Dancing Jews: An Excerpt
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel, Ashes, by Tiffini Johnson. It is copyrighted material and may not be used for any purpose whatsoever without express, written permission. Writing is my passion; it’s something that means a lot to me and I have poured my heart and soul into the writing (and re-writing) of this book for over a year. Please do not steal my work. Feel free to link to this page as often as you like, but if you feel the need to print, copy and paste, or in any other way use the excerpt, please e-mail me first.
He isn’t getting better. He isn’t getting worse.. but he isn’t getting better, either. That worries me because of the three-day rule. If the patients can’t return to work on the fourth day, then they are sent to the ovens. So it does worry me that he isn’t getting better… it worries me a little. But not as much as it should. Sometimes, he’s the only reason I make it out of work alive. Sometimes, he’s the only thing that keeps me from throwing myself in the wheelbarrow full of dead and dying patients, the wheelbarrow that is daily taken to the ovens. Every morning, before I walk into the barrack, my heart beats a little harder, a little faster, from fear. I don’t know what I would do if he wasn’t here.
I don’t know what I will do when he isn’t here.
He isn’t like the other patients. His cheeks are long but they aren’t hollow; his skin is pale but it isn’t grey. He hasn’t been at Auschwitz long. He hasn’t been here long enough for death to scar his skin, to seep into the marrow of his bones. Mostly, though, it’s in his smile. He still smiles. He knows what’s going on, he’s an adult, older than I by many years. He knows we are all here to die. But still he smiles. I don’t know why he smiles. I think it’s his way of pretending he’s going to survive. All I know is that his smile is like a little bit of sunshine; it gives me something to look forward to every day. I am scared of what will happen to me when he is gone. I am scared because I am not as brave as he, not as strong, not as hopeful. I should wish him to get better because I do not want him in the ovens but, if he gets better, he will be sent back to work and I will not see him again.
“What are you waiting on? Help me,” Giselle’s voice is stern. She stands at the foot of Frieda, a girl who died a few hours ago. It’s almost time for roll call, we have to move the dead ones to the wheelbarrow before then. Giselle takes the girl’s feet and I rush to her head, grab her stiff arms. The girl’s head rolls back onto her neck, her eyes closed. As we walk with her limp body, I can’t help but stare at the girl’s face.
She is dead. I am alive.
She is peaceful. I am not.
It is not fair.
The air is cold as Giselle shoves it open with her back. We throw the girl into the wheelbarrow, on top of the other bodies, and then head back into the infirmary.
“Are you alright? You look ill. Are you sick?” Giselle’s voice is raspy.
I shake my head, but the exhaustion runs through every fiber in my body. I don’t know if I will make it through roll call. We stand for so many hours. Giselle must see it in my face because she puts a bowl of water in my hands and tells me to go cool the patients. I am supposed to put cold rags on their foreheads to help ease fevers. I don’t know if it works but cooling fevers is not a hard task. At least, it shouldn’t be. But, today, it feels like my insides are shaken up. I don’t want to look at the patients. I don’t want to be near them. Being close enough to touch them means I am close enough to smell death. It hangs in the air like a curtain.
It makes me tired.
When one of the patients grips my wrist, I start to shake. The bowl of water almost spills off my lap. She wants me to give her a drink of water. She begs me for a drink. They are all thirsty. To give them water, though, is dangerous. Mengele could walk in any second and if I am caught giving water, I might die. The girl sees in my eyes that I cannot give her water and lets go of my wrist. She doesn’t fight. She just lies back and closes her eyes. She is still breathing but a part of me knows that she will not survive.
Guilt pierces the numbness of my heart. Little more than a rat, I think to myself. I can get water. But I don’t because I am scared of Mengele. Selfish. I think of my mother and my father. They would have given bread to anyone who needed it more than they. I open my dry lips to tell the girl I will bring her water… but no sound comes out. I want to be someone my mother would be proud of. But I also want to live. I just don’t know why.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, even though I am not sure she hears me, as I stand to move away. I move toward Ash, he’s the last patient for me today. His eyes are open and, when I sit down beside him, he smiles at me. “Hello, Rosy,” he says. His voice is raspy but his eyes match his smile.
