“Thanks To My Mother” by Susie Weksler
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When you were eight years old, what were you doing? Maybe building a snowman with your friends in the winter, running through sprinklers in your backyard
in summer, having sleepovers? Climbing on that new monkey bar set during recess, playing with Cabbage Patch Kid dolls? Sounds pretty normal, a pretty good life, doesn’t it?
Susie Weksler wishes she could be able to do that. But, no – when she was eight years old, in the year of 1941, Hitler’s forces invaded her home, where she lived with aunts, cousins, grandparents, and her mother, and relocated them to a ghetto camp. Here, they lived on insufficient food rations, were mistreated by the Nazi soldiers who were to watch over them, and were forbidden to do minor things such as go outside after it got dark, or form any kind of school. But worse was to come. When the ghetto was liquidated, some Jews were selected to be put in concentration camps – these were the healthy, younger ones – while the rest were selected to be killed – the old and sick, and babies. Susie was technically too young and was going to be killed. But it was her mother’s courage and ingenuity that would save Susie. She carried her own daughter, hidden in a backpack, to the “right” side (the side to go to the labor camps), disguising her as an adult to fool the camp guards.
Concentration camps are easily one of the worst places that have ever existed in the universe. With one meal a day (consisting of thin soup which was nearly water and a slice of bread), standing outside for hours at a time in sometimes sub-zero weather every day for roll call, and being forced to take a freezing shower and relieve themselves in front of everyone else, the prisoners were forced to work until they almost died of exhaustion, then let back to their little huts to sleep for only a few hours – cramped with four in a small cot – before they had to do everything all over again. The type of work was extremely tiring, labor-intensive, and dangerous.
This went on until she was twelve years old. Then, one day, they were irregularly commanded to go outside and line up. Naked in the middle of a cold, incredibly harsh winter, and without any shoes or socks, they lined up in columns and rows, each section containing a different gender and age group. Now that everyone was incredibly malnourished, Susie looked just as tall as everyone else, and no longer had to fake her age.
And…they marched. Even though they quickly became exhausted, the freezing cold wind and ice on their bare skin forced them to keep going. They were given no food, and only stopped at night so the soldiers who were patrolling them could rest – which ended up in them marching approximately 6.8 miles a day. Many of them caught frostbite and froze to death. If anyone merely tripped, fell a foot behind, or stopped for less than a second, they were shot by the soldiers. No one can describe the helpless feeling, the pain, the sickness and the horror of those who took place in this march. Less than a meal was given out a day, and not every person managed to receive food. Out of the 1,300 women that originally started from that camp alone, just 730 were left.
One day, when the need for food became extremely urgent, camp authorities brought in sick cattle and livestock; soup was made from their carcasses once they were killed. But when Susie ate a portion of the soup, she got sick with typhus, and fell unconscious after a serious fever and diarrhea.
A full week later, Susie regained consciousness, only to find herself in a soft, white, big bed. She lay alone, she had enough room, and no one was crowding her. She was clean, washed, and wore a spotless nightgown. Am I in a dream? She wondered. And where is my mother?
Susie soon discovered that she was in a Red Army camp, and around her were tons of other Jews just like her, healing from the Death March and other Holocaust-related injuries. There, she received good food, had other survivors and people working for the Red Army to talk to, and was cared for and nursed back to health.
Finally, she and her mother could go back home. However, since the Nazis ransacked it, they had no choice but to rent a cheap room in a shabby apartment. They both found work, Susie wandering around the streets and selling little things like wool for knitting, socks, hairpins, and so on. And her mother had a job at the reclamation center for recycling trash.
Although they were overjoyed to be out of the concentration camps and for the Nazis to have finally been defeated, it was distressing to find out that out of two grandparents, multiple aunts, cousins, and uncles, and Susie’s father, only Susie and her mother remained alive. They grieved for their lost ones, but eventually turned over the page, and began a new chapter of their lives.