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I Am Number Four

By Sayonee Ghosh Roy

The number four has been inexplicably entwined with my destiny since the day I was born. I was born on 4th April, the fourth day of the fourth month. I also happen to be the fourth offspring in my family. Even my roll number at the Jewish Lyceum was four. I say ‘was’ because I don’t go there anymore. Why, you ask? Well, it all started, not surprisingly, on my fourth birthday.

It was the year 1934. The stark, cold April winds ushered into our house, my father bearing my birthday cake and also rumours of Kaiser Wilhelm’s despondency and Adolf Hitler’s rising popularity. Obviously, a four year old mind cannot comprehend the ramifications this piece of news would spell for Jewish families like us, who called Germany home. I thought nothing of it and tucked into my cake, my only concern being winning the ensuing party games against my siblings and friends.

It was only a matter of time before Kaiser fled the country and the Berlin saw the establishment of the Third Reich under Hitler, the Swastika rising like the sun on the dawn of a new era in Germany’s history. And the simple, carefree life that I had known receded to the deeper recesses of my mind, like a distant memory, conjured now in a desperate attempt to convey my plight to you.

I understand that my parents were only trying to shield us during this tumultuous span but there’s only so much I can pretend not to see. I was moved from my regular school to the Lyceum so that my social circle comprised of children of my own kind. Our Jewish acquaintances, in what I considered then a fit of religious fanaticism, started sporting the Star of David and my family soon followed suit, inadequately answering my queries as to why. I wish they had a little faith in me and had given me at least an inkling of what was going on. It might have prepared me for what was coming.

First, the disappearances. The number of students in the Lyceum trickled down from a hundred strong to a dozen few and in the end, including myself, only four remained. Our teachers pretended not to notice these alarming developments. But I could see the way their hands shivered slightly while writing on the board or exchange barely disguised baleful glances with each other while walking down the corridors.

By now, I knew that I would be fed with lies again if I asked my parents what was going on. It was as if they considered me unprepared for facing the reality, by virtue of being the youngest. I wasn’t even that immature! I’m twelve and I knew that the world was embroiled in a war which would probably turn out to be worse than the Great War of 1914-1918. I understood that no one was safe. But the way my parents behaved in a manner akin to cornered animals, had me thinking that this was something more than just general concern for well being in a war-torn state.

The announcement of our imminent relocation to Switzerland didn’t come as a surprise to me. I could hear furtive whispering among my siblings and parents the whole week but I wasn’t privy to the conversation as usual. And all their conferencing distilled into this plan for our sudden departure. But on the eve of our flight (I call it that for, to me it seemed like running away) a jeep pulled up in front of our house.

Soldiers trooped in and dragged us out front and dumped us into the vehicle along with the other families they had rounded up. Some sat dolefully, as if they were resigned to their fate while others were in absolute hysterics. I had heard whispers doing rounds at the Lyceum of something like this being the reason for the increasing absenteeism of the students but I didn’t know if I should believe it. I wondered what they must’ve felt like and now Destiny, in a perverse way, had granted my desire for an empathic simulation of the scenario.

At the train station, we were separated from my mother and sister. They were loaded on a train bound for Bergen Belsen while we were singled out for Dachau. You must’ve heard about concentration camps. Well, I didn’t, in spite of being on my way to one. My father and brothers sat silent and I had to piece together the vital information I needed to know from others around me, who were to share the same fate as us. I hoped I could say that it was all hearsay, but it wasn’t. Braver writers and more detailed accounts, if they survive, shall emerge from elsewhere, for my strength fails when I try to describe the horrors I see here every day and might have to see later on.

But I have a responsibility towards you, dear reader and that’s why I shall try to hold out a little longer and divulge some more. Our heads were shaved upon our arrival and we were given striped pajamas with numbers on them. I am number four here and my residence is in the fourth bunker in the fourth block of the camp. We were put to work immediately. I was put on cleaning duty probably due to my age.

I saw new faces every day and the old ones gradually vanish. I wonder if they were freed or let out and hoped that maybe my turn would arrive soon to follow wherever they went. I hate this place. It reeks of filth, grime, disease and decay. We’re treated worse than animals. I think of my mother and sister sometimes and I cry. I pray that they’re all right. I hope my father and brothers have realized the futility of keeping the truth to me. My fate caught up with me in spite of their misplaced feelings of protectiveness, didn’t it? I’ve asked them not to lie to me anymore. They agreed. I believe them.

I must stop writing now. It’s time to take a bath. Once in a while, batches of people are rounded up for a communal shower in a large bunker which has vents in the ceiling through which steam and water is pumped. Or so, my father says. In fact, this happens on the fourth day of every month.

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Sayonee Ghosh Roy
I humbly profess to be spoilt, pampered brat with old-school upbringing. You could let me loose in a book-store and I'd never come out, except if you lure me out with coffee and Italian food.


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