The rags Rebekkah wore barely covered her modesty. It was impossible for them to cover both breasts. As she struggled along the muddy track, the rotting shoes on her feet let in the moisture from the earth while each step exposed her bare crotch to the chill of the late March wind. But Rebekkah had long ago lost all sense of propriety or dignity. And if her mind ever rose above consideration of her current misery would anyone see her as the pretty teenage girl she knew herself to be? So bruised and battered was her skin, so filthy her bare legs and, with her stomach caved in from malnutrition, she was no better than the brute animal her captors treated her.
She was surrounded by other women in as much misery as she, all of them condemned to march across the German countryside while the Soviet forces chased from behind, but not rapidly enough to bring the deliverance that was all the hope Rebekkah allowed herself. Despite the futility of these last few days of Jewish persecution by the murderous Nazi regime, the Police Battalion was determined to keep order of their charges, systematically denying them food and lashing out beatings on the slightest pretence.
A plane roared overhead and all heads raised to the sky: a column of the ill-fed and ill-treated, female flesh bared and exposed, hair still soaked from an earlier downpour when the Jewish women prisoners were denied any shelter whilst their guards moaned about their fear of Soviet retribution. The plane was almost certainly a Soviet one, but the likelihood was that rather than effect their escape, it would just add to their misery. Fortunately, the plane roared away, no doubt taking its payload to the cowering Germans in the towns.
But there was no pause in the march, despite the fears shared with the police guards. A few women who had halted in their steps were brutally beaten to force them back on their weary way. Rebekkah nodded sympathetically at the middle-aged woman clutching the hand of her nearly naked daughter who huddled beside her, but the woman's blank eyes registered no acknowledgment.
The column marched on in a landscape that seemed almost peaceful under the clouded sky, but offered Rebekkah no comfort at all. The only thing she wanted was rest, blessed respite from the kilometres of aimless procession past deserted untilled fields and abandoned livestock. If she had the opportunity, she doubted she had the strength or energy to run away. And if she should, the likelihood was that she too would be shot by pursuing guards and her corpse left unburied by the roadside.
And then, as she knew it would eventually, the weariness and misery overwhelmed her. She stumbled and fell onto the ground. Her knee caught on a loose stone and added another spasm of agony to the constant pain that wracked her battered body. She fell onto her palms, her arms unable to bear her weight. And this despite having very little weight to support after all these months of starvation.
"Bitch Jew!" were the words that greeted her from Ilse, the police guard who came to her attention. "Get on your shitty feet, you cunt!"
"Sorry! Sorry! I'm so tired!" Rebekkah wailed, gazing up at the young woman towering above her.
Ilse was a slender woman who clearly wasn't as comfortable adorned in her police uniform as she would have been in the clothes of the school student she would still wear if the war hadn't worsened so dramatically. Her blonde hair was stuffed under her hat and although by no means starving, like the other police she no longer looked nearly as well nourished as she might normally. A streak of dirt smudged her face and a lock of hair fell over her high cheek.
"Don't fucking talk back, bitch!" Ilse ordered. "On your fucking feet!"
Although Rebekkah was complying as best she could, she was sufficiently slow for Ilse to strike her again and again with her police baton, adding more bruises to the many scars, scratches and swelling red and blue marks on Rebekkah's mottled skin, each unnecessary blow felt that more acutely on a frame ill-equipped to withstand them and not at all inured by familiarity to the ringing pain that shuddered through her body.
In another time and from another perspective, Rebekkah would know that Ilse's cruelty did not come from the pleasure of meting out punishment. Like all the German guards, whether Nazi or simply functionaries in the Nazi cause, Ilse had come to see this as normal and natural behaviour. She would never have inflicted such treatment on Rebekkah in the days when she relied on her deceptively non-Semitic looks to pretend she was of Aryan birth. That was before an anonymous informer had betrayed her.
But the benefit of sympathetic hindsight at the last relics of the Nazi regime trembling before the unstoppable onslaught of the Slavic foe was not accessible to her at this time.
