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If she could find four perfect 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.Edition/Copyright: 99
"Four Perfect Pebbles"
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 the 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 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 a chunk 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 aides) -privileged prisoners who served as guards-were heard as they moved from barrack to barrack.
Zum Appell! Appell! RausJuden!"
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 bar-rack 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 personwas missing because of sickness, death, or an attempted escape, all the prisoners were made to stand at attention, in rows of five, 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 areas, 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 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.
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