Pappas Journals II: In The Reich
by Elaine Sutherland
The characters Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are being used without permission. The characters of Hermann Goering, Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl belong to history. No attempt is being made to profit from their use.
There is the violence of the Third Reich and of WWII. There is lesbian sex.
This story will make more sense if "The Pappas Journals" is read first, since it follows directly upon the last paragraph of the earlier work.
Commentary is invited.
July 5, 1941
"In the Beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god".
I sat back, stunned.
Janice looked up from her reading. Her soft green eyes looked patiently at me waiting for an explanation.
"Why are you quoting scripture?"
"It's not scripture." I pointed down at the scroll I had just translated and could hear my voice drop to a whisper.
She continued staring at me, in mild consternation. It wouldn't register. The magnitude of it was too great.
Then her face lit up with the same astonishment that had jolted me. "You mean Gabrielle of Potedaia wrote those words -- six centuries before Christ?!"
I nodded silently.
"Then.... it is not ...It's not Christian theology."
"No. It is poetry. From a wandering bard, writing about....well, about writing. In arche en ho logos. It's a proclamation. About the primacy, the divinity of the creative thought."
"Oh, I like that. The bard as prophet."
I laid my hand on hers, scarcely able to form the wondrous words. "No, don't you see? Not as prophet. There is nothing to prophesy. The divine spark, the world-creating spirit is already there.
Her face shone with understanding as she absorbed and then reflected back at me the dazzling revelation.
"The bard as savior."
* * * *
July 30, 1941
This scroll, which I have named the "Logos Scroll" baffles us.
How could this village girl as she walked along the dirt roads of Attica and Macedonia with the taciturn Xena of Amphipolis come upon this very un-Greek notion that thought was transcendent and omnipotent?
Gabrielle wrote. That was her gift and her power. That was the substance that she brought to their union.
Gabrielle wrote, of the many times that Xena saved her life, and in so writing she saved Xena in return, saved her for all time and for the world. The ink that flowed from her quill was immortality.
But we cannot reconcile the revelations of immanent divinity in the bard with the puerile images of the naked dancing Gabrielles, the effeminate centurion, the "jerk", the snoring barbarians, and the odorous goddess of love! What enormous irony, that this deepest of mystical insights should be expressed in so silly a scroll. This "Logos" scroll, which Janice has laughingly referred to as "The Quill is Mighty" scroll, is a mixture of profundity and nonsense, as if two hands had written it, although it is written throughout in the unmistakable handwriting of Gabrielle. We are bewildered.
Janice thinks that Gabrielle just got into the nutbread again, all the while she wrote, but I search for a deeper meaning. That perhaps when the poetic mind discovers how powerful it is, all it wants to do is play. And that the defining human experience is not love, nor morality, nor the contemplation of death, but--of all things--laughter.
Here in Europe, as war engulfs a continent, that is difficult to believe.
August 25, 1942
We have worked all month on the "Logos" Scroll while the war rages ever more fiercely, but it is as if we were cocooned with the scrolls and with each other.
We are deliriously happy. The only thing that keeps us from constant carnal knowledge is our respect and love for the other kind of knowledge--for the reason we both came to Macedonia in the first place. But our work together is a sort of lovemaking too. I look at her writing, in the shaft of afternoon sunlight that illuminates the room, from the window looking out at the Acropolis. I feel the light is our love, surrounding and warming us while we work together, not needing to speak or touch. I can remember not knowing her, but I cannot remember not loving her.
The nights are miraculous. From the moment we lay our camp mattresses together, like our ancestors setting up their campsite, we fall into an embrace. We do not want to sleep and we hold off climax. I lie behind her and hold her in my arms, and force myself not to touch too soon the moist golden silk between her legs. I whisper my love and inhale the fragrance of her hair and skin. But arousal seems to come by itself, all too quickly, as soon as I begin to make love to her. I can rarely practice the new arts she had taught me, for as soon as I lay my mouth on her sweet sex, she comes. She has more skill with me, and torments me long and deliciously before she sends me over the edge into euphoria. But nothing is as wondrous as our lying face to face with open eyes, speaking softly, making love with words.
With unaccustomed poetry she tells me she will never leave me. That she will never let me leave her. "I would follow you into hell", she says. "I would be Orpheus for you. I would be Faust. I would sell my soul for you".
"You can't sell your soul, darling", I tell her. " It already belongs to me, and I will never let it go."
* * * *
September 8, 1942
Niklos, one of Sal Moneus' men came to the house last night, after curfew. They have a RAF pilot who managed to parachute to safety over Erithrai before his plane crashed. He is injured and they have asked Uncle Stavros if we could hide him for a few weeks. Stavros barely hesitated, only looked around at us to see if we consented as well. We nodded our agreement of course. But we wondered if Stavros grasped the mortal danger he was stepping into. Janice took him aside.
"Are you sure of this? This is your house, and the risk is very great. You can say no to this with good conscience."
Stavros patted her hand on his shoulder. "Janice, I want to do this. I am too old and timid to be a soldier, but this is a way in which I too can resist the Fascists. To do nothing in wartime is criminal. You have to declare your allegiance and speak the words. A man must know who he is."
"And a woman too!" she replied. "Stavros, you make me proud to be in this family," she added, and I wondered then if he caught the real meaning of "in this family". I was proud of our little family too, the three of us, but also filled with a certain foreboding.
An hour after the messenger left, Sal came back with a slender blond Englishman on crutches wearing a plaster cast up to his knee. He was very weak and we made him as comfortable as possible. I looked with new eyes at the plump Greek black marketer whom I had never thought much of. Sal was no less corrupt than before, but he too had declared his allegiance, and knew who he was. He sat down, scratched under his scruffy beard and told us of the network of partisans operating throughout Greece and the Balkans.