Rebekkah hated Ilse, as she hated all Germans. And if she had the opportunity to return to Ilse the punishment that was mercilessly met on her battered head and shoulders, she would have gladly done so. And not only in reparation for her own wretchedness, but for that of all Jews. And most especially for her parents and family whom she was more and more certain she would never see again.
Rebekkah staggered on, the pain from the nascent swelling on her cheek a fresh distraction from the sick emptiness of her stomach and the bleeding scratch on her knee. And behind her, Ilse tucked away the baton, ready to be used on one or other of the many Jewish prisoners should the excuse arise.
It was in very different circumstances that Rebekkah next met Ilse, by which stage her stomach had recovered somewhat thanks to the beneficence of the Americans whose food aid the Soviet troops distributed. She was still sporting a prominent discolouration on her cheek as a result of Ilse's brutality. But on this occasion, two weeks later, it was Ilse, not Rebekkah, who was most in need of attention.
Like everyone else in the chaotic days as the war remained unresolved, Rebekkah was scavenging for food and shelter in the bombed and desolate towns, no longer troubled by any mould on abandoned bread and already insensitive to any sympathy for the domestic fowl she killed to sate her appetite. She had slept on the straw of a deserted barn along with other refugees, only a few of them Jewish and most being Germans that the Red Army tanks had overtaken on their rush to Berlin.
She heard Ilse's sobs from the hallway of the ruined house she had wandered into long before she knew who they belonged to. Curious, she cautiously mounted the stairs on the ragged carpet past the detritus that was almost certainly the result of the vandalism of Soviet or even German soldiers. The house was no longer a welcome place, but one of shadows and redolent of despair.
The door was open to the bedroom where Ilse lay naked on the bare stained mattress on the metal bed frame. The morning sun shone through the grimy lace curtains onto her pale shoulder. At first Rebekkah had no idea who it was collapsed in this state of piteous despair. Although she had seen the desperation of so many people in the last few months, as her health improved she had gradually regained her sense of compassion. And even though this naked figure was so obviously a German, her accent apparent in every bitter curse, Rebekkah had rediscovered pity from having seen the fear and desolation of the German refugees, now almost pathetic in their chorus that it wasn't them but others who had supported the Nazi regime and its persecution of the Jews.
Ilse lay huddled in a foetal crouch on the mattress, her hands squeezed between her thighs and protecting her crotch. Her face was pushing against the ragged fabric of the mattress, her hair partly obscuring her eyes. Rebekkah placed a hand on the girl's shoulder, and shivered slightly from the first glimmer of recognition, but not yet sure exactly where and when they might have met before.
"Are you alright?"
Ilse looked up at Rebekkah, clearly startled, but with a blank emptiness behind her stare. Her pale blue eyes were red and raw and the streaks on her cheeks bore the memory of the salt she'd squeezed out of them with her tears. She nodded.
"What happened to you?" Rebekkah asked.
Ilse was still unable to speak. She nodded her head towards her crotch and grimaced. Then she dropped her head down again. "Fucking! Fuck! Shit!" she moaned.
It was then that Rebekkah at last remembered who this girl was. The voice, slightly husky, with a distinct Berlin accent was exactly the same one who called her a bitch and a cunt less than a fortnight before. At this moment, Rebekkah made a decision that was to haunt her for the rest of her life, the consequences of which she had no inkling at this stage. Although she could so easily abandon Ilse, perhaps satisfied that the vengeful retribution she had harboured had indeed come to be, she chose instead to stay by Ilse's side.
It was a long time until Ilse recovered her composure sufficiently for Rebekkah to learn just what had happened to her. And her account came out falteringly and in disconnected sentences. Even at the end of the day when the two of them nestled together under the thin tablecloth that Rebekkah made into makeshift bedclothes, it wasn't clear whether Ilse had yet managed to recognise just who her saviour and new companion was. But there were glances and long puzzled stares that told Rebekkah that Ilse had at least identified that there was some link that bound the two together.
.... There is more of this story ...