The train did not move. The gray of evening turned into night and sheer darkness. I felt like part of a herd. Someone turned a small flashlight on, and then quickly back off. . . . “Where is God?” someone cried. I remembered the nuns on the train out of Vienna four years earlier, and wondered if their God had a clearer way of making his presence known.
Leo Bretholz, Leap into Darkness
— October 1944 —
The cattle car rattles over the train tracks, jostling me against the bodies all around me. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness, but hours ago I stopped using sight to see. Instead I feel the exhausted tension of eighty bodies swaying on numb legs, smell the reek of human waste sloshing against my shoes, know the dread silence from the corner where an old man died on his feet without complaint. Over the pounding rush of the train, I hear a sick woman’s hacking cough, her throat parched from the endless journey, and the prayers of a man muffled through his clenched hand:
Beka Yahweh hasiti, ’al-ebowsah le’owlam.
Besidqateka, tassileni utepalleteni hatteh-’elay ’azeneka wehowosi’eni.
My fist tightens in my coat pocket. Theytrusted in their God too. Standing every morning in the dining room, Father’s hand on my shoulder as he prayed: The soul You have given me is pure. You created it; You breathed it into me. The inherent purity of man, Father called it. The sort of intellectual liberalism that sounded right with coffee in the sitting room, my parents’ little circle of professors and city councilors sitting with their legs crossed, the corners of their prayer shawls showing below their waistcoats.
But how had that made sense after the broken windows? After the signs painted in angry letters, “HELP US GET RID OF THE JEWS”? After the riots began, and Isaac came home with his face bloody and his ribs cracked?
The train jolts and speeds across unknown land, and the man prays on:
Heyeh li lesur ma’own, labow tamid, siwwita.
Lehowosi’eni, ki-sal’i, umesudati ’attah.
Not that my way has ended any better. Imi: I can still see his sunken eyes, his set jaw and thick forearms. He saw the determination in my face and said, You want to know how to save life—and how to take it? I was a fool not to flee with him to Palestine. But there was Isaac, and Father and Mother. They believed what the rabbis said: How many times through the centuries have we Jews been forced out of the city, only to be let back in again a few years later? Even if I knew then that they would willingly follow the Jewish Center into the Sered labor camp, that the national uprising would only end in more mass graves and villages burned to the ground, I’m not sure I could’ve left them behind.
The man weeps, his voice breaking as he finishes the prayer: ’Elohay, palleteni miyad rasa’, mikkap me’awwel wehowmes. The words shiver up my skin, the bitter taste of the vernacular on my tongue: Deliver me from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the cruel.
Deliverance. It’s not a word to be used in the darkness of a train speeding north. For three years we’ve heard the rumors of death waiting in Poland. At synagogue, the first reports of the massacres in Ponary had been dismissed as hallucinations; now it’s no surprise the Germans rounded up tens of thousands of Jews and Poles in a forest once used for holidays, to shoot them in the head and burn the bodies and sell their clothes to the Lithuanians. The inherent purity of man. My throat clenches as I imagine each German soldier, blue eyes under a sweep of short blond hair. I wish I could see the surprise in those eyes once more, right before I pull the trigger. But not now. Never again. I don’t know how long we’ve been on this train, but we must close to Krakow by now.
The train lurches, pressing me against a middle-aged woman. I catch my balance and straighten; urine shifts and splashes against the walls. Something’s wrong. I look up toward the boarded-up window, ears straining. Something’s clattering up track near the engine. Are we slowing down? The train car suddenly teems with movement: heads turning, hands clutching coat sleeves, throats clearing. I bend my knees and slide my feet wider apart as the train staggers again and the clattering gets louder. Whispers hum under the screeching brakes.
The train engine heaves a pneumatic sigh, and the world falls silent. We’re all holding our breath. Waiting for the gate to hell to open.
A man screams outside. Gunshots ring out. Something shrieks like a pig resisting slaughter. More screams, more gunshots, and it sounds like a dozen rifles are hammering against the sides of the train cars. Something swings inside me, and I can’t quite hope: Has the Jewish resistance come to sabotage the train? But the people around me cower away from the door, trembling like a flame blown by an evil spirit. The door of the next car over scrapes open; feet stomp on floorboards, the screaming growing louder. The woman next to me cries out, “My God!”and collapses to the floor.
