My Dearest Alter: A Tale of the Holocaust by Olivia Autry High School Student 17 Years old

 

 

My Dearest Alter,

I don’t even know yet if you’re a real person, but I’ve suspected for several weeks that you are on the way.   I pray that if I am to have you, God will keep us safe.

Since I’m your Mama, I guess I should tell you a little bit about myself and your beginnings.  You should know how and why we got here.

I am 22 years old and I married the best man who has ever lived two years ago.  I am quiet and shy, with long, brown hair and dark eyes.  I see myself as being plain and average, but your papa says I’m beautiful.

Speaking of your Papa (who has no idea yet that you are going to join us)…  He and I were both taken by the Gestapo because we are Jews.   We are also law-abiding German citizens, but that doesn’t seem to matter right now.

Although we followed all the proper procedures- registering ourselves and reporting willingly- and had thought that our cooperation would count in our favor and save us from any trouble, we were separated from each other and sent to two different detainment facilities.  I have not seen your Papa since the day we were taken, which was six weeks ago.  I’m hoping that very soon the guards here will allow me to write to him.

The night I arrived here from the first detainment facility where I was held, I was told by the guards that this is a “waiting station.”  It feels more like a prison.   Conditions here are very harsh.  We are made to work hard for long hours and receive very little to eat.  Yesterday, I was tempted to mention to our Block Guard that I suspect I’m with child, hoping they may show more compassion and increase my daily rations.  However, something within me told me to keep quiet.  And so, I have not gone to the infirmary or told anyone that I suspect you’re coming.  I don’t know who I can trust here, or how a pregnant woman will be treated.

I will continue writing to you as often as I can find paper to write upon because you, little one, are my hope.  I am eager to get you home quickly so that I can take proper care of you and be the mama I have always wanted to be.

I was assured on the day I was taken that I would be released quickly, so I trust this will all blow over soon and I can look forward to your arrival with no worries.

Oh!  I guess I should mention where we are, since, technically, this is your first home.  It’s called Ravensbruck.

Love,

Mama

Dearest Alter,

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that you are coming.   Now, I just have to figure out how we’ll hide you until my release, which I continue to hope will be very soon.  It just has to be.  I try to do every single thing that is asked of me with a pleasant frame of mind, so that those in authority here will see they’ve made a horrible mistake.  I am not a criminal and I’m certain they will see that very soon.

Your Mama

My Sweet Alter,

I suppose you’d like to hear how I’ve already chosen your name.  Your family on my side has an unusual “tradition.”  Every firstborn child on my side of the family is a boy.  My father was a firstborn, and then his firstborn child was a boy, my father’s brother- my uncle- also had a firstborn son, and my sister’s first child was a boy.  I could name others, but you get the idea.  It stands to reason that you, too, shall be a boy!  And because of that I’ve decided on your name!

Your grandfather, my sweet Papa, has always believed that a person will become the meaning of his name, so names must be chosen carefully.  This is why he named me Tikva.  My name means “Hope.”  And look where we are!  Not the best of circumstances, yet I remain full of hope!

After much consideration, I decided to call you Alter, which means “Old.”  In the Jewish tradition, this name is given as a blessing for a long, full, happy life.  That is all I want for you, Alter; to have a long and happy life!

Love,

Mama

My Dearest Alter,

I believe I am about twelve weeks along with you now.  I continue to hope our release will happen soon and I long to hear something of your Papa’s whereabouts.  I have still never received any word from him or about him.  He will be so thrilled when he hears about you, little Alter.

I must admit, some days, I am finding it hard to keep hoping.  We work for hours on end and the jobs they make us do don’t even seem to be necessary.  It’s just busywork, I think.

The living quarters are filthy and terribly uncomfortable.  Our building is lined with rows of hard, wooden bunks and we try to make room for as many women to fit as possible so no one has to sleep on the floor.  Most of the time, four of us are squeezed onto one bunk.

