Ninety-year-old Jake Gaffen, a kind man with a face that disguised the challenges he’d faced in life, relaxed in his favorite chair as he quietly watched the activity going on around him. Several men sat at a large table playing dominoes. There was good-natured banter about cheating, but Jake was not exactly sure how you could cheat at that particular competition. Across the room, three women were knitting and talking about the men playing the game. In their estimation, several of them would be quite a catch. But one – not so much.
Sitting to Jake’s left was his friend Sadie. A short bundle of energy, with gray hair always in a bun, she was complaining to one of the staff that she was freezing because of the air conditioning. In August the AC was a necessity. The staff patiently listened to her describe, in graphic detail, the immediate onset of frostbite that she was certain she was going to be suffering. Jake chuckled. Sadie loved to complain.
Sitting in her wheelchair directly across from him was a new resident. He had spoken to her several times, but she either couldn’t respond or she chose not to. But in either case, Jake believed she should be acknowledged. She looked in his direction, and Jake smiled. She immediately put her head down, avoiding eye contact.
“Mr. Gaffen, are you chilly? Would you like a sweater?”
The sound of a friendly voice was comforting. Jake looked up at Michelle and smiled. “No thanks, I’m fine.” Michelle was his favorite nurse. She was gentle, thoughtful, and compassionate – and also overworked. But no matter how tired she was, she always did everything in her power to care for the residents. However, she was the only staff member in the facility who would not call him by his first name. She adamantly refused, saying it was a matter of respect. That made him feel good, but he still wished she would just call him Jake.
“What about me?!” Sadie called out. “Jake has long sleeves, I don’t.”
Michelle walked over to her. “Sadie, would you like a lap quilt?”
“Yes! But it’s probably too late. I can’t feel my fingers.”
Bert, a balding retired accountant, sitting on the other side of Jake, said, “I bet your fingers are working when it’s time to pick up that fork at dinner.”
Sadie huffed, “How dare you!” But secretly she was always glad when Bert paid attention to her.
Michelle sighed. “I’ll be right back with your quilt.”
Jake looked around the room again. This was now his home, and he felt at ease with these people. He had lived here for a little over six months, and he knew that, at his age, he would remain here to the end. And he was okay with that. He had led a life that was difficult to explain, so he didn’t try. It was enough that these people accepted him and that he, in turn, appreciated their friendship. As he sat here in the twilight of his life, he was at peace.
Sadie abruptly interrupted his thoughts. “Jake, how can you not be cold? Even with a long sleeve shirt, you should be freezing like me!”
Jake smiled, “I’m sorry Sadie. Sometimes I get warm or cold, but usually, it’s fine. I’m sure they pick what they believe is the right temperature for everyone.”
“Now right there is your problem. You’ve never learned how to complain. If you don’t complain, you don’t get results.”
Bert interjected. “Why should he complain? I think you do enough of that for all of us.”
Sadie turned to Bert. “I don’t care what you think! They don’t have the right to torture us.”
Jake shook his head. If living in this comfortable place with attentive staff was torture, he was more than willing to be a victim.
Michelle came around the corner carrying the quilt. She walked over and gently spread it out over Sadie’s lap. “There you go. I hope that helps.”
Bert looked at Michelle and said, “In five minutes she’ll be too hot!”
“Bert! Would you please stay out of my business?” Sadie resisted the temptation to start fanning herself. The quilt was quite thick.
Jake chuckled again and looked at his watch. Only an hour until dinner. He had just enough time to go to his room and take a short nap. He glanced at Bert and Sadie. “I will see you all at supper.”
Sadie could not resist the new target. “I wonder what they will try to poisonous us with tonight. You know they don’t always follow the pre-planned menu.”
As Jake headed down the hall to his room, the voices of his two friends faded as they argued over the evening meal.
Several hours later, after feasting on delicious roast beef, potatoes, carrots, a green salad and hot rolls, Jake was once again sitting contentedly in his favorite chair listening to Bert and Sadie go at it.
