Less than Human

He pulled her closer, feeling the warmth of her body. The nights had started getting colder again and well before sunrise, usually around 2 or 3 am, the only evidence of a fire was a faint, orange glow of embers that offered very little in terms of physical comfort.         

Ignoring the chill, or maybe because of it, he kissed her shoulder and she moved her body closer against him. She started to stir and he could sense she was awakening. He put his hands on her hips and pulled her back into him harder, and this time she responded with a soft whisper. He kissed slowly from her shoulder to her neck and then lightly bit her ear while at the same time sliding off all that was separating them.         

He had this same dream many times over the past year. It was always the same, though sometimes it would go on for longer, as if he was willing it to continue so he could taste her sweetness and feel her soft skin against his mouth like he had so many times before.         

These nightly visions were all that remained of the life he once knew and loved. So each night he would lie in bed, close his eyes and pray for the same dream to come to him. It had become his anchor in the hell in which he now existed.         

Looking back, as he has done too many times to count, it was all too surreal. How a seemingly quiet and peaceful life could turn to horror in such a short period of time was incomprehensible. Yet, here he was. But where was she?            

His eyes slowly opened now and he looked around, adjusting as he did every night of the past year to his new reality. It was still dark and he was shivering. A single thin blanket was all he was given to protect against the brutal, indescribable cold that after so long penetrated every single bone in his frail body.         

After so much time here, even the flesh and muscle had failed at offering any protection from the elements. His skin was now almost transparent, ribs and bones easily identifiable and what remained of any muscle was now being used as a last resort to fuel a body that was so deprived of nutrition and calories it struggled to maintain even the most basic of human functions.         

Some days he felt lucky, still. There were many who came here with him that hadn’t made it. They succumbed quickly to the harsh treatment and conditions and simply perished, only to be carted off and thrown in a pile along with the other dead to be burned.         

It was a year ago, or close to it as far as he could tell, that he was forcefully removed from his home in the middle of the night, along with his wife. Awakened by a loud pounding on the door of their apartment, and the voices of several men demanding entry immediately, he had no option but to allow them inside.         

The raids on Jewish homes were common in France now, just as they were in Poland and many other parts of Europe, and both of them were well aware of the consequences of resisting. They had heard the stories of fellow Jews being shot on the spot for so much as looking at a German officer the wrong way. Their lives weren’t valued in the same way anymore. They had become disposable. Less than human.         

Conditioned then as they were, they both stood obediently to the side as the men in uniform searched their small apartment for anything considered illegal to possess by a Jewish household. Among those items were milk, tobacco, fruits and vegetables, and basically anything the Nazis deemed too valuable to be possessed by a Jew. The list was long.         

On this night, one mistake, one small indulgence in a time of extreme scarcity and denial had changed their lives forever. A small block of sugar, wrapped up and hidden inside a large cooking pot with the lid secured on top, in the back of one of the cabinets, was found and confiscated. His wife had traded for it so she could surprise him with a pie on his birthday the following week.         

The officers escorted them both outside but not before destroying all of their possessions, including family portraits, books and keepsakes. The next day, against their pleading and crying and torment, they were torn from each other and put on separate freight trains, both filled with hundreds of others just like them, shoulder to shoulder, barely enough room to move. He could safely assume they were being separated and sent to concentration camps but where exactly he wasn’t sure. After 4 long, torturous days, he was proven right.         

The conditions inside the rail cars had quickly become unbearable and with almost no stops, no food, and no heat, the passengers emerged quite different from when they started their journey. Their temporary residence after 4 days was filled with the putrid smell of urine and feces. When they were finally escorted off the train by armed German guards they were lined up in multiple rows, told to strip bare and the guards proceeded to throw buckets of water on them in an attempt to clean them off.           

Since that day a year ago he hadn’t seen or heard from his wife. Where they had taken her, or if she was even alive, were questions that haunted him every minute of every day. There was simply no way to tell since all communication was forbidden. All he knew was that the trains had departed in different directions that day.         

