My maternal grandmother was a gifted storyteller. Born in a time when educating girls was not a priority, she was barely literate and exceptionally intelligent.
One evening, when I was nine or ten years old, she was telling us children about the family’s flight from war-torn Yugoslavia during World War II. She told us how she, my then eleven-year-old mother and newborn aunt, had to evacuate on the trains. She spoke with great feeling about how they had to get out of the trains and hide in the fields whenever they heard aircraft overhead. She talked about the fear and desolation at the various camps they traveled through…and then the profound terror when they were told to leave the train at one of them.
The group they were traveling in were ordered to a barracks, where they were instructed to leave their belongings, strip naked – women, children, men all in one large room – given bars of soap and filed into a communal shower to de-louse. My grandmother described how some people began crying and wailing when they entered the shower, having noticed that the soap was in fact stone, that the shower heads were fake and there were no drains in the floor. Some began shouting and pounding on the doors, begging for help. After what seemed like an eternity, the doors were flung open and the people were ordered out and instructed to dress and claim their belongings.
Yes, my family saw the inside of the infamous Nazi gas chambers.
At this point in the story, with all us children hanging on her every word, and the adults in the room who’d experienced these horrors nodding sadly, she would express gratitude for the soldier who’d realized that they had sent the wrong group of people into the chambers because they were not Jews.
I wondered then, as I wonder still, Why is there a “right” group of people?
I’m well aware of how fear and intimidation look and feel. I will not be silenced.