THE TEREZÍN GHETTO.
Train into the Unknown
It was dark. Dark and cold like a deepening autumn night. The sky was cloudy so there was no moon or starlight and it took Bara a little while to make out her surroundings.
She was on a railway station.
A very strange railway station.
She decided it couldn’t be anything but a station because there were railway lines, but the rails seemed to lead down the middle of a street. She couldn’t see a station building, but only ordinary mostly terraced houses. Except that the lights were off everywhere. Not a single light in a single window, not a single street lamp. There was not a soul in sight, either. It was as if she had found herself on a film set when the shooting was over.
It gave Bara a nasty feeling. Anything could be lurking in those dark shadows and Bara had always had a very fertile imagination as far as anything was concerned. She could never stop that imagination of hers doing just as it liked and painting the silhouettes of vampires and skeletons in dark corners. Or maybe a Baskerville hound. When she was at her Gran’s cottage in the summer and it was raining, Bara used to play in the attic. Or rather, when she was smaller she played, but more recently she had explored, and found a bookcase full of venerable books, two rows deep on each shelf. They had the well-thumbed pages and cracked spines of books that had been read over and over again, and they smelled of mystery. Bara’s Jizera Gran’s insistence that what they actually smelled of was mold didn’t change her mind on the matter. Some had cloth bindings, and colored or even gilded edges. Those were the ones Bara liked best, because they were the oldest and the most mysterious. This year during one particularly long spell of rain she had found a black book right on the top. The golden title engraved in fading letters on the cover was The Hound of the Baskervilles. Bara opened the book and was immediately swallowed up by the story. The end result was that she was too scared to go to the lavatory in the night (a big girl who would be twelve in two weeks!). The reason was that to get to the lavatory at Jizera Gran’s you had to walk across the hall to the veranda, and there was a door from the veranda into the garden, and there was absolutely no doubt that lurking behind that door was a Baskerville hound with fire flickering around his eyes and his gigantic fanged jaws and… Obviously, Bara had to hold out until morning. She could never understand why her imagination had to come up with precisely that. Why couldn’t it have decided that what was beyond the veranda door was the marvelous detective Sherlock Holmes himself, making sure that the Baskerville hound never got anywhere near Bara? But it never decided that. Not even after Jizera Gran had taught Bara how to pronounce the name Sherlock Holmes properly.
So now Bara was standing in darkness on a strange empty station a strange empty town, and there was not a single light in any window.
She felt a rush of fear.
To fend off the fear she tried to make out what she was wearing. The atlas had once sent her into the past in her own clothes. It hadn’t been making a silly mistake but a sensible decision, which save Bara’s skin in the end, but ever since she had anxiously checked her clothes whenever she arrived in the past. This time she had quite on ordinary dress on, with a skirt above the knee, a buttoned up front and a round collar, and ridged cotton stockings and shoes with a strap over the instep. The outfit didn’t seem especially old-fashioned. It didn’t keep out the cold much, either.
What next? She had two alternatives: to stay where she was and wait until dawn, or to set out through the dark streets into the unknown. Before she could decide, she heard a strange sound. It was like someone dragging wood over paving stones. She was pretty sure she could hear lowered voices as well as the scraping. Her heart was already pounding. She looked around for somewhere to hide, but saw only the pavement, the rails and the wall of house. She thought it might be a station building but it had no useful arches or corners. Bara broke into a run, away from the awful approaching sound. A little further on by a corner there was a little piece of park, where she ducked down behind the first shrub she found there.
The sound came relentlessly closer. A wind had sprung up. It made Bara shiver with cold, and was driving away the clouds, allowing the moon to shine through. She hoped nobody would see her in the lividly pale moonlight.
After a moment two men appeared on the corner where the street with the rails adjoined the park. They were laboriously pulling a handcart full of logs. A third man was pushing the cart from behind. They were obviously struggling with a heavy load.
”We’ve still got to go to E 6,” said one man. He said it in a normal voice, but in the deathly quiet it sounded as if he were shouting, “We’ve got four there.”
“We’ll unload these and then go back,” said the man pushing the cart.
“Today we’ll only do two rounds,” said the third, “Even with the ones from E 6 that only makes thirteen.”
“I can’t remember a day when there was so few of them,” the third one commented, panting a little.
