[In the summer of 1943 in Gurs, the French internment camp] we were sitting together sewing one evening. I was struggling to patch a threadbare undergarment. "Look at my slip, Bertha," I said. "I don't se how I can repair it anymore. It's been washed hundreds of times, and after four years, it's just too worn."
"You're right," Bertha said. "It won't survive another washing."
"I should throw it away," I said. "But how am I going to replace it?"
"You can, you know. I will show you," Bertha said.
Late the next afternoon, Bertha led me to a store house in a far corner of the camp. Entering a building without windows, I had to squint until my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Then I saw large suitcases stacked everywhere. Many were of good quality.
"There must be hundreds," I said. "And look, there are even a few trunks. Where did they come from? Whose are they?"
"They're ours," Bertha said. "We were allowed only one suitcase when we left Mannheim, so we took the largest suitcases and crammed as much as we could into them. But the people who were sent back to Germany last autumn and winter were permitted nothing. They had to leave everything behind."
I watched Bertha go from one suitcase to another, examining the luggage tags. "Here's a familiar name, Mia. I remember the woman well. A dear, sweet person, and she was small like you."
Bertha poked and pressed the lock until the lid opened. She untied the satin ribbons that held the clothes down. A scent of perfume drifted past me. Bertha pulled out a long-sleeved green dress. "I think this would suit you quite well, Mia," she said.
"Oh, Bertha, I couldn't. It would be stealing."
"She wouldn't think so. She was kind and generous," Bertha said. "If she were here, she would give you the dress. But she is not here. She was sent away months and months ago. She will never come back. None of them will."
"I don't feel right taking her clothes," I said.
"Mia, she was ill when she left, and old, very old," Bertha said. "I remember when those people were ordered to go to the railroad siding, she had to be helped to the train. It would be a miracle if she survived the journey. Your underwear is in rags, Mia. Now take what you need, while I find some clothes for myself."
A large woman with wide hips, Bertha was a head taller than I was. "Take what you need," she said once more, and went off in search of a valise that had belonged to a woman who was her size.
Slowly and carefully, I removed the folded garments from the suitcase Bertha had opened and placed them in a neat pile on a trunk. I tried to picture the old woman who had packed her belongings so neatly in the brown leather suitcase. The woman had packed exactly as I would have done: Underwear on the bottom, handkerchiefs and stockings tucked in corners, no space left unused. In the folds of a pale pink silk nightgown, I found her sachet, the source of the perfume scent. I could see her now. I was watching the unknown woman in her bedroom in Mannheim. I imagined a thick gray carpet and drapery in pink and gray patterns. I imagined her preparing for an evening at a concert or dinner party. Slowly, hampered by stiffness in her fingers, the old woman was closing the buttons at the neck of the green dress. Watching the frail old woman dress, intruding into her most private actions, I cried out, "No, I won't. I can't."
Bertha appeared at my side. "Mia, our clothes are in shreds. We have almost nothing left."
"Bertha, I can't. They don't belong to me."
"Be sensible," Bertha said.
"I will not take her dresses or skirts. I can see they were especially altered for her. They would fit me, but I could never wear them."
Bertha looked at me with disbelief.
"Don't you see?" I asked. "I would be robbing the dead. What would be the difference between me and the Nazis?"
"All right," Bertha said. "Let's just take old clothes and things that we really need."
Reluctantly, I took a pair of stockings, some underwear and the slip I had come for. "That's all," I said and carefully repacked the valise, replacing the garments as I had found them. I retied the satin ribbons and shut the lid.
In a far corner of the storeroom, I spotted a stack of blankets. I walked over to the pile and took one made of burgundy wool. "Here's our answer, Bertha. We will do what the French peasants do. I'll show you."
The next evening, we cut the the blanket in half and sewed simple, identical shift dresses. I saved my new dress for Shabbos. My mother had always said, "Don't wear something new for the first time on an ordinary day." When Shabbos came, I wore the new burgundy shift, but I could not bring myself to put on the slip. Nor did I wear it the following Shabbos. It remained folded under all my other things.
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