“An individual’s capacity for self-sacrifice in the face of compelling circumstances”
I’d always known that teaching myself to live off the land was a good idea. Knowing how to make food from the ground up was a skill that few others in my little town possessed. We all had our sets of abilities. My friend Lucas was excellent at forging tools, for example, and Alex was the best butcher around. We were a rather small community; everybody knew each other’s name, and news spread fast. People got to know one another within the week, and we all shared a common link: All of us were Americans living in Germany.
Lots of reasons drove us here, really. Family or money were the big ones. America was drowning in poverty at the moment, we were the lucky ones who got out of the country before the Great Depression kicked in. It had been almost ten years since I brought my family here. I met up with some other men and women that had left and we set up a small town in the heart of Germany. We were all American; though we came from vastly different parts of the country, all with our own sets of stories. I loved listening to them, and once someone had shared a story, I’d never forgotten their name. Names are power, you see. Strip someone of their name and all of a sudden their identity was gone. They were just a face with no history, a sack of flesh no different from the rest. Once they told you a name, all of a sudden they had meaning, real meaning to me, they were an individual.
It started at the cusp of summer. I was in my small backyard garden, tending to my wheat crops like I do every year. Harvest season was coming right around the corner and there was no time to waste. My son and I loved baking bread together. Harold, his name was, my ten year old son who wanted nothing more but to spend time with his family. And I loved Harold with everything I was. You can imagine my shock when I saw him come home after playing with his friends, and he had a large bruise on his leg.
“Harold! What happened to you?” I exclaimed, rushing over to sit him down.
His eyes were full of tears. “I was playing with Charles and all of a sudden the floor began to shake! There was a big rumbling sound! I looked over a hill and there were these rows of chained men that were all walking in front of some uniformed officers. The officers were yelling and hitting the men so they would walk faster.”
I got him a glass of water and a slice of bread that we had made the day before. Bread always tasted better when he helped make it. “You didn’t go down to the group of men, did you?”
I knew where this was going. I’d heard whispers of news, where some German officers were rounding up Jewish men and taking them somewhere. I had dismissed it as gossip, but all of a sudden, these individuals had become a lot more real.
Harold continued. “I did! We did! We went down to the mean men and asked them to stop being so mean to the people they were walking with! One of them spat on Charles and the other one hit me with a big stick on the leg! Then they yelled at us really loudly, and we ran away.”
I couldn’t stand to hear much more. I put Harold to bed, and waited. Not an hour later did I hear the rhythmic thumping of feet, signaling that another group of Jewish people were being transferred. I grabbed the last loaf of bread and ran out, going over the hill and seeing a group of beaten down Jewish men, with uniformed German offices behind them. I ran out to meet them, ducking my head so the officials would not take notice of me. When I feel in step beside them, I looked up at one of them. The pain in his eyes was clear, the face of a man who had seen too much agony, and was preparing for it himself. Without thinking, I tore off a chunk of the bread and handed it to him. His arms were chained and he couldn’t reach it, so I placed the piece in his mouth. He began chewing slowly, his eyes welling up with tears in the most thankful expression I had ever seen. I had to know who he was.
“Your name,” I asked softly. “Tell me your name.”
He responded in a deep voice, in a language I could not understand.
I tried again, motioning to my face with my hands. “What is your name?”
Again, a pained and guttural drawl, completely unintelligible.
Then silence. Nothing in the air but the rhythmic clanking of chains. I could hear the German officials speaking in their mother tongue, something I had picked up in my years of living here.
“These dogs, no kennel big enough to fit these bastards. Figure the ovens will have to do.” Laughter.
Disgusted, I fell back a couple of steps in line and looked into the eyes of a lady. Her eyes were equally as pained as the man from before. Again, I fed her a piece of bread. She ate slowly, relishing the taste, then looked up at me.
She could speak English? “You’re welcome. What is your name?”
She glanced around to make sure nobody was watching. “My name is Lilly. I was just thinking about how I was spending last year at this time, over a table of caviar and wine, speaking with my lifelong friend Julia about how something like this never should have happened.”
Just like that, I felt a connection. A name. I knew this woman now. Lilly. I rolled the name over in my brain, the name solidifying in my mind. I told her my own name, told her about how there had already been several groups of Jews before her, all going to the same fate. Her eyes were full of tears as I gave her the rest of my bread, mouthful by mouthful. We talked, talked about everything but the imminent future during her last meal. There was just one small piece of bread left that I placed in her hands. It was all gone, the bread that was supposed to last my family a week was gone, given to someone that I just met. Someone with a name. The night was almost over and I tore myself from the group and hid behind a tree until they had passed.
The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lilly. I ran outside, after putting a fresh loaf of bread in the oven, ran in the direction of where the groups had gone until I almost walked into a chain fence. Looking up, there was a massive plume of smoke coming from one of the buildings, a line of people standing before it, being thrown in to the flames systematically. At the very front of the line stood Lilly, stripped of her chains and her clothes, nothing on her but a small piece of bread in her hands. She slowly put the bread in her mouth, and turned to look at me. How she knew I was standing there will always be a question of mine. I could do nothing but watch as two men gripped her and shoved her forward. I tore my eyes away and closed my eyes. I felt her die. The stories that I had heard are now gone, and her name is all of a sudden just a package of stories, whisked away in the wind. I felt the rush of heat as I knew that it was over for her. The putrid smell of burning flesh came over me, and I couldn’t take any more. I ran home, trying to numb my mind to her death. But I knew her name, and that would be something that would haunt me forever.
The bread I had made that day was spoiled. There was something wrong with the wheat and it tasted terrible. I couldn’t bring myself to feed it to Harold, so I tossed the remainder of the disgusting loaf in the fireplace. A week full of food gone to waste, all for Lilly. I’m hoping that it was worth it, my family going hungry for a week. All for Lilly.
If only she hadn’t told me her name.