The smell of crisp, sweet, bread wafts through Wladyslaw Piechowski’s nostrils as he swings the door open to his father’s bakery, the high-pitched ‘ding’ of the bell proclaiming his entrance into the small, sunlight flooded room. All day Wladyslaw works his fingers and hands to the bone kneading pounds of soft, thick dough to transform into dozens of little, plump, yeasty rolls. At only 18 Wladyslaw works six days a week, alongside his father at the town’s most popular bakery, Chleb Dzisiaj.
He walks home like any other night, the dimly-lit street lamps emitting less light than the multi-colored sky above. He shortly arrives at his neighborhood, a cluster of old townhouses that sit near the Gliwice train station. But before Wladyslaw can unlock his front door, he hears the loud, coarse sounds of an unfamiliar language that boom from the upstairs of his home down to the pavement below.
Wladyslaw bursts through the door, leaping up the stairs as if he were a pole vaulter. He enters the lounge room, trembling as he watches a group of snarling Nazis, ordering the family valuables to be handed over. His white skin crumples on his forehead and around his eyes, beads of sweat appearing in the many crevices of his flesh. Suddenly, he hears the bang of a gunshot, followed by piercing screams. It is his sister Clara, who now begins intensely crying, caressing the once lively and beautiful face belonging to Kazimierz, his younger brother. Wladyslaw stands mortified, shaking with horror. He tries to blink away his tears, but instead sobs convulsively.
Filled with numbness and extreme grief, the Piechowski family are moved into a crowded train carriage. The train ride agonizingly lasts for hours. When it finally stops, the huge mass of humans are forced to walk kilometers, to a nearby concentration camp surrounded by dozens of Nazis.
As Wladyslaw observes the setting in front of him, he sees hundreds of Jewish people just like himself, except they are howling like dogs, some crouching on the floor, others being harassed by Nazis. He walks closer to the central section of the camp and sees the people in closer view, their skin is wet with sweat that drips slowly off the lines and wrinkles of their damaged, fearful faces. Blood, crimson red like wine pours out of the deep gashes on wounded limbs. Vibrant blue and purple bruises cover large patches of skin and dark shadows encircle their eyes. Their withered and torn clothing shows that they have been here a very long time. Waiting.
The Piechowski family hug each other tightly, their arms woven and heads close together. The warmth of their breaths against the wintry air create a cloud around them. Abruptly, their embrace is stopped by a Nazi that forces them into lines according to gender. Wladyslaw never sees his sister or mother again.
The men are put to work straight away digging a long, horizontal pit in the ground. They are like worker ants, but covered in stripes of yellowed white and faded black. The dirty uniform distinguishes them from the Nazi soldiers, dressed in clean green, embellished with silvery buttons, no creases or stains in sight. Once they are done, these soldiers line them up in front of the pit. Gunshots boom, taking out every fourth man in the line. A soldier next walks up to a tall and old, rugged man. Like Wladyslaw, his hands are rough, yet skilled, with the ability to delicately work soft dough into pastries. A thunderous crack sounds, and Wladyslaw’s father is dead.
Overcome with grief, Wladyslaw struggles to eat or sleep.
“Wladyslaw, you have to eat somethingâ€¦the soldiers will think you are weak and will kill you off next!” says Rufeisen, an old school mate.
“Rufeisen?” softly exclaims Wladyslaw, recognizing the familiar face.
“Yes, it is me. I thought it was you yesterdayâ€¦I saw you lost your father, my condolencesâ€¦”
Wladyslaw can only present a weak smile to show his thankfulness.
The old friends continue small talk, until Rufeisen reveals the whereabouts of a secret tunnel currently under construction by rebel camp prisoners.
Days pass without contact from Rufeisen, and the camp is too crowded to easily find him. But then one night as Wladyslaw lays cold on the dirt floor, he is without warning awoken by Rufeisen who leads him out into the black of night. They slither around the camp sneakily like snakes, trying not to jeopardize this opportunity for freedom by making a sound.
They soon make it to the tunnel and are the first to go through. Darkness engulfs the hole, so much that he can barely see. Minutes pass, and eventually blue specks of light appear in the distance. The pair crawl as fast as they can, but before they reach the tunnel’s exit, roars in German begin bouncing off the dirt walls, echoing out into the night. A gun shot whizzes past Wladyslaw, hitting Rufeisen beside him. Still, Wladyslaw perseveres, because survival is the only thing that consumes his mind.
The wind outside lightly kisses his face as freedom courses through his veins like blood. He feels dizzy with jubilance, yet cannot suppress the guilt he feels about his sister and mother who may still be alive, trapped within the camp. But the German cries persevere, and Wladyslaw must run. He does for a while, continuing his journey of kilometers and kilometers well into the next day.
He passes Chleb Dzisiaj, soon making it to a cluster of old townhouses that sit near the Gliwice train stationâ€¦home.
However, his home now consists of only crumbling walls and sunken ceilings and broken trinkets and shattered photo frames. Although devastated, Wladyslaw does not think about tomorrow, but succumbs to tiredness. Stillness and silence fill his surroundings, where only the distant sound of bombs and throat-tearing yells momentarily disturb his serenity. In his mind he revisits memories of working at the bakery with his father, and as he drifts to sleep, he finds peace at last.