Dieu Avec Nous

(work in progress) 

A handsome man, as a child, Bubbie would call him “chuch,” a Yiddish word for “scarecrow.” He once took pleasure in his gaunt cheekbones. It gave character to his face. Behind a thick trimmed, oil-black mustache arose his pronounced cheeks. Sharp contours created shadows that looked like spotlights shinning on the billboards of old penny flicks, which illuminated his stern, yet, gentle slate eyes. Brought up in the height of the twenties, Joseph would take pride in his appearance, thinking one day he would look like the sharp men in the scattered posters that graced the roaring Paris streets. 

Today Joseph sees his reflection in the muddied puddle that lies under his wooden bunk.  He used to pay a franc to see the grotesque Nosferatu on the silver screen. He would scream until he couldn’t take it any more and race out of the theatre in fear. At night he would squirm restless and afraid, until his mother came and reminded him that it was not real. Now he didn’t have to pay anything to see this horror because it stared right back at him. Death returned his gaze from within the puddle. Watery turnip soup, backbreaking hard labor, and unimaginable horror had turned him into a monster. His mother was no longer there to protect him, and this did not bother him anymore. 

A dreamer at heart, he loved to stargaze. As a child growing up ten minutes from the Gare de Nord station, he was minutes from a train to fantasy. The summers he would spend in Burgundy. Embraced in the luminescence he was lost in the fields of Avallon in the French countryside. Nights spent untouched lying beneath the tall grasses only joined by the fireflies. Now all that mattered was the star stitched in his tattered gray clothes. A tear in his shirt revealed his ribcage. He has been hungry for months, only kept alive on scraps and hope. His barren shaved head now stands where a luscious mane used to grow. The nickname “Chuch” had stayed with him for the first two decades of his life. Although he reminisced of his prior physique, it was nothing but a dream with what he had become. But that did not matter anymore, for he was just one lost among the many skeletons in stripes. 

It had rained the night before. Drops managed to infiltrate through the opening in rickety rafters and free-fall down into the puddle causing his reflection to ripple in vibrations. It reminded him of the times he would beg his father to go to the circus when it was in town. The jolly tramps would swing their canes and dance until their tumbles would cause the crowds to erupt in laughter. Brave souls would be gentle and beautiful ballerinas bounding through the air only to be saved by a little rope. Foreign beasts would be as tame as pussycats only to show their ferocity upon command. His favorite part was always the funhouse. Joseph could spend hours looking at his reflection in the twisted mirrors, which morphed him into absurd shapes: a strongman, a midget, and a gorged fat body. The joy was always broken when he saw his frail scarecrow body. But then he could look up at his strapping tree trunk of a father, and dream that one day he will look like him. But that was before they took him. Joseph had to beg his father no more for the pleasure the funhouse once brought him for. When he looked at his reflection he was always morphed and distorted. But the mirror was not broken, it was only him. 

This morning his mother could not protect him from the terror, nor could his father show him a light to the future. For he knew there was no such thing. In the beginning his family was fortunate at first when they got to the camps. The other skeletons do not know what happened to their loved ones, but they remained together. He could see his mother wave to him through the fence. Her cheeks would be rosy, stained with tears and a little blood that she applied to make her have a healthy complexion for the guards. But last he heard her face was pale when they found her hanging from the rafters. His father would work along side him carrying bricks for eleven hours a day. He worked like a horse, and was an inspiration to the others at first. The last time Joseph saw his father was when he was deemed too frail and forced into the other line. Last time Joseph saw him he looked defeated. That day the sky turned extra black from the smokestacks. While other skeletons had hope to one-day return to their prior lives and loved ones, Joseph did not have such fortune. 

Now he sat in his bunk waiting for death to call. The twigs he now had for legs cracked as he rose at the sound of the first bell. The damp wood creaked as he shuffled among the skeletons like cattle into the killing fields. When exiting the threshold of Block No. 11, the gray skies were too bright for his eyes, causing him to squint until they adjusted. Weary and confused he marched. Packed among the crowd he heard the frantic bickering of the Polaks talking in their ugly unknown language. Joseph could not understand why they did not speak with such beauty and eloquence as the French. Their words came off their tongue rushed and harsh. This was their country however, and he was only a guest. But their bickering sounded like symphony compared to German. As if said from the Devil himself, “Achtung!” was screamed as they filed into line. 

