Schlomo was on his way to garrotte Moishe. “Make room!” he barked, forcing his way towards a corner seat in the train. The twin lines of suburban faces sitting on the 8:32 into London took one look at his thunderous eyebrows and did as they were bid. You could no more hold Schlomo’s gaze than walk eye-height into a pair of fixed bayonets.
Schlomo loathed trains, they were harbingers of death. He wouldn’t travel in them unless he could sit next to the quickest way out. The compartment he joined had two long rows of seats across its breadth and a door at either end. Seen from above, with its doors busily opening and closing, the carriage looked like a live centipede pinned to a collector’s dissecting table.
As the train got under way, Schlomo took a length of silk from his pocket, cupped it in his hands and brought it up to his nose. After inhaling deeply he frowned.
“What date is it?” he asked, scanning the row of studiously averted city workers’ eyes opposite. Nobody replied. Maybe they didn’t understand his Yiddish accent.
The voices inside Schlomo’s head resumed their bickering.
Spud was the sneery one. “Just look at them,” he said, “no idea what it means to be scared.”
“Hold the little rat up in front of a mirror so he can watch himself die,” said Onions.
“Never had to run for their lives.”
“Throttle the snivelling little finger-missing bastard.”
“It’s thirty years to the day.”
“No it isn’t.”
And so they went on. Schlomo had endured an eternity of solitude since the Sarahs had departed. Spud and Onions were all he had left now as company. They vied for his attention in a brain inhabited by screams and the foul smell of death.
Schlomo looked out of the window. Nothing but bare trees and arid streets.
“What does it matter?” Spud’s voice was resigned.
“If it hadn’t had been for Moishe…”
Onions’ words trailed away into silence. He didn’t need to spell it out.
Moishe Putz. A rodent of a youth not long out of his teens when Schlomo had known him, with a nibbly voice and a stump where his ring finger should have been. They had been friends once, as much as anyone could be friends with a schnorrer like Putz. They had met in the late thirties in a boarding house down by the docks in rain-swept Antwerp, where the furtive diamond dealers who did business with him knew Schlomo only as the boiled sweet rustler. Moishe told Schlomo he hailed from Stettin, which was a town in which Schlomo needed to do business. He had got careless one night in the kitchen of the boarding house and Moishe’s eyes had widened as he witnessed Schlomo at work. After that Schlomo was unable to get rid of him. He’d pop up out of nowhere to open a door or to offer the shelter of his umbrella; he’d be alongside Schlomo in the café eating pickled herring and potatoes and be waiting in the sweat bath with birch twigs at the ready. I had a heart in those days. One night Schlomo had shown Moishe how to melt down boiled sweets in a milk saucepan over a low gas.
The carriage windows were steaming up with the excessive heat in the train. Schlomo idly drew a noose in the condensation and watched as droplets trickled away from the cut of the finger line. One drop stuck stubbornly to the window until another one merged with it and together they hastened down the pane.
“Our train was colder than a goy’s prick in a Polish winter,” said Spud in a voice sadder than an icicle.
“Garrotte him,” said Onions, “I want to see that bastard’s blood trickle.”
In the soporific fug, many of the suburban heads began to nod but the man directly opposite Schlomo was reading the Daily Telegraph. As he spread his arms wide to turn a page, the banner passed in front of Schlomo’s nose. Friday, 12th February 1970.
“Told you,” said Spud.
A gangrene of anger had been eating away Schlomo’s reason right across the twenty-five years it had taken him to track down Moishe. If Moishe had forgotten what it was like to be scared then Spud and Onions intended to refresh his memory.
Schlomo wiped the condensation from the window with his sleeve and looked out for a long moment, gently kneading the length of silk between his fingers as London’s greyness slipped by. He stirred from his reverie with moist eyes. It’s her time of month.
Smith, the Daily Telegraph reader, stole a glance from behind his paper at the immaculately-dressed individual opposite him. There was something in the demeanour of this man that put him in mind of the unexploded 1000-pound bomb he’d once seen as a child during the Blitz. One false move with either and the effect might be devastating. Smith folded his newspaper, pulled his homburg further down over his brow and set about doing the crossword. I mustn’t lose him this time.
The next time Smith looked up, he saw Schlomo performing what appeared to be a ritual. Clenching his tongue between his teeth, Schlomo took a miniature bottle from an inside pocket and, after unscrewing its tiny stopper, tapped a single drop of liquid onto the length of silk. He watched it soak in then rumpled the fabric and buried his nose in it. It seemed to calm him. Suddenly, with a deft roll of the wrists, he shortened its length and snapped it taut like a garrotte. The woman sitting next to him awoke with a start and inched away. A smell of almonds spread through the compartment. Schlomo settled back into his seat and allowed drowsiness to engulf him, leaving Smith to fret over cyanide.
“She can hear you, you know,” said Sarah, pulling Schlomo’s head towards her five-month bump, “say something”.
“What makes you so sure it’s a girl?”
Sarah smiled knowingly.
She smells so good, like fresh almonds.
Apart from her Baltic looks, Sarah’s fragrance was the first thing that Schlomo had noticed that sunny day when he had first met her. She was out walking on the Hakenterrasse promenade down by the river in Stettin and Schlomo had asked the way to the docks, where he was supposed to meet up with Moishe.
“I like a man with North Sea eyes,” she had replied, “murky green and dangerous”. Schlomo had never met an independent woman before.
“My name is Sarah,” she confided, threading her arm through his, “I’ll take you there”.
And that is how it all began. He inhaled the almond scent on her fingers and within three months they were married.
Schlomo stirred as the London train bumped over a set of points. Trains are the work of the devil. As he opened his eyes those of the man opposite darted away.
“Hey, what’s he looking at?” said Spud, but Schlomo’s eyelids were already drooping again. Sarah. It’s such a beautiful name.
Schlomo brushed his lips across the soft skin of his young wife’s fragrant belly. “A dumb schmuck like me doesn’t deserve fresh almonds,” he whispered to his unborn daughter.
“Schlomo! Whatever is wrong with you? Take no notice of him Sarah!”
So that was it; the baby was to be called Sarah like her mother. So be it. We’ll probably all be dead by Passover anyway.
In 1939, Sarah looked as Aryan as anyone in Stettin. People were struck by her electric blue eyes set wide astride a short upturned nose, the effect enhanced by high cheekbones and film-star tumblings of blonde hair. Standing alongside Schlomo, a panther of a man in his prime, she looked as beautiful as the goddess Freyja herself, or so said the Nazi registrar on the day he pronounced them man and wife. What the bespectacled registrar did not know was that, in spite of her looks, Sarah was as Jewish as the skullcap that Schlomo never wore. What for? There is no God. And Schlomo had no right to be here in the eye of the gathering storm, right under their Nazi noses, after smuggling false papers for Sarah all the way across Germany.
Swimming against the tide, that’s what I’ve always done.
This was true. As a young man, Schlomo had often found himself moving in the opposite direction to everyone else. While his education and knowledge of languages might have destined him for a career as a lawyer, he had preferred to use his wits to navigate a smuggler’s life. The ocean liners out of New York on which he returned from trips to America steamed luxuriously past ship-loads of European emigrants going the other way.
As war approached and everyone else was scrambling to bribe their way out of Nazi Germany, Schlomo stuffed a wad of Reichsmarks into the handlebars of a bicycle and pedalled across an old stone bridge over the Sauer into Wallendorf. Looking straight ahead, he eased past the half-hearted guard post and on up into the village, where he stopped off for a beer at the inn. He exchanged a few words with the innkeeper, a sturdy man with agricultural hands, telling him he was a Luxembourgish volunteer on his way to join up with his regiment in far away Pomerania. The story was sure get back to the sleepy guards and hopefully it would dissuade them from coming after him.
The deeper Schlomo penetrated into the heartland of Germany the easier it became to pass off his faint Yiddish accent as that of a country lad from Luxembourg. Travelling under an assumed identity, and with freshly-stamped Reichsarbeitsdienst papers in his pocket, he made good progress. He only took the train in regions where he thought it unlikely people would have heard of Dilingen, whence his false papers said he came or even, if it came to that, of Stettin. He had a fortnight to get there. Only once did he have to resort to the ‘head butt and flee’ technique that had served him so well over the years.
“And we’d all have died on the spot if I hadn’t persuaded you to garrotte that ticket collector, the pop-eyed swine,” said Spud.
“You weren’t even there,” scoffed Onions, which was true inasmuch as at the time Schlomo was not sharing his head with voices.
