I’m in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I don’t even know what a concentration camp is. I’m only nine-years-old, and I see barbed wire and a watchtower. So I know I’m not free.
Not long before, I was in my village, called Merašice in Slovakia, where I could still play. In summer I used to run barefoot. In winter we used to toboggan. So my village was, for me, sort of a paradise.
But now I found myself a little prisoner. I’m confused. I’m starving. I’m cold. And I’m very, very miserable.
It was the sixteenth of October, 1944, when we were betrayed, arrested by the Gestapo, and deported to this hell on earth, Bergen-Belsen. I remember this one particular day when we children began to understand what was happening around us, and learn what the adults already knew.
We had been in Bergen-Belsen perhaps two weeks. There was a routine. Every morning we had to go to a roll call. We had to stand in the freezing cold outside for an hour to wait for our supervisors. They were young women SS guards. But this particular day, they were accompanied by a group of armed soldiers. I could hear whispers around: Something is wrong. Why these s-oldiers?
They called our number, and we had to say, “Ja.” After the roll call, we were told to go to the hut and bring our blankets and towels out, because we were going to go to another place to have a shower.
Now, that was good news, a hot shower. For me it was great news, because then I wouldn’t need to go to the washroom outside and wash myself with freezing-cold water. But there were looks around, and I thought the women seemed sort of uncomfortable. We ran in to pick up the blankets and the towels, and there was quiet activity inside the hut.
And I saw this woman sort of lean against her neighbour and say, “You think everything is okay? They are telling us the truth?” The neighbour just shrugged her shoulders and didn’t say anything. But I could see she had tears in her eyes.
I wanted to ask my mother, What’s going on? But she was busy helping my omama and my cousin Chava to pick up the towels and blankets. Auntie Margo was standing in the doorway, and she was urging us to come out quickly, because the soldiers outside were very impatient, waiting for us.
So, slowly, people were coming out, and when everybody was out, we had to be put three into a row, and then we began to march. It was very cold and eerily quiet. I felt more scared than usual, but wasn’t sure why (although it did bother me that none of the adults would meet my eye). I had heard the women talking about how we would like to have a shower, and suddenly we have it, and they don’t seem to feel happy about it.
I saw a woman in front of me suddenly take her wedding ring off her finger. She looked around, to see if any of the soldiers were looking at her. And then she threw the wedding ring into the ground, to the dust. Talking to her friend, she said, “These bastards will not get my gold.”
We continued to go, and in perhaps thirty minutes or so, we stopped in front of this big concrete building with a tall chimney on the roof. There were gasps around me. And one woman even shouted, sort of loudly, “Oh, my God!”
My brother and my cousin, they were puzzled, and I couldn’t under-stand the panic around me. Next the soldiers began to hurry us into the building. “Schnell, schnell.”
So we were pushed in. We came to this long hallway. On the left side, we saw benches. There was a chemical smell that hung in the air, and there were metal trolleys with bars on the top with hangers on it. And on the right side, we saw these heavy metal doors.
Again the soldiers were barking orders at us. I didn’t understand. They were speaking German. But Auntie Margo conveyed the order that we have to undress and put our clothes on the trolleys and the blankets, to leave everything there.
Everybody began to undress. The soldiers were standing on the side, and they were joking and smiling, making remarks and faces.
And when we were standing there, all naked, there was this little incident where one of the soldiers, who was rather young, suddenly started walking towards us. He was looking firmly at my cousin Chava. Like my brother and myself, she didn’t look very Jewish. She had long golden blonde hair dangling over her shoulders.
When my aunt saw it, she stepped in front of her daughter and stopped the soldier, and the soldier said, “What is this Aryan girl doing here?” And my aunt retorted, rather loudly so that the SS women could hear it, “GO AWAY!”
He turned around, and he walked away, and no more was said about it.
When I was looking around, it was shocking to see the old women with their white, crinkled skin, including my grandmother. They were so pathetic standing there, innocent and naked. I felt the shame and insult. I was tainted.
We were told to move towards the doors, and everybody got a piece of soap. We entered this large room with concrete floors and pipes with showerheads crisscrossing the ceiling.
And when everybody was in, it suddenly became very silent. We didn’t hear the soldiers anymore. The door was slammed behind us. We stood there, and the adults all looked up towards those showerheads. I didn’t know what was happening. I saw some of the women were crying.
It was cold. My mother took me and my brother and pressed us against her body. I don’t know how long we stood there, perhaps a few minutes or several seconds, when we heard this gurgling sound coming through the pipe. My mother squeezed us even harder. I could hear her heart beating fast, and she was breathing very hard, like she was gulping for air.
Everybody was looking towards the ceiling. We heard this noise coming nearer and nearer. And suddenly, hot water was sprouting from the showerhead.
And this was exactly what I was expecting.
But I couldn’t believe what was happening around me. The women were kissing their children. They were laughing and crying at the same time. They were embracing one another. I couldn’t understand, what is all this happening around? I just wanted to wash myself with the soap and the hot water.
I didn’t hear such laughter again while we were in the camp. In fact, that was the only shower that we had during our stay in the camp under the German imprisonment.
Of course, in late 1944 the adults among us already knew about Auschwitz and Birkenau. They knew about the gas chambers. But we kids, we did not know anything about it. Millions of Jews were fooled by being given soap in hand, pretending they were going to have a shower, and they ended up in gas chambers. So I can only imagine today what our mothers were thinking at the time.
Bergen-Belsen was liberated on the 15th of April, 1945. In a week’s time, we will commemorate the 75th anniversary of our liberation. That day was the day that our nightmare ended.
This story is cross-posted from The Moth’s latest book, All These Wonders, for a special edition of HuffPost UK’s Life Less Ordinary blog series. You can buy the book here and listen to Tomi tell his story live here.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email email@example.com with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.