Ottavia's Story By Clara Franklin

My Aunt Steffa, a dressmaker, was well known before the war. I hadn’t seen her for some years. After my father had been killed, I was taken with my two brothers and my mother to work camps in Germany. As I was too young to work, we were soon separated.

Ottavia's Story

Ottavia's Story


After the war I returned to Poland, wanting to find out what had happened to my family, still hoping they were alive and would get in touch. Meanwhile, Aunt Steffa took me in and looked after me. I was not yet fifteen.

One day, the doorbell rang. ‘Coming, coming,’ Steffa called as she made her way to the front door. There stood Ottavia, the daughter of a family Steffa knew well. She had worked for Ottavia’s mother and grandmother for many years. She hadn’t seen Ottavia for a long time but had recently received a letter from her.

Steffa greeted her like a long-lost granddaughter. ‘My God, it is so nice to see you again! You look so beautiful and so mature, just like your mama. I lost all hope that I would ever see any of you again and then your letter came. Believe me, I had to sit down to open it. How much time do you have for me?’

‘As long as I leave before dark so I’m home before Mark gets back.’

‘So let’s make ourselves a nice cup of tea. You have to tell me everything.’ Steffa put the kettle on and placed three cups on the table.

‘Why three cups?’

‘Because, Ottavia, I have a visitor, my young niece Clara who has returned from Germany. She won’t be any trouble. She’ll go to her room. She has plans to go to the cinema later on.

After the introductions, I took my cup of tea and said, ‘Ladies, you probably have a great deal to talk about. I’ll be in my room, Aunt Steffa.’ I walked out, leaving the door of my room ajar.

Sipping my tea, I started to listen to the conversation which was taking place in the next room. After a few moments of hearing the murmur of words, I stood up and went quietly back into the living room. I sat down on a chair in the corner, listening intently to the story Ottavia told about her life in a concentration camp.





And so, dear readers, this was for the first time I heard Ottavia telling her story to my aunt. After hearing the horrifying story of her life, it stayed in my mind for a very long time. During the next few years I read many stories about the concentration camps. Time passed and memories faded. Then Ottavia’s story started to find its back into my mind until the last few years when I began to write: first Angel Wings and then Entwined Lives. Memories of this story which I heard 65 years ago began to re-emerge and linger in my mind, until finally I told myself, why not? So, after much research and lot of reading, Ottavia’s Story was born.





Chapter 1


The Road to Hell





It was 2 a.m. on 25 May 1942. ‘Aufmachan!’ (Open up!)

Loud thumping on the Goldlink’s front door echoed throughout the house. For the past two years they had been expecting – but also dreading – that sound, especially during the last few months. The town of Poznan had been buzzing with whispers: Anyone with the tiniest drop of Jewish blood, be ready. The death trains are rolling in.

Ottavia was nearing the end of her pregnancy. She and her family were fully prepared. They slept half-dressed and wore their underwear under their pyjamas. Next to the beds were sets of clothing in larger sizes to fit over their pyjamas. Ottavia had her mother’s old trench coat at the ready to conceal her pregnancy. Each of them had a small overnight bag packed with one change of clothes. Ottavia had prepared one extra bag with the necessities for a newborn baby in which was hidden a little leather pouch bag containing her precious jewellery.

By the time the second bang came Jacob was halfway to the door.

‘Raus, raus!’ (Out, out!) You have five minutes.’ Ottavia ran to the kitchen and grabbed a container of water for their little boy Marcus. A truck half-full of people just like them was waiting outside their house.

When they got down from the truck they looked around and saw lots of German soldiers and Polish railway employees, running around and shouting orders in their own languages. At the station stood a cattle train.

The Goldlink family huddled close together. The reality of the horror of it had just struck home. The fear in everybody’s eyes was indescribable. They were ordered to board the cattle train. Jacob jumped up and Ottavia handed Marcus to him. Jacob got down on his knees to help his wife up. It was very hard for her with a swollen belly. A man standing behind her helped to lift her into the truck.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said.

The two men’s eyes met.

‘My God, Dr Slade, you’re here, too? Give me your hand and I’ll help you up.’

The four of them moved quickly to a corner where there was something like a window with a slat and a little fresh air was coming through. They knew they would need every bit of fresh air they could get throughout the journey.

The carriage started to fill up. Every space became more precious. The two men stretched their arms against the wall of the carriage to leave more space for Ottavia and Marcus.

Finally, they heard ‘Stop!’ and a few seconds later the door was slammed shut. Everything became very quiet. After a few lurches the train started to roll – faster and faster: pe-ta-te-to, pe-ta-te-to. Above the din a few sobs and prayers to God for help could be heard.

Marcus took his mother’s hand and whispered, ‘Mummy, please sing for me.’

His father picked him up and held him tight. ‘Will you help Mummy sing?’

‘Yes, Daddy.’

‘Not here, Marcus, people are sad.’ Ottavia said.

‘We’ll sing something nice to make everyone happy.’ Marcus insisted, ‘like when you sing for me. I’m always happy when you sing.’

So, in a quiet voice Ottavia started to sing a folksong. One by one voices began to join in. When the first song had finished, a strong baritone started up another song.

Suddenly, the train started to slow down. Someone called out ‘What’s happening? Surely we’re not there yet. We’re only three hours into our journey and it’s not even 6 a.m. The sun’s only just starting to rise.’

Some started to panic. Jacob turned to the doctor. ‘Doctor Slade, come and stand on my shoulders and look through the opening. Tell me what you can see.’

‘Yes, yes. There are lots of people and there are some more carriages being added.’

The train stopped with a bang. Doctor Slade fell down but without injury. After more passengers were loaded and more carriages were hooked up, the journey resumed.’ Jacob, please help me up. I’m getting very sore sitting on the floor.’

‘Ottavia, darling, I wish we had something you could sit on.’

A voice from the other end of the carriage called out, ‘Here, take this for an hour or so. It will ease her feet.’ A small folding stool was passed over heads.

‘Thank you very much, sir. I do appreciate your kindness. After I’ve rested, I’ll reciprocate in some way.’ She was happy to get the weight off her swollen feet.