The train lurched across another set of points. This damn train gives me the creeps. Like any other European Jew who survived the war, Schlomo had a litany of horrors and narrow escapes to relate but, like them, kept it all to himself. You had to have been there, no normal person would ever believe you if you told them what you had seen. Many a Holocaust survivor was accused of lying when they returned to civilisation; they soon learnt to shut up and let the ghosts lie. The luckier ones started new lives and spawned new families to replace the old. For his part, Schlomo lived with the voices in his head.
“Damn shame Doctor Mengele never got Moishe,” said Onions.
Whatever possessed me to take pity on that loser?
That night in Antwerp, Schlomo had shown Moishe what to do with the boiled sweets. First he unwrapped a dozen and dropped them into a saucepan into which he had poured a little water. The wrappers he set aside in a neat pile on the kitchen table. Leaving the sweets to soften, Schlomo turned his attention to a length of polished chromium pipe that he had taken from his travel bag. The pipe had been carefully sawn in two lengthwise. At regular intervals along the length of one half were soldered Belgian 25 cent coins which served as separators. These particular coins had been chosen because they bore a small hole in their centre. One extremity of the pipe was blanked off with a coin of different denomination with no hole.
“Are you going to play a tune on that thing?” asked Moishe.
Schlomo silenced him with a North Sea glare.
“Shut your face and watch.”
Schlomo poured the molten sugar solution into what formed the base of a mould.
“A quarter full, mind, or it won’t work.”
Schlomo was an exact man. He liked things to be in their right place and he was never late for appointments. He let the solution cool for precisely 15 seconds, which he measured on a gold wristwatch, then dropped a diamond into each cell.
“Now blow on it as if you were playing the harmonica,” he told Moishe.
The underside of each diamond became trapped in the sweet mixture as it solidified. Next Schlomo assembled the two halves of tubing and wrapped a length of silk around to bind them together. Then he carefully stood the pipe on its end and poured the rest of the mixture into the open extremity. He topped up the level until no more liquid percolated through the holes in the coins. Ten minutes later he dismantled the assembly and shook the new sweets out onto the table, then rewrapped them all except one.
Moishe picked up the sweet and examined it.
“Amazing! You’d never know there was a diamond inside.”
“That’s what the merchants pay me for.”
Schlomo had known the diamond cutters and gem merchants of Antwerp in less terrified mood, before they had realised they would likely have to flee Europe. Running diamonds across borders was a business based on trust. Schlomo had started out in a small way, for the merchants were no fools. It had taken a while to gain their confidence but within a year he was taking candy all over Europe and the Americas, wherever Yiddish was spoken. At first he delivered it to rich people and rabbis, individuals who didn’t wish their dealings to be known. However, as the decade wore on, the merchants became increasingly desperate to get their stocks over to England or elsewhere. Schlomo dealt mostly in ‘elsewhere’ and he had more work than he could handle. He needed a trustworthy assistant. But what possessed me to choose him?
To Schlomo’s dismay Moishe popped the sweet into his mouth.
Schlomo thumped a fist on the table. “What the fuck are you doing? Spit it out!”
Moishe’s ears turned the colour of pickled beetroot.
“Oy vey, oy vey!”
“What is it?”
“I swallowed it!”
Schlomo grabbed Moishe by the lapels and lifted him clean off the ground. The young man cowered in anticipation of a storm of words but Schlomo’s expression had turned to one of stony menace.
“Listen Putz. Cough that sweet up now or I’ll slit your gullet and fish it out myself”.
Moishe whimpered and bent over the sink.
“Stick your fingers down your throat!”
Moishe obliged but nothing happened, so Schlomo took hold of Moishe’s head by the hair and yanked it upright from the sink and held it there. With his free hand he opened a drawer in the kitchen table and took out the first utensil that came to hand. It was a soup ladle.
“Open your mouth!”
Moishe’s eyes widened in fear. “It will never go in!” he gasped.
Schlomo twirled the ladle around between his fingers then forced its steel handle into Moishe’s mouth and deep into his throat until he began to gag.
“Now cough it up!”
Although Moishe was copiously sick there was no sign of the sweet.
“Don’t cut me open! I never mean to do it.”
“No wonder your name is Putz you stupid putz. Find me that diamond or I’ll cut you up into a thousand pieces.”
“But I swallowed it!”
“So you’ll just have to wait until it comes out the other end.”
“You have 48 hours before I chop you up and feed you to the crabs.”
“But how will I find it?”
“Fuck knows. Shit on a plate and squash it with a spoon.”
Moishe left looking very ill. Two days later he returned looking sicker still.
“Here you are. I washed it.”
“So what are you looking so miserable about?”
Like a marionette with its strings cut, Moishe crumpled into a chair.
“My fiancée left me.”
Schlomo was feeling better.
Moishe contemplated his shoes. After a moment he said “Schlomo, I did like you said with the plate.”
Crinkles appeared at the corners of Schlomo’s eyes.
“I scooped up a spoonful of the stuff and bent over it to get a better look when…”
Schlomo’s shoulders were beginning to rock with suppressed laughter.
“… she came into the room.”
Schlomo could contain his mirth no longer.
“I love her, Schlomo.”
Schlomo slapped his thighs.
“Putz! What a fucking putz you are!”
“She called me a pervert. Said she always thought my cooking tasted like shit but never imagined it would come to this.”
Tears of glee streamed down Schlomo’s cheeks. It was the last time in his life that he ever laughed. I took pity on him.
“Now we’re going to make him shit in his pants,” said Onions, “then we throttle the rat.”
The train was pulling into a station.
Sarah ran her fingers through Schlomo’s hair. The two things she loved most in the world were separated only by the skin of her womb. She tried not to think about the long journey that lay ahead to Toronto. He’s going to get us out of here. He’s so clever. She bent forward and laid a kiss on his hair, circling her bare arms about his shoulders. And so clean. My very own pet panther. Sarah wished for time to stop.
Husband and wife with unborn daughter remained immobile like this for several minutes, a daydream of togetherness breathing gently to the crackle of a knob of coal in the grate. Schlomo began to doze. I can hear their hearts beating.
The beating seemed to intensify in response to Schlomo’s contentment. It grew steadily louder, then louder still until it exploded into a burst of thumping that shook Schlomo erect in a split second. Sarah shrieked.
“Let me in, let me in!”
It was Moishe Putz.
“I told you not to come back here!” Schlomo’s eyes burned like bayonets fresh out of the fire.
“Did you post my letter?” asked Sarah.
“Huh? They’re rounding everyone up! You’ve got to take me with you!” replied Moishe.
“You shouldn’t have lost those papers I got you,” Schlomo barked.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Nothing is ever your fault Moishe. Get your things Sarah.”
“So you’ll take me with you?” said Moishe with rising desperation.
“With a yellow star on your jacket? You are out of your mind!”
It was all academic. Two minutes later a thunder of feet invaded the stairway and in no time they were all looking down the barrel of Gestapo gun.
“One small case. Clothes only. Leave you jewellery on the table.”
“But I’m pregnant!”
There were not many Gestapo personnel in Stettin but one of them was here and his top lip was curling up in disdain. He prodded Sarah’s midriff with the barrel of his revolver.
“Breed like flies,” he sneered.
“We’re not Jews,” said Schlomo.
“Oh, is that so?”
“Here, look at our papers.”
Moishe’s face was as ashen as a mortuary slate.
“Papers… shmapers,” said the Gestapo officer, pleased with his little joke, and the SS men accompanying him guffawed. “You!” he said, rounding on Moishe as a cat might toy with a wounded sparrow, “trousers down!”
In response to this affront Moishe received a blow to the side of the head that burst an eardrum.
“Alright, alright,” he stammered, “I’ll do it.”
“No, not you, her.”
“But Sarah can’t. She is not my wife!”
“Is that so? Then whose wife is the randy bitch, here with two men?”
Schlomo felt like killing him there and then, Gestapo or no Gestapo. “Shut your fucking mouth, you lying yid.”
But the game was up. Schlomo was next for the trousers test at pistol point and he didn’t pass it either. Then, as the sea draws back before a huge wave hits, the Gestapo officer fell silent and smiled. Pulling on a pair of black leather gloves as he went, he strutted from Moishe to Schlomo, then on to Sarah, in front of whom he stopped.
“Look at me!” he barked. Sarah snapped her eyes to the front but kept them lowered. The Gestapo officer slowly pushed a gloved thumb hard into the soft flesh under her chin and forced her head up so that he could look into her eyes. He saw insolence in them. Oh, what have we here? What a pity we don’t have more time. He hit her once in the face from left to right then once in the opposite direction before she had time to fall.
Schlomo yelled but a sharp blow on the back of the head silenced him and made him see stars.