My eyes drop. I cannot smile back. I did not give that girl water. She may die tonight and I might be the last person she will see. The last person she will see did not grant her any kindness; only a rag she didn’t need to cool her forehead. I feel like a jackboot. I dip my rag into the cool water, wring it out with my hands, then lay it over Ash’s forehead. His skin isn’t raging with fever; he doesn’t really need the water, either.
I sit there without moving, listening to the silence, before my eyes slide to the girl again. Tears blur my vision but, instead of letting Ash see them, I bend my head and use my knuckles to wipe at my eyes. He coughs, then says, “I have a story.”
I frown. “A story?”
“Do you like stories?”
I don’t open my mouth It has been a long time since I have heard a story. I don’t even remember the last story I heard. Sometimes, late at night, the women in the barracks will talk about life before Auschwitz: baking bread, working, dating. Sometimes the people here will talk about the colors outside the camp: the leaves that used to be orange or yellow, the color of grass (there is no grass inside this place) or, sometimes, the color of a favorite dress. But these memories are told to keep us alive, to remind us of our families and of life outside the camp. I can’t remember when someone told me a story just for fun.
“Do you like stories, Rosy?”
“My name is not Rosy.”
Ash smiled again, using his elbow to prop himself up on the bed. “I know that, silly. But your cheeks are so rosy. Your eyes have color in them, life, like the color of roses.”
If I remembered how, I would laugh at this.
My cheeks are grey. They have no color in them at all. And they are sunken. I know because I look like all the other prisoners here. There isn’t any color of life in my skin. All I have to do to be sure of this is to put my arm next to Ash’s. Ash’s hand has more life in it than my entire body. Maybe death has already scarred this man; scarred his eyes.
He chuckles deep in his throat. “No, I’m not crazy, you really do remind me of roses. I see the life in you. Your cheeks, they were full, yes? And rosy.”
I shrugged, my lips twisting into a half-smile. “A long time ago, maybe.”
He nodded, smiling happily, his entire face lighting up. “Yes, yes. See, see, I’m right. I knew it. I just love how you take care of us, you come and wash our fevers with cool rags. Last night, I heard you singing to me, too, you did.”
Embarrassed, I tipped my head down.
“I made up a story. Would you like to hear it?”
I shrugged, nodding at the same time, raising my eyes nervously to look around the barrack. If Mengele walked in and found me talking to a patient like this…
“Once in a small village on the outskirts of Linz, there was a Jewish girl. This girl was… she was not normal. Oh, she did some of the same things that the other Jewish girls did in town. She went to school. She went to market for her mother to shop for bread. She attended synagogue every week with her family. She bickered with her sisters one day but then could be found whispering and giggling with them the next day. Still, she was not the same as the other girls.
The difference was not in her appearance. Everyone who met her saw just an ordinary Jewish girl: dark, long, flowing hair; big, brown eyes. Her skin was the color of caramel. She wasn’t a straight-A student but she did well with her lessons; she memorized the Torah and recited her prayers during Shabbat.
But she was not quite normal.
Every evening, after her lessons were done and dinner enjoyed, she would dance through the house, holding her hands above her head and twirling around and around. She did this for hours. And she was always smiling; sometimes she would laugh out loud for no reason. People around her would watch in amazement and confusion, asking what she was laughing about. Laughing is contagious, you know, and, pretty soon, the people stopped asking what made her so happy and instead just chuckled at the sight of her nightly dance routine.
Nothing kept the girl from dancing. She danced when the sun was high in the sky and everybody around her was happy. She danced when babies were born and when young girls married their sweethearts. She danced when it rained and no one around her was happy. She danced when she made bad marks at school. She danced when others laughed at her because she wore the mark of the Jew. She danced when others cried or shouted out in anger.