Marcus was asleep on the floor next to her. Jacob slowly lowered himself and put his head on Ottavia’s knees, and started to weep. ‘Sorry to put you through this, my darling. I should have listened to our parents and left Poland when they did. We would all be safe now. Look at what I’m putting us through. And this is only the beginning.’

‘Ssh, darling. We’re still together and what comes will come. Let’s try to have a little sleep.’

A few hours later, the train stopped again. Again more passengers were loaded and more carriages added.

Around midday, Ottavia suddenly grabbed Jacob’s hand. ‘My God, Jacob, my water’s broken. Am I to give birth to my baby here in this dirty carriage?’

Jacob turned to Doctor Slade and – deliberately loudly – he said, ‘My friend, my wife is going to give birth to our baby. We need all your help, Doctor. Would you help us?’

‘Yes, in whatever way I can.’

Someone chimed in with, ‘Tell us how can we help, too.’

‘First, she needs a little room so she can lie down. Has anyone got a spare pillow, sheet, towel?’

People started to shuffle around. Soon there was enough room for her to lie down. Jacob spread out Ottavia’s trench coat. A pillow was passed overhead from somewhere back of the carriage and two towels appeared. Someone called, ‘Pass over your little boy. He can play with my son till after the baby is born.’ Another said, ‘Here, I have a small bottle of vodka. Please use it if you need to.’

A little bit of humour rippled through the carriage. ‘I don’t think the lady needs a drink.’

‘Don’t laugh, but I was thinking of it as a disinfectant for the doctor’s hands or his instruments.’

In a quiet voice someone said, ‘Sorry if we offended you, sir. My apologies.’

Ottavia gave a little moan and then another. There were a few moments of quiet then the groaning began again. On and on, Ottavia struggled as the contractions grew in intensity while the rest of the people in the carriage could only listen to the sounds above the noise of the carriage wheels. Then eventually there came a little cry. Doctor Slade lifted the baby. ‘‘It’s a girl!’

Jacob opened the bag where all the necessities for the newborn were kept. Ottavia took out a face washer and dampened it with water from Marcus’ container to wipe blood from the baby’s face. She wrapped her tiny daughter in a flannel nappy and a bunny rug. Passing her to her father, she said, ‘Here, say hello to your daddy.’

‘Hello, sweet poppet.’ Then looking at his wife, ‘I love you all so much it hurts.’

Husband and wife looked at each, tears running down their faces. Just then, the sound of screeching brakes and a huge bang came from beneath the carriage. Half the people in the carriage fell to the ground. Then there was silence.

‘I’m Doctor Slade. Is anyone injured? Anyone hurt? Maybe I can help. Jacob, how’s Ottavia.’

‘We’re fine.’

‘How’s your son.’

‘He’s fine. He’s slept through everything.’

In a shaky voice, but with humour, someone asked, ‘Where is that bottle of vodka? I think we all need a drink now.’

Outside, the activities became louder and louder. There was a small explosion in the distance and then the sound of either fire brigades or ambulances. The carriage, already stuffy, became hotter and hotter. Ottavia heard voices outside. The door was pushed slightly open – no more than ten or twelve centimetres – and then fresh air stated to waft in. Everybody inhaled deeply.

Ottavia approached the opening and sat on the floor, holding her newborn baby close. She muttered, ‘Yes, with a little push and a little force, I think she would fit through.’

‘What did you say, Ottavia.’

‘Nothing, darling. Come over here with us and look at the view. We’re at the edge of the forest. There’s a tower further in.’

Jacob sat down next to his wife.

‘And look, darling. There are some children running around so there must be a house nearby. The space between the carriage and the ground is small and the incline down is gentle.’

‘Ottavia, my darling, I can see all this. But why are you telling me this.’

‘Because – I think what I plan to do will shock you. My dear husband, it would be the best thing for our baby. You see, Jacob, if we’re taken to a concentration camp, she will, as a newborn, be removed from us and maybe killed. Do you as her father want this for her?’

‘Certainly not! Tell me, what are you planning to do?’

‘First, I’ll attract the attention of the children. Then I’ll push our little daughter through this opening. It won’t be easy. We’d better pray to God for her survival.’

Ottavia stood up and turned to the rest of the carriage. ‘Does anyone have a clean handkerchief and a pencil?’

‘Here, Ottavia.’

Doctor Slade passed her both. Outside, they heard the sound of a siren moving away and becoming more and more distant: maybe police, maybe ambulance, maybe fire brigade. Ottavia took the handkerchief and pencil from the doctor and in large letters she wrote:





Maria: Born 25 May 1942





A very un-Jewish name, but she folded the handkerchief, wrapped it tightly within the bunny rug and used her full strength to push her baby through the opening of the carriage door. Both parents watched their bundle roll down the embankment and two boys running towards it. Then everything went black. The door clanged shut. The train rolled on towards what seemed to be the horror of certain death.





Chapter 2


Happy Childhood





Ottavia’s parents, Halina and Jan, had just returned from their honeymoon. They had graduated from Jagiellionian University in Kraków where they had studied foreign languages for four years. In the early 1900s, not many girls attended university, especially to study languages. Halina was one of only two young ladies enrolled. During Orientation Week, Jan noticed Halina and saw a very shy young woman. He knew she needed moral support and perhaps some protection. He walked up to her, offering his hand.

‘My name is Jan Pilarski. You look quite lost. To tell you the truth, I am, too. Maybe we can find our way together.’

She took his hand.

‘Halina Wolska. Yes, I do feel out of place. The university is completely dominated by men. I do hope in the next few decades it’ll change, and many more women will enter the world of education.’

And so the ice was broken. Halina had lived her whole life in Kraków. Jan was from Poznan. He was to stay with his grandparents on his mother’s side, who ran a nursery. In return for his lodging, Jan was to help there in his spare time.

Jan and Halina became friends. For the first six months they saw each other only during lectures. One day, Jan had the courage to ask Halina to come for a cup of coffee – if she knew of a suitable place close by.