“Hold him up,” the Gestapo officer ordered the SS men.
The Gestapo officer returned his attentions to Sarah. Pinching her chin between his finger and thumb, like the jaws of a soldier ant locking on to a caterpillar’s belly, he yanked Sarah forward until she stumbled. In this manner he dragged her until her face was directly beneath Schlomo’s.
“Not so proud now, I see.”
Maintaining the pincer grip on her chin, the Gestapo officer slowly pulled Sarah’s lips towards his own. Schlomo shook his head this way and that in order not to see but received another blow for his pains. Why is he torturing us? Is it such a crime to have been born Jewish? Why does he want to kiss my wife?
It was no ordinary kiss the officer had in mind.Instead of parting Sarah’s lips he clamped his teeth onto the fleshy part of her chin and gradually increased the pressure until he drew blood. She began to wince then to scream in agony. Unmoved by the noise, the Gestapo man waited until he saw the resistance draining away from Schlomo’s eyes and his body go limp. Only then did he release Sarah and throw her to the floor, after which he spat a mouthful of her blood into Schlomo’s face.
Proud as a hunter standing over the carcass of wild boar, the Gestapo man kicked Sarah’s body to see if would move. Then he made a sign to the SS men and all hell was let loose. Amidst a flurry of rifle butts and jack boots, the three Jews were herded down the stairs, harried onto a truck already laden with neighbours and hurried to the railway station, where they were summarily beaten then prodded up into a waiting cattle wagon. Their group was the last one in before the sliding door was hurled along its runners and slammed shut, leaving them in the dark to inhale the latrine stench of the wagon’s previous occupants.
It all happened so quickly; there had been no choice in the matter, no stopping, no pause for breath, no time to think. In the time it takes a scream to subside the train jerked away from the platform then immediately applied its brakes, then stuttered forward again, throwing Jews back and forth into incontinent, fear-ridden heaps. A few died there and then before the train was even under way. The wails of the women and the cries of the men were unbearable. From outside came the sound of laughter.
Once his eyes had become accustomed to the dark Schlomo took stock of the situation. Somebody said they were being deported to Lublin so that Pomerania could be declared Judenfrei. Free of Jews! He wanted nothing more than to leave their stinking country so why did they make it so difficult? Schlomo knew his history well enough to know that wherever Jews were herded together a pogrom was sure to follow. I have to find a way to get us off this train.
He was not the only one to reach this conclusion. A youth, lithe and agile, climbed on the shoulders of another and stuck his head out of the only opening in the wagon, which was high up. A burst of gunfire rang out and the boy’s body slumped back into the wagon, minus its head. It was good sport for soldiers honing their marksmanship.
There seemed to be no way of escaping the nightmare and it was cold, so cold. “Now hear me and mark my words,” wailed an old man in an unearthly voice, “the wrath of God is upon us.” He repeated this over and over again, until the sound merged with the click-clack of the cattle wagon wheels. Sarah sat shivering, squashed between two old ladies, her scarf clutched to her chin. Schlomo struggled to make more room for her and she clung to him. I must think clearly, there has got to be a way out of here. He caught sight of Moishe crammed with a huddle of men by the door through which they had all mounted. Moishe lifted his arm and pointed down to a man next to him. What’s he doing?
The encounter with the Gestapo had shattered Sarah’s spirit. Bit by bit, Schlomo inched her towards Moishe. Please don’t die, please! When they got there hope sprang afresh in Schlomo’s heart. That night in the cattle wagon there were two clear-headed men, Schlomo and…
“The name’s Mordechai. Here, take over for a bit. I’m sick of listening to these idiots snivelling.”
Schlomo could have kissed him. Mordechai had a knife.
“Always keep one where the sun don’t shine. Old trick.”
Schlomo realised he had found a brother in crime. He couldn’t have hoped for better. It took them another two hours to cut a fist-sized hole above the latch in the wooden door. They worked until their fingers were raw with toil and numb with cold. Eventually, Mordechai found he could slip his forearm through the hole. After a moment he nodded. This man is a genius! The bolt will slide open.
“What are you in?”
The elite. Schlomo had tried his hand at break-ins but he was a panther built for speed, not a cat for scaling drainpipes or inching along ledges.
“No, with my wife.”
“Too bad. Who’s the jerk?”
Moishe had wheedled his way alongside.
“A fucking snitch. Brain in his putz.”
“Listen, they’ll all have to jump with us.”
“Guess you’re right.”
They both feared that anyone left behind would raise the alarm.
“Leave it to me,” said Mordechai, producing an inch of tallow candle.
“Do you keep that up your arse, too?” asked Moishe.
Schlomo punched him in the belly.
“Thanks,” said Mordechai, lighting the candle with a Zippo.
“Don’t ask!” he said, glaring at Moishe.
A good crook like Mordechai had hiding places that required more than a cursory SS search to locate. He raised his voice.
“Listen up, everybody,” he said, holding the candle aloft. It flickered a while before burning bright. The old wailer stopped chanting God incantations and stared dumbfounded at the light.
“Look!” he gasped, “He has come! It’s the Messiah!”
Such is the human spirit that even in its darkest hour it finds space for humour. A ripple of laughter circulated in the wagon.
“Take it easy old man,” said a kindly voice, and a woman with soft hands guided him to where he could sit with his back propped against the side of the wagon.
Mordechai explained his plan. They would wait an hour or two until it was as dark outside as it was inside the wagon before sliding open the door. He told them they should leave as quietly as possible in order not to draw the attention of the guards, who hopefully would be sleeping by then. He told them to jump in the same direction as the moving train or do like the professionals do and lie down parallel to the tracks and roll off sideways.
Now that he sensed escape, Schlomo felt as fresh as if he had just eaten a double helping of herring and potatoes, with a spring onion chopped into the oil. He would jump with Sarah on his back and land running. He took both her hands in his and quickly whispered the plan in her ear.
“And do you know the best part?” he said, pulling away from her to look into her eyes.
Sarah wore a resigned look on her face.
“I’m so tired Schlomo, I don’t think I can make it.”
Schlomo could hardly contain his excitement.
“I still have our German identity papers!”
“Then can’t it wait until we get to Lublin?”
Sarah’s lack of enthusiasm was typical of the reaction of the people in the wagon. Murmurs of disapproval welcomed Mordechai’s words.
“We’ll all be shot; you saw what happened to the boy,” said someone.
“You are a troublemaker, we have to do as they say,” said another.
Mordechai clapped a hand to his forehead. “Oy, oy, oy, I don’t believe it.”
“They will give us work in Lublin,” said the woman with soft hands.
“But you are lambs being led to slaughter, don’t you see that? And you would go willingly?”
Mordechai thrust the candle into Moishe’s face.
“And what about you, what do you say?”
Moishe’s teeth were chattering. “We’re all going to freeze to death anyway, whether we jump or stay”.
Fuck, he’s right for once. And as if to prove it, a flurry of snowflakes blew in through the opening where the boy had been decapitated.
The London train drew to a halt in the busy station. “Excuse me, please,” said a prim woman, jolting Schlomo’s knee as she moved towards the door in readiness to alight. Schlomo passed from slumber to alertness in a single instant and in the next he had the woman’s knee in a vice-like grip.
“Mind where you’re going,” he hissed, releasing his hold. It was years since he had touched a woman and the feel of her skin seemed to linger on his hand.
The woman went berserk. Smith looked very worried. Schlomo might kill her and the mission would have to be aborted. Not again!
Smith stood up and quickly positioned himself between the woman and Schlomo.
“Please madam,” he said, indicating his seat with his Stetson, “would you care to sit down for a moment? I am sure there’s been some misunderstanding.” Smith’s voice was educated, persuasive and polite.
Spud began clanging alarm bells in Schlomo’s head for all he was worth.
“What’s he sticking his nose in for?”
Onions was quick on the uptake. “This ain’t right.”
“Look, I am sorry,” mumbled Schlomo, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The woman was not easily pacified. It was years since a man had touched her.
“Keep your damn hands to yourself!”
The train drew to a halt.
“Take my arm Madam, let me help you down,” said Smith. The woman was charmed.
“It’s good to know there are still a few gentlemen left in London,” she said huffily. As she descended after Smith she turned to see the effect of her words upon Schlomo.
But Schlomo wasn’t there.
Damn, damn, damn! What an idiot I am.
After checking the compartment Smith realighted and waited for the train to rattle out of the station. He ran this way and that on the platform but Schlomo was long gone.
Out the other door and over the tracks. He could easily have got himself killed.
