The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2021 Winners Anthology, A New Story Rises here.
“1943” by Keira Chance, Monroe Middle School
Second Place, Middle School Level, 2021
By Keira Chance
Monroe Middle School
Present Day, 1943
Wishing. People are always wishing. My wish is that I don’t have to lie. I don’t have to lie to keep my life. That wearing a yellow star wouldn’t be something to shame. To be free.
My hands grip onto the notebook. Dark mud covers the yellow star on the cover of the book. Some people might think nothing is wrong. Except something is. I stare down at the photo. Taken three years ago in front of my old house. But I am no longer there. The Nazis took away everything, and left me. Now my parents are gone.
December 12th, 1941
My dad lifts me up and twirls me around. I giggle and he sets me down, pretending to wipe sweat off his forehead. “Atarah, you’re getting bigger by the minute, kochanie.” Kochanie is Ukrainian for “darling.” He’s called me that ever since I was a baby. My mother walks in holding a pot of soup.
“Today we have enough to have a nice and big meal!” she says with a smile that spreads from ear to ear.
I talk about school, my dad talks about work, and my baby brother gurgles some nonsense. This is always the best part of my day. When my parents come home, tired, but still there for me. My mother brings the empty bowls to the sink, and fills up a glass of water for each of us.
“Let’s say our prayers of thanks, and then we will get ready for be—”
She’s cut off by shouting and banging outside our front door. The front door shakes, and there’s more shouting, and this time I can make out the words in German. Most of them are words our parents told us to never say.
My mother is paused mid step. The water is still in her hand. She sets it down and rushes to my side. “Atarah . . . do just as we have practiced,” she whispers and kisses my cheek. I run over to pull down the hidden ladder on the ceiling, and start climbing, and I can hear my mom calling my name.
“Atarah, take your brother!”
I look back and I can see my mom holding her hands out, with my baby brother in her arms. His face is so joyful, completely oblivious to the situation. There’s more banging on the door, and a mirror falls from our wall, and shatters on the ground. My mom looks back, then she brings my brother close to her chest. “Go.” One simple word. Not a word, a command. Thoughts swim through my head, but all I can do is push them away, into a part of my brain labeled: Think about this later. I hesitate, but I know there’s not more time. Why didn’t I take him? I could have taken him.
I scramble up the ladder, nearly whacking my head against the ceiling, and shut the door behind me, with no more than a quiet creaking sound. That’s when the damp musty smell hits me. I gag, cover my mouth, plug my nose, and listen. The front door slams open, and I can hear some more raspy shouts in German, but this time it’s from my parents. I close my eyes, and pray silently. I blink away my tears, telling myself to be strong. My mom screams, and there’s a loud sound that rattles my eardrums . . . a gunshot. I hold in my sob, and rock myself back and forth. I clench my teeth so hard I am positive I just cracked a tooth, but I still whisper goodbye under my breath. Two more gunshots, and I know that there’s no one left. I’m the only one.
A week later I get taken in by an adoptive family: Nadia, Abram, and Danny.
January 22nd, 1943
Abram whispers into my ear, “It’s okay, they’re just coming for an inspection.” But it is way more than that. My hands turn damp with sweat, and I have to take ten deep breaths until my headache fades. My adoptive father places his hand on my shoulder, and pulls me into a hug.
“Don’t worry. We’ll keep you safe.” He lingers for a moment, almost like he wants to hug me again, but then settles for a pat on my back, and heads to the kitchen.
My brother swings his airplane at my head and pretends that it explodes. I glare at him and snatch the small plane from his hand. He jumps to his feet and jumps straight onto me. I yelp when he pulls my hair, and he quickly pulls the plane from my hand.
“That is not fair,” I say as he pulls out another plane from beside him.
“It is, because I say it is.” He smirks and turns his back on me, while making weird plane noises. I roll my eyes and go back to drawing in my notebook.
February 18th, 1943
I stand there with the wind blowing in my face. I watch cattle cars slowly pull into our small town. I can see people standing outside their houses, watching them. I try to stand still, and grab Abram and Nadia’s hands, to stop myself from picking the scabs on my palms.
A loud booming voice fills the air.
“Children, please form a line in front of me.” She talks with a brisk German accent. I grasp onto Danny’s hands, as we form a long snaking line. Slowly we make it to the front of the line, where there is a small plump nurse, with her wonky nurse’s cap.
When it’s our turn, they check us off their long list, and show us to separate groups.
