Susan Silas
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The Women

(see images)

They existed on a map. A red line to demarcate their footsteps, not even bread crumbs to mark their way. In the landscape of the present there is nothing remarkable; orderliness in Germany and unruliness in the Czech Republic, wider vistas in Germany and trees hugging the road in the Czech Republic. The red line could be said to be the living. The dead are represented on the map by small black dots. They are scattered along the red line from its beginning in Helmbrechts to its end in Prachatice. I often thought, as I walked along, how soft the layers of pine needles were, forming a padded mattress in the forest, a place to lay one's head down and close one's eyes.

There is a transcript of those days of being trudged mercilessly through the landscape as the allies approached on all sides, the landscape reeking of burning bodies and rotting corpses, and they; walking fleshless skeletons who could leave nothing for the maggots to feed on. People died in mid-step. Someone put their right foot forward but before they could lift the left, as if taking a misstep, they crumpled to the ground unseeing. The war was over but it was still imperative to punish. A young woman on the march suffered from dysentery. She stopped frequently to squat on the ground and relieve herself. Why now, why this illness only days before the allies arrive. The commandant of the march, Alois Dörr, walks up to this woman as she squats unsteadily by the side of the road, her stomach a roiling and liquid disorder and tells her: "You have shit for the last time." He draws his pistol and shoots her in the head.

SS Unterscharfuhrer Franz Suchomel, ever observant, tells Claude Lanzmann that the naked Jewish women standing outside the gas chambers at Treblinka shit themselves with fear while awaiting their turn. "The anguish of death makes people let go." He relates this information in a very matter of fact way. Their men were gassed first and they were forced to wait and listen while they shivered naked in the cold. Safer, he explains, to gas the men first, because the women will put up less resistance than the men would once they know.

I come across an image in a book; a group of naked women, surrounded by men, not many, a few, with uniforms and guns, standing in front of a freshly dug pit. A naked woman with a flaccid postpartum tummy holds a naked infant in the crook of her arm. His soft chubby cheeks bulge slightly over the woman's forearm. Above his butt cheeks are two small dimples. Such dimples are said to be characteristic of Jews. I have them. This image bores its way into memory, perhaps because it brings thought to a halt like a period at the end of a sentence. For to think beyond it is to attempt to imagine what this woman must be thinking, staring into that pit with her newborn child on her arm. There is no discernible pile of shit at her feet at the moment in which the photograph was taken.

In the town of Volary, just short of Prachatice, the mayor and his wife built a small museum to memorialize the women marched from Helmbrechts. It consists of two very small rooms in a nondescript one storey building. The exterior is painted brown. There are some factual errors on the wall labels, a few vitrines filled with personal effects and several photographs of starved women lying on bare pin-striped mattresses in a make-shift hospital.

I'm not particularly superstitious. So having the sensation that I was being protected by something not visible to me as I walked along seemed odd and out of character for me. It happens to polar explorers, mountain climbers, people under great duress. I was tired but not in that way, and the sensation became stronger as the days passed. I knew that I was there because they had been there. That was the most direct explanation for my presence in that landscape. I felt invulnerable. Not a familiar feeling.

In the museum the mayor built there is an image of an 18 year old girl on a bare mattress. She lies awkwardly, two long femur bones, hollow face, body resting precariously balanced on one elbow and what remains of her rear. Her eyes are still alive and shy. She is exposed to yet another indignity being photographed naked by those who are helping her. She survived the entire march, all 22 days, but that will be all. Her body is in a downward spiral and refuses to make the turnaround. It is too starved to remember how to absorb nourishment from outside, it only knows to eat itself. In five days she will be dead. Her name is Liesel Steppe.

Laying in the bed beside her is a thirty year-old woman who looks sixty. The look on her face is one of permanent horror, as if it cured in the moment when she watched her husband and small child beaten to death in front of her. She says she does not wish to live in a world in which such things are possible and she does not. She is buried in the cemetery in Volary.

Maurice Halbwachs, the sociologist confined with Jorge Semprum in Buchenwald, sees the camp being liberated and knows he will never leave the barracks. He is done and his last thoughts are of the unfairness of life.

