My Pendant – Melissa Jensen

I remember when I got my pendant. It was for my birthday and I was 8 years old. It was not very fancy, it was flat, shaped roughly like a cloud, with a hole in it, but it was special to me, as it had been passed through my family. My mother always told me it would bring me luck.

I used to live in Warsaw, but that seems like such a long time ago now.  The day the Germans came, everything fell apart. There was heavy bombing and lots of people died. We saw the German troops march through.  From then on it got worse and worse.

I was arrested on the 6th of August 1942 for the awful crime of having greeted a neighbour who happened to be a Polish politician of the Polish Workers’ Party. A group of three SS- guards happened to see our exchange and immediately took me away, despite my protests that it was completely unfair. As I was taken away I saw my neighbour being beaten and dragged away as well. I never did find out what happened to him.

I was taken to a prison cell, just outside of Warsaw. I think that I was there for around three weeks, but I am not too sure. The time got hazy as the weeks were long, dragging on, nights blurring into days. I was with seven other women who had committed the same crime but luckily we were left more or less alone for this period of time. We were taken out of the cell only occasionally, in turn, to be interrogated. Even our interrogations were not so bad. The worst that happened was that we were hit if we did not answer a question but all the questions were straightforward. I mean, what was there to say really? We shared four beds, but got food and water every day. We could hear the people in the surrounding cells. Shouts and screams of pain echoed along the walls of the cells, thoroughly shaking all of us. Through the one small window we could see people being brought back to their cell, completely unrecognisable, their faces all bloodied and bruised. Most people were taken at night to be interrogated. When we heard the sound of large keys clanking we would huddle up at the far wall. Not that it would make a difference anyway, if they did come to us.

One morning, several SS guards entered and grabbed us by the forearms. We were led outside where there were about 800 more people standing, confusion and fear written on all their faces. This was the last time I saw the seven women I had become close to. I remember seeing one of them trembling, staring at me as she was dragged away. Her eyes said it all. Goodbye and good luck. 

I witnessed families being torn apart, mothers and fathers being separated from their children, who had no idea what was going on. The screams and cries of despair filled the air. Quickly I understood what was happening. We were being selected for the concentration camps. During this cruel selection, there was a young woman whose child was snatched away by one of the SS-men. He had deemed her as strong and healthy enough to do work. Her husband, the child’s father, saw what was happening, grabbed back his child, hit the SS-man hard around the face and shouted ‘My end is now, but yours will come’. SS-men rushed forward quickly and executed the whole family, first the child, then the mother and finally that brave, brave man.

I was herded away with some 400 people. We were all piled into lorries in which we were transported to Ravensbrück. It was extremely cramped in the lorries. It got very hot very quickly, people were suffocating, and all you could hear were the cries for water. Women, including myself clawed at the wooden boards of the lorry to try and get out. We were desperate to attempt to grab this last chance of freedom, before we arrived. Our fingernails became all cracked and bloody, hundreds of small splinters making the work hard. But people did not give up trying, the whole way to Ravensbrück, for these long hours. Unfortunately nobody succeeded, the planks of wood too tightly fixed together, too thick.

When we finally arrived, the doors of the lorries were thrown open violently with people being pushed out with the butts of guns. I got a blow to my hip, which turned into a massive bruise. The guards were laughing, chanting ‘Welcome to your new home’. But that was not too bad. 

Then we were sorted again, made to line up, pushed in different directions. I witnessed some of the mothers hiding their children under their skirts to avoid being separated. But quickly enough the SS- guards found these poor kids. They were killed in front of everyone, as well as their mothers, executed for breaking the rules. 

Afterwards, we were sent to strip, all personal belongings stolen. On the way to this room I managed to hide my pendant in my cheek, dropping the string that had clasped it around my neck. We were all sent to a room where we were checked for head lice. Those who had lice had their heads shaved, losing even more of their dignity and identity. Then we had to wear camp clothes, and we were all assigned numbers. The clothes consisted of stripped garbs and wooden clogs. We were numbered and marked. I had a red triangle with the letter P. This said that I was a Polish political prisoner. From that moment on, I had no identity. I was nobody but a number to the SS- guards. We were no longer people, we were less worthy than animals. This was one of the first steps of their quest to dehumanise us. 

