The Seven-Year Dress
A country and a world blindsided by the greed, prejudice and overpowering attitude of one man that took the world by storm and left devastation, annihilation and terror within the hearts of so many. Grief and sadness are not strong enough words to relate how anyone with feelings and a heart comes away after reading the story of one young girl who would never lose faith, face or her dignity no matter how many times she was belittled, tortured and berated: Helen Stein: this is for you!
With the Holocaust looming around the corner and Hitler slowly rising through the ranks it is sad that the people living in Berlin had to be subjected to this pompous, zealous and self-absorbed poor excuse of a human. Helen is strong minded and although faced with critical choices from the beginning and hoping to find a way to listen to her father’s advice, take it and not lose faith, you meet Max her best friend at the start of the story and from their the tissues will be soaked, betrayals and friendships tested and one young girl will learn the true meaning of the word Hate. Realizing that the Kristallnacht was in the present and not in the past and that her life was changing Helen would now have to face more than just losing her home, family and freedom. Behind walls that are filthy, bug infested and filled with men running your life while you are captivity, Auschwitz is just one stop on her road to hell. Getting to know the Stein family we also get to know Max who is or was Helen’s best friend but the fact he was Aryan and would now belong to Hitler’s Army or as he might state elite soldiers would be a strain on their friendship, their family relationships and lead to heartbreak in the end. With a prologue that sets the stage as Irma meets Helen when renting a small room in her home the tension mounts as Irma begins to doubt her decision to live there and as they get to know each other walls begin to break down and the story flashes back and is told. Helen is strong, steadfast and begins to open up as she lives in a world without color, beauty, or family joys to remember. No personal touches, items just a piece of fabric from a dress in a frame that brilliantly states: Nothing Lasts! How can Irma ask her about the numbers branded on her arm? How can she befriend this sad older woman? This is the start of what readers will know as Helen’s story and her life living in Berlin, realizing the changes and not wanting to believe that someone could come in and destroy the trust, loyalties and friendships created in an entire nation. Hitler was more than just a dictator or tyrant. He was a mass murderer, self-absorbed, egomaniac and demented. The fact that he committed suicide rather than face punishment is sad because there should have been one more oven with a huge blast of deadly gas just for him and him minions. Like a flame that starts and never ends no matter how hard your try to put it out, his rise to power blindsided so many and others chose to look away. Hating Jews, anyone that was different, not equal to his Aryan race, needed to be exterminated and destroyed. Creating a world that would fit his needs with robots to follow his orders and kill for him, he created an army of young people devoted to murder. With the war looming and Jews people losing their homes, jobs and children not allowed to go to school, just living their daily lives became hard and you wonder why they never left Berlin. With the passing of the Nuremburg laws, people like Himmler, Hitler, Hoss, the sadist Mengele and Eichmann the Jewish people had to do more than just hide to survive. House to house hunts. People killed on the streets and then Helen and her family losing it all. Dachau was the first of these camps and I can visualize it as my grandmother was taken there and what happened to her was unspeakable.
If we don’t stay alert and look closely this could happen again as Helen tells her story in her own words learning how to remain optimistic during a time when she should have had a young adulthood with joy and happiness rather than having to see what Hitler was about to do to anyone that was inferior to him. How do you define a Jew? How do you hate people that never did anything but work hard to survive? Hitler had to be insecure, unfortunately some thought charismatic and he hypnotized a nation into thinking he could create a Germany with a superior class of people. Having to hide and then winding up in Auschwitz the worst camp ever, dealing with the indignities, terrors and losing her identity was not the half of what she and so many others endured. Helen becomes a robot living in a hell that no one should ever endure and yet she manages to survive. How can your mental attitude be positive living in a place that keeps you caged, starved and cold? “Nothing Lasts,” she always says but sometimes we hope things change. Max comes to take Helen and her brother Ben into hiding after calling her making sure she understands what is really happening although it took her time to realize what he was saying. With certain clearances in security he could come and go to a point but Helen and Ben now lived in a cold cellar and had to wait for Max to come with food, clothing and she hoped her family. But, death, curfews, hate, murder, killings and extermination was all that was in the air as Jews were said to have diseases, curfews during certain hours, a J on their passports or identity cards, not allowed to drive, no means of support and the worst has yet to come. When Helen learns the fate of her parents and that her sister is missing she shudders and does not want to believe what Max tells her. Going through the clothing he brought, trying to deal with life Helen is about to learn the cruelties that her parents would not.