"This house now has a code name, 'America', and by the way, I hope you have another one of your American hundred dollar bills." He held out his hand, the one that was not scratching his beard. Even as a patriot, Sal Moneus was business man.
"Well, we have to pay off the doctor and a few other people who helped us get him here, and you are also going to need more food." It made sense, of course, so I handed the money over, and he left with promises to keep us supplied as well as he could.
And now, it seems, we are all in the Resistance. Suddenly the pistol which Janice gave me a few months ago no longer seems so irrelevant.
September 20, 1941
Nigel is a cheerful, funny man, and has adapted easily to the household. He is very pale-skinned and blonder than Janice. We have put him in the tiny space where I used to sleep and where there is no window. The injury to the leg, according to the doctor, is expected to heal in about eight weeks. But Nigel does not need to be waited on and hobbles around taking care of himself and doing various household jobs. He is even, as it turns out, a fairly decent cook. Janice and I both sleep now in the work room, and have grown accustomed to setting up the work table every morning and dismantling it at night.
October 5, 1941
Janice is always comfortable with men, perhaps because she was never pampered by them, never taught to be a "lady" and defer to them. Stavros adored her from the first day and now Nigel has fallen under her playful spell. They look alike, and even tease each other in the same way. This morning as I came into the kitchen they were arguing about Marlene Dietrich while they prepared our meager breakfast.
"You're bloody daft", he said with adorable British pique as he hobbled on one crutch from sink to table. "Dietrich is the sexiest woman on both sides of the war."
"Hmmmm. So, you'd like to get into HER knickers, eh, Flyboy?" Janice paused in slicing the morning's bread, turned around and squinted at him through the bright Aegean sunlight that poured through the window onto her face "Well, I met her in Berlin in the thirties when she was filming 'Blue Angel'. I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but...she had a girlfriend!"
"Poppycock!. You sapphists see lesbians everywhere!
("You sapphists"? Oh, I guess he knew.)
He studied his nails, as if revealing a secret. "Word is she's being boffed by your very manly John Wayne. Oh, she's a man's woman, my Dear! Spot it a mile off!"
Janice smiled that wonderful smile of hers and laid her arm over his shoulder, "That doesn't change what I saw". She leaned over and pretended to whisper in his ear, "Nige, old fellow, the lady's a skirt chaser."
I added my weak support, "Well there was that movie, 'Morocco' wasn't it called, where she wore that tuxedo and kissed that woman."
"Oh no, you too, Melinda? Well, I won't have you both ruin my best erotic fantasy. You've no bloody proof. It's all in your salacious little minds!"
I held up my hands in the international gesture of peace. "Well, maybe we should all just see what we want to see. If you want to see her as a sex symbol for men, fine. If others see...uh...subtext, well...."
Just then Stavros walked in and everyone decided that breakfast was more important.
October 20, 1941
Having a soldier in the house of course brings us much closer to the war. Nigel was at Dunkirk in May of 1940 and has told us about the miracle rescue of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force. I could scarcely imagine it, a third of a million men in lines strung out along the beach while the RAF and the Luftwaffe fought it out in the air. Wounded, defeated men filling up the troop ships and still there were thousands left on the beach, loading in groups of 100 and 50 and 20 into private boats, brought across the Channel by civilians. An armada of boats under fire, sweeping up soldiers from the beach and from the water.
Then he told me what Churchill had said, the speech which we had not heard here in Athens, but that he had memorized.
And I could hear the raspy voice of that crusty old warrior, stirring his people to the defense of the homeland.
We shall fight on the seas and oceans....We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!
Powerful words that could give meaning and purpose to defeat.
* * * *
November 12, 1941
We have heard through the Resistance that the German government has decreed that Jews must wear the yellow star. It is rigorously enforced in Germany, although less so in the occupied countries. But it has forced a more obvious choosing up of sides. Either one abandons one's Jewish neighbors, or assists them. One cannot remain neutral.
Janice goes off with Sal quite often now, on some war business or other. I hate it when she takes risks and I understand now the reason for the scrolls. It was the need Gabrielle had to preserve the greatness of Xena since every day she might have lost her. To write down the events is to hold on to them, to counter the fear of death.
November 20, 1941
Obtaining food for four people has become a serious daily concern. Lend lease does not apply to occupied lands but things find their way from country to country. Sal continues to be our main source, and my American 100 dollar bills have kept us supplied. Even in an occupied country, the banks still operate, and the major currencies are still exchanged. And Sal has accumulated a lot of our money; I wonder what he does with it.
December 8, 1941
It has finally happened, but it is still a great shock. Janice and Stavros were sitting in the living room last night listening to the BBC on the short wave. They waved me to silence when I came in and the expressions on their faces told me it was something terrible. Then I recognized the voice.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan The United States was at peace with that nation ...
President Roosevelt's voice droned on, one terrible word after another. There seemed to be no other sound in the room, in the house. Only the nasal New England voice that kept on relentlessly.
The Japanese Government launched an attack against Malaysia...against Hong Kong...against...Guam...against the Philippine Islands ...against Midway.."
And then, the final, irrevocable words:
I ask that Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by the Japanese on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."
War had raged around us for a year and it had scarcely touched us. We had gone on loving and working and taking care of the needs of the day. But at the word "Congress" I suddenly grasped that I was not just out on a slightly dangerous adventure and could go home at any time. Now my homeland was at war; the world was at war.
I looked up. Stavros sat staring at the radio. "They have awakened a sleeping giant," he said quietly.
* * * *
December 15, 1941
We know now that it will be years before the precious scrolls can be brought to real safety in a museum. The simple burying of the crate under dirt is not sufficient, and we have decided to protect the majority of the precious documents for the duration of the war. We dug out the crate, removed five of the twenty scrolls and reburied the remaining fifteen in a much deeper hole. Then we covered the whole thing with a layer of cement obtained from Sal. It took us a total of three days to do the whole job and to do it quietly, but we think now the crate could survive even the bombing of the house. I am relieved. We must protect this 3000 year old history at all costs.
