(Excerpt #9 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 two published several weeks ago describing Tina’s experience in Transnistria. Being Jewish, she and her family were deported there by the pro-Nazi government of Romania in 1941. Additional excerpts to follow. Please let me know what you think. As always, I would love to read your critique.
They gathered in front of the dilapidated railway station. The soldiers surrounded them, and a corporal who came out of the building to meet them, read a directive. A monotonous rain was falling over everybody. They were to march into the village of Ataki and spend the night in any of the vacant buildings or, if they could, find shelter with the locals. At seven the next morning they were to reconvene at the station on that very same spot, cross the river and continue on foot to their final destination.
“Where is that?” somebody asked.
The corporal ignored the question. The soldiers counted the prisoners and told them to get going.
“Any attempt to escape is punishable by death. Is it clear?” the corporal thundered.
Out of nowhere, about a dozen women clad in willowing black dresses approached them and with them came a devastating sound of wailing. They stretched their hands forward, as if begging. “You have arrived in Sodom and Gomorrah,” one of them shrieked at the top of her lungs. “Welcome! Welcome!”
“They closed the mental hospital and allowed everybody to go free,” explained the corporal.
A few soldiers cocked their rifles. Cawing like birds and laughing hysterically, the women hid in a copse of bare trees on the other side of the muddy road that led to the village. Flanked on both sides by the soldiers, the deportees lined up and started walking slowly, helping the elderly and carrying they possessions. The sound of the crazy women followed them for a long time, like a curse or a premonition.
The village was abandoned. The few structures still standing had collapsed roofs and walls darkened by fire and riddled by bullets. The windows were blown out and the doors broken or missing. There were no locals, no dogs, and no sign of life. Tina and her family found refuge in a basement. The boards spanning the dirt floor were stained and greasy. It was dark and cold, but at least it wasn’t raining. Berta and Dr. Herbert Flor joined the Freedmans in that space, plus another twenty people. They all marked their territory on the rancid floor. A few men brought twigs from the yard and lit a fire in a shallow metal bowl. The flames illuminated an inscription scrawled on the plaster wall: “Jews, pray for us. The Germans are killing us all.”
The next morning the soldiers led them to a long and narrow bridge over the Dniester River. Damaged by aerial bombardment, portions of the bridge were collapsed and covered by loose wooden planks over the original crossbeams. Ropes had been tied in place of handrails. Peasants with rowboats waited by the shore. The soldiers guided most Jews onto the bridge but allowed those who could afford it, to hire the locals to take them across. For Babtzia’s benefit, the Freedmans found a Ukrainian with a rowboat. The crossing lasted almost half an hour. It was raining and the river looked angry and cold.
“You’re lucky,” the Ukrainian said, speaking in a mixture of Romanian and Russian, which they understood. “You are a small group. Yesterday morning the Germans brought a convoy of Jews from Camp Edineț. I don’t know where they were taking them or why. There were thousands of them, all hungry and covered in old blankets and rugs, only eyes, skeletons on legs. They had no money and we couldn’t help. The Germans forced them over the bridge, and once they started walking across they were pushed from behind, and couldn’t stop or slow down. Many fell into the river.”
“The occupation has devastated this place,” Tina said. She wanted to change the subject, and something was pressing on her mind. “Your area used to belong to the Soviet Union, and it must have been great living here before the war.”
“The Soviet Union?” the Ukrainian said. “Yuck! What a disaster.”
“Didn’t the Soviet army destroy everything when they left with their scorched-earth policy?” Tina insisted.
The Ukrainian did not respond.
When they reached the other side, soldiers came to the boat. The Ukrainian’s accommodating attitude changed. “Davay! Quickly, get out!” he ordered the Freedmans.
They were forced to march about twenty kilometers. It took the entire day. Tina was cold and her feet were covered in mud. While they walked, Tina looked in vain for Iboy and her family. She noticed that the number of guards had decreased significantly. On their way, they ran into small groups of Jews walking in the opposite way, grimy and begging for food. They were part of the convoy from Edineț who had escaped, turned around and started following them. The Freedmans shared their bread and marmalade with some of them.
As they passed by isolated hamlets, Ukrainian farmers approached their convoy and traded food for money and gold. The soldiers looked the other way. They were, Tina heard, in Transnistria, a land between the rivers Dniester and Bug, occupied by the Axis, and under Romanian administration.
When they finally stopped, the night was setting in. Babtzia was completely exhausted. They were led to abandoned military barracks. There were no beds inside, and they slept on the dirty straw on mud floors, hundreds of them huddled in several large rooms.
And so it was. They marched in the northeastern direction during the day, forcibly driven towards an unexplainable destination by an order from somewhere unknown, and slept in borrowed primitive quarters without plumbing or electricity. They walked to the limits of their endurance, some in their midst dropping off their feet more often now than in the beginning of this journey, relatives staying behind, waiting for them to die. On several occasions, a few managed to strike deals with the locals and simply disappear. Miraculously, for almost half a day the Freedmans hired a cart from a peasant who walked along with them and allowed Babtzia and their belongings to be placed inside. Dr. Flor pleaded for Berta, and she rode in the cart as well. “She’s sick,” Dr. Flor complained.
