The Worlds of R. A. Hortz
THE MAIDENS, by R. A. Hortz
"Eshkeh, there you are," Frieda called out as she entered the dormitory.
"Shh," Eshkeh held a finger to her lips and motioned with her head toward the tiny form huddled on the bed.
"What's wrong?" Frieda quickly walked over to the bed.
"We snuck into the ghetto this morning," Eshkeh closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to still the quiver in her voice. The small creature under discussion whimpered in her sleep and Eshkeh gently patted her head.
"Well, what happened?" Frieda sat down on the neighboring bed, her already pale face growing even paler.
"They're all gone. The ghetto has been liquidated."
"The only inmates in the ghetto are the dead. The streets were littered with bodies. Oh, Frieda, it was terrible." Eshkeh began to pace. "We found Lisel's sister. She'd been shot in the back."
"Oh, no," Frieda covered her face with her hands and sobbed. "My father?"
"We didn't see him. Probably he went on one of the last transports." She knew it was small comfort, they both knew that transportation had become a euphemism for death.
"I know that this is what we feared, but it is still unbelievable," she shook her head. "Ah, I've so many questions for you, but you're needed down stairs," Frieda tried to sop up her tears with the edge of her sleeve, "Colonel Werrholt sent word that he will arrive within the hour and Mrs. Garber wants you to translate."
"I guess that means that we are about to find out what our fate is to be. Will you stay with Lisel? She shouldn't wake up alone."
"I'll stay," Frieda nodded and picked up a book of psalms from the small night table that act as a spacer between the beds. "You know, that in a small way, I envy you."
"Because you're an orphan, you don't have any family to worry about."
"Frieda, how can you say such a thing? Do you think it is any easier on me just because my family was murdered last year, instead of this year?"
"Oh, please don't be angry," Frieda rushed to embrace her friend. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded, it's just, the not knowing, it's driving me crazy. Horrible as it sounds, at least you know that your family is no longer suffering. I don't know if my father is alive or dead. I'm just so frustrated. We study our books and eat our bread while our families and our friends are sent to their deaths."
"I know. I've thought many times of sneaking away and trying to join the resistance. I'd give almost anything for a chance to strike back, to make them pay for all that they have done."
"You can't stop evil by being evil."
Eshkeh looked into the dark rimmed, sunken eyes of her friend, eyes that had once held such joy and life. Now, like the rest of their world, they had gone gray. She could not think of anything to say, so she simply clenched her friend tighter to her chest. They held onto each other, unwilling to let go. So much of their world had been destroyed that this brief moment of contact served as a form of nourishment for their souls. Reluctantly, Eshkeh broke their bond and went to wash her face in the tepid, gray water that ran down a rusted pipe from the tub on the roof where rain water was gathered. It did not do much to clean her face, but just going through the motions reminded her that she was still human.
The high school was strangely hushed as she made her way down the empty corridors toward the headmistresses' office. It was as if, unspoken, the whole school was aware of what had happened in the ghetto and that they would soon learn if the same fate awaited them. The only sounds that haunted the halls were the harsh, muted commands of the German guards as they marched around in the school yard.
Eshkeh tapped lightly on the door of the headmistresses office. She squeaked in sudden panic when the door was thrown open and a SS officer grabbed her arm.
"Ah, one of your pretties," he laughed.
The headmistress was standing by her desk, her face as pale as the lace curtains that fluttered in the breeze behind her.
"What do you want here, little girl?" He asked in broken Polish as he felt her breast with a gloved hand. "Ah, maybe not so little." She recoiled from his touch and in response his fingers tightened, until she feared that he would break her arm.
Her mind was in turmoil. Her first instinct was to strike at the man who so callously offended her person. Yet she knew that he held her life, literally in his hands. At any moment he might pull out his Luger and shoot her in the head, she had seen it happen many times before, it was how her mother had died. So she stood, frozen, biting her tongue as he groped her.
"Now leave," he abruptly released her, finished with his inspection.
"Forgive me, Colonel," she said in German, "Mrs. Garber asked me here, to interpret for you."