‘Yes, Jan. I do know of a place. My mother has taken me there a few times. They have beautiful little cakes baked on the premises. So let’s go today after our lecture finishes.’

That was their first date. A few weeks later, Jan asked Halina out again. She agreed, but said she would have to let her parents know as they’d been cross the last time when she had returned home late.

In their third year of study their friendship developed into love and, to the joy of both sets of parents, Halina and Jan became engaged. Plans were made; after graduation they would marry.

Shortly before the end of the four-year course, jobs for the couple were awaiting them in Poznan for a September start. Jan’s family was asked to find a suitable house rather than an apartment, as close to the city as possible. Halina and Jan did not want to live in the centre of the city. A house to their liking – with a little garden – was found on the outskirts. The marriage took place 25 May 1917. They loved the house; they renovated it and Jan tended his beloved garden. The next-door neighbours were a young couple with a three-year-old boy. The two couples became good friends. Zenoll was a dentist. Zenoll and Marigold converted the front part of their house into a surgery after extending upwards.

Halina and Jan made a pact. Because they were language teachers, they needed to constantly practise so they agreed they would speak a different language each day: Monday, German; Tuesday, Italian; Wednesday, French; Thursday, English; Friday, Hebrew; and Polish on Saturday and Sunday.

To start with it was hard, and sometimes funny. But after a few months they got used to the arrangement. One morning when Halina was preparing breakfast – four months into their marriage – nausea suddenly overcame her. She had to quickly run to the garden and was terribly sick. She then sat on the back step, shaking. Jan came and sat next to her.

‘Jan, I don’t know what came over me. I’ve never felt like this before.’

‘Halina, darling, you’ve never been pregnant before!’

‘My God, I did miss my monthly. I should have had it last week. I should have guessed. What are we going to do?’

‘Nothing, darling. We’re going to have a baby.’ Jan took his wife in his arms and kissed the tears of joy from her face. ‘Halina, I love you so much.’

A week later, a doctor confirmed Halina was five weeks pregnant. The baby would be born towards the end of May.

That evening Halina wrote a very long letter to her parents explaining the news from their happy household, and apologising they wouldn’t be able to put their usual monthly payment into their bank account for the generous interest-free loan they had given towards the house. At five months pregnant, she told them, she would need to stop working. She said she and her husband would be thrilled if her parents paid them a visit. A lovely letter came back telling her not to worry about the payments. Halina’s father had decided to sell his diamond cutting and polishing precious stones business, so that the whole family wouldn’t be short of money. As a partner Halina would receive her share. They said they were very happy at the prospect of becoming grandparents, and yes, they would make sure they’d be there to welcome the new addition to the family.

Arrangements with the college where the couple worked were made so that after their Christmas and New Year break, Halina would cease work and start her prolonged holiday.

In early November, Halina’s pregnancy was announced to friends and neighbours. From then on, Marigold took on the role of big sister. Being a mother herself, to young Jacob, the friendship between the two families deepened and Jacob promised to look after his little baby when it arrived. He definitely didn’t want a boy – only a baby girl would do.

A telegram arrived in March. Halina’s parents would come on 25 March and they asked Halina and Jan to pick them up from the train. They arrived and settled well. Easter was two weeks later. Halina became slower in her movements and had to rest more. There were always a lot of people to spoil her. Then early one morning, Halina woke Jan up.

‘Darling, I think I’m ready to have our baby. Please wake Mum and go and pick up the midwife.’

Eight hours later, a baby girl was born. It was 25 May 1918: exactly one year after her parents had married.





Chapter 3


The Last Gate





Ottavia threw herself into her husband’s arms, shaking and crying uncontrollably.

‘Jacob, what have I done? Why didn’t you stop me?’

‘My darling, because I agreed with you: because I didn’t want our baby to suffer. We’ll pray to God she survived the fall and that the children picked her up. I hope to God one day at least one of us will find out.’

Ottavia pushed her husband away. ‘Jacob, please promise me one thing.’

‘Yes, what is it?’

‘If we’re separated, take Marcus with you. You’re stronger than I am. If the worst should come, please don’t let our young son suffer death from gassing. At the last minute, I beg of you, use your strong hands. It won’t take long. Then carry his body in your arms with you.’





****





‘Yes, yes, I can see the name: Zory. That’s all right, young man. Come down from my shoulders.’ Doctor Slade lowered him. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of it. I think we spent our holidays with the family here.’

Ottavia stood up. ‘Doctor Slade, what name did you say?’

‘Zory!’

‘Oh God, we must be going to a concentration camp.’ She called her son. ‘Marcus, come here to Mummy and Daddy.’

Slowly he pushed his way through. Jacob picked him up and Marcus looked at his parents. ‘Mummy, Daddy, where is our baby?’

‘Darling, my sweet darling, she went to heaven.’

‘Why, Mummy?’

‘Because God needed an angel to help Him in heaven. So He took her. But don’t worry your little head because one day we’ll meet her again.’

The train started to slow down; the brakes screeched again and then the train stopped. People started to pray, each to their own God. The Goldlink family huddled closely together.

Jacob looked at Doctor Slade standing alone. ‘Come and join us. Please don’t stand by yourself.’

He put an arm around the doctor’s shoulder to bring him closer. Jacob whispered to Ottavia. ‘Promise me something, darling. If you need to, use your talents – and you have many – to survive. If you do, and you survive, well, at least one of us will live to tell our story.’





Chapter 4


The Foundling





The train was moving away. The two brothers Ziggy and Darek, eight and six, told their three-year-old brother Pauly to wait for them and not to move until they came back. Ziggy picked up the bundle and ran back. They had gone only about a hundred metres when they heard a loud Stop! Stop!

Pretending not to hear, they ran as fast as their little feet could carry them, calling ‘Pauly, Pauly, run to Daddy.’ They called to their father, too. They looked around only to find no one was chasing them after all. Adam Gorski heard his sons calling, so he ran out and saw the bundle in Ziggy’s arms. So did the visitor, a young lady.

‘What’s that you’re holding?’

