A slither of light peeps tentatively through a crack in the worn-out, ancient floorboards above us, providing barely enough illumination for me to thread a needle and fix our tattered clothes. A putrid stench wafts in the air, indicating that a rat or some other kind of pest is rotting down here. Rotting away just like us, so-called vermin, remanded in a makeshift concrete prison to escape an otherwise certain death. From under the floorboards, I hear a sharp rap on the door, and my heartbeat stops when I can make out a single phrase from the cacophony behind it: Heil Hitler.
I glance at my daughter, once innocent, but now no stranger to the dangers of Nazi Poland. I think back to the good old days when we could still laugh freely. Her smile would light up our living room while she recited a song that she had composed at school. Ruth could have been a musician; I had invested years into showing her the ropes, and together we would dream about her future in the music industry. “I’d be just like Jerzy Czaplicki,” she’d exclaim, jittering with excitement. “Or maybe even Stefan Witas,” I’d suggest, nearly suffocating her in my tight embrace. However, that girl is a thing of the past. Her plump figure has been reduced to a skeletal frame, scrawny and undernourished. The only remnant of the girl that she used to be is her trademark frizzy hair, grossly incongruent with the rest of her appearance.
Ruth’s awake now, glossy-eyed and catatonic in fear, so I shuffle towards her and give her a reassuring hug. Above us, our benefactor opens her front door to reveal a pair of SS Officers. The floorboards creak and groan as the Nazi officers invite themselves into the house. They move as if their joints are made of stone, standing ramrod-straight and breaking their posture only for the occasional spit.
The officers are confronting our benefactor now, yelling so loud that the whole block can hear. “Where are the Jews?”
Ruth is shooting me a look that reflects all of her trepidation. Tears are welling up in her eyes, making them look like wet pools of ink blotted on her anaemic grey face. I feel my jacket pocket, praying that our one saving grace is still with me.
Yes, the syringe of poison is still there. I can overdose us; kill us down here before we get deported to a concentration camp. Stealthily, I manoeuvre the syringe out of my pocket before being overtaken by a sudden realisation.
I can only spare one of us from this cruel life.
Ruth, my darling daughter, deserves to be spared from the pain. It is the best that I can give her as a father, to let her maintain some dignity in death. However, it is a double-edged sword. In letting her die peacefully, I am sending myself to a life of excruciating pain. My brain is abruptly thrown into a raging war between my humane self and my selfishness, the syringe now the bane of my existence.
“Tell us now! Where are they?” The SS Officers are becoming impatient. Time is ticking. I can feel my heart pounding within my chest, steadily quickening until an austere truth hits me. Ruth is my own flesh and blood. My epiphany is like a sucker punch to the face. Could I call myself human if I sentence my own daughter to an arduous, miserable life?
“Where?” Our benefactor is distraught, and the Nazis are exacerbated. I want to cherish the last moments with my daughter, but my heart is heavy within my chest. The sound of a gunshot resounds through the household. Ruth is terrified beyond words, causing her to wail inconsolably. Despite my efforts to mollify her, the officers hear her loud and clear. The constant thud of their boots colliding with the floor as they approach catapults me into a state of urgency. It is the moment. I have to do it now. It is my last chance. “Ruth, I love you.” I plunge the needle into her arm and my daughter takes her final breath.
My blood runs cold while holding her limp, lifeless body. My heart is shattered. I have no time to properly mourn her loss. All I can do is wallow in my own sorrow and wait to be dragged off to my bleak future. Crouching underneath the floorboards, listening to my own cries of despair, I only wish that I could have died with her.
I wish that I was dead.