Then the car door wrenches open, and dim twilight bursts in on our darkened eyes, and the people surge out of the car. I rush forward with the crowd, not wanting to get trampled, but I make for the car wall and wedge myself close. Carefully I sidle along the wall until I can glance out the edge of the doorway.
Perhaps we have come to hell. I’m not sure what I’m looking at, so many bodies are moving and shouting and falling in the dusk. We aren’t at a camp—we’re nowhere at all—but there’s a whole company of German infantry in dirty gray khaki, though they aren’t marching in proper squads. Each soldier moves alone, without their guns, mixing in the crowds and lashing out at prisoners with their bare hands or clutching for their throats. SS officers run in disorganized panic, shooting indiscriminately at Jewish prisoners and German soldiers alike, and everywhere people trample over the corpses.
I need to get out. I need a weapon if I want to stay alive. I scan the chaos: an SS officer is running alongside the train, keeping his back to the wheels, his rifle at the ready. I brace myself as the officer passes under the open door of my car, and I pounce down on him. He yells as I slam him to the ground. I only have a second. I wrap my knees around his chest, one hand tight against his throat. He gasps, reaching for the knife in his boot, but I grab his wrist and twist his arm. With my other palm I smash the side of his elbow until it fractures. He screams and drops the knife, and I leap off him, seizing his rifle and stomping him in the face.
I run. Keep close alongside the train. Machinegun fire booms, screams, train cars burning and smoking in the twilight; frenzied infantry knock other prisoners to the ground and even try to bite them. But I can’t look too closely. I come to a breach between two train cars and make for the gap—when a German soldier looms in front of me.
Even in the half-light, under the bowl of his metal helmet, I see the blood on his open lips, his slack cheeks and loose shoulders. He’s completely at ease—or completely absent. It’s the eyes that stop me cold: the blank, slurred look of a man hollowed out by heroin.
Then he lunges, his hands reaching crazily for me, and years of hard-earned instinct kick in. My rifle in both my hands, I swing fiercely, striking his shoulder. He screams that pig-scream—deep and unconscious—and without flinching he springs for me again. Like he feels no pain. I thrust with the rifle barrel and drive it into his sternum, and he falls screaming to his back. I step over him and level the rifle at his head. Still nothing in those eyes, cold and blue and unconcerned. The soul You have given me. Nausea swells sick in my stomach—my whole body dry and dizzy—and he opens his bloodied mouth to shriek—
I pull the trigger, and the rifle cracks like thunder against my shoulder, and I don’t look down but turn to the gap between the train cars and run. I jump over the coupler and pause at the corner of the car, glancing out into the open. My ears ring with the rifle fire, but my eyes have finally adjusted to the half-light. I’m not the only one who thought to come to this side. Prisoners and infantry struggle near the train while others run for the forest rising beyond the train tracks. If I can only make it to the trees—but someone’s shooting down the prisoners as they run, and soldiers chase close behind on foot. I look up and down the train line; an SS officer stands between two of the cars, just beyond the corner with his rifle raised.
I bring my own rifle against my shoulder. The German make is heavy, but I sight in one clean motion and hold my breath. The gun roars in recoil, and the SS officer whips back before crumpling to the ground. I stand my ground, making sure no one else is firing at the prisoners fleeing into the forest. One deep breath. If only my head would stop spinning.
I take off at a sprint, my rifle clenched upright in both hands. Screams and fire waver behind me. I jump the train rails. Halfway there and still alive. My breath comes heavy, my whole body shaking—and then I hear the shrieks and pounding footsteps. I can imagine their dead eyes behind me. But I won’t look. I can’t look. The trees are so close. The branches’ shadows fall over me. The trunk of an old larch rises in the gloom, and I throw my back against the tree, raising my rifle to fire.
Three German infantry are running close behind me with their arms swinging witlessly, their face loose and indifferent. They don’t even try to zigzag out of my line of fire. I can’t think. I just hold my breath: the rifle snarls and flares in the twilight. I sight again and fire—then sight again and fire. Three figures fall dead in the grass, and the fighting by the train sounds so far away, and my arms won’t stop shaking.