‘Daddy, a lady threw this out of the train.’

Ziggy put the bundle on the ground. Everybody stood back. The young lady bent down and unwrapped the bundle a little. Two big eyes looked up at her. At the same time they heard a truck coming closer and closer. The woman grabbed the bundle. ‘Back in a minute.’ she whispered.

The midwife ran inside, straight to the bedroom where the boys’ mother was crying and cuddling her lifeless baby.

‘Mrs Gorski, please take this baby, put it to your breast and don’t let it cry. I’ll take your baby for a little while. Please don’t panic. In a few minutes I’ll explain everything.’ She grabbed the stillborn wrapped in a white towel and ran out just in time to put it on the ground. Two gun-waving soldiers from the truck ran towards them.

‘Where is the package?’

The midwife went down on her knees. ‘Here it is.’ She unwrapped the towel. One of the soldiers lifted his gun ready to shoot.

‘Stop! Don’t shoot. The baby is already dead.’

The soldier looked at the small gathering, assuming the woman was the wife of the man and mother of the children.

‘You boys: never, never go to the railway line. Verstehen? (Understood?) And you.’ pointing to the father, ‘dispose of this body.’

He nodded his head. ‘Yes, yes sir.’ The midwife started to weep. Adam turned to the boys. ‘Please go inside.’ Then he went up to her.

‘Mrs Anna, I’m so sorry for what we’ve put you through. You put your own life in danger to save us. Please forgive us.’

Just then Kordelia came out. ‘Adam, please tell me what’s happening here. Where is our baby? And whose baby is that in my bed?’

Adam picked up the bundle from the ground and put an arm around his wife’s shoulders. ‘Come inside, Kordelia, and I’ll try to explain.’ He turned to Mrs Anna.

‘Please look after the boys. As it’s getting dark, please wash and feed them and put them to bed. Then come and join my wife and me; we have so much to discuss.’

In the kitchen Ziggy was already telling his brothers to wash their faces and hands and put on their pyjamas. Anna spotted a pot of soup on the stove ready to be warmed up. She put the plates on the table and found a loaf of bread and some butter. Nobody said a word during the chores. The boys sat at the table. Ziggy ordered his brothers to pray to God. He crossed himself and started: ‘Dear God, we want to say we are very sorry to you, to Mummy and Daddy and Mrs Anna for all the trouble we have caused. Please God forgive us and we promise never to go to the railway tracks and please God make our family happy again. Amen.’

‘That was beautiful and I’m sure God was listening to your prayers.’ Anna said. She poured the soup into the bowls.

‘Now, boys, have your supper and go to bed. Will you do that for me?’

‘Mrs Anna, can you please tell us about our baby? Daddy told us this morning he was bringing you here because we were getting a new baby and you were going to help our mummy.

‘Ziggy, Darek and darling Pauly, when you wake up tomorrow morning Mummy and Daddy will tell you everything. Now, Ziggy would you take the others to bed. Daddy will come and tuck you in and give you a goodnight kiss. I’ll see you all in a few days.’

She left the kitchen to join Mr and Mrs Gorski. Kordelia stood up, stretching out her arms. Anna, my dear friend, Adam told me everything. What should we do next do you think? Tell us.’

The two friends gave each other a big hug. Midwife Anna had delivered all four of the couple’s children.

‘Kordelia, did you look inside the bundle? I myself uncovered it only enough to see the big open eyes.’

‘No. I just did what you told me: feed the baby and allow it to fall asleep.’

Anna picked up the bundle, her hands shaking, and started to unwrap it. The baby was happy to have its arms free. Finally the nappy came off – it was a girl. Then they saw the handkerchief that read: Maria born 25 May 1942.

‘What’s this?’ Adam said, as he picked up a pouch made of very fine leather. ‘Kordelia, hold out your hands.’ He emptied the contents into his wife’s hands.

‘Oh, my God!’ There in Kordelia’s hands lay a fortune in diamonds, rubies and emeralds: rings and necklaces. Everything was very dainty and elegant. Kordelia picked up a pair of earrings. Holding them to her, she said, ‘Adam, I believe I’ve seen these earrings on somebody, somewhere. I just can’t remember who. Adam, Anna, what can we do? We can’t keep them; they don’t belong to us.’

‘You’re right.’ Anna said. ‘They don’t belong to you but one thing’s for sure. They belong to this little girl whose name is Maria. Please put the jewellery aside. We have to talk about the baby. First things first, though. Adam, it would be a good idea if you went to your sons and said goodnight; I suggest you give them a big long hug and kiss and tell them you both love them. All three have had a big drama in their lives today. Meanwhile, Kordelia and I will give Maria her first bath. By then she’ll be ready for her next feed and then – only then – you to have to make one of the biggest decisions of your life.’

When Adam came back from the attic after tucking in the boys, the women had just finished attending to Maria. The kettle on the stove started to boil. Adam took three mugs, prepared herbal tea, and took a bottle of vodka and three small glasses. Kordelia looked worn-out.

‘Come and sit next to me,’ her husband said.

Anna was holding Maria who looked beautiful in her clean clothes and wrapped in a fresh bunny rug.

‘Kordelia, you can give her some nourishment now. She’d be very grateful to you, I’m sure.’

Kordelia looked at her husband and he nodded his head. She reached out. Anna passed Maria to her. The baby could smell the milk and was searching with her lips. Kordelia looked at the baby with a love that was growing inside her. She put her nipple in the little mouth and so the unbreakable bond between them began. They sat around the table until they heard horses’ hooves on the road.

‘Oh, there’s Stan coming to pick me up.’

‘Now stay there, Anna. I’ll go and ask him in. Maybe he’ll help us with the decision.’

Stanislaw Nowak was Anna’s brother and a Catholic priest. When his sister wasn’t delivering babies, she looked after her brother in the big, old family house. Anna’s husband had been executed by the Gestapo two years previously for disobeying orders and hiding a French Jew.

The two-seater buggy and horse was the siblings’ main transport. When people heard the tap-tap-tap of the horse hooves, they knew that someone was about to be born or someone was about to die.

