by Shannon Chapel
It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. ~ Anne Frank
We were rich once. We owned a handsome home in the heart of downtown. Father had the honorable distinction of being the most successful banker in the city, but with success comes responsibility, and father was a very responsible man.
While father spent most of his time at the bank, mother busied herself with "building her nest" as father liked to say--fluffing her feathers and making our beautiful house into a comfortable home. Occasionally father actually had an evening off, and mother would celebrate by throwing the most elegant of dinner parties attended by the most powerful of people: politicians, doctors, bankers, professors ... all were present, their beautiful young wives in tow.
I don’t remember exactly how it started, but when father's bank shut down our meals became fewer and farther between. We bartered or sold everything of value just to put food on the table, but there were days we had nothing to eat. Mother took in sewing to help make ends meet, but it wasn’t enough.
Father took our misfortune particularly hard. I was too young to understand why at the time, but now I know it’s because he felt like he’d failed us. Eventually he got a job packaging meat--meat we ourselves couldn’t afford to buy. He didn’t make much money, but it was enough to stave off starvation, and every once in a while he was allowed to salvage scraps from the trash. On these special occasions, mother always prepared a feast.
One day father came home early, and he was smiling ... actually smiling! He said that we were moving. We’d been selected for relocation, and he had a wonderful new job waiting for him there. We were to leave in the morning, but we were only to pack the necessities. We’d send for the rest later. “This is what we’ve been waiting for, Liliane,” he said, swooping me 'round. “Hope, Liliane. Hope and the promise of a better future.”
We stood together outside the train station. There were others there as well: young people, old people, tiny children ... all of us waiting in the cold for our train to arrive. A child began to cry. He was a small boy of no more than four years of age. He grasped his mother’s skirts, demanding to be picked up. And it was cold, bitterly cold, colder than it should have been for that time of year. Shriveled leaves powered by the unseasonably frigid wind raced past me. I wondered where all those leaves ended up year after year. Some of them were already brown and it made me sad. I turned away from the crisp fall wind, shivering as my long skirt billowed wide, my hair whipping against my face so forcefully it stung. It would be dark soon.
From the distance, the distinct clickety-clack of an approaching train heralded the arrival of our destiny. Mother grasped my arm, unable to contain her excitement. “Take my hand, Liliane,” father said. “Follow me.”
It was freezing. There wasn’t any heat inside the railcar, but we huddled together like newborn kittens, generating enough heat to keep warm. I leaned against my mother and closed my eyes. It wouldn't be long now.
What kind of life awaited us? Would we get our house back? Would father’s new job make him a powerful man once again? Would I ever see my friends again? I wondered what the boys looked like there. I was fifteen then, and much more interested in boys than I had been the year before. Perhaps I would find someone nice--a rich man’s son, perhaps. Maybe the son of a banker. That would make father proud.
Peculiar how the mind leaps from one subject to something completely unrelated in a matter of seconds. Visions of enormous platters overflowing with mouthwatering delights, and ladies in evening gowns ... I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
I awoke to the doors being flung open, thudding violently on their runners. A blinding light shone on us, and I raised my arm to shield my eyes. Men in uniforms yelled, “Out, out!” and “Faster, faster!” and “Hurry, hurry!” Large dogs on leashes snarled and barked. Frothing at the mouth, they bared their teeth at us. Children screamed as old men were yanked from the train and onto the ground. Men separated from women, wives separated from husbands, children separated from parents while the weakest among us were trampled underfoot.
I’d awakened to chaos.
“Take him to the infirmary!” one of the uniformed men yelled to another. I turned to see this second man approach the small boy I’d seen earlier at the train station, leading him by the arm down a long, tree-lined path. The boy, sobbing uncontrollably, had been separated from his mother. He and the man rounded a corner out of sight. I heard distant popping sounds, like firecrackers, and the man came back alone.
People pushing and pulling ... tugging and jabbing at me. I watched helplessly as mother got swept away by the crowd. “Don’t let go of my hand, Liliane!" father shouted over the din. "We must stay together,” but as the words crossed his lips the crowd surged forward, and he was lost in the mayhem.
Piles of shoes and clothes scattered the courtyard, and there was a strange, rancid stench in the air. Confused, disoriented and terrified, I looked around for something, anything that would give me an idea of what was going on. A clue to where we were and what was happening.
There! Through the night I spotted a sign. It was a small sign--white with some black lettering on it. If I could just ... get ... closer.
I pushed my way through the crowd, squinting to bring the sign into focus. It contained one word. It read simply TREBLINKA.