If the conditions were the same where his wife was taken, and there was every reason to believe they were, it was unlikely she would have survived the working conditions and the long grueling hours in the heat and then the bitter cold; and with little to sustain her in such brutal and relentless conditions, he had to try hard not to let his worst thoughts devour him.         

So he continued to hope and pray that one day soon they would be reunited. There were always rumors, of course. Rumors of an end to the war; rumors that the Americans and the allies were coming to save them. But up until now, they were just that: Rumors.         

When the fields and soil finally began to thaw in the Spring, the prisoners were taken in truck loads to begin preparing the land around the camp for planting. The fruits of their back breaking work to be enjoyed not by the laborers themselves but by the German soldiers.         

The days were unbearably long, lasting from sunrise to sunset, rain or shine. And despite the almost impossible workload demanded of them, their food had been severely diminished as the war raged on. A good day was a slice of bread with a slice of potato and water. A bad day was nothing.         

Still, each night, collapsing from exhaustion in his small cot next to the other prisoners, he would close his eyes and will her to come to him. Lately her appearance had become more sporadic and when she did appear she was distant and out of focus. When he attempted to touch her he would suddenly awaken, frustrated and defeated.         

As spring turned into summer and the heat returned with a vengeance, the visions of his wife he had relied upon to sustain him all but disappeared. His energy and hope began to fade as well.         

His once steady pace in the fields was now replaced with a slow, agonizing shuffle and his eyes, alert and focused when he arrived, had glazed over and now, like so many others in the camp, appeared deep set in his skull. The demands of the officers to keep moving didn’t stop, of course, and as his speed decreased their demands and shouting increased.          

However, their words had now become more like white noise, an indecipherable roar somewhere in the distance. Even so, he understood well enough that once he stopped producing he would be disposed of, like so many of his fellow prisoners before him, and it would be done without emotion, remorse or any sense of guilt. He would simply be shot, perhaps without even seeing it coming, and then quickly replaced by another, more able bodied prisoner.           

One morning, unable to move from his bed, he feared he had reached the end and he simply had nothing left, physically or emotionally. As he laid there, the stench surrounding him almost indescribable, the pain from hunger and dehydration unbearable, his body wasted away to nothing, he moved between conscious and unconscious, between this world and the next.         

After several minutes he started to hear voices. Any second he would feel the forceful hands of one of the German officers and he would simply refuse to get up and in doing so, accept his fate. He was looking forward to death now and the peace that he knew would come with it.         

Something in the voices seemed different though and as he tried to focus in on what exactly it was, he felt someone touch his shoulder. Was he dreaming again? Had he died? The contact he felt wasn’t the forceful, demanding contact he was accustomed to with the guards, and he then realized the voices he heard around him weren’t at all familiar either. He floated back to consciousness and even in his state of fog and confusion he realized they were speaking not German but English and French.         

He forced his eyes open, taking a minute to focus in on the faces and uniforms of those staring down at him. It was at this moment that he realized what he was experiencing wasn’t a dream at all. The men standing over him and the others rushing through the camp were American and French soldiers. The allies, after all the rumors and all the false hopes, had found them. They had finally been rescued. Not having the energy to move or speak, he let the moment sink in and as he closed his eyes once again, he fell into a deep sleep.          

He woke up and took in his surroundings. He didn’t remember how he got here. The place appeared to be a hospital or medical facility of some type. A needle had been inserted in his left arm with a long, clear tube running to a large bag of fluids next to his bed. The room itself was light and organized with multiple beds, every one exactly the same as the one he was in, lined up on both sides of the room with an isle down the middle. The patients looked every bit as frail and weak as he knew he did.         

After a few minutes a young man who had been making the rounds came and stood beside his bed. Flipping through the pages on his clipboard, the man finally spoke, offering him a “good morning” and a smile, before decidedly finding what he was looking for. After scanning the page before him, and checking the papers at the foot of the bed, the man looked up again and said, “We’ve found your wife, sir. She is alive.”         

As the words sunk in he could feel his lips, cracked and raw, slowly form a smile. And the tears now filling his eyes were, for the first time in as long as he could remember, not tears of suffering and torment but of relief and unrestrained joy. 

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