When I was young my grandmother used to tell me stories of her youth. When I was about the age of fourteen, she told me about her and my grandfather’s time in a Polish city by the name of Bedzin. She described Bedzin as a quaint city; it had been where she first met my grandfather, where they married, and where they planned to live for the rest of their days.
Their aspirations of a normal life were abruptly crushed in September of 1939 when Hitler’s armies invaded. By 1940 their beloved hometown had been transformed into a dirty ghetto where my grandparents were forced to work in German munition factories. By late 1940 my grandparents realized that there were fewer workers each day and decided it was time to get out. As soon as they had the chance, they joined about six others going into hiding.
They were welcomed into a local library were many others were supposedly hiding, the library had an attic were my grandparents believed some were hiding, but they were told that they would be staying in the basement with the other six. The basement was behind an old bookcase that covered a small door that was just large enough for an adult to crawl through. The space was made up of two rooms, one with a few cots and the other filled with stacks of books. They stayed in those two rooms for years, living in secrecy, never venturing out of that trapdoor. The librarian delivered food and water every night along with new books. They lived in relative peace for those few years, save for the occasional clamor of the war above seeping through the thin wood over their heads.
Eventually, the war caught up with them; the librarian had stopped bringing them food, fuel for their lanterns, and new reading material. There was no warning, only a loud blast, an earthquake-like shaking, and the sound of shattering glass and falling rubble. They had begun to ration what little food they had left, though the librarian had always brought them enough provisions to last them until the next night when he would return. After a day in the two room basement the food had run out and they decided that they would rather face the Nazis than stay down there and starve. They had tried the door but it was suck; they didn’t know whether it had been the bookcase still in front of it or if the building had collapsed and rubble blocked the door, but when they couldn’t open or knock down the door, some of their group began to panic.
Eventually they all returned to their cots, dejected and without hope, wondering whether they would ever get out of the basement. Their savior had become their damnation, and they had no way out. After about two days, the roof had begun to leak. The water was fetid and brown, but they had no other choice than to drink from the seemingly unending stream. The water had kept them alive, but it had also started give those who drank it symptoms of some kind of sickness. As they drank, my grandparents showed some concern; they had tried to convince the others to wait until they had filtered it and boiled it from the heat of the lantern, but they had been so thirsty that they disregarded her warnings and drank straight from the leak. As my grandparents cleansed their water, the others had become anxious, confused and agitated, constantly scratching at an itch that seemed to not cease and enveloped their entire body.
They had drunk the water for two days, and the other’s symptoms had grown worse and worse over that short time. It was on the third day that the others had grown too hungry. One of the others, a young woman of about twenty by the name of Cecylia had pounced on an old women named Agatha. Almost instantaneously, the others had joined in and pounced on the poor old women. They tore into her with teeth and nails, biting into her jugular and spraying blood onto the floor around them. My grandfather had grabbed my grandmother and pulled her into the next room that had been filled with books and a single cot that they had moved shortly after they had first arrived. Knowing that they would eventually lose interest in the old woman, my grandfather began stacking the books against the door. Within ten minutes, hundreds of books that they had accumulated over the years were stacked against the door and what had happened had finally sunk in.
My grandfather held my grandmother as she wept, and tried to console her, though he had no idea how. He had been just as frightened as she was, and had no idea how he would get them out of this.
The sickening slurping and crunching of bones had ceased as suddenly as it had begun, leaving only the sound of my grandmother’s weeping and the sound of aimless footsteps from the other room. All of the sudden, the footsteps stopped. My grandmother’s sobbing ceased as she pulled her head away from my grandfather’s chest as they listened anxiously for the footsteps to continue. They sat in absolute silence for minutes, only the faint glow of the lantern providing them any solace. My grandmother sighed as she wiped tears from her eyes, and as soon as she did she heard rapid footsteps. They both jumped as something from the other side slammed into the wall. They heard another crash, and another, until the sound of splintering wood had begun to accompany it. With another loud crash, a piece of wood flew from the wall, and a large crack had run through the wall to the floor. The dim glow of the lantern on the other side of the wall shined through the hole, and though they waited for another loud crash, it never came.
After what felt like hours of sitting and waiting for another crash, my grandmother decided to stand and approach the hole in the wall. It was only big enough to fit a finger through, and gave a partial view of the next room. As she peered through the hole, she saw a mass of bodies lying near each other, their chest rising and falling. She looked down and saw another body, lying on the ground with an indentation in its head and a small river of red coming from its now closed eyes. It was Cecylia. She had caved her head in charging at the wall. In the very end of her field of vision, she could see an arm. Nothing else, just an arm. The arm was wrinkled and pale, missing a few portions and covered in bite marks where the arm still had skin to show them. She slowly backed away from the hole and sat on the cot, returning to the arms of my grandfather.
That night my grandfather put out the lantern in their room, wanting to conserve their fuel for as long as possible. Through the hole in the wall, she could see the faint glow of the other room’s lantern. She stood up and looked through the hole once again and saw nothing different; the others were still sleeping in a large pile and the two bodies were untouched. She looked back at the pile where the others were sleeping and saw that now only three were lying there. She gasped and stepped back. She knew that there should be four of them there. They came in with six others, two were dead, so where was the last one? She looked around the room but saw nothing. The lantern began to flicker and its glow began to die, but she continued to study the room. As the lantern gave off its final seconds of light, she saw a shadow in the corner, standing and staring at her. She watched the shadow until the lantern went out a few seconds later.
My grandmother never told me what had happened after that moment, just that they had pulled at the rotting wood above them, climbed out of the basement and saw a large pile of rats lying dead near a broken pipe spewing water. By the time they had escaped, the Russians had liberated Bedzin and freed them of the Nazi’s rule. My grandmother couldn’t see her hometown in the same light after she had escaped the basement, so my grandfather bought a house in a small village in Bosnia. That’s where they raised my mother, and where my mother raised me. My grandmother called them the Shadows of Bedzin, what she thought to be a fitting name. I agree, those people were no longer human, they were hosts to a horrendous disease, just a shell of their former selves.
I’m writing this because I now find myself in a similar situation. The year is 1993, and I am in hiding from the Scorpions Paramilitary organization who have begun to ethnically cleanse Bosnia. I’m hiding with eight others, and twenty minutes before I started writing this we heard a large explosion, followed by the sound of an earthquake, accompanied by the sound of rubble sliding and glass shattering. If I die, let it be known that the shadows of Bedzin, have become the shadows of Bosnia, but I was not one of them. I didn’t drink the water, I didn’t become a monster.
Credit To – Erik Clements
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