Cattle Train

Yes, we were seventy-five people, old and young, babies and pregnant women, in the cattle wagon. We found dirty straws everywhere on the rough wooden floor and soon I felt crawling little things on my skin. There were four tiny windows on the train. My hope for a possible escape quickly vanished; they were covered with barbed wires anyway. I had to face it; there was no escape. Since the door was locked from the outside and all of us tried to squeeze into a sitting position on the dirty, stinking straw, I suddenly felt the lack of air. The windows couldn't possibly supply enough oxygen for seventy-five people. I only prayed that the train would move. I was sure that we would be able to have more air then. Every moment that we had to spend in the closed wagon while the hot summer sun was beating down on the roof seemed like eternity.

The gendarmerie kept a close watch over the people who had slowly, unwillingly filled up the rest of the wagons. I heard them cursing and I heard an occasional scream and cry.

As my eyes slowly began to get used to the semi-darkness of the wagon, I tried to look around, curious to know who I was traveling with. Not that it had any great importance, I simply wanted to escape my own miserable thoughts. Next to me was my mother. I had a nagging feeling that from this particular day on, I had to do everything to prevent our possible separation. I didn't have the faintest idea of what was in store for us at the end of our journey. I couldn't really believe that we were on our way to be executed. It sounded too cruel and too fantastic.

On the other side, next to me, was a young woman with her mother-in-law. The young woman seemed to be in the sixth month of her pregnancy. Looking at her frightened, bewildered face made me realize how lucky I was under the circumstances not to have any children of my own.

Mother and I were separated from the rest of the family and so everyone around us were total strangers. Yes, they were strangers, but in a way they all looked alike to me. The faces were like masks, wearing the same frightened and hopeless expressions. I could see everyone's mind was in turmoil. All of us were looking for a solution for our misery and suffering, although deep inside we all knew that it was only the beginning of something terrible and evil.

There was a man with a long white beard. He looked almost ancient in his long black coat and his wide-rimmed tall hat. He held a book in his hand which I assumed was a prayer book. His lips were moving silently and his eyes were half closed. Next to the door, as if ready to escape the minute the occasion arose, sat a tall middle-aged man, and next to him was a thin little woman, possibly his wife.

I saw a young mother with a baby in her arms. There were other women with small and older children. I heard them asking with the usual curiosity of the young, where we were going, but they received no answer. What could a mother say? That we might all be killed because we were Jews and a madman had decided that there was no place for us under the sun. Could they tell their children that there was no one to prevent our possible destruction, nobody to help us but God, and where was God anyway?

My mother slowly loosened the top of her dress. I knew she had difficulties in breathing. I put her hand in mine and I held it tight. I didn't want to think, but the question kept sneaking back to my mind: How long am I going to have her? Why wasn't I a better daughter to her? Finally the train started to move. At first slowly, then faster and faster. I tried to get up so I could look through the window. I saw the familiar landscape at the outskirts of our city where I was born, where I had lived as a child, where I had grown up, and where I had married. As the train left the city behind us, I was sure that I would never return. I felt that an unseen chapter of my life had slowly come to an end.

The train traveled with its unwanted cargo, and I felt the breeze coming through the window and carrying the smell of the freshly plowed earth. A few peasants were working on the fields completely undisturbed by the present tragic developments. I envied them, as I envied everyone who was free. I even envied the birds: they had wings and could fly; I couldn't.

Suddenly a horrifying scream cut through the heavy air of the wagon. In a filthy corner of the train a woman was in labor. There was no medication and no doctor to help her. Each time she screamed I felt as if a knife were cutting into my own flesh. Although I had never seen this woman before, all the agony and pain she was suffering, I suffered with her mentally.

Outside the scenery changed. We had reached the mountains and the air became considerably cooler. The woman in the corner seemed to be in increasing pain. Nobody could give her as much as an aspirin to alleviate her suffering. Her pain became more frequent and in another hour or so she bore her child. There was no one to give her any assistance; only an old woman tried to make her as comfortable as she could and she was the one who cut the cord, too. The young mother was on the floor as silent as though she were dead. The baby, a tiny little thing, was hurriedly bundled up in a piece of rag.

When night came, the train slowed down and we received some water. Before the train returned to its original speed, the huge door of the cattle train opened and a young German soldier pushed himself through a narrow opening. I sensed right away that he was a deserter. He had a gun and in the semi-darkness of the summer night, he ordered us to give him all our money and jewelry. One thing was sure, he wasn't well-informed about our situation. He started to prowl around among our poor belongings, but he couldn't find a thing which would have been of some use to him. As silently and unexpectedly as he came, he left our wagon. "Agnes," I heard my mother say, "come closer to me, my child. "Agnes, if it is true, that we are going to be killed soon, there is nothing more I can possibly do for you. But if somehow, by some miracle you will be alive at the end of the war, I want you to get in touch with your Uncle Joe."

I looked at her, astonished. I wasn't quite sure what to think. Had she lost her mind? She put her frail hand on mine and she made me listen to her.

"Yes, Agnes, you can never tell. You are so young, so very young. Maybe God will help you and you will survive all the horrors of the war. You had better learn Joe's address so when the time comes, you will be able to get in touch with him."

I looked at her admiringly. How far can a mother think!

"Now you listen and repeat after me. Dr. Jonathan Dentee, 224 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York. Now repeat it once, twice, three times."

She made me say it over and over again and I had to promise her that from that day on and for the day to come if I lived, I was going to repeat this address to myself until I met my uncle again.