(excerpt # 7 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 describes 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. Characters from previous pages of the novel appear as well. I intend to present additional fragments related to Tina’s experiences in Transnistria next week, and later this year. Please let me know what you think, I’d love to read your critique.
Darie Călugăreanu Jr. stopped beating the drums and in the silence that followed, the newly minted assistant chief of police read his announcement. His thin and bleating voice was unusual for a person who was supposed to project unquestionable authority, but the message was tragic and crystal clear. The Jews had one day to get ready and show up in the morning at the railway station in Capul Satului, a neighboring village south of Câmpulung.
Tina was fully aware of what was happening to the Jews loaded on the trains going west, and her heart filled with dread. Yet the rumor was they were going east, to the Axis occupied territories of the Soviet Union.
Bronia didn’t waste any time. Being as prepared as possible was paramount to their survival. Each of them was allowed to bring only one piece of luggage with personal belongings, a pillow and a blanket. Money and jewelry were strictly forbidden. If found, they would be confiscated on the spot, and the perpetrators severely punished, even shot. People with cash on hand were instructed to go to the bank and make deposits, while the banks were ordered to remain open until late in the evening.
They might as well throw their money into the river, Bronia thought.
Out of tablecloths and rope, Tina made five backpacks with wide shoulder straps. What she had learned at the Luxemburgs came in handy. Larissa baked five loaves of bread. Bronia ripped her wedding band off her finger, took Rudolph’s out of a box in the nightstand, and hid them inside a jar of marmalade. She hid Babzia’s gold earrings in another. She placed most of the money Larissa had received from Mr. Picker in a small leather pouch and stashed it in a tin can. Then they packed all the jars and the tin can. Bronia and Bebe went to see Mrs. Niculescu, who cried and wrung her hands. What disastrous times she was witnessing! How unfair! And yes, she assured them, she’d be more than happy to keep their valuables and household goods, whatever they could bring over, until they returned, because they would return for sure. From a neighbor, Bebe rented a horse driven cart, loaded it with carpets, paintings, silverware and two sets of china stashed in boxes, and drove to Mrs. Niculescu. Bronia handed her the rest of their jewelry. Larissa stopped at the bank and deposited whatever money they had left in the house. She assumed all Jews were being monitored for complying with the order and wanted to play along.
That night Tina could not fall asleep. The bizarre voice of the assistant chief of police was the jarring bell that sounded the end of her childhood. She was seventeen, and the only boy she had kissed on the lips had been Adolf. Her universe had dissipated already. Her father was dead, and Margarita also. Jack, Stella, Rita, Adina, had moved away, and even the Luxemburgs had somehow managed to leave for Australia. Only some of her communist friends had remained, but she had lost touch with them. After midnight Tina went to get a glass of water. Bronia and Babtzia were standing by the kitchen table silently hugging each other.
The next morning, their neighbor took the five of them to the railway station in his buggy. The sky was gloomy, but it wasn’t raining. The dry leaves still left on the trees were reddish brown and dark yellow. They have the color of death, Tina thought and started crying. Bebe placed an arm around her shoulder and pulled her to his chest.
The soldiers guarding the station looked like boys. The train had seven cattle cars, one passenger car, and the locomotive. Onlookers stood between the station building and the platform, behind the soldiers. More Jews were arriving, most on foot and some, like the Freedmans, in horse driven carts. Their names were crossed off a long list and they were directed by the soldiers onto the platform and ordered to line up and to spread out evenly along the length of the train. The doors to the rail cars were shut, and, silent and desolate, the people followed the soldiers’ commands, understanding that they had no choice but to become the submissive cattle to be loaded inside and taken to an unknown destination. Some late arrivals spotted friends or relatives waiting on the platform and joined them, forming little groups and seeking the comfort that comes from sharing one’s fate with another. From up close, Tina overheard their whispers, and noticed the furrowed faces of women bearing the marks of recent tears. From time to time, the onlookers shouted names and messages to people they recognized.
