Numbered Days is a novel about a woman named Sarah who’s born in 1942 in Auschwitz and against all odds survives. Coming of age on her own and with no one to tell her who she is or where she’s from, Sarah leaves post-war Europe behind and heads to America. Sarah’s story unfolds over a century, crossing from familiar history into the made-up future of the 2040s. Hers is a life filled with love and loss, success and failure—a life unremarkable yet worthy of the title Survivor.
1942. A baby girl is born inside a war. From one unfriendly womb to another she goes. It’s like living in a fishbowl: the view is panoramic but the glass won’t give. So it’s she who must. Learning this takes time.
It happens in winter, this birth, this unlikely, uncelebrated event. A winter that so efficiently brands her with its cold, she is never not cold again. So cold that of all the things she might wish to do over, chief among them is to have been born in summer.
It happens in Auschwitz, this birth. Not in the camp’s infirmary (what, did they want to go right to the ovens?) but in back of the latrine (a death sentence either way). Auschwitz. Winter. If it’s impossible for an adult to wake, work, sleep, and wake to another day, for a newborn it’s miraculous. The cramped barracks, the sparse water, not enough to touch an inmate’s thirst let alone fill a pot for boiling, and even if anyone could afford anything so dear as a pot, there’d be no fire for it to boil on, nothing to clean and wrap an infant in. Forget the mother. Which she does the minute she’s born. The mother, her face, the roughened hands she falls into, and the random tits she suckles until they give out or she is cut off.
In March, the women of Auschwitz are twice blessed as the waning of winter brings with it a midnight move to Birkenau. Their own little suburb built of wood. As promised, work has set them free. Free as birds. A thousand in a cage built for hundreds. They bring her along. Why not? What else to bring? And though all of them—the hags and those only disguised as hags—remain well-defended against miracles, impossibly, one steps forward and volunteers the last corner of the slice of bread she has stood so long in line for, chewing it awhile before spitting it into her hand and putting the pasty wad into the tiny mouth puckered like her own because it, too, wants more. But tough luck. This woman’s good, but no saint. It costs her nothing, though, to stick the tip of her little finger in the baby’s mouth, so she does, and then miraculously, when she, that first nurturing soul, disappears, another takes her place. Word gets around. In night’s meat locker, a baby takes up little room and gives off a lot of heat. Soon there’s a queue of women. That this baby’s existence is kept a secret from the guards is not even the most miraculous miracle in play, but that she survives the winter of ‘42 to see another and another and another, and that there are women enough to pool their paltry resources and barter rag and needle for thread and buttons, a bit of wire, a small pair of shoes, and maybe stand for a while in a cement-block room, holding her, rocking back and forth under a sprinkle as ephemeral as spring rain, pretending the water runs hot and clear instead of cold and murky, a chant, loo la loo-loo-loo, rising from them, these women stripped down to their mourning-dove grey. A normal baby doesn’t see the world in Technicolor for four or five months. In her case it will be more like years.
Somewhere along the way she is called Sarah. Most of the others, too. Oh, there are plenty of Freyas and Esthers and Ruths, but the others, all the girls from Krakow and Minsk, from Prague, even Paris, whose mamas may have thought a pretty name would save them but were wrong, arrive as a Flora or a Bella or a Veronique but soon enough learn that a name is just another thing to forget. And then they forget everything, their Krakow and Minsk and Prague and even Paris, and become branded by this place, this miserable, dream-killing place, that quickly overrides all others they’ve ever known. Only this Sarah, this accident, this curse of a baby girl, Auschwitz born and bred, who’s never seen an actual elsewhere, has the gall to imagine that there is one. Later—much later—a young man tells her that imagination is courage. She knows he’s only trying to get into her pants and still takes it as a compliment, though for her, imagination is more like red meat, something that makes you stronger but that you can go a long, long time without.
January 17, 1945. Sixty thousand inmates, by their own accord it is said, follow their German protectors away from the onslaught of the barbarians from the East. Five thousand don’t. The rumbling earth forecasts the strength of the coming invasion. And it boils down to this simple choice: Those whose feet register the treads of the boots and tanks grinding toward them, leave; those whose feet are too numb to feel anything, stay. Equal amounts of wisdom and folly reside within each camp.
