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FOUR PERFECT PEBBLES
By Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan
Long before dawn crept through the windows of the wooden barrack, Marion stirred in Mama’s arms. She had slept this way, wrapped in her mother’s warmth, for many weeks now, ever since her family had arrived at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in northwestern Germany.
All around her were the sounds of other women and children, lying in the three-decker bunks that ran the length of the barrack. As Marion came awake, the muffled noises sharpened. There were gasps and moans, rattling coughs, and short, piercing cries. And there was the ever-present stench of unwashed bodies, disease, and death.
Hardly a morning passed without some of the prisoners no longer able to rise from their thin straw mattresses. When the guards came to round up the women and children for roll call, they stopped briefly to examine the unmoving forms. Later those who had died in the night would be tumbled from their bunks onto crude stretchers, and their bodies would be taken away to be burned or buried in mass graves. Soon new prisoners would arrive to take their places. As many as six hundred would be crowded into barracks meant to hold a hundred.
Mama nudged Marion. “Get up, Liebling. It’s time.” As soon as Mama withdrew her arms, thin as they had become, the warmth vanished, and the chill of the unheated room gripped Marion’s nine-year-old body. Cold and hunger. In her first weeks at Bergen-Belsen, Marion had been unable to decide which was worse. Soon, however, the constant gnawing sensation in her belly began to vanish. Her stomach accustomed itself to the daily ration of black bread and a cup of watery turnip soup, and its capacity shrank. But the bitter chill of the long German winter went on and on.
On one of her earliest days in the camp Marion had actually believed that she saw a wagonload of firewood approaching. Perhaps it would stop in front of the barrack and some logs would be fed into the empty stove that was supposed to heat the entire room, for a few hours of glorious warmth. But she had been horribly mistaken. The wagon trundled past, and a closer look told her that it was filled not with firewood but with the naked, sticklike bodies of dead prisoners.
As on all winter mornings, getting dressed in the predawn grayness took no time at all. Marion had slept in just about everything she owned. All she had to do was to put her arms through the sleeves of the tattered coat that she had used as an extra covering under the coarse, thin blanket the camp provided.
Soon the cries of the Kapos (Kameradshaftspolizei, or police aids) – privileged prisoners who served as guards – were heard as they moved from barrack to barrack.
“Zum Appell! Appell! Raus, Juden!”
Marion and Mama must now find a way to relieve themselves before hurrying to the large square, with its watchtower and armed guards, where the daily Appell, or roll call, took place. There was not always time to visit the communal outhouse, about a block away from the barrack. The toilets in the outhouse were simply a long wooden bench with holes in it, suspended over a trench. There was no water to flush away the waste, no toilet paper, and of course, no privacy.
Some mornings Marion and mama and the other prisoners had to use whatever receptacles they owned as night buckets – even the very mugs or bowls in which they received their daily rations. Before leaving the barrack for Appell, the prisoners had to make sure the room was clean, the floor swept, and their beds made. Each inmate stood in front of her bunk for inspection. If the blankets were not tucked neatly enough around the sagging straw mattresses, punishments were meted out. The slightest infraction could mean losing one’s bread ration for the day.
Roll call was held twice a day, at six in the morning and again after the prisoners had returned from their work assignments. It was held in winter and summer, in ice and snow, in rain and mud. If a single person was missing because of sickness, death, or an attempted escape, all the prisoners were made to stand at attention in rows of fives, for hours – even for a whole day – without food or water or any way to relieve themselves.
Some prisoners did try to escape but very few succeeded. Each section of the camp was surrounded by a high fence of barbed wire. The fence was charged with electricity and had pictures of death’s-heads posted on it as a warning. Prisoners who attempted to scale the fence were electrocuted. Others who tried to escape while on a work detail, outside the fenced area, were almost always caught by the watchful eyes of the armed guards, by keen-nosed police dogs, or at night by sweeping searchlights.