Neighboring villagers began making their way to her parents’ small home to watch her dance every evening. There was something beautiful and inspiring about the girl who would dance, no matter what. Pretty soon, the small house became too small to accommodate all the villagers, so the girl began dancing outside in the streets. Every night, she would throw her hands up to the sky, twirl and laugh.
One day, a little boy ran up beside her and started dancing, too. His moves weren’t nearly as poetic as hers, he wasn’t nearly as refined. But the same look of joy that was on her face filled his. He would shake his head and move his body as though no one was watching. The girl didn’t stop her dance but she would clap her hands for the boy, encouraging him to continue dancing. It wasn’t long before other villagers decided they wanted to be part of the happy dance, too, and joined in, dancing in abandon in the middle of the street. They would dance for hours, freely waving their arms, jumping and circling around as though there was a full orchestra playing behind them. No one seemed to care that the only music was the sound of their feet hitting the ground and the shouts of joy some villagers made while dancing.
This went on for a couple of hours every night at sunset.
One evening, a stranger happened upon the village. He was deaf. He could not hear the people laughing; he did not know that instead of worrying about unprovoked attacks or illness or bad marks, the townspeople were watching their family members and neighbors dance. No, all the deaf man knew was that there was a crowd around him and the crowd was acting crazy—no matter which way he turned, it seemed there was someone moving quickly about him.
He grew frustrated because he could not get out of the crowd. He soon found the village rabbi. After struggling to understand the stranger, the rabbi learned that the man was upset because of the dancers. He asked the rabbi, “Why do they burst dance at the slightest thing? Is this the way healthy, normal people behave? Don’t they know there is important stuff to be worrying about? Don’t they see the yellow star on their clothes?” The rabbi replied, ‘Ah, but they are protecting something precious: their joy. As long as they dance and laugh and smile, the yellow star has not stolen their joy. So then, if by dancing and protecting their sense of hope, they appear mad to those with less sensitive ears, should they cease to dance?’ The stranger’s frustration and anger seemed to fade away. He sat and watched the dancers twirl around the streets for awhile until even he was taken in by their constant smiles and, sometimes, funny moves. When one of the dancing villagers took his wrist and pulled, he found himself dancing and even smiling.”
I don’t know when the smile spread across my face, but I knew it was there when I saw Ash wink at me and lean back into the pillows. “Can you imagine all the people dancing and laughing? How silly they must have looked.” I said.
“They couldn’t have been really happy. Not if they were wearing stars.”
“Well, because they were afraid.”
“They would have to be really ignorant not to be scared.”
“Or maybe just really smart.” Ash’s voice is soft. Suddenly, I find myself wondering if the story is true, if the dancers were from his village. Before I can ask him, though, his eyes drift close.
I sit on the edge of the bed for a few minutes more, watching Ash’s face and thinking of the villagers dancing. I don’t know if the story was true or not, but I like pretending it really did happen. When I hear someone coughing, my eyes are pulled away from Ash.
It is the girl coughing. She is still thirsty.
I don’t mean to get up, I don’t mean to start walking toward the back of the barrack, but that’s what I find myself doing. My eyes dart to the office where Mengele works. He hasn’t been in lately to check on us, he could be here any minute. Giselle is bandaging one of the other patients and doesn’t see me. Quickly, and trying to be as quiet as I can, I use the ladle to scoop up a bit of water and walk to the girl’s bedside.
She is still laying with her eyes closed. Her breathing is so light I cannot see her chest rising and falling. When I touch her hand, though, her eyes flutter open. I put one hand behind her head to help her lift it and then put the ladle at her lips. She sips until water runs down her mouth to her chin. She tries to sip too fast and ends up coughing. I lay her head back down and turn to take the ladle back to the faucet. Giselle is standing there, looking at me with solemn brown eyes. She does not think I should have risked giving the girl water.
But I am dancing.