FROM SOUL DINER
It would be hard to sleep on the floor of the malodorous cattle car under the best conditions. For Jacob, now 13, on that dark and chilly night, it had seemed impossible. He was pinned against the rough wooden planks by the mass of humanity and the cold air numbed his backside. There was nothing for it; no room to move for any of the men, women, and children packed into the railcar like stacked wood, but if he was in the center, he would at least have shared the warmth of others on all sides.
He didn’t resent them. He was young, and better able to cope with the conditions than the elderly. Besides, it could be worse. Many were forced to sleep standing, as there was little alternative. The floor was two deep, three in some places. Arms and legs stuck out at odd angles. It looked almost as if the bodies had simply been thrown in the car, a heaving mass that desperately desired comfort and warmth. Only their heads stayed consistently above the surface of the human massif.
Somehow, Jacob did sleep. He woke with the rising sun cutting a narrow band across his face, through the slats of the railway car. It felt deliciously warm, and he lay there savoring it, the clickety clack of the wheels along the rails singing sweet lies to obfuscate the frightening reality.
He slowly realized the chorus included the moans and prayers of his fellow travelers, and he struggled to his feet. The morning light snaked through the alternating wooden planks and illuminated the weary and frightened cargo. Young clung to old. Jacob, an oddity in the weary looking group, with his fair hair and bright blue eyes, was buffeted by older bearded men at his side. The yellow Star of David on their shabby coats stood in stark contrast to the grey despair in their eyes.
One painful plea rose above the others and Jacob was drawn to it. He wormed his way through the intertwined bodies to its source. A pregnant woman, blood beginning to pool between her legs on the filthy wooden floorboards where she sat sobbing, wracked with painful spasms. Those nearest, as if touched by an unseen force, pressed away as Jacob approached.
He knelt beside the young woman and drew her eyes to his. He appeared unexpectedly much older than his scant years. He took her hand in one of his, and placed his other gently upon her swollen belly. The Woman gasped in surprise and relief. Her cries stopped. Jacob, his breath rapidly labored, gritted his teeth in silent suffering.
The young woman stared at him, eyes wide in wonder. She raised her hands to Jacob’s face and caressed his cheek as if he was an angel she needed to touch to prove.
The train abruptly slowed, and Jacob shielded her as the crowd shifted. Coming quickly to a halt, there was at once an increased babble of voices, inside and out; those within in tremulous anticipation, outside, the confident and authoritative commands of the German SS.
High pressure water hoses suddenly pummeled the car, the blast against the wooden planks a deafening roar. Water sprayed through the two small glassless windows cut near the roofline, and crashed through the cracks with the sunlight, creating innumerable tiny rainbows. Some recoiled in frightened surprise, while most opened their mouths, extended their hands, and scrambled to capture what little water they could claim.
Gone as suddenly as it began, the involuntary passengers jostled for position as the car picked up speed. Later, in the darkness of another night, the plaintive cries of a newborn rent the silence.