My grandmother Neiva had a lifelong friend who had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp in what I can only guess was occupied Poland during World War II.
She told me that her friend – Olga – was a beautiful, Jewish Polish teenager when she was sent to the camps and because of that she quickly became one of the soldiers’ “favorites”.
And in the beginning, even given the inhumane circumstances, it all seemed harmless enough.
Being a teenager and not knowing any better, she would flirt with the young German soldiers and in exchange received some form of attention, be offered cigarettes and occasionally extra food.
But that quickly changed and what seemed at first as innocent, innocuous teenager flirting quickly escalated to her getting brutally abused and raped by multiple German soldiers during her imprisonment.
At one point she became pregnant, and the soldiers fearing retaliation from higher-ranking officials, decided to beat her up and force an abortion, before it was too late to hide her pregnancy.
She never lost the baby, even after multiple beatings and more physical abuse, so the same group of soldiers decided to simply get rid of her.
One night they dragged her out of the barracks, brutally beat her up and tossed her unconscious body over a fence at the far end of the camp, where nobody would see them.
I don’t know the details from this point on, but she miraculously made her way to a sleepy mountain town called Teresópolis, about an hour and half drive from Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil.
That’s where Olga and Neiva first met and became friends.
Olga was haunted by the ghosts of her past and even though she had managed to do well for herself in Brazil, she was addicted to gambling and had a complicated relationship with alcohol.
My grandmother once told me that one random night she received a call from the local illegal gambling spot that Olga frequented, saying that she needed to be picked up right away before she got into some serious trouble with the owners.
Olga was more drunk than usual that night and had gambled everything she had on her, including her jewelry.
My grandmother threw some clothes on and drove to the place, apologized to the local mobster, picked Olga up and drove her back to her house where she made a pot of coffee and ran a bath for her friend.
She sat next to the tub on the floor and looked at Olga’s body soaking in the warm water – a series of fading numbers tattooed on her forearm – which she had seen many times before but had never brought up in conversation and then said, “you should have this shit removed! It’s fucking depressing!” 1
Olga looked up, stared at my grandmother, smiled and said, “Neiva, if I remove this, it was all for nothing”.
I only have a fading memory of Olga, and I know she passed away before my grandmother, but I’ll never forget this story.
(1) My grandmother really talked like that. She wasn’t a vulgar woman, far from it actually, but she loved expletives.