It is Tuesday. I am at work but daydreaming. Fewer clients have been visiting our little store today, which is quite a contrast from the busy Saturdays when they pour in with pictures or dreams of their next wear. However, the sewing machines in the back room stitch relentlessly to fulfill the past week’s orders. I stare at the spools of colored threads, arranged on the shelf in a chromatic fashion. I usually check that my designs are reproduced accurately, but today I am elsewhere. My parents and brother occupy my mind. The search has been relentless at times in the past year. I have lived in an orphanage in Prague Czechoslovakia since my release from the quarantine hospital and liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp, it is now 1946.
In my reveries, I remember the glorious day in May, when I came to Prague in an open truck, looking for my father. The cherry trees were in full bloom, and their sweet aroma reminded me that I was finally free. The white and pink flowers and green hues are engraved in my memory alongside such a happiness and love for my father, whom I was to meet very soon.
My joy and my anticipation of his fatherly affection were interrupted upon arrival in Prague. A tall man met me to announce that my father had been killed in a death march. I refused to believe his words. It is Tuesday. I am at work, but these moments continue trotting back and forth through my mind.
“The sad news is…” He had looked away, paused and continued:
“… he won’t be here. During the death march…” I remember his Adam’s apple going up and down. I stared at his green eyes, looking for what he was unable to say. He continued
“’… he was killed. The good news, Anita, is that he died as a hero.”
I remember the anger I felt toward him as his words vanquished my expectations. In the hospital where I stayed after the liberation I was told that my father was waiting for me in Prague. It did not make sense at all. This man had to be mistaken. Who was he anyway? I was convinced that he was delivering the news to the wrong person. There had to be another Anita to whom he was supposed to deliver the news. It couldn’t be me. How could he say that my father was dead? My father could never die. He was too strong. For a moment, his voice, singing in our home, echoed everywhere in my aching and now empty heart. The other people crying hysterically in the park where I met the tall man, as well as the warm hand of the kind volunteer in a woolen felt hat that accompanied me to the orphanage where I reside presently, brought comfort and made me feel less alone.
I had my golden childhood in Brno, with winter vacations in the Austrian Alps, loving parents and a brother whom I adored. I had a cherished relationship with my aunt Hilda, a milliner. We had a beautiful home filled with modern art and unusual furniture and a grand piano. Despite these precious and prosperous years, things changed abruptly.
First when I was nine, six years ago, we were ordered to leave our house. We lived next to the castle in Brno. German officers said they needed the house to use as offices. I was still an innocent young girl then and thought the changes were taking place because we were getting a new King. My father was furious but complied, hoping to stay on the good side of the new authorities. He had to stop his work, as a fashion salesman, to chauffeur them. I was given a yellow star to wear at school, which made me the target of bullying and harassment. Scared to go each day, I was eventually forbidden to attend school and instead stayed home. My best friends and the girls who stayed in school ignored me on the street. Ashamed, I no longer wanted to go out and play. I had been quite popular before; now, I was stunned in a foreign realm of isolation.
We moved to a small apartment in the outskirts of town with my grandparents for about a year before we were ordered to leave again for another destination, Terezin, north of Prague. We were told it was a safe town. During the year we lived together, my grandparents both died – my grandfather in a bike accident and my grandmother of grief. In that same year, we lost my uncle and my dear Aunt Hilda as well. We then moved into Terezin, which we discovered was nothing more than a ghetto. My father worked for the new town’s police, so we rarely saw him.
We stayed in Terezin until overcrowding forced us to be sent to a camp worse than all places we had seen: Auschwitz. I do not want to remember the horror of all the emaciated people living there and how they were treated. One day, an announcement came requesting young women for work. My mother ordered me to misstate my age so that I could go. I was fourteen, and women had to be eighteen to work. I was furious with her: I could not imagine why my mother wanted me to leave and be far away from her. I obeyed, but left reluctantly. I was swept away, like five hundred other women from Auschwitz, into brick factories and shipyards until the liberation in May 1945.
The years in Brno seem now a far memory. After the liberation, German names began to disappear; German flags were burned. The orphanage, where I reside now, is on Belgicka Ulice in Praha (Prague), Czechoslovakia near the Museum of Decorative Art, a large church, and the Karlova Univerzita. My hope for my family’s return grows thinner as months pass and the hole in my heart expands, growing as wide as the big loaves of bread I once carried home from the bakery for my mother.
The many meetings with Mrs. Liron, the head of the orphanage, never bring the news I yearn for. There is no trace of my family. Nevertheless, the absence of their name on official documents she is receiving keeps my flame alive. My mother and my brother have gone missing; they must have fled somewhere and, I am sure, will resurface soon. The last time I saw my parents and my young brother was well over two years ago by now. In the same way there is no news from my father. Could he have truly died?
Fortunately, during the past year, Isle, whom I grew up with in Brno, and Ruth, whom I met at the work camp, were both with me. We were sisters in misery but bonded through our will to survive. The light laughter and stories we shared help cover the horrible feelings we carried within.
Each day, we went to the town center with hope to hear news of our families. Town officials publish thousands of names; lists of people who are alive and those who have officially died. Anxiously, we searched for familiar names. We were so hopeful and yet so afraid of what we were to find. When we didn’t see their names among those reported buried, that absence gave us hope. I clutched a flame of optimism with me at all times: I scrutinized everyone I saw in the street. Every tall man might have been my father and each decorative skirt was perhaps my mother’s. A young boy’s laugh carried the possibility to be my brother’s.
At the present time, my prized companions are gone. Ruth’s family came to collect her. It was the happiest of moments for them. Their faces were beaming with love and joy; simultaneously their reunion brought me joy, anguish, and envy. Not long after this lucky reunion, a Czech family adopted Ilse. I felt the pre-existing hole in my heart expand further in the subsequent weeks.
The room we shared was no longer the same. My old friends’ beds were filled with new girls, but the lingering echoes of my former friends’ voices in the rooms left me feeling disconnected. My mind was absent, as if it was living in the past. I had first met Ruth during the trip from Auschwitz to the work camp. She was older and had taken me under her wing immediately. German authorities occupied her town when she was in college and eventually sent her away to a camp. She had no knowledge of what happened to her family. While we were at the orphanage, she discovered that they had managed to escape to London, a happy ending that I continue to hope will greet me.
Today, I can still hear one of the new girls say on their arrival:
“Hello, my name is Anna,” she said. “What is your name?”
“Anita,” I answered in a toneless voice.
“My name is Sara,” said another girl. She had beautiful features and seemed kind. I looked at them both, but felt no bond with them.
“This room is nice,” Anna said, looking around. She and Sara looked around and inspected the space.
“Who was staying here?” Sara asked, but I neglected to answer as if to say the names of my departed friends would burn my tongue and rip the hole in my heart wider still.
“Anita?” I suddenly hear my name from the back room, called by one of the seamstresses. It pulls me back from my trance.
“Come quickly, I am not sure what your instructions are saying,” she says.