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I Was That Child by Helga Ruby

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Part I

It is May 2005, just a few days before Mother's Day. I am a first time Grandmother and understand very deeply what it means to have a mother and for a mother to have a child. I have come full circle as I remember an emotional day more than half a century ago when a mother and her child were reunited. I was that child.

It was late in the evening, when we arrived in Jasa Tomic, my home town. I was five or six years old and had just been released from the LIQUIDATION CAMP in Rudolfsgnad. I was in the custody of a Communist soldier, who was also a partisan since early that morning. The orphanage, Deci Dom housed Bosnian children. The Director, a woman who had befriended my mother took a big chance when she became instrumental in having me released from the camp. This woman was the mother of two girls and sympathized with my mother’s pain because my mother didn’t know if I was still alive. For this reason, I had to be in hiding and the reunion took place at night under the cover of darkness which also added to my feeling very frightened. My mother was a forced laborer at the orphanage and separated from me for many months. She worked as a seamstress there, making uniforms and other garments. She also had no idea if or when I could be found and she certainly did no know that I was to come knocking on her door on this particular night.

The soldier, who held my hand firmly, led me to a closed door with a tiny window at the top. I was full of fear because I did not know what awaited me behind that door. I began to cry. He slowly loosened his grip, from my shaking hand, lifted me to the height of the window, gently pressed my face against the glass and said, "Twoja Mama, twoja Mama" (your mother, your mother). He repeated it in a convincing tone and teary eyed I looked through the tiny window.

What I saw through that window was a woman bent over a sewing machine, pushing a pedal with her foot. Her hands busy holding the cloth, not letting it fall on the floor. I could not see her face and I wondered if this was really my Mama. The partisan encouraged me to knock. There was no response. I knocked again, a little harder. The woman looked up briefly but continued working. I was bewildered. If this was my Mama, why didn’t she see that it was me and open the door. I began to be afraid again. Then suddenly, she jumped up and I heard hurried footsteps come towards the door.

When she opened the door, she did not speak. As I look back, she had to have been in shock. She stood in front of me, her face very serious but it quickly turned into a smile. She grabbed me out of the arms of the partisan and squeezed me very tight and then whispered my name and I thought, "Oh yes, this is my mama!"

The partisan, having fulfilled his task, left us hugging each other. I could tell that my mother was so happy. Her smile never left her face. She was looking at me, touching my cheeks, feeling my skinny arms, legs; not caring that my clothes were filthy, my paper lined shoes torn that were falling off my feet. She was stroking my head which was covered with a grayish babushka, tied in the back of my neck. When she tried to remove it, she realized that it was glued to my hair. My scalp was covered with puss filled scabs and they held the babushka in place. She took care of that problem later but for now she had her child back. It was all that really mattered. What an unforgettable day it must have been for my mother. As for me, I cannot think about it without chocking up with emotion that I cannot fully fathom.

With my eyes closed hoping it wasn't a dream, I was feeling the loving strokes of my mother's hands. My wish had come true and now, I too had a mother who would care for me and keep me safe. I would never have to be alone again and cry myself to sleep every night on the straw covered floor of the LIQUIDATION CAMP in Rudolfsgnad (Knicanin). Now I could open my eyes and I would see my mama at my side.

She was still holding on to me, as though not to loose her precious just found treasure. Smiling and giving me a final squeeze she then lowered me to her big sewing table. Slowly she she started to undress me, throwing the dirty, torn, lice infested clothes on the floor, to be burned later. A shocking expression replaced the smile on her face. With widened eyes she was seeing a dirty, very malnurished, scab covered, knobby kneed child, with protruding ribs. Her eyes were filled with sadness and she was fighting back tears.

Reassuring me that it was all going to be alright, she started to untie the gray babushka. What a task this was! The babushka was glued to my hair, the puss filled scabs holding it in place. As she was preparing to tackle this very difficult task, a number of women came into the room even though it was late at night. The word had spread that Anna's little girl was alive and back home. With suggestions and help from the women, a large bowl with warm water and milk was prepared and brought in. She slowly poured this solution, cup by cup over my head. Little by little, the soaked babushka loosened its hold and finally gave way, revealing, she later told me, a scalp covered with scabs and short dark hair.

Once the babushka was safely removed, It was time for a bath, which felt like all my pain and hunger was also being washed away. Oh yes, I was very, very hungry. After she dressed me in clothes my mother made, I was given some food and told to eat slowly, very, very slowly She also told me to chew thoroughly before I swallowed. Many of my teeth were missing and that was not an easy request. I was deprived of real food for such a long time, that this suggestion seemed unfair to me. My mother was afraid, I could get sick by overeating and by swallowing large chunks, After all, I had just come from a starvation camp where the daily ration was a slice of dried corn bread and watered down soups. I remember that the dried peas had holes in them and tiny worms floated out and came to the surface of the soup. On some good days there were no worms..

With my mother promising more food for the next morning, I agreed to go to sleep, in a real bed, with my mama by my side. Before I closed my eyes, I thanked my Guardian Angel, for bringing me here and for giving me back my mama and for all of it being real and NOT A DREAM!!!!

Part II

It was indeed a new beginning for me, When I woke up the next morning, my mama was there. A new experience for me at that time. She washed my face, proceeded to dress my many head and body scab wounds and put on my clothes. My hair was very short, since it was periodically shaved at the camp.

Breakfast was good; I was allowed to eat a little more, just as she promised.. Since it was still very early in the morning my mother had time to tell me about her daily routine and how I was going to fit into that. She familiarized me with the surroundings by telling me that the place we were in used to be a mental hospital, built in the early 1890's and was surrounded by a tall brick wall and it had two gates which were guarded at all times. Inside this huge area were five two story buildings, one of which held her work place and also the sleeping quarters of the working women. Some one story buildings housed the kitchen, bath house, laundry and stalls for the various animals. These were also part of the work load for the men and women in this forced labor camp. She also told me that I had to hide through the day because the women who took care of the Bosnian orphans were not allowed to have their own children with them. She told me that an exception was made for herself because she had such a young child and also because she had gained favor with the director who was very sympathic. I tried to understand the rules and was prepared to follow them, as long as my mama was with me. She explained that we would spend the day in this large room where she was cutting and sewing various garments and uniforms. The big cutting table was to be my place of refuge. If someone was about to enter the room, at the sound of the door opening, I was to jump under the table and be very still. The table was closed on three sides and open on one side, where my mother would stand. She would drop some of the unrolled material over the opening, covering my presence there. This is how she would insure my safety. If no one was present I was allowed to play in the rest of the room. She would bring in the food, so we could eat together and sometimes I would take naps under the table. I felt safe there, knowing that my mother was close by.

At night we would go out for some fresh air. The darkness was our shield and protection from being exposed.

As time went on, I became accustomed to my new found life and was happy and content. I had gained some weight, my scabs and wounds were almost all healed with very little visible scaring remaining.

I sometimes thought of the time I spent in Rudolfsgnad and all the horrible things that were done to me and pretended it didn't happen,. I thought of it as a nightmare. After all, I felt safe now and had my mother to protect me.

But the memories of those days, would never leave me. That mental scaring lasted a whole lot longer than the physical scars.

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