Adam went out to meet him. ‘Hello, Father Stan.’

‘Hello, Adam. What a horrible accident. Did you take a look?’

‘No, Stan. We’ve been quite busy here. Your sister was with my wife and I was supposed to take care of my boys and, by God, did I make a mess of it. Please come in and you can tell us about the accident and then we can tell you about our drama. Incidentally, Stan, please don’t speak about the baby to Kordelia. We’ll tell you everything later.’

They went inside.

‘Hello, Kordelia. Hello, Anna. There’s been an accident at the level crossing. A convoy of German tanks and trucks was driving towards the mountain when a train full of prisoners collided with one of the trucks carrying German soldiers. Luckily there were no deaths, only injuries. The train was delayed for two hours.’

‘Stan, before I tell you our story we’d better have a strong drink.’

Adam filled the glasses. Kordelia declined as she would have to feed the baby through the night. Adam explained the events of the day.

‘So now we need to find a solution to our situation. I do have an idea but I’d first like to hear from you, Stan, as a priest.’

Stan started to pace the room up and down, scratching his head from time to time. Finally, he joined the group.

‘Adam, Kordelia. God took your child but replaced it with another who is alive and healthy. We all realise He has performed a miracle. You can’t bring your baby back, but you can help little Maria. I don’t know how, but maybe Anna will help.’

Anna began to speak. ‘Kordelia, you’re beginning to care for this little angel because – that’s what she is: an angel. Could you love her as your own?’

Kordelia looked at her husband and then at the baby who was strongly clutching Kordelia’s finger and suckling on her breast and at the same time.

‘God put her in my arms. Yes, I could claim her as our own.’

‘So, Adam, do you agree?’

Adam replied that he did.

‘Then tomorrow you have to go to the city office and register her as your own new-born daughter and give her your surname. Her birth mother chose her first name but you could add another name if you wished.’

‘Mrs Anna and Stan, we have to bury our own daughter.’

Stan came very close to the couple.

‘Listen to me very carefully, my friends. We can’t give your child a normal burial in the church and cemetery. People in a little town like Zory know everything about everybody. Adam, if you were to register your new-born baby and try to bury her in the church cemetery, people would put two and two together and would come up with five. It could reach the authorities and we could all be in big trouble.’

‘So Stan, do you have an answer to this?’

‘Let me think. First we have to baptise her. Can you think of a name for her?’

Stan looked at the parents. Adam spoke first.

‘I would like to call her Kordelia.’

‘First we have to baptise her post mortem. And as her second name I would like to add Maria,’ her mother said in a quiet voice.

‘Now the second solution. Do you have a favourite place in your garden where you’d like to bury her?’

‘Adam, darling, in the bottom of the garden – you know, where I have my bench under the cherry tree. Whenever I have time I sit there and read my book of favourite poems. Maybe you could make a little coffin.’

‘Prepare your little daughter for her last journey. Anna and I’ll be back around 5 a.m. before the sun comes up. I’ll bring everything we need and we’ll bury your little daughter under the pink blossoms of the cherry tree.’





Chapter 5


The End of the Journey





The train stopped. One by one the carriage doors became unbolted by the by guards.One by one the carriage doors opened. The sun was gradually beginning to hide behind the distant mountains. German soldiers were everywhere, pointing their guns – ready to shoot if necessary. The occupants of the first carriages behind the locomotive had been pushed out and made to disembark.

Doctor Slade and the Goldlink family watched in horror. Men and young boys were herded in one direction, while women with babies and young girls were pointed in another. Ottavia clung to Jacob.

‘Darling, please hold me tight and tell me you love me. Hold onto our son as long as you can and remember what you promised me.’

The next second they heard, ‘Raus, raus!’ Ottavia was pushed none too gently to one side.

She called out, ‘Jacob, Marcus!’ as she looked back, but she couldn’t see anything through her tears. She didn’t have any choice but to follow the other women and girls. Then ‘Halt! Stop!’ From the front of the queue she heard some shifting of feet, then the file marched on. Each time they stopped, a few more women peeled off.

Ottavia was now at the front of the queue. She heard the order: ‘Stop!’ They had stopped in front of a big barracks. A woman in an SS uniform came out and counted five women, including Ottavia, who were to follow her; the rest went on.

It was quite dark inside. Ottavia was handed striped pyjamas, or so she thought, without realising this would be her uniform for the rest of her stay in this place. A few minutes later someone put a piece of dry bread and a metal container in her hand. She was hungry. It was her first food in nearly two days. The container felt lukewarm. She tried to smell it but it seemed not to have any smell at all. She tried a sip. It was a very watery porridge soup. She didn’t like it at all but thought to herself, Ottavia, if you want to survive, then eat and drink whatever they give you. So she finished everything to the last crumb of the bread.

Someone in the next bunk whispered: ‘Lie down and cover yourself with the blanket and pretend to sleep.’ The next minute the guard and several soldiers carrying torches walked from one end of the barracks to the other: up and down, up and down. Finally, after what felt like hours, they left. Ottavia lay very still; her breast was painful and very hard. If only I could release some milk from my breast. She lay thinking of her son and husband. Where are they? If only Jacob was here he would suck some milk from me and spit it out; it would help me a little. Then suddenly there was a noise. What’s that? She listened and heard the same noise again. ‘It’s a little kitten.’

She didn’t realise she had spoken these words.

‘No, it’s not a kitten; it’s our Aurelia.’

‘Who’s Aurelia?’

‘Sssh, not so loud, she’s our secret: our baby. She’s only two weeks old. She’s hungry and her mother doesn’t have enough milk for her.’

‘Where is she?’ asked Ottavia. ‘Can you bring her to me? I have plenty of milk. I gave birth to my own baby ten hours ago, but she isn’t with me anymore.’

A pair of hands touched hers. ‘Here she is. Please feed her; she really needs it.’

Ottavia opened a few buttons and put the baby to her swollen and very sore breast. The baby grabbed the nipple. After a few minutes she put her to the other breast. Ten minutes later Aurelia’s tummy was full and soon after she was fast asleep.