December 20, 1941
Sal has arranged for new passports for Janice and me, for our Resistance work and so we can travel more easily in Greece. Mine is Greek, for Melina Amphipolous. Janice's, we were surprised to find, is Hungarian. Janice pointed out that while she speaks about eight languages, Hungarian is not one of them. Sal replied with irrefutable logic, "No one speaks Hungarian except Hungarians, of which there aren't so many, so no one can test you. Your German's pretty good. Not good enough for a German, but good enough for a Hungarian." She is Magda Farkacs. Janice scrutinized both documents and admitted grudgingly,
"Nice work, Sal. Got to hand it to you."
"Thank you, Janice. Now, that will be one hundred American dollars."
"Sal, you are a swine" I said as I handed over yet another crisp American bill. "At least throw in some food for Christmas dinner. Can you get us something special?"
"How about lamb? Just happen to have some. I'll send it back with Niklos. "
And he left with the air of a satisfied business man.
December 24, 1941 -- Christmas Eve
Although there is a war on, we have each other and we feel very fortunate. We are all healthy and Nigel can walk again unassisted. We made a holiday dinner from Sal's black-market lamb and after Stavros played a few hymns on his violin, we exchanged gifts. Janice presented Stavros with her last ten cigars, and made him a happy man. He in turn gave both Janice and me silver rings that had belonged to his wife. The rings are very plain, and on our two hands they are a little like wedding bands. I liked that, and I wondered if that was what Stavros intended. We had never spoken openly of our relationship and he had never referred to it. But he took both our hands and laid them together and then I knew that the rings were his way of giving us his blessing.
Janice gave me a bulky package which proved to be a thick shawl, the coarse woven kind that the old Greek women wear on the cold days down at the harbor. Nigel looked at its dirt brown color, rubbed the thick wool between his fingers and couldn't resist commenting.
"Janice, that shawl is really.....uhh...well....incredibly ugly."
She punched him on his shoulder.
"You turd! I want Mel to be warm, and that was the thickest, warmest thing I could find in Piraeus. Pardon me for not shopping in Paris, Flyspeck!"
"What happened to 'Flyboy'?"
"You were just demoted."
As they bantered, sibling-like, I looked over at the two blond heads and saw how the candlelight behind them illuminated their hair, his in a thin shimmering corona, hers in a wide halo of flame. They looked like twins, and I confess I felt a twinge of jealousy, that the two of them were so beautiful together, like radiant angels. I wanted him to go away. I wanted to be the one sitting there with my hair glowing, making Janice laugh. I know their love does not take anything away from me, that he is like the brother she never had, and so I feel ashamed. But still, I think it will be better when he is gone.
"I love it, Janice. And I promise that I'll wear it all winter," I said.
December 25, 1941 Christmas Day
I do not know what to do.
Janice had to go with Sal on an urgent mission to Iraklion, since they needed someone who spoke German. Today of all days. They said that the maritime patrols would be lax at Christmas. But the real crisis is that Niklos has come to say that Nigel's contact is on it's way here. A motor boat will pick him up in Piraeus at 11:00 PM. It must be tonight of course; there is no way to call back and change the plans. This is unexpected, and potentially disastrous. The plan was for Janice or Sal to smuggle him down to the harbor when word came. They know the safe streets, whom to threaten, whom to bribe. But they are both in Iraklion. And Nigel must go. The decision has been taken from me.
We have packed very little, just some food for Nigel for the trip. I'm wrapped in my ugly warm shawl. We are leaving now.
God help us.
* * * *
Here the Journals stop abruptly and do not resume again until April 1943. Entries between these dates have been transcribed from sources outside the journal and incorporated, where possible, chronologically. The individual dates are erratic, often absent or incorrect, but all stem from this interim period and all are from the hand of Melinda Pappas.
January 5 1942
My dearest Janice,
I have been arrested. This is the first time I have been able to set words down on paper. I do not know if I will ever make it back to Athens, or to America, but I must talk to you during these harrowing times, must have you before me in my mind's eye, holding this book in your hands where I record these events.
I was arrested taking Nigel to Piraeus to meet with his contact, which was supposed to be his rescue. The timing couldn't have been worse. You were in Iraklion with Sal when word came that his pick-up was there. It had to be that night and so, for lack of an alternative, we went. But everything went wrong. The boat was late, and we had to wait for the signal. We sat in the truck for twenty minutes, wondering what was wrong. Nigel told me how much he loved you, how much he loved us both. Did you know he was as innocent as I was, when I first met you? He had hoped you would be the first, until he realized you and I were together. That lovely, gentle man. And then the signal came, but when we got out we hadn't gone twenty paces before two Greek policemen stopped us. My accent gave me away as a foreigner, and Nigel of course didn't even have papers. Nigel tried to break away, and they shot him. He got up and they made him walk, but they separated us and so I don't know how bad it was. He looked over his shoulder at me as they dragged him off. He seemed to be in great pain.
We were interrogated separately in Athens. I knew he was there but I could not see him. I do not think he gave any information. I also gave none and I will not. Of that I am certain. I am afraid. But I will let them kill me, however terribly, before I endanger you. I pray that you are safe, my darling.
They took us away the next day on separate trucks to Salonika. I saw him for the last time as they dragged him to the other truck. He seemed very weak.
I was ten days in the prison at Salonika. I marked the days off on the wall.
On the fourth day in Salonika they took Nigel away in a transport. One of the guards, a quiet woman who never abused the prisoners, whispered to me, while she shoved a bowl of gruel into my cell, "Your friend has been transported. To Dachau, with the other men. They carried him out. He was unconscious". Then she was gone.