Schlomo had lost count of the number of times he might have been killed during his lifetime. Whatever he did he just didn’t seem to be able to die. Had he been a believer he would have wondered why The Good Lord didn’t want him. Yet as a young man he would easily have put five miles between himself and danger in the time it had taken him to run half a mile today. He was out of breath. It angered him, like so many other things did. One day he would be caught.
Schlomo found himself in a park of the type through which English people like to walk their dogs. He found a bench sheltered by the overhang of a bandstand and slid his travel bag underneath.
“Who is he?” asked Onions.
He might have been Scotland Yard, a hired investigator, an insurance sleuth or even a spy.
“Or avengers…” said Spud.
Whatever. For the moment Schlomo had given them the slip. He settled down to watch the rain patter into puddles. He needed to calm himself. He was in no hurry; he’d wait here for an hour.
As Schlomo’s breathing became more regular the rain began to turn to sleet.
“Who’s in?” asked Mordechai.
The response was minimal. Three or four people at most.
“Me,” said Moishe.
“Take him instead of me,” said Sarah, her voice devoid of emotion. “A woman is a hindrance at the best of times but a pregnant one is a curse. Go to America all of you. There are plenty of nice Jewish girls there. You know it makes sense.”
It broke Schlomo’s heart to hear her talk this way. He tried to appeal to her impudent spirit.
“Either we die a certain death wherever this train leads or we take our chance in the forest. You can do it! I’ll carry when you get tired.”
Sarah sighed. Despite the forwardness of her courtship days, she possessed the down-to-earth, female courage that few men could match – the courage of self-sacrifice.
“In one direction I see the jaws of the bear, Schlomo, and in the other the teeth of the lion. Which am I to choose?”
Schlomo hung his head. He knew the situation was hopeless. She was right; he stood more chance alone.
He took her in his arms and hugged her.
Someone coughed. Schlomo opened his eyes. A comely woman in a plump fur coat that had seen better days was standing in front of him.
“You look so sad, dearie. A penny for your thoughts”.
“I love you Sarah. I shall never leave you.”
“Course you won’t, Darling. Are you feelin’ alright?”
Schlomo’s eyes focussed on her.
“What you need is a nice cuppa warm char. Budge up a bit, I’ve got me Thermos”.
The woman plonked herself down on the bench. She unscrewed the top of a vacuum flask and poured tea into it. She was wearing woollen gloves with no fingertips.
“Get that down yer.”
Schlomo was unused to kindness.
”Careful!” warned Spud.
“Sure to be a trap,” added Onions.
“Arf a mo’,” said the woman, rummaging in the pocket of her coat.
She produced a hip flask and tipped its contents into Schlomo’s tea.
“Put ‘airs on yer chest that will. Drink up.”
Schlomo did has he was told. He noticed the woman had grimy fingers but her warm tea revived him. She had a ruddy face, jolly almost, but her eyes were sad and grey.
“Been through a lot, avencha Darling. At our age we all ‘ave round ‘ere.”
“Don’t tell her anything,” warned Spud.
“I’m afraid I have to go now”.
“Sure you ‘ave. One of us, aintcha?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“That accent. Some of the old’uns still talk like that down the Mile End Road.”
“Let’s get out of here.” Onions never liked it when Schlomo got into conversation with strangers.
Schlomo got to his feet, drew his coat about him and retrieved his bag from under the bench.
Schlomo set his nose into the sleet. He’d gone a few dozen paces when the woman called after him.
“Oi Darlin’! ‘Ow did you know me name was Sarah?”
Schlomo stopped dead in his tracks. Then he walked on. Walking and running were what Schlomo did best. He’d walked out of Poland and over the mountains to Slovakia and Hungary, and from there on to Yugoslavia and Italy and eventually to France, not that anyone believed him when he told them. He would rather have died with Sarah.
He had relived the events of that night on the Lublin train at least twice a day for the thirty years since it had happened. After the war ended he picked up his diamond running business where he had left off. There was still a demand for his services from those merchants who, like him, had somehow evaded Hitler’s breath. Some of them settled in London but most wanted to get their stock back to Antwerp now that it was safe again. He made himself a new smuggler’s pipe and travelled further afield: from Adelaide to Caracas, Johannesburg to Mexico City and, of course, to Tel Aviv in the new state of Israel. He saw many places but knew none of them. He avoided Toronto. The boiled sweet ruse still got him through border controls with ease, despite the improving means of detection at the disposal of customs officers. And everywhere he went he was angry and empty, like a lamp with no oil.
“Nasty weather,” said a postman hurrying by. Compared to a blizzard in Pomerania, the sleet of London was paltry but it clung to his eyebrows and set his nerves jangling.
Moishe agreed with Sarah. “You won’t get far with her in that state.”
“Listen Putz, when I want your fucking opinion I’ll ask for it.”
“Make up your minds,” said Mordechai.
They felt the train slow and enter a curve. It was as good a spot as any to jump. Mordechai put his hand through the hole he had made in the door. He slid back the bolt then yanked on the door to slide it open. A blast of winter air swept through the wagon, clawing at the Jews’ clothing.
“Close the door as soon as we are out,” he ordered the men around the opening, “and keep your voices down. See you next year in Jerusalem,” he said and then he was gone.
No shots rang out. Two other men went next. One of them yelped as he hit the ground. Next was a woman, fat and determined. She fell with a thud and in the moonlight Schlomo saw her body bounce away from the track and remain ominously still.
“You go,” said Sarah.
“Jump,” she urged, “look after Moishe.”
Schlomo ducked into a shop doorway and lit a cigarette. He’d taken up smoking Gauloises after the war but they didn’t cure the nightmares. Now that he was closing in on Moishe he was having bad dreams about the future as well as the past. He had never really thought about what he’d do after killing Moishe. It was not a subject Spud and Onions talked about either. His whole existence had become geared to tracking down Moishe after he’d learnt that he was alive. It had happened in Paris.
Schlomo was playing cards in a café on the Boulevard du Temple when three sinister looking hard men came in asking for Moishe Putz.
“Shalom,” said one, “we hear you were in Poland, how did you get out?”
“Don’t try to be funny.”
“You know this man Putz?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Tell us where he is, then keep your trap shut.”
One man’s hand went quickly inside his coat, Schlomo guessed he was going for a gun but it was a second man who had moved behind him who acted quickest. Schlomo felt the prick of a knife against his temple.
“Go ahead.” Schlomo spread his arms. “Hitler will be pleased.”
These were Nokmim; Jewish avengers who after the war quietly scoured Europe meting out summary justice to as many Nazis as they could lay their hands on. Less well known is that the avengers also sought out former concentration camp capos and executed them.
“Listen up,” said the man with the knife, “a rat with a finger missing, know him?”
“Show me your number. Take the knife away. ”
Everyone in those days knew that a number meant the one tattooed on the forearm of camp prisoners. Soldiers had their medals. Survivors wore their tattoo with different sort of pride.
The split second it took the avenger to twist his forearm to expose his number was all Schlomo needed. He jerked his head away from the knife and at the same time ran the heel of his boot down the avenger’s shin then rammed his elbow into the man’s midriff. In a flash the roles were reversed and now it was Schlomo holding a knife to the avenger’s temple. He twisted the man’s body so that it was between him and the other two avengers.
“Don’t fuck with me! I don’t snitch, OK? Not to the police, not to the SS, not to you. What are you anyway, Jewish Nazis?”
Schlomo knew he couldn’t keep it up for long. These men were lethal, every bit his equal. It was not that he cared about dying but now he knew Moishe had survived the war he wanted to get the bastard before they did. Quickly withdrawing his knife from the avenger’s temple, Schlomo head butted him hard on the same spot. It felt strange hitting a man on the side of the head; usually he aimed to break the nose. There was no squelch but the blow proved effective nevertheless. As soon as Schlomo felt the man crumple he thrust the limp body at the other two avengers. Schlomo burst past them and hurled himself against the plate glass window, twisting his torso before he hit it so that his backbone acted as a battering ram. He landed on his backside with shards of shattered glass falling around him like twinkling confetti.
As startled passers-by shrank back, Schlomo sprang to his feet and made off. For a moment he felt like a young man again, winging through the streets. There was something else: during the flight Spud and Onions were strangely mute. Now at last his life had a semblance of purpose: find and kill Moishe. The voices returned in his head, cackling their approval.
“Ello again deary, lost are we?”
“Is she following us?” said Spud, ever suspicious.
“Like some more tea, wouldya dear?”
Schlomo felt the sudden urge to throttle this dirty finger-nailed busybody. He hated her slovenliness; it was an insult to the name of Sarah. Besides, she smelt of rotting cabbage and looked not unlike one either. Schlomo removed the silk scarf from his pocket.