At that moment the handcart ran over a rail into a groove and lurched. It was all the men could do to stop it keeling over. The load slipped a little to one side and something slid and hung down from it.
“Has anything fallen off?” one of the men in front turned round.
“No, it’s all right, we can carry on,” the man at the back reported, and with redoubled efforts they got the cart moving again.
Bara was staring aghast at what had slid out of the cart and was now trailing along the ground just behind a wheel.
It was a human hand.
The logs were not logs.
They were dead people.
Bara was so frozen with terror that she couldn’t move or cry out.
Oh my God, she thought, I’ve landed up in a town where a gang of murderers is on the rampage! That’s why there’s nobody in the street. It’s because they’re all afraid of being killed by the gangsters. And the gangsters say they’ll be coming back this way! I can’t stay here. I have to get away! I have to find a place to hide properly!
Bara waited until the scraping of the ghastly cart had receded, and then got to her feet. For the first time in her life she was shaking with pure horror. There was nothing she could do to stop her teeth chattering. All the same she managed to keep a cool head. It was something Dad always praised her for. In an emergency, in what Dad called dire straits even though Bara had no idea what straits were except that they were dire, she wasn’t one to panic, cry or whine. Instead she would immediately start working out what to do about it. At such times she always felt as if a back-up crisis program had started up in her head, forcing her brain to work at full power and not just idle along as usual. This was what was happening now. Not that she was in really dire straits, whatever those were; she was simply in a dire park near a dire station, and that was quite unpleasant enough to be going on with.
Bara’s back-up crisis program told her that only a total dimwit without an ounce of instinct for self-preservation would take off in the same direction as those three mass murderers with their cart full of their dead victims, or try to track them down. It also told her she needed to remember the rules that her parents had drubbed into her head about moving safely in dangerous places. Rule Number One: Avoid deserted places without people. She had already broken that rule but it hadn’t been her fault. Rule Number Two – If in any kind of danger, find somewhere where there are as many people as possible. Why? Well, in the first place – attackers don’t attack their victims in front of witnesses. Not unless they are total crazies. Second – you can easily lose yourself in a crowd of people and shake the attacker off. Third – where there were people you could find help. What would be ideal would be a shopping center, for example. Bara decided to follow Rule Two and find a shopping center. If there was one with a cinema and restaurants in it, it would be open at night and there would have to be plenty of people there.
She ran across the park, almost dying of fright at every rustle of the bushes, and into a street that ran parallel with the rails. It led in the direction from which the murderers had come, and she crept along it like a rat, desperate to avoid the area. She was relieved to find an alley turning straight off the street, and immediately ducked into it. This alleyway too was dark, with not a single light in a window, and not a soul outside. She occasionally heard a sound from behind the closed doors and windows - an indistinct word, snores, sneezing. She noticed that not all the windows had glass. Very often they had boards nailed across them. If it hadn’t been for those boards the town wouldn’t have looked particularly old. It would have seemed just a normal small town…apart from the fact that murderers were loose in it at night. Bara was sure those men were slaughtering anyone they found on the street after dark. That was why everyone was at home. But why didn’t the people put the lights on? Or the TV?
Maybe there was a power cut…but that would affect the shopping center too, and it would be closed…and she would have nowhere to hide!
Bara decided she would have to find a police station. A police station would be open all night even without electricity, and you couldn’t be safer from murderers than with the police.
The alley opened into another street at right angles to it. The town seemed to be all right-angles. She remembered the words of Mrs Dostalova, her her old geography teacher: The safest way to recognize that a town was founded is that it has a right-angled street plan, while a town that just grew up by itself has winding streets. So I’m in a town that was founded, thought Bara, sighing. Nice to know, but it won’t save my life.
She found herself in front of a large two-story building with a huge gate topped by the stone head of a horse. It struck her that this might be a shopping center, but all the windows were as dark as everywhere else. So either it wasn’t the center or there was definitely a power cut.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” The loud yell came out of the blue, followed by a sudden clatter of two pairs of heavy boots on the street where she was standing.
She spun around, fright surging through her like an electric current.