Now I am alone with my guilt, that I could have saved us both if I had just refused to drive him to Piraeus.
But I am tormented more with worry for you. Have the Germans found out where we live? Have they arrested you? Are you endangering yourself trying to find me?
On the tenth day the same guard came in, this time with a German officer and an Orthodox priest. I had certainly not asked for a priest, and I feared for a moment it meant I was to be executed. The officer spoke and the priest interpreted, saying that I was charged with espionage which was punishable by death, but that this would be carried out in Germany and at the discretion of the authorities there. That shook me.
I am to be transported into the Reich.
The priest then said to me in Greek, "Kneel my child. If you wish to make confession, I can give you comfort." At first I balked. I did not want to debase myself before this bearded stranger who was collaborating with the Nazis, so I stood frozen. But he repeated himself and held out a small Bible and I began to think that he was trying to help me in some way.
I knelt and put my hands together the way I had seen little children praying and bowed my head. I had no idea how to make confession in Greek or in any language and just recited the Pater Noster that I had learned in my Biblical Greek class in college. That seemed to fit the charade because he then placed a small New Testament in my hands and covered them with his own and said another prayer. Then he said, "Keep this book always with you. Its words are holy. They are the words of Truth, the Alithia. It is not enough to have faith. You must have the words." Lexis, he said.
I grasped finally what he was giving me. A truly precious gift. He was giving me paper to write on.
When I got back to my cell I had only a few minutes to look at the book and see that it had a thin pencil pressed into the back cover. I would have to be careful never to lose it. I just had time to put on my coat and shawl and hide the Bible inside my shirt before they loaded us onto the trucks.
* * * *
I am in a train now.
It is the second day. I can see the steam of my breath and it is so cold that my fingers are numb. I am curled up trying to keep warm just below the one small window of this freight car. The car smelled of cattle when we were first packed in here, but now it smells of us, from the bucket which is our toilet. The only source of light is the small and wire-covered window over my head. It lets in the cold, but if we did not have it, we would sit in total darkness. It provides just enough light for me to write. And when I write, I am with you.
Oh, my darling. Cold and frightened as I am, I will write everything. When I write, I hold the events. They do not hold me. I hope fervently that I will be the one to give this book to you, but if I am not, someone will give it to the world, and I will at least have given testimony.
Too many of the Germans read English, and so I write in Greek. I have tried writing along the margins but saw immediately that there was far too little space. So I turn the pages horizontally and write at right angles to the printed text. It appears an illegible mess at first glance, but one can, with effort, read the lines I write. I write the Greek that I have been reading for a year, the mixed dialect of the scrolls. It is the Greek of Gabrielle of Potedaia. Sometimes, in the half sleep I achieve -- for real sleep is impossible -- sometimes I imagine myself talking to her. I wonder if she would understand this kind of terror. I think she would.
I can't count how many are here, but the freight car is packed full, and it is all women and children. No one is talking; all you hear is the whining of children and the hard pounding of the wheels on the tracks, like a frantic heartbeat. I heard several languages at first, Greek, Yugoslavian, Bulgarian (I think), Czech, but no English. Now just the hushed sounds of mothers comforting their children. I am thirsty.
We stopped at some town and did not move for hours. They opened the door just long enough to empty the bucket. They have taken a woman off the train who died during the night.
These things must be recorded and remembered. The woman who died, she must not be forgotten. I have asked the woman sitting next to me to pass along the question who the dead woman was. And then the name was passed back to me. Andrea Kostakis.
On this day, January 6, 1941, the life of Andrea Kostakis was snuffed out on a train traveling into the Reich.
I wonder, will someone bear witness for me?
I have spoken to the two women near me, who are Greek. Sophia and Alexis. They are young, from Athens, they said. Sophia is Jewish, which surprised me because she has long honey-colored hair much like yours. It contrasts oddly with her large dark eyebrows. I wish it were not so hard to talk. I want to hear their stories. I want to know if they have someone back in Athens too. I want comfort. I want not to be alone. I am so thirsty.
January 7, 1942
There was an upset. Someone has fainted and turned over the toilet bucket. People tried to edge away from the pool of filth, but there is no place to move. Cold, thirst, fear, darkness and now filth. Someone cried out in Greek, "What is left now to torment us?" I fear there is a great deal left.
I can hardly write, my hands are so cold. Fortunately not my head, even though I am right below the window. I have your wonderful thick shawl wrapped around my head and do not feel the wind. I have also found a way to get a few drops of water. The wire over the window is covered with ice. I put my finger through the wire and break off little fragments of it and put them in my mouth. It tastes of rust and oil but it lessens the torment of thirst. I had to disturb Sophia and Alexis to stand up but I shared the bits of ice with them.
January 8, 1942
We have passed through Sarajevo and Zagreb. The last sign I saw was Graz. We are in Austria. A land I always associated with forests and clean air. And innocence.
Jan 9, 1942
We stopped outside of a city and they opened the door again. The toilet bucket was emptied, although the fetid mess in the corner remained. Soldiers passed in water and bread. There was chaos when they threw in the bread, but Andrea, who is quite tall and strong, snatched it out of the air and got enough for the three of us. But the water bucket never reached us. Everyone is too parched and the handful crouched around the door got it all. It is clear that the only water we will get today will be from the ice.
When the train began moving again I stood up to see what city we had reached. Linz, Austria.
No one speaks, but there is a close feeling between the two Greek women and myself. We take turns leaning against each other. That makes it possible to actually sleep for a little while, in spite of the cold and crowding.
January 10, 1942
We are in Czechoslovakia now. It was night when we passed through a large station, but I saw a sign that said Praha. Prague. It is morning now, and we have been sitting here on this side rail outside the city for several hours. Everyone is numb with exhaustion. Even the children have stopped crying.