Ottavia felt much better. Thank you, God. I have done a good deed for today. Someone was bending over her.

‘Thank you very much. I’m her mother, Basia.’

‘Basia, bring her back to me in the early morning and I’ll feed her again.’

‘I will. Goodnight, sweet lady.’

It was still dark when Basia brought Aurelia to her for another feed.

Ottavia stretched out her arms.

‘Give her to me. I’ll see what I can do. Do go back to your bunk and try to get some more sleep. Your daughter will be fine with me.’

Ottavia took Aurelia, put her to her breast and they cuddled together.

‘Drink, little one, and be content.’

Her mind went to her own daughter. Oh God, please give me a sign she survived. And if she has survived, will we ever see each other again? And thank you God for guiding me to this barracks. Now I can help this little baby, as I would my own – wherever she may be.

A loud bell woke Ottavia up. She looked around. Aurelia wasn’t with her any more. All the women were standing to attention at their beds, so she quickly did the same. The SS guard walked very slowly along the line-up. She picked one of them and asked her to come forward, then another, then Ottavia and then another two. The newcomers from the previous night were to be taken to the registration office to receive a number that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. They were then directed into the shower room where they were disinfected in case they were carrying any disease. They were finally taken to have their heads shaved of their beautiful locks.

By mid-morning they were back in the barracks. The guard greeted them at the entrance. With a sarcastic little smile she said, ‘Welcome back. I can see you’ve all had your beauty treatment.’

Ottavia saw the hint of a friendly smile in her eyes. She warmed to the rough-looking woman. Later that day she found out her name was Sergeant Lotte Schultz. All the women stood alongside their beds. Hawk-eyed Sergeant Schultz walked slowly, seeing everything. She stopped in front of Ottavia and in a quiet voice asked, ‘How is your breast today? Not so sore anymore.’

Not waiting for an answer, she walked on and stopped in front of Basia.

‘How’s your baby? Did she have a good feed today?’

Basia was in shock and tried to open her mouth.

‘Don’t look so shocked. I knew about Aurelia from the day she was born.’ She gave Basia a wink and walked on. Finally, she stood in the middle of the room with her legs apart and hit her spare hand with her baton. In a loud voice she said, ‘Tomorrow is my morning off. Zofia, come here.’

A woman in her early thirties went forward. ‘Yes, Sergeant Schultz.’

‘Tomorrow morning you will be in charge of all the work that has to be done. When I come back at midday I want to see everything ship-shape. Verstehen? (Understood?)’

‘Yes, Sergeant Schultz.’





Chapter 6


Ottavia is Born





On 25 May 1918 Ottavia was born to Halina and Jan Pilarski. Her grandparents were utterly delighted; to them she was an absolute sweetheart. The neighbour’s son, young Jacob, was even happier.

‘Hooray! I have a little girl. I always wanted one,’ he told everybody.

Had it been a boy he said he would have sent him back to wherever he came from. But the baby girl he would always keep for himself. And so young Jacob was true to his word. He spent every minute he was allowed with his Ottavia. When she was a few weeks old she started to recognise faces. The first one was unsurprisingly Jacob’s. Her eyes would light up; her little fingers would reach to his face.

After giving birth, Ottavia’s mother recovered very well and of course her father was always there to help out. Halina started to become restless and missed her daily routine with her students at school.

‘Halina, are you missing work?’ her mother asked one evening.

‘Yes, Mum. I do miss being at school, but why are you asking?’

‘Look, why not go back to work? Your father and I have decided to stay in Poznan. If you two would allow us we’d like to build a little bungalow at the back of your garden. We like the town a lot and we enjoy your friendly neighbours, Zenoll and Marigold Goldlink. They’re beautiful people.’

‘We’d be so happy if you were to stay for good—’

‘Please don’t say anything just now. Sleep on it and talk it over. In a few days tell us your decision. And now your father and I will say goodnight.’

When they left, Halina looked at Jan. ‘What do you think of this proposal, darling?’

‘You know I’d miss your not being here with me. As much as we love our daughter, she would be very well looked after by your parents. And of course Jacob would always be there to protect his Ottavia. So I say yes. As far as I’m concerned, yes is our answer to your parents. Let’s make arrangements tomorrow for you to return to work.’





Chapter 7


Maria’s New Family





Stan and his sister Anna returned early morning. Everything went according to plan. Little Kordelia Maria’s body received all the trimmings they felt she deserved and everyone shed some tears. They couldn’t put any flowers or a cross on the grave, as the little boys would ask questions.

Anna and Stan left before sun-up and before the children woke. Kordelia and Adam were preparing breakfast when a loud rumble came from the stairs. The three boys came down all at once.

‘Mummy, Daddy, can we see our new baby? Do we have another baby brother or do we have a sister?’

‘Come boys, we’ll show you.’

They all went to the bedroom where the baby was awake.

‘Come and undo the nappy.’

‘Can I do it? Can I do it?’

‘Stop, boys. Let Ziggy do it. He’s the oldest, and he’ll be helping Mummy lots of times when she’s busy.’

And so the big brother took off the nappy.

Then all together they cried, ‘She’s a girl! Finally, we have a little sister. What’s her name?’

And so she became a real sister to the boys and a real daughter to Adam and Kordelia. If only her birth mother could know how her baby had survived and that her future would be happy and fulfilled.





Chapter 8


Guardian Angel





Sergeant Schultz was, deep down, quite a soft woman and many of her charges noticed this softness.

One day Basia put little Aurelia to sleep and went outside for a few minutes. When she came back, she saw something sticking out from under her pillow. With a fright she lifted the pillow but there lay a baby bottle, a dummy and a container. She opened the container to find powdered milk. She looked at it all. How did this get here? She hadn’t been that long away and she hadn’t seen anybody come or go. So who put it there?

Later she approached Ottavia and told her about it.

‘Basia, I don’t have the slightest idea, but don’t advertise it. Be quiet about it; we’ll see in a day or two.’

