The train lurched to a stop, but Perl didn’t know where she was or even how long they had been traveling. She knew they had boarded the train on Wednesday, December 2, but there were no windows in the stifling car, so day and night had become one. She thought the trip had taken two days, but her mind refused to form a coherent thought as she rubbed her gritty eyes and willed herself to focus. They had packed the women in so tight that she had been standing the whole trip, and her leg muscles were cramped and ready to give out. Her once-clean clothes were stained, and she was light-headed from hunger.
There had been a bucket of water in the car for everybody to share, but that had soon run dry, and no one had refilled it. The Nazis had squeezed one hundred and fifty women into a car meant to hold fifty. A slop bucket overflowed and spilled over everyone’s shoes. The exhaust fumes along with the jerky movements of the train caused women to become sick, and the stench of sweat, urine, and excrement was revolting and added to the humiliation and suffering of the deportees. The noise in the car was deafening as the women and children cried for water and air.
Perl was shocked as women clawed each other trying to push their way to the cracks in the wall for a breath of fresh air. Once sweet-tempered women acted as animals as they trampled the weak and sick trying to get an inch of space.
Many women died during the journey from illness, suffocation and hunger, and Perl was appalled when the women pushed the deceased to the floor of the car to make room for the living. The women sat on dead bodies and walked on them as if they were garbage.
“Irena, wake up; the train has stopped.” Perl shook her sister-in-law, who was leaning on her. The rocking of the railcar had caused Irena to become sick, and she had vomited on herself and Perl.
The car doors crashed open with an ominous clang, letting in a welcome blast of fresh air. But after being in darkness for so many days, the spotlights aimed into the cars blinded and disoriented the women. Perl flung her arm over her eyes to block out the brightness of the lights, and in the confusion that followed, she and Irena became separated. She shouted her name, but Irena didn’t hear her in the earsplitting noise and mayhem that ensued. Perl clapped her hands over her ears, trying to block out the shouted orders coming from the SS guards and the screams of anguish from the women and children. Rough hands grabbed her and threw her from the car. She landed hard on the frozen ground, and before she could get up, a guard lashed out at her with his whip. Her vision blurred and her back burned where the guard had struck her as if it were on fire.
Irena screamed as female guards entered the train car, striking out with whips at anyone who moved slowly. “Raus! Raus! Get out! Get out!” the Nazis barked at the stunned group. Dazed, she ran from the cattle car and was swallowed up in the swarm of people crowding all around her. Her bad hip throbbed with pain, and her legs felt like jelly after standing for so many hours during the long journey. She was exhausted and terrified, and everywhere around her, women and children were panicking as they tried to escape being whipped and beaten by the guards, who pushed them into lines.
A uniformed SS officer stood nearby, and with a flick of his baton, he sent the women and children either to a line on the right or the left. She limped along at the rear of the right line, breathing hard from exertion and fear. She was shaking uncontrollably, fear coursing through her veins as she searched for Perl. She thought she saw her walking at the end of the platform, but when she tried to go to her, a guard shoved her back into line, threatening to shoot her if she stepped out of line again.
“Where are we? What will to happen to us?” she asked.
“Sonderbehandlong!” You are in the special treatment line,” she said with a mocking grin.
Irena’s heart raced as she realized that her line consisted only of elderly, sick, and children. Perhaps they are sending us to a convalescent camp with easier work, she thought hopefully.
There was an old woman in front of Irena holding a crying baby, and Irena noticed the woman was weeping as she tried to comfort the baby. “Soon they will move us to the convalescent camp, and everything will be better,” Irena told the woman.
“Convalescent camp? They are sending us somewhere to be killed. Do you think they will take care of us? Look around! We are all too old or young or sick to do their work.”
Irena took several steps backward, frowning, and shook her head in denial. Sweat dripped down her body, even though the temperature was below freezing, and her mind raced as she searched for another explanation. “No! You’re wrong! It’s not true! I don’t believe you!”
The woman said nothing else, and Irena’s blood ran cold as she looked on while guards tore young children away from their mothers and shoved them into a different line. All around her, she saw armed female guards with snarling dogs patrolling the lines and blocking anyone from escaping. She was stunned as a woman ahead of her stepped out of line and a guard whipped her until she collapsed, bleeding on the icy ground. A young girl screamed and tried to help her but was knocked flat by the guard, who kicked her with the toe of her heavy jackboots. The rest of the women standing in line gasped in shock and horror, wailing and begging for help as the woman and girl lay on the ground, writhing in pain. Irena turned away, covering her mouth with a shaking hand. She had never seen such brutality from a woman before. This can’t be happening! These guards are women. How can they act like this? Some of these women could be mothers, how can they treat other mothers and children this way? Where is the sympathy and compassion?
Hopelessness settled into the pit of her stomach as she thought about what she had just witnessed and what the older woman had told her. I’m only twenty-four years old. I’m not ready to die! I must get to Perl. She’ll know what to do. She plugged her ears with her fingers, trying to shut out the screams of terror that echoed around her, but she could still hear the madness. She looked again for Perl, but her vision was blocked by tall guards ready to shoot anyone who dared to move out of line. Another crack of the whip and the terrified group was silent, thrown into a surreal world of gunshots, whips, and death. The earie silence would be broken by a child crying out, but they were quickly silenced by their mother.
In the sudden quietness, Irena could hear volleys of gunshots coming from the forest behind the camp. She was shaking with fear when the woman behind her gently touched her hand. She jumped at the first touch and turned around and saw that it was an old lady with kind, sad eyes looking at her, “It will be ok. God will deliver us and soon it will be over, and we will be in the Garden of Eden.” Irena tried to pull her hand away, but the woman held tight, giving her a reassuring smile and whispered Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the mountains- from where will my help come….”
Irena looked at the woman who was calm amid the chaos surrounding them. She had a serene smile on her face as she spoke the words to the forgotten Psalm. Irena couldn’t stop the tears from falling as she recited the Psalm with the old lady, surprised when she remembered the words. Her mother taught her the passage as a child, but after she died, the children stopped attending synagogue and religion was forbidden in the Kazclowicz home. She gripped the woman’s hand and closed her eyes as a sense of peacefulness washed over her.
The line inched forward, and as Irena neared the front, she could see guards making the women undress before shoving them into waiting trucks. Once the guards packed the truck with prisoners, it drove off toward the forest. A few minutes later, the staccato of gunshots reverberated in the silence. Irena, her shoulders slumped with resignation looked skyward saying a silent prayer for Perl and Mattie. When it was her turn, she undressed and climbed into the truck.
Irena looked at the woman who was calm amid the chaos surrounding them. She had a serene smile on her face as she spoke the words to the forgotten Psalm. Irena couldn’t stop the tears from falling as she recited the Psalm with the old lady, surprised when she remembered the words. Her mother taught her the passage as a child, but after she died, the children stopped attending synagogue and religion was forbidden in the Kaczlowicz home. She gripped the woman’s hand and closed her eyes as a sense of peacefulness washed over her.