(excerpt # 8 from The Ultimate Patient)
“The Ultimate Patient” — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. Tina is one of four major characters in my novel. This excerpt is the continuation of the one published last week describing the moment in 1941 when Tina’s family, the Freedmans, are deported to Transnistria, an area in the Ukraine which was occupied by the Axis, between rivers Dniester and Bug. I intend to present additional fragments related to Tina’s experiences in Transnistria later this year. Please let me know what you think, I’d love to read your critique.
A boy of about three or four started crying. He was the only child in their railcar. His mother shushed him and pulled him to her chest. His father gave him some water to drink.
Dr. Flor stared at his wife. “You got us into this,” he whispered angrily.
Tina was close enough to hear him, and deliberately looked away. Most people were sitting on the floor, holding each other, some crying, some turning their necks jostling for air.
“Leave me alone,” Berta replied defeated. “Don’t talk to me.”
“I told you we should have remained the hell out in Cernăuți.” Dr. Flor continued. “You insisted to see the Pickers in Câmpulung before their move to Bucharest. Now they got us, and it’s all your fault.”
Dr. Flor was a tall man, and as he stretched out, his long legs reached an area that another man claimed as his own.
“Could you please move your legs away?” the man asked.
“Why, you’ve drawn boundaries?” Dr. Flor said, his crooked lips opening wide in a sign of displeasure. “Or maybe you own this railcar.”
“I don’t own anything anymore,” the man mumbled.
“It’s starting to rain,” the smoker announced standing by the small window, looking outside.
“Why did they shove us in here, if we aren’t going anywhere?” Babzia wailed. “We’ve been in here for over an hour, and we haven’t moved.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry to go to your death,” Dr. Flor replied.
They left two hours later, after a contingent of German officers climbed into the passenger car. For very a long time the train traveled northeast at low speed and finally stopped in a field. It was raining and dark outside. The soldiers opened the doors with flashlights in their hands. “Quick! Get out, and do your business right here, and as soon as you hear the whistle, get back. No chicanery, or you’ll be shot.”
People scrambled at the railcar doors, high off the ground. The younger ones jumped down, but older people, like Babtzia, stood by the doors looking down, helpless. In the field, they spread out for privacy, the men in one direction and the women in another, while the soldiers kept their flashlights on them and didn’t let them out of their sight. The little boy started crying again. A soldier hit one man in the chest with the butt of his rifle. He had no reason to do it, and no reason not to.
“Babtzia needs to go,” Tina said, and she and Bronia climbed back inside the railcar. Bronia quickly removed the leather pouch with the money from the tin can and told Tina to hide it in her backpack. It was dark and no one was looking. She handed the can to Babtzia. “Here, use this as a chamber pot.”
The tin can had a lid.
With the railcar almost empty, two men started pushing the manure out the door.
Most people waited in the field. It was damp and cold, but after having been locked inside the railcars, being outside felt good, even with the soldiers watching over them. A woman approached a soldier and offered him an apple. He looked at his colleague who nodded. A man gave another soldier a pack of cigarettes.
The rain came down harder and slowly people climbed back in. The guards left the doors open.
Larissa and Bebe stood by the open doors and smoked watching the cloudy night sky.
Tina sat on the floor and rested her back against the rough wooden side of the car. She had to control herself. Fear was in everyone’s heart, the one feeling that people needed to overcome. Speaking about it would contribute to nothing at all.
Like Parashka, Tina thought. Parashka had come to the station to show her support. She had guts. In these times, displaying empathy for Jews was dangerous, and of all of their non-Jewish friends Parashka had been the only one. Except Sile, of course.
Tina wished she could talk to her mother about Parashka, but her mother seemed to have fallen asleep. She was lying under her blanket, her eyes closed. Next to her, Babtzia seemed asleep also. How strong these two were. Or were they? Were they sleeping indeed? Since the drums had perturbed the peace on Main Street announcing the deportation, Bronia had taken the reins. She had marshaled her family and had told each of them what they needed to prepare. And she didn’t complain, not once.
Parashka, who had held Tina in her arms as a baby, had come to say good bye. In the past she had avoided being associated with the communist movement. Could her presence be a signal from the Party somehow? Suddenly Tina realized that the man who looked familiar and had asked for a broom was someone she had seen at meetings with Comrades Oliver and Nedelcu. His last name was Hertz and he was a communist. She’d approach him later and talk to him. She’d have to be careful. All these unfortunate people on the train needed organizing, and a glimmer of hope would do wonders. Maybe this was Parashka’s farewell message for her.
