by Nina Welding
At Esmee’s apartment, September 2012
Gerde rang the buzzer. Nothing. Once more. Still no answer. Esmee was never late for work. She always opened the bake shop and was usually standing behind the counter sipping her coffee when Gerde arrived. For years she had joked how one day she would just stop because her “number had been called,” but Gerde never laughed. They had seen a lifetime of death during their years at Ravensbrück, yet they walked out together and had been inseparable, family really, since the war.
Esmee had lived in the apartment for the last eight years, after she gave up her house. “The old place was just too much house,” she said the day she signed the lease. “This is perfect. My last home.”
Gerde tried to shake the fears from her head. They were both lucky to have survived the camp, but the older they got, the more they argued about who wanted to go first. Esmee had probably just slipped in the tub and couldn’t get up, which meant she’d spend the next three months kidding about how she’d “fallen but couldn’t get up.” They’d have a good laugh, or a good cry, and get back to work … like always. Placing the key Esmee had given her in the deadbolt, Gerde took a deep breath and entered the apartment.
Something wasn’t right. Esmee’s home was usually warm and bright. It always smelled of the latest cookie she was developing. Esmee’s strength was cookies and cakes. Gerde was a master of breads and pastries. Their partnership in the kitchen had sustained them during their time at Ravensbrück and helped them establish new lives in America after the war. No. Something was not right. The sun was streaming through the picture window in the small living room, but the apartment felt cold and dark. Instead of sugar and spices, the air carried a hint of tobacco, like the cigarettes the guards at the camp used to smoke. It sent a chill down Gerde’s spine.
As she moved through the living room into the kitchen, Gerde stopped short. Esmee was lying on the floor by the oven, her open eyes frozen in fright. Cards from her recipie box lay around her tiny body. She looked older and more fragile than she ever had in life. Gerde barely saw a shadow moving in the corner before she felt something hit her from behind. Then everything went black.
On the train, October 1943
Gerde woke with a start. It took a minute before the memories came flooding back. Shafts of light streaked through the railway car, but it barely dented the darkness. Or the cold. Even huddled together, the women and other children Gerde could hear around her were freezing. How long had they been traveling? She didn’t know.
She didn’t know how many of them the soldiers had packed into the car. But there
were whispered voices and sobs coming from every corner.
She didn’t know where her father and brother were. Were they in another car? Would they all meet at the same place? And, when would they stop to eat? She was so hungry.
Her mother was right beside her and squeezed her hand. “We’re together,” she said. “That’s all that matters.” It was the voice she used when she didn’t want Gerde or her brother to worry. Gerde couldn’t see her face well, but she knew her mother had been crying.
In the hospital, September 2012
Gerde didn’t feel cold anymore. She sensed she was in a different place. Someone was holding her hand.
“You’ve got to wake up, Oma.” Gerde’s eyes fluttered then opened. She saw the face of the young woman that she’d raised since she was 10, the only other person who would understand her loss.
“I know. They found you together.” Mariel squeezed her hand. “How do you feel?”
“I’m all right,” Gerde whispered. She saw that her police lieutenant granddaughter had been crying, something Mariel rarely did.
“Why didn’t you call me to go with you?”
Gerde shrugged. “You were working. I can’t expect you to drop everything to escort one old woman visiting another.”
“You’re my grandmother, and Esmee wasn’t just another old woman,” Mariel chided. “She was family.” They were both crying now. Deep silent tears.
“That bastard killed her.” Gerde’s voice was stronger now.
“He almost killed you too. The captain said there have been several break-ins in the neighborhood recently, but I promise you we’ll find who did this.”
“I know who did this.”
“Oma, you saw him?” Mariel’s training kicked in.
Gerde shook her head; she had to make Mariel understand. “It wasn’t a break-in. Esmee knew him too.”
“That doesn’t make sense, the captain said —” Mariel stopped herself as the nurse entered the room.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant Becker, but visiting hours ended about 10 minutes ago.”
Mariel looked at her grandmother. She’d been through so much today. “I have to go now, Oma. You rest. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“No. You have to listen. Esmee tried to tell me, and she’s dead because I wouldn’t listen. Instead I laughed at her and her wild imagination.”
“Mrs. Becker, it is best if you try to get some sleep,” the nurse said.
“I don’t want to sleep. Mariel, please —”
“You rest, Oma. I’ll be back in the morning.” Mariel walked out of the room and leaned against the hallway wall. She was exhausted and scared. Esmee was dead, and she had almost lost her grandmother.
“Excuse me.” She stopped the nurse as she came out of the room. “My grandmother is obviously upset. Is there anything you can give her to help her sleep?”
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant. We keep trauma victims as comfortable as possible, but with head injuries like the one your grandmother sustained, we try not to sedate them, especially patients your grandmother’s age.” The nurse cut Mariel off before she could respond. “She’s doing fine, still it’s going to take awhile to feel herself again, given the circumstances.” She closed her chart and started back toward the nurses’ station.
Mariel had never thought of Esmee as a circumstance. Was it possible that she knew her killer? That her grandmother knew him too? No. Oma was just confused. She did have a lump on the back of her head big enough to muddle anyone’s brain. They’d talk in the morning Mariel decided … after she had stopped by the station, read the police report, and chatted with the officers who found Oma. That Esmee knew the killer didn’t make sense. Who would want to kill a 85-year-old baker? It had to be a break-in.
Mariel reached the lobby as the security guard was locking the front doors. Anyone coming to the hospital now would have to use the emergency entrance. Oma was safe and being well cared for.
She walked toward her car. The sky was clear and cloudless, the lot was well lit, and Mariel could see the flashing lights of a security car in the distance making its rounds. She was glad she had found a relatively close spot. It had been a long day.
