I Held My Breath We had been crowded into a low-ceilinged room the size of a small church. Cement walls and floor. The soldiers had confis- cated all our clothes, our shoes, what jewel- ry and personal effects that had remained with us. Most of it had long ago been bartered away for food or clean water or other privileges scarce in the compound. We were completely naked: the men, the women, even the little children. Our heads had been shaved. Rumor had it that the Huns stuffed their pillows and mattresses with our hair. The room was entirely vacant but for the human bodies; our pale white flesh was the color of a fish’s belly, and we were stuffed into the room like oysters into a turkey. We had all been shipped to the death camp--Todeslager--like cattle to the slaughter, in box cars, with no food or water. With scarcely enough room to breathe. Once or twice a plane flying overhead had strafed the train with machinegun fire. Perhaps our own brave pilots. There were no youths or middle aged men and women; they had all been absorbed into the vast slave labor network the Huns oper- ated. Only the crippled, the maimed, the feeble and the old, like myself, were here, save for the very young, who weren’t hardy enough for slave labor. We were in Treblinka. It was June, 1943 and the rumor was that the camp would be closed soon. We had no room to lay or sit or even turn around. We were like the kippers that were packed in oil or mustard and that the inmates in labor camps--the Arbeitslager--got from the Red Cross. At Treblinka we never received our kippers. There were nothing but rumors flying throughout the compound: I had heard it said that the German women made lamp shades with our skin. Some of the old men stared up at an aperture in the ceiling, about a foot and a half over our heads. That, they said, was where the Ger- mans would deposit the Zyklon B, the poison they would gas us with. The Commandant, addressing the prisoners some time ago, had bragged that superior German industry had created many wonderful things. This was per- haps the example he had in mind when he said that. He had seemed very proud. One of the younger of the men had been a helper, removing the bodies from the chamber after the gas had dissipated. After everyone was dead. He told us all about how it worked. The poison--prussic acid--he said, worked fast. There would be a rattling over our heads, in the chute that the poison was fed into. Someone, he said with a grotesque grin, always tried to keep the pellet from descending. But fall it always did. For his labors he had received an extra crust of Brot. We waited. And waited. Suddenly there was a clattering overhead, in the chute. The pellet of Zyklon B was descending. A tall man, as if act- ing a part in a movie, attempted to prevent the pellet from falling, where it would crack open and then dissipate in a cloud of murderous vapor. His hand slipped. Suddenly, a large white pellet crashed to the floor, burst open and a deadly, diaphanous cloud rose up. A woman cried out. The lethal “showers” had begun. I held my breath.
This piece was originally published in Children, Churches and Daddies.