Behind his back he wrapped its ends tightly around his fists.
“Not wishing to be nosey but where is you off to?”
“Shut her up,” said Spud, “the meddling cow.”
“That’s not what we came for,” warned Onions.
Bicker, bicker, bicker, that’s all they knew how to do, these voices.
Schlomo stretched his arms outwards behind his back until the silk was stretched taut. He ducked forwards towards the woman then rolled both arms over his shoulders, looping the scarf over the woman’s head before she had a chance to see it coming. He spun her round several times to tighten the fabric on her neck then rammed his knee into the small of her back and tugged on the scarf. Gurgling noises came from her throat.
Schlomo looked round.
“Shit, it’s that schmuck from the train!” yelled Onions.
“Let’s go!” replied Spud. “Now!”
As Smith raced across the street Schlomo let the woman slide to the pavement and took off like a panther. He was sick of the smell of cabbage anyway. The cold air felt clean in his lungs. When he felt it was safe to look back he saw Smith and the tea woman deep in discussion.
“You bungled it!” sneered Spud.
“Just as well,” said Onions, “we came to kill Moishe not tea ladies.”
But Schlomo knew he’d have to do better when at last he would have Moishe in his noose. He bunched up the scarf and buried his nose in it.
“He’s sniffing almonds,” said Spud.
“Sarah,” replied Onions.
When he lifted his head again, Schlomo saw Smith running towards him with a gun in his hand.
“Move!” ordered Spud.
Schlomo looked around to get his bearings.
“Saved!” said Onions. They were standing right next to a bus stop and a red double-decker was just drawing away from it.
Schlomo liked English buses. The sensible open platform at the back reassured him: there was always a quick way out. He adjusted his running pace to the accelerating bus, grabbed the pole and hopped onto the platform. He sat downstairs on the open bench seat closest to the platform. It was, to his relief, empty –the cold draught from the outside was to no-one’s liking but his. He leant forward so that he could see out of the rear window and raised two fingers at Smith. That was another thing he liked about the English.
The bus would have taken him to Oxford Circus, which was where he needed to go, but he got off a few stops along the route and crossed the road. A few minutes later he mounted another bus heading back in the other direction. Ever careful, he stayed on this bus until it reached its terminus: an underground station. From there he travelled to one stop beyond Oxford Circus then walked the short distance back to Moishe’s address in Maddox Street. Before entering the building he tied one end of the almond-scented scarf around his left wrist and stuffed the rest up his sleeve.
“Posh place,” said Spud.
Schlomo wondered how Moishe had survived the war and how he had escaped the Nokmim. The callow youth had clearly done well for himself in the meantime. Whatever remorse he may have felt about Sarah and his fellow concentration camp inmates, it clearly had not troubled him him for long.
Schlomo double-checked the address he had been given by a London jeweller who occasionally took incognito shipments of gems from Antwerp via Schlomo. If such men became regular clients Schlomo would eventually ask them if they had met a four-fingered Jew. Over the years it had almost become mechanical. At first he had high hopes but nothing ever came of it until, when he was least expecting it, this man said yes. The rest was easy.
Schlomo noticed that several doors in the apartment corridor had a Mezuzah charm affixed to the right side of their frame. There were evidently a number of successful Jews living here.
“Bet they were never in Poland,” spat Spud.
The anger rose in Schlomo again as he rapped Gestapo-style on the polished door.
A pretty young woman opened it.
“We’ve come for Moishe Putz.” Schlomo’s gruff voice echoed around the corridor. “Who are you?”
“My name is Sarah. What do you want with my husband?”
Spud was incensed. “He married a Sarah?”
“Sarah?” echoed Onions.
What cruel twist of fate was this?
“Who does he think he is?”
Schlomo pushed past the woman and stormed through the flat, kicking open doors.
“Come out here you jackal, answer for your sins.” Schlomo was shaking. He felt ridiculous spouting biblical phrases.
Emerging from a bedroom, Moishe stopped dead in his tracks. There at last stood the object of their hate. He no longer looked like a weasel. Smartly dressed in blazer and flannels, he had the rotund form of a man who ate well and worked no more than he wanted. The shifty eyes were the same, however, and the finger was still missing.
“Mein Gott! Schlomo! I thought you were dead.”
Schlomo had no time for niceties. Behind Moishe in the bedroom was a wardrobe with a full-length mirror.
“Don’t talk, string him up first,” urged Onions.
It was all done in a flash; Moishe had no time to react. Schlomo hit him hard on one shoulder, spinning him round. He leant back from the waist and kicked Moishe in the small of the back, winding him. While he was still gasping for air, Schlomo whipped the unattached end of the silk scarf from up his sleeve and looped it over Moishe’s neck, lifted him up and off the ground then spun him like a corkscrew.
Moishe’s Sarah screamed.
“Tighter!” urged Spud.
“Five months pregnant!”
Schlomo held Moishe up by the neck in front of the mirror.
“Schnorrer! Sneak! You took everything I had.”
“Capo! Fershtinkiner!” The insults vomited from Schlomo like thirty years of stench.
Moishe’s face was purple, his hands clawing desperately to relieve the pressure of the garrotte. After so many years of seeking revenge, Schlomo was less sure regarding what to do than the voices baying in his head. He began to see things through a thousand miles of mist. His hearing started to swim. He tried to focus on the stump of Moishe’s missing finger as it sought empty purchase on the deadly silk. But something else was troubling Schlomo: a face in his line of vision. Through the fog he saw a pair of unblinking eyes staring at him from child height.
“Tighter still, don’t let go!”
“Soon be dead, ha-ha!”
Then, in the midst of the clamour, like a shard of ice tinkling during a thunderclap, came another voice, small and thin. It emanated from the eyes that faded and reappeared in the mirror behind Moishe.
Spud and Onions were screaming hysterically.
Again the eyes appeared, atop a swimming vision of a little child clutching a rag doll for comfort. Schlomo felt rather than heard her words. “What are you doing to my Daddy? Put him down!” The eyes were like baby almonds.
Then came the shrieks of Moishe’s Sarah behind him. Suddenly she was upon him, a wildcat scratching frantically at a panther, her fingernails digging into his face, her teeth biting down on his fingers. Moishe’s legs thrashed with desperate vigour as he entered his death throes.
Still those little eyes were staring at him, wide and unblinking as if frozen in horror, just as Schlomo’s had been thirty years before.
“Do it, do it, do it!” chanted Spud and Onions. Their lust for revenge had reached fever pitch.
The life was ebbing away from Moishe. “Stop dreaming,” yelled Spud, “finish the job we came to do!”
In the end it was the almond eyes that defeated him. He couldn’t bring himself to kill a man in front of a child. Schlomo let Moishe fall to the floor. He paced about the room, beating his fist against his forehead with Moishe’s wife’s sobs echoing in his ears.
“Moishe! Moishe! Talk to me Liebling!” she said, kissing Moishe until he spluttered back to life. Then she rounded on Schlomo.
“Monster! Get out of my house!”
She seemed like a good woman. Schlomo sat on the side of their bed.
“You don’t know what this man did”.
“He was a hero.”
“No. A capo’s clerk, a Schreiber. It’s not the same thing.”
It came to the same. Schlomo was not surprised to learn that Moishe had wheedled his way into being a capo’s assistant, writing records in the catalogue of inhumanity.
“Did he tell you about potatoes and onions and the hay loft?”
“You need a doctor,” she said but a haunted look came over Moishe, who by now was breathing more freely.
“I’m so sorry Schlomo. Let me explain.”
Despite the cold Polish air Schlomo’s head was spinning.
“Please Schlomo, for my sake,” said Sarah, sinking to the floor, “don’t let this chance pass.”
Still Schlomo hesitated, his life flashing before him as if he were about to die.
“Shut that damned door, we are dying of cold.”
“The guards are going to wake up and shoot us all,” shouted the woman with soft hands.
“Shut up,” hissed Schlomo, “they will wake up if you don’t stop hollering!” I must stay here with her and Moishe although that putz will get us killed even if we do make it to Lublin.
“Help me get this door closed, Moishe. Where the hell are you?”
The train braked violently, throwing everyone forward. Orders were barked in German. The brakes were released momentarily then applied again full on, ensuring a shorter stopping distance for the train but also that no Jew was left standing in the wagon. Schlomo landed heavily on top of Sarah and was then thrown clear of her as bodies flew in all directions.
“I’m suffocating!” gasped Sarah. Then someone trod on her head and she spoke no more. No! Don’t die! Not here!