Running towards her were two men in knee-length coats and the high lace-up boots that the older boys at school called Canadas, although Patrik Brozek, who wore his hair shaved almost down to his skull and went to the gym and was as thick as two short planks, called them Doc Martens. Bara couldn’t see just how short these men’s haircuts were because they were wearing caps like police caps. There were batons in their hands. For a split second Bara wondered if they could be policemen, and might be able to save her from the murderers, but she realized just in time that policemen don’t wear long coats like that, and she fled as fast as she could.
“After her!” she heard the voice behind her.
This time there was no room in her mind for terror. It was obvious to Bara that her pursuers were part of the band of killers who had forced the inhabitants of this terrifying little town to barricade themselves in after dark and not even put their noses out their doors. The back-up crisis program in Bara’s head rapidly reviewed her practical options. Rule Number Three – If someone is following you never go home, don’t show the enemy where you live. Bara had no difficulty keeping to this rule. Rule Number Four - don’t try to hide in a house, because you don’t know the layout and most houses don’t have a second exit and so you can be trapped. Rule Number Five – Keep away from parked cars, because there may be someone lurking between them. As the fleeing Bara repeated this rule in her head, she realized another strange thing about these streets. There was not a single parked car. Or motorbike. Nothing.
Rule Number Six –Keep to Rule Number Two.
Find somewhere where there are people.
Only there aren’t any people here!
Bara did not slow down. She ran for dear life and was relieved to hear the sounds of those booted feet falling behind a little. Her pursuers weren’t up to her pace. It hadn’t been for nothing that her parents had forced her to go to gymnastics classes since she was four. The teacher had taken the group out on the sports field, saying that even gymnasts needed to be taught to run properly. Bara had never enjoyed running, or, - to put it more accurately - , she had not enjoyed it even more than she had not enjoyed gymnastics altogether. But now she was grateful for it.
She reached a big open space, probably a square, but empty and deserted and dark like everywhere else. Although her pursuers were falling behind they were showing no signs of giving up, and so Bara ran on. She passed a church on her right, dashed into a street leading from the corner of the square and found herself in front of another little park. She had probably never been so pleased to see a park in her life. She didn’t dive under the first bit of shrubbery she saw. She wasn’t that stupid. But she hid fast enough to make sure that when her pursuers reached the park they wouldn’t see a single movement.
Scarcely had she hunched down in deep shadow under a thick bush when she heard the clatter of boots, which stopped at the edge of the park.
“Let’s forget it, I’m not going to search the park for her,” said one man.
“She can only have been out to organize a few potatoes anyway,” laughed the other, “at least we gave her a good run for her money.”
“She ran like a deer,” said the first, “Got a cigarette?”
“My last. I’ll split it with you.”
Oh no! Bara wailed internally. Are they really going to stand and smoke here?! Please let them go away, go away, GO AWAY!
Through the foliage she saw the flame as a match was struck, then the red of a cigarette tip and the match flickering out. The cigarette tip glowed like a firefly each time the men exchanged the cigarette for a drag. They savored it in silence for a while, and Bara tried as hard as she could not to breathe too loud.
“David wants to have his name put on the list for the transport,” said one of the men eventually, “He said work in the east seems better to him than just waiting here to die, like sheep to be slaughtered.”
“He should have joined us,” the other said.
“I made him the offer.”
“He said he didn’t have the stomach for it. Apparently, being a lackey for people who are destroying his own people is against his moral principles.”
“He’s an Idiot. We’re not destroying anyone, are we?” the other spat the words out indignantly, “He would get better rations…”
“Let him do as he sees fit. Maybe he’ll be better off out east, what do we know?”
“Nothing, it’s precisely nothing we know!” the man’s voice was full of bitterness mixed with helplessness.
“It would be hard for anywhere to be worse than here,” the first sighed, and it sounded terribly, terribly sad.
Then they fell silent. Bara was incredibly relieved when the red tip of the cigarette end dropped to the ground, where it was extinguished by a boot. A moment later the steps of her pursuers were fading into the darkness.
She wanted to weep, but was afraid to, for what if someone heard her?
Holy shit, where have I landed up? It looks like they’re murdering masses of people! It’s a nest of organized crime! What am I going to do? WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?
As soon as it gets light I must disappear, she told herself. But when will that be? I want it to be morning, pleeease let it be morning!
Translated by Anna Bryson