This is a short story, in 1132 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, seen on Sue Judd’s Blog.
Rosa didn’t listen to anything the kids said. She was going, and that was that. Yes, she was getting old now, and yes, she had never been on an airplane. But she didn’t care. If she didn’t do this now, she might never do it. Herman took her to the airport, sitting in the heavy afternoon traffic trying to talk her out of it at the last minute. She suspected he was worried about the money she was spending. Her oldest son seemed to mention money a lot these days. Well, he would get his share, less what she spent on what might be her one and only trip back to Europe.
The first stop was Paris, but she had no time to visit the famous French city, other than the airport. The flight had been strange, and tiring, but the stewardesses had been nice. The couple she was sat next to had spent the whole time looking at screens, or lying back with headphones in their ears. She hadn’t minded that at all, as she didn’t really want to make small talk. Sometimes, it seemed that she had spent her adult life making nothing but small talk.
The next flight had been shorter, and it was colder than in France when she arrived. The taxi driver taking her to the hotel confrmed he had been booked for the morning too, and would take her where she wanted to go. He had trouble understanding her accent, as it has been a lifetime since she had spoken her own language. The hotel was basic, but clean, and the food served for dinner made tears appear in her eyes as she remembered eating the same things in what seemed like another life. Herman had told her to call from the hotel, but she switched off her phone, not wanting to talk to anyone. Especially Herman.
Breakfast was strange now. Black bread, mixed fatty meats, and a bland cheese. But the coffee was good, much stronger than at home.
She felt chilly, so put on the long black coat that Herman had said she wouldn’t need. She loved him, because he was her son. But she wished she could have liked him more. She had liked Joe, little Joseph. But he had gone to Vietnam, and had never come home. Levi was never the same after that, even young Rachel couldn’t improve his mood. He used to walk to the park in Greenpoint, and sit crying on a bench. Now Levi was long gone, Rachel was in Maryland, and Herman never stopped nagging her. The cab was already there when she walked outside.
When the driver stopped at the place, she didn’t recognise it. Why would she? It was such a long time ago. He said he would wait as long as it took, and opened a book as she got out of the taxi. After ten minutes, she froze. This was it. The tracks and sleepers had gone, but she could still tell it had once been a railway line. That railway line. With no effort on her part, it all came flooding back.
They had told mama and papa it was ‘resettlement’. A short trip by train, they said. No personal things, and only one small item of luggage. The Kapos rounded them up, making sure they had the yellow stars on their clothes for all to see. Then they were marched through the town, with the local kids cat-calling, throwing garbage, and running their fingers across their thoats as they laughed. Some of them even spit on the long column of people as they shuffled along.
It wasn’t a train like Rosa had ever seen. Just empty trucks, with straw on the floor, one bucket in a corner, and too many people in each one. The short trip they had mentioned took longer than expected, with stops to cram in yet more people, until it was almost impossible to breathe. Rosa closed her eyes for a moment, trying to shut out the worst memories of that trip. Then the train stopped. Some inside already were dead, there were dogs barking outisde, and men shouting in a foreign language. She was fourteen, and old enough to understand that this was nothing at all like the promised resettlement.
There were woods behind the tracks, but up ahead was an iron gate, wire fences, rows of huts, and huge brick chimneys. As they walked in the direction of the gate, they were stopped and examined. Mama was sent one way, papa another. She was told to follow some older women and join the queue to the left.
That was the last time she ever saw either of them.
It was two years before the troops came and told them they were free. Two years during which Rosa had seen things. Unspeakable things. Two years where she had done things. Very bad things. Like stealing a quarter-slice of bread from an old lady who would die. Allowing the sickening attentions of a Lithuanian guard in return for three slices of sausage. Being examined intimately by doctors who were interested in her reproductive organs. It meant one more day of life. One more sunrise.
She told the soldier she had relatives in New York. He didn’t seem to believe her, but wrote it down anyway. Clutching at straws, she had used the name of the local shopkeeper, knowing he had left for America in thirty-five. Mama had mentioned he and his family had settled in New York. So she claimed to be the cousin of Israel Stern of Greenpoint. Even so, it took two long years. Sweden was first. Then more questions. Then England, with more questions, followed by a letter to Mr Stern. More camps, slightly better food, and a teenage girl who had grown strong in adversity.
She could never thank Mr Stern enough. He let her sleep on his couch, and got her a job with his daughter, working as a seamstress. That’s how she met her husband Levi, who was a tailor. She couldn’t say she had ever really loved him. But he gave her security, as well as three children.
Looking around the ground where the tracks had been, she chose two nice round stones. Rosa walked forward to the place here the gates had once stood, and placed one each side of the gap. In memory of mama and papa. Then she turned and walked back to the waiting taxi.
As they drove back to the hotel, she suddenly remembered something. It was what the Nazis had called them. Not people, never prisoners, not even just Jews.
They had called them ‘Transport’.
In memory of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, liberated this day, in 1945. And of every other camp.