I was thirteen when I started to think my mother didn’t love me. My memory of that day begins with her hands tightening around me and my sister’s arms and the coldness of the metal in her watch brushing against my skin. We walked with the assembly line of women, quietly shifting as to not upset the officers. Natzi. That was the first time I heard that word. I clearly remember the touching, and the pushing, and the shoving into lines, the details in between dissolving into the black and white portrait of the Godless sky. Girls went right, boys left. It was the hauntingly cordial obedience that left the first pangs of fear in my being.
The officers incessantly prodded the women in line with the but ends of their weapons, forcibly chaffing the bare section of my thigh. I felt invaded and ashamed. I descended into an abyss of blurred memories and lost grit.
As we waited, I remember my sister skipped over to me, her tiny feet imprinting on the frigid dirt. Her clean, untouched skin seemed to glow amidst the fog seeping into the rest of the women’s skeletons. I knew she wanted to play with my new pencils that I had received for my thirteenth birthday, but I couldn’t let her. Not here. She tugged at my worn suitcase with those wide, brown eyes that held everything good in this world.
Even now, 40 years later, I can see that paradoxical portrait. I would do anything to salvage that suitcase and pull out those unused pencils and let her draw one of those pictures with the sun smiling in the corner of the page as its sets over a valley carpeted with flowers. She would have been an artist one day.
Per officer’s orders, the crowd of women diverged into two lines: those who could work to the left, and those who couldn’t to the right. My family, along with elter vomen and kinder were directed to the right; I supposed I was too young to work and, in truth, didn’t mind being exempted from labour. How naive was I.
We assumed our place in line, awaiting our uncharted futures. Panic began to cling to my chest as I heard the unforgettable sounds of gun shots followed by the horrors of unbridled cries confined in the tense wind. The officers barked commands at us, spraying spit and hatred in all our faces. My mother sank the pads of her fingers into the side of my arm and pulled me close to her chest. That was the last time I felt safe for a while.
Next, I remember my mother’s hands quivering, her body tensing up as if she was trapped in a casket of fear. She expeditiously pushed her suitcase into my hands and began to put my hair into an updo that I only wore when going to synagogue. She then began to tighten the straps of my dress, allowing the material to hug my frame and clasped her cool metal watch around my wrist. I looked up at her, shocked that she had given me her most prized possession. She told me to keep it close. I nodded and told her I would.
Before I could ask why she was changing my appearance, my mother firmly stated, “Go to the other line. Say you are eighteen.” Before I could protest, she continued, “You can’t stay with us. Go. Go now!” she scolded. Her fists were clenched and tears forcefully streamed down her face. She looked detached and harsh, expressions I had never seen on her face before. My ears were ringing and I couldn’t seem to move my feet. Why did my mother want to leave me? Why didn’t she love me? A sob lodged itself in my throat and the chill of emerging tears echoed throughout my body. But I couldn’t cry.
My feet unconsciously moved, starting to walk to the other line. I slowly backed away from my family and caught a last glimpse of my mother’s face that was streaked with anguish; her eyes were sunken, and had a stare filled with an unbounded vacancy. Those dividing lines broke my family apart.
The inspectors grabbed onto my suitcase, bungling through the remains of my former life; but everything became meaningless after watching my mother so easily isolate me. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t she love me?
The domineering officer glared at me with disgust as he encroached my pencils and paper, leaving nothing untouched or overlooked. I glanced over to the right and saw my mother and sister with an inspector, taking off their shoes and being stripped of their suitcases. I wondered if I was ever going to see them again.
I instinctively slipped off the watch and gripped tightly it in my palm. I would not let them to take this away from me. I felt aggressively cruel and calloused hands pushing me forward and it suddenly sunk in that I was being pushed away. I was being separated from everything I knew and loved. “No!” I fiercely sobbed. “You can’t take this, don’t take me away. Please.” I pleaded with my whole body releasing all of the anguish I had held in. “You can’t! You just can’t!” But they did.
Even after liberation I felt such resentment towards my mother. It took me years for me to realize that my mother made the connection between working and surviving and that meant letting me go. I still have that same watch my mother gave me till this day and I am always reminded that my mother gave me life, she gave me more time.
However at the time, I could only see that I was being pushed into a world where I thought mother didn’t love me and everyone was a stranger.