I run. I run and I run. Other figures crouch or dart near the edge of the forest, but I don’t look back. I run until the only thing I hear is my heart and my breath and my feet falling hushed on dead pine needles. I run until the sweat come from deep inside my parched body and sticks to my clothes. I run long past the burning ache in my side, until I feel I’m going to burst open. I fall to my knees, my hands fumbling against dry pine needles, my breath coming in greedy swallows. Darkness has fallen over the forest, and above my spinning head the canopy of the trees shifts black against the fathomless blue of the sky.
Something grips my stomach and rolls up my chest. My face blazes and I curl forward. No, no, no. Deep breathes. I can’t lose any more fluid. My stomach ripples again, and the puppet strings of animal instinct pull me upright. I vomit quickly, retching in the silence, and I lean back against a tree trunk. My God.I rock in place. Why are you so far from saving us?
Footsteps kick across the forest floor, coming closer, and a man screams. A human scream. I reach for my rifle and use it to prop myself on my knees, turning to scan the darkness. Another scream, and I push to my feet and run, holding my side with one hand.
Two figures break through the trees, and even in silhouette I know what they are. The one in front runs like a human, jogging with his arms up and his face straining forward. The soldier behind him lopes with that untroubled animal movement, his helmet bent limply to the side. The soldier’s gaining on the man, close enough to pounce forward and grab him by the legs. They go down together. The man yells as he tries to catch his fall and kick at the soldier’s head. The soldier pulls his head back, out of range, and grips the man closer by the ankles.
I step forward, aiming my rifle as steadily as I can.
The first bullet rips through the soldier’s chest, and he shrieks wordlessly. The man kicks his ankles free, and the second bullet goes through the soldier’s head, his body flopping over. The man crawls forward in the pine needles, and then he realizes what’s happened, and he looks over to where I stand with my rifle raised. He collapses on his side, his hands above his head.
“Don’t shoot! Please. I’m no Nazi.” He coils forward, his face buried in the ground as he cries.“Please.”
My jaw clenches, my finger poised on the trigger. He speaks High German. Not the German we spoke in Bratislava, but the German of the north: the German of Hitler. He looks up at me again, his face streaked with dirt and tears. But he’s still a pair of blue eyes under a sweep of blond hair. He pulls his arms around his head, his muffled sobs shaking his whole body. Odd that he isn’t in uniform. A long coat and scarf, like the men in my train car.
The trigger’s cold against my finger. If only my head would stop spinning.
“Who are you? Why are you here?”
He blinks at me, shuddering. “I’m Aksel—Aksel Ulrich. I’m . . . I’m a communist. A red.”
He glances away when he stutters. I step closer, my rifle trained on his head.
“You’re lying! Why are you here?”
“I’m not lying. I’m a red. Please.”
“No! I’m a chemist. From Frankfurt. I . . . they made us do work for the army, but I wasn’t one of them. I never would’ve . . . But they wouldn’t let us leave, so I worked from the inside until I couldn’t stand it any longer. When I began to hear about the possessed—”
“The possessed?” My skin prickles. I can still see that soldier’s bloodied face, his slack jaws, his dead eyes.
“Die Besessenen,” the man whispers as if we might be overheard. “They wouldn’t tell us what they were working on, but I heard the stories. We had theories. But now . . . I know. I know exactly what they meant.”
His eyes look so far away. My trigger finger relaxes. He’s telling the truth. Or part of it. Because that still doesn’t explain why he’s here outside of Krakow. If that’s even where we are. I wipe the sweat from my face, and behind closed eyelids I see hungry jaws and hollow eyes.
A shout breaks the silence—back toward the trains, not that far away. I need to move. And I can’t be followed. I retake my aim at the man’s head. Blond hair over blue eyes. He lies back in the dirt, staring into the darkness, waiting for death. What does he know that will die with him? To save life and to take it, Imi said. Millions of lives already taken. Eye for eye. Dead eyes and bloody mouths.
I’m holding my breath. Now it all rushes out of my lungs. Out and in.
“Get up. We have to move.”
“Come on—quickly! You go first, and I follow behind.” I point deeper into the forest with the rifle barrel.
He staggers to his feet, rubbing his dirty face.
He studies me, and this close I can see the gray in his hair, the lines on his face. “Thank you.”
I raise my rifle again. “Move. Now.”