Marion hoped, as she did every morning that the roll call in the square would be over as quickly as possible. Then, after dismissal, there might be a few moments to see Papa and her eleven year old brother, Albert, who were imprisoned in a separate barracks in the men’s section
In Westerbork, the Dutch camp where the family had lived before, all four of them had been housed in crude but private quarters. However, no such arrangement existed for any of the prisoners in Bergen-Belsen. Actually they were told they should consider themselves “lucky” to be in the section of the camp known as the Sternlager, or Star Camp. Here male and female prisoners were allowed to meet briefly during the day. Also, they could dress in their own clothes instead of striped prison uniforms. But of course, they must wear the yellow Star of David high up on the left side of the chest, as they had been forced to do for many years now. In the center of the six-pointed star the word Jude (German for “Jew”) was inscribed in black.
Today, possibly because of the icy temperature, the barracks guards had begun reporting their head counts quickly. There were two prisoners missing. But they had already been found. They had “run into the wires” sometime during the night. This was the term the Kapos used to describe the act of committing suicide when prisoners died by hurling themselves against the electrified barbed-wire fences.
In just under one hour the roll call had been completed. Already Marion and Mama had spotted Albert and Papa across the frozen ground of the square. Now the entire family came together in a hasty, wordless embrace, for there was never much time.
At once Papa began to push into Mama’s hands the extra rations he had managed to trade for cigarettes. In the weeks since the family had come to Bergen-Belsen, the male prisoners in the Sternlager had been receiving a small number of cigarettes once every few days. Papa, who did not smoke, immediately went about exchanging with other prisoners for bits of food, such as a small chunk of bread, a turnip, or even a potato. Mama, after making sure that Papa had kept enough for himself and Albert, squirreled these items away for herself and Marion.
Albert, too, usually had a small horde of secret treasure. He carefully collected the tobacco from partially smoked cigarette butts and made his own trades to get extra rations.
Marion had brought along her own secret treasure this morning, but hers was not anything to eat. She felt in her coat pocket to make sure the three pebbles were still there. Then she carefully drew them out and opened her palm for Albert to see.
Albert, whom seemed to be growing taller and more skeletal every day, looked down at Marion’s hand. “Yes, I see,” he said with a wan smile. “That again.”
“That again.” Marion mimicked him. Her deep- set eyes grew fiery. Look closely. I have the three pebbles, exactly matching. Today I shall find the fourth. I suppose you think I’m silly.”
“No, no.” Albert calmed her. He had always been the soothing, protective child. Marion was the excitable one.
“Four perfect pebbles,” Marion said proudly, watching her own breath form a mist in the frosty air. One for each of us. You’ll see. I’ll show you the fourth one tomorrow.”
Albert placed a hand on her shoulder. “Yes, of course.”
Marion flashed him a look, part love, part impatience. Big brothers were all the same. Time and again Albert told her that there could be no such thing as even two perfectly matching pebbles. Pebbles were like snowflakes. Every single one was different from every other one.
But Marion ignored such scientific reasoning. She had a fixed idea, one that was important for her to hold on to. If she could find four pebbles of almost exactly the same size and shape, it meant that her family would remain whole. Mama and Papa and she and Albert would survive Bergen-Belsen. The four of them might even survive the Nazis’ attempt to destroy every last Jew in Europe.
Over and over Marion had collected such pebbles in groups of four, terrifying herself when she could find only two or three and not a fourth that matched. A foolish pastime? A superstition? Perhaps. But the sets of pebbles were her lucky charms, and they gave her a purpose.
Searching for a complete set was a way to fill the succession of empty days. Each day at Bergen-Belsen was the same, with nothing to do but stand at roll call and worry about when Mama would reappear from her work detail. In Westerbork, where they had lived for the past four years, some of the camp inmates taught informal classes. But here there was no schooling or even any work for a child of nine.
There was only Marion’s self-invented game. It was her way of keeping her family together. It was also a way of linking a past she could vaguely remember with a future that she could hardly imagine.
How had Marion’s family become caught in the Nazis’ trap? Why had Papa’s carefully thought-out plans to escape from Germany failed? When, in fact, had all their troubles started?
Marion was too young to remember having lived the beginning of the story. But Mama remembered. She knew it all, and she would tell it to Marion as they lay whispering on their bunk at night.
As Mama told it, their family story sounded like a fairy tale that grew more and more frightening as it went on. Its ending had not been written yet. But it did have a fairly happy beginning. “Of course, you don’t remember” – Mama would sigh as she drew the covers more tightly around them – “when you were just a baby in that small town in Germany…”