My name, before they took it, was Daniel Friedman.
The Nazi took that man’s name. I don’t need to look at the digits across my wrist to know I am no longer Daniel. That man was gone before they took his name. The only thing I have in common with Daniel Friedman is that I’m Jewish. The Nazi stole my life. Everything I lived for.
Three years ago, I watched a shadow squeeze the trigger that killed Daniel Friedman. Not the man but the parts of him that mattered—made life worth living. It happened in a click, a scream, my name, a shot, the silence that followed. The man I used to be, lost in a flash.
I try to remember what I was like before all this, but it’s difficult. Time has blended. Months pass like years, minutes like days, and night never ends. There are times I wonder if I was ever Daniel. The memories I have of that man seem second hand, like watching someone else’s life. They are like waking up from a dream that is so real it takes a few seconds to adjust to reality. The dream is mine, but the events that took place never happened. I dream of a man and wake as a number.
I have tried, at points, to come to some terms with the last three years, but a question lingers inside me. A question I can’t ignore. Why? This question makes it impossible for me to move on, stay in the present—forget the past. There is no “why,” it just is.
It started in 1939.
Germany invaded Poland. I was taken from my home and forced to live inside a Jewish ghetto. I lived there for over three years. That ghetto was liquidated four months ago along with everyone I knew. Those who weren’t killed were packed into cattle cars and transferred by train to a concentration camp.
A guard divided our group into separate lines with the point of a finger. We didn’t know it, but that man was death—the power to take life in his hand. He pointed me away from the main group, the ones who would be gassed moments after. He picked me from those men, women, and children because somebody had to be there after. Somebody needed to burn the bodies. I was kept me alive because there is never a shortage of bodies to burn. If a day came when there are no more need to clean up after the dead, I will still be a Jew—a problem awaiting its solution.
I have spent months burning lifeless bodies. I am finished. The camp guards led me out of the camp and into the back of a transport truck. Its boards still smell of the trees they were stripped from. They are pieced together with precision to shield those inside from the world, block our senses.
The bench across from me is lined with camp veterans. They have seen the gas chambers. They have lived alongside death. They have seen the camp guards promise newcomers a purpose. They have seen guards promise that those who are willing to work hard will prosper. They have seen the guards promise the new arrivals a future right before they take it away. They have seen it all, and yet here they sit, inside the truck that will take them to their death.
Before being loaded into the trucks, we were told it would take us to our new work assignments. One promise. That is all it took. A sliver of hope and the guards could rest their fingers off their triggers. We were loaded into the truck without a single incident. No one put up a fight. They promised us a future so our lives would be easier to take.
I have learned there is nothing deadlier than the promise of tomorrow.
The truck’s engine hums, gears whine, our compartment moans, and exhaust leaks. Tires pull at the road. The compartment rattles and shakes everyone inside like marbles in the basket of a bicycle. The truck picks up momentum. There is no turning back. We have been on the same path for years. No matter where this truck stops, the destination is the same.
It is difficult to breath. The air is heavy—sunbaked cedar, burnt rubber, and sweat, the smell of death. Lines of sunlight the width of a needle poke into the compartment through nail-sized holes along the walls. The dust of dying men’s bodies flicker in and out of focus.
I remember myself—back when I was Daniel. I see two boys, me and my brother Adam.
Hey Danny, guess what?
Betcha didn’t know dust comes from dead people.
Nope, it’s like all from dead people. People die and turn to dust. That’s why saba and savta’s house is so dusty. The older you get, the dustier. Everybody knows that.
The memory fades back into the dust from which it came.
I close my eyes and take in a deep breath, fill my lungs with flakes of human flesh, and taste the suffering. I hold each breath like it’s my last. It is a Jew’s last breath the Nazis search for. The first thing they did was take my name away. The last thing they will take will be my dying breath, but not before I have had it. Even they can’t take that away.
I stare at the people around me. Their faces are expressionless. Perpetual loss frosts eyes like ice over streams. Ghetto liquidations stamped out smiles. Endless pain killed the significance of a frown. No facial expression can capture what we feel. Blank stares best describe what is inside—nothing.
We entered the truck alive, but everyone inside is already dead. The only reason we weren’t all executed inside the camp is to keep the prisoners hoping. The people in this truck have been in the camp the longest, the survivors—proof that some of us will live until tomorrow. To kill us off in front of the others would take away whatever hope they have come to associate with us. The guards love hope. It is their closest ally. It makes their jobs easy. They give people hope and watch them carry it to their deaths.
All it takes is hope to forget everything one knows.
When we are out of sight, the prisoners who knew us can choose to believe whatever they want. They can believe we weren’t driven straight to our deaths. They can choose to believe every Jews in Europe isn’t going to die at the hands of the Nazis. They can hope.
There is only one way to leave the camps—death. The majority will leave the camp with the wind, bodies reduced to ash in the crematorium. This truck’s wheels will take me outside the camp’s fences, but it all comes down to the same thing. No Jew leaves the camps alive. The new work detail the guards promised is an illusion.