"Your German is good," he replied in German, "you may stay."
"Thank you, Colonel," she said, pretending that he was doing her an honor.
"Eshkeh, Eshkeh Farmin."
"Farmin, um," he tapped his chin. "There was a professor Ernst Farmin at my university in Berlin, a professor of literature, a relative?"
"My father," she nodded.
"Is he still in Berlin?"
"No, he was forced to leave Germany and was killed crossing the border into Poland"
"Ah, a pity, he was a brilliant man. Your mother?"
"Shot by the gestapo."
"Such is war," he shrugged.
She seethed in anger. 'The contempt of this monster,' she thought, 'discussing the murder of my parents as if he were checking on the condition of someone's rose bushes.' She held her arms stiffly at her side, her fists clenched.
"Eshkeh," he nodded, "I will remember that name," he grabbed a handful of her hair and sniffed it. "Yes, you I will remember, we'll have to see if you have as much passion in you as your father did for his books." He turned and glared at the headmistress. "Let us conduct our business."
With a flourish, he sat down. Not having been given permission to sit, the two women continued to stand.
"The ghetto has been liquidated." Eshkeh repeated his words, providing the horrified headmistress with information she did not wish to know. For a moment, the headmistress seemed to wobble. Showing the stamina and fortitude which had sustained her through all the trails she had been forced to endure since the Nazi occupation, she quickly regained her composer and straightening her back, waited for the next blow.
"You," he waved his hand over his head, "here, in this school, have been selected for a most prestigious honor. There are still a few odd tasks to accomplish before we can close the books on the ghetto and begin to celebrate the cleansing of this region of all its dirty Jews, or at least most of you," he smiled. "My fellow officers, and I, will grace this school with our presence, tomorrow night, and show you," he nodded toward the headmistress, "and your students the full virility and vigor of German manhood."
"No!" Mrs. Garber banged her desk. "Can you be so vile? These girls, they are all so innocent."
"But, my dear Mrs. Garber, it is the innocence of your students that attracted me to your establishment. Where else could I find a cadre of young virgins to satisfy the lust of my men?"
Eshkeh's throat tightened upon itself, it was becoming harder and harder for her breath. She opened her mouth to translate his grotesque words, but all that came out was a strangled sound.
"Translate," he demanded.
In one swift movement, he leaped from his chair and struck her across the face. She cried out, more from the suddenness of the action than from the pain. Mrs. Garber made to run to her, but he held up an opposing hand.
"Translate, now," he raised his arm.
Mortified at her own weakness, she did as she was told. Mrs. Garber, upon hearing the decree, fell to her
knees and to plead with the Werrholt to spare the girls, but his contemptuous smile was the only answer she received.
"Colonel, may I ask one question?" Eshkeh inquired as he turned to leave.
"Ask," he said, without turning around.
"What do you plan to do with us, after?" She felt herself blushing, more from shame than embarrassment, and could do nothing to stop it.
"Tell your sniveling teacher that when we are done with you, you will all be transported to one of our many work camps. There the services of your classmates will be made available to the more prominent prisoners, but you," he turned and roughly took her by the chin and forced her to look into his leering eyes, "if you please me, I may keep you by my side for a while and then..."
"And then what?"
"Then, I will take you out and shoot you in the head, as you deserve." He spit in her face and without another word, pushed her aside and swaggered out of the room.
The two women stood frozen, unable to move. Only when they heard the engine of his car start, did they defrost. Instinctively they ran into each other arms.
"Eshkeh, are you all right." Garber pulled out a tattered handkerchief and wiped the spittle off Eshkeh's face.
"Yes, yes, I'm ok, but it was all that I could do to keep from trying to kill him."
"And what good would that have done? You would have been beaten or killed and the rest of us would be made to suffer for your actions. Besides, it is not our way."
"Not our way, not our way." The words repeated over and over again in Eshkeh's mind. Ever since she had been orphaned and she had been accepted as a boarding pupil in the school, it was a phrase that she had heard more times than her own name. 'The gentiles have their ways and we may have ours, but maybe, to live, we must adopt the ways of the gentile? Perhaps that's the only path to survival?' she thought.
