Clive Aaron Gill’s short stories have appeared in Pens on Fire, Every Day Fiction, espresso stories, Short Humour, Postcard Shorts, The Screech Owl, Linguistic Erosion, Wilderness House Literary Review, Gravel Literary Journal, Shark Reef literary magazine, Larks Fiction Magazine and in 6 Tales magazine. One of Clive’s works was selected for People of Few Words Anthology, Volume 5.
Clive has worked as a salesperson, mediator, farm hand, information technology manager and school bus driver. Born in Zimbabwe, he has lived and worked in Southern Africa, North America and Europe. He received a degree in Economics from University of California, Los Angeles and lives in San Diego.
RETOLD BY CLIVE AARON GILL
Author’s Warning: This story contains descriptions of Nazi horrors.
Cezar Levy, a tall man with deep-set blue eyes and sunken cheeks, sat in front of a camera in his Los Angeles home in 1996.
A volunteer recorded his testimony for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation Project.
“I survived the Holocaust. I have not escaped the pain. Now my body is worn out, like the soles of old shoes. I’m reluctant to tell this story. It reminds me of times I try to forget. But the story must be told.
“I remember the terror of Hitler, as easily as a hot knife cuts through a slab of butter. I witnessed starving women kicking and scratching each other to get a piece of stale bread thrown to them by the guards, who laughed.”
Cezar shivered and his broad shoulders jerked.
“My father died when I was five years old,” Cezar said in an unsteady voice. “When I was twelve, the Nazis forced my mother, my brothers, my sister and I out of our home in the center of Buczacz, in the Ukrainian SSR. We were taken to a tightly packed ghetto half a mile away, enclosed by barbed wire fences.
“My brother Moshe, the oldest, was a short, stocky boy. He was sentenced under martial law to hard labor in prison for getting more bread than was rationed. A month later, he was the first of our family to die.”
Cezar rubbed his brow and closed his eyes momentarily.
“My other older brother, Zachary, was a handsome boy of sixteen. He became active with friends who were trying to fight back. But he was betrayed by a Polish boy. The Nazis took him to the front of the police headquarters where a scaffold stood. A heavy German executioner tied Zachary’s hands behind his back, made him stand on a box and put the noose around his neck. As the box under his feet was kicked, Zachary struggled and lost control of his bladder and bowel as he strangled.”
Cezar took two deep breaths.
“That evening, I went with my friends to where Zachary was hanging. We took him to a friend’s room and washed him. Then we carried him to the cemetery.
“My older sister, Alicia, was a lovable, tall girl; a good athlete. I vividly remember her long black eyelashes and black oval eyes. Her nose was delicate, the nostrils slightly open and she always cut her black hair short.
“When she was fifteen, she was arrested on suspicion of being a collaborator with the partisans. Nazi guards took her and forty other boys and girls on a rapid march of five miles, to be murdered by a firing squad. On the way out of the city, the local people cursed the boys and girls, jeered and threw stones.”
Cezar’s teeth chattered.
“The prisoners were led to a meadow in the woods where a trench had been freshly dug. Christian collaborators helped do the killing. Suddenly, a boy who loved Alicia grabbed a gun from one of the careless guards and began shooting at the firing squad. He screamed, ‘Run, Alicia!’ She and others escaped into the woods. Alicia, my mother and I had made a pact that if we were separated we would try to meet at the old synagogue.”
Cezar wiped beads of sweat off his forehead and face. The armpits of his shirt turned dark with perspiration.
“My mother, Frieda, decided that she and Chaim, my eleven year old brother, and I would sneak out of the ghetto via a sewer tunnel and hopefully find Alicia. With the help of resistance fighters, we crawled through the stinking tunnel. We found Alicia waiting at the synagogue.
“Such relief and happiness! For the next year, my mother, Alicia, Chaim and I lived in the woods outside Buczacz, where we met a Jewish partisan. His group helped us with food and they gave us an underground dugout to sleep in.
“One day we met an old man named Wujcui who agreed to hide us in his little house. It was a perfect place because Wujcui had epilepsy and his seizures caused the local people to avoid him. He told us where people were working in the fields.