“All I’m saying is that the mystery meat was tougher than shoe leather, and the potatoes and carrots were bland with no taste.”
“How would you know?” Bert countered. “You ate so fast you didn’t have a chance to taste them.”
“They never season anything around this place!”
“Then why did you have a second helping?” Bert knew he had her. But before Sadie could retort, the new aide walked into the room. It was his first day, and everyone was keeping a close eye on him to see how he would do.
Jake watched as he went over and spoke to the woman in the wheelchair. He got no more response from her than Jake had earlier.
Sadie looked at Bert. “Must be shower time.”
Suddenly Jake had a worrying thought. He hoped the new aide had been told that he only took baths. There were to be no showers for him under any circumstances. It was a private matter, and none of the other residents were aware of his aversion to them. He thought for a second and relaxed. He was certain it was in his personal plan. The other nurses and aides all knew, so surely they had passed the information on.
At that moment, a teenager entered the common living area. Every head in the room turned to look at him. No one had seen him before, so they had no way of knowing that his name was Carson and that he was Michelle’s son. He was glued to his phone and didn’t look up. He made his way over to the chair next to Jake and flopped down. It was quite unusual to have someone visit the facility at this time of day. Jake noticed that Carson was attempting to grow a mustache without much success. He watched as the teenager’s thumbs flew over the keyboard typing out what was undoubtedly a very important message to someone who mattered.
The text read: stuck with old people. pathetic! giving mom a ride. hope she hurries.
As the new aide pushed the woman in the wheelchair out of the room, Sadie and Bert re-engaged in verbal combat.
Sadie, as always, went first. “We have the right to decent food. It’s not as if we can leave and go eat wherever we want. We’re stuck here. We’re at their mercy.”
Bert shot back, “I’d be thrilled if you would leave at mealtime, so the rest of us could eat in peace.”
“Is that so?! Then why do you always want to sit next to me at the table?” Slightly embarrassed by the fact that he was attracted to the person he argued with continually, Bert turned to Jake for help. “She’s impossible to reason with.”
Sadie declared, “Good, I win! Even Jake knows I’m right about the food.”
Drawn into their sparring, Jake tried to be as honest as he could. “Well, they have to be careful about seasoning the food because so many people are on restricted diets. Some of them can’t tolerate certain foods or spices, so I think they try to hit a happy medium.”
Sadie remained unconvinced. “Why should I have to suffer, just because someone else can’t enjoy food that actually has some flavor?”
Jake knew this was an argument he was going to lose, but he still wanted to defend the staff as best as he could. “Look at it this way, Sadie. We are blessed to be so well fed. We eat three good meals a day. We always have snacks and beverages available. I’ve never eaten so much in my life. Not everyone is so lucky.”
“Lucky?! No, no, no.” Sadie would not give up. “You’re missing the point. It’s not the quantity of the food – it’s the quality.”
Jake shrugged. “Sorry. I just don’t see it that way.”
Sadie could not contain her frustration. “I swear to God, Jake! You wouldn’t complain if your life depended on it.”
Jake quietly replied, “I don’t have anything to complain about.”
Listening to every word, Carson typed, crazy! old people bitching about food. get me out of here!
Jake said, “I think we are all very fortunate to be here. Maybe we should…” He stopped when the new aide re-entered the room. Sure enough, he walked straight over to Jake.
Very politely he said, “Sir, it’s time for your shower.”
Jake gently shook his head and in an almost inaudible voice said, “No, there’s a mistake. I only take baths. No showers.”
The aide tried a different approach. “Is there a problem? Something I can help you with?”
Jake could feel the usual tenseness. “There’s no problem. Where is Michelle? She can explain it.”
When he heard his mother’s name, Carson finally looked up from his phone.
“I’m sorry, sir, but she is helping another resident.”
