A CORPORAL AND A KAPO crossed the yard toward the hospital block. They saw kapos and guards throwing piles of paper into burning death pits. They came to the hospital block. The kapo opened the door. “Careful,” he said. “Don’t step in any shit.”
The corporal waved a cigar. “Phew. They stink more alive than dead.”
“The Kommandant wants it cleaned.”
The corporal unclipped his revolver. He aimed toward the ceiling and fired. “Time to clean up. You hear!”
They walked among the bunks. People turned their eyes.
The two men stopped near Shosha’s bunk. She looked at their legs and feet. They looked in at Janusz Jerczek, sandwiched between Julia and Shosha.
“What are you doing?” Shosha said.
The guard and the kapo dragged Jerczek out of the bunk.
The corporal dropped his cigar.
“What are you doing?” another voice said. “What do you want with him?”
“Where are you taking him?” Shosha asked. Jerczek looked at her sternly but knowingly.
“Shut up or I’ll shut you up,” the corporal said.
They dragged Jerczek out of the hospital block.
“Where are they taking him?” Shosha said. “Are they going to kill him?” Julia took Shosha’s wrist and squeezed. “Are they going to kill him?” Shosha asked. “Why did they take him?”
Shosha lay in the bunk. She stared at the floor. Her eyes moved to the corporal’s cigar butt. She stared at it. Then she extended her hand toward it.
“It’s mine,” Julia said. “You don’t smoke.”
“You can have it when I’m done.”
She tore a piece of her dress and set the lit end to it. Soon she had a flame.
Shosha sat next to her bunk, peeling thin slivers of wood from planks and posts. Other prisoners crawled over. They handed her papers and rags and pieces of wood.
“We ought to burn this fucker down,” Julia said.
The man from the bunk over Shosha watched the fire grow. “You have a fire,” he said. “That means you can eat a warm meal.”
“With what?” Julia asked.
“With this.” The man held out his bony hand.
Shosha wouldn’t look at him.
“I’m not living long,” he said. “Why should my death be meaningless?” The other prisoners looked at Shosha. The man lowered his hand. He started to withdraw it when Shosha reached up and grabbed it. She looked up at him.
He could see her eyes, purple-blue and clear in the flame.
“You won’t die,” she said.
Shosha looked around at the others. She licked her dry lips and took a deep breath. “L’Chaim,” she said. Then louder, “L’Chaim!”
“L’Chaim,” Shosha yelled again.
Silence. No one spoke. Julia looked at Shosha.
“Okay,” Julia said. “L’Chaim!”
“L’Chaim,” someone else finally responded.
“L’Chaim,” from a little farther down. “L’Chaim.”
“You Jews stop saying that. You’ll get us all killed.”
But the echo kept traveling.
“L’Chaim! L’Chaim! L’Chaim!”
“I’m not a Jew, but L’Chaim!”
“Make that a double! L’Chaim! L’Chaim!”
“Ah what the hell,” another woman said. “L’Chaim!”
Shosha looked up at the man with the bony hand. “We live,” she said.
From The Fires of Lilliput, Chapter 47
Photo: Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, who turns 98 this August.