Sergeant Schultz again had a half-day off. After evening call, Basia found a little dress for Aurelia under her pillow. Shortly after, this was followed by a lovely toy, and then little booties. Basia had never noticed anyone close to the bunk. She asked Ottavia if she knew something.

‘I think I do, but give me another day or so.’

Next morning after the drill and the other procedures, Ottavia approached Sergeant Schultz.

‘My name is—’

She was rudely interrupted. ‘I know who you are, Ottavia Goldlink. What do you want?’

‘Sergeant Schultz, is there any chance that you can find out if my husband and my son are alive and where they are?’

She looked at Ottavia for a few seconds. ‘What do you think I am? A babysitter? Do you think I would betray my Führer? Give away our secrets? Go, and don’t come near me again, Jude (Jew).’

She turned around and walked on.

Ottavia just stood there. This was the first time in the three weeks she’d been there that she’d seen the sergeant so furious. She saw the baton come down. She closed her eyes but it didn’t touch. Ottavia ran to her bunk, curled under the blanket and sobbed. She was so scared the sergeant would report her and she would be picked up by the patrol. She listened for the heavy footsteps on the floor, but they never came.

After an hour or so she started to relax. Not this time but how long would it be – a day, a week, months before I get picked up by the SS? She had begun to believe the sergeant was human, but how wrong she was.

Two days later the sergeant’s helper Zofia came to Ottavia. ‘Sergeant Schultz wants to see you in her office.’

‘Oh, my God, why?’

‘I don’t know but you’ll soon find out. Don’t worry, tomorrow it could be me.’

With trembling legs Ottavia walked to Sergeant Schultz’s office.

‘Sit. Tell me, why did you ask me those questions?’

‘Sergeant, because I’m so sad. I lost my baby girl on the way to the camp; my husband and my little son came here with me; I don’t know where they are and even if I’ll ever see them again.’

‘Listen to me, young woman. Maybe the unknown is better, because then you can always have some hope.’

‘Sergeant, I’d rather know the truth than live in hope forever.’

‘Do you really want to know the truth?’

Ottavia noticed a crackling in the sergeant’s voice. ‘Ottavia, every man and boy on your train went straight to the “eternal shower” because there wasn’t any room for them in the men’s barracks.’

The two women looked into each other’s eyes. Each of them had tears running down their faces. Then Ottavia fell to the ground. Quick as a flash, Sergeant Schultz jumped off her chair, opened the door and, in a very loud voice, called, ‘Zofia, come here. Help me take her to her bed.’

They carried Ottavia as though she was a little baby and placed her on her bed. In a very sharp voice she said, ‘Nobody move. Zofia, bring me a blanket from my office.’ She covered Ottavia and turned to the others in the barracks.

‘I don’t want to hear a sound from you till she wakes up.’ Then in a quiet voice she said, ‘She’s lost her whole family.’

Half an hour later Ottavia woke up. She could hear little Aurelia crying quietly so she called to Basia. ‘Bring the baby to me; she must be hungry.’

Ottavia sat on the edge of the bunk, Aurelia happily sucking away. She started to hum, then in her strong alto voice she began to sing:





As I gaze upon the stars tonight

I think of you, my dear.

Even though we are far apart

I feel you are very near.





If only my arms were your pillows

And you were within my embrace,

I could kiss you good night, my lovely,

And dream of your beautiful face.





Memories are now my companions;

Nothing can wash them away.

Your love is deep within my heart

And forever would it stay.





I long for your touch and caress.

You are my universe, stars, moon and sun.

Nothing can separate our true love

So, sweet dreams, sweet dreams, my dear one.





The whole barracks went quiet. You could hear a pin drop: only a beautiful voice singing a love song to her beloved could be heard.





****





Ottavia lived like a zombie; she didn’t notice anything around her. She fed Aurelia, she ate and slept. After eight days Sergeant Schultz came and stood next to her bunk. In a very sharp voice she said, ‘Goldlink, get out of bed; you’re not here on holiday. On the double.’

Waving her baton she ordered, ‘Out for a run – five times around the barracks, then report back to me. Verstehen? And, Goldlink, before you come to see me have a wash and tidy yourself up.’

Ottavia got out of bed. Sergeant Schultz stood in the same spot and with the same sharp voice said, ‘Out! Out for your run!’ pointing to the door.

Ottavia ran outside. The sergeant pointed to two of the others. ‘You there, and you, go and run with her and don’t let her stop half-way; off you go.’

She went to her office and slammed the door behind her.

Ottavia started to run. The two women joined her. It was the middle of July. The day was cloudy, and a strong warm breeze was blowing. From time to time they felt a few drops of rain on their faces. The fresh air smelt so pleasant. Ottavia started to relax; the three runners were on their last lap. Then she saw something that shocked her to the core: a guard, swinging his baton over the head of a girl of six or seven. He was chasing her and screaming, ‘Stop! Stop!’

Ottavia didn’t think about what she was doing and started to run towards them, calling in German ‘Halt! Halt! Stoppen lassen sie dieses Kind allein (Stop! Stop! Leave this child alone).’ Then her hand flew to her mouth. In seconds the guard was standing next to her.

‘What did you say to me? And in what language was that, you Jude.’

His baton flew in the air, but before it came down, Sergeant Schultz had appeared and grabbed it from his hand. ‘No, Heinz, no!’ She was speaking very fast in German, which Ottavia understood.

‘You can’t smash her face. She’s going to sing for Herr Commandant’s birthday.’

The guard asked her, ‘Lotte, did you know she spoke German?’

For a split second Lotte was stunned, but quick as a flash she replied, ‘Of course, I knew. I’m just taking her to the office where she has some explaining to do.’

She grabbed Ottavia’s arm and led her inside. She pushed her roughly onto the chair. Looking into Ottavia’s eyes, she said, ‘Tell me, what should I do with you? I can tell you what you deserve: the eternal shower. Why, oh why, didn’t you tell me you speak German? And what other languages do you speak? Speak up! Do you hear me?’