Now the boxcars are being shunted backwards and forwards. I hear the crash of heavy steel parts linking. It sounds like they are adding freight cars. New captives in each country the Germans pass through.
January 11, 1942
We are deep in the Reich. The landscape is covered with snow as far as I can see. Ironic that something so lovely so fills me with dread. We must be quite far north by now. So far away from you. I have never been so filthy, but except for the hunger, which has become a dull and permanent ache, I am not sick. Only weak. My darling, even in your absence you take care of me. The heavy boots which you insisted I wear are sturdy and dry, and will hold up in the snow. And your shawl has kept three people warm.
Two more people have died from cold, or thirst, or both. Fotini Mourtos, an elderly woman, and Gianni Thanopolous, a child of two. Each of us wonders if this is our death train too. Our lips are parched and cracked, and we try to sleep, an hour at a time.
There is still too much time to think. To worry about you, and Stavros, and Nigel, whom I have perhaps taken to his death. I have only one thing to hold on to, the thought of you. I feel your love encircling me like this shawl. I remember the heat of your body and that warms me a little.
We are stopped. I hear a different kind of noise. They seem to be unloading the car ahead of us. I hear dogs barking, men shouting in German. I remember the German words I need: Wasser. Bitte, Wasser.
* * * *
January 13, 1942
I am at Ravensbrück in a barracks with 80 other women. The train was unloaded outside the camp near a lake and everyone who was able ran down to the water to drink. There was ice at the edge, but we just kicked holes in it. Then the soldiers herded us toward the camp. We had to give up our coats and jewelry (including my "wedding" ring) and our heads were shaved. Alexis, always strong, never flinched at the degradation. But Sophia wept, losing her beautiful honey-colored curls, and I did too, feeling my long hair fall away. Then we were made to line up again.
The line moved slowly and I could see that the women at the front were made to strip and, in groups of 50, enter a shower room which functioned as the entry into the camp. Some 40 meters farther along there was the exit where the naked women were given prison clothing. I was determined to keep my bible-journal no matter what. So I walked up to the guard at the front and said that I was sick with diarrhea and had to go quickly or I would soil myself. You see Janice, your teaching me the German word for 'shit' was a good thing after all. The guard was disgusted and waved me toward the shower room and told me to squat over the drain, so I ran ahead, fully dressed into the shower room. There were some moldy benches piled up in one corner so I took off my boots, dropped the book into one of them, and hid the boots under the benches. I left the shower room and, against all odds, was able to get back into the line without anyone noticing or caring that I had gone in shod and come out only in socks.
After the ice cold shower, which at least washed away some of the lice, I grabbed the boots again and Alexis and Sophia and I stood together shivering in the last line leading into the camp. We were each given a prisoner's dress and a coat with numbers sewn on the front which we put on where we stood. I am number 13,332, Sophia is 13,333 and Alexis is 13,334. At the last table outside the showers, they issued us colored triangles, to identify our reasons for imprisonment. We all have red triangles, -- for political prisoners. Sophia was also given a yellow star.
Sophia and Alexis and I have been assigned to the same barracks, where we were given the day's meal, a bowl of turnip soup and a slice of bread. It is the first solid food I have had in three days. I forced myself to eat it slowly.
January 14, 1942
This morning at 4:30 AM, I had my first roll call. The Lagerstrasse, the main avenue of the camp where we are counted, was lit by fiercely bright lights high up on poles. We lined up ten by ten to make up units of 100. That is the way they count each block. If the number is not correct, they count it again. I had no way to estimate the total number, but it seemed to be several thousand. It was freezing cold out on the Lagerstrasse , and I do not know how long I can endure it.
The women in my block are Greek and Yugoslavian. If they wonder at the strange Greek that I speak, no one seems to care enough to ask my nationality. I do not know if there would be any benefit in having it known that I am an American. And here at least I have Alexis and Sophia.
There was another roll call right after that, for work. All three of us have been assigned to "Bekleidung", the care of the prison clothing, and we know that we are lucky. I see other women working on the streets between the blocks, or hauling wood, and I see what a terrible toll the outdoor labor takes.
There was another roll call at noon and one in the evening, a total of four every day. All require that we stand in the bitter cold until the count is finished.
January 15, 1942
Each night we sleep packed together like rodents in a nest. The 'beds' are simply wooden platforms with a thin layer of straw, crawling with lice and fleas. They were made for four but there are six of us on our platform and the crowding makes it almost impossible to turn over at night without waking all the others. Alexis, Sophia and I share half a platform. The other women on our platform are Yugoslavs who speak no Greek or English. Sophia, being the smallest, is always between Alexis and me. I lie on the outside edge and I feel Sophia curled up like a baby, her arms pressed against my back. Alexis holds her from the other side and whispers comfort, and their love for each other comforts me a little too. Each of them has a little bit of you, Janice. Sophia has eyes like yours and the stubble of hair growing back on her head has your color. Alexis has your strength and confidence and even swears like you.
January 18, 1942
We are guarded by a hierarchy of women guards or "Aufseherinnen". At the lowest level are the prisoner guards, who have accommodated their masters and watch over the others, sometimes from the love of power, sometimes for the extra ration of sausage or margarine. The room leader is a prisoner who has simply survived the longest. The Germans call her "Stubenaelteste", or the "oldest in the room", but the camp slang for her is "Stubova". The leader of the whole block is the "Blockaelteste" or "Blockova". The Stubovas and Blockovas seem to need to prove to their German masters that they are not sympathetic to the other prisoners, and do this by beating us for the slightest infraction. You can identify them immediately because they are plump and warmly dressed and surrounded by sycophants who hope to derive some benefit, or at least avoid harm from them.