They give us food twice a day, but it is always stale and often moldy.   They give us water but it is tinged with brown.   It makes me worry for you.  You are not getting the best start in life.

The stories and gossip I’m hearing from others keep me fearful morning, noon, and night.  The new prisoners coming in speak of people being beaten or shot and killed in the streets for no other reason than being Jewish.  There are people here who claim they were arrested simply for helping Jews.  Some of the old timers here say there are other camps like this one where Jews are cooked alive in huge ovens.  I won’t believe it.  There is no way one human being could treat another so savagely.  And, yet…  I look at the way the guards here treat us, as if we are animals.  It makes me wonder if some of these stories could be true.

At least I have you and your Papa to think about and look forward to.

Love,

Mama

Dear Alter,

Guess what!  I’ve made a friend!  Her name is Chava.  She is very kind to me and I believe we will be life-long friends!  She’s the one that’s been giving me this paper so I may write to you.  I took the first few letters I’d written on scraps and was able to recopy them on real paper!  It’s funny that something as simple as paper feels like a luxury now.  Chava works in the office here, so hopefully she will be able to continue getting paper for us.

The Germans like her since she’s a skilled typist and can speak several languages, so they can use her to translate documents.

She even gets extra bread and meal rations because she works there.  She’s been so sweet to share the extra with me!  She is the only person I’ve trusted to tell about you and she is as committed as I am to keeping you safe.

I know she worries about me, as I worry about her.  It’s nice to know someone here cares about me.  Many of the other women here turn on each other easily.  Some of them treat me like I’m invisible, but that’s okay, as long as I can keep you invisible, too.

Chava told me I remind her of her little sister, and she says that’s why she first sought me out.   I think we will always be great friends, even after this is all over.  God is so good to me! I am so thankful to Him for giving me such a kind friend that cares about us and loves us.  I am so grateful that she is with us!  When this is all over and done, you’ll have another new aunt; your sweet Aunt Chava!

Your Mama

My Precious Alter,

Last night, there was another trainload of women admitted to Ravensbruck.  We received many new prisoners into our already overcrowded barracks.  As I lay smashed between four other women, I was reminded of the crowded train ride to get here, just over four months ago.

The ride here was uncomfortable, to say the least. They packed us all so close together we could hardly breathe.  We were in there for hours and hours, there wasn’t room to move.  People tried to make space for me since I was so sick, I’m not sure if it was because they were disgusted by the vomit or they honestly wanted to help.  No matter the reason, I was thankful for them.  Isn’t it funny to know now that you were the reason I was getting so sick?  More later when I get more paper.

Love,

Mama

My Dearest Alter,

My heart today is full of despair.  Perhaps I shouldn’t even be writing to you today, in this state.  I am missing your Papa desperately.  I have no idea where he is being held or if I’ll ever get to see him.  I don’t know if he’s healthy and safe, or if he is being mistreated.  We are not allowed to write or receive letters.

I miss our home and our friends.  I miss my warm, cozy bed, curled up in your Papa’s arms.  I miss feeling full and satisfied after a meal.  And I miss feeling safe.

We are made to get up at four o’clock in the morning and stand outside, sometimes for hours, until roll call is over.  Our legs become so stiff it hurts to move them afterwards, but of course, we have to move.  We have to work.

Roll call today took much longer than yesterday, and actually seems to be getting longer every day.  We are not allowed to get out of line or even move.

It’s clear to me now that the guards hate us, even though we have not done anything to them.  They will beat us if we step out of line.  They treat us like we are criminals and they seem to enjoy it, too.

There is this one guard who has eyes that are black as night and as lifeless as a doll’s eyes.  I’ve seen her smile when someone gets hit.  She laughs when someone cries because their legs hurt.  And I’ve seen her become angry because someone said they missed home.

I miss home, Alter.  I miss the warmth of our home, I miss seeing my mother’s smile when I go home for a visit, I miss your papa’s hugs when I get worried, I miss my brother’s laugh, and I miss just walking into a room and feeling loved.  All of these things make a house a home, and people a family.