"I don't know what is more upsetting, the news that the ghetto has finally been liquidated or the fact they he plans to turn us all into, into..." she was unable to say the word, 'whores.'
"We've all known, for a while, that they were in the process of emptying the ghetto." Eshkeh began to shake as her anger began to wear off. Garber led her over to a small bench and they sat down together. "Do you think that he really means to turn the school into a bordello or is he simply trying to upset us?"
"We've no reason not to believe him. They have done things more vile than that."
"Yes, but why us? There are real bordellos in town. And what about all their high-minded racial purity laws?"
"How better to show their contempt for us, as Jews, than by violating the most religious and honorable maidens in our community?"
Eshkeh felt her insides curdle and her limbs and spine turned to jelly. The headmistress was not in much better shape. Each woman sat there, deep in thought, pondering the implications of the decree.
"We will fight. We must." Eshkeh declared, the initial horror beginning to fade.
"It would not do any good."
"And what will we tell our families? Will we tell them that we gave ourselves to the Nazis because we were afraid we might get hurt if we tried to defend ourselves?"
"They'll understand. It's rape."
"How can you say that? We know the time, we know the place, if we welcome them with open arms we are no better than harlots."
"What do you expect the girls to do?" Garber wrung her hands. "You've seen yourself how barbarous the Nazis can be. What chance to you think little Lisel or Margo would have against those brutes. Or Shanna, she's the most pious girl in the school. Can you see her taking up a kitchen knife and attacking a soldier? An armed soldier? Do you suggest that I arm the girls with stale rolls and send them up to the roof to bomb the soldiers as they approach? And even if we had weapons, and the will to use them, what then? We could never defeat them."
"But at least we would die knowing that we did something to try to stop them. Oh, I don't know, but I do know that we should not submit freely to our own defilement."
The small clock on the mantel chimed the hour.
"I have a class to teach." Garber stood up and began looking around the room, as if she had misplaced something.
"Don't you think that it's pointless to hold classes, now?"
"Learning is never pointless." She rifled though the papers on her desk. "Spread the word around that after dinner we will hold a meeting and I will inform the school of our predicament, although I suppose by then they will all know."
"Yes, headmistress." Eshkeh took her words as permission, in fact encouragement, to tell everyone what had happened.
"Good, go. I have a class to teach." Garber collapsed in her chair, and as Eshkeh closed the door, she could hear the headmistress sobbing.
As soon as they had eaten their watery potato soup, the meeting began and went on late into the night. Of the hundred odd girls, most did not have the energy or the will to actively participate. Rather they huddled, in small groups, around the candle lit tables, comforting each other. Unable to comprehend the insanity that surrounded them, they retreated into memories of happier times. The rest of the girls and teachers, most of which had been students themselves, only a year or two before, discussed the options which were available to them, and found them to be few.
The idea of simply submitting was voted upon and unanimously rejected, as was armed combat. The students and faculty of the Bais Yaacov school were deeply religious. The very idea of being violated was, for many of them, incomprehensible. They were at a lost as to what to do.
"I think," Milkah, spoke in a calm even tone, "that we should commit suicide." To a person, her words stunned the group. It was an option that no one had thought of.
"It may be the only way," a voice in the shadows agreed.
"But we can't simply kill ourselves," another stated.
"Why not? We will all end up dead anyway." Frieda muttered.
"No, No, while there is life, there is hope," the headmistress said, trying to regain control of the discussion.
"But is there? I for one will not commit gilui aragot."
"What's that?" one of the younger girls asked.
"Sexual immorality, it is one of the three sins for which it is acceptable to die, rather then to commit the sin." Glicka Mustri said, stepping out of the shadows. She had recently been engaged to a young Rabbi.
"You all know how I feel about this matter, I want to fight, but alone, I am powerless." Eshkeh stood up and walked to the front of the room. "My faith is, perhaps, not as strong as it might be. I find it very hard to forgive the injustices done to our people and to leave retribution in the hands of G-d. However, if I cannot fight this menace with a sword, I am willing to fight it by slitting my wrists. If by doing so, I can deprive a single German soldier of the pleasures he might otherwise rob from my body."