At the next level are the German guards who have dogs and carry pistols. Some of them are sadistic, but most of them are just indifferent as they carry out their brutal jobs. It is unwise to attract their attention, and so we never look at them. But I listen, and I am learning German quickly, new words every day. Each word makes me less helpless.
January 22, 1942
The prisoners do everything in the camp, drain the bogs, build the roads, do carpentry and plumbing, keep accounts and even police the camp. Since it is winter, I was fortunate to be assigned to Bekleidung. The other category is "verfuegbar" or "available" which is dangerous since you can be seized at any time for the worst kind of work.
Bekleidung is also a way to identify what happens to prisoners who are moved out of their blocks. Many are sent into forced labor and some are executed. It is the custom to execute the prisoners nude, in order to recycle their clothing. The return of the prisoners' clothing signifies that they have been killed. The clothing comes back very quickly. The numbers are never used twice, and after a prisoner dies, the clothing has a new, higher number sewn on.
The Polish prisoners have organized a way to keep this sort of information. They have found a way to record the numbers of the dead, and other things, with 'invisible' ink They discovered you can write with urine, between the lines of letters and on the inside of official envelopes. It is invisible on dry paper, but can be read if you press a hot iron on it. In this way, many records are kept, and messages gotten out of the camp.
January 30, 1942
I am glad I have retained my Greek identity and I don't know what I would do without my two friends. Every night before we fall exhausted onto our crowded wooden bed, we talk a little and give each other strength. Sophia is the most anxious, for she has to wear the yellow star and she is abused more by the guards. We try to watch out for her. I foolishly said, "Look, you even have a lucky number on your dress. All those threes!" It was a stupid remark, I should have known. She answered bleakly, "For a Christian, maybe. But the Trinity doesn't have much meaning for a Jew."
I put my arms around her. "Then the threes are for the three of us. We take care of each other. That's what keeps us going."
Alexis said, "It's true, Sophia. You give me a reason to live through every day." Then she turned to me. "Did you know Sophia was a singer? She sang in the opera chorus in Athens."
I thought of you, Janice darling, and the opera I forced you to go to. I asked Sophia if she had been singing in August of 1940. To my amazement she said yes. When I told her that I had actually been at one of her performances, the Tosca at Klafthmonos Square, and that Stavros had played in the orchestra, you should have seen the change that came over her face. It was like a light had gone on.
"Really? Oh how wonderful that you were there. You must have seen me then. In the first act".
"Of course, I spotted you instantly!. You were glorious, every note!". She smiled at my bluff and said, "Tell the truth now. You only had eyes for Maria Callas, didn't you?"
"Yes", I confessed. "She was really spectacular. My friend Janice is her cousin." (It felt good to talk about you to Sophia, especially on that beautiful day. It was the first time I ever saw you in a dress, remember? And I was already deeply in love with you.)
Sophia said "It was always my dream to sing that role. I know all her arias, especially "Vissi d'arte." She hummed and then softly sang the first few bars in a voice that was still pure and beautiful, in spite of the hunger and abuse. She had only sung a little when suddenly women all around us stopped what they were doing and turned around .
Then the most wonderful thing occurred. Someone asked her to sing. Another one insisted she sing. Others joined in. They all were so hungry for a little beauty. And she gave it to them. Silence fell over that room full of starving women, and in her delicate high voice Sophia sang that gorgeous aria.
Vissi d'arte. Vissi d'amore. Non feci mai male ad anima viva........
She sang it softly, and a capella, of course, but she sang it as beautifully as I have ever heard it, as beautifully as Callas. And never more heart breaking. Sitting on the edge of that squalid wooden platform, her battered legs hanging over the side, she sang,
Sempre con fe sincera, la mia preghiera ai tabernacoli sali.
And the faces of the women were enthralled, by the utter purity of the voice, by the magnitude of the gift she was giving them,
... e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel, che ne ridean piu belli .
"I offered my song to the stars, and made them more beautiful". Oh, Sophia, you made all our lives more beautiful that night, for a brief moment.
Nell'ora del dolor, perche Signor, ah, perche me ne rimuneri cosi?
I am certain that no one there spoke Italian, but everyone knew, absolutely knew, that she sang what was in our own hearts.
I lived for art and love, I never harmed any living thing....
Lord, why do you punish me this way?
For a moment after she stopped singing there was silence. You heard only the sound of the bitter wind, blowing through the camp, through Germany, through Europe that night. And then a few of the women clapped timidly and then our whole side of the barracks applauded, and the Stubova, who had listened from the doorway, clapped too. Then she then remembered who she was, and gave the order for lights out.
In the darkness, we crowded together on our platform in our usual sleeping positions, Alexis embraced Sophia from behind and Sophia laid her head against my back. Alex whispered to me over Sophia's shoulder, "You see why I love Sophia so much? And why I live for her every day? But what keeps you going, Meli? There must be something."
I turned over, repositioned Sophia's head on my chest, and told them about you, Janice, about our scrolls, and our ancestors. I put into words what had only been vague thoughts until then. I said that knowing we were the descendants of Xena and Gabrielle gave sense to my life, burned like a light inside of me, comforting me like religious faith in the face of death and horror. In the last few minutes of consciousness left me, I told them and myself that you and I could never really be separated because we had always been together. I fell asleep with my arms around a head with short spikes of honey colored hair, and I dreamt of you.
February 2, 1942
Almost all the peoples of Europe are represented in the camp: Swiss, Spanish, Italians, English. Americans, too, they tell me, although I have not met any. A few groups in barracks near us stand out. The Dutch and Norwegians, generally German speaking, are a dignified group. They receive outside packages and could be considered privileged. The Russians on the other hand suffer horrible mistreatment. In spite of that, the women of the Red Army are very impressive. They were highly organized and disciplined before their imprisonment, and still seem to be, and they are clean, and honest. I wish I could speak to them. The Poles also seem particularly tough. They know how to organize an efficient system of mutual aid and in some cases, resistance. And occasionally they manage to get messages to the allies.