Jake paused and took a breath. Again trying to be discreet, he spoke in barely a whisper. “I know you are new here, but all of the staff know that I don’t take showers.”
The new aide looked at his watch. He had a schedule he was trying to keep, and he wanted to make a good impression on his first day. “Sir if you are afraid of falling, I’m sure you know there are chairs in the showers so you can sit.”
Jake was starting to feel the slightest hint of frustration. “Do we have to talk about this out here? Please, just go get Michelle.”
Carson once again began to text. OMG! old man afraid to take shower!!
The well-meaning aide continued. “Is it the running water? Are you afraid of that?”
Now Sadie and Bert noticed the subject of the conversation and began to pay attention.
Jake was embarrassed, but he was standing firm. “I’m not afraid of anything regarding a shower – but I only take baths. Now please, just leave me alone.”
The new aide was not sure what he should do. He looked around but no other staff was in the area. “Sir, I think they would have told me if there was a special situation concerning your fear of showers.”
It only took a split second for Jake’s emotions to explode. “Damn it! I am not afraid to take a shower! Can’t you get that through your head! How many times do I have to tell you?” Jake’s breathing became short and rapid, and he could feel the familiar panic gripping him.
Carson typed, old man losing it! he’s insane.
Unfortunately, the aide’s emotion escalated in response. “Sir, I don’t know what your problem is, but I have my orders.” He wondered to himself if this was going to be a nightly struggle. “There is no need to make this difficult for both of us.” He reached out and placed his hand on Jake’s left shoulder.
The moment he touched Jake, everything spiraled out of control. As Sadie, Bert and everyone else looked on in stunned silence, Jake screamed. “No! No! I can’t do it!! I won’t do it!! No showers. Do what you want to me, but I will never, never……” Jake’s voice broke, and he began to sob. His body shook violently as his head filled with the horrific thoughts that always took him back.
The inexperienced aide was bewildered. He had no way of knowing that the outpouring of emotion was the result of a searing pain that had completely taken over Jake’s mind. It was a level of pain so profound that no one else could ever understand it.
As Carson watched the old man quivering, he could barely keep from laughing out loud. Furiously he typed, old man crying like baby over taking a shower. LOL.
Bert and Sadie looked on in disbelief. In the time they had known him, they had never seen any kind of emotion like this from Jake. He was always calm and easy-going. He seemed serene. To see him like this was upsetting.
Bert spoke up. “Please leave him alone. Go find Michelle.”
The aide threw up his hands and turned to go just as Michelle came around the corner. She took one look at Jake and her heart sank. She went to the aide and firmly said, “Go help your next resident. Now.”
It was at that moment she saw her son texting and laughing. He looked up at her and smirked. She leaned down to her son, and whispered, “Go wait for me in the lobby. I’ll be out in thirty minutes.”
Carson protested. “But I want to stay and watch. This is hilarious.”
Michelle looked into the eyes of her son and could not believe he could be so cold and heartless. Louder she said, “Go to the lobby.”
“Fine. I can’t wait to get out of here anyway.” She watched as her son quickly left the room.
She knew she would have to deal with Carson later, but now she needed to focus on the man whose vulnerability had been exposed for everyone to see. She knelt down next to Jake. His face was buried in his hands in a desperate attempt to hide the feelings that had overwhelmed him. They were feelings that Michelle could help him with because she was the one person in the facility who knew the truth about Jake.
She spoke as soothingly as she could. “Mr. Gaffen, I am so sorry. You can relax. No one is going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
The sound of Michelle’s voice reached out to him and pulled him back from the edge.
“I don’t know how this mistake occurred, but I promise it will never happen again. I will not let anyone hurt you.”
The others in the room sat quietly trying to understand what they had just seen, but none of it made sense.
Michelle reached out and touched him on the sleeve of his left arm. Jake instinctively jerked, but then slowly relaxed.
“Please let me help you to your room. We can talk in there, and then you can get some rest.”
Slowly Jake looked up from his hands and saw everyone in the room staring at him like he was a stranger they had never seen before. Their eyes made him feel ashamed that the emotions he tried so hard to keep buried had surfaced in such a dramatic way – but it was something that was beyond his control. As his breathing slowed and the anxiety began to drain away, it was replaced with a heavy feeling of remorse that he had allowed his terrible secret to once again interrupt his life. He quickly agreed to go with Michelle to his room because he couldn’t stand to see the confused faces of his friends. But he knew that once she left, and the lights were out, he would see other faces. They were the faces that always appeared when the past intruded on the present.
The next morning at breakfast, everyone kept their distance from Jake. There was an awkwardness that hung in the air as he sat alone and silently picked at his food. Even Sadie was eating her scrambled eggs without her usual running commentary. It was Saturday which meant that Michelle had the day off. That made him worry that tonight could be a repeat of the evening before. Most of all he felt weary. Just as he’d feared, he had not been able to sleep. The same disturbing thoughts and feelings that he had been fighting for most of his life had returned with a vengeance.
Jake wondered how he could stay in this place now that everyone had seen him break down. He realized the new aide was only doing his job, but he couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the staff had not given him the information stipulating that Jake was to only take baths.
He sighed and glanced around the room. Most people looked away, but Bert smiled weakly. The discussion had heated up the previous evening after Jake was taken to his room. Nobody could figure out for sure what the issue was. His reaction had been so intense that it was shocking to them, and their response this morning made Jake fear that their opinions about him had changed. He worried that they now considered him to be different, and he could not help but wonder if his relationship with them would ever be the same.
After another minute or two, Jake finally gave in to his lack of appetite. He pushed his food away and was about to stand up when out of the corner of his eye he saw Michelle come into the room. She walked straight over to his table, without speaking to anyone, and sat down next to him.
He was surprised to see her on her day off. “What are you doing here?”
“Good morning, Mr. Gaffen. I have a huge favor to ask of you, but I’d like to talk to you privately. Would you please come with me to my office? It will just take a couple of minutes.”
Jake thought the world of Michelle. She had been so kind to him since he moved in. But he hesitated. “Is this about what happened last night?”
“Yes. But please, just hear me out. Give me just a few minutes of your time. If you turn me down, I promise to will respect your decision and never mention it again.”
Jake believed her because he trusted her. “Okay. If you promise.”
They stood up and walked together to her office, as everyone, including the curious and the nosey, watched with great interest.
That evening, exactly one hour after dinner, Michelle and Carson walked into the large living area. Michelle looked determined, while her son looked ashamed. It was obvious that he had endured the wrath of his mother for his insensitive behavior the night before.
Jake felt nervous as they walked over to him. She smiled warmly at him, but Carson looked away. He was too embarrassed by his behavior to make eye contact.
Michelle turned and addressed everyone in the room. “Last night there was an unfortunate incident that never should have happened. This evening we are going to try to set the record straight. I would like everyone to move closer so you can hear what is said.”
Bert and Sadie looked at each other and realized they were both equally confused. As the residents slowly crowded around, the staff began to file into the room, including the aide that had inadvertently upset Jake. Apparently, Michelle wanted them to hear as well.
After everyone had settled into place, Michelle began. “My original intention was to ask Mr. Gaffen to speak only to my son, Carson. I apologize to all of you for his behavior last night.”
Carson put his head down. He was genuinely sorry that he had embarrassed his mother at her workplace.
“But after speaking with Mr. Gaffen this morning, he courageously agreed to talk to everyone. I am the only one here who knows his full story. The rest of the staff is aware of bits and pieces, but the other residents know nothing. So I ask all of you to please listen carefully to his words so you will understand that things are not always what they seem.”