All the anger and frustration that had been welling up in Schlomo since the Gestapo humiliation boiled over. No! His bellow could be heard above the screams and the wailing. Like a madman he clawed at the bodies weighing Sarah down, tunnelling his way towards her. He forced his way to her side, fighting off flailing limbs and punching faces as he went. He threw himself on top of her and grasped her in a bear hug. Summoning his remaining strength, he managed to get to his knees and began to drag her away from the melee by inching backwards. Suddenly he lost his footing and fell backwards out of the open door.
He was fortunate the fall did not break his back, especially with Sarah’s weight on top of him. They had landed in a drift of fresh snow. The shock to Sarah’s system roused her from unconsciousness.
“Why is all this snow in the train?” Her voice was barely audible. As her senses returned she began to groan and clutch her womb, her face screwed up in pain. Then she began to weep.
“He left me. How could he?”
More convulsions racked her body and her groaning intensified. She clung to Schlomo, digging her fingernails into his neck. Then the pain appeared to subside and she rested her chin on his shoulder.
“You’re so kind,” she whispered as if from afar. Not waiting for a reply she continued the monologue.
“I thought he loved me.”
“But he does! With all his heart,” whispered Schlomo, resting his nose against her hair. It smelt of almonds.
“Who are you?” she asked dreamily. “I think I’m dying. It’s so lovely.”
“Sarah, we have to go!”
Schlomo could see lanterns swinging in the night further along the track. He heard cruel voices, then the chatter of a machine gun, then screams. Then more gunfire, then silence.
Schlomo hoisted Sarah over his shoulder and made off across the railway tracks. The snow had saved their lives once but now it was going to betray them, for Schlomo’s feet made deep imprints in it. Then he came across other footprints and placed his feet in them. It was easier to walk this way.
The footprints led him up an embankment and onto a country lane brushed free of snow by the wind and along which came clip-clopping a farm cart.
“Only one!” said the farmer as Schlomo held on the horse’s bridle with Sarah still over his shoulder. Schlomo spoke excellent Polish but the country farm dialect was not easy for him to understand.
“My wife is ill.”
“And my geese need feeding. Only one of you and hurry.”
“So please take her!”
Schlomo moved to the back of the cart, turned his back and let Sarah slide onto the floor of the cart. As he turned he saw two figures crouching amidst the farmer’s load of potatoes and onions, with sacking drawn around them.
“Fuck off! She’ll get us all killed,” hissed one.
It was Moishe.
The other figure stood up and kicked Moishe.
“We’re in this together.”
It was Mordechai. He jumped down from the cart.
“You go with her.”
“No!” cried Moishe.
“Shut up, for God’s sake!” said Mordechai.
“Come on, let’s go,” said Schlomo.
“Not me,” came Mordechai’s reply. “I’ll draw their fire. See you in Jerusalem!”
The cat burglar quickly shinned up the outer sentinel of a line of bare birches, then swung himself easily from one tree to the next. As he did so shots rang out and something fell to the ground at Schlomo’s feet. Schlomo picked it up and turned it over in his hand. He thought about calling out to Mordechai but it was way too late for that. Mordechai himself came thudding down and lay crumpled. Schlomo turned him over but half his face was gone and the one remaining eye was lifeless.
On the cart, Sarah stirred and turned on her back. Her eyes opened momentarily.
“Moishe! We’ve been through a lot together haven’t we? But this is the end.”
Moishe looked even more panicky than usual.
“She’s mad! Get her away from me!”
“Toronto… nice Jewish girls…”
Then many things happened all at once.
Schlomo without fail woke up at this point of the nightmare. Usually he tried to avoid going back to sleep because although he knew the story would continue regardless of whether he was awake or asleep, the sweating was not as bad when his eyes were open. Burying his face in the almond scented scarf helped fend off the terror too. Sometimes he wondered if he should tell the story to someone, a doctor maybe.
“Don’t be daft,” said Spud, “they’ll only say you’re mad.”
“Or exaggerating,” added Onions.
More shouting shattered the night and shots ricocheted across the frozen Polish plain. On the railway track, Schlomo saw red trails spitting fire. Soon the air was filled with more screams and rat-tat-tatting. Then the shooting stopped and a silence of chill moans floated on the wind as the dying agonised and the soldiers regrouped to listen to their orders.
Schlomo turned back to the cart in time to see Moishe pushing Sarah towards the edge as if she were a sack of the farmer’s potatoes. No longer caring how much noise he made Schlomo leapt to Sarah’s side while yelling “what the fuck are you doing?” to Moishe. The farmer slapped the rump of his horse and the cart jerked on its way. As it gathered speed Schlomo was sure the sound of its hooves would soon be picked up by the soldiers. He sat down and cupped his head in his hands.
“We have to say kaddish for Mordechai.”
“I thought you said there was no God,” said Moishe.
“No Putz, there isn’t but we are Jewish.”
“Do you know the prayer?”
“I only remember a bit about ‘he who makes peace in his heights, may he make peace’ or something like that. It will have to do.”
Schlomo took the object that had fallen at his feet a few minutes earlier and raised it to his lips. It was Mordechai’s knife.
“Shalom Mordechai the cat, see you in Jerusalem next year, if not before. Amen.”
Schlomo had intended to throw the knife towards where Mordechai’s body lay but instead he opened the blade and gouged the letter M on the wooden frame of the cart. Over it he superimposed two triangles, one of them upside down.
You saved us, Mordechai the cat. I salute you.
The frozen plain seemed for a moment to hold its breath in silent respect. Schlomo hammered his fist against the Star of David he had just drawn. It’s all so fucking futile! No one would ever see Mordechai’s tribute and only the wolves would tend to his body.
An owl hooted somewhere and the sounds of the night resumed. Far away a dog howled at the moon running behind clouds, and another one barked repeatedly to pass on the message. To Schlomo’s surprise and relief the two-mile cart ride to the farmer’s hamlet passed without incident.
“You can sleep in the hayloft in the barn,” said the farmer, “give me a hand with these.”
Schlomo helped the farmer unload the sacks of potatoes and strings of onions from the cart.
“Be gone by dawn. If I catch you here in the morning you’ll regret it.”
They had to be grateful for small mercies. Schlomo thanked the man despite not liking his tone or the shifty look on his face.
It was not easy to manoeuvre Sarah up the rungs of the ladder to the hayloft but once there he made her as comfortable as possible. There was an icy draught coming through a side door downstairs but up here it was cosy enough inside the hay. The barn was deeper than it looked. The farmer kept his animals in a covered pen at the back. Country people enjoyed the aroma of animals but Schlomo preferred the smell of cows once they had been turned into meatballs rather than the cud and cheese stink that pervaded the barn. Yet their bodies exuded warmth and the hay retained some of it. The Jews could pass a comfortable night here.
“Stay with her Putz. I’m going to check on that farmer. He said he had geese but I don’t hear any.”
On his way out he stumbled into a formless heap of vegetable matter and disturbed an acrid vapour of rotting cabbage. It put him in mind of a grocer’s wife who had not washed for a month.
Once outside, a pallid moon made Schlomo’s already cold feet feel colder as he crossed the yard from the hay barn to the farmer’s two-roomed home. Something was wrong. It was too quiet. And the cart was gone.
The farmhouse was painted yellow but it looked grey in the moonlight. Schlomo tapped at the rough board door. There was no knocker, and no answer. Schlomo lifted the latch and pushed on the door. He expected to be set upon by the farmer’s dog but it was nowhere to be seen. An oil lamp flickered in the middle of a rough-hewn kitchen table and behind it a woman sat peeling onions, her face as pale and treacherous as the moon outside.
“Get out!” she snapped, her voice as hard as her onions were pungent.
“Where’s your husband?”
“But he was here a moment ago!”
“Not unless you can see ghosts.”
“He brought us here.”
“Been in the ground since Michaelmas.”
Schlomo was confused.
“Then who is … ?”
“Never you mind. Get away from me!”
The woman’s eyes darted to the door behind Schlomo as if she was expecting someone.
The woman moved out of the line of sight between herself and the door. Suddenly Schlomo understood.
“How much are they paying you?”
The woman spat. A hundred zlotys a Yid, she thought, that’s more than a pig.
Schlomo realised there was no time to be lost. The farmer would be back as soon as he had sold them to the Germans. They were probably on their way now but he was famished. The smell of onions and the soup simmering in a pot on the woodstove were too much for Schlomo. He rounded the table and made straight for the pot. The woman backed away into a corner and delved into a fat sack. She drew out potatoes and hurled them one by one at Schlomo who was scooping soup into his mouth with his bare hands.