It is difficult to read what Helen endured and picturing what was done to her by The Schutzstaffel, better known as the infamous SS, were established by Hitler, to act as protection force at Hitler’s mass meetings in public. (Wikipedia). Violence reigned and the Nazi’s quest and rise for power was marked by this militia and those that wore the brown shirts or the brown shirted Studmabteilung or the SA. Heinrich Himmler was chosen as Reichfuhrer-SS in 1929 and the SS became an elite force or elite unit. Each of these men were selected on the principles of racial purity and loyalty to the Nazi Party.
Hidden in a barn for many years with her brother with the help of Max when they came for them what is described will make you more than shudder. The atrocities that she had to endure, the indignities and the rapes and the beatings were many as Helen would not allow herself to falter, waver or even give these captors the satisfaction of knowing she hated them or was afraid. A job to sew allowed her a friendship with a special woman named Ester. Each one chancing retribution if anyone really noticed or found out. As she continues to tell Irma, the young girl in the prologue her story you can see the prisoners, hear the voices of these horrific SS officers and wish that you could inflict the same pain on them and more. Then one officer decided to make her his own and her freedoms were curtailed even more as she now became the object of his needs. Crude, despicable and ruthless Helen had no choice but to comply with his wishes. When he finally died, you would think she would rejoice at the fact that someone else kinder too his place but the tasks she was asked to complete angered her even more when she thought of what the Hoss family stood for as she repaired a dress for their daughter and some uniforms. Her job was to repair uniforms. Sharing the little food, befriending and trying to help others she risked her life. Every day of her life and the years spent in the camp each person wished that they could replace themselves with one of Hitler’s men. Every chance they got they burned, beat and shot anyone who dared to defy them and even when the word came that Germany was losing the war at each camp the Germans ordered more exterminations, deaths and wanted to leave nothing to incriminate them behind.
Helen’s spirit and her father’s words that there is LIFE never left her and Max’s friendship never died within her as she chanced coming to the farmhouse where she and her brother were and gave her a dress that she would always cherish. The Seven Year Dress is a reminder of her seven years of hell and captivity but it stands for normalcy and I hope. Hitler really believed that he created and was part of a superior race. He thought that by destroying mainly Jews he would shatter their human spirit. As we draw back to the present and we revisit Helen with Irma we realize that a special bond might have been born, that becoming a nurse just might suit her and that an old woman named Helen finally has a flicker of light in her eyes as she realizes that if she had been lucky enough to marry Isaac and had not faced what she did she might have had a daughter like Irma. A small piece of fabric from a faded dress in a frame which is inscribed with: Nothing Lasts! Helen with a tattoo of numbers hidden beneath a sleeve and a story that needs to be told and retold and remembered. Rudolf Hoss, Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichman and the biggest coward of all: Hitler: My you never rest anywhere in peace. How can you face the world when you are told you are a pig and dirt? How do you deal with being treated like a trained seal when you have more to offer that being a robot? How do you not fall apart and find life hopeless? She and Ben bonded and when separated she realized that her only family was gone and life is there but how do you deal with it when everyone around you wants to feel defeated? Although Max preferred boys and no one knew it and his family killed when branded a traitor, his loyalty to Helen never faltered and Ester remained her mainstay and only glimmer of hope. A story only author Paulette Mahurin could tell and one told so boldly, graphically and with love for Helen.
Fran Lewis: Just Reviews/MJ Magazine