Germany, January 1944
For a few moments, the hut was as quiet as it ever could be in the early hours, a near silence broken only by the sound of a few feminine snores. The night monitor padded up and down the lines of bunks with her stick, on the lookout for rats preying on the women’s still limbs, ready to swipe at the voracious predators. Small clouds of human breath rose from the top bunks as it met with the icy, still air – strange not to hear the women coughing in turn, a symphony of ribs racked by the force of infection on their piteous lungs, as if just one more hack would crack their chests wide open. Every thirty seconds, the darkness was split by pinpricks of white as the searchlight did its endless sweep through the holes in the flimsy planks, in the only place we could call home.
I was dozing at the front of the hut, knowing Irena was in the early stages. A sudden cry from her bunk next to the stove broke the silence, as a fierce contraction coiled within her and split her uneasy sleep, spilling through her broken teeth.
‘Anke, Anke,’ she cried. ‘No, no, no . . . Make it stop.’
Her distress wasn’t of weakness – Irena had done this twice before in peacetime – but of the inevitable result of this process, of labour. A birth. Her baby would be born, and that to Irena was her worst nightmare. While her baby lay inside, occasionally kicking and showing signs it had not sucked away its mother’s life juices and still found wanting, there was hope. On the outside, hope diminished rapidly.