My parents died when I was 8 years old in a horrible house fire. I don’t remember much from the day it happened other than my father pushing me out through my bedroom window in a flurry, and my face meeting the soft grass in some shocking way that felt so much like a nightmare.
I remember him quickly fumbling around and saying, “I’m going back in for your mother, just stay out here” and the way I sat there as firefighters and a police officer gathered around me moments later, but never my parents. They didn’t return out of the fire. Sometime after the horrid mess was extinguished, they said they found the bodies and I crumbled to the ground in a heap of a child who lost everything.
My grandfather was formerly a German in WWII who never spoke of his past, only that he was a guard at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and he started when he was seventeen years old. My father had once used the word “conscripted” in his explanation of this occurrence, and that my grandfather hadn’t chosen to be there, which was understandable, but I didn’t come to truly understand until I was much older. I had been told prior that “my grandfather was a good guy, he just got thrown into some bad things when he was over there in Germany.” After the war, he had fled to America and resided there for years to come in Eastern Pennsylvania.
At 8 years old, I was welcomed into the home of a very old man with back problems and a tone that could scare any child if he were to raise it. I missed my parents awfully and the time he gave me to recover and grieve was virtually nonexistent, as I found that, unlike my Grandfather, I was an emotional torrent who just wanted Mommy and Daddy back in my arms.
My Grandfather proclaimed that I would be homeschooled from now on and I helped out around the neighboring farms owned by people who were very close to himself, and I couldn’t say that I ever got used to all the labor he forced me into. But even though he was a bit of a tough cookie, he had a caring side as well when he would tuck me into bed each night, kiss my forehead and say, “Isaac, you will grow up to be a soldier in your own skin. You’re a brave young man.”
After a year of settling in, my Grandfather pulled me aside and told me after a long day at the farm that there would be some children coming to visit. I remember immediately thinking “foster children” and figured that there was a possibility my Grandfather wanted to put his free time toward something useful as such. He told me to “be weary” of the children and that they come from “torn homes”, something that didn’t quite set my mind at ease. A few things I was wondering was how we were going to afford to feed them when we barely had enough food for ourselves, what bedrooms they were going to stay in when we only had two, and how they were going to get homeschooled when my Grandfather only had time to teach me. I was afraid that I would fall behind in life and was instantly jealous and wanted to leave.
A truck showed up one day to the farm and my Grandfather called me to his side, a huge grin on his face and his fingers clasped together. “The children are finally here.”
When the back truck door opened, three small, seemingly underfed children with dark, curly hair and dark eyes stepped out, all wincing as if they were about to get hit. When they stepped down, all three of them fell, and it was then that I noticed they were wearing chains around their ankles that had gotten all tangled up within each other. My Grandfather laughed a horrendous chuckle and after a small exchange, he told me to get back to work and the truck drove off over the horizon. He ushered the children inside, children that I was told were truly evil and needed to be reformed back into society, criminals by nature. I was afraid of them, to say the least.
That night, my Grandfather and I ate supper as usual and it took me a lot of strength to look up from my dinner and ask, “Where are the children?”
He brought his fist down onto the table and said, “How many times did I ask you not to refer to the children? The children are fine, they are in their bedroom.” He then sighed, and continued, “I’m sorry for yelling at you, Isaac, but these are very, very troubled children whose parents didn’t show them enough love. They will be better off here.”
That night I couldn’t sleep, as I heard screaming from the youngest, the female, and the distinguishable qualities of my Grandfather’s voice screaming obscenities as he clearly caused her pain for what I presumed were her evil actions.
As weeks passed, I didn’t see much of the children but I realized that they were being pent up inside the basement in a side room which I had never seen before. My Grandfather never allowed me into the basement and I pictured some beautiful, vibrant hang-out where he must have put the children so they could sit and do their schoolwork and eat the richest of foods, and they even had their own bathroom!
My mind conjured these thoughts before I fell asleep at night and suddenly I felt jealous of them as I laid staring at the normal ceiling of my normal bedroom and it’s too-normal setting. I didn’t have many toys, but I bet they had them all. My stomach growled for I had chosen not to eat the disgusting pea stew that night, but I bet they had baby back ribs and potatoes on fancy china plates down there.
And after weeks of wondering, I finally worked up the courage to sneak off down to the basement to see how things truly were. It wasn’t an awfully wonderful plan but I knew it wouldn’t be hard to creep past by Grandfather’s bedroom as he snored away, not to be disturbed until the morning time. He was old and he had his schedule to live by. I crept down the stairs and came to the door at the bottom, shaped a bit like a prison door with bars across it, but able to open from my end.
As I pushed open the door, I noticed three sets of shining, white eyes in the darkness, and hands clamped over mouths as to not scream out in fear.
“H-hi,” I stuttered, feeling overhead for the light pull and finally grasping it in my hands. As I pulled down, the small, dim light lit up most of the room in a dark orange glow and I gasped at what I saw.
There were old, ratty clothes piled on a concrete slab of a floor, buckets filled to the brim with shit and piss, and plates covered with bugs and old, stale bread. And three little children cuddled up in the corner, much skinnier from the almost month’s time they had spent in my Grandfather’s basement. I refused to call out and was too shocked to speak, wondering what was going on. Where were the china plates filled with vibrant, delicious foods? Where were the worksheets they worked on during the day to get their proper schooling, like me? Who were these skeletal children, much different from the ones I had met the day they were first welcomed onto the farm?
“Please…don’t hurt us” one of the boys urged, wincing as if he were preparing for an attack.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Where did you come from?”
“We were stolen,” the little girl said. I needed to hear nothing further before I started opening their shackles with the keys on the far side of the room, way out of reach for their small, spindly, almost-skeletal fingers.
After years of psychiatrist visits, I have kept in touch with Adam, Abel, and Madelynn, the three children from the farm, cousins who love each other very much. Sold by a desperate family member to my Grandfather, they had been kidnapped from their homes and put on the market for a former German guard who, once overseas, had aided in the killing of many other Jewish men, women, and children who didn’t deserve what misfortune came to them. As I grow older and I learn the past of my family, I also learn that many things are not worth uncovering after all. Sometimes I wonder what would have come of me if things wouldn’t have worked out the way they did, if my parents hadn’t taught me what “wrong” from “right” looked like and the warning signs of things gone awry. But I do know one thing, and that’s that my family carries a very dark past now, something that I don’t plan to dwell on, something I don’t want to be.
And then the meaning behind “You will grow up to be a soldier in your own skin” becomes much, much more sickening.