by Kaitlyn Badger-Turner
It was fall of 1944 in Auschwitz Birkenau when Joseph’s will to live was almost completely snuffed from him. He collapsed face first in the thick mud, barely registering people shuffling around his crumpled figure.
A young woman with shaved hair and sunken cheeks eventually turned him over and pulled his eyes open. Her voice leaked urgency as she said, “Get up. Don’t let them win. You have a lot of life left to live.”
Joseph blinked blearily at her as she sighed, hooking her arms under his to pull him from the sludge. He followed her, so weakened from starvation that he had no energy to argue. Once he was on his feet, she took the edge of her sleeve and hastily wiped the mud from his face.
“What barracks are you in?” she asked as her eyes shifted to the dwindling crowds. Joseph knew she was risking her life to save his by standing here. Being caught outside your barracks after hours always ended badly.
The woman helped walk him to his barracks once he managed to point it out. A few feet from the door she pulled a morsel of stale bread from a hidden pocket, shoving it into his hands. Joseph’s eyes went wide as his hand wrapped around the piece, a luxury in Auschwitz.
“I’ll try to bring more tomorrow,” she said, backing up, presumably to rush to her own barracks. “Keep hope alive.”
Joseph in his haze of hunger didn’t immediately recognize the emotion, but he fell in love with her as he watched her retreating figure. He found out that her name is Esther and she had resilience that Joseph deeply admired. No amount of cruelty could strip it from her.
She always had a little more to give to Joseph, be it food or a shred of hope, and she became his northern star in his darkened sky. She was evidence that not everyone had malice in their hearts. They kept each other alive, the love they shared their personal shred of hope.
Liberation was what eventually separated Esther from Joseph. He could still feel her in his arms as they stood at a train station that would take them back to what remained of their families.
“I’ll see you in Warsaw,” he said, rubbing his thumbs across her sallow cheeks to remove the tears. “I’ll check every day in three months’ time. We’ll start anew.”
“We’ll get a house, in the Netherlands or Spain or the United States,” she quipped. “Then we’ll get a dog, have children, and fill that home with so much joy and love.”
“I can’t wait,” Joseph smiled at the picture she painted.
She nodded. “I’ll be waiting for you, my love.”
They shared a sweet, parting kiss before Joseph was forced to hastily rush onto his train. His heart felt like it was being torn in half with every step he took away. He was certain it was completely severed as the train pulled from the station. Joseph stared with his hand pressed against the window as her figure waved to him from the platforms edge.
It would become the final image Joseph had of Esther.
Though he searched for three years, he couldn’t find any information of her in Warsaw. No one seemed to know what became of the woman that radiated resilience and empathy. He had no clue what happened to his light that he left on a platform in Poland.
The decade that followed since the day on the platform left Joseph in a state of depression. The atrocities of Auschwitz weighed heavily on his mind, losing his entire immediate family and unable to shake the images of suffering. Not being able to find Esther was his breaking point, unable to make peace with not keeping his promise.
Joseph moved idly through life, drinking to numb the pain and forget. He tried for the first few years to keep hope alive, live the way Esther would have wanted him to, but he never did have the same level of resilience as Esther.
It wasn’t until he found himself in a grief support group that life started to turn around. There, he met his future wife, Martha, and with some time and healing, he fell in love once more. She reminded him of the goodness in people, helping him with his grief while she struggled with her own after her father died at the hands of a drunk driver.
“How do you keep moving forward, knowing people can be so heartless?” Joseph asked her when they met up for lunch before another session.
She smiled softly at him, making his heart flutter. “For every heartless person I encounter, I always meet two more with hearts made of pure gold… You might not know it Joseph, but you’re one of those people.”
Her words filled him with hope and sunshine, something he had not felt since he left Esther on that platform.
Despite the horrifying memories, Joseph managed to combat them with a life filled with love. He married Martha and they built a family of four children and twelve grandchildren that he loved dearly. With them he has laughed, cried, loved, and mourned, but he wears those emotions as a badge for a life well lived. It wasn’t the path he envisioned taking all those years ago, but it was a fulfilling path all the same. He could proudly declare that he won… truly living when the Nazis did not want him to.
Despite it all, no matter how happy he was, he never could shake the regret of not finding Esther.
Joseph revealed the story of Esther to his family after suffering from a mild stroke when he was 78 years old. He couldn’t die with no one knowing their story.
His grandson, Theodore, immediately offered to do whatever it took to find Esther, filling Joseph with gratitude for him. Almost half of his family humbled him when they expressed wanting to help reunite them should they find her. But guilt filled his gut when he saw the hesitation on Martha’s face. There was a raging war inside Joseph at her expression, because he wanted to be reunited with Esther, but he never wanted to cause his wife so much pain.
“Do you love her?” His wife had asked him, turmoil evident in her eyes.
He hesitated as shame consumed him, but he wouldn’t lie. Not to her. “Yes, just as I love you.”
“Is this the end for us?” her voice wavered.
He took her hand in his. “No, I don’t want it to be. It’s just… I’m dying for answers. I swore I’d find her, and it always tore me apart not knowing. She was so sick when we left. I’d like to know if she made it, find out what went wrong… see if she’s happy too.”
Joseph saw her eyes flickering with fear and doubt, yet he also saw understanding. He was aware that she knew that ache of unanswered questions, losing her mother to a mysterious illness when she was a kid.
“Alright,” she said with a small smile. “Let’s find her.”
Joseph tried his best to cling onto hope as two years passed with no answers. He was now 80, in declining health. His time left for getting answers was waning. A little piece of him broke every day he’d ask his grandson for an update and the only answer he got was that Theodore hadn’t found anything.