“I have to go over there,” I tell her, pointing to Danny.
“No talking. Move, you’re holding up the line.” I look behind me, and no one’s there. I turn around and see the Nazi soldiers turned my way. “I will find you!” I call as I get shoved into a group of kids.
Cold, damp, wet. All perfect adjectives to describe the stuffy cattle car. It takes me awhile for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and when I do, I can make out a group of people. I got separated from Danny, and now I sit alone in a cattle car full of strangers. I can hear people whimpering, and some kids are crying, but some just sit alone, staring into oblivion. I take a deep breath and I take in a big whiff of some kind of disgusting smell.
“What’s that smell?” I choke out. Someone responds from the corner of the car.
“That’s our bathroom. Only one, for all of us.” I can practically see her rolling her eyes with the tone of her voice. She sighs, and kicks her legs up, so her knees touch the cold, rusty ground.
“My name is Dariya.” I can see her scoot to my side and grab my hand.
“You’re young,” she says bluntly. I can see the outline of her body, and bits of light from the door allow me to see the small features on her face.
“Yes. I am ten years old,” I cough out. My lungs feel like they’re covered in a layer of dust. She gasps.
“Ten?” She sounds worried, and I am not sure why. I can see the panic in her eyes, and the shadows on her face seems to darken. “Don’t act young. Stand tall, and help. Help as much as you can. You need to be useful,” she says with a firm voice. I can hear the tiny quiver from the back of her throat. Why is she saying it like that? Did I say something wrong? She takes my other hand.
“Please,” she whispers. I get a glimpse of her dirty orange hair, pulled back into braids that hang over her shoulders. My eyes linger to her face, I can tell she’s thinking of her past. Her eyes are glossed over, and her head is leaning down.
“Why?” I ask quietly. “What will that do?”
She sighs, and squeezes my hand, and stares straight into my eyes.
“The young ones . . . they . . .” She pauses, and looks away.
“Tell me!” I beg her and grab her shoulders. She looks up, and a tear rolls down her cheek.
There’s a long second before she speaks.
God only knows how long we stay in this filthy cattle car for. I try to keep track of days, through the light from the crack of the door, but after a while I can’t tell. I’m guessing it’s been three or four days. Without food, and with only the water that we started with, which is a half a bucket for this whole group. Of course that’s gone already.
The door creaks open, and the bright light stabs my poor eyes. I shield the flaming ball from my sight, and lean on Dariya’s shoulder. I gulp a big mouthful of fresh air, but as fast as it opens, it’s dark again. I stare at the two buckets in front of me, and wonder what’s inside. One is water, and one is some kind of soup?
People take turns taking small handfuls of the water and soup. We all lay back, with our stomachs still empty. I can hear some people cry and moan, and Dariya pulls my head back onto her lap as I drift off the endless sleep.
The cattle car jerks, and I am sent tumbling onto the cold, frosty ground. I slowly open my eyes, and see a frowning officer staring down at me.
“Get up,” he says as he cleans the club in his gloved hands. I push myself up from the ground and stand straight.
Our whole group is led through the camp. People are called one by one, as a shady man shaves off the hair on each of our heads. When it’s my turn, there’s a burning sensation, and a scraping sound, as I watch dark brown chunks fall on top of the mountain of dirty hair.
I get herded into the bathroom, as they make us wash in freezing cold water. I look around to find the soap, but I can only find a small packet with white powder. I turn it over and read “Bleaching powder.”
After our showers, we all put our clothes back on and walk out into the frigid air. A drop of water trickles down my face. Am I crying? No. I look around and see rain falling on Dariya’s head. I’m soaked in seconds. The water seems to be seeping through into my bones.
“First and last name,” he says staring down at his paper.
“Atarah Becker.” My lie was perfect, no hesitation.
“Place of birth.” He quickly glanced up at me.
“Kyiv, Ukraine,” I tell him.
“No such place.” He writes down Russian on his paper. “Date of birth.” I pause thinking of Dariya’s words.
“September 14th, 1930.” Three years older than I am. Let’s hope thirteen is old enough.
He finishes writing it down, and points me to a group of kids. We’re taken to a small barrack near the corner of the camp. It smells like a farm, and the cold air has made it all the way to the other side of the room. No heaters. None.
I pick a bed farthest away from the door, but closest to Dariya.
“How old did you say you were?” she whispers into my ear.
“Thirteen. Do you think that’s old enough?” I ask.