When I got the first real view of the camp I was shocked. It was even worse than I had thought it would be, and my expectations had been low. As I took in the scenery around me I saw the rows of grey boxes, all neatly aligned. There were skeletons of people watching us arrive, trapped behind high fences lined with barbed wire, desperation and sadness filling their eyes. Little did I know I would become one of them soon enough. 

The barracks where we slept were crowded. There were three bunks, with two people per bed to begin with, then we were four per bed. In our barrack we also had a bucket and a bowl to wash in, and we had to wash and make our beds every morning before roll call. If our beds were unmade we were punished. We had a straw mattress and two blankets per bed. All of the beds were ridden with bugs and lice and so diseases spread quickly around the barracks. Luckily, in the barrack I was in there were no such outbreaks. I heard the stories of the other barracks. They were quarantined, the hospital wing full to the brim. 

One of the women who got sick and survived the hospital explained to me how she was lying next to a dead body for four days before the nurses realised that that person was actually dead. And since she was too sick to move, she could not tell them. She told me how the doctors and nurses would not do much to help the sick. Because of this, a lot of the women who became ill tried to hide it and carried on working. They risked getting even sicker to avoid the hospital.

The weeks passed and I saw and heard of more and more horrors people had been through. People became weak with fatigue and we were working all day. Food was scarce. We had strictly limited rations of grain coffee in the morning and then very watery soup with 100 grams of bread for dinner. However, by the time dinner came we were often so exhausted we could not move our arms and only wanted to sleep. 

Every morning we were all chased outside for roll call. This lasted for an extremely long time. Most days it was from about 3:30- 7:30 in the morning. We had to stand perfectly still as the SS- men checked that everyone was present. If anyone fidgeted or sat down they were beaten, right there. And it was freezing cold. People would try to unnoticeably wiggle their fingers so they would not freeze. Literally. If your fingers froze you could no longer work and were deemed useless. Many people were killed because of this. As people became weaker, as people got ill, as people became thinner we would help each other to look healthier than we actually were, to avoid being killed or selected for some of the death camps. We did this by dirtying our faces, so the guards could not see how pale we were. However, this was also a risk because if we were too dirty we got punished.

Once, a Russian woman fled from our column. We were forced to stand in the woods from seven in the morning, when roll call finished, until one in the afternoon as a punishment. Then we were moved to stand in the camp ground for a further six hours. We stood there all day, with no food or water. Many people fainted from hunger that day. In the evening we were given watered down soup and then we were sent off to bed, so that we could work the next day again.

Work was hard. There were lots of different types of work. One thing I heard was that there were women who had to make socks for soldiers. As a subtle act of defiance and to make life hard for these soldiers, they would adjust the machines they used to make the socks so that the fabric at the heels and toes would be thin. This would mean that the sock would break easily when the German soldiers marched in them. And this would lead to the soldiers having sore feet. But they still had to be careful for if they were caught adjusting the machines they would be heavily beaten.

I, myself, first worked in an ammunition factory where I was packing bullets into boxes. We were eight people per table and we had to pack 3000 bullets per day. If the number was not reached we would be beaten as punishment. This went on for about six months. The same routine every day, packing bullets. Our eyes became sore and as people became more and more tired through the endless routine, more and more people were killed, picked out one by one for not completing the quotas, or taking a second’s rest whilst working.

There was one day that will always haunt me. That day a group of about 20 people were made to dig a massive hole. This was just outside the factory so we saw everything. What the other workers and I found out later was that they had escaped from the concentration camp and been recaptured. This was their punishment. We were all made to line up outside the factory and watch as the people had to stand along the pit. And just like that they were shot. Their bodies fell into it. They were digging their own grave.

Selections went on every week, people were moved between the concentration camps, and streams of hopeless prisoners kept arriving.

Then, one day, I was selected for outdoor work. The other women and I were made to stand in a ‘human train’, passing bricks along to the builders. This, though it does not sound too hard, was extremely challenging. Through the long hours, our hands became raw and swollen, the rough bricks scratching them. My hands became very sore and bled constantly. And I could not do anything about it. I just had to grit my teeth and bear the pain. For if we stopped, we got punished of course. People too weak to work any longer were savagely beaten.

