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Womenís Work, 1943-1945

By Rebecca McClanahan

in memory of Eva Kellner, whose daughter told me Evaís story

Everything schnell, schnell, my boots for wooden clogs, and Mother refuses to relieve herself in the open bucket sloshing in the corner. Now to the sauna, schnell, schnell, our names rinsed from our bodies until we are all Ruth, our private places checked for hidden diamonds. They say if you give up your things quietly, they will return to you.

The meadow where they march us is beautiful. Mother falls to her knees, demanding to know where theyíve taken her motherís Bavarian teacups. Block by block we are counted. It takes all morning for the living, half the day for the dead. Bread is delivered in funeral carts pulled by men stooped like horses, each named Israel, but nowhere my father or brother. Emptied, the bread carts fill with the dead and roll away. One day a shovel boy brings me lilacs from a meadow near the common grave. Small treasures follow: a comb, toothbrush, a box of crackers, a poem. For days I dream in Hebrew.

Mengele is the thumb pointing: right, left. We run naked, in circles, shielding the pregnant Ruth we call the Jewish Madonna. When her labor begins, it takes six of us: two at her legs, one to catch the child, one to dispose of it. My job is to hold her mouth shut. The sixth woman prays into her eyes.

Our new keepers are women. To call them animals is unjust to animals.
But nature is merciful and spares us something: we no longer bleed. The strongest are led to the lumber mill where they labor like men, stacking, restacking the heavy planks. I work as a nurse, changing bandages, lifting the dead from their cots. One evening Mother does not return from her job at the mica factory.

They march us to what is left of Hamburg, to chisel at mortar and salvage the bricks. We have not eaten in days. When the guard turns, I slip into a tunnel beneath a ruined house, remembering Grandmotherís cellar, my hands rooting in the dirt for turnips, potatoes. Beets answer first, and I dive into them. When I surface, my pockets are filled. Each night in my bunk, I nibble at the beets. For weeks, my urine streams brighter than blood.

Anna Maria, our guard, has a head full of beautiful red hair and lice. She hands me the comb and I take my time, soaking each strand in gasoline. Her head is in my lap, the auburn hair fine as a childís, the pink scalp naked beneath my hands. I used to comb my motherís hair. This special comb has tiny teeth. I plant them deep, and the gray lice dance to meet my fingers.

The funeral carts no longer bring bread. Those of us left tie belts around the ankles of the dead and drag them to the meadow. If a dress suits me, I take it. I work the garden, planting turnip seeds and the eyes of new potatoes.One morning in the distance, cannon fire. Then soldiers, water, canned meat that sends me lurching toward the latrine. I board a bus I donít know where. My lap holds American cigarettes and three chocolate bars, a blanket and one tin cup. The road out is lined with birch trees, the pale bark curling away from the trunks.


 

Rebecca McClanahan's most recent books are Deep Light: New and Selected Poems 1987-2007 and The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, which won the 2005 Glasgow Award for nonfiction. She has also published four previous volumes of poetry and three books about writing, including Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. She lives in New York and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Queens University in Charlotte.

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