Will I ever have any of these things again?  Will you?

Love,

Mama

Sweet Alter,

I’m worried about my friend, Chava.  She is getting thinner all the time.  I pray she stays healthy.  She is the only friend I have here and I want her to stay safe.  I would be so lonely and completely lost without her here.

I’ve been telling her that I don’t want the extra food she gets. I think she needs it more than we do, but she assures me she is getting enough to eat and says she has just been suffering from a stomach virus.  She is so persistent when she brings me food; always making me promise to eat it.

Love,

Mama

My Dearest Alter,

Even though the rest of my body continues to get thinner, I’ve noticed my belly is becoming rounder and harder.  For now, I can continue to hide it under this disgustingly filthy uniform, but I fear you will soon be noticed by other people.  And then what do we do?  We continue to hope, I guess.

Your Mama

My Darling Alter,

I have a confession.  I am ashamed to say that in those first few days after realizing my suspicions about your arrival were correct, I wondered if I should ask God to take you away.   Your Papa and I had spent our last six months together hoping to hear we were expecting.  We prayed and asked God to send you to us and then when He did, it was under the worst possible circumstances.  I was so scared when I understood what was happening; that you were on the way.

I realize that I could simply choose never to tell you these things, but I want you to know the whole truth, so you will always know how very much I love you.   I would do anything to keep you safe and give you life.

Love,

Mama

My Dear Alter,

I heard terrible news today.  Since Chava works in the office, she often overhears the German women talking.  They sometimes share gossip from other camps, including news of the male prisoners.  Today, Chava heard them talking about sixty male prisoners who were caught trying to escape and shot on the spot.

I hope your Papa is smarter than that.  I pray he doesn’t try to escape, wherever he is.  I pray for his safety every day.  I don’t know where we would go when this is all over if he doesn’t make it out with us.  We would have a place to live but it wouldn’t be a home anymore.  Our little family wouldn’t be complete without him.

Love,

Mama

Darling Alter,

Today, you kicked me!   I was overjoyed!  My first proof that you are alive and well.  Your very first kick, for me to enjoy.  I’m so happy!  You seem very strong, my sweet, little boy!  I hope that means you will be born healthy.  When I told Chava, she was excited beyond words.  I only wish your Papa was here to celebrate with us.   Thank you for renewing my hope!

I’m afraid I acted foolishly, though.  Since I was so excited, I grabbed my stomach when I felt you kick me without even thinking.  I hope no one noticed.  That could make trouble for you and me.

Love,

Mama

Dearest Alter,

That sadistic guard is so horrid to me and all the other women.  When I got here six months ago, I believed I’d eventually see some evidence of kindness in her, but I know now that there isn’t any.

Today in roll call, a woman fell over because she could not stand another minute.  The guard ordered her to be beaten and her screams will haunt me for the rest of my life.

She didn’t last long; she died shortly after the beating began.  She was already sick; something wrong with her lungs.  She had trouble breathing.  And I believe the guard knew that.   This terrible guard didn’t even have the decency to remove the body.  We went back out to get her.  They would have just left her there indefinitely, reminding us of what will come for us.

There are so many other things that happen here that I usually try not to write about.  I want to shield you as much as possible from the horrors I’ve seen in this place.

I’ve learned that when people are treated like animals, they begin acting like animals.  There is no respect for life here.  I now think it’s important to tell you some of these things so that, if we make it out of here alive, you will know what you survived.

My dear Alter, my hope is fading fast.  I still pray that God will save us all but I don’t know how long we can stay alive in these conditions.

Your Mama

My Dearest Alter,

I feel like we’re being watched.  That terrible guard with the black, dead eyes seems to be looking at me suspiciously.  I hope I have been careful enough to keep you hidden, but it’s getting more difficult.  My clothes are still baggy enough to cover you, but sometimes as I bend and move, I catch the guard staring at me.

I want nothing more than to keep you safe.  I promise you I will do whatever it takes to give you a happy, good life.  I desperately want that for you, my Alter, you deserve it.

