It’s still a blur when I think about it; kind of a slow motion blur: my Papa waking me up, telling me “Shhh,” with his forefinger to his lips as he scooped me from my warm bed and rushed all of us down the stairs.
I recall the biting sting of ice crystals, the pungent odor of smoke from a train station nearby and the rumble of a train on the tracks as we eased silently out of our door. The clock on the bank tower said it was a little past one o’clock in the morning.
“Wh...Where are we going Papa?” I whimpered.
Only the hiss of air flowing between his tongue and the roof of his mouth answered. He placed his finger on my lips then and hugged me closer. Mama, Liesel, Greta and Jorge followed.
After a few blocks of traveling in a slow rush from doorway to doorway, we went down a flight of steps and entered a door to a cavernous room with a concrete floor and bare brick walls stained by decades of dirt and dust.
“You must remain here, Mama. Do you understand? Do not go from here until I come for you or send someone for you. Do not go back to the house for any reason.” He looked at all of us with a look that frightened me for the first time ever in my five years. “All of you, do you understand?” he repeated.
I remember that Jorge wanted to go with Papa, but he said no. “You must stay with your Mama. She’ll need you.”
With that he disappeared out the door and we were left alone with no warmth but our coats and hats, no food, and no water.
Jorge scouted around the room and found a doorway leading out. He eased it open and found a store room. In it were a couple of dirty blankets, and some old newspapers.
Mama spread out the blankets and did her best to make us comfortable. Her lips tightened slightly when Jorge pulled matches from his pocket to light the newspapers and make a fire.
Greta, a year older than me, started crying. “Mama, why can’t we go home?”
“Shhh, little one,” Mama pulled her onto her lap and began rocking back and forth, I realize now, to comfort them both.
I don’t know how long we were in that room. My tummy began to hurt and my sisters cried a lot, so I’m sure theirs did also.
We all fell asleep and when we woke again, Jorge had slipped out.
He was gone for a long time and Mama looked worried. Finally he returned with a loaf of bread, a sausage and a small wedge of cheese. I think Mama would have scolded him for worrying her and disobeying Papa, but she was probably so happy to see him back and safe that I guess she forgot to be mad.
I remember thinking it was the best food I’d ever tasted, and in fact it was the best I’d taste for a long while afterward.
Finally the door opened and a man said Papa told him where we were and to take us to safety.
We traveled by night, our bodies numb. After two nights we reached what had been a camp deep in the forest, but it was burned and deserted.
Shortly afterward we were captured and put aboard one of the trains by soldiers with swastikas.
I never saw Mama or Liesel or Greta again. Jorge was in another car. Many years later we would finally meet again.
“Lord,” I prayed as I’d been taught. “Watch over us.”
“Shhh,” said the train’s boilers emitting steam.
An SS guard told me “Your Papa, he was a criminal you know. He murdered many people and burned important buildings.”
Another one sneered, “Your Papa betrayed you and your family. It was he who told us where you were.”
I was seven when the concentration camp I was in was freed by the Allies.
Alone in the world, I knew nothing of where my family was. I’d heard lies about my Papa for so long, and with his abandonment I didn’t know what to believe.
Years later an old man, a decorated soldier leaning heavily on a cane entered the shop where I was a milliner’s apprentice. I ran to him.
“Papa!” - We held each other, weeping.
“Son, shhh...” Thus ended the longest, coldest night of my life.
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