At the camp, October 1943
The guards unlocked the railcar doors and rolled them back. Shouting out orders, they pushed and prodded as Gerde, her mother, and the others were herded down a large wooden ramp. It was hard to see because the sun was bright, and they were not used to the light.
Gerde looked around. First up at the sky. Bright blue and cloudless, it was beautiful. Across a lake lay a pretty little town. There were even small cottages with tiny colorful gardens closer to the camp on the near side of the lake. Then she saw the wall.
The whispers she had heard on the train said they were going to Ravensbrück work camp and that people died there. No one talked about the little houses or how gray and ugly they made the wall and what was behind it look. The women and children from the train were led down the road and through the camp gate in a long line. Inside the compound Gerde stared at the guards patrolling the wall, even though it seemed too tall to think about climbing and had barbed wire laying along the top of it like a lace collar. She saw women in ill-fitting clothes with dirty white kerchiefs and blue aprons, trying to ignore the new prisoners. That’s what they were now, prisoners.
There were patches of color on this side of the wall too — the red and black emblems on the guards’ uniforms and the triangle-shaped patch on the arm of each prisoner’s dress. Little splashes of red, yellow, green, lavendar, and black dotted the camp. Everything else was gray. Death would feel at home here.
Her mother grabbed her hand and squeezed tight. Gerde saw a tear running down her face. Neither of them spoke. The guards, many of them women themselves, had hit other prisoners who had tried to talk to those around them.
They were all made to stop in front of a table of officers. Gerde watched as the women in front of them were asked their name, age, and occupation. At the table each was handed a colored triangle like the ones Gerde had seen on the other prisoners, assigned a number, and given a job. Many of the women were told they would work in the Siemens Company, others in the camp clothing factory or laundry. None of it sounded pleasant to Gerde.
As they approached the front of the line, Gerde’s mother squeezed her hand again. Gerde looked up and saw her mother staring at one of the guards who was standing behind the officers’ table. She didn’t know his name, because her mother was usually at the counter, but Gerde had seen him in their bakeshop.
“He can help us, liebchen,” her mother whispered. “He must.”
When they finally stood in front of the table, Gerde expected the soldier assigning duties to look at them. But he kept his head down as he barked his words. “Name.”
“My name is Ilka Kaufman, and this is my daughter, Gerde.”
“She will speak for herself, when I require.” A guard advanced on Gerde’s mother, but instead of cowering, she stepped forward and spoke louder.
“I’m a baker, the best in Berlin …” As the guard beside her was raising his rifle to strike her, Gerde’s mother shouted even louder, pointing at one of the guards behind the table, “Ask him. He’s been to my shop.” The leader raised his hand to stop the guard.
“Sir.” He snapped to attention. The leader motioned for him to advance. Then they turned their faces away and talked for a few minutes, the soldier from the bakery often pausing to look back at Gerde and her mother. Then he went back to his position behind the table.
“He tells me you are more than an adequate baker. It happens that the commandant enjoys a variety of pastries and breads, as do I. If you are better than the baker in Fürstenberg, it would prove extremely convenient to have you in the officer’s kitchen.” He put his head back down, a signal they were done, and a guard grabbed her mother by the arm.
The guard who had grabbed Gerde’s mother pushed her to leave, but she stood firm.
“Your name, girl,” he growled.
“Wait … my daughter is my assistant. I need her with me.” The guard hit Gerde’s mother in the back with his rifle so hard she fell to her knees.
The leader raised his head and looked at Gerde then turned to her mother as she used Gerde to pull herself upright. “I can see for myself she is only a child barely old enough to bake. How old are you, girl?”
“Eleven,” Gerde gulped.
“She is small for her age, but she has apprenticed in my shop for a year now,” her mother pleaded.
“If you are lying, baker, you will both be sorry.” Then the leader looked back at Kleiwitz. “Is what she says true?”
He looked directly at Gerde’s mother as he spoke. “I have often seen the girl in the kitchen of their bakeshop, sir.”
“Fine. Take them to the kitchen. I wish to see pastries in the morning, and I had better taste perfection.” Kleiwitz motioned for them to follow him. They were at the building that housed the officers’ kitchen before Gerde started breathing again.
Although Gerde and her mother were quiet before, they were struck dumb in the kitchen. It was twice as large as the one in their shop. The ovens were new, and the stovetops glistened. It was bright white, warm, and more welcoming than the parts of camp they had seen so far. All Gerde could think of was how brave her mother had been and what a lie she had told. She hoped the lie would not catch up with them. She had helped with odd jobs at the shop but was only just beginning to apprentice in the kitchen.
Once they were safe in the kitchen, away from other ears, Gerde’s mother turned to Kleiwitz. “Thank you for what you have done for us.”
He smiled and slowly reached up to caress her cheek, “You owe me now, and I expect to collect from you both.” He winked at Gerde.
“She’s only a child,” Gerde’s mother pleaded.
He shrugged. “Children grow up fast here,” he started to leave but stopped abruptly, not even bothering to turn around. “Of course, I could always send her to Uckermark.” Her mother flinched. Before they had been torn from their home, Gerde had heard her parents talking about the Uckermark Youth Camp. No one ever returned.
“What do you want?” her mother asked.
He finally turned and said, “I’ll tell you tonight when I collect my first payment. Be ready after your evening meal and be clean. As long as you keep me happy, she stays in this kitchen and remains the child she is.” Then he was gone. Gerde and her mother stood frozen watching the doorway, praying he wouldn’t return.
“What happens when they find out I have only just started to learn how to bake,” Gerde cried.
“Tell no one, do you hear me, no one,” her mother commanded, “and do exactly as I say, the way I say it. We must keep them happy with us and our breads. They are our life now.”
Category: Fiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student