Love,

Mama

Darling Alter,

My worst fears have been confirmed, my sweet little one.  Your Papa was one of the sixty men shot for trying to escape.

That he died without even knowing about you is almost more than I can bear.  He would have been so happy about you and loved you more than any father has ever loved a son.  My heart is broken.

I already miss him more than words can describe.  I don’t know what I will do, Alter.  I don’t want to believe he’s really gone.   I can’t believe you will be raised without your Papa.  That you will not hear his voice, or his deep chuckle, that you will never be able to see him smile or hear the words “I love you” pass through his lips.  I will never be able to love another man as much as I love your father.

In Sorrow,

Mama

Dearest Alter,

The guard with the cruel, black eyes came to get me today.  I was terrified.  She looked at me like she was sending me to the slaughter and she was enjoying it.  She said the Chief Oberaufseherin wanted to see me with a wicked smile on her face.

All I could think of was the day you first kicked me, when I grabbed my stomach and giggled.  I was so overcome with joy that I wasn’t thinking about who may have seen.  I was afraid afterward that someone saw us and when she came for me, I was certain that was the reason why.

The guard brought me into the Chief Oberaufseherin’s office.   Everything was so clean I was afraid even to stand in the room, since I’m so dirty.  I wasn’t meant to be here.  I don’t even know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a woman with clean hair and lipstick.

The Chief Oberaufseherin was seated behind a long desk, filling out forms of some sort.  When she looked up at us, she waved at the guard to leave us.  Then she motioned for me to sit.  I hesitated, I felt like the floor would be a better place for me, but I didn’t want to appear rude or disobedient, so I sat upon the padded chair, hoping the layer of grime I left behind wouldn’t be too noticeable.

She looked up at me and I immediately saw a kindness in her eyes that I have not seen on a German face the entire time I’ve been in Ravensbruck.  She told me her name was Braulio, which shocked me.  Germans are not interested in being on a first name basis with Jews.  Even so, I gave her my name.  She looked at me for several seconds, not saying anything.  I felt ashamed over my appearance so I looked at the ground.

Finally, she spoke. “It’s my job to watch all the women here, but you especially have caught my eye.  Are you well?” I gave the quickest nod possible, too afraid to speak.  She said, “If you would be willing to trust me, I believe I can help you.  After watching you, I believe you might be keeping a secret.”

Alter!  I was terrified!  But her face was so kind.  The tears filling my eyes gave my answer away, but again, I was too scared to say anything.

She said, “I believe you may need medical attention and I’d like to ask my personal doctor to examine you and make sure you are healthy.  Is that alright?”

Obviously, she knows about us, Alter.  I didn’t know how to respond and I assumed I didn’t have a real choice anyway, so I just nodded again.  She told me she’d make the arrangements with her doctor and I am not to talk about this with anyone.

I don’t know what this means or what’s going to happen, but her voice was so kind and gentle.  I think she may honestly want to help us, little one.   I think we may have found a German we can trust.

In Hope,

Mama

Dearest Alter,

It was only three days later when the Chief Oberaufseherin, Braulio, called me back into her office.  The awful black-eyed guard came to get me again and there was a man seated in her office when we got there.  Her doctor is a short, overweight man, but he looks nice.  He smiles at me.  He examined me from head to toe, and even took a measurement of my bulging belly.  The Chief Oberaufseherin remained in the room the entire time, so any doubt about her knowing before is gone know.  She knows.  She saw you with her own eyes.   He makes quite a few notes and when he’s finished he says that I need more food and water if I am to survive, but I am otherwise fairly healthy, all things considered.  I do not have any serious illnesses.

My dear Alter, you have no idea how happy those words made me.  I believe I will be able to deliver you without any complications.

After the doctor left, Braulio walked to her door to call the guard in.  I found the courage to speak up and I asked her, “Why would you be willing to help me?”

She stared at me for the longest time and I was thinking I shouldn’t have said anything.  But then she said, “Maybe you and I can help each other.”

