By Sue Clayton
“There were so many of us, bubeleh—men, women, children—swarming beside the railway tracks, droning voices silenced by a pall of nameless dread as the train rumbled round the bend, pulling a string of carriages before its wheels sparked to a halt, and we were herded towards
—not carriages—cattle cars.”
Opa Josef’s rheumy eyes, set in a face as wrinkled as a 100-year-old turtle, mist over as he traces a skeletal finger across three faces smiling out from a sepia photo nestled inside a silver frame that lives on his bedside table—a captive memory caught by a shuttered blink in a time before his world shattered.
“I’ve been on a train once before, to the seaside…too old now to recall where…but I remember the thrill of carriages rattling along the tracks on a day that sweltered under a hot, golden sun in a sky so blue it hurt your eyes. Mama had looked beautiful, her black hair blowing in the sea breeze, brown eyes laughing up at my tall, handsome Papa, while Hannah, my little sister, played with her doll on the beach. ‘Don’t go in too far, Josef,’ Mama warned as I splashed through the white-capped waves that warmed my bare feet before scampering along the full length of the shoreline, the sands of time running out between my toes…” His voice trailed away.
“Finish your story, Opa.” I held his trembling hand.
“They looked smart, bubeleh, those German soldiers standing at attention in grey uniforms and shiny, black boots, guns embraced, upside down steel helmets looking like bowls—like those Mama filled with matzo ball soup.
“Mama and Papa told me earlier that morning that we were going on a train and to pack my suitcase with some clean clothes. I made sure to tuck in my Siddur prayer book, ‘Josef Baumstein’ written inside the front cover in my best childish handwriting, just like you’ve written your name inside yours, bubeleh.
“Our front room window had iced over but I scratched a peephole to watch impatiently for the canvas-covered truck to roll down the street and pull up outside our door. I rushed outside to clamber on board, eager for the train journey to begin. ‘Hurry up,’ I urged Mama and Papa, wondering why they were lagging behind, shoulders stooped and heads bent, probably too cold to wave at the huddle of neighbours watching from their doorways.
“At the station, people were crying, others looked sad, but they should have been happy—trains carried you to where the hot sun shone.
“Mama, Hannah—I looked for my mother and sister but they had vanished.
“‘Don’t cry, Papa.’ Tears rolled down my father’s face. ‘We’ll find them when we get to the seaside.’ I squeezed his hand as soldiers butted us towards the rear of the train.”
Opa Josef’s head nods, snoring gently. I remove the frame that cradles his long-lost family from his lap and roll up the frayed sleeve of his cardigan; my finger trails along the souvenir from his train journey, a faint-blue number, almost invisible now, carved into his frail forearm.