February 6, 1942
We were pulled out of Bekleidung today for some reason and put to work on a wood detail. This meant eleven hours gathering and cutting wood and piling it onto carts. Germany is full of trucks, but they will not use a drop of gasoline to bring our wood into the camp, and force us to load it instead onto ancient haycarts meant for horses. And of course there are no horses. It takes five women to pull the cart when it is empty, and ten when it is full. When the ground is muddy, or thick with snow, we inch along, being screamed at or beaten by the guards. Who would have thought a haycart could become an instrument of torture?
February 10, 1942
Sophia is sick. We are of course all sick, with hunger and exhaustion, but she is coughing terribly and cannot sleep. We do her work for her as much as possible in Bekleidung, and the Stubova lets us get away with it as long as we fulfill the day's quota. Alexis and I give her part of our soup as well as her own. It stops the coughing for awhile.
February 15, 1942
This morning a whole block of Frenchwomen was transported out for labor, to the Siemens factory near the camp. We will not see them again.
We are a market commodity and Ravensbrück is a center for the economic exploitation of female labor. Costs at Ravensbrück are negligible. Since the camp is self supporting, there is no "overhead", and any additional labor that is forced from us make us a profit making industrial enterprise. Ravensbrück furnishes cheap labor for nearby factories and throughout Germany which pay for specialists and productive workers. For a contracted price, the industrialist receives a contingent of women plus Aufseherinnen, dogs and clubs. The prisoners don't come back. They are just replaced as they die, by more of the same. It is a perfect cycle.
February 17, 1942
Sophia is worse.
We had to hold her up at roll call this morning, and she could not work today. The Stubova has just now taken her to another block, for medical care. We are anxious about this. We know there are doctors in the camp, and some sick prisoners do get well and come back again. We have seen them. But Alexis is beside herself with fear that she won't see Sophia again, and I try to comfort her. But I don't know any more than she does.
February 18, 1942
Word has come through the Poles, who seem to keep some lines of information with the outside, that Goering was in Rome with Mussolini arranging for more Italian troops to be sent into Russia. The German offensive that had cut through Russia like a scythe seems to have finally dragged to a halt because of the Russian winter. Suddenly the winter cold that was slowly killing us seemed to be less of an enemy. Suddenly every blast of cold air that comes into our barracks is a reminder of the frigid winds that were freezing up German trucks and tanks.
In the meantime I do my work and try to stay alive while I wait for you, Janice. It is my job in the morning to receive the bundle of work aprons and dresses and sort them into piles: to be washed if they are filthy -- sometimes they have vomit or feces, or blood -- or to be mended if they are badly torn. Or, if they are immediately reusable, just to hand them over for the numbers to be removed and new ones sewn onto them. It is not difficult work, except that I must do it standing for eleven hours straight through. It is considered 'light labor' so we do not get a midday meal, as the outside workers do.
February 19, 1942
Food is the critical factor in our survival. We get two meals here, those of us who work inside the camp. The morning meal is just some brown liquid they call coffee, but of course it is not. I do not know what it is made of, and its chief advantage is that is it hot. The one main meal of the day is the supper, which is always soup and a slice of bread. If for some reason a prisoner does not eat the meal or there is a miscount, the bread becomes a form of currency, and can buy favors, or another blanket, or exemption from a wood detail.
February 20, 1942
My darling Janice, I can hardly write, my hand is shaking so. But I must record this. A bundle of recycled clothing came into Bekleidung, as it does every day. I did my work indifferently, my thoughts always on you and Athens. Suddenly I was torn out of my reverie. I must have gasped because the Stubova suddenly turned around. I lowered my head and turned away from her and forced my hands to work mechanically while my heart was breaking. That was my lowest moment. Nothing, not my arrest, nor the train ride, nor the starvation, struck me as hard as this.
With trembling hands and choking back tears that seemed to burn inside of me, I gently smoothed and folded, over and over again, dress number 13,333.
I held onto the dress for as long as I dared, keeping it at the bottom of the pile I was working on, but finally it was the last one on the table. I stood there for a moment, and then passed it on to the next woman in line, who cut the number off the breast pocket. She handed it over to Alexis, who mended it, not knowing it was the dress of her lover. Not yet. I would tell her later. What was the point in making her work the next ten hours in despair.
Finally, at the end of the day, when we were released to go back to our block, I linked my arm tightly in hers and whispered, my voice raw and broken,
"Alexis, Sophia....is dead. Her dress came in today....for a new number."
She hesitated only for a moment, turned around and blinked at me as if I were speaking an unfamiliar language, and then slid her arm gently out of mine. She kept on walking, out of the columns of women, purposefully, toward the fence. The guard, a new one I did not recognize, yelled, "Halt". But she kept on walking, with an ominous calmness, with resolution. She did not stop or quicken her pace, just walked on. The guard repeated, "Halt". But Alexis kept walking. The guard ran after her and stood in front of her and slapped her in the face. "Sofort halten!" It was a miracle he hadn't shot her already. Clearly he didn't want to. She brushed past him and kept walking. He hit her with the butt of the rifle and she went down on her knees, but just got up again and kept walking. He hit her again, but she got up again. By then another guard had joined him and for a moment they both stared at the crazed woman walking toward a wire fence she could never climb anyhow. The second guard lifted his rifle and said a final, "Halt". When she did not react he shot, and she went down finally and did not get up. They ordered two nearby prisoners to take her to the crematorium.
She joined Sophia, as I feared she would, as I knew she would, and mingled with her that night as smoke and ash and bone.
