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The Widow of a Pair of Dice
by Lisa Antzelevitch
November 27, 2002. It was my 21st birthday. Naturally, I was home for Thanksgiving and did what I always did on my birthday; my family and I went to my savta's house for a big Thanksgiving/birthday feast! I always looked forward to the delicious home cooked meals, Hungarian desserts, and special chocolate birthday cake with a foil wrapped hard chocolate turkey on top - the same chocolate turkey she had been decorating my cake with for years that nobody ever had the heart to eat.
After eating and listening to idle dinner conversation in three different languages, I went over to the old black and chrome rocking chair where she used to sit and rock and tell me stories of the past. I sat down and sank into the worn out charcoal leather cushion which was perfectly formed to fit my round bottom. I reached for a mint in the blue, genie type candy jar she always had fully stocked with treats, pushing a pair of dice over to get to my mint. Ahh yes, the dice. My savta had a love for those silly little cubes. All around the house, you'd find dice lying, in the most random spots. Her tarnished old Sabbath wine glass, the Friday night candlesticks, the unused porcelain ashtray upstairs by the telephone, or in her jewelry box amidst her treasured 18-karat gold necklaces and jade earrings. You might think she was a gambling addict if you were to walk in and see her collection. However, that was far from the truth. Her lucky dice superstition all started back when she herself was 21 years old.
It was 1940, Savta Eva was 17 years old at that time, living in the quaint town of Serench, Hungary and attending a well known public school. Born into a large loving family with three brothers and three sisters, she had a nice comfortable house, and quite the social life as well. Her dignified father, Apu in Hungarian, owned a very successful family business, a small department store in the main part of town. They sold porcelain dishes, furniture, modern clothing, jewelry, and anything else you could think of. Apu was also a great hero from the First World War where he earned 4 medals among other honors fighting on the side of the Hungarians.
Savta had many close friends, mostly Christians from school, and a few crushes on the local boys in town. She and her sisters were all very close, always wearing matching clothes, which her mother made them, and causing mischief around town. She loved to have picnics in the grass behind her house and ride with Apu around town on their donkey, Chachi.
1942. That was the year that everything changed. Conditions in Hungary started gradually worsening for Savta Eva and her family. At first, life continued on its normal routine, well as normal as it could've been for a Jew living in Hungary at that time. Then, slowly one by one, her best friends stopped talking to her as they were no longer allowed to associate with the "Juden." Savta did not understand. Why did they not want to meet her in town to go to the local moving picture show?
Several months passed and the Nazis raided her home and took away her family's business. After all, Jews weren't allowed to own stores and make money. She horrifyingly watched with her sisters and younger brothers as her loving Apu was sent to a labor camp to work for the German army. As a Jew, he was deemed a biological threat to the German's perfect Aryan race. This was only the beginning of what would later be known as the Holocaust. Two years later, when Savta was only twenty-one years old, she and her entire family were deported in a cattle train to Poland, where they came upon their destination, a concentration camp named Auschwitz. The camp was once home to Poles and Soviet Prisoners of War, but now it was what would be the final resting place for thousands of Jewish prisoners.
Savta and her family were crammed into a cattle train car headed to Poland. Thrown in with hundreds of other Jews, their sweaty skin stuck to each other as they stood side by side trying to make room for their well-fed bodies. The odor of sweat and urine filled the car as they fought to reach the small barred window up top to get a breath of fresh air. At least they were together though; they had each other for support.
Upon arrival at a dirt encrusted camp surrounded by shiny metal fences, Savta and her family were separated into two lines by the pointing of the infamous Dr.Mengele's wretched finger. Dr. Mengele decided whether the new arrivals would be sent to the left line, the line of mercy, to do various, torturous work tasks, or the right line. Those sent to the right would never have to work again. Torn from the grip of her familys' hands, Savta Eva was led to the left. That would be the last time she would see her three brothers and mother again.
There were three sections to the camp. The central section was where commander Hoss's headquarters rested, as well as the Gestapo offices. This was the place where prisoners hardly visited, unless they were being used as sexual objects or slaves by the officers. Only the pretty blonde ones got that fortune, however. The slave labor camp was the second section. In this part of the camp, prisoners were forced to inefficiently produce synthetic rubber and other trivial products. You'd think that there was a shortage of erasers or gym balls by the way they forced the prisoners to work their bare hands. However, the factory was not for the purpose of making rubber at all, it was merely to torture the prisoners with useless labor. The third section was the death camp, consisting of five gas chambers disguised as showers fueled with insecticide, Syklon B. There was always a grotesque smell coming from the chimneys there, as a dark black cloud of smoke looked over the camp.
The days in the camp were long, painful, exhausting and frigid. Savta was worn thin by the first week of arduous work and she didn't know how she could withstand much more of the pain, but she had to. It was then that she found it! Amongst the dirt, filth and nothingness of the desolate place was a small wooden cube. Savta owned nothing, no possessions, nothing to call her own, not even her hair, which had been shaven off to prevent lice. Yet somehow, in front of her, lay a hand carved wooden die, the lonely widow of a pair of dice. The markings on all six sides were worn from use. Who knew where this die once was, or who once held it? To Savta, it was a sign, a sign of hope that she could not give up yet. She picked up the die and kept it inside on the top of her left straw made shoe for safekeeping.
Four weeks after her discovery, while Savta was eating dinner in the mess hall, something miraculous happened as a squeaky female voice hollered over from the other side. It was an old family friend from Serench. She was yelling to Savta. Her luck was already beginning to change! It had to be the wooden die! As Savta went over to try to talk to the lady, she was yanked back by a stern faced guard. The lady across the way managed to yell out in Hungarian, "ah teshtvered eet von." Savta trembled as she heard those beautiful words telling her that her three sisters were there on the other side.