Michelle reached over and patted Jake’s hand. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Jake nodded and looked around the room. “I guess I would like to start by apologizing for last night. Most of the time I can keep my emotions in check, but if the situation becomes something I can’t control – well, you saw what happens.”
Jake was surprised to feel a wave calmness wash over him as he spoke. Perhaps it was because, after spending the entire afternoon trying to decide the best way to explain his behavior, he now had it figured out.
Jake turned to Carson. “Your mom tells me you are sixteen.”
Jake smiled as he thought of his childhood. “At your age, I had only seen a telephone once or twice in my life, and I had never talked on one. Where I grew up they were a luxury that no one could afford. But nowadays everyone enjoys having one with them all the time. It just shows how different our lives were at the same age. Do you not have your phone with you today?”
Michelle answered. “Carson will not have his phone for the next month.” She shot a quick glance at her son and then back to Jake. “I’m sorry. Please continue.”
Still looking at Carson, Jake said, “When I was sixteen years old, just like you, I took an important train ride. Have you ever been on a train?”
The teenager shook his head and said, “No.”
“I had never been on a train either. I wish I could say that I lived my entire life without ever riding one, but that is not the case.”
Carson looked at his mother, but her face was expressionless.
“But this was not a comfortable train. Nothing of the sort. It was snowing and brutally cold in Europe when my father, mother, older sister and I were put into a cattle car along with so many others. We were among the last to go in, and it was packed with human beings. You could not sit, let alone lie down. I’m not sure how long we were in there, but I remember several people died while we were being transported. We had no idea where we going, but eventually, we found out our destination was in southern Poland. It was a place I’d never heard of called Auschwitz.”
Sadie gasped when she heard the word, and Bert covered his mouth in shock. Almost all of the residents were old enough to remember either the war or the immediate aftermath.
“When we arrived, we were processed like everyone else. I stood and watched in disbelief as they tried to take my mother and father away. My mother wouldn’t let go of my sister and an SS trooper began to beat her. My father tried to hit the soldier, but he was struck in the face with the butt of a rifle and dragged away. I started to lunge forward, but a man behind me grabbed my arms and held me back. He saved my life because I surely would have been killed on the spot for attacking the SS.
“I never saw my parents again. My sister, Isadore, was hysterical, and she was also taken away, but I would later find out that she was still alive. As the rest of us stood there in the dark and cold, we were terrified. All around me there were women and children screaming and crying. It was too much. Watching families be ripped apart was heartbreaking, but all I could think about was my mother, father, and sister. None of it seemed real. We were all in shock.
“Those of us who were young, strong, and healthy were spared. The SS would use us for manual labor and all the disgusting jobs that were required in a camp with more than 100,000 people living like animals. But if we became ill or injured, we were useless to them, and we were immediately executed.
“The people who were taken away were the older folks like my parents, anyone who was sick or weak and all the pregnant women. But at that point, we did not know what became of them. But we would find out the truth soon enough. Once I understood what happened to new arrivals, I realized my parents had been murdered within hours of the last time I saw them.
“After I was separated into the group that survived, one of the first things that happened was this.” Slowly Jake unbuttoned the cuff of his sleeve and rolled it up revealing the tattoo on the outer side of his left forearm. “We assumed they did it to us so the SS could identify our body when we died.
“I hid my tattoo while living here, not because I was ashamed, but because people look at you differently once they know. In this final stage of my life, I just wanted to be accepted as an average person. I wanted to be like all of you – but I’m not. I cannot escape the past. I guess it’s who I am.”
Jake took a moment and rolled the sleeve back down.
“I was assigned to a brick barrack with 700 other men. The living conditions were unimaginable. People quickly became ill and began to starve. The cold was life-threatening, and we had no blankets. We huddled together to try to stay warm, but it was useless. Some of the men didn’t even have shoes. They did not survive for long.