Over the woman’ shouts and the thud of potatoes around him Schlomo heard a noise that froze him, the unmistakable sound of a lorry approaching. Schlomo knew nothing about military vehicles so he wouldn’t have known this was an Opel Blitz troop carrier. What he did know was that the truck driver crashing through the gears was coming to terminate their lives.
Schlomo rushed to the hay barn. “Quick, we must go!”
“Better stay where we are,” said Moishe, who had also heard the sound of the truck approaching, “we don’t stand a chance outside.”
“You’re crazy Putz, they’ll poke their bayonets all through the hay and you’ll squeal like a pig.” Schlomo realised that he too was squealing like a pig. “Sarah!” Schlomo turned around in circles. He hated indecision, loathed himself for not knowing what to do. The noise of the approaching truck grew louder. As it drew to a halt in the yard outside, Schlomo at last made a decision and began the rickety climb up the ladder to the hay loft. Then happened the horror for which Schlomo was forever unable to forgive Moishe.
Sarah’s body tumbled over the edge of the loft and crashed down to the ground, taking Schlomo with it.
“The bastard pushed her over the edge, just like that,” sobbed Spud.
“Like a husband kicking his wife out of bed,” said Onions.
“How could he?”
“Pushed a pregnant woman to her death. He did it to save himself!”
It was agony. The same conversation had repeated itself for decades in Schlomo’s head.
Moishe put a hand to the painful welt Schlomo’s garrotte had gouged in his neck and coughed. Schlomo heard nothing. At this point in the story he was always oblivious to his surroundings. Anyone looking at him in this state saw only the haunted eyes of madness.
“But there was worse to come,” said Spud.
“Don’t repeat it,” sobbed Onions, as he always did. But the story had inexorably to run its full course on the dark stage of Schlomo’s mind, its black velvet theatre curtains forever drawn back on the horrid scene.
“I keep telling you no one will believe it,” Onions went on, “the Devil himself is not capable of doing what those soldiers did to Sarah.”
And so the untellable tale tormented Schlomo, simultaneously softening and hardening him, driving him to despair and filling him with rage against the evil and its servant, Moishe Putz.
“Pushed her over the edge right into the wolf’s jaws …”
The barn door was thrown back roughly and blinding torchlights picked out Schlomo and Sarah.
In no time a ring of bayonets encircled them.
Schlomo did as he was told.
“Come here, farmer!” a voice barked, “you said there were three of them.”
The farmer came into the barn, clutching a straw hat to his chest. He pointed up to the hay loft.
“Don’t you have a light in here, farmer, or haven’t you Polacks heard of electricity yet?” The soldiers were swaggering and raucous, as conquering armies always are. An eruption of pimples on the skin of their leader, a second lieutenant barely out of school, gave his face the appearance of strawberries and cream. The farmer backed out of the barn and crossed the farmyard. A few moments later a single bulb dangling on its flex like a spider from the rafters came on. By its grey and feeble light Schlomo saw that there were six soldiers in all, two of whom were thrusting their bayonets up into the hayloft from beneath while two more scaled the ladder.
“There’s no one up here.”
“You owe us 100 zlotys farmer, hand them over,” said the lieutenant.
“But there was another one, younger than him,” protested the farmer, pointing at Schlomo. “It’s not fair.”
“Not fair?” said the lieutenant, “you want not fair, Polack?” He took a bayonet from its leather frog on his belt, unsheathed it from its scabbard and clipped it onto his rifle. It didn’t look like he had done this often. Then he advanced upon the farmer. They say bayonets are used in warfare more for their psychological impact than their efficiency and sure enough the effect on the farmer was immediate. He began to grovel and implore uncontrollably. The soldier ran his bayonet through the collar of the farmer’s jacket and rammed it into one of the wooden staves that held up the hayloft. The man shrieked and his ill-earned zlotys fell at the lieutenant’s feet. The soldiers laughed. They were in high spirits.
Holding his breath, Schlomo slowly inched Sarah’s bulk away from the soldiers until he could stand between her and them. If he could only push her back far enough during the distraction maybe he could find the side door and push her through it.
“We paid for three, Polack, they are expecting three at the station.” The lieutenant turned away from the farmer and addressed his soldiers, “but you only gave us two. That is very bad for you.”
Schlomo was outside. The side door that had made its presence felt because of the icy draught it failed to contain was not bolted and he was able to drag Sarah through it. He did not know what he would do next but he pushed the door shut as quietly as he could and heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe his luck was turning?
How futile one’s hopes can be when standing on the edge of the chasm!
“Hey!” shouted the farmer’s wife, running from her kitchen. “Your yids are out here!” As soldiers came running from the barn she ventured closer to Schlomo and spat on him. Schlomo thought she must be playing to the gallery, otherwise why would a woman do that? As the soldiers’ hands grabbed Schlomo and Sarah he smelt the woman’s smell. Rotting cabbage.
“Lieutenant, we have three of them after all,” said Schultz, the soldier who was dragging Sarah inside the barn by the feet, “look at her fat belly.”
“We need three people or three bodies,” said the lieutenant.
Soldier Shultz stood over Sarah and drove his bayonet through her chest. An experienced soldier would never have done this because it is not easy to extricate a blade from a breastbone, it gets trapped. Schultz pushed and pulled at his rifle, lifting Sarah’s body then letting it fall back to the floor. In the end he placed a foot on her chest next to the blade and braced his leg while he heaved at the bayonet. Eventually the blade came free and Shultz fell backwards. The other soldiers guffawed and ribbed him for his incompetence.
Schlomo saw all this as if in a dream. His brain was numb, he felt like urinating, he tried to think thoughts but none would come. Sarah was dead, he knew that but what about himself?
Soldier Schultz was seething. “Fucking Jews, they stick to your bayonet!” he raged as he got to his feet. “She’s got a grip like a virgin’s fanny”. There was much merriment in the barn at this quip. The soldiers seemed oblivious to the barbarity of their acts.
With two slashing movements of his bayonet, Schultz engraved a violent cross on Sarah’s belly, which popped open like a peapod. He rooted around in Sarah’s innards with his bayonet until finally he made a triumphant stab, like an Eskimo harpooning a salmon. He lifted up his skewered trophy for all to see.
“There you are lieutenant, one live schnozzle and two bodies.”
Schlomo’s brain barely registered what was happening. At first he wondered what the soldier was holding up. A scream died in his throat as he realised it was his baby Sarah.
“They won’t believe it,” said Spud once more.
“Oh do shut up, you are irritating in the end,” said Onions.
Spud was right, who could give credence to such depravity? But they all knew it was true. Those who have seen such horrors don’t need to exaggerate. That cold night in a hay barn on the Polish side of the border with Germany remained forever etched on Schlomo’s memory. Still the nightmare had not run its full course. There was more.
Schultz had trouble shaking baby Sarah off the end of his bayonet. In the end he got rid of the encumbrance by whirling his rifle like a fishing rod. He drew it slowly back behind him then cast it sharply over his shoulder. The little body slipped off the blade and looped through the air. It landed at the lieutenant’s feet. Startled, the latter kicked the body away.
“Go on then, say what happened next if it makes you feel better,” said Onions.
“Oh, I intend to. The bastards only played football with baby Sarah’s body!” sobbed Spud.
The match was a close fought contest for a few minutes. The soldiers’ uniforms offered little protection against the cold of the eastern plains and they were glad of the exercise to get the blood circulating. It was Bayern Munich versus Herta Berlin with a 6-month old foetus for ball. Back and forth they went, to the accompaniment of “pass it to me,” “sort your feet out!” and other soccer sayings.
“I’m through on goal!” yelled someone, but with a mighty hoof, another soldier intercepted him and cleared his lines. Little Sarah flew through the air. For a moment the slimy body appeared suspended beneath the feeble light bulb and then it came down. Little Sarah’s remains landed full in her father’s lap.
Every orifice in Schlomo’s body opened, fluids escaped loosely from them all. He let out a scream as thin as spider’s yarn then fell silent with his mouth hanging open, his eyeballs round and immobile. There was a shrieking in his ears like the sound of a cat being sawn in half. His head slumped forward; his nostrils approached the baby’s body cradled in his arms. Fighting his horror, Schlomo lifted the baby up to his lips. He brushed away the dirt and bits of straw sticking to the mucus covering the little creature’s body as best he could. Not knowing what else to do, he licked the baby’s face clean and kissed its forehead. The last thing he remembered before passing out was the taste of almonds on his lips.
And still the little girl with almond eyes kept looking at him. Schlomo felt the contents of his stomach fighting to escape through his mouth, like naked bodies scrambling to reach the remaining pockets of air in the gas chamber. His body was racked with convulsions. He coughed until his innards spewed out in an infected arc onto Moishe’s bed.
