An officer shoves me to the edge of the pit.
“Kneel!” he screams.
My knee sinks into the mud at the brink,
and I look in and see death,
twisted and tangled in bare heaps of limbs,
contorted unnaturally on the faces of children,
their eyes as wide and scared and lifeless
as those of the bigger bodies around them.
They were shot in lines that moved forward as one,
sometimes holding hands as the soldiers
took aim and fired.
There is no line for me because
there is no one left to shoot.
Entire families gone.
Entire swaths of the city erased,
the ghettos as empty as their vacant eyes.
And I am the last one.
The last Jew in Vinnitsa.
I lock eyes with a face below me.
We have much in common:
both brown-haired, both Jews, both dead.
I feel a barrel press against my skull.
“Wait, you dummkopf, you’ll get his filthy brains
all over you if you shoot him like that.
Step back, and wait for the picture:
this is the last one, after all.”
I stare at the blurring face while
the photographer makes a few adjustments.
A breeze plays gently with my hair.
“Look up, Schwein!”
I wonder who will see this picture.
I inhale deeply and raise my eyes.
A flash of light—
I wonder who the mason was;
I wonder why he labored—
and if he worked alone,
rolling wheelbarrow-loads of brick and mortar,
making tracks other wheelbarrows would follow later,
laden with bodies instead of bricks.
Was he the same Polish peasant
who was evicted in March of 1942?
I suppose if he hadn’t built the house
they would have used another—
they used another anyway—
but would he have continued
eating meals on the half-finished walls,
discarding wax paper where a mass grave would lay,
and singing as he worked,
mixing mortar and laying bricks and building walls—
would he have continued if he had known
how many would would die trapped inside them,
how many children would breathe their last
little breaths of noxious air
while their parents yelled and clawed
their fingers off on the walls, frantic,
begging down the little red house
that what he was building up?
Zyklon B—To kill
pests found in The Reich, such as:
insects, lice, and Jews.
It’s the last of her prized possessions:
a plate her grandmother gave to her as a wedding gift.
Her water-wrinkled fingers trace the red lacework around the edges.
She almost smiles.
A staccato of shots rings out through the brick corridors of houses
and in through the kitchen window.
Her hands freeze mid-scrub.
There is screaming in the streets.
Black coats and gold stars rush from the sound of death.
“What’s happening?” she yells to a friend.
“We’re to report to the square immediately for relocation—to Auschwitz!
Tosha… I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but
they’ve killed the council of elders.”
The words break over her like a crushing wave
of frigid water, pounding the air from her lungs.
She doesn’t see the friend go.
“Persis,” she whispers,
the hair on the back of her neck standing up.
Only when the runner makes the announcement to her neighbor does Tosha begin to shake.
“They’re sending all of us to Auschwitz!”
Her skin is cold with sweat.
Out of habit she scrubs the dish
and rinses it with tears.
They had hoped it would never come to this;
that’s why they’d agreed to take the children.
They had a better chance here
under the protection of her husband in the council.
Now, the council had been liquidated,
and the rest of the ghetto was next in line.
A picture seized her mind.
A great black oven with red hatch eyes mocks her,
and a glowing, grated grin opens,
the tongue extending and rolling the children—
God, her children!—
into the flames.
She tries to put the plate away,
but then the oven chews them with its fiery teeth,
and the screams…
The plate shatters onto the floor.
The game in the other room ends abruptly;
little feet patter on hard wood;
little eyes find her kneeling on the broken fragments.
“An Tosha, you’we bweeding!”
Yes, they had hoped this day would never come,
but they had planned for it nonetheless.
Her fingers clutch the vial hung around her neck.
“Awe you otay, Antie?”
She doesn’t want to frighten them,
but she won’t let the monsters eat her children—
no matter what.
She looks at each of them,
Auntie just needs to take her medicine.
Would you like to try some?”
“Can we hab shugaw wif it?”
She blinks back the tears and forces a sad smile.
“Of course, darlings.”
They each take their teaspoon,
and the Gestapo find their bodies the next day.
You must keep your reasons for doing it
in the forefront of your mind at all times.
There may be things you like about your victims,
things your mind will tell you to try and stop you;
there may be consequences you’d rather not deal with—
mourning families, a guilty conscience,
a sleepless night or two,
that sort of thing—
but when the moment comes to kill
the time for such considerations is past.
The death will have pros and cons,
which is why it’s always a sacrifice.
You make a compromise with the universe
when you decide to take a life:
“I’m willing to give up this person’s good traits
to get rid of their bad ones.”
So you tell yourself whatever you need to;
you do what you have to, and,
depending on how well you’ve convinced yourself,
the universe may hold you to a debt of guilt.
You may wish there was another way,
but you can’t just kill a part of someone—
you cannot choose which portions to get rid of—
you have to kill all of them,
the whole body, you understand?
You cannot kill the Jewish in someone and keep the body.
And the Jews were all one body.
There were good people,
men, women, children, even infants…
you had to kill all of them.
They were sacrifices for the future of Deutschland,
a burnt offering made to the god of the Reich.
We didn’t hate the human part of them,
just the Jewish part, and
we hated it enough—
we knew the reasons well enough—
that we were willing to sacrifice the humans
to be forever rid of the Jew.