“During the first few months I was at Auschwitz, I was used as a common laborer. The back-breaking work was exhausting. When you couple that with hunger, lack of sleep and exposure to the elements, it is a deadly combination. We were deprived in every way possible. Each day men would collapse and could not get up. The SS would drag them away, and once they were out of sight we would hear the gunshot.
“It didn’t take long until I was losing weight dramatically and my strength was fading. But at least I was young and still relatively healthy. That is why I was chosen to perform the most wretched task in the camp.
“Each morning we had to line up for roll call. Roll call could last for several hours. It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or whatever. You had to stand perfectly still without moving a muscle. If you even flinched you would be beaten or killed. If you had to urinate or defecate you did it where you stood.
“The roll call was not only to get an accurate headcount, it was also used to humiliate us and break us as human beings. And it often did. Many people lost their composure or became so frightened they couldn’t control their movements, and they paid a horrible price.
“One morning, after the roll call was completed, I was shocked to hear my name shouted out. I remember it was beginning to rain very hard when the SS officer demanded that I step forward. I did as he said because I had seen others killed for less. He came over to me and looked me up and down. He was sizing me up for the job they were giving me. Satisfied that I could physically do the work, he told me that I was being reassigned. I was confused and scared.”
Jake paused to collect himself before he continued. At that point, he noticed there was not a sound in the room. Each person was hanging onto every word he said.
He turned to the young man next to him. “Carson, have you ever heard of Anne Frank?”
Jake looked at the others. “I’m sure most of you know about that young lady. For part of the time she was imprisoned, she was at Auschwitz. Of course, no one knew her. She was just another little girl like so many others. Towards the end, she was moved to a different camp where she died from illness. Most people don’t know that her father survived Auschwitz and lived until 1980. But Anne Frank tragically perished just weeks before the camp was liberated.”
Jake turned to Carson. “You have lived longer than she did. She was only fifteen years old when she died.”
He watched as Carson tried to hide the emotion he was feeling.
“The point is, many of us were young – and yet we were asked to do the unthinkable.
“Has anyone here ever heard the word Sonderkommando?”
No one answered.
“The Germans picked a group of prisoners who they thought were physically strong enough to perform a task that was beyond human comprehension. Their job was to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and take them, by any means possible, to the crematoriums so they could be placed in the ovens.”
Several people reacted with disbelief at what they were hearing. Even the woman who had been unresponsive appeared to be focused on Jake’s words.
“That morning, at roll call, the SS officer told me I was being reassigned to the Sonderkommando. I stared at him without moving. I was prepared to die at that moment rather than help the Nazi’s in their genocide. But the SS were not only cruel, they were also clever. The officer stared back at me for a moment, and I waited for him to draw his weapon. But he raised his arm instead and made a circular motion. A few seconds later a German vehicle called a Kubelwagen appeared from around the corner and pulled to a stop alongside him. He made another hand motion, and a woman was shoved out of the vehicle. She fell to the soggy ground crying. I could not believe my eyes. It was my sister Isadore.
“I started to take a step towards her, and two SS troops immediately blocked my path. The officer said, ‘Don’t hurt him. We need him strong and healthy.’ It was at that point that he pulled out his sidearm. But he did not point the gun at me. He aimed at my sister. ‘This one, on the other hand, has no practical value to the Reich if her brother will not accept his placement in the most important unit in the camp.’
“He turned and looked me in the eyes, and I could feel myself shaking with rage. I’ll never forget the way he pleasantly smiled when he said, ‘Love is the second most powerful emotion after fear. I am pleased to see you are experiencing both. That should make your choice much easier.’ Then his expression changed. ‘Join the Sonderkommando, and your sister lives. Decline and her brains will mix with the mud.’
“As my sister lay at his feet sobbing, I nodded my head yes. I was ashamed of what I was going to have to do, but I could not let them murder Isadore.”
Michelle glanced at her son and saw that he had tears in his eyes. So did many of the others who were listening intently.
