It wasn't that long ago. Not in an astronomical sense, nor in a cultural or relative one. Humphrey Bogart was 19, perhaps "looking for a job", as Rick reminisces with Ilsa in Bogart's most memorable film. John Kennedy was one. Frank Sinatra was a nearly three-year-old toddler. John Lennon would be born in 22 years, Elvis in 17. The first world war was about to end. (It was called The Great War then.) Hemingway and Fitzgerald were off to Paris, or at least packing. Queen Elizabeth's grandfather was on the throne. He had been for eight years. And four young girls slept on cots in a stifling upstairs bedroom, in the middle of July, in the requisitioned house of a local merchant.
It had been, as it so often still is in summer, hideously hot. One window had finally been opened to provide the upstairs rooms, over-crowded with both furniture and people - the ones with the guns and the ones without - with an occasional waft of air. It had also been another long day of reading, stitching, a back-and-forth hour's walk in the garden, and then to bed to face tomorrow which, they must have assumed, would bring another day of just the same. One of their party had been removed, suddenly, frighteningly that evening. He was just 14. Had he been jailed separately, as the more optimistic of them hoped, or had something worse happened, as others more realistically feared had happened to earlier members of their party who had been similarly snatched away? (And if they feared this, they were right. Some had already been taken to the woods and shot. Shot not for a crime, but for existing. Shot for holding a legal job that was not the right legal job or for being born to a family that was not the right family or for having a name that was not the right name or for having a father who was in the wrong class.)
It would have been their mother who awakened them, those being times of deep modesty. Their father, or perhaps the family doctor, would have gone to wake the invalid brother. He was thirteen. The four girls, 17 to 23, dressed in their simple grey skirts and white cotton blouses. They didn't wear coats. It had been so hot and, even after midnight, would still have been, and besides, they were just being moved to a new place of confinement, a new, family-sized, political ghetto.
Coming down the stairs, past the men, some hostile, others benign in expression, they would not have known. No tears, no indication of doubt. Perhaps a little worry - nothing was ever certain. Nowhere completely safe. They would have known that. But they were sleepy - how well that had been planned, arousing them in the deep night - and were easily led into a room in which, so they were told, to await the truck that would move them to another place. A safer place.
Then, standing to be photographed to assure their distant relatives that they lived yet, they saw more than a photographer enter. It happened quickly. The reading of their sentence anyway; for it was just a short explanation written (they wrote it down!) to explain to those who would never again need that explanation why they, four girls, a boy, their parents and four others loyal to the family, were going to be murdered, there, in the cellar, in a time not so very far from our own.
In 15 years FDR would be elected president. In 11 Anne Frank would be born. In 27 more she would die.
The shots, misplaced, chaotic, hysterical, resounded over and over in the room. (Outside, the truck driver repeatedly gunned the motor in an attempt to mask the sound.) The two oldest girls, long hair dripping with the brain matter of their mother, blood pouring down their lengthy skirts, clung together until a shot ripped most of the head off of one and the other was finished with a bullet to the brain as she screamed and screamed and cowered on the floor next to her bloodied sister. (They had both been pianists of exceptional skill.)
The two younger sisters also hugged each other and, as if in some sort of odd twin-ship of death, struggled vainly to get a door open, and then crawled along the floor, as the bullets directed toward them shattered legbones yet ricocheted off their upper bodies. It was finally necessary to use the bayonets to finish them. (What a dirty business.) The son also survived for some minutes, snaking brokenly through the pooling blood, grabbing pathetically at the shirt of his dead father until the drunkest killer had the right stuff and, stepping boldly through the sticky red puddles, calmly dispatched him with a bullet to the brain.
Hair clips and buttons and combs and sashes and ribbons and tin soldiers and snippets of scarves and sheets of paper were left upstairs. All were packed up and sent to the government. The girls and their brother were not found for many years. A new era had begun.
(Note, a repost from Open Salon. Reposted because Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Revolutionary Russia are hobbies of mine, also because, despite everything, this country is one I love and a second home, and also because the 97th anniversary of this event was last night.)