In a very shaky voice Ottavia answered, ‘German, French, Italian, English and my own: Polish and Hebrew. I’m sorry, Sergeant Schultz. Nobody has ever asked me. I thought nobody would be interested in my knowledge of other languages. They have been with me all my life. Both my parents were language lecturers. For my parents to practise, we would speak all those languages all the time at home. So for me this is just natural.’

With a touch of irony Sergeant Schultz said, ‘Tell us about your singing.’

Ottavia’s eye lit up. ‘Oh, singing and dancing are my life.’

‘So there’s another surprise talent – dancing! Tell me a little bit more about yourself.’

‘Well –’ Ottavia started.

‘Just a minute, wait … we have an appointment with the Herr Commandant’s secretary in ten minutes, so hurry up and clean yourself up and we’ll need to run. Your life story can keep for another day.’

Hurriedly, the sergeant opened her cupboard door and there on one of the shelves Ottavia saw a replica of all the things Basia had found in her bed for Aurelia.

‘Sergeant, now we know who our Aurelia’s Guardian Angel is.’

‘Hang on. She’s my Aurelia as well.’

The two women looked at each other: one of them twenty-five, the other in her forties.

‘But Sergeant, why double of everything?’

‘Because I have a little granddaughter the same age as our Aurelia and when you’re all cuddling and spoiling her – the only way you can, in your circumstances, I dream about her. I haven’t met my little Eva, so I am buying her little presents and collecting them for Christmas when I’ll be able to meet her for the first time.’

The sergeant sat down and put her head on the desk and started to cry. Ottavia didn’t know what to do; she almost began to cry herself. It was such a pleasant surprise to her, she said, ‘Sergeant, I’ll go and tidy up and I’ll see you in five minutes.’

When she left the sergeant’s office, twenty-five pairs of eyes were looking at her. Ottavia lifted up her arms.

‘Ssh, I’ll tell you later. One thing’s for sure: she is our guardian angel.’

They were running late for the appointment with the Herr Commandant’s secretary and his wife. They ran to the office panting and puffing.

‘Langsam, Langsam (Slow down, slow down).’

‘Madam Secretary, I wish to apologise, but there was an incident.’

‘I know. I just saw Heinz Weiss and I sent him away.’

‘I want to hear your explanation later, Lotte. This is Herr Commandant’s wife, Gizella.’

Sergeant Shultz introduced Ottavia. ‘This is Ottavia Goldlink, the prisoner who is apparently a very good singer and dancer. I have heard her sing but I haven’t seen her dance. She speaks German, French, Italian and English. We know you two ladies are organising a surprise birthday party for Herr Commandant so, as her supervisor, I highly recommend her as a singer in many languages. Would you like to hear her, ladies?’

Ottavia had fully intended to refuse, but she heard a whisper in her ear. It was Jacob’s voice: Darling, use your talent to survive. ‘But Sergeant I don’t know if I am good enough.’

Frau Gizella asked her if she knew ‘Edelweiss’ in German.

‘Yes, I do,’ she replied.

‘Then sing it.’

At the beginning she was a little unsure of herself, but in a few minutes she showed off the full magnificence of her voice.

‘Wunderbar! (Wonderful). Sergeant Schultz, maybe you can find some musicians among your talented prisoners. Find them and take them all to the storeroom. There are plenty of instruments and clothes. Some of the Jews thought they’d be attending gala dinners or going to balls or theatres while they were here so they brought their best clothes. There’s plenty to choose from. And now take this prisoner and go. My husband’s secretary will be in touch with you. Heil Hitler.’





****





On the way back to the barracks they saw two SS guards – with guns cocked – marching two prisoners in front of them. Sergeant Schultz pushed Ottavia inside. She then joined the guards.

When Ottavia entered the barracks there was a lot of buzzing, like bees in a hive. When the women saw her they swarmed around her: ‘Ottavia, where’s the sergeant?’

‘She’s with the soldiers and the two Hungarian sisters, but what’s been happening here?’

All the beds looked a mess. The guards had obviously been looking for something. Luckily, Basia had taken Aurelia to the washroom precisely at that time to clean her up.

The women explained that the Hungarian sisters, Olga and Marta Devogel, had been taken away. Just then Sergeant Schultz walked in.

‘Quiet, quiet! The two prisoners who have been taken away won’t be returning to us. They’ve been spying for the Americans.’ Angrily, she added, ‘I warn you all here – don’t try to play heroes in this place. Understood! And now all of you stay where you are. Now, how many of you can play a musical instrument?’

Aurelia – in her mother’s arms – gave a loud screech.

The sergeant went to the baby and pinched her gently on the cheek, and said, ‘Who asked you, little one? Now do I see any hands up?’

Very shy voices came from here and there.

‘Come forward and tell us your names.’

‘My name is Emma Rybak, I have never played in a big concert, but I studied the piano for five years.’

‘Klara Kupka, guitar. I’ve played since I was five years old.’

‘I am Anna Wolska and I play piano accordion. My father taught me.’

‘Anybody else?’ asked the sergeant.

Zofia came forward. ‘Sergeant, I played violin when I was younger.’

‘Do you think you could still put a bow to the strings?’

‘I think so.’

‘That will do for now. After lunch I’ll select a few women who are good with a needle, thread and scissors.’

Another woman, Halinka came close to Ottavia. ‘Do you want to hear the good news? Our Tante Lotte is the mother of four children: two boys and two girls. Her oldest daughter is married and had her first child three months ago. Her children are living with her mother in Bavaria in Amberg. Her husband is on the front in Russia near Leningrad and the rumours are that we in our barracks are the lucky ones. Lotte is our guard and she’s on our side, but there’s a new guard coming from another camp near Berlin. She’s earned herself the nicknames Beautiful Beast and Blonde Angel. Apparently she’s only twenty-one. In her previous camp she was the overseer of the Hungarian Jewish women. She’s blunt and brutal and has left some physically and mentally destroyed women behind her. We all have to hope and pray we never have to deal with this woman.’

‘Halinka, how come you have so much information and how do you know that what you’ve been told is correct?’

‘We have our own underground communication. But for now, Ottavia, we have to go and eat something.’





****

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