The year is 1939, and World War II has just begun with Hitler's blitzkreg, or lightning war, on Poland. For a teenage girl who is separated from her family during the bombing, the struggle to survive has only just begun.
Jastrzębie-Zdrój, Poland, 1939
Hermina Kaiserkoch was not at home when the first bomb hit her neighborhood. She and her younger sister Greta had gone on an errand to the market square, to see if any of the wealthier neighbors that had radios had gotten news of the invasion in Warsaw. Neither girl saw their house get hit, and neither had to watch their families die. In a way, they were lucky. Those who had been injured in the bombing were now placed in a makeshift tent close to the hospital, and anyone who was well enough had gone to care for them. With only a few slight burns, Hermina was one of the caretakers. Most others had family or friends who were dying inside the tent, and those individuals had to watch helplessly as their loved was suffered and died. But Hermina did not have to watch. Her parents were already gone. She moved between the cots in silence, keeping Greta close at her side.
Above her, the putrid air pulsed with the stench of death and dispair. It is a stench like none that she had ever smelled or that she would ever smell again, but she would be doomed to carry it all her life; a lingering reminder of the fragility that surrounds every living being. The air was loud with cries; moans; last words; and yet it was silent, as if the space to speak was being sucked by an invisible force. It was a force that had no sympathy for life. It was a force that only cared to consume. And around the tent, outside, bombs continued to fall; buildings continued to burn.
They had separated the men and the women by a row of dirty bed sheets slung over a rope across the middle of the room. On either side of the curtain, fifty cots were lined up end-to-end with barely enough room to step between them. Every cot was filled. Every inhabitant was dying; life seeping away beneath mangled limbs and burning flesh. There was nothing to do for any off them but to keep the flies away, and choke out a few last prayers over each silent corpse. Many of these men and women were Germans; others minorities who found themselves inside Poland's borders after the Great War broke apart the empire. It didn't matter. All of them would die.
There was another caretaker in the tent called Marta, whom Hermina had known since she was a small child. Marta was, by training, a nurse, but the birth of her five children had left her with no time to work. Now that all of her children but one were gone, Marta moved between the wounded strangers as a shadow, silently tending to them with her capable hands. Hermina watched her in silence, until the middle-aged woman turned to meet her gaze. Their eyes locked over the rows of cots that separated them. Marta spoke first.
"I have a basement in my home," she said. "It is still intact. You and your sister must come there for the night."