Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE LOST TRAIN (part 2)

[Here's Part 2 of B.N.'s story The Lost Train - enjoy!]

TWO. KINDS OF HUMAN SPIRITS
There are two kinds of spirit, and they are like backward and forward. There is one spirit that man attains in the course of time. But there is another spirit that overwhelms man in great abundance, in great haste, swifter than a moment, for it is beyond time and for this spirit no time is needed.
The Bratslaver

The second time my grandmother visited me I turned around and switched the light on: she was at the kitchen table sipping coffee and picking up toast crumbs with the tip of her finger. She was still a young and deft woman. She wore a familiar blue summer dress with a white eyelet Peter- Pan collar.

What I had learned to appreciate about her was that she saw many things as the consequence of simple over-indulgence. Too much sleep, she said, caused vivid late afternoon dreams, too much salt made people weepy, especially women during their menstruation. In this way life became a finely balanced effort—a thing that could be controlled. Life then required—demanded—attention to the certainties and to the discounting of uncertainties.  In this world cars never faltered. And this struck me as so much blind faith that it compelled my respect.

THREE. BEHOLDING THE WORLD
As the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so the little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full and he who can draw it away from before his eyes, as one draws away a hand, beholds the great shining of the inner worlds.
The Baal Shem Tov

Watching from the window the day my grandmother left Warsaw, she could see that on the street below a crowd was moving toward the train depot.  She always began the story like this: "In the month of Adar, the year 5701, I had just finished a translation of Lear for the Yiddish theater. My rendition of Cordelia was particularly moving. I must admit that I wrote it with myself in mind. But Etka Bloom had that all sewn up, since she was engaged to the director's son.

"Suddenly the city was mythical. A walled city like a Jericho, Jerusalem, Troy—sentry guards at the gates. The shoe factory was confiscated. Part of it was dismantled brick by brick and sent further into Europe. When they sealed off our ghetto, it was actually good for my work. The distractions were cut in half, and the streets grew more familiar each time I stepped out.

"People were ordered to present themselves at the train depot—some were just grabbed off the street or out of shops. This was 'relocation.' The trains departed twice a day and were always full. We had no idea of our destination. Some people said we were going out to the Polish countryside; others said differently.

"By two o'clock that afternoon, seventy-five of us were loaded into    one of the train cars and the doors were shut. By three, the main began     to slowly pull out of the depot. At first we traveled east and it seemed we were heading for the countryside, near the Russian border.

"There were small slit windows near to the top of the cars—no glass and too high to see out of, too narrow to show much—branches of cold winter light grew through them. A man gave me a lift up with hands clasped together under my feet. From the window I saw the snow-covered Polish countryside.  And people shouted: 'What do you see? Can you tell anything?' I said I saw people walking in pairs near the tracks, couples with children, and the children waved 'bye train.' I saw nobody from the window, but I wanted a vision—a picture of happiness.

"The train lurched and swayed on. In the car with the people from the ghetto were three Poles—criminals. One a petty thief, another a whoremaster, and a third a black market merchant. They said we were going to Maidanek or Auschwitz. They had friends who had made this trip before. But our train never went to Maidanek or Auschwitz. It got lost on the way.

"An engineer must have fallen asleep, and never thrown the switch to route us from one track to another. We headed in the wrong direction all night —exactly what direction it was we did not know, just that it was wrong.

"When the sun rose I was lifted again to the window. By now the winter landscape of Europe had given way to midsummer and a full green countryside. About eleven that morning, the train stopped. From all the cars up and down the tracks there were bangs on the walls, and shouts. When the doors opened, we stood blinking in the light. Two young men jumped down and began to lift the others out.

"We stood there next to the tracks for a few seconds. People walked alongside the other cars looking for a familiar face. They shouted: 'Does anybody here know Lena the pharmacist?' 'Aaron the dry goods seller?' 'My wife Etty—a redhead?' Here were all the lost people of the lost train. After a few minutes we noticed what had brought our train to a halt. About one hundred meters farther down, in a field, the track just stopped suddenly, out in the middle of nowhere. There were other people already there. When they saw us they walked out from behind a grove of trees on the edge of the field. I heard them speaking French and Dutch, Greek and Italian—every language. Soon there seemed to be no difference between our languages. We all laughed at our own surprise at how we had outsmarted the world.

"The first few nights we slept in the train cars, but soon we dismantled them and used the wood to build small houses. And we lived that way until the war ended. Years later I heard that Etka Bloom after three weeks in the camp stopped washing and drank her bowls of water—she died after five days. I can act, she always said. But she could not imagine."

I knew the story by heart. Grandmother was always telling it with an air of superiority whenever she met a Jew from Warsaw.

Now when she visits and I look over at her she is younger than I remember her, younger than any of the pictures reveal. Her hair is dark brown with waves that give way to curls around her face. Her front teeth are chipped in an inverted v.

B.N.
© 1990-present
This story originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review

[Please check in tomorrow for part 3!]

2 comments:

  1. Some wonderfully memorable scenes. Writing of such a high quality.

    ReplyDelete

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