Though far too young for the march ahead, Sarah is brought along by what is to be the last of her self-selected mothers who lashes her to her chest with great care and no less ingenuity considering the materials at her disposal. A child barely big enough to budge a scale is still a grievous weight to a woman herself no more than bones and air, but it’s not so dumb to have a little ballast and a hot knaidel to cozy up to on the long trek, because while two-thirds of their parade will sleep forever in the snow banks where they fall, this mother and child make it in more or less one piece to the train cars awaiting the remaining thousands at the border. The woman has begun to think of Sarah—this germ of a human, this half-hewn spirit—as her lucky charm (only utterable with a k’neina hora and a showing of an open and downward-pointed hand), and as they burrow deeper into the Fatherland, inside the train car she rocks to its sway, cradling her marginally expanded girth as the burden hiding there licks at the ropes of snot streaming from her still bridgeless nose and memorizes the hummed notes loo la loo-loo-loo that weave in and out of the staggered, slowing heartbeat.
A timorous April. The trees of Bergen-Belsen don’t seem to know they’re prisoners and insist on making buds without even being told it’s time. The inmates, less rooted, suffer the cruelest time yet, every breeze torturing them with rumors of Salvation, the very earth beneath their feet rousing from its coma while by the hour more and more of the campers lapse into theirs. Auschwitz is kaput. This they know to be more than rumor. This they know to be fact. A fact that doesn’t send all hearts soaring. Remember when we were only two or three to a bunk, not five? And how much better was the food, in that there was some? Remember? And because grass is never as green as it looks through barbed wire, there are those who will remember.
On the night of the 14th all go to sleep as usual to the sound of the rough-hewn giants barking duets with their hounds, but on the morning of the 15th, well, on that morning everything changes. There are no billy clubs, only the disturbing silence to prod them awake, the infernal howling ceased. They don’t yet know this is the sound of Liberation, only that the giants and their hounds seem no longer to care what they do and by afternoon are summarily replaced by men in belted, brass-buttoned khakis, mostly clean shaven, voices sharp as whistles, aiming cameras instead of guns, eyes popping with the surprise of hanged men who’d had to have their suspicions of what would happen once the noose tightened and their legs got to kicking.
These new soldiers, the Anglish, they’re told, are soldiers, too, far less dastardly than their predecessors, but just as orderly. It is in their care, overnight, that their population turns from prisoners awaiting their fate into Displaced Persons awaiting their fate. Measures are quickly taken to nurse the sick, bury the dead, and identify all. But just as quickly it becomes personal for these fine-mannered Brits, menschen to the core, who can’t help but feel obliged to add a little oomph to the protein-deficient diet they observe, rooting around in their own country’s larders, war-emptied to near subsistence levels, as well as in their own government-issued kits to come up with a little salt, a little sugar. Treats, they think, and who can blame them for thinking as well of loved ones back home who are doing without, or for failing to anticipate how their “treats” might eat like acid into those unseasoned tongues. Higher-ups have warned them not to offer “these people” ham, yet all they want is ham. They clamor for the tinned meat as well as the toothpowder and boxed milk and shoes not made of wood. Heaven’s merchandise.
In short order, the inhuman proportion of the campers’ need is cut down to size only to be replaced by their wants. They want to gather and dance and kibitz and drink and marry and cut the foreskins of newborns and wail thanks to God or curse His name and dress up and organize and be bad without music to face and dance to music in the minor key of their souls.
And they do.
1947. In Bergen-Belsen, summer comes out of cold storage; children wander about, little ghosts freckling in the sun.
Their new leaders, the stalwart men of the Central Committee, stand in a tight circle, shaking their heads, flummoxed by a five-year-old. Again. Their eyes are shaded from the sun by the brims of their fedoras, but even a five-year-old can see they mean business. It’s been two years since the Brits removed the locks, unwound the barbed wire, and said their goodbyes; two years since anyone, in all the world, has stepped forward to help. Who else is there to keep the peace but them, the Committee members ask each other? Big shots, some say. Self-appointed messiahs, others. But most shrug it off. It takes a special kind of meshuggenah to stick his skinny neck out so soon after. They joke but whisper the word—After—as if there still might be a before to rile up, as if their prepositions aren’t vanishing into thin air, one-by-one, no matter how careful they are. That mongrel language they’d picked up in the camps, words born in the throat and spat more than uttered, as if they were always angry at each other, because anger was the only thing they could all understand, that Yiddish is now studded with adjectives inherited from the Brits—jolly, brilliant—generally forward-thinking blokes who never wanted to be anyone’s bosses but were pretty bossy nonetheless. Perhaps it comes with the territory though. The new guys, if this delegation is representative, are also pretty bossy.
But they do for people, even for this little teivel, who by the Grace of God has not wound up as bird food and by their grace is now receiving nourishment enough to outpace the growth of smaller mammals. And how does she thank them?
She’s caught red-handed, behind the cafeteria kitchen, elbow-deep in a tin of cooking fat, the third time in as many days.
Her teacher, an otherwise patient lady whose intentions have been more finely honed than her abilities, has grabbed the child by the ear and brought her and the offense to the Committee’s attention.