“Leave the baby and go!”
Voices echoed in his brain as if they were being channelled through a tinny metal pipe.
“He’s right, the soldiers have gone but they’ll be back!”
“Who are you?”
“We are you.”
Schlomo tried to focus on his limbs but they were all pointing in the wrong direction.
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do we but he’s Onions and I’m Spud, now can we please get out of here?”
“Scarpered. He kicked Sarah over the edge…”
Spud was unable to continue.
Onions finished the sentence for him.
“We’ve got to slit that bastard’s throat!”
“And baby Sarah?”
“Lay that football down in the hay and let’s go,” said Spud and Onions in chorus.
Schlomo held his head in his hands. For a moment he thought it was raining. When he realised it was tears, his own, he felt ashamed. They came stronger until his eyes gushed as they had never done at any time in his life. When at last he looked up he saw the little girl standing in front of him, holding out her rag doll for him to take.
“Schlomo,” said Moishe, “you have to listen to me now.”
But Moishe said nothing. He stood motionless before Schlomo, with his wife and daughter by his side.
They remained this way until Moishe shuffled to the wardrobe and fished around inside it. Eventually he returned with a frayed travel bag, from which he drew a sheaf of old letters. He extracted an opened envelope from their midst and from it took an unopened letter which he handed to Schlomo without a word.
With all my heart I love you! If you are reading these words it means you and Moishe are alive, thank God, but I am dead. Please God, may my little Sarah live, too! If so, please say hello to her from her lost Mummy. I don’t know what is going to happen; I keep having bad dreams. I am going to ask Moishe to send this letter to Uncle Isaac in Toronto for safe keeping. Toronto! How I pray we will reach there soon! But I am forgetting myself, I am dead if you read this.
I’m sorry I wasn’t a good wife to you. My cooking is even worse than Moishe’s! Yes, he told me that story. I was hoping to learn when we got to Toronto. I am a terrible hindrance to you men in this state. I think you will have to go without me. I hope you find nice Jewish girls there.
Schlomo, it pains me so that you are unkind to Moishe because if it wasn’t for him you and I would not have met that day on the Hakenterrasse. I was so excited because he had told me so much about you. When I was a child I always dreamt of meeting someone who would take me away from this horrible town that holds so many bad memories for me.
I have never dared tell you what happened in my childhood in case you changed your mind about taking me to Toronto. Now I’m dead I can tell you, I hope you are not going to hate me.
When I was a little girl I had two brothers and a sister and we were happy until my older brother died. Jews meet their death in all sorts of horrible ways but his was just an accident. He fell in the Oder river and drowned! My father blamed my mother; I still remember the horrible things he shouted at her. She wasted away and died. They said it was tuberculosis but I know it wasn’t. My elder sister ran away from home, I don’t know where she is. That left just me and my twin brother with Father who was going mad. He did horrible things to us, he kept beating my brother, he even slammed his hand in the door. To me he … well, I can’t tell you. He needed a wife, that’s all I will say. One day Father fell on a kitchen knife and bled to death. Schlomo, may God forgive me, I have never told this to a soul but the knife didn’t enter Father’s body by itself. He deserved what he got, and I’d do it again, my love, to any man who tried to force me the way he did.
So now you know my secret, Schlomo. You will hate me now, as I loathe myself. After Father died we were shifted around between uncles and aunts and people we never knew.
Now that I have told you the worst I have one more confession to make and a favour to ask of you. I love you Schlomo, you are the best thing that ever happened to me. Even if my life is short I thank God for letting me meet and love such a man. I thank him for guiding Moishe’s hand, for it is Moishe who delivered you to me. He understands me better than anyone.
Oh, I’ve just realised I should have said two confessions, not one. My name is not Steinberg as you thought. It is Putz.
Moishe and I are twins.
Now that you know my story, please my love, say Kaddish for me so that my soul may be at peace.
Your loving Sarah.
“Now you understand why I had to survive, Schlomo. It was Sarah’s wish. That day in the hay loft I scouted around up there and found a trap door into the roof. When I returned I heard the commotion as the soldiers arrived. What I saw next will live with me forever. Sarah had inched herself to the edge of the loft. When she saw me she waved to me. It was feeble but she did it and no mistake, like she was saying goodbye. Then she did like that Mordechai said was the right way to jump of a train. She just rolled herself over the edge and fell.”
Moishe took the hands of his wife and daughter in his.
“Sarah was my sister. She was always the strong one. Rejecting her was her idea. She wanted to save her men, do you understand that Schlomo? She was a saint. After I got captured and deported the only way I could think of staying alive in that camp was to be a scribe. Those avengers have forgotten what it was like in there. They never let up, they’ll get me in the end.”
Moishe’s voice trailed away as in his mind’s eye he relived the horrors he had witnessed.
“You’d never believe it if I told you Schlomo. It’s inhuman in those places, it’s every man for himself…”
Before he left their home, Schlomo gave all his possessions to Sarah and Moishe: his wad of banknotes, his pipe for making sweets, his silk scarf and Mordechai’s knife. It all held in the leather bag that had accompanied him on all his travels.
“Look after her well,” he said, indicating their little girl.
“This is for you,” he said, handing the child his tiny bottle of almond essence, “remember, every month you must tip a few drops on the silk scarf. Sarah will like that.”
“Thank you,” she said then beckoned for him to come close. He crouched down and she whispered something in his ear.
Schlomo struggled to his feet, put out a hand and steadied himself momentarily against the wall. Then, without a word, he opened the door and walked out of their lives.
He wandered for a while through the damp streets, listening to the total silence in his head. Spud? Onions? They were gone. What now? I have nowhere to go.
Schlomo found himself in an Underground station. He circled aimlessly for a while in the ticket hall before making up his mind. For the first time in his life, he felt the need to buy a ticket. But I have no money! He felt guilty – another forgotten sensation – as he bent to tie a shoelace. Then he backed into the stream of people passing through the exit doors until he was safely inside and was able to peel away in the opposite direction and down an escalator.
On the way down he passed Smith on the way up but such was Schlomo’s listlessness that he didn’t see him. At the foot of the escalator he took corridors in no particular order until he found himself on a platform. Coming towards him was a train but Schlomo ignored it. Instead, he sat down on a bench and tried to gather his thoughts. As the train accelerated away its windows afforded a staccato view of a cowboy with a smoking gun and a bare-shouldered woman. As the last car of the train rattled clear of the platform Schlomo saw that he was seated opposite a hoarding advertising a new film. Two Mules for Sister Sara.
“Please stand back from the platform edge, the next train does not stop here.”
The station announcement registered vaguely in Schlomo’s mind. Sara. Sarah. It’s the same name. His eyes focussed on a huddle of men in front of the hoarding. One of them looked familiar.
The hairs on the back of Schlomo’s neck began to prickle. I know that man. His head began to clear. It was the Daily Telegraph reader. Another of the men in the group turned to flick the dog-end of his cigarette into the pit between the rails. He looked up and met Schlomo’s eyes. Nokmim! The avenger recognised Schlomo instantly. He never forgot a face, especially one that had head-butted him. The avenger slid his index finger across his throat like a knife and pointed it at Schlomo.
Out of the corner of his eye Schlomo caught sight of a train entering the station at speed. Another harbinger of death. In the same instant he saw Smith and the avengers dash to the stairs and take them two by two. They were coming to get him and there was no escape.
It seems ridiculous to be angry with a train but Schlomo was furious with the one now in his sights. The anger did him good, he was on familiar ground. He knew what he had to do next.
The avengers were quick but by the time they erupted onto the platform Schlomo was already running headlong towards the onrushing train. Like a panther. They stood no hope of catching him. Half way along the platform Schlomo bellowed and leapt into the air directly into the path of the train. Still roaring, Schlomo head-butted it with all the force he could muster. He met the metal full on with a lifetime of anger.
So it’s true what they say about the white tunnel.
Schlomo felt relaxed, strangely at peace for such an angry man. The light was blinding but before long he was able to see that the tunnel was flanked by rows of almond trees. Their white blossom shimmered like diamonds and their scent filled Schlomo’s lungs with contentment. A diminutive form no bigger than a football crystallised from a puff of mist and stood before him dressed all in white.
Hello, almond eyes. What a beautiful little girl!
Schlomo felt his legs weakening. It was easier to float. And still the child smiled up at him.
“Come,” she said, taking his hand.
Then, just as Moishe’s daughter had done earlier in the day, she uttered the words that were forever engraved on Schlomo’s heart.
“My name is Sarah.”