Larissa finished her cigarette and sat down.
“We’ll be all right,” Tina whispered. “Sile came. How brave of him.”
“We love each other,” Larissa said.
“I thought you forgot him. Have you stayed in touch?”
Tina fell silent and her mind shifted. Her sister’s simple confession surprised and overwhelmed her. She needed to absorb this news. She needed to wait. She was young and love between a man and a woman was unknown to her. The night that enveloped the world in darkness, with the field, and the train, and the soldiers, reached the deepest corners of her soul. How was it possible? How could somebody keep a secret for so long, her own sister, who seemed so close, and was, obviously, so very reserved? Her eyes felt heavy and she closed them, listening to the murmur of the people in the railcar, and the soldiers speaking from time to time outside. She distinguished a few words in German, harsh, like a bark. Then the wind stirred, and fresh air blew through the open doors like freedom itself.
When she woke up, the train was moving again, and the doors to the railcar were shut. Someone said they were approaching a station. Indeed, the train slowed down, switched tracks and stopped. The German officers stepped out and marched in formation to a couple of trucks parked at the end of the platform. Then came the loud bangs of decoupling and the engine and the passenger car pulled away and disappeared on the tracks that curved around the station. The prisoners wondered what was going to happen next — seven locked railcars left without a locomotive in a nameless place. They didn’t know what to expect, yet while the train was moving, their fate seemed to be a little easier to accept. Waiting locked inside a standing train was terrifying and drove some of them to deep anguish. The stories of the southbound death trains transporting Jews from Jassy, and traveling for days on end until they died of hunger, thirst and lack of air, were on people’s minds. They knocked on the metal doors as hard as they could and screamed through the little window, begging to be let out. The Romanian soldiers pretended not to hear, pacing up and down the length of the railcars, talking to each other, nodding, and laughing from time to time.
Through the clamor, Tina approached Hertz who was sitting alone at the opposite end of the railcar.
“Hello, it’s Tuesday afternoon,” she started.
“Have I seen you before?” he asked, ignoring the password.
Tina hesitated for a second, and then sat down next to him. “I’m Tina Freedman,” she whispered. “I saw you at the meeting with Comrade Nedelcu. Vertzman and his wife are on this train, and I think we should establish contact.”
“Leave me alone,” Comrade Hertz said. “I’m hungry and I’m going to die.” He raised his eyes at her, as his voice trembled with panic.
“I’ll be right back.” Tina said. She went to her corner and searched in her backpack. She didn’t have much, but she was determined to do this.. Her mother, her brother and her sister were watching the people banging the door. She quickly cut a slice from her bread and smeared it with a thin layer of marmalade. “Here, eat this,” she urged Comrade Hertz. “Bread and marmalade, a perfect breakfast for you.”
The comrade didn’t appreciate her joke and swallowed the food like a starving animal.
“Drink some water,” a woman seated nearby said, and gave him her bottle.
He drank. Then he closed his eyes and slid to the floor, clearly not interested in a conversation.
“The German trucks are gone,” somebody announced, and the doors sprung open. The people were taken to a latrine, first the women, then the men. Locals showed up at the station with baskets and sold their meager produce to the prisoners. After receiving their bribes, the Romanian soldiers looked the other way. By midday the sun broke through the clouds. Bebe helped Babtzia climb out of the railcar and walk back and forth through the station a few times. Tina discovered Iboy in a group of prisoners several railcars away and waved to her.
“How long will we stay here?” a man asked.
“Until they bring our locomotive back,” a soldier said.
“Where will you take us?” asked another.
The soldier shrugged.
The name of the station was written on the front of the building in Cyrillic letters. They were in the Ukraine. Nobody had heard of the place before, and some speculated on their location.
The locomotive returned and they were all loaded back up. For a while they traveled at normal speed, then they waited in a barren field, and then they moved again through the night. The next morning they stopped one more time. The cars were decoupled and they changed the direction of travel. When they stopped on the third evening, the soldiers ordered everybody out.
They were in Ataki on the Dniester River. “100 kilometers from home,” somebody said.