“That’s it. I’m finished. See this?” She lets go of the ear to swipe one palm against the other, three times. “This is me, giving up. The little gonif, she’s yours.” She also spits on the ground, adding curse to condemnation.
The little gonif offers neither defense nor contrition.
It’s in the nature of one, the leader of the leaders, to remind the others that every crime yearns for
its rightful punishment.
“But really, Isaac,” one of a different nature says, “who’s been harmed?”
“Without order what are we but animals?” Isaac answers.
“We had order with the Germans. What were we then?” asks the third, a governor cursed from birth with the propensity for seeing both sides of any coin.
Complicating matters is what few forms of punishment remain, thanks to the laws they’ve written banning spanking, slapping, knuckle rapping, ear pinching (of which the teacher is absolved), shackling or any sort of hand or foot binding, dousings of cold water, forced feeding, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, or any other corporal retribution the more creative might come up with. They themselves have forgotten just about every quality of mercy in the book, but thankfully the world is ultra-quick to remind them. You of all people this, You of all people that. There are landmines everywhere. Tread lightly, they tell each other now instead of goodnight.
“So what are we to do with you?” they ask their under-sized perpetrator.
Sarah, standing at attention, no mothering skirts to hide her, no longer anyone’s heat source but her own, on her own, understands the mish mash they speak but remains mute, though if they truly wanted to hear what she thinks they should do with her, she’d suggest they try giving her more, more of the everything they also want but especially more of that lovely oleo, white as new snow but for the golden threads of pullet schmaltz running through it. And if it was up to her she’d have them fill a whole room with it, lock her in, throw away the key, and leave her to lick her way to the top, because she wants more than to eat it, she wants to savor every mouthful, to breathe it, to swim in it and through it to emerge iced as a wedding cake, to be left alone in its sluggish depths, to find the words to describe its butteriness, that tasteless jam as bland as kindness.
But back to the Central Committee and in defense of their possibly hastily levied punishment, deprivation-based and, unsurprisingly, not at all left up to Sarah … it’s not as if they’ve nothing else to do, what with politicking and fund raising and plumbing issues and bickering over dining hall hours, and all the while fighting for a cause so large and caring for so many, with schools and hospitals and newspapers and even a few businesses to be built around the organizing principal that while no one should starve, they shouldn’t get too comfortable either, this city-sized mess of tattered souls, the ten thousand, their ten thousand, who tremble as if it’s the edge of a cliff they’re being pushed to when it’s only The World, which has in fact continued to exist contrary to a popular theory circulating the camp, but which, God knows, is hardly holding its breath waiting for any of them. So if a little push is what’s needed, a gentle reminder of what they’re missing, they’ll push, they’ll remind, or appoint sub-committees to do it for them. And because a little fun never hurt anyone, the sub-committees bring the people together for talk and entertainment, too. Overnight there are programs. The newspaper gets readers, the schools get pupils, the infirmary gets patients, the shul gets minyans. But nothing gets the way the Weekly Cultural Review gets. Every Sunday another gathering, and whether it’s someone’s paintings hanging on a wall or a corps of tap dancers with nails pounded into the heels of their shoes or a lecture about Eretz Yisrael (so much milk and honey a person could drown), there’s no arriving early enough to secure a seat. Expectation, re-kindled, rages through the population.
So that on the Sunday following her infraction, when it gets around that for the first time ever and for their eyes only, a motion picture is coming to Bergen-Belsen, ten thousand immediately become twenty, they are all so beside themselves with anticipation. Sarah, too, digs eight little moons of excitement into the heels of her palms. But then she’s told of the decision that’s come down from above. She will not be one of the moviegoers. And anyway, calling it a movie, this newsreel about the liberation of Auschwitz, is “rather an overstatement,” they tell her. It has little to interest a child like Sarah, promising no hoodwinks to laugh at or dreamboats to swoon over, and everyone already knows how it ends. They hope she sees the fairness of the punishment her crime has earned itself. A point has been made, her teacher feels vindicated, and no scars have been left. Alles gut, no?
Alles gut, yes, for she is like water, a mosquito, a mouse. There is no keeping her out of anything or anywhere. She slides through a crack in a door. She fits under a chair. She does everything she does to be one with the other children, her round eyes with theirs raised to the muddy images stuttering across the makeshift screen, a wall cleared and painted, at twenty-four frames per second. And while all the rest moon over this marvel called the movies, the steady thumping inside her chest quickens to a flutter, as she stares into the ruddy face of a Russian soldier, at his smile so wide it has to turn the corner of the white-washed wall to finish, eyes transparent as glass, and arms so strong they don’t notice the weight of the hundred children they hold.
