A Story of Hope and Survival
By Heather Morris
I am the author of two novels, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey. Writing and publishing these two novels has taken me on my own, personal journey. Not so much a physical one, although I have visited so many countries since The Tattooist was published that I have lost count of the number of planes I’ve been on. Rather, it is an emotional journey I have made, as I have shared these novels with readers all over the world, and in return heard from so many what these stories meant to them and been told these people's own stories of survival. Sometimes these stories are fragments, vignettes, an incident, a time or place, one person who made a difference in a dark period of history. I hope I can offer a taste of what these people have experienced in my writing.
Here is one such vignette, based upon something a survivor told me when I met her in her beautiful home in Israel.
A death march through the countryside of Poland during the winter of 1945. Thirteen young girls decide to make a run for it, leaving the columns of straggling, dying young women behind.
As night falls, they hold hands and run. Better to be shot in the back trying to escape than die from the cold and starvation. They soon find themselves in a forest, no shots have rung out, they have made it, away from the patrolling SS Officers and their dogs.
The forest offers them no protection. The trees have been stripped of leaves, which now lie buried under the snow they struggle through.
Night becomes day, the sun blinding them as it blazes down, reflecting up into their faces from the snow on the ground. There are open paddocks now, some with livestock, cows feeding from freshly laid hay.
‘There must be a farmhouse nearby,’ one girl says.
And now they can see a large house hidden by orchards and untended gardens ahead in the distance.
Following a path, they cross a paddock and head towards the house. One of the girls declares it looks like a castle, it seems so large and grand to them. They decide to ask for food and help from whoever lives there.
Making their way up the steps that lead up to the giant double doors, the boldest girl bangs the large brass knocker before stepping back. They wait patiently. No one comes. The others encourage her to knock again. Still no answer. They decide to look around the back.
At the back of the house they come upon the body of a man. He’s dressed in fine clothes, but the bullet hole in his chest is obvious.
‘We can’t leave him out here like this,’ one of the girls says. They decide to bury him.
They find shovels and spades in a shed. Weak from starvation and exhaustion, the girls take turns digging through the snow until they have a hole deep enough to bury the man. Working together, they manoeuvre him into the grave. They take turns saying what prayers they can remember, before covering him with dirt and snow.
Emboldened by having done the right thing, they try a back door to the house and find it unlocked. In the kitchen they find a pantry filled with preserved food. The mouldy loaves of bread tell them that the house has been empty for a while. Careful not to disturb anything, they continue to explore the house. Upstairs there are enough bedrooms for each girl to have her own.
Finding their way back downstairs, they agree the owners would surely let them eat some of the preserved food, but it doesn’t seem right to sit in the large dining room, in a home that isn’t theirs.
‘Can we take the table outside?’ asks one of the girls. ‘It’s been so long since I sat at a table.’
Double French doors open out from the dining room into the garden which looks out over the orchards beyond. Moving the table is a struggle but they manage to lift it, and slowly they march it outside and place it on the snow covered patio. Retuning inside they each grab a chair. Lanterns and large candles in glass jars finishes their table setting.
From the kitchen they bring plates, cutlery and preserved fruit and vegetables and smoked meats, which they carefully lay out on platters. In the larder, they find some cheese with mould on the outside which is declared edible. One of the girls opens a cupboard and gasps in surprise when she discovers it contains bottles of wine. Carefully selecting two, she takes them to the table, along with wine glasses.
With the sun having gone, and the night sky filled with stars, the light from the lanterns and candles dances on the table in front of them. Thirteen young women, who have survived hell on earth, eat their first meal at a table in a long time. Once they have cleaned up, they discuss sleeping arrangements. Again, it is agreed they have no right to sleep in a bed which isn’t theirs, but the owners wouldn’t mind if they borrowed the blankets from the beds.
Each taking a blanket and pillow from the upstairs bedrooms, the girls lie down together on the floor of the dining room, in place of the table and chairs.
A moment of freedom at last for thirteen young women who have survived the unthinkable. Who knows what lies ahead, but for now at least they are safe, together, with a roof over their heads.