We were two foreign women living in a complex of flats designed for senior citizens. I moved there after my retirement, and soon I met my next door neighbor, a woman called Hilda.
'Have I met you before?' I asked Hilda at my first encounter with her. 'Your face seems very familiar.'
The woman looked startled. 'I doubt it. I've just bought this flat and I'm a newcomer to this town.'
I was puzzled but lately my memory was getting worse and I often could not remember faces, besides at our age we all looked pretty much the same.
We were drawn to each other by many factors. One of them was loneliness. We were foreign women living in a foreign land called South Africa. We had no families to lean on, and no childhood friends to share memories with. Later on we found out that we loved the same music and culinary specialties. We also loved reading, and spent many happy hours discussing the best sellers, or browsing in the exchange book shops for our old favorites.
It was an unspoken agreement between us not to talk about the past. We both agreed it was a waste of time to dwell on the reminiscences of our lives which could be painful or boring to one of us. The time was now and we did not want to waste it. We did not have much time left anyway!
I remember how we (two old ladies) sat in my lounge during late afternoon sipping sherry, watching the shadows growing longer in the garden, and listened to the nostalgic music of Chopin. This was our special hour of being still, saying thank you to God for one more beautiful day, and hoping that the next one will come tomorrow.
One day Hilda suddenly suffered a stroke. It was I who heard her fall off the bed, and rushed to her flat. I could not lift her up for she was a big woman. I had to call for help and then for the ambulance. I accompanied her to the hospital and left her when she was admitted to ICU. At the admissions office the clerk had asked for her identity document, so I rushed home to get it from her flat. It took me a while to find the document, but while looking for it I also found something else. There was a photo album tugged in one of the drawers of her desk. I opened it out of curiosity, and I became instantly engrossed in the photographs. There were mostly group photographs of men and women in strangely familiar uniforms. Then I looked further and became immediately agitated. There was a place with watch towers and fences with barbed wires. There were pictures of rows and rows of barracks and skeleton like people wearing striped pajama- like garments. This was Ravensbruck concentration camp. I had no doubt. I was probably one of those women in the picture digging trenches or shifting the mounts of sand in the dunes outside the camp. Maybe I was the one standing with other prisoners for the roll-call at four o'clock in the morning, blue from the cold, while women wardens searched us for forbidden blankets or pieces of newspaper which we wrapped our bodies with under our thin dresses to insulate a little from the cold. I was probably one in the crowd of women crazy with hunger, fighting for the leftovers of rotten turnips in a pail, while those men in uniforms watched us laughing and joking.
How on earth did Hilda get this album? Had she bought it in some second-hand shop, or did somebody offer her this, 'War souvenir,' to remember the atrocities of the war?
Hilda was still unconscious, and the doctor was not optimistic about her recovery. I sat watching her and I wished she would wake up and answer my questions. Suddenly, I was struck with a new idea. I rushed back home and went to the Hilda's flat to search for more clues. Nobody in the complex wandered why I stayed so such a long time in her flat. I was after all, her best friend. I methodically searched through all her clothes, her linen cupboards and her books. I looked into her old trunk and in her bags. I even searched her bathroom. And then I found it. There was a small water color picture above her bed. The picture depicted a cottage in the forest with the mountains in the background. It had the name, 'Heimat-Homeland,' written underneath. I took it down and examined the frame, there was something sticking out at the back of the cardboard which covered the frame. I lifted it up and a small photograph fell out. The photograph was of a young couple, they were both in SS uniforms. The girl's face was familiar. This time my memory did not fail me. I knew who she was. We gave her the nickname, 'MAMA.'
I sat on Hilda's bed looking at the photograph and recalling our last encounter.
It was the end of May, 1945, three weeks after my liberation from the concentration camp.
I was walking along a busy street in Lubeck with my cousin Ala, who was with me in the camp. We were searching for a photographer who was to take photos of us for our identity documents. The street was crowded with people, some of them, like us, were still wearing our prisoners dresses with camp numbers on, to boast that we were survivors of the notorious camp. There was a military policeman regulating the traffic, and there were many British and American soldiers strolling along. We were chatting happily when suddenly Ala stopped and exclaimed, 'Look, there's Mama!'
I looked. Yes, there was no doubt about it. .The woman who was walking towards us, wearing civilian clothes, was our Nazi warden, the one we called Mama. I stared at her and saw that she had recognized us. For a split second she seemed to hesitate and looked afraid, and then she resolutely walked towards us. She smiled, and asked in German how we were.
We replied politely that we were very well. 'And you?' I asked. She looked at me sadly and said she was alright and she wished us well. She walked away and we watched her go. The M.P. on traffic duty was just a few meters away, we could have run to him and shouted, 'There goes a SS woman, arrest her.' In those days it was an obligation to hunt for Nazi men and women. But we let her go.
'So much for our hatred and our feelings of revenge 'Ala remarked bitterly.
'She was good to us, remember?' I replied.
Amongst all the cruel SS women who guarded us in Ravensbruck, and later on in the slave labor camp, she was different. We called her Mama (Mother in Polish). It was a relief when she was on duty while we were at work, or in our cellar under the factory, for we knew she would not beat us, or search our beds, or drag us outside into the sleet and rain to stand at attention for hours on end. She certainly, shouted and tried to be severe, but according to the old prisoners, it was all a pretence. I never saw her kicking anybody, or using her crop on any of us. She seemed to like music, and often asked us to sing our nostalgic songs. She smiled, and thanked us for our performance with tears in her eyes. How on earth did this woman became an SS guard? Those women were chosen for their cruelty and perversion. There was a strict selection code and they had to prove their worth to wear an SS uniform. I had so many unanswered questions.
And now, after forty five years, Hilda was here, a frail old lady, probably with a false identity and a made up story of her life.
I did not go to the hospital for a long time. I felt cheated, disappointed and betrayed; although I did not know why. After all, we agreed not to share our past experiences.
Finally I had a call from the hospital, Hilda was better but she was going to be sent to the Frail Age Home, and that she wanted to see me.
She was quite bright that day. She thanked me for all my help and for the first time she spoke about her past life. 'I was blessed in my life,' she said, 'because in spite of my follies, like falling under the spell of evil men and even marrying one of them, I met so many good people who showed me the right way. They even called me Mama although I did not deserve it. Two young Polish girls showed me how one should forgive our adversaries and allow them to live with their conscience. But this is a long story, and I'm very tired.'
I was going to tell her that I was one of those girls, but for what purpose? I wanted to remember our friendship as it was before my, 'Big discovery.' I never found out who the true Hilda was, or what she had done. For me, she was a woman who lighted my days in a time when I needed to know there was compassion amongst the human beings. Her presence she helped me endure loneliness and the feeling of rejection that the old people experience. She was my friend, and who was I to judge her?