Winter comes with its own axe to grind. All across the country, Germans are brought to their knees by record lows. In Bergen-Belsen they say boo-hoo.
Some of the older children, those lucky enough to have brooms, make music in the snow sweeping paths across the camp. There is only the way forward for them. When they turn around, snow has erased the paths, and the only way forward is to sweep their way back. They look happy though, waltzing across the endlessly renewing snow cover, they and the broomless children wrapped in wool from head to toe, cheeks pink from the cold and in anticipation of the cups of steaming Marmite awaiting them in the dining hall.
Sarah stands on her cot, grasping the sill to pull herself up onto her toes to reach the window, wondering if she will ever be lucky enough to join them. The window has been sealed shut for the season, but she can just about make out the sounds of progress, the whoosh two three, whoosh two three of brittle straw brushing the ground and the quiet thuds of snowballs hitting their targets. School is done for the day. They are free. She picks at a sliver of wood that’s sewn itself into the pad under her third finger. This is not punishment, they’d said of the empty room. This is for you, they’d said, as if an afternoon by herself was all she’d need to think her way into a brand new story, one that didn’t start with a broom, because if not for the broom—if she’d not stolen it, or had not been caught stealing it, with a look so fearsome she seemed ready to put the girl’s eye out with its long handle—there’d be nothing for her to think about. If that girl, whose broom it was, whose broom it is, had not gotten the others to laugh and rename her Bubkes for the rest of her camp life, Sarah, too, could be dancing in the snow as if nothing had ever happened. But Bubkes is not only what they call her, it is what she is, a nothing, a nit, smaller than all the rest who every other day outgrow their clothes and can hardly wait for the crates that arrive each week, some from England, some from America, full of army surplus and assorted hand-me-downs—the miss-matched mittens, mufflers, caps and coats, leggings and boots, and even the absurdly unnecessary, undergarments like girdles and brassieres the boys strap on over their clothes and strut about in, smoking jackets with satin collars, and the odd bathing costume or two. And so who could blame her for wanting the darling little broom that had been whittled down to just her size by the hands of a man who knew what to do with a piece of wood, who somewhere else had once healed the sick but here wants only to carve and whittle and bury his feet in shavings, all for a girl he calls “daughter” … and if that girl, who calls herself Charlotte, Charlotte Berger, could have been satisfied with counting her own blessings—two precious names and a father who whittles—instead of insisting that everyone else count them, too … and if she then hadn’t turned her little broom into even more of a prize, bringing attention to some of its finer features, the expert braiding of the straw and the strong wire holding it together, “… tied so tight it will never come apart, do you see?” handiwork she shouldn’t have credited to her mama, who’d been very good at such things, but to her mama’s sister who was going soon to be her new mama, not nearly as pretty but definitely as good with her hands as the original, now dead and gone.
And if Sarah had ever stood on her own two feet before the day she was dropped at the Displaced Persons’ office by a woman whose name she didn’t know but whose breasts were so familiar she could trace in her sleep the lacework of veins covering them, a woman still unconvinced that either one of them let alone both had made it to the other side of anything, but just in case, before bidding her gei gezunt and then, pffft, vanishing, pinned to the child’s jacket a scrap of paper, which the child couldn’t yet read but knew its scribbles described what she was, or what she would be, provided she made it that far. If she had known the investment caring requires and how underfinanced she’d been from the start and that campers are not always good and that wanting something doesn’t make it yours, or if Charlotte Berger hadn’t encouraged her delegation of doters to “go ahead, just try to pull it apart,” and if Sarah hadn’t been so quick to take the bait, reaching out with both arms, wanting only to touch the broom or maybe hold it, maybe even make it whoosh-two-three a couple of times over the floor, and if Charlotte Berger hadn’t then tried to yank it from her with a “not you, Bubkes,” and if the others hadn’t joined in chanting Bubkes Bubkes ... if that gallery could have restrained itself, just a little, and if vile tears hadn’t sprung from Sarah’s eyes watering her craving until it blossomed into something too big for her, a want that whispered in her ear, and why shouldn’t you have it? The girl herself brags how her father can make her another and another, just as nice and whenever she wants? Who would be hurt?
And if her hands had not stuck fast, and Charlotte Berger had not been pushed to say, “Why don’t you get your papa to make you your own broom?” and then, turning to her audience, “Oh, that’s right, Bubkes doesn’t have a papa …” And if they hadn’t laughed, short on fathers themselves, Sarah would never have shouted back that she had a papa, all right, and not a puny old man with broken glasses who had nothing to do in this stupid place but carve broom handles all day. No, her papa was a soldier, tall as a house, tall as a mountain, who could run so many rings around a camp like this he’d make everyone dizzy, and who was coming back for her to take her home, any day now, though the sooner the better because she hated this camp, this stupid stupid camp and all the stupid girls in it.
