By: Terri Talley Venters
Joseph regretted not fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria sooner. And he regretted taking the train. But he didn’t want his pregnant wife, Sara, and three-year-old daughter, Rachel, traversing the mountainous terrain into Switzerland on foot. When the Nazis boarded the train with their guns, he knew it was over. “Papers please” they’d said. The instant they read his name, Joseph Stein, the Nazis escorted him and his family off of the train. They stripped them of their possessions, their clothes, their dignity, and their freedom.
Albeit Macht Frei. Translated: Work Makes Free. Joseph read the wrought-iron sign above the arched gate. He slowly marched into the concentration camp with hundreds of others. The shackles cut into his wrists and ankles, but he dare not complain. His life depended on his hard work and compliance.
Joseph followed submissively into Dachau. Rows and rows of long-rectangular barracks filled the camp. Joseph hadn’t seen his wife and daughter since Austria, but he’d seen the Nazis load them onto a different train with all the other women and children.
He waited in line for his medical examination. The Nazi doctors examined each prisoner. The doctors instructed the healthy ones to exit to the right to start working immediately. They ordered the sickly and weak prisoners to the left.
“Where are they taking them?” Joseph whispered to the prisoner in front of him.
“To either the gas chamber or crematorium for extermination,” the man whispered back.
Joseph grimaced. His turn loomed. But his destiny didn’t concern him as much as the fate of his pregnant wife and young daughter. The man in front of Joseph stepped forward for his turn. The Nazis stripped him naked and examined him, then motioned for him to turn right. Joseph exhaled with relief for his new friend’s prolonged life expectancy.
Joseph stepped up for his medical exam. He held his head high and kept his shoulders back to appear as strong and healthy as possible. He needed to stay alive to rescue Sara, Rachel, and Benjamin, his unborn son. The Nazi doctor stripped Joseph naked and listened to his heart and lungs with a stethoscope. The doctor ordered Joseph to the right and another Nazi officer handed him his work coverall.
Joseph dressed quickly and marched with the others to work. As he marched, he saw a line of women and children waiting to be examined. He searched frantically for Sara and Rachel. Then his eyes locked onto Sara’s. She held hands with Rachel. Tears dropped down Sara’s and Rachel’s cheeks. Their horrified expressions pleaded for help. But Joseph kept marching, helpless. He mouthed “I love you,” and turned the corner with the others. They were out of his sight and he feared the worst. The Nazis wouldn’t want the burden of a pregnant woman and a helpless child.
He arrived at an enormous hole and a Nazi handed him a shovel and pointed. “Dig.” Joseph obeyed and forced the shovel into the earth. He dug with tenacity. He needed to prove his value to stay alive, at least until he learned of Sara and Rachel’s fate.
After hours of digging, he followed his fellow prisoners back to the barracks. He took the bowl of mush the Nazi guard handed him. Without an appetite, Joseph forced the cold, tasteless dinner down his gullet. The vomit rose into his mouth. He closed his lips and swallowed it back down, afraid if he expelled the contents of his stomach, they’d exterminate him.
Despite the hard wooden bed, putrid odor, and cold night air, sleep took Joseph to a utopian dream. He and Sara danced in the flower-filled meadow. The sound of their children’s laughter permeated the beautiful sunny day. Majestic mountain peaks dominated the horizon. Birds chirped their songs as they flew above the bountiful picnic lunch awaiting Joseph, Sara, Rachel, and Benjamin.
“Macht schnell!” The Natzi guard hollered into the barracks.
Joseph bolted upright from his dream and filed in line promptly to comply. He shuffled behind his friend and followed the line of prisoners back to the enormous hole they’d dug the day before. His eyes scanned the surroundings in a desperate search for Sarah and Rachel.
A Nazi handed Joseph a shovel and directed him towards the same hole. Joseph arrived at the edge of the hole and stared into the thirty-foot deep ditch. The horrific smell of rotted flesh filled his nostrils before he saw the dozens of human corpses dumped into the mass grave. Joseph’s heart ached with the pain they suffered. At least they were now at peace in heaven, and he envied them.
Something in the pile of death glistened in the morning sunlight. Joseph spotted the long red curly hair and recognized the tendril. He followed the hair to the face of his beloved Sarah. Her empty expression stared down at their daughter, Rachel, whose lifeless form clung to her mother’s swollen belly.
“Nein!” Joseph screamed as he slumped to his knees. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he stared at his dead family piled in the mass grave. With nothing to live for, he stood up, prayed for forgiveness, and dove head first into the grave.
The sun shone brilliantly through the peaks of the mountain top. Flowers filled the meadow as Joseph held hands and danced with his beloved Sara and Rachel.