"You can't mean that, Eshkeh, you can't." One of the teachers said.
"Why not? What other means of resistence do we have? Besides, could you stand to have a stranger kiss your lips and caress your body with hands which only hours before strangled the life out of your father or your mother? Or you, Margo," she pointed an accusing finger at one of the girls, "could you live with yourself if you found yourself with child by one of the men who bayoneted your little brother?" Margo shook her head no.
"No, this is not a decision that we can make alone." Garber said.
"And who should we ask?" A trembling Lisel asked, "Should we run to the ghetto and ask one of the dead Rabbis?"
"What good would it do to ask another?" Frieda asked, ignoring Lisel. "Even if we could ask for advice, it would be a dishonorable thing to do."
"Why?" someone muttered.
"Because, if we were to ask someone our questions and they were to say, allow those beasts to enter your beds for it is better to live than to die, then that person would be saddled with the guilt of our deeds. And if that person said that it is better to die than to violate the law, that person would carry the guilt of our deaths. No, this is our problem and our plight. We must decide for ourselves what our fate should be." One by one, voices were raised in agreement with Frieda's words.
"Wether we submit or commit suicide, it doesn't matter. Either way we die." Eshkeh shook her fist, "Does anyone in this room doubt that when they are through with us that they'll allow us to live? The only question is, what method they will use to kill us. " The clock chose that moment to chime, and half the girls in the room gave out muffled cries.
"Enough of this," the headmistress rubbed the tears out of her eyes, "go to bed, think on what you are considering, pray. In the morning, we will consider our choices and take a vote."
Some went up to their beds, some stayed in the dinning room and talked, but throughout the rooms and corridors of the school, no one slept.
By first light, the school, to a woman, had agreed that the only option open to them was suicide. It was the only means available to them to fight back. They spent the rest of the day saying prays for the dead, and for themselves, because they could not be sure that once they were dead that there would be anyone left to say prayers over their graves.
Once the decision was made, to die, they were almost gay. Finally, after months and years of being buffeted by the whims of others, they were in control, they held their destinies in their own hands. They knew that soon the hunger, the humiliation, and the terror that had become the focus of their young lives, would end.
As the day began to give way to night, each girl dressed in her best finery. Then a few pills washed down with a foul tasting potion, and each girl had just enough time to say a last farewell to her friends and to tuck herself into her bed...
"Ah, Colonel Werrholt, this was a fabulous idea of yours. Just what the men need to boost their moral," he slapped his comrade on the back and laughed.
"I did not know that moral was suffering."
"It's not, but if it was, ah, what a way to get it to rise." The two men, more than a little drunk already, laughed uproariously at the bad joke.
Laughing they climbed the steps of the school. A gaggle of their boisterous, half-drunk comrades following close behind.
"Place is awfully quite," a flushed faced lieutenant muttered.
"Ah, they are shy, these little virgins. Fan out men," the colonel laughed. Like bulls in rut, the officers fanned out, looking for their prey.
One of the officers, a newly made lieutenant from Mannheim found them. A few memorial candles were still burning, casting the long dormitory room in an eerie, flickering light, intermittently showing him a long line of slim beds stretched out before him, each one containing a silent form. "I found them," he yelled. In seconds, soldiers, randy from recent victories and murdering unarmed civilians, filled the room. They quickly shed their clothing and tumbled into the beds. So vigorous were their activities that it took a few minutes before the first battle hardened soldier screamed out in terror, "She's dead."
Others were so engrossed in their duty that they did not discover, until they were finished, that their unresponsive, but still warm partners, were dead. In horror and revulsion, the men streamed out of the school.
When the last man was out, Colonel Werrholt gave the command that they building be torched. "How dare they do this to us? Damn them all," he screamed, but was himself damned.
Copyright © R. A. Hortz - 2005
Copyright © The Worlds of R. A. Hortz 2012 - All Rights Reserved