“And where is this ‘home?’” they’d all wanted to know, so she told them, which got them laughing harder.
“Auschwitz?” Charlotte Berger cackled. “Look at her arm, bare as a bottom. Everybody knows Auschwitzen have numbers. Who could believe a word out of the little liar’s mouth. My Papa says no one should lie. Especially a Yidishe meydl. ”
And if at this point Sarah had not wrenched the broom handle from the other’s nasty grip, if she could have just run, or better yet fly from that spot, or if she’d let her gathering tears run down her cheeks and into her mouth, and if there’d been enough time for the bitterness of those tears to have softened her thoughts before they’d turned into words, words so acrimonious the air might never be rid of them, I’m not a Yidishe anything, you stinking Jude, it would most definitely have been better.
1948. In Bergen-Belsen the motherless are a dime a dozen and depreciating by the day.
The Committee meets continuously now. Even on Shabbos. Yis-ra-el is reaching out to its People. The People can feel it. The People can smell it. They’re about to explode with anticipation. And if one more country pipes in with its own version of “any day now,” they just might. So the Committee meets. Reviews. Assesses. While the population has shrunk considerably, it’s only the easy ones who’ve been relocated, the ones with a brother in Tel Aviv or a wife’s uncle in Brooklyn. Bergen-Belsen is now just a pound full of strays. There are still few who can look upon them without weeping, but, really, how long can that last?
And so the Committee despairs. It’s up to them to find proper homes for their People. The men, the women they don’t worry about. But the children … it’s not exactly orphans they’re crying out for in Tel Aviv, or Brooklyn, for that matter.
But then a man who knows a man meets them behind the dining hall one morning and shows them a way. It’s there waiting in the shadows, the place the good are loathe to go.
“But where are the schvartser?” Sarah dares to ask on her way to inspection, her third one of the day. She’s heard the place is crawling with them, cellar rats in black-brimmed hats. The Shvartser Mark. The Black Market. Puppet masters working everyone’s strings. You got a foot, they got a shoe, is what she’s heard. You got two, it’ll cost you triple. She’s put her question to the man in charge of inspections. He wears a black hat but is very pale and does not look at all like a rat. He’s called Teacher, though Sarah has never seen him in the classroom.
“What did I say? No speaking of things you know nothing about,” he tells her. “Hurry now. And pick up your feet when you walk, no one wants a girl with muddy soles.”
And what of all the other times? When her shoes and turned-down socks and shins and even her knees were clean as soup bones and still they didn’t want her?
Teacher has another child in tow as well, one who keeps her mouth shut and nearly goose-steps, she picks her feet up so high. The three of them take a less-traveled route along the outer perimeter of the camp to the showing area, a derelict warehouse, where Sarah and the other girl are cautioned not to trip on the debris littering the crumbling concrete floor, all the tires and carburetors, fan belts and bumpers that had refurbished the vehicles of first one than another army. Though the place is well-ventilated and the air is chill even on this mild day, the walls hold onto the raw smell of old oil and solvents and let in so little light that Teacher has brought along a candle. Other men come, each with his own candle, bringing more children to fill out the line.
They are all girls today and wear the blue frocks with white aprons that are allowed out of storage only on inspection days. Arranged by height and standing at attention with the breeze coaxing their skirts, they look like little banners at a parade.
“Very good. Now, what is your job?” the Teacher asks, pointing to one of the girls in the lineup who answers without hesitation:
“To be VE-REE good.”
“And?” pointing to another.
“But not too smart,” Teacher adds with a finger wag.
“And we wash dishes and scrub floors and never answer back,” another child volunteers.
And nothing. The girls’ faces are suddenly blank.
“And?” Teacher repeats, pacing the length of their line, forcing every eye to the floor.
“Oy, are those kups made of wood? For your sake, we ...”
“We forget,” Sarah says, but nearly inaudibly, bending Teacher down to her, a hand cupping his ear.
“We can’t hear you,” Teacher sings.
“WE FORGET,” she bellows, and he, satisfied, straightens.
“And for the sake of us all?” arms raised like an orchestra conductor.
“WE REMEMBER!” they chime in unison.
In the last-minute fluffing, some get their hair pinned so it doesn’t hide their prettiness, some get their cheeks pinched to rosy them up, some—the ones with no tattoos to frighten off the customers—get their sleeves rolled up. And finally they are told to smile, “Like this,” they say pulling their mouths wide with two fingers to demonstrate, as if the children don’t know what a smile is, as if children didn’t invent the smile.