He stood at attention, feet planted firmly so that he would not blow away in the wind.  His lungs had not breathed fresh air in months. He did not want to think of what could be creating the rotting stench he was forced to breathe. His mind wandered as the familiar role call was given. It would take hours as the thousands of skeletons were counted. In the distance Joseph saw what he thought to be a blue sky. In the camp the smokestacks never stopped spewing ash, drowning out the sun, and making even the most inspiring sunrises nothing more than a black veil of death.“140603” broke Josephs trance when he finally heard the number. This was no normal number, he knew this number. But no one responded, for he knew that Seymour had killed himself the night before. “140603” had been a good friend of Joseph. Often telling him wondrous tales of flying planes in the First Great War, and his time spent as an engineer. He was a kind and gentle man, with great big ears, and a cheshire cat smile. His spirit was alone enough to keep Joseph going through the darkest of days. He was like a grandfather to him, but had a soul younger than even those fortunate to not be in the camp. Seymour’s death did not phase him however. Even though shocking for such a strong willed person to end their lives, this hell broke even the strongest of men. Joseph would miss the comfort of “140603,” and luckily managed tears to form on the edge of his tired eyes. Before they could fall his number was called. “132256.” Joseph took all his strength to utter a sound. The noise came out faint like a silent scream. But it was heard. The tears plummeted down his sharp cheeks causing a bitter taste. However it was welcome due to the unyielding thirst that had not been satisfied for hours. Joseph wish he had the strength to cry more often.

As the sun grew bigger on the horizon, the overbearing prison spotlights were turned off. The heat felt nice and comforting as it licked his skin. Having taken an interest in the sky as a  child, Joseph would use the shadows on the endless rows of prisoners to act as a sundial. Time was irrelevant here. Joseph often preoccupied himself by holding his breath, or counting the number of skeletons who collapsed from exhaustion and were carried off to their ends. Joseph often thought about the sweet release of death. It was always on the horizon. He used to fear his end. He would pray during temple to wish good fortune and safety to his loved ones. He doesn’t remember the last time he has talked to God. Every night he listened to Seymour whisper the haftorah, and Joseph used to fidget between his parents in the hard wooden seats during the endless services as a child. They all had prayed to God, but now they were with him. Joseph clenched his hands at the thought, but felt a forgotten pain. He looked down at his hands and was reminded of his painstaking venture the night prior. His fingers were maroon with dried blood, and black with filth. What few fingernails he had left were ground down to little nubs. Once seeing Seymour take his final breath, and unable to get what little sleep he was afforded Joseph spent the night carving into the wall, “if there is a God, he will have to beg for my forgiveness.” Seymour had always told him, “gardez la foi,” (keep the faith.) But now he was no longer around to tell him. 

The day had not even begun and Joseph already felt dead. The numbers continued to echo throughout the crowd. It did not seem anywhere near the end. Judging by the skeleton dial it was almost six in the morning. So far seven skeletons have fallen in this line. “132256” had remembered his mother telling him he was born around this time. Although she was scared for his birth into the world, it was fast and painless. His coming had been one of the happiest moments of her life. Something she had feared became a blessing. He was born on the seventh of October on a rainy day. Standing at attention the guards continued to echo. The wind picked up sending a chill, and causing his muscles to tense up. The exertion of force was a test to his limited willpower. Defeated, Joseph was reminded of the warm breeze he felt among the stars as a child in the glowing hills of Avallon. How welcoming it was. His eyes danced looking from star to star of his fellow Jews. “Oh how they looked liked stars” he thought. It was a great feat, but Joseph squinted his eyes and was once again lost among the fields of countless stars. No longer a prisoner. No longer forgotten. No longer lost. Free in every sense of the definition.  A faint smile formed on his face. “San peur et sans reproche,” (without fear, without reproach,) Joseph whispered, “bon soir” (goodnight.) His smile grew and eyes closed as he fell out of line and joined the seven prisoners who had done so before him. He felt no pain when his body hit the ground. He felt no pain when the flames of the furnace would touch his body. “132256” was no longer as Joseph collapsed into the comforting tall grasses of the French countryside, nothing more to worry except for catching the train back in time for supper so his mother would not worry. But for now that was not important as he took his final breathes underneath the eight million familiar stars.