“Yes. That’s perfect,” she says and pulls away from me, but I grip her hand, keeping her close.
“I have to tell you something,” I whisper.
For a second I’m not sure she heard me, but then she whispers, “What is it?” I pause a look down at the cross on my chest.
“I’m Jewish.” Silence. I can almost hear her heartbeat. She looks down at my neck. She stares for a long time. Then she pulls me into a hug.
“Please be safe,” she whispers.
“Okay, I will. And thank you for being here for me. You’re the sister I never had.” I can feel her crying on my shoulder now. We stay there for a while, clinging to each other.
The morning comes, and we’re woken up by a loud bell. My job is terrible. My job is to make bombs . . . for the Germans. I hope the Allies win, and yet I’m making bombs for Nazis.
They hand us small badges to sew onto our clothes. In big bold letters, there are three words OST. It means Ostarbeiter, which means Eastern worker. I hate that name, but if we get caught not wearing it, we’re shot.
I carefully sew on my badge, and help Dariya with hers. I make the stitches organized, and simple. A woman opens the door and calls us over. Her voice almost sounds . . . kind.
“Children, you need to get ready. They have a couple things that they need to tell you.” She has a pained expression on her face. I bet she is forced to work here, that’s why she isn’t shouting at us.
We all walk outside, grateful it isn’t raining like yesterday. They make us stand still in lines for what seems like hours. Finally a German soldier comes out with a club in his hand. He starts to call out names, I can hear three names from my barrack.
“You kids do not have to work.” The man says. “You are younger that everyone.”
Younger than everyone, means . . .
It means I can’t let anyone know. It means Dariya was right. It means I have to stand still while I watch the Nazis take them to the hospital. Hospital.
The only thing that’s similar to a normal hospital, is the name. Only German soldiers get sent there for help, everyone else gets sent there to have a slow death.
The days turn into weeks. Every morning I head on a train to the metal factory. The second day there we learn how to make bombs. Our big room is built so if a bomb blows up, we’re the only part of the metal factory that gets affected.
No one is really sure how long you stay there. Everyday is the same. Wake up. Go straight to work. Eat the same liquidy-water-turnip soup. Go back to work. Come home on the train. Go to bed. And then you do it all over again.
Soon one day is different.
The Germans seem . . . almost panicked. Dariya notices the same thing.
“Maybe they’re losing,” she says quietly. A smile spreads across my face.
“But don’t get your hopes up.”
Turns out they are losing. A week later we are ready for another day of making bombs, but no one shows up. No one is there to let us in. Slowly the Germans are fleeing. Some only come back a couple of days, but most never come back.
“Where are they going?” I ask as we wait quietly for someone to help.
“Who knows? Maybe back to their homes. Or somewhere else completely.” She sighs. And stays silent for a moment.
“Who have you lost from your family?” she asks, gripping onto my hand.
“Everyone. But I stayed with another family for a year before I was taken, and I have no clue what happened to them. They weren’t Jewish, so hopefully they made it through.” Dariya nods.
I wake up from a loud whining sound. What is that sound? Some kids are on their feet. Dariya rushes over to me.
“Everyone’s scattering. This is our only chance to leave,” she says and pulls me to the door.
We walk out into the frigid air. It’s winter again. It must have been a year ago that I was taken here. I can see bodies lying on the ground. They must be shooting at random.
We make our way through the camp with the help of Ivan, an older boy from the barrack near us. He takes us through an open gate.
“We need to move, get as far away from here as we can,” Ivan says. We run for a long time. Hours. We stop when I have a hard time breathing. I look around. Where are we? All night we lie down in the dry grass, but I’m woken up early to run some more. The next day is the same. And I’m starting to lose hope.
“When will we make it?” I ask Dariya. I can see she’s about to nod, no, when there’s a grumble in the distance. A bomb? No. The only other answer is: Germans.
“Get down on your stomach,” Dariya says pushing me down. Ivan does the same, and we wait, until a green tank slowly moves past us.
“Wait a second. Those aren’t Germans,” I say quietly, mostly to myself.
“You’re right,” Ivan says. “Are they—? No.” He pauses looking at Dariya. “Are they Americans?” I gasp and turn my head back to the tank. We all look at each other, and sprint toward the Americans.
They take us with them. They give us food, and they care. They don’t scream or hit. They tell us they will help us find our families. After months of searching, I find Abram. Another month and I find Nadia, and a year later get a card from somewhere in Canada.