Sarah, her hair a bird’s nest, does the same, pulling the edges of her own mouth wide with two not-so-clean fingers showing every one of her jagged little teeth. Feeling mocked, Teacher huddles briefly with his helpers but decides against pulling her from the line. At this point, even the rottenest apple must find a new barrel.
Teacher opens the corrugated doors to the people of Celle, the town just south of the camp. Disappointment shows on his face. Today’s turnout is pitiful. But a single couple. The pair of them look winded, their arms looped together, more in support than affection. Teacher tries to put them at ease, his greeting holds respectful formality. And then with great flourish he announces the winning number of the day’s lottery drawing. Herr and Frau Vogelmann look on anxiously. How should they know there are never any losers, that no one goes home empty-handed? They look nice, the Vogelmanns. At least they are dressed nicely, the gold chain of a watch fob swoops across the gentleman’s vest and the woman wears a crocheted scarf around her neck. Their boots are worn at the heels, though, and they look to be covered in mud. On the ground by the man’s foot, something bright and red tickles Sarah’s eye. Teacher sees it, too, but Sarah gets there first. Stealth as a little hawk she dives for it and is back in line, the Vogelmanns none the wiser, the bright, red thing dampening in her fist.
Teacher stares disapprovingly at the place on the ground now absent the ticket. The woman must think it is their dusty shoes that displease him. Her face turns pink. They walked, she explains. The bus never came, her husband adds. “Twenty kilometers, but what can you do?”
“We had the fare, really we did. Money for the ticket, too. Go on, Helmut, give it to him,” the woman says, spearing her husband with her elbow. His pockets hold nothing but lint. He frowns. So does the woman. Also, her chin trembles.
“No worries,” Teacher says. “Anyone can see you are honest folk.” He does not need a pair of crying customers on his hands and tells them he’ll be happy to look around outside for their ticket while they decide which one of Bergen-Belsen’s lovely girls might suit them.
“But choose wisely,” he says, wagging his finger. “There are no returns.”
It’s always the same with Teacher. He puffs up his chest and then he and his friends disappear into the shadows to place bets on who’s leaving the camp this time, never betting on her. But the Vogelmanns know none of this. They turn their attention to the line of girls standing before them, stepping from one to the other, looking long and hard at each.
To Sarah’s left and right the children mug. Some are older and more capable, others are younger and more adorable, but none of them have what she has. Just as the couple come to her, she waves her bright, red prize in the air. And it works. The worry drops from the man’s face. He smiles. A smile that makes Sarah feel warm. But then he reaches for the ticket and Sarah goes cold. He pulls; she holds fast. She doesn’t understand.
“Helmut,” the woman says. Her voice is scolding but gentle. “Can’t you see what a determined one we have here? It seems this is not a fight you are likely to win.”
The couple go on talking. It could be they are arguing. Their words, too, come from the throat, but there is no anger in them. Sarah cannot understand much of what is said, but when Frau Vogelmann gets down on her knees, Sarah knows it’s been about her.
“Do you want to be my little girl?” the woman’s eyes are as blue as the sky. Sarah nods her head. “How much?” the woman whispers.
And Sarah’s fist opens.
Teacher has returned. The woman takes the wilted ticket from Sarah’s hand and passes it to him.
“We’ll take her,” Herr Vogelmann and his wife say together.
Teacher and his pals, men who think they’ve seen everything, cannot hide their surprise.
“But we are Christian people,” Herr Vogelmann says. “It is all right?”
“Ja, ja,” Teacher shrugs.
“We would not know how to raise her Jewish.”
“You are today’s winners. Raise her any way you like,” Teacher says, handing them the girl’s ration card plus a stack of Deutsche Mark. Enough to reimburse them the price of their lottery ticket plus bus fare, if any buses had been running. “She may not be the prettiest of the bunch, but she will be of great use to you cleaning the house and minding the children.”
“But she’s only a child herself,” the frau remarks.
“This one?” Teacher says. “This one was never a child.”
1950. She is eight years old by the time she sees her first telephone, Vater wrapping his beefy hand around the black receiver as if it were a club or a revolver. It’s one of the first in the village and he loves it. 1950. Then and now she thinks there’s something evil about an instrument that feels the need to demand attention in such insistent terms. You could be asleep, you could be dead, but it wants what it wants when it wants it.
Vater is what they call Herr Vogelmann, husband to Frau Vogelmann, their Muter. Vater is a working man with no work to do. In the kitchen, he takes tea with his morning newspaper and then talks on the telephone about what he’s read to all the other men with no work to do. Sometimes his voice gets very loud. Muter calls this “passion.” Sarah sits at the kitchen table while Muter braids her hair. No one has ever fixed Sarah’s hair before, and she stays still as stone through the daily assault on her tangles. When finished, Muter inspects her work.