“Alicia, Chaim and I went there and offered to work in exchange for food. We were accepted as orphans and every day we worked while my mother remained hidden.”
Cezar traced a small, pink scar on his left cheek with his index finger.
“When we were returning to Wujcui’s house one summer evening, we were surprised to hear a woman’s voice calling, ‘Help.’ We looked behind a few thick bushes to find an emaciated woman and two small children. Alicia and I helped them walk to the house. The woman told us her name was Rivka Rosenthal and her children were Hertzl and Shoshana. Wujcui did not want more people in his house. But my darling sister knew how to charm the old man. She convinced him to hide three more people.
“After a few months Alicia said, ‘Wujcui is getting frailer. When he dies we will not be safe here. I’ll disguise myself and go to Buczacz.’
“She was gone a couple of weeks when Wujcui died. Rivka and her two children, who had grown stronger, left to join the partisans in the forest.
“We disguised ourselves and returned to Buczacz to look for Alicia. She was neither at the synagogue nor our empty home. We soon learnt that when Alicia had been in Buczacz for a week, a former Christian schoolmate identified her as a Jewess during a police roundup. She was taken to Chortkov Prison where she was beaten badly after calling an SS man a ‘devil.’ The prisoners were barely fed. Each morning, guards came and removed anyone who died during the night. One day, an SS man came into the prison cell and kicked Alicia with his boot. She did not respond.”
Cezar rolled his head in circles.
“Alicia’s unconscious body was thrown onto a pile of corpses in the prison courtyard. Jews from the ghetto came to take the dead and bury them. One of these men found Alicia alive with a high fever. He sneaked her out under straw in his wagon to a couple on a farm, who knew her.
“For weeks, Alicia fought typhoid. The man and his wife were determined to save her. They saw their dead child in her.
“After two months, Alicia recovered. The couple arranged to smuggle her to us in Buczacz. A Polish peasant hid Alicia in his cart and brought her back.
“When Alicia returned, a notice on the front door announced that our house was quarantined due to typhoid. Inside, she found our mother, Chaim and me nearly dead. Her good friend, Milek, a young boy who lived nearby, had been trying to take care of us. She and Milek nursed us back to health.”
Cezar rolled up his shirt sleeves and his forearm showed tattooed identification numbers.
“We did not go out the house for five months. Milek brought us food and news. We were afraid whenever a vehicle drove past. One night, we heard vehicles stopping nearby. The front door was torn open with a loud crash. The Nazis told us to leave without any belongings. We were taken by truck to the railroad station to be deported to Auschwitz.”
Cezar’s rubbed his reddened eyes and ran his shaking fingers through his full white beard.
“The Nazis and their collaborators shouted at us and threw us into cattle cars where we were packed like herrings in a can. Children thrashed about frantically. Old people were trampled as the train jerked forward.
“No food or water or toilets were available. Air came through one small, barred window, high up. Thirst tormented us more than hunger. People became dizzy and fainted. Several of the dead were held upright by the pressure of our bodies. The nauseating, sharp smell of sweat, urine and feces mixed to transform the freight car into a sewer.”
Waves of tears poured down Cezar’s cheeks. He turned as white as a corpse.
He sniffed four times; his lower lip trembling.
“For two days, the sea of filth grew bigger at our feet. Some of us tried to open the door with pocket knives. Others tried using their finger nails.”
Cezar rubbed his eyes with his chubby fingers.
“When we arrived at Auschwitz, the doors rolled open with loud bangs. SS officers in tall black boots and crisp uniforms ordered guards, who carried whips and truncheons to offload the prisoners. The guards screamed and shouted abuse when we could not move fast. Their dogs growled, showing threatening teeth.”
Cezar grunted with repulsion.
“We were ordered to undress and to leave our clothes on the platform. Chaim was shivering; his face was blue. The stiff breeze under the gray sky froze our naked bodies. A few wept, others tried to appear healthy.
