Another day on the job. Another day in my crisp myrtle green uniform patrolling the fences on a dull grey day. The same assignment, the same weather, the same repetitive job. As I stroll past a monotonous building I catch my reflection in a grubby glass window and pause to observe myself. I have only been out here for 20 minutes and yet everything from my skin to my uniform is already dirty.
I pull off my hat and dust what I can off of it, still staring at my reflection. I cannot help but notice how blue my eyes appear in comparison to everything else, including the sky, and as I place my hat back on my blonde head I spot an empty hole where a brass button should be. I swear under my breath and pat my pockets down as if it could have magically fallen into one of them.
Suddenly I hear the sound of boots crunching over gravel and I spin around, saluting feverishly. I was so engrossed with my appearance that I did not notice my commanding officer approaching me from behind.
"Having fun, Lang?" Officer Klein sneers, calling me by my surname as all officers do.
"No, sir. I was just getting back to my patrol, sir." I respond staring straight ahead and praying that he will not notice the absence of my button.
"If I were you I would watch myself, pig." Officer Klein begins to turn away and I let out a breath I did not know I was holding. Before I have the time to straighten my stance Officer Klein spins around and strikes me across the face. My cheek burns and my eyes sting with the threat of tears but I do not lift a hand to feel the damage. Instead I stand like a statue, unmoving.
"Just because your Daddy is high up in rank and can get you into this camp at only 16 years old does not mean you can get away with being insolent. Your uniform represents your respect for our leader-" I do not breath as I wait for the Officer to continue but he only glares. "Now go down to the uniform facility and get that button replaced, Cadet Swine." Officer Klein spits at my feet and walks away looking pleased with himself.
I wait until Klein is out of range before spitting onto the gravel and turning around to face the glass. "Son of a - !" I hiss, staring at my reflection. Across my right cheek is a large red mark, clearly the silhouette of a hand print, and I clench my fists with rage.
Grudgingly obedient, I turn in the direction of the uniform building and walk along the fence. A hand reaches towards me and grabs at my clothing, moaning sorrowfully and pressing against the rusty barricade. I struggle to pry the hand off of me, not bothering to look at the face of the prisoner. I am finally released after a moment but I am stopped again by more hands, fingers, and cries.
"Get off of me!" I yell and fall backwards onto the sharp stones but the prisoners continue to reach for me. I cannot help but stare into their faces now, dozens of eyes boring into me, irises all the same shade of the slate coloured sky. I kick at their hands and hear a few cry out in pain, their mouths agape and their cheeks hollow. I am momentarily captured by a feeling of pity but quickly push it aside and stand up, shaking myself as if to shake off the images I now have etched in my mind.
I grunt in frustration and begin to run down the path, past the hundreds of committed humans. I take long gasping intakes of air and try to clear my vision, the images of deteriorating bodies surrounding me. The fenced in area ends but another begins, an endless encampment of terminal prisoners. I finally reach the uniform building and stand at the entrance, leaning my forehead against the concrete door frame.
"Another cart? Fine, put it over there." I turn around confused and realize that the voice is not addressing me. The man who spoke is a few ranks higher than myself and is speaking to another soldier with a wheelbarrow. The soldier dumps his load onto the edge of a pile spanning hundreds of meters in area. I approach him as he rubs his hands on his pants.
"What is this?" I question. He turns to me and dusts soot out of his hair, surprised by my question.
"Hmm? Oh, just some filthy junk." The soldier says and turns away to continue his work.
I stare down at the pile of "junk" and kick it, creating an avalanche of warped leather. "Shoes -" I whisper to myself, "The shoes of the prisoners."
Thousands of pairs of shoes, all different sizes. They are as rotted and distorted as their late owners, all undefined colours shrouded by ash. I lean down and pick up a tiny shoe the size of my hand. It is red and must have been worn by a four year old girl, who I know is or will be gone soon.
Again, the rush of pity slams into me and forces me off balance. I lean against the uniform building's wall to keep me standing as I look up into the sky. Flakes of ash fall from above, blanketing the camp and all in it. Angrily I throw the child's shoe down and rip off my hat, rubbing my hands over my head in rage. I try to scrub the ash from my skin, my uniform, and my soul in an attempt to purge myself.
I crouch with my hands over my eyes trying not to see, feel, or hear. Never have I felt this way, never have I felt so guilty. I have been working in this camp for months now but never has it hit me with such force what I was a part of. When I finally lift my hands from my face I see the expanse of corroded shoes and feel a new wave of anguish.
Across the pile I see another of many fenced in areas, this one I know to be the section for children. But I do not see any children. The field of compacted dirt is empty and I wonder where the younger prisoners have gone. "No, not prisoners," I tell myself. "Victims." I blink and a little girl is standing alone in the desolate enclosure.
She is wearing a morbid blue and white striped prisoner uniform, oversized on her small skeletal body, and holding a ragged looking teddy bear with one eye. She is bald, her hair shaved off upon entry to the camp and she is wearing red shoes - the same red shoes I found in the pile beside me. Her eyes are bright blue and they stare accusingly at me. She looks as if she could be my sister but I know that my sister is at home eating bread and cheese, not rotting in this hellhole we call Auschwitz.
"Why?" Her small voice asks, a whisper to my ears. I look at her, my mouth open and my face wet with tears.
"Why what?" I ask her, my voice hoarse and cracking as I speak.
"Why..." Her whimpering voice trails off but her mouth keeps moving. I try to blink the tears from my eyes so that I can see the girl more clearly but as I look back in her direction I only see the empty field surrounded by the rusty fence.
I run towards it and now I am the one forcing my fingers around the hard metal diamonds that make up the barrier.
"Where did you go? Why what?" I look around trying to find her but I do not see anything except for the compacted earth. "Why what?!" I yell, rattling the fence while clinging to it as if grasping on to my own life.
"Why...?" Her voice echoes in my ears, the ghost of someone who once was.
The ghost of someone who will never be.