“What do you think, Helmut?” she asks Vater.
“She’s no beauty, but there is time,” Vater tells her. Vater has known Muter since they were both in nappies. They have two sons. Sarah’s not much older than either boy, but enough so to be entrusted with their care. Vater and Muter want very much for her to add their name to her own and they find no argument from her. Sarah Vogelmann has no attachment to any other surname. She is the chosen of The Chosen, the Vogelmanns have been telling her since their first moments together, Sarah staring blankly as the three of them walked the dusty road to Celle, her new home. “You know, the Chosen People. Like the Juden say.”
“I’m not Juden, I’m Auschwitz,” she had said, and they had laughed. “Well, you are Vogelmann now. And isn’t it a kind of miracle?” They’d always wanted three little ones. Now they have their three, and under one roof, intact though rain comes in here and there. Two sides of a world war will come together and thank their one God for the miracle of a second chance at grace, and for the miracle of the additional bread they will be able to break, manna straight from heaven, and all thanks to Sarah, the little girl they add to their family portrait, proof that they are not like those others who had done her wrong. Though there are good ones among those, too, they want her to know. People now despised by neighbors and friends, some of them for the mere sin of turning their heads away when who could look at a thing like that straight on. “And shouldn’t you of all people be able to forgive,” Muter sometimes asks while pouring warm water over her soapy head or tucking her in at bedtime “You did win, after all.”
Sarah guesses they think it is them that she won.
But the Vogelmanns, both Herr and his Frau, are decent enough people and above and beyond what’s required they give her a name and a home and a seat at the family table and teach her to read and encourage her to explore her new town with the boys they call “the brothers,” all three of them returning at the end of a day, pockets weighed down with bits of tile and cracked but serviceable china and buttons of ivory and brass and even once a set of false teeth, which Sarah put in her own mouth to keep the little ones laughing all night. And why shouldn’t she have a bit of fun considering all that she contributes, freeing Muter to work her days in the neighborhood grocery and her nights bringing in laundry, Sarah stumbling through the difficult passages in the family’s great book of Grimm, which quickly becomes the only thing to make the brothers eyes grow heavy at bedtime. And only once they are asleep can she tend to Vater, standing on a stool to reach the stove to cook his dinner with the extra rations she’s earned them, serving him, tidying up, and then finally putting herself to bed, giddy from the smoke of his cheap cigars. They are dear, these Vogelmanns, perhaps not the Saviors they fashion themselves to be, but what does an eight-year-old need saving from?
1957. At fifteen she is done with pigtails. She wears a single braid now. Muter has given her a tortoiseshell barrette to secure the tail end. The brothers amuse themselves mostly, except when Sarah has time to play Teacher for a game of School. She no longer has to run her finger under the words as she reads them their fairy tales. She is still no beauty, but her face has character, Vater tells her. “And you are lucky, liebling. Why? Because character lasts longer than beauty.”
And it is true. She is indeed a lucky little liebling. Proof? The distinguished gentleman with the smooth, white hands kept folded across the second button of his long, dark coat who’s come to inspect the goods: Her. She stands in the parlor door, her feet squarely planted, looking as sturdy as possible despite her small size. It would be bad to embarrass Vater. Her German is passable and she knows to speak only when spoken to. The man asks her to sing. She does. A random tune more hummed than sung, and he nods his approval. The choir at his church has lost its soprano and she’ll do just fine, he tells her. She doesn’t know any other songs, she confesses, eyes lowered. I will teach you, he says, and with the same sonorous voice congratulates Herr Vogelmann for the excellent job he’s done with her.
“It wasn’t a job really. She’s a good girl, Herr Weiss,” Vater says.
“What is this ‘herr’ business? Freidrich, please,” loud and jocular.
She looks up and catches Herr Weiss’s wink as he leans toward Vater and half covering his mouth turns down the volume to ask, “So, friend, what’s it like with the Juden?”
“I’m not Juden, I’m Auschwitz,” a growl she tries to swallow. She’s not been spoken to.
But Herr Weiss’s ears are sharp and he turns on his heels.
“Speak up,” he commands.
“I’m not Juden, I’m Auschwitz,” she repeats, sounding bolder than she feels.
Vater holds his breath. Muter lowers her eyes and smiles. Herr Weiss does too.
“Same same, little bird.”
Upstairs in the room she shares with the littler Vogelmanns, the brothers climb all over her. Sarah has not yet finished the last Grimm story, so they are not yet finished with Sarah. One more, one says. One more, the other parrots. She tells them there will never be an end to the stories, or their readers, but nothing in their experience allows them to believe her.