One woman I knew caught a cold from working outside all the time, and this developed into a high temperature. She did not go to work but hid in the barracks instead. However, the commandant of the camp walked around the barracks and checked they were all in order and saw her. He did not do anything at the time but when roll call came that evening we were all lined up and then one of the SS- guards asked who the ill person was. She stepped out of the line and immediately two of the guards approached her, one held her by her head and the other held her hands behind her back. The commandant himself came up and beat the poor woman with a rubber horsewhip. People watching counted up to forty lashes to her back, but we could not do anything about it without being beaten ourselves. The guards were watching our reactions carefully, glee written on their faces watching us deciding whether to intervene. No one did though. The woman fell unconscious and was left lying in the mud as we were sent back to the barracks, the guards thought she was dead. Some other women helped her up and back to the barracks and slowly tried to nurse her back to health. She survived for three weeks without the guards finding her until she finally passed away.

SS- guards would punish people for no reason, shooting them, beating them. It was purely for the guards’ own enjoyment. They liked to see people suffer. 

As the months went past, the guards of the concentration camp seemed to have one goal. To break one’s spirit and strip one of their identity. People lost their minds from this tactic. We, the other women in the barrack and I, realised this and decided that we had to keep a little piece of ourselves. Whenever possible, people found scraps of cloth, wire, even seeds, and used them to make little bracelets or dolls, anything.

My cloud pendant was always with me. I found a bit of wire and twisted it to form a bracelet. It was what kept me sane through these long years. When I saw something awful happening, I would touch the cloud. It became my lucky charm. And it did give me luck. I was never selected for anything worse than hard work. Occasionally we were searched for any valuables and then I would place the cloud in my cheek again. There were plenty of times when I was close to throwing it away. I could see how brutal the punishment for people who had possessions of their own was. Often, the guards would find a necklace hidden in the sole of a shoe, or some money tucked away beneath the rags of the beds. 

We found different ways to keep each other strong. On all those long sleepless nights you would often hear different phrases such as ‘then you add three eggs’, or ‘we would swim in the lake every summer’. The guards could beat us, torture us, and kill us but we still found our ways to resist them. They could take everything, except our memories. Recipes were told, memories from before the war, children’s bedtime stories. Looking back, I think that this is was retained most of my humanity.

Through the last months of the war, people were constantly dying. So many people dead. Approximately 100 people died per day from hunger, exhaustion and typhus. And add on the thousands of people killed by the guards through punishment or out of pure spite. 

Then one day we heard that the Allies were coming. We were forced awake and up out of bed at around midnight. The guards pushed us up into a line and quickly selected those strong enough to walk. The weak and the sick were all left behind to die. The rest of us had to walk. We had no idea where we were going, or why we were walking. We were led through forests, through villages and towns. We walked so much our legs became swollen, and because of our wooden clogs, our feet became blistered and bleeding. Women fell constantly, pushed back up by the guards with the butts of their guns. And if someone fell and could not get up again they were left there, sprawled across the mud. Some women who fell tried to avoid their fate of death, tried to keep up by crawling after the line. Guards shot people walking too slowly so the march was not hindered. 

We were walking so that there would be nobody left alive to testify what had happened at the Ravensbrück. It was a death march. The guards expected all those walking to be dead by the time the Allies arrived.

Soon though, we were luckily caught up by the Allies. We were given Red Cross parcels and a piece of bread each. We were saved from the hands of our enemy. We boarded a train and people were crying for joy and in anticipation of a free future. It was like a huge weight had been lifted. All of us exhausted, starving people felt alive again. We travelled on the train for a few days and nights and then we were out, out of Germany, into Denmark. 

In Denmark we left the train and the Red Cross took care of us, looking after each one of us like you would look after a small child. We slept in soft beds and got very good food. We stayed in Denmark for about three days and then we were boarded onto a ship destined to Sweden. We were all given medical care, but unfortunately some women died during the journey. We finally arrived in Malmö, where we received a very joyful welcoming.

I never went back to Poland. I never found my family again.

Years later, now, when I look at my pendant, the pendant which never left me through the entire journey, I am reminded of everything that happened to me, reminded of the happy childhood moments and the terrifying time I spent in Ravensbrück. I can sense the emotion I felt when we were rescued, how the feeling that I had had for years of drowning and being utterly helpless, completely disappeared, leaving me feeling light. I remember when I could first feel my feet again after that long, long walk, and when my hands finally completely healed. I still feel grief. I still mourn for those brave men, women, children, who after being tormented by the guards, passed away. And that is why we can never let these memories, these feeling and emotions die out. This must never happen again.

Melissa Jensen

© Katedralskolan