It has been snowing incessantly throughout the long winter day. Snow lies in thick layers on the narrow trail leading away from the village. In the distance, over the snow-washed plains, smiles the little wicket-gate, as just another flake of snow. As the mellow sun sets in the distance, its last ray rests on it. Along the trail, I walk towards it in the fading twilight. A strange shadow descends upon the land. 

Peering into the darkness, I feel my heart skip a beat. Amidst the scattered tombstones, there’s the silhouette of a man. Who can he be? The villagers never come this way. 

Walking up to the stranger, I try to observe him, but the shadows have engulfed his features.

“Sir, are you new to this place?” I ask him. 

Startled, he replies, “Yes. I’ve come on a project.We’re to build a holiday resort here.”

“Here? Why, even the villagers wouldn’t live here for anything!”

I can almost feel the smirk on his face, through his sarcastic tone.

“They call it ‘the cemetery’, after all. Don’t worry. We townsfolk will surely come down for a breath of the fresh country air.”

“But, what about those who live here, Sir?”

“Pardon, Ma’am. Who lives here?”

His mocking laughter shatters the uncanny silence.

“What about the dead buried here?” I insist.

“What about the living, then? The cemetery has been unused for about a century now.”

I can’t suppress a mournful sigh. The tragic tale, passed on from generation to generation in the village, returns to me.

“But, have you ever seen a cemetery with merry-go-rounds, Sir?”

Indeed, amidst the forgotten, half-erased epitaphs, linger the merry-go-rounds. No childish laughter has echoed from them for decades – in a silent ocean of death, they stand decaying – the mute spectators of a gruesome past.

“That left me wondering, I must admit,” he remarks.

“This used to be a children’s park, once upon a time. During the War, it was turned into a mass-grave,” I answer.

A long, uncomfortable silence ensues.

“But, who put up the tombstones, then?”

A nostalgic smile creeps into my face. This is what they had said, back then. Armed with little traces of doubt, they had been hiding from the hideous truth – “It can’t be that bad,” they had said.

“The villagers put them up in memory of the departed, Sir. But, this is no ordinary cemetery. The dead are scattered all over this place. There may be one, right below your feet.”

He shudders.

“Don’t be afraid,” I assure him, “Let’s sit on that bench.”

The pale, wan moon peeps out from beyond the deathly pall. I steal a glance at my unknown companion. He appears to be just past the threshold of youth.

“What’s your name, Sir?”

“Neville Goering. Yours?”

“Eliza Frank. Nice to meet you.”

I seem to have heard his name before. But , where?

Dragging our feet along through the layers of snow, we proceed to the bench. Not used to life, it creaks under our weight. 

As I prepare to narrate the story of this silent land, my mind races back to the dark era when the swastika invaded Poland.  Words from another age echo throughout the cold, winter night. Mr.Neville must be tired, for I find him nodding off. Soon enough, he’s in a deep stupor.

*************

Poland, 1939

A thunderous sound reverberates across the Polish village of Lodzing. With bayonets grinning in the morning sun, the German vehicles roar along the narrow village street, their ruthless swastikas fluttering freely in the wind.  Amidst the men-in-uniform waving in jubilation at a terrified crowd, I find myself. 

Lodzing has a significant Jewish population. It’s evident from the fear inscribed on the faces – men, women, children. Grim stories from across the borders of Nazi Germany have trickled into their ears. I feel the thrill of a cat in the wild about to pounce on its prey.

Our roaring vehicles wind along the narrow lanes to the village-centre. The Rabbi’s house stands, with its serene, welcoming smile. The crowd has grown thicker at this spot, outside the gate. A hushed, expectant silence prevails. 

In the sea of pale, frightened faces, I find her – the stranger in the cemetery. She looks up for a moment and our eyes meet. There’s no trace of fear or recognition in her hazel eyes. Just a childish curiosity mingled with condescension and disdain. An old lady sits with her, working on the intricacies of an embroidery, oblivious to our presence. We leave the silent crowd behind and move out into the open countryside, yet her proud eyes never leave me.

 No longer am I the cat after its prey. I’m the prey – the rat struggling in vain to free itself from the rattrap. Within, I feel my pride being submerged in the infectious terror of the crowd. For, my hands and feet aren’t mine anymore.  I can’t retrace my path. Just walking along in pre-destined steps, here I am, in my Nazi uniform – Officer Neville Goering – a mere spectator in my own life. How I wish she’s one of us, despite her dark hair, despite her non-Aryan eyes! How I wish I were back in the silent cemetery with her, away from this din!

The image blurs. A deep, peaceful silence descends upon my life.

