Anthony shivered as the sharp, cold wind gusted about him. It was a freezing winter morning, and his only defence against the cold was a scarf, a threadbare sweater and an old, tattered, oversized jacket that had once belonged to his father. Still, it was better than what several others faced, and Anthony wasn’t complaining. As a sixteen year old Jew in 1940 Germany, merely being alive was an achievement. Life had not been kind to him or his younger sister, Eva. On 7th November 1938, a young Jew had assassinated a German diplomat in a place miles and miles away, and in the massacre that followed, they had both lost their parents. Neither of them would ever forget it; the tormented, dying screams everywhere, beatings and wild curses, the agonised screams as Jews who had committed no crime save being born to a different faith burned for it. The sobs of their neighbours as they pleaded for mercy for nothing that they had ever done or would ever do, before their voices stopped, and the pistols rang out yet again.
Their parents’ final act of locking them into a closet, so that all they heard was the pistol’s thunder and all they saw was the bright red of blood through the crack in the door. By some unbelievable stroke of luck, the officers were distracted by shouts outside and did not check the closet in which two broken children lay huddled together, sobbing quietly. They got out eventually, and all around them was death and destruction. Kristallnacht. The night of broken glass. The night that would haunt their memory with splashes of warm red against the worn floor of the house; the night of broken hearts and broken families.
They were caught by the Gestapo soon enough, and packed off like cattle to the nearest labour camp; the Buchenwald. The two things that saved them from boarding another train to another camp, a Todeslager or death camp, were Anthony’s education and Eva’s hair. She had radiant, golden, un-Jewish hair that framed her face in a halo of golden curls. She was a sweet child, and looked Aryan enough for the officer’s wife to take her under her wing, as a nanny of sorts for her children. Anthony, meanwhile, was used as an engineer, as he had an aptitude with numbers and figures; and his body was young and strong, and so more efficient.
Life went on, and they grew accustomed to life in camp; for Anthony it was the relentless grind of long hours and exhausting work, for Eva, fussy children. But it was a better life than many, for she lived with the security of a roof over her head, and the patronage of Officer Hummel’s wife, and Anthony was saved whippings and beatings for fear of earning Officer Hummel’s displeasure. The days and weeks rolled by, and Eva learnt what she could from the children’s books and stories; she dreamt at night of princes and castles and woke up to the cold harshness of reality. She read about butterflies and colour and rainbows, but these were foreign worlds, galaxies away from the misery and agony that she watched on a daily basis; death, disease and so, so much pain.
Her tenth birthday dawned sunny, with the snow only just beginning to melt after a long, cold winter. The snow glistened like crystals in the mellow sun, and if you could look past the realities of camp, the world was a beautiful place. Anthony thought back to better times, when birthdays meant simple presents and smiles at dinner, and the especial treat of a small cake at night. The warmth of love and family, the glow of the hearth that was now ashes and dust and rubble. Now, he had nothing to give her. He thought back to the previous night, when Eva had asked him, with wistful curiosity, “Anthony, what is a rainbow?” Ten years of existence and Eva had never seen one. He tried explaining it to her, but she shook her head in confusion, not understanding his description. And Anthony smiled, for suddenly he knew what he would give Eva as a birthday gift.
That morning, Anthony managed to steal Eva away from her room before the camp began to stir, when the sun was just beginning to smile down on a cold world. He held her hand, leading her quietly to a room that only the engineers were allowed into. Opening it hastily, he led her into the dark room, shutting the door behind them. The room was full of tables covered in paper and drawings and plans for buildings. There were pencils and rulers and stationery scattered everywhere, and Anthony made his way to the supplies cupboard, rummaging in it quietly, looking for something he had discovered a week ago. His fingers closed around it, and he smiled triumphantly. He went up to a window, and opened it a tiny bit, letting a few stray sunbeams into the room. And then he held the prism he had found in front of the crack, watching Eva’s face as the white light split into a tiny rainbow. As her eyes grew large with wondrous excitement, he laughed. “Happy Birthday, Eva. Here’s your birthday rainbow.”
A laugh bubbled out of her lips, gleeful, happy. “It’s magic!” she said. “Just like the stories!”
Anthony considered explaining the science behind it to her, to tell her about physics and the scattering of light, but decided not to rob her of the little magic she had in her life.
“Yeah.” He whispered. “Magic.”
And she threw her hands around his neck, hugging her brother in thankful joy, and he held her tight, magical triangle of glass in hand.
And this was it, this was the best birthday gift Eva could have had. In a time when hope is scarce and joys are few and far between, sometimes it’s the little things that matter. Sometimes, when you’ve lost nearly all that you have and the world as you know it is crumbling around your feet, it’s the little happinesses that count, that warm you up all the way from inside. Sometimes, to chase away the dark, you can begin by letting a few sunbeams in. For those are enough to make you your own little rainbow.