The Freedmans didn’t look for anyone in particular, and advanced to the end of the platform towards the locomotive. They saw Vertzman with his wife and also Iboy’s family. They didn’t stop, and when they passed each other, Tina silently grabbed Iboy’s hand and squeezed it.
The soldiers prevented the Freedmans from reaching the passenger car. It was reserved for the military. As they turned back, they ran into Dr. Herbert Flor and his wife, Berta. Surprised to see them there, they lowered their backpacks and greeted each other.
Tina heard her name being called by someone in the group of onlookers, and saw Parashka waving at her. She took two steps in Parashka’s direction before the soldiers blocked her.
“Tina!” Parashka yelled again over the crowd. “We want you to know that you’re not alone. No matter what happens, we’ll be there with you.”
“Thank you,” Tina yelled back.
“Get Larissa,” Parashka continued. “I have somebody here who wants to bid her farewell.”
A young man stood next to Parashka. Tina had seen him before.
Larissa came closer and her face turned pale.
“I’m so sorry, Larissa,” the man yelled. “Remember how much I love you. I should be there with you.”
“Sile,” Larissa said.
A long, penetrating whistle blew through the station. The soldiers opened the sliding doors to the cattle cars, placed metal ramps up from the platform, and started pushing people in. “Quickly, hurry!” they shouted, pointing their riffles at whoever looked at them or displayed the smallest sign of hesitation.
Bebe guided Babtzia up the ramp. Next came Berta, who advanced with a limp, and Bronia. Tina walked in after Larissa and Dr. Flor. Other people followed, all in all about thirty. Tina didn’t know any of them, except for one man, whose face she recognized, but couldn’t place. She guessed they had to be Jews from areas around Câmpulung.
Inside the railcar the air was damp and heavy with the smell of animals. By the time the last people climbed in, it was impossible not to step on straw and dried cow manure.
The man whose face Tina remembered walked to the doors and addressed one of the soldiers. “Young man, could you find me a broom somewhere? I think they forgot to clean this railcar because the floor is full of dung.”
The soldier jumped on the ramp and shoved the man inside the car. “Kike,” he yelled. “By the time we’re done with you, you’ll be wallowing in your own shit and think that animal dung smells like roses.”
The other soldiers standing around and watching started to laugh. One of them removed the ramp, slammed the doors shut and secured the metal lock from the outside. The man who had asked for a broom put his head in his hands.
Trapped, they sat still for a few minutes. Daylight was gone, except for one window not larger than an average size book, with iron bars running across. Slowly they got used to the stench and their eyes adjusted to the dimness.
Pushing the dung out of the way with his shoe, Bebe cleaned a patch of the floor. They lowered their backpacks and sat on them. Other people followed suit and after a while, most of the manure was piled in the corners and people were sitting.
One man lit a cigarette.
“What’re you doing?” a woman asked. “Wait at least until the train starts moving, for a little fresh air to come in through the window.”
“Well, we ‘re not moving, are we, woman? And I need to smoke,” the man answered angrily. “So you better shut up.”
The woman’s husband took a step forward, and the man who was smoking stood up. The two faced each other silently. Another man suggested the smoker move to the window and blow the smoke out.
“We need to get along with each other,” whispered Tina.
“We need to stay out of it,” Bebe said.
“Do you know who came to say good-bye to me, Mama?” Larissa asked suddenly between sobs.
Tina was sure that Bronia knew, but Bronia asked, “Who?”
“Sile,” Larissa whispered. “Remember him?”
“Now that you mention his name, yes, I do.”
“You stopped me from seeing him,” Larissa screamed.
“I don’t think I ever did that.”
“You know, Mama, of all our non-Jewish friends and acquaintances he’s the only one who had the courage to show up and say good-bye. And that, after all these years.”
“How noble of him,” Bronia said.
Tina felt furious with her mother. This was no time for sarcasm. Why couldn’t she simply admit she’d been wrong? “Just say you’re sorry,” she hissed.
“I’m not sorry for anything,” Bronia said. “Whatever I did and whatever I do, I do it for you.”