Alter, I have no idea what that means.

She called the guard to come back in and escort me back to the barracks.  As we were walking away, she told the guard, “This prisoner is clearly not getting enough to eat.  Make sure her rations are increased.”

All I can think is that all these months of hard work and efforts to prove that I am not a criminal are finally paying off.  We have finally found a reasonable human being in this place, Alter!  Could it be that my prayers are going to be answered?

Love,

Mama

Dear Alter,

Chava died today.  And I feel dead, too.  One of the women in my bunk works in the infirmary and said Chava was brought in today, severely malnourished.  Alter, I’m thinking of all the times I accepted food from her even when I could see she was getting ill.  I believed her every time she said she was getting extra portions.  My friend died to keep us alive and it’s all my fault!  I feel so terribly selfish.  I am more determined than ever to keep you safe.  Otherwise, Chava will have died for nothing.

Your Mama

Dearest Alter,

The Evil Guard was back again today for another trip to Braulio’s office.  It had been long enough since the last visit, that I wondered if she changed her mind about helping us, but today, I found out what she is planning to do.  Braulio confided today that, as someone who has always wanted a child of her own, she feels great compassion for us.  She has proposed an adoption, of sorts, and a plan to help keep our secret from the other authorities in the camp.  She will ensure you are delivered safely, and she says she will personally care for you until the day that I am released and can raise you myself!  She says she may even be able to arrange for an earlier release for me or a transfer to a better camp, with more civilized living conditions.

My heart is both full of hope and very heavy, all at the same time. I do not wish to hand you to someone else or be without you, even for a moment, but this is the best chance we have for you to be born healthy and have a life.  And I will still get to raise you, my sweet boy, as soon as my time here is over!

I am your mama; I know that I already love you more than the air I breathe and I know that even though I haven’t gotten to see your face, or hear your voice, or see you smile, I am already so proud of you.

You have made me not just happy but joyful.  You are the light of my world and I would do anything to make you safe, even if that means I will miss out on the first few months of your precious life.  I love you and want the best for you, Alter.

Love,

Mama

My Dearest Alter,

Braulio and I have discussed it several times and I fully trust that she is working on our behalf.  She is currently trying to have me transferred to a better camp right after your birth.   Braulio says that a new camp is opening soon with conditions that are more humane and less harsh and she thinks she can arrange for me to go.

She has agreed to hold on to these letters for me, until you are old enough that I can give them to you myself.   Your birth is just a few more days away.  I can hardly wait, my baby boy.  I love you with all my heart.

Love,

Mama

My Dearest Alter,

This is the last letter I will get to write until the day I hold you in my arms.  My labor has started and I sit here with Braulio, waiting for your arrival.   I’m not sure how she managed to work it all out, but she did!  She said it’s safer for both of us if I don’t know all the details.  Officially, I’ve been transferred out of Ravensbruck and am able to give birth to you with Braulio’s doctor.  Then I will be moved to a new camp that is supposed to be so much better than this one.  I am getting so excited! I will miss you but I know I will see you soon and then everything we’ve been through will be worth it!  The camp is called Auschwitz!

With all my love,

Your Mama

 

Epilogue

A German woman sits in front of a warm fire and rocks her newborn daughter Antonie until she hears the sound of her baby’s sweet, gentle snores.  The woman stops rocking and carefully places her sleeping daughter in the cradle, saying, “You’ll never know what I did or how long I’ve waited to make you mine.  You’ll only know how much your Mama loves you.”

She picks up the stack of letters she had been reading and tosses them into the fire.  She sits on the bed, watching as the pages turn black, falling to pieces; along with all the precious memories and secrets they contained.  Never to be looked at again.

The World Holocaust Remembrance Center http://www.yadvashem.org/ 

Jewish Gen http://www.jewishgen.org/ForgottenCamps/Camps/RavensbruckEng.html

The good news: The Yad Vashem website had recently undergone a major upgrade!
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