The number of soldiers watching them diminished every day. They were cruel at times, but were mostly indifferent, performing a task they didn’t understand very well but which was advantageous since it kept them behind the front line.
Despite the physical strain and the awful fright of what tomorrow or the next hour might bring, Tina couldn’t believe she was seeing firsthand the remnants of her idealized Soviet paradise. The villages they trudged through were in ruins and the locals were poorer than she had ever imagined that people could be. At least, the Ukrainians stayed put. They were home, but the war could easily come to them.
Tina’s group walked to Lindiceni, and from there to Moghilev, and then to Lucineț. In Lindiceni, Bebe ran into Ervin Spielberg and his wife Blima, six months pregnant. Ervin was a former college buddy of his. It was unclear to the Freedmans how the Spielbergs had arrived in Lindiceni and had been allowed to find refuge there, but they didn’t have time to find out. In the morning they were marched off. On the way, they met Rachel Katz, a Jewish woman originally from Austria, who was walking the opposite way. Tina spoke German to her. Rachel had tried to outrun the Germans by traveling to relatives in Kishinev, only to get caught in a roundup and being deported to Edineț. Poor woman, she was the first person Tina encountered who was full of lice.
The forced march ordeal ended abruptly in Lucineț. The corporal announced they were released to look for places to settle down with the locals. He said they would be registered to the last woman and child, kept under watch, and put to work.
The man who took in the Freedmans spoke a little Romanian, which helped, and he asked to be paid in gold. In exchange for Bronia’s two wedding bands he agreed to let them spend the winter on his property. He had a daughter who was fifteen and, in a year or two, God willing, she was going to get married. Through war or communism, gold tended to retain its value. He was a locksmith, who believed in honest work and private initiative. In his shop, where he employed two helpers, he made tools for the state agricultural collective or sovhoz, as they called it. In the beginning, the kulaks of the area had opposed collectivization and the most vehement of them had paid for it with their lives or a one-way ticket to Siberia, while the rest of the population had endured unspeakable neglect and years of famine. Eventually they had all succumbed to the new Soviet ideas, the sovhoz was established, and things had ameliorated. For a while they even thought that like in some other rural parts of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks would bring them electricity, but that wasn’t in the five-year Party plan, obviously.
Now that the Romanians were there, they had left the previous power structures more or less intact, except that they had nominated a new Romanian administrator and brought two agronomists from Romania to help plan the crops. So far, these three had served their purpose. War or no war, why disrupt something that functions and maintains its precarious balance?
The Romanian administrator was a heavyset man, Barbu Ion, who liked to go everywhere on horseback dressed in his military jacket with medals pinned to his chest. He limped because he had been injured in his right leg on the first day of the assault of Odessa, after which he was reassigned. He had been an accountant before the war, not a bad man, but impulsive, and cruel sometimes. Now they all depended on him, the Ukrainians, the Jews, and the two agronomists, who worked for him and liked to have a good time with live music, brandy and girls.
They were pragmatists, these Romanians, they really were, and so was the landlord. For example, a few years ago he had fabricated a few metal religious objects, beautiful if he could say so himself, for Rabbi Moses of Moghilev, and he had remained in touch with the Rabbi and the small permanent Jewish community over there. The Rabbi himself saw eye to eye with Barbu Ion, and that also meant something. At any rate, if any of them needed to communicate with the Rabbi, he would be happy to facilitate. Because he had nothing against the Jews although he was Ukrainian. Mr. Trofimenko was his name, but to his friends and customers he was Illya Petrovici, and his wife was Maria Prokofievna.
And they should know that he welcomed the Freedmans and the Flors and the others as his guests and customers. He understood they were going through a real personal tragedy, for being displaced and chased away from a nice area like Câmpulung and what have you, but he couldn’t change anything and for him, why not say it, they represented an opportunity. As a child he had spent his summers with an aunt in Orhei where he picked up the Romanian he now spoke. And he had actually visited Câmpulung as well, so when he said it was nice, he meant it one hundred percent. He had two empty rooms, each with a window, and he was happy to let them stay there. He had decided to take in thirty Jews, not more, even though he could accommodate a larger number and make a little more money; but he wasn’t greedy, and he understood that you shouldn’t pack people in like sardines, and that people appreciate a little space for themselves and a little dignity.
The rooms were in a separate building from the main house where the shop was in the front, and where his family occupied the backside. He had built them himself with kirpich, or mud bricks, and a straw roof. By tomorrow he would have two metal stoves and flues fabricated and installed in the rooms, for heating and cooking. They could collect kindling in the vacant lots across the street and burning wood in the forest. But they had to be careful not to stray too far or be caught wandering outside during the curfew hours. The rules were strict, they changed often, and violators could be shot. And this was his only warning.
Across the street, shielded from view by a few scraggly bushes, was a ditch they could use to go to the bathroom. Rainwater provided a kind of natural drainage, keeping everything moving and somewhat hygienic.