Although he was getting tired, Jake wanted to paint as clear a picture as he could. “Over the next few months, I did a job that no human being should have to do. I saw and heard things that have remained with me every day for more than seventy years.
“When the trains arrived, the group that was separated out for execution went to an area to undress.” Jake hesitated for just a moment and then with a slight quiver in his voice he said, “They were told that, in order to cut down on disease and sickness, they were going to be taking showers.”
Bert and Sadie looked each other. Now they understood.
“Usually the people believed it, so they willingly entered the large structure. At first, you felt compelled to warn them somehow about what was about to happen, but there was no point. There were heavily armed guards all around the building. If they had tried to get away they would have been shot instantly. Besides, every time I was tempted to do something, I saw the image of my sister laying in the mud with a pistol at her head.
“Where I was assigned, the gas chamber could hold eight hundred people, even more, if necessary. Pellets of a pesticide called Zyklon B were used. Once the gassing began, vehicle engines outside were turned on to drown out the screaming and moaning. People close to the vents died almost instantly, but others struggled and lived for almost twenty minutes. It was a horrible death. After a half hour, the building was opened. Most of the corpses were piled up at the door, as people climbed over each other trying to escape. There was vomit and excrement everywhere. The smell was like nothing you can imagine.
“That was when we began to perform our task. Occasionally someone would be overcome by emotion or literally have a mental breakdown when they saw the horror. If they could not help remove the bodies they were shot immediately. We were forced to work as fast as we could so the chamber could be used again. We drug body after body out of there. Sometimes I thought I saw people blinking, and one time I think I saw a man’s mouth still moving, but after all this time I can’t be sure.
“As fast as we could get the corpses to the crematorium they were shoved into the ovens. Up to six thousand people were gassed each day at Auschwitz. But the forty-six ovens could only dispose of about four thousand bodies a day. That meant that many corpses had to be burned in open pits behind the crematorium.”
Several people in the room were now holding handkerchiefs and tissues to their eyes.
“I can’t be sure how long I did this. Over time, a numbness sets in and you stop feeling human. In fact, you feel nothing at all. I’ve been told it is the mind’s way of continuing to function in a situation that it cannot cope with. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that this terrible thing I was doing was keeping my sister alive. Eventually, though, I succumbed to Auschwitz just like everyone did.
“It happened in the middle of the night. I woke up, and I couldn’t move. I’d had my share of dysentery, abscesses and infected sores but this was different. It turned out I had come down with a form of typhus, spread by body lice. It was a common disease that had swept through the camp. In every case, it was made worse by our extreme malnutrition. For the next few hours, I alternated between fever and chills. I was delirious, not always knowing where I was or what was happening. Worst of all, I became so weak I could hardly lift my arms.
“But illness or no illness, we inevitably had roll call. I tried to get out of the bed, but it was useless. I remember that two men, that I did not know, lifted me up and with an arm around each of their necks, they dragged me out and stood by me in line.
“I literally did not have the strength to stand. I was only upright because they were holding me. The world was spinning and out of focus when I heard the SS officer yell at them to let me go. I instantly collapsed to the ground. The two men who tried to help me were led away and beaten severely for their efforts. The only reason their lives were spared was because they were needed at the gas chambers.
“Roll call proceeded, but I was out of my head. When it ended, the SS officer came over to where I was laying. He told me there was something he wanted me to see. A soldier lifted me into a sitting position and held me there. My eyes were blurry, and for a moment it was hard to see, but then suddenly I heard my sister’s voice. There she was just a few feet away from me. For a moment I thought I might be imagining it – but it was real. The officer stood next to her. He pulled out his sidearm and put it inches from her head. As Isadore pleaded for her life, he calmly turned to me and said, ‘Look what you’ve done to her.’ Then he pulled the trigger, and there was silence.
“That was the last thing I can really remember. I woke up several days later in what was supposed to be the infirmary but which was little more than a suffocating building crammed with people who were dead or dying. There was no medicine to waste on prisoners, it was all needed for the soldiers in the war effort. To this day I don’t know why I recovered when so many others perished. Perhaps it was my youth or just fate.