* * * *
February 23, 1942
I do not know what keeps me alive. I am not sick; I survive each roll call and the long work hours each day. And I even make it through the intermittent wood details they send me on.. Coming back each day I see along the Lagerstrasse, in the snow, the "Schmückstück" as they are called, or sometimes "Musselmänner", moribund prisoners who become skeletal and lethargic before they die, or allow themselves to be killed.
I know it can happen to me. What have I got to live for? Each day the dreaded thought grows that you too are dead. Otherwise you would have come for me. I saw a wood carving once, on an altar in some Gothic church that said "Media Vita in Morte Sumus". In the middle of life we are dead. That runs through my head all day now, the way your voice used to.
February 28, 1942
They have taken the rest of the Yugoslav women out of the barracks. There were about twelve who kept among themselves. Now they have been put in a transport to work somewhere in the east. The three who slept on the other side of my platform were very weak and cannot possibly last long. I sleep on a bed with five new prisoners but I still feel the presence of the old ones who are dead or doomed. I lie with their spectres on a crowded bier. In this room as elsewhere, women have died during the frigid nights, and their corpses lain on their beds until morning. The weak and dying lie very still, the stronger ones writhe for space. At night, when I wake in the tenebrous gloom, from the cold or a shifting body, I cannot distinguish the living from the dead. We are all caught here in purgatory.
Media vita in morte sumus.
March 1, 1942
There is about an hour after our supper before the two bare overhead lights go out. I make no effort to talk to others, to find new friends. I am too exhausted, numb. Instead, I try to make a little space for myself to read. I crave the solitude it gives me in the midst of the misery and squalor. The gospels do not interest me, and I care nothing for the pretty stories of martyrdom to a divine father I have long since stopped believing in. It is the beauty of the Greek that I savor in this book, the sonorous language of my ancestors. A pity I do not have Euripides at hand, or Homer. "Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilles. Anger would be a comfort now.
March 10, 1942
Last night I finished writing on the last page of the book of Matthew and began John. I read the familiar opening wordsen arce hn o logos and saw your face before me, Janice, as we had made our great discovery. I had not realized that I could feel your presence in this book, my darling atheist, but there it was.
I read on and realized with a shock that it was all familiar. At the fourth and fifth verses
And the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not...
That was the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him and the world knew him not."
I felt a growing excitement. You know I am not a Bible-reading Christian, Janice, but I have read these words before, in an older Greek, with only the slightest difference. In the older version, it" was, "The word lives in the flesh and dwells in us and it is our glory".
And then I knew. What I held in my hand was not the doctrine of the apostle glorifying the patriarchal God. It was the mystical poetry of Gabrielle.
The implications are staggering. It means the scrolls, or at least this scroll, was read or recited, or sung, and known by the writer of the Gospel of John. A seven century old scroll, or poem, or song, must have come to the Holy Land and found its way into Christian scriptures.
Gabrielle, the pagan child of Potedaia, lives in the holiest book of the Western World.
Just then the lights went out. But in the darkness, I held the book to my chest. With it I held both you, my darling, and your ancient ancestor, Gabrielle. In this dark and freezing room in a German concentration camp, surrounded by filth and brutality and the ghosts of murdered women, I felt a surge of hope. I know now I have to live. I will live. I have a revelation to make.
March 27, 1942
I have been ten weeks in this camp. Janice, my heart, my strength, I have begun to think you will not come for me. And I grieve, not for myself, but for you, because I know that it means you have come to harm. I know you would have found me otherwise. Ares has had his revenge, hasn't he? We didn't bury him at all. I sometimes think I hear him laughing.
March 30, 1942
It is Spring according to the calendar, but the cold drags on. The Blockova has taken a particular dislike to me and I am selected every few days for wood detail. If the work here were not so terrible, I would enjoy being among the trees. There is a hint of green and new growth, but it seems absurd to celebrate it in sight of the camp where women are dying every hour. I had heard that you could eat new grass and tried some of the tiny shoots, but there is not enough to have any effect on hunger.
So this is what hope feels like.
Word came that a Berlin pastor would hold an Easter Service at the North End of the Lagerstrasse. I suppose it was a way to give the impression of 'decent conditions' to the Red Cross, which occasionally inspects the camp. I have no interest in the Easter story, and would have gladly stayed in the barracks for those few free hours, but the day was warm and since Sophia and Alexis are gone, the barracks seem haunted.
The pastor recited the usual litany. Faith, hope, etc. and my attention wandered. It was monstrous to be celebrating resurrection in a death camp. And then I heard "Am Anfang war das Wort." It took my tired brain a moment to translate it. But before I had even registered its meaning, he repeated it in Greek and he had my full attention then. He continued the sermon in German and I cursed myself for learning it so slowly, and I strained to make sense of what he said. There were words I could not get, but I got the important ones,
"Der Dichter....nicht als Prophet. Der Dichter als Retter".
The bard not as prophet. The bard as savior. Janice's exact words that day in Athens.
Understanding came like the falling away of blindness. Janice was safe, and had come for me.
I raised my head and along with the morning sunlight on my closed eyes I felt the tiniest bubble of laughter welling up inside of me as I thought to myself, "What took you so long, my darling?"
After the service, I elbowed my way to the front. I could not get close to the pastor, who was surrounded by guards, but I shouted "Herr Pfarrer". He turned his head around at the sound, but I don't know if he saw me. I lost sight of him as he was led back into the Administration Barracks.
April 6, 1942
I have been on a wood detail today. We cut and stacked wood for eleven hours, counting roll calls. I am bruised, filthy, and dangerously exhausted. I will not be able to walk tomorrow, and will have to be helped, half paralyzed, to roll call. I cannot endure this much longer. Where are you Janice? I can't have been wrong. I know you are out there.
Here end the letters of the Bible-journal. .
* * * *
Concluded in Part 2
Return to The Bard's Corner