Rebecca Bryn lives in West Wales with her husband, where she paints the fabulous Pembrokeshire coast in watercolours and writes historical, mystery, and fantasy tales with a twist.
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Auschwitz May 1944, and a transport of Hungarian Jews has arrived. Children, the elderly, and the infirm will be taken straight to the gas chambers. The young who can be put to work will survive for a while. It is typical of the capricious Nazi mentality that there are hospitals in a death camp, but not all camp doctors are evil, and one is determined to save his patients from the gas chambers even at the risk of his own life. With the help of Miriam, a Jewish nurse, Chuck is forced to make terrible life or death decisions he must live with for the rest of his life. Seventy years later, his granddaughter, Charlotte, determines to uncover the secrets her grandfather has hidden.
Touching the Wire
Auschwitz1944: A Jewish nurse steps from a cattle wagon into the heart of a young doctor, but can he save her?
Book Excerpt or Article
Walt slid his chisel into its slot at the back of his bench and sipped the tea he’d let go cold. He eased a sepia photograph from his wallet. For thirty-four years, he’d carried Miriam’s likeness, faded and tattered around the edges: she’d left footprints in his heart trodden deep and clear. Her voice echoed still, and his heartbeat quickened, the memory of the tramp of feet, marching from the spring of 1944, jarring the brick floor beneath him into hard-packed grey earth. Left, right, left, right…
Yet again, he marched with them: dust scoured his eyes and throat and gritted the sweat on his back. The kommando of haeftling, their striped berets and coats creating an army of Colorado beetles, kept time with the SS guards. Despair choreographed their movements; controlled by an evil puppeteer, they stared straight ahead, their arms hanging limp, their wasted faces blank while, behind them, ambulances rattled to a stop.
The thud of boots and clogs faded beneath the hiss of steam and the clatter of couplings as the rumble of iron on iron ground to a halt. A line of cattle wagons, each bearing the insignia of their country of origin and some with a painted yellow star, snaked into the Stygian distance. Smoke and steam mingled with the sickly sweet pall that hung over the camp day and night, and flakes of ash from the chimneys danced with smuts of smoke and floated to the ground with the grace of angels. Already the day was hot. Inside the wagons, it would be suffocating.
Wagon doors rolled back with squeals and grinding crashes, drowning the swing tune belted out by the camp orchestra. Eyes stark with bewilderment blinked against the light.
‘Aussteigen.’ An SS officer waved his pistol. ‘Schnell! Schnell!’
Men tumbled onto the ramp. Women clutched babies to their breasts and gathered children to their skirts, their eyes searching the surrounding faces.
One woman cupped her hands in supplication. ‘Viz.’ A yellow star emblazoned her coat. Hungarian. Jewish. They’d been arriving by the wagon-load. ‘Viz… kérem.’
The words for water, bread, and help were burned into his memory in every European language. The woman begged for water, but he could offer no drop of water, no morsel of bread, or shred of hope.
‘Viz. Wasser… Bitte.’ A stooped, grey-bearded figure held up four fingers. The journey from Hungary had taken four days: four days without food or water.
The crowd swelled across the ramp as the wagons vomited more souls than they could possibly contain, bringing with them the stench of excrement. A guard hustled the men and older boys from the women and children, forming them into two ragged lines along the tracks, and a detachment of haeftling quick-stepped forward to heave bodies from the wagons and lay them in rows upon the aching ground. The old, the little children: their bodies weren’t heavy even for those barely fleshed themselves.
A young woman bent to retrieve her possessions, but an SS officer strode past. ‘Leave. Luggage afterwards.’
She stood, wide-eyed like a startled deer, one arm cradling a baby. Beside her, an elderly woman clutched a battered suitcase. The girl’s eyes darted from soldier to painted signboard and back. ‘What are we doing here, Grandmother? Why have they brought us here?’ The wind teased at her cheerful red shawl, revealing and lifting long black hair. She straightened and attempted a smile. ‘It’ll be all right, Grandmother. God has protected us on our journey.’
‘Where’s your father?’ The elderly lady adjusted her shawl, covering shock-white hair. ‘Miriam, I can’t see my Jani.’
‘Father will be helping Efah and Mother with the children.’
‘And where are our precious things?’
‘They’re here, Grandmother.’
Voices rasped, whips cracked, and dogs barked. He waited, trying to be inconspicuous, for orders that didn’t come. The men and boys were marched away, craning necks for a glimpse of wives, mothers, sisters, and children. At a signal, the remaining haeftling searched the wagons and carried bundles and suitcases to waiting lorries. Miriam’s grandmother’s case fell open: a beetle snapped it shut and scurried it away. Something had fallen out: in the bustle, no one saw him pick up the small wallet of photographs and tuck it inside his shirt.
More orders followed: more cracking whips and snarling dogs. The line of women and children stumbled forward across the railway sleepers, leaving behind tumbled heaps of abandoned lives.
The march through the camp took forever, yet it was over too soon. At the junction, guards ordered the women to a halt. Smoke from the chimneys obliterated the sky: a wind from the west blew the stench across their path.
‘Zwillinge, vortreten!’ He, the hated hauptsturmführer, stood before them, dark hair smoothed back and his Iron Cross worn with casual pride. His eyes pierced the crowd, and his gloved hand held a cane with which he directed bewildered women to the left or the right.
He shuddered, knowing what the man sought.
An SS officer pushed towards a woman of about fifty. ‘How old?’ She didn’t respond, so the officer shouted the question.
He edged closer. As a doctor, he held a privileged position, but he’d also discovered a gift for languages. He translated German to stilted Hungarian, adding in a low voice, ‘Say you’re under forty-five. Say you are well. Stand here with the younger women.’ He moved from woman to woman intercepting those he could. ‘Say you are well. Tell them your daughter’s sixteen. Say she’s well. Say you can work or have a skill. Tell them you’re not pregnant.’
The hauptsturmführer waved his cane. ‘You, to the right. No, the children to the left.’
A woman clutched her children’s hands. ‘I can’t leave my babies.’
He froze, fearing for them all. The thunder of another train grew closer, and the SS officer gestured her to the left with her children. He breathed again, ashamed at feeling relief, and hurried to intercept the next group.
The girl with the red shawl was there in front of him: the old lady had called her Miriam. He touched her arm. ‘Say you’re well, Miriam. Say you can work and are not pregnant. Give the baby to your grandmother, and tell her she must stand to the left with the children. You must stand to the right.’
‘My grandmother isn’t well. I’m a nurse. I can look after her and little Mary.’
A guard strode past. ‘Together afterwards.’
He nodded, compounding the conspiracy of silence. ‘Together afterwards.’
The old lady held out her arms for the baby. ‘Go, Miriam. God be with you.’
Miriam’s eyes glistened. ‘May He rescue us from the hand of every foe.’ She touched her grandmother’s cheek, a gentle, lingering movement, and placed a tender kiss on her baby’s forehead.
She moved where he pointed to stand with a group of about thirty young women: only thirty? Her eyes followed her grandmother and daughter as they were swallowed into the thousands who straggled towards the anonymous buildings beneath the smoke. Ambulances passed, carrying those who were unable to walk; a truck bearing a red cross followed behind. She watched until they disappeared from sight and then searched the faces of the women that remained.
Miriam’s eyes met his. He had no way to tell her he had given her life: no right to tell her to abandon hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
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