THE AMERICANS. THE AMERICANS.
I felt that I was in a place where I should not be, as if I had entered hallowed grounds without invitation. Sweet, musty, medicinal incense hung on the air. The smell of unfamiliar age made me antsy. I wanted out of there.
My host sister, Briget, explained to her grandmother that I was the American exchange student come to stay for the summer. We may have been poor, but I was raised proper, so, to be polite, I smiled and extended my hand to the humpbacked old woman.
Her rheumy blue eyes cleared and at once sparkled like cornflowers after a spring rain. She grabbed my hands so suddenly, I jumped, my skin prickling. She did not let me go. Her glittering eyes filled with tears that spilled over into the deep furrows in her cheeks. Over and over again she murmured the same thing: “The Americans. The Americans.”
I was stunned to silence. I could only wonder in horror, “What had I done wrong?”
Briget fussed at her grandmother, but the old woman shook her head like a child fighting sleep. Eyes closed, she laid her wet, wrinkled cheeks against the backs of my hands, chanting in a warbled whisper, “The Americans. The Americans.”
Embarrassed, Briget ripped my hands from the old woman’s desperate grip and ushered me from the room, apologizing for her grandmother. I had never in my short life witnessed such a pure emotional outpouring. I could not imagine what would make this old woman behave in such a way to a complete stranger.
Red cheeked, Briget belched a nervous laugh. She told me that her grandmother’s entire village in Czechoslovakia was liquidated by the Nazi’s. The healthy men of the village were taken first, trucked away on trains to do the Reich’s dirty work.
The women, children and elderly were force marched to a concentration camp in Poland, where she spent her formative years clinging to a tenuous thread of life for six years. For two months, the Nazis herded them like cattle. Airplanes dropped bombs on either side of the marching dead, corralling them towards the last place on Earth most of them would ever see.
Mesmerized, I watched Briget motion with her fists like they were bombs falling through the air. Her grandmother’s mother passed all of her scant food rations down to her little daughter and soon became ill. She collapsed on the march. At gunpoint, Briget’s grandmother was forced to leave her mother in a crumpled heap in the dirt.
She had been seven years old.
It was the Americans who liberated her concentration camp.
On my last day, Briget led me again into the darkened room, to say goodbye. Old Mrs. Pilzmittenburg offered me a shy wave and a confused smile. After months of sharing the upstairs together, she had already forgotten who I was.
But she would never forget who The Americans were.
This I believe–neither should we.
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