Like the wind, this truck carries the dead.
The only way any Jew inside the camps doesn’t think he’ll die is if he still hopes. I can’t understand how anyone could hold onto it. But the people who search for hope seem to find it wherever they look. Those who find it don’t last long. Hope is the most dangerous thing for a Jew in Europe. Hope lies. It convinces a person to ignore the past—the history of our people’s suffering—the reoccurring hatred we’ve experienced. Hope tells those who hold it not to let it go—to do everything with it in mind. Hope becomes that person.
When all one can do is hope, facts become perception, perception becomes fact, and reality is lost.
The thousands, maybe millions of gas chamber victims fought to maintain hopeful. I have seen many enter the camps and follow every order. They are ordered to disinfect, strip off their clothing, walk hand-in-hand with their loved ones, and step into a shower of poison. They are ordered to kill themselves. They just don’t realize it. They walk to their deaths because hope tells them they still have tomorrow.
I see it on the face of every person I have placed into the crematorium’s fire—the shock that comes from realizing death a second before it becomes them. The shock is in their eyes. Their eyes take in death and their souls are released with the last breath they let out. I am convinced that souls leave a person through their mouths, since it seems no one dies without their jaw falling wide open.
I am the one exception. My soul has left me even when I clamped my lips to hold it in.
I stare at the people across from me and a man sticks out, somehow different from the otherwise indistinguishable line of bodies. His toes dip in and out of the pool that has built up around his feet. It sends small ripples away from his body. Tattooed all along his feet are reminders of rubbed raw wounds scared with time. He is a fighter. His swollen feet stand out against his empty legs and thighs. The last thing a Jew can lose is his feet. There is simply too much to carry.
I pass over his feet and up his thighs. The concentration camp sucked in his skin. It traces his bones like the wire frame of a human piñata wrapped in layer of paper-mache. Hunger ate his body from the inside out. There is nothing human about his appearance. He is calloused and old like the crumbled bricks of a wall that refuses to fall.
To me, everyone’s eyes are the same. I can only picture empty eyes like the shadow that pulled the trigger three years ago—the day that started it all, or ended it all. It has been that way ever since. I can’t look anyone in the eyes, all I see is evil.
The man’s feet tell me a story his eyes never could. The body never lies. It can’t conceal no matter how hard it tries. This man can lie to himself easier than he can lie to me. He can fight for a life not worth living, but the fight leaves its mark. It always leaves a mark. His strength is the same as his weakness—fear.
This man fears the end of his time in a world he believes still hides beauty. He fears never loving again. He fears never being free. He fears never holding his own children's hands—never saying "I love you". He fears the loss of seasons. The warmth of a summer wind, a magical blanket of pure snow—the majestic patchwork quilt of fall. He does not fear his actual death but what it will inevitably lead him to never experience again.
The Nazis have the man's story—scattered for the world to see across on his feet—but they can’t take away his will to survive. They haven’t got that yet. I know our end is near, so they might never crush his will to survive until after his life is taken.
The woman next to me shivers. Through nail-holes on the wooden frame of the vehicle, a thread of sunlight catches a tear in her eye. It sparkles like a display in a jewelry store window—beautiful—but no one can afford it. The tear captures the sun. It is pulled along a moon crescent glide around her cheek. It straightens out and hugs her lip line. It is beautiful.
The tear comes to a stop on the tip of her tongue. It takes the taste of her tears to realize she’s crying. She has not forgotten how to feel. She has not forgotten how to cry. She has forgotten there is anything else in the world besides tears. It is only when she tastes despair that she notices her pain.
It is the same for everyone in the camps.
Even after so many tears, it only takes one drop to remind her why they never stop falling.
I can almost feel the man I used to be, the man who would have cared. The man who would have listened to the tiny whisper in my ear that encourages me to take hold of her. It tries to convince me that if I laid my arm across her back and held her, everything would be alright. I know if I could take her pain away—even for a second—she would love me.
If she felt no pain for even the flicker of an eyelash, I would be her hero. Good could still retain a breath of existence even while drowned by evil. Her fingers are so close to mine a twitch could unite them. The man I used to be would act, but I remain still. The man I used to be believed good can conquer evil, but I know it can’t. I have seen too much. It is impossible take this woman’s pain away. Things of that sort are nothing but fantasy
I can’t stare at the neglected fingertips any longer. I could never take her pain away. That is our reality. It is a life where hope is all we have left and even that is killing us. We are trapped in a world without white horses. There are no heroes. Good never conquer evil. She is a princess without a prince to sweep her off her feet, save the day.
She is alone in her tower, a fairytale princess in a world without a single knight to set her free. There is no hope. Hope is only for tomorrow—the day her knight arrives, ascends the tower where she is held captive, and finds nothing but the ashes of a woman he will always be one day too late to save.
The truck stops.