Train Ride of the Righteous by Mirel Bodner Abeles Il Giorno della Memoria by Frederico Soffici courtesy of Flickr.com Ava trudged down the busy street burying her chin into her scarf as the icy winter air hit her. She eyed the store numbers, checking the paper clenched in her gloved fist with the address written in her daughter’s unmistakable hand. “You can’t miss it, Oma,” her grandson had said. “They have this huge display in the window with the best train set ever!” He was right; it was impossible to miss: the number of boys, noses pressed against the window, was a dead give-away. She smiled at the sight then turned to view the attraction that mesmerized them so. Ava watched the miniature engine as it sped by pulling a string of box cars through the snowy terrain, leaving her dry-mouthed. Her stomach lurched and her breath rasped as her thoughts turned backwards in time. *** Ava huddled in the cold and putrid smelling car, thankful that she had managed to throw a coat over her housedress on the day they burst in and arrested her. Her arms tightened around the child nestled in her arms as she thought of her own daughter far away. Throughout the days she murmured prayers, thanking God for sparing her daughter. Because on that fateful day, her Lilka had been away from home, with her grandmother. That alone had given her the courage to face the torture and whatever awaited her at the end of this train ride. The clattering of the train as it chugged down the track served as background to her thoughts. She cradled Rivki, the little girl with the soulful brown eyes who had contributed to her being in this place. Odd that they had ended up together again, in the same car headed God alone knew where. Rivki ‘s small dark head contrasted sharply with Ava’s pale blond braid. Ava lifted her head and exchanged a glance with Lia, the girl’s mother, who sat next to her cradling Rivki’s twin brother. The people crowded in the car had few illusions; the air was rife with unsettling rumors of what awaited, though few were willing to accept them. “I’m sorry,” Lia murmured. “We should not have brought our troubles upon you.” The noisy train, drowned out much of the conversation, but she’d grown used to Lia’s whispered voice in the months that Lia and her family lay hidden in her attic. Ava shrugged. “It is not you who brought this trouble, but those fascists.” Her eyes flashed, giving the lie to Ava’s placid appearance. It was as if she could see those black-garbed guards through the slats in the cattle car. Lia squeezed her hand while her husband chewed his lip, sunk into himself. He roused himself and added, “Nonetheless, it is because you opened your house to us that your are now here, sharing our fate.” “And I would do it again. Better to die knowing I followed my conscience than live in silent collaboration with them!” Ava’s disdain heightened the color of her pale cheeks. Dovid nodded, his eyes large in his pinched face. They resumed their silence, watching the passing night through the crack that also let in gusts of wind. The world flashed by as their journey continued in stops and starts. “I think we’re traveling east, towards the border.” Ava said. “The Russians are drawing closer; the war will surely be over soon and we’ll be saved.” Another man snorted. “That’s what they’ve been telling us for more than a year now.” Another burst of travel, and then the train continued at a slower pace. Ava noticed a name etched on a sign visible through the crack. Oswiecim. “We’re in Poland!” she said. A long trip for a short journey. Amidst blaring lights, barks and shouting German voices, a gang of skeletons in striped rags herded them out of the car into the ruckus of the predawn dark. In the confusion, they suddenly found themselves separated into groups outside the train. Lia took a swift look around the busy train yard. She could not see her husband anymore; he was lost in a line of men. “Give me Rivki,” she whispered urgently to Ava. “No, how will you manage by yourself with two little ones?” Ava protested. “All the women here are old or with children. Give me my Rivki and cross over into the other line.” Ava pursed her lips and shook her head. Lia stood her little boy next to her, reached for Rivki and shoved Ava out of the line. “Run!” she hissed. With one last glance behind her, Ava left Lia and her twins and merged into the other line. She never saw Lia again. Her second train ride had been even worse, in open cars in the freezing snow, headed to yet another camp after their long death march. Only a small percent survived that death ride, sheltered by frozen corpses. With a deep breath, Ava pushed those thoughts away. She could not, no she would not, let herself remember that awful time. That was something that Ava was good at, locking up her memories and burying them deep. *** She had never spoken of her experiences or of the war time. Neither Lilka nor her post-war children knew why she sometimes woke up screaming in middle of the night. Every year at Christmas, she waved away their questions when the envelope with Israeli stamps would arrive, bearing a greeting card and pictures of a bearded Dovid and a young Rivki Cohen. Later came wedding pictures, and then, come Christmas, greeting cards from Dovid Cohen and a bewigged Rivki Feld and her growing family. Maybe it was time. Ava’s breathing eased and she smiled. Perhaps this year Ava’s gift would be not a train, but the story of a train ride.
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