She buffers herself against their skepticism. There are preparations to be made. She admires the valise she’s been given, gold leaf filling the channels of the letters of their name, now hers. She packs three dresses, all on the verge of being too short. Undergarments. A nightgown. The tortoiseshell clasp that holds the end of the braid that now reaches halfway down her back. A sweater of scratchy wool, sky blue, Muter had knit and boiled in a pot on the stove to keep her warm as toast when the weather turned. A picture of the rest of the family in their identical sweaters. The scrap of paper with the number that’s been almost part of her since she was a baby. The valise is small, but all that is hers does not begin to fill it.
The man will be back first thing in the morning. Down the hall Muter is crying, heartbroken to think about her leaving them. Sarah guesses they didn’t plan to love her this much. Herr Vogelmann, worn out from all their petitioning, insists over and over that he’s only doing what’s best for the girl. Soon she’ll be sixteen and then what? “Do you imagine we can give her a dowry or open a door for a job?” he asks. His (ahem) friend, on the other hand, has the means to take good care of her. Very. Good. Care. He’s promised to pay for a school uniform. AND books. It’s the best thing, it’s the best thing, Vater repeats over and over, but something weighs on him. She can tell by the way he doesn’t call her liebling or look her in the eye. Even the next morning as she walks out his door for the last time.
“What, are we now animals, like all the rest?” Sarah hears her muter of eight years cry to her husband.
“In this house we are all Survivors!” comes his answer. And there is some truth to it.
1961. Herr Weiss’s attic is a box made of wood. Its tall, pitched ceiling is lined with heavy beams. There is a lamp by the bed on a nightstand and two thin eiderdowns that have lost most of their feathers. But being cold is nothing new. At the side of the bed is a circular rug upon which she has knelt for evening prayers for the past four years. Herr Weiss is an exacting teacher and he puts his large hand on the top of her head to guide it into the angle of modesty most pleasing to those who answer the prayers of motherless girls. He hands her the little prayer book he keeps in the top dresser drawer by his own bed for her to read from, though she knows it by heart,
I am small
then lays himself down on her bed making the sounds she’s used to closing her eyes on,
my heart is pure
everything, even the floor beneath her bare knees, shaking with it.
Holding prayer pose, she waits until his chest sinks and the room fills with cigar breath and he pats the side of the bed and parts the front tails of his shirt and again puts his large hand on her head, this time guiding it down to the little saucer that awaits, though there is no saucer, just his night’s milk, cupped for her to lap from the base of his belly, colorless as frost on a windowpane, scentless as uncooked sweat, slippery, flavorless, familiar.
And no one shall live in it but Jesus.
Sarah has no prayers of her own. She has dreams. Not the daytime kind that make you stupid with hope but the kind that bloom in the dark of an attic and make you know things you shouldn’t. In her case, it’s the certainty that there is no ground so firm that anyone should think it will remain underfoot forever, so when the day comes when Celle’s families awake to a new new order, she alone is prepared. It happens on an August Sunday.
Monday, August 14, 1961. To feel like less of a thief, she takes only what she’d come with—the little valise with its golden monogram, the family portrait of the Vogelmanns, the crumpled scrap of paper bearing the enigmatic number that’s been with her since she was a baby. For the clothes on her back, provided by the Weisses (the ones the Vogelmanns had given her, now kitchen rags), she leaves three of the seventeen Deutsche Mark she has earned over the past four years doing chores in her spare hours for neighbors, the same neighbors who will claim no surprise over her sudden departure and will tell Weiss that he’s lucky to be rid of her, that you could never trust a girl who stares at the floor when spoken to and never returns a smile.
What she has of her own to give, the braid that now tickles her waist, cut off at the root with Frau Weiss’s meat shears, Frau Vogelmann’s tortoiseshell clasp biting its frizzled end, she puts in the top dresser drawer by Weiss’s bed. Wiry as a horse’s tail, it was harder than she’d expected to scissor through. She knows it won’t bring much at market but tells herself it is a fair enough exchange for the little prayer book she suddenly can’t bear to leave behind.
The gentleman of the house and his wife, like every other villager, are in front of their radio, teary-eyed and anxious for the staticky report to get on with it, because all they want to hear is the part about it not being true, that their beloved capital has not been halved, a wall sprung up overnight and rammed through its center, and neither notice Sarah nor her chopped hair nor the breakfast tray she’s brought them—tea, strong and sweet, and warmed biscuits—nor her exit to the severing blows of the broadcast, a symphony of opportunity to her ears.
She does not look back. Once she’s gone, she’s gone. Only the razor wire slicing through the heart of Berlin to stop her. The razor wire and the arms of a flesh-and-blood Russian hero.