“An SS officer arrived in a black uniform with a badge-a serpent wound around a sword. He was tall and slim, with a dark complexion and cruel eyes. His thick black hair was cut short. We later discovered he was the physician, Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death,’ who reviewed new arrivals with arms outstretched. He pointed to the left or the right as we came forward. One side was for people who could work; the other was for people to be killed in gas chambers. He also searched for twins and others to perform his cruel experiments on. Evil glowed from that monster like heat from a fire.”
Cezar tightened his straight-lined mouth. He stood and paced, looking at the ceiling then at the floor.
“Female prisoners were separated from males and ordered to move to another area. I remember my mother’s face and Alicia’s face when they turned with desperate, agonizing looks at Chaim and me, before they were forced on by a guard.
“The males were ordered to a huge area. The perimeter was fenced with heavy wire and barbed wire on top. Along the inside ran an electric line. Perched above us in towers were green-uniformed Waffen-SS with guns pointed at the camp.
“We went into a large hall that had a sign, ‘Brausebad’-shower bath. The large metal door locked behind us. We saw shower heads hanging from the ceiling. A few prisoners stood praying. We heard another clang and all became quiet. Chaim's eyes were fixed on mine. We were thinking that this was our last moment alive. My heart raced. Rings of light swirled in front of my eyes. I feared that deadly gas would flow down.
“I felt a trickle of water. Soon the water flowed steadily. Water had never tasted so good. It was my only happy moment in Auschwitz.
“We were ordered to the next room, where we saw a makeshift barbershop. The barbers, also inmates, wore clean, striped prison uniforms. They shaved our heads.
“Still naked, we followed one another into the next barracks. Pairs of clogs, jackets, and pants were thrown at us. Most of the pants pulled up to the chin. ‘If these don't fit you, swap with others,’ the inmates behind the counters told us. We each received gray-striped underwear and a striped beret.”
Cezar scratched his large back, sat and rubbed his nose.
“We stood in line for the numbering process. A prisoner with a tool similar to a fountain pen began to inject black dye into my arm. Afterward we received cloth patches with our assigned numbers. We were told to sew them onto our jackets and pants.
“We saw fire in the chimneys, and became aware of a terrible stench. A guard factually told us, ‘Your parents and brothers and sisters are being burned.’"
Cezar’s sturdy legs shuddered.
“The brutal Kapos were in charge of us. They were prisoners-con men, murderers-who collaborated with the SS guards. Some of the Kapos were Jewish. They ordered us to walk to the wooden, stable-type barracks. Straw lay on three-tiers of wooden bunks and rags became our blankets. No windows. Instead, we saw a row of skylights on either side at the top. The floor was dirt. Containers for excrement stood in the two stalls at the far end.
“In the morning we stood, smelling sour, in line at the latrines. No water was available for flushing or for washing; no toilet paper. People behind us in line swore and told us to hurry.
“Every morning we were counted outside. Sometimes we stood for two hours. We each received two ladles of boiled water with bits of potatoes in the morning and at night.
“To wash, we had to undress in our barracks and even during a blizzard, go naked to the bathhouse.”
Cezar shivered, as if his naked body stood freezing in a snowstorm.
“We heard about an SS officer who offered extra rations to any pregnant prisoner at the camp. Two hundred starving women stepped forward; some were not pregnant.
"Those women were whipped, beaten with clubs, torn by dogs, dragged around by their hair and kicked in the stomach. Afterwards they were thrown into the crematory-several still alive."
Cezar’s drank a glass of water.
“On January 27, 1945, Soviet soldiers entered Auschwitz. We didn’t know who they were. We did not believe that the Germans, in their hasty retreat, had left us behind.
“We wept and kissed the Russian soldiers. They gave us cookies and chocolates and hugs.
“Chaim and I looked deeply into each others eyes. Then we took a few steps out of the camp together. No orders were shouted at us. No blows nor kicks. 'Freedom,' we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it.
“I felt guilty for surviving. Many inmates cried and cried and cried. Troops, physicians, and relief workers tried to provide nourishment. Many prisoners were too weak to digest food. Half of the prisoners discovered alive in Auschwitz died within a few days of being freed; including Chaim.”
Silence enveloped the room for a minute.
Cezar’s hands shook. “Did all...? Did all these horrors escape God’s notice?”
~Clive Aaron Gill