Joseph was grateful for everything Theodore was doing from relentlessly checking records to calling hotlines to tracking potential family members. It was a tedious process, and although technology improved dramatically, so many records were missing, and information was sparse.
Joseph almost didn’t believe his ears when Theodore sat everyone down one day, a big smile on his face, and proclaimed, “I found her, Papa.”
Joseph froze, wondering if he heard him wrong. Joseph’s voice cracked as he said, “Is she alive?”
Tears were shared at the news. Esther survived and still alive today. The room erupted as everyone shared their plans. Joseph could sense how eager they were to give him peace.
“Joseph, what would you like to do?” Martha asked.
He contemplated her question. After years of questions, the answer should have been clear. Of course he wants to reunite with her, but can he handle it? He was much too old, and the stroke took its toll.
Joseph’s eyes met with his wife’s. “I want to see her, to know if her life turned out as wonderful as mine.”
Martha smiled. He could see she felt more secure. “I do too.”
The day came for Joseph to reunite with Esther. Theodore explained to him that he communicated with Esther’s granddaughter, Suzy, to set up their meeting. Joseph’s family combined their funds for a trip from the Netherlands and a hotel in New York City for the two. Joseph tried his best to stay calm while he waited for Theodore to return with them.
It wasn’t entirely computing that he was going reunite with his lost love. He felt anxious at the impending reunion, though it was quelled by the gratefulness he felt for his family who made it possible.
The house that was buzzing with excitement went still as the door opened, revealing Theodore as he assisted someone up the final step into the house. Joseph’s heart raced faster as he clung to Martha’s hand, worried he might float away if he didn’t hold on.
As Theodore moved fully into the view of the room, Joseph’s eyes locked on Esther as she smiled at his grandson. Her gaze shifted around room before landing on him. Joseph couldn’t stop the gasp he let out as their eyes locked.
Her hair had grayed, and her skin had wrinkled, but it was Esther all the same, his Esther. She still radiated resiliency, strength, and kindness. It was evident in her larger-than-life smile and the way she held her head high, even in her old age. Age couldn’t even break her spirit.
Joseph felt time slow down as he rose from the couch, watching her make her way to him. He was certain his heart would explode as she wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him into a hug.
“Hello Joseph. It’s good to see you again.”
Joseph returned the hug and rested his head upon hers, blocking out his family introducing themselves to Suzy. Here she was in his arms at last, after all this time. The elation he felt now was sweeter than his liberation. Somehow, someway, this freedom from regret gave him more peace. He was finally rid of his final regret that tied him to Auschwitz, and their reunion was the scissors that finally cut the tie.
She’s alive and she’s in his arms once more and there wasn’t much that was better than this.
Joseph softly said, “It’s good to see you too Esther. You have no idea.”
After several moments of clinging to her as much as his withering body would allow, he let her go so they could settle on the couch. He wasn’t ready to let her away from him, but he needed answers.
Joseph spoke first. “I want you to know that I looked for you, for three years.”
Esther’s smile was sorrowful as she said, “I don’t doubt you for a moment, Joseph. The fault lies with me. You wouldn’t have found me in Warsaw.”
Joseph noticed how eerily quiet the room was as Esther continued, “When I got to Warsaw, I immediately tracked down my brother, Samuel. A Christian family agreed to take him in as their own when things got bad; he was only five at the time. Mother and father knew he wouldn’t survive any place the Nazis took us. However, when I arrived, the house was boarded up. It had long been abandoned… I feared that they had been caught. A neighbor saw me crying on their stoop and approached me. She revealed that they fled to England. I had to make my way to him, we were the only survivors in our family.”
Joseph saw the anguish in Esther’s face. He knew it was for her family, as well as him, and he would not make her mourn for him anymore.
“Did you ever find Samuel?”
“It took a couple years to get there and find him. Too much time had passed, though, and he hardly remembered us. We remained in touch and made new memories, but he chose to stay with them…” she trailed off before continuing, “You must understand that it was the hardest decision of my life, Joseph. I loved you dearly, but my heart was telling me to find him. I left a note for you, but it must have got lost in all the chaos.”
Joseph reached out and patted her hand in reassurance. “I never blamed you, Esther. I’ve felt the regret of not being able to find you, and it would have broken my heart to hear you experienced that with Samuel. Anyways, we found each other again, like we swore we would.”
“Yes, we did,” she smiled. “We found happiness. Lives worth living, like we dreamt of.”
Joseph’s heart burst with several emotions. He felt joy and sorrow, love and ache, contentment and pain. There was so much relief in the answers she gave him. They were reunited, he knew what had gone wrong, and he now knew she lived the life he had wanted to give her. Joseph knew some part of him would always mourn what could have been, but how could he dwell on that when everything turned out so wonderfully?
He was in a room with the people he loved most. His wife, his children and grandchildren, and Esther. This was pure bliss, a moment he should never have lived to see, and he no longer carried regrets.
They chatted until the sun began to set. Joseph and his loved ones moved around the room, sharing their own stories with Esther and how their family came to be. He noticed that Esther was a hit with everyone, but especially Martha. The two huddled on the couch, and Joseph caught glimpses of them sharing stories of him. Several of his grandchildren were sat around, laughing at what the women revealed.
His children and Theodore were sat with Suzy as she talked animatedly about the Netherlands and the trip here. Joseph smiled at the slight blush on his grandson’s cheeks as Suzy laughed at one of his jokes about the city.
He sat back in his armchair, closing his eyes and smiling as he listened to the sounds of his loved ones. All possible because a young girl with immeasurable strength pulled him from the mud in a lightless place. Their lives and joy were all thanks to Esther.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story