Some stories stick to your heart like a spiderweb tangled in your hair. For such a slight thing it remains strong and persistent and shapes the way you look at and respond to the world. The strands of the story below have shaped me and I hope it encourages you to look at hope with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
We recently observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day and it was, as always, achingly awful to recall the atrocities committed against the Jewish people and other minorities between 1933 and 1945. While researching that time in history I was introduced to The Redhead of Auschwitz on Instagram, and the content is both solemn and encouraging.
I am planning on reading redheaded Rosie's story as penned by her granddaughter, Nechama Birnbaum, and as I browsed the sample excerpt, was struck by the infusion of the Psalms throughout the chapters. There is so much comfort to be found in the psalmist's words, and the juxtaposition of pain and peace holds a depth and richness worth holding onto. One story Rosie shared is regarding how she received her tattooed ID number. The following poem is that story as stirred within and told from my heart.
Two rows of bowed heads and slumped shoulders.
The rows were too long,
full of too many who had given up hope.
Too many who had been stolen from their futures,
From their families,
From their faith,
From the foundations of all they knew.
The woman before me shuddered,
Her shoulders trembled with the callused hand of fear.
I looked down.
for looking up would only serve to break my heart more.
My feet were dusty, with garish scratches ripping lines from my toes to my ankle.
My shoes had been taken away.
As had my brothers.
And my parents.
Along with every sweetness I had ever known.
For just a few minutes more I had a name.
I had dignity.
I had a future.
Yet as the muted colors of the condemned and cowering progressed
I was drawn closer to the end of who I was.
From under the lashes of my downcast eyes
I watched those at the front of the line
peel off and retreat,
returning with dragging feet to the yard,
hobbling down the path between the two rows,
the weight of their plight grinding their hearts into the dirt.
Some cradled their arms,
transfixed by the jagged lines etched on their flesh;
this thing that was given to them,
which served to rip everything away.
So many numbers.
I felt my heart beat faster.
In fear? In anger?
But it was beating.
And it was strong.
And I realized something which has since shaped every moment:
Even in the confines of capture,
even in the grip of the gestapo,
even in the bowels of this decrepit pit of hell,
even if my life were crushed,
even if every breath were stolen from my lungs,
I had a choice.
Even if I had nothing else,
I could still choose this one thing:
In that moment I knew the decision I must make,
and the depth of it burned a fire of resolve in my chest,
spilling forth in determined tears.
Here, now, in this formation of broken people
I would live.
I would survive.
I would escape.
I would continue to hope.
And as that decision settled into my heart,
making its home between the pain and the sorrow,
I began to notice details.
I saw the woman with red nails.
I heard the child soothing himself with a lullaby.
I felt the sun warm my freshly shaved head–
That glorious, consistent sun which never burnt out–
And I noticed the numbers.
I watched the dejected people returning from the front of the line,
inspecting their new identity
inscribed in ink,
their skin pink and raw around the crisp lines on their forearms.
Those leaving my row were marked in a clumsy script,
With shaking lines, sloppy ink, and uneven spacing.
Those from the other row were inked neatly,
The numbers uniform and proud.
I lifted my head.
I filled my lungs with life.
And I ran to the other line.
In that moment,
after choosing hope,
I chased it down
because I knew:
I was going to survive.
And the life I lived would carry with it all the mountains I overcame
including this first mountain of having my name taken away
in exchange for a number scrawled on my flesh.
And though it may sound petty,
though it may be a little thing,
this choice embodied hope.
I could not escape the numbers.
But I could place myself in the line with the more talented tattooer.
I planned to live,
and I didn’t want sloppy numbers for the rest of my life.
I would find love
and when it came
I wanted to be beautiful.
There is always a choice,
even in the most derelict of dungeons.
There is always hope.
But it must be chosen and chased after.
If you believe in hope
you can continue to believe in your dignity.
You can continue to believe in your future.
You may not be able to escape the scars,
but hope will shape which line you stand in.