The shaven-headed Irena Markowicz walked unsteadily through the streets of Lodz. Her badly blistered feet and her emaciated form contradicted her long, harrowing journey from Auschwitz, some one hundred and thirty seven miles away. The seventeen-year-old girl had survived by begging for food. Her Russian liberators, after raping her, either through guilt or because they were actually charitable, had provided her with a little bread and cheese, before they ordered her to leave the camp and make her own way home.
The tears that streamed down Irena’s face were not for her herself, but for her family and friends who she had lost in Auschwitz. The pain, the hunger pangs and the horror she had witnessed, she had become immune to. Irena had prematurely aged, suffered from constant headaches, and found sleep difficult to come by; chiefly because she acknowledged slumber would bring with it the recurring nightmares.
She ignored the heartless and cruel Polish people, who sneered and spit at her. How could they? How could they know just what she had endured?
Irena was unable to eliminate the horrific visions from her mind. She recalled lying awake at night, listening to the high-pitched screams of children, only to be told later by a Kapo that children under the age of eight were being burnt alive to save money on Zyklon-B.
She involuntarily remembered the Nazi in the white tunic and death’s heads peak cap, standing on his platform and ordering the Jews to the left and the right. Josef Mengele ordered her parents to the right, leaving Irena and her six-year-old twin brothers, Leo and Solomon isolated. Little did she know at that time that her parents were selected for the gas chambers.
Mengele’s eyes searched the ranks, until they settled on little Leo and Solomon. He pointed to them and one of the Kapos moved in, ordering them to join the contingent of other twins, dwarfs and gypsies.
Irena protested, declaring to the Kapo she was their sister.
“Pretty one, your brothers have been selected and will receive preferential treatment, including double rations.”
“No! Where will you take them?”
“To the privileged compound… It is best you do not challenge the good doctor’s decision.”
As the twins were led away, Irena broke ranks and scurried after her brothers. A tall Nazi, who carried a riding crop, hurried towards the weeping girl and proceeded to brutally thrash her. He then removed his Luger from his holster and pointed it at the distressed girl.
“No!” ordered Mengele, who was later to be known as the Angel of Death. “She seems very healthy and will no doubt be an asset to us… Jewess, do not fret. The boys are to help me conduct a series of tests and will be well treated… Now return to your place, or I will order you to be shot.”
Irena continued her lethargic journey towards her home, the dark clouds reminiscent of her mood, and the cool raindrops tickling her gaunt face. One young boy skipped in front of her and drew a finger across his throat. Others pelted her with rotten fruit and vegetables.
Her home was now in sight and she staggered towards it, noticing movement within. She rapped at the door and was confronted by a stern-faced, middle-aged man, whose breath reeked of garlic.
“Yes.” He regarded her as though she was something stuck to the sole of his shoes.
“I am Irena Markowicz and this is my home.”
The sneering Ukranian pointed his finger in her face. “You have no home, Jewess. Nobody expected you to return… Why did you return?”
“I don’t understand. This is my home. You cannot…”
The door was slammed in her face. Next door, she noticed Ruta Kalinowski peering from behind her drapes. Irena approached the house and rapped on the door. For ten minutes she repeated the process, ignoring the driving rain.
Ruta, an elderly woman eventually opened the door and faced her skeletal neighbour. “Irena? Is that you, Irena?” Ruta appeared nervous, and looked past Irena at the prying and aggressive observers.
“Yes… Ruta, what’s happened? There is someone living in my home.”
“Yes, a lot has happened since you went away. Nobody expected you to return… Don’t you see? The Russians and the Ukranians have possessed the houses of the Jews… Where are you parents and your brothers?”
“Dead. My parents were sent to the gas ovens, and my brothers, I learnt they were experimented on and later died… I have rights, Ruta. Will you help me?”
The old woman, obviously ashamed, refused to make eye contact. “Jews no longer have any rights, Irena. Many things have changed since you went away to the ghetto.”
Irena scowled. “The ghetto and then Auschwitz... Why? Why didn’t our people help us? How could they allow this to happen?”
“Your people? You mean the Jews?”
“I mean the Polish people. Will you help me, Ruta?”
“You have family in Ludz?”
“No. They are all dead… Please, Ruta.”
“Wait here, child.”
Irena heard argument voices from within the house. Moments later, Ruta returned, laden with a small tin. “Here you are. This will help you on your way.”
Irena removed the lid of the tin to view a chunk of black bread, a piece of sausage, and a meagre amount of cheese.
“I’m sorry,” said Ruta. "You now have your freedom, and for that, you should be grateful.”
Irena could not help but smile, and showed off her rotten and black teeth. “Freedom? What is freedom? You see, Ruta, that word does not exist in my vocabulary… The Russians, when they liberated us, they raped me and told me I was now free. I will never be free of the haunting nightmares and memories of the horror I witnessed in Auschwitz… God forgive you, Ruta Kalinowski.”
The door was closed in her face. Irena went on her way, ignoring the lewd remarks. She walked on, and a trillion visions of horror invaded her delicate mind. Where she was heading, she did not know. Perhaps freedom did exist, and that would be her elusive and ultimate destination.