 Gently, inconspicuously, light trickles back. Another scene unfolds. 

I’m back in the village once more, marching along the deserted streets. Not a soul is in sight.  Smashing open the doors to drag out the yellow-starred ones, we find deserted homes. My companions are enraged. They start forcing their way into “Aryan” homes too, only to find terrified women and children. Where have their neighbours gone? They have no idea. Where are their men? They don’t know. Never did. 

We look for secret compartments, check the basements but the crowds that had tumbled out of these very places before, seem to have vanished into thin air. 

Finally, as the morning sun proceeds towards mid-sky, we make our way to the village-centre. As we approach the Rabbi’s house, the lingering music of the violin seems to reach us. Who could be playing the fiddle today? 

The Rabbi’s residence smiles gently upon the river beyond. The small garden has blossomed into a riot of colours. Neat flowerbeds lend a magical fragrance to the place.  But, our heavy boots trample on the flowers. We bang our fists on the door. No response. 

Suddenly , out of the blue, people come piling out , from the bushes , the flowerbeds , from within, from without  . The village – the Aryans, the non- Aryans – has dressed up in its yellow star. Now, they stand in intimidating crowds around the Rabbi’s house, flashing their Christian crosses to ward off the evil.  From the heart of the house, a sweet voice rises in the air to the music of the violin – “Mazurek Dabrowskiego (Poland is Not yet Lost).” Are they armed? We do not know. But, our regiments will be flocking over to this village soon enough. 

Gunshots ring out in the air. Men fall. The suffocating odour of gunpowder mingles with the spring sunshine. Regiments flock to the little village – their heavy vehicles seething along the narrow tracks. 

In stealthy steps, I creep away from my men. I know that voice singing in the face of death. It’s hers. There must be some way in. Through the fire and the smoke, I crawl along to the backyard. It catches my sight – the slightly open skylight. The hypnotic music seems to be floating down from there. I’m faced by an incredible urge to see her once again. 

Laying my weapons down, I squeeze my way in through the narrow skylight. 

 

The room is drowned in peaceful shadows. Just a stray beam of sunlight rests on the long rows of cots, on the foreheads of the babies lying asleep in them. Squinting through the darkness, I find the old lady in a corner, still working on the embroidery, with her daughter, Eliza at her side. My presence does not affect them. Only, Eliza lays her violin down. The acrid smell of death from downstairs seems to creep into the room, along with me.

“You won’t find anyone here,Sir,” she says. 

“Find whom?” 

“ Whom you’re searching for. Most of them are gone . Only the newborns are left behind , for they wouldn’t survive the journey , anyway .”

“Why are you saying all this to a Nazi officer? Aren’t you afraid of death?”

“I’m the daughter of the Rabbi you deported last month. He, I’m sure, is dead. This,” she adds, pointing to the old lady, “is my mother who doesn’t even recognize me anymore.  She goes on knitting and undoing the same old patterns in the embroidery, for, she feels, the moment it’s finished, life will end. What more can happen?”

I’m the one appointed to kill her, to erase her race from the face of the earth. Yet, I know, I can’t…..not anymore .

“I can help you escape.”

“You can’t. You’re a Nazi officer, after all. Your existence is only as long as you kill. Otherwise, they‘ll throw you in with our lot. We’ve saved most of the Jews of our village. Do you think, we couldn’t have fled ourselves?”

“Why didn’t you, then?”

“In death, there’s peace but in life, guilt, for we could never save too many.”

Time’s running out. They’ll come up anytime now. 

“You’re different from the other Jews. Maybe, they should spare you.”

“If you were to speak to each one of us, to find that we’re ordinary humans, you’d have to kill yourself, Sir,” she replies with a long, painful sigh. 

A crash from downstairs reaches us. They have broken into the hallway. Their heavy boots can be heard rushing up the stairs.

A sudden wail escapes the old lady. The needle has dropped from her trembling fingers and she can’t find it anymore. All attempts to pacify the old mother go unheeded. One by one, the babies wake up and join in, giving rise to a melancholy chorus. 

The door gives way. A gunshot numbs the wailing lady in a flash. 

The flame of hope in Eliza’s hazel eyes is extinguished, as she finds the blood flowing freely down her mother’s cheeks. A shower of bullets descends on the hitherto silent haven, on the cots of the innocent wailing babies. I feel my limbs tremble at the sight of the beasts we’ve turned into.

 Drawing Eliza away to a corner, I throw my arms gently round her to offer her some shelter from the storm of bullets. The moments trickle by, with her trembling fingers in mine, till the last of the babies has gone silent and the beasts have left the room. They haven’t noticed us in the shadows.