It is in the town cemetery in Volary that the allies create a large plot to bury the dead women who came from Helmbrechts; the bodies found rotting along the roadside and those left in nearby woods and the bodies of those who perished in those first days of liberation in the hospital with no sheets. Most were identified, some not, and for one, whom the others claim perished amongst them, no body was found to bury in the ground. She is remembered by a small plaque on the stone wall of the cemetery.

Liesel Steppe is buried there; that cemetery with simple headstones and a few daffodils blooming in spring. Liesel Steppe, who was barely more than a child. She could have been my mother and at death was the age of my daughter at this writing. This beautiful starved Jewish girl, separated from her family, who in all likelihood were long dead themselves and whose last thoughts may have been gladness that at least Liesel escaped; it was she, I believe, who followed me and kept me from harm as I walked from Helmbrechts to Prachatice.

In the small town of Domalice, word got around that these poor starved women were being marched toward their town. The townspeople dressed in their traditional finery and gathered in the street with baskets of bread, with speck and sausages, and cheese, hoping to offer food and some small comfort to these wretched women. The scene was mayhem. As they extended their arms in offering the German batons swung injuring their outstretched arms, knocking precious food to the ground. The women, starved for weeks, behaved as animals, clawing for food, pushing one another, exhausting themselves still further. The frightened townspeople scattered and withdrew to their homes. Those who ate had their last supper. A starved body cannot tolerate meat and animal fat. They ate and died.

On the 50th anniversary of the march from Helmbrechts to Prachatice the town of Helmbrechts held a reunion to commemorate this march and invited all of the women still living to come to Helmbrechts to plant a tree and remember those who had perished. A photograph was taken of all of the women able to attend. Sam, the mayor of Volary, showed me a copy of this photograph. I was instantly drawn to one face. She looked impossibly young, younger than all the others. She had been 14 when she reported for labor. She was seventy but looked sixty. Sam had a contact address for her in New Jersey. When I returned home, I called her. I interviewed Halina Kleiner and spent the day at her home in New Jersey. It was she who told me about the entire town of Domalice coming out to offer food and cakes to the women as they were marched down the street into the town. What must these women have looked like to these townspeople when they finally laid eyes on them? She and her friend Lilli got a few crumbs of bread. They had not managed to get anything else nor had they known then that this was not the great misfortune that they took it to be.

At the end of each rest, those who could not continue, who could not rise to their feet when it was time to move on, were shot where they sat. The rest of the group, already risen to their feet, would hear the crack of the pistol as they withdrew. Halina told Lilli that her feet were in ruins. She sat beside Lilli and told her that this time she would not get up. Lilli begged and cajoled but Halina could not walk any further. Lilli refused to leave her. They were outside the town of Volary, and as the group reassembled itself into a clot of rags and retreated, they sat. They had rested for an unaccustomed amount of time and the sun was setting. As they argued, dusk began to envelop them. A gap grew between them and the group and it was suddenly clear that they had been missed, left behind. They dragged themselves into the bushes behind a tree and waited until dawn and then made their way slowly through the woods until they came to a small farmhouse.

The farmer was an ethnic German. He was probably resettled in that part of what is now the Czech Republic when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia at the outset of the war. He was old, a veteran of the First War. He refused Halina and Lilli entry into his house. They were infested with lice. He put them in the barn with the animals and brought them warm milk but no food. He knew what the townspeople of Domalice had not known. That the starved must not eat. By the time Halina found herself in a DP camp, this German farmer and veteran of the First War would have been displaced too, removed from his farm and sent packing back to Germany.

95 women remained in Volary. They were interred there, but not before the allies marched the townspeople past their remains. There are many such photos of allied soldiers parading townsfolk past festering skeletal bodies covered in lye, as if to say, "Look what you've done." They all manage to avert their eyes. You can see that in the photos. It's what most of them had been doing for years; they were used to it. It only smelled worse.

Actually, it stank.

©2012 by Susan Silas