“Once my sister was dead, I lost all hope. Countless times I considered suicide. Many people killed themselves by grabbing the electrified barbed wire fencing that surrounded the camp. Of course there was always the likelihood that you would be shot by one of the guards in the towers as you approached the fence – but either way, you found eternal relief from the dehumanizing pain and suffering.
“But I guess I was weak. I just didn’t have the courage to throw myself on that fence – and so I kept existing.
“Because I had been infected with such a serious disease I was assigned to the latrines where it didn’t matter if I came down with something else. At various times over the remaining months I became sick to the point where I was near death – but for some reason, I did not join the rest of my family.
“Finally one day the SS started burning and destroying buildings in an effort to hide their atrocities. We knew that meant the allies were getting close. Tens of thousands of people were sent on a forced death march to other camps, and a heartbreaking number of them died on the way. But they left some of us behind, and I’ve never known why. However, at this point, we had stopped wondering why anything was happening. Nothing made sense, so you just accepted life or death as it came.
“In January of 1945, the red army found us. The Russians could not believe what they saw. We immediately tried to relay what had taken place so people would know. We felt like we had to convince them that it had really happened.
“When I got on that cattle train, I weighed 180 pounds. When we were liberated I weighed 79 pounds. I had lost teeth and my body was covered with boils, sores, and infections. Many of us could barely walk, and they had to bring food and water to us. But it did not matter what had happened to me. All I could think about was my mother, father and especially Isadore.
“Auschwitz was thirteen months of my life, but it has defined the last seventy-two years.”
Jake turned and looked at his friend. “My dear, Sadie. That is why I could never complain. We are living in paradise here. We are comfortable, we are well fed, and, most importantly, we are safe.”
As tears streamed down Sadie’s cheeks she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Jake. I didn’t know.”
Jake smiled. “Please do not feel sorry for me. I survived. It is those that were lost that we should feel sorry for. The men, women, and children that were brutally executed. Entire families that were wiped out. They are the ones we cannot forget.
“In the end, more than one million human beings were murdered at Auschwitz. That is more than all the brave American and British soldiers killed in the war combined.”
Jake shook his head in wonder and said, “I will never know why I was spared. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why I was one of the fortunate few to survive the Nazi’s. But even surviving comes at a price. Sometimes I’m haunted by memories. It happened last night. And even though it has been more than seven decades, I can still see the faces of those who died. I remember the bodies in the gas chamber, the smell of the ovens and, of course, I will never forget the face of the SS officer that killed my sister.
“What you saw last night has been diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unfortunately, I endured decades of mental anguish before my problem was given a name. I had heard the term before, but I thought it only applied to soldiers who actually experienced combat. But I was wrong. It can happen to anyone. After years of treatment, I have found a way to enjoy life. But Auschwitz is always lurking, waiting for the opportunity to capture me again.”
Jake took a deep breath and then said, “Telling you this has not been easy, but now I’m glad I did. I think it’s best that the truth is out in the open.”
He turned to Michelle. “I want to thank you for encouraging me to talk about my past. I realize that I can never escape it. I can’t undo what happened, and I certainly can’t forget it. So I must face it each day.”
Jake slowly looked around the room at the faces of the men and women he had gotten to know. “It is tiring to constantly hide a secret from those that matter to you. It wears you down. But please don’t let what happened last night change your opinion of me. I’m still the person I was. A man who lives in this facility just like everyone else. Who is not special or different, but who was forced to live through circumstances that were beyond his control.
“My family is all gone now – so you have become my family. I care about each of you, and I hope you can find it in your hearts to allow us to have a fresh start.”
Jake paused and then said, “You have now heard my story, so let me re-introduce myself. My name is Jacob Salomon Gaffen, and I am a Holocaust survivor.”
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