 I feel her begin to stir, to move towards the door, and slowly, we step down the stairs. 

The Jews from this village, from the neighbouring villages are supposed to be accumulated in the open countryside. Maybe, we can go along and escape into the forests beyond. Maybe, we can leave the country. But, first, we need to go out into the street. 

Dark clouds have covered the skies when we step out into the streets and join the scanty survivors making their way along the narrow trail leading away from the village. 

The other officers greet me with jolly smiles, “Meet you in the park, old-boy!” they say. I smile back, but now their smiles seem to expose blood-dripping fangs. 

In dazed eyes and faltering steps, she goes in through the wicket-gate, and rests on the bench…our bench. The Jewish people from far and wide have been dragged into that children’s park. In trembling hands, the pale emaciated creatures dig deeper into the soil. A sudden round of shots sends them sprawling into the graves they’ve dug for themselves.  Amidst the dead and the dying, Eliza sits silent, dazed, watching yet not noticing. 

Disruption breaks out. Eluding the officers, a group, desperate for life, makes for the gate. Only one makes it to the wicket-gate, and drops dead on a merry-go-round. This, I know, is the time. We have to walk out. I’ll tell them, I’m going to shoot her myself in the woods.  

Eliza looks at me. Has she read my mind? Her eyes seem tender with a tinge of gratitude, as her lips part into a feeble smile. I make my way through the throng of the dead, the dying and the beasts, when another round is fired. The officers break out in thunderous applause – “What a shot! And from such a great distance, too!” 

She lies on the bench – her tender eyes still caressed by a smile. Only a bullet fired from the other side of the park has pierced her heart, and her white muslin dress is now red. 

The screen goes dark, once again.

Whispers of the dark flow into my mind in her sweet, hypnotic voice. The village of Lodzing was the first to fall in Poland, but the last to yield to Nazi demands. They helped their Jews move away, hid them, nurtured them in secrecy and many of them laid down their lives to save their Jewish brothers. Once the long War ended, they all returned and were warmly welcomed back by the survivors. 

The Rabbi, contrary to his daughter’s intuitions, lived through the horrors of the concentration-camps, and returned to find his family gone. In tombstones and epitaphs, they remembered the departed. To respect the sanctity of the place, the villagers seldom come this way, except on Hanukkah and Christmas, when the silent land comes alive in solemn verses and lights.

The words fade away into oblivion. I find myself in a dimly-lit room now,  revolver in hand, with the nozzle pointed towards myself. Every moment I live, every breath of air I take in, brings back her haunting eyes. I press the trigger. Peaceful silence returns. 

Slowly, cautiously, I open my eyes. The silence of the cemetery greets me. I sigh a sigh of relief. 

 The sun is about to rise. A few stars are still scattered here and there across the paling skies. A profound peace seeks a place in my heart, but it’s short-lived. 

I raise myself up with a start. Where is she? Not a soul around in the shadowy cemetery or the snow-covered fields beyond. 

“Eliza!” I shout out her name aloud, but the mocking tombstones echo my own voice. Not a stir. 

With some effort, I prepare to walk back to the village. It is then that, on the layers of snow, leading up to the bench, I find only one set of footsteps – mine.

Could it all be a dream? Every fragment of my memory vouches for her existence, but the footsteps on the snow shatter it all in an instant. 

The night is disappearing fast. The first ray of the new-born sun smiles over the fields and rests on an epitaph – 

“In loving memory of 

Ms. Eliza Frank 

(1920 –1939)”

************************

What lies beyond the last step of life? No one knows. I didn’t, either, until I had left for the other world. We’ve spent centuries in this silent home – me, Eliza ; my mother and hundreds of others murdered on that fateful day. 

In the new-born morning light, I watch Neville gaze over the tombstone.  He retraces his footsteps back over the snow to the wicket-gate. Pausing for a moment, he looks back with a wistful sigh. 

I can read his thoughts. He’s thinking of the stories buried forever in anonymity in the craze to live amidst the clouds. He’s dreaming of the stories that could have been, of the strangers who might have known each other in another life, of the millions of unanswered “what if” s.

The wicket-gate opens. With a tearful smile, I watch him disappear into the new morning. The silent land wakes up to new life.

 

Glossary: Yellow-starred beings refers to the Jews in the Nazi regime; 

Note : In case it’s ambiguous,  italics represents the change in POV.

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Photo By: Eddie Howell

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This is an entry from team Scribe Tribe of ArttrA-3 – A Game of  Writers, co-sponsored by Diners Club International.

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading.

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