She could not sleep that night, not as if she slept any of the nights, which was unusual because of her sheer exhaustion from the work. However, that night was exceptionally painful as she lay awake sandwiched between six others in her small wooden bed, longing for her sisters' familiar touch. She fiddled with the carved die, tossing it between her rough cold hands. The next morning the sun rose as always, peering through the ashy gray clouds in the sky. Savta carried out her duties like a zombie that day, keeping her mind focused on dinner, when she hoped to catch a glimpse of her three sisters, whom she hadn't seen since their arrival.
It was finally time to eat. Her stomach clenched tight as she entered the mess hall, running wholeheartedly to the table closest to the buffet station serving as a wall dividing the mess hall into two. Sure enough, there was her sister Marta, looking straight at her with her brown, tired eyes. Savta gazed at her dumbfounded, as if she couldn't believe what she was seeing. She didn't want to take her eyes off of Marta for one minute; in fear that that would be the last they saw of each other. Marta managed to slip a note to Savta through the slave cooks she had befriended, devising a detailed plan for the four of them to be together again.
Night fell and Savta lay awake reading the note again and again, pressing it against her face so that she might catch a trace of Marta's familiar scent in her nose. She needed to build her courage; she would need guts. She clenched the small wooden die in her blistered blue hands.
The next monotonous day went by slowly, especially the hours right before dinnertime. She had no watch, clock or sense of time but as the sun started to fall, Savta's spirits started to rise. She entered the mess hall as normal that night; sipped her liter of cold soup, and ate her small piece of stale bread and square of savory mouth watering butter. As dinner quickly came to an end, the prisoners divided up into their different bunks and went back to work.
Savta followed the directions Marta had sent her and snuck over to a different bunk than her own in the midst of the confusion. She marched with the bunk to their night duty, which was carrying the dead onto large trucks to be disposed of with other women from the other side of camp. Savta found the woman who was more than willing to trade places with her, as Marta had arranged. It seemed that everyone wanted to be reunited with someone. When night duty was over, the two women secretly traded spots and the head count remained the same. Their switch went unnoticed by the Gestapo. Now, Savta was on the other side of the camp, reunited with her three sisters. This reunion and her small wooden die renewed her strength, as well as her sisters'.
The four sisters were forced to dig deep trenches with their bare hands in the forest to hide Nazi army tanks. Living on their tiny rations, they dug day and night in the cold unforgiving climate of Poland. Many of the prisoners with them died of starvation, overworking, coldness, or from torture. One time, Savta had been lashed twenty-five times with a whip for making slippers out of her blanket to protect her feet from the cold. Another time, she was beaten for not being strong enough to carry a tree through the forest on her back. She curled her toes tightly around the scratched wooden surface of the scarred die. This labor continued for a year straight. Out of the 3,000 women sent to that forest to work, Savta Eva, her sisters and 296 others survived.
In 1945, news of the Russian army reached camp. They were on their way to help the Jewish prisoners, so the Nazi soldiers were ordered to kill the remaining Jewish people. Savta knew a woman who had befriended a Nazi officer in the camp. This woman told the officer that if he helped her and her friends survive, she would give him her clothes and would tell the Russian officers that he was her husband. The Nazi officer knew that the Russians would have killed him if they knew he was a German Nazi, so he agreed to her plan and abandoned the women; Savta, her three sisters, and four others at a nearby farm and fled into the night.
Savta and the seven others knew that the war had not yet ended so they hid in the dark cellar of the cattle farm. She remained silent and crouched in the corner of the cellar for days, periodically wriggling her feet to feel the reassuring presence of her hard-edged die. Just as they had expected, a Nazi soldier doing routine checks of the surrounding countryside came in search of fugitives. He took out his huge black flashlight to look in the cob webbed old root cellar. He flashed it in one corner and saw only a rusty pitch fork and hoe, then he shined it in the next corner and saw the farmer's retired wheel barrel, the third corner and revealed only a shot of a family of rats and then by a miracle, he turned around and left before shining it into the fourth corner, which was where they were hiding. They sighed with relief.
After a few days, the eight emerged from the basement and cautiously examined their surroundings. They rummaged through garbage and the abandoned cellar to find clothing to cover their naked bodies. As they slowly struggled to walk/crawl into town, they were found by the Russian army and taken to a shelter to rest and eat. Savta sat on a real bed for the first time in years and took off her straw shoes to reveal her blistered, bloody, frost bitten feet. The die dropped to the floor, now tinted a slight shade of crimson. She picked it up and kissed it as a single tear streamed down her dirty sunken in face.
After a few days rest, Savta and her three sisters, Marta, Vali, and Shari, started a six-week journey by foot back home to Hungary. Their emaciated little bodies slept under trees, in fields and in train stations along the way. They were hated and sent away by many people that they met on their journey, but would not stop fighting to survive. Somehow they managed to find their way back to their hometown, Serench, where the government returned to them their home. But they would not stay.
As I blew out the twenty-two candles on my birthday cake, one for good luck of course, I looked over to Savta and smiled. Her wrinkled face turned into a grin, as well, as she came over to hug me. I looked over her shoulder to the kitchen counter and noticed the two dice I made her out of clay for Hanukkah lying there. I thought of the dice key chain she gave me to hang in my new car. I thought of the dice included in my graduation card, of the dice in my underwear drawer, and the dice in my bicycle basket as a child. I thought of how you always knew where Savta has been because she had blessed that place with her lucky dice. And I smiled.
from the May 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine