeks. She lifts a heavy hand to wipe them away. Damn that dream! Damn that a part of her still thinks she can hold her mother tight enough! She has been having this dream for almost eighty years, and she can never, ever keep her mother from being swallowed into the shadows.
After just enough time to destroy all evidence of the dream, there is a knock on the hotel door.
“Bubbe? Are you awake?”
Lauren peeks her slight frame around the corner as she cracks open the door. She is tall for thirteen. Her dark hair long, thick, curly. Her skin fair and freckled. The light from the bedside lamp reflects off of her new braces as she smiles at the sight of her great-grandmother.
“I didn’t wake you did I?”
“No, sweetheart, old people don’t really sleep.” Anna motions for Lauren to come to the bed. “It’s a cruel joke life plays on you, really. You finally have the time to sleep, and you can’t!” Lauren smiles.
Anna takes her granddaughter’s hand in hers, the difference in temperature startling them both. “I know it’s hard for you to understand why I’m not going with you today, but soon you will see why once was enough.”
Lauren leans in and kisses her grandmother’s cheek. She tastes salt.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay alone today? Mom said we probably won’t be back until this evening.”
“Don’t you spend a moment worrying about me, okay? It’s not a child’s job to worry.” Anna pushing down the tears trying to escape.
“Bubbe,” Lauren turns back, her hand resting on the door handle, “I’m nervous.”
Anna holds her stare for perhaps a beat too long to be convincing. “It’s okay, honey, you’ll be just fine.”
The door clicks behind Lauren and Anna shrinks back to her actual size, feeling heavy and small at the same time. Lauren had decided to do her Bat Mitzvah project on the Holocaust, and so, at 93, Anna had finally decided it was time to tell what she could of her story. Part of this promise was agreeing to travel to Poland with Lauren so that she could “tour” (it sounded ridiculous) Auschwitz, the place that had been Anna’s home for almost two years. Anna had promised herself that she would walk through those gates again, not only alive but having lived a life. And today, she would do that through Lauren.
Anna closes her eyes and is back there immediately. Her mind flashing between then and now, boomeranging her through time. She can smell the burning. Taste the starving. Even now, her senses are on fire. She can feel the straw of the bed she had shared with her mother poking through her thin uniform. Sometimes it was only because of the pain that she knew she was still alive.
Shadows dance as she walks the sunken floors of the barracks. Crying and hushed laughter bounce around in the corners. She is holding Lauren’s suddenly little hand in hers as they float into a room filled with old suitcases. Anna knew somewhere in that pile of lives left was the suitcase her mother had packed for them. The seamstress next door had given her mother her only tape measure their last night at home.
“Miriam, please listen to me, I’ve heard you need a skill to stay alive.” The woman’s voice shaky, afraid. “Take this and tell them you’re a seamstress like me.”
“But Evie, I’ve never sewn a thing in my life! They’ll never believe—”
“This is your only chance, damn it! Do you hear me?!” It was clear she was yelling even though her voice came out in a whisper.
“Okay, Evie. Okay.” Anna watched through the crack in the stairs as her mother reached for the tape measure as though it was as fragile as glass, taking it gently into her hands and holding it to her heart. Evie grabbed her mother in a way that scared Anna. They’d never see her again, and she was gone.
Days later, they stood covered in their own filth, eyes blinded from the sudden shock of light. Miriam watched in horror as her suitcase was snatched from her hands. Tears swallowing the same eyes Lauren had looked at with Anna with just this morning. “If you get the chance to get out of here, Anna, you take it.”
“Don’t wait for me, Anna! Do you hear me?” A man in a uniform was pulling her arm away from her daughter. “You get out of here! Promise me!” He was dragging her towards a small, windowless building. “Promise me, Anna! You don’t wait for me!”
There is a knock on the hotel door and Anna awakens. It is dark again. Lauren is home.