Stand up tall son, Father says to me. There is more air if you stand up as tall as you can. His weathered hands gesture to a small gap in between the door to the carriage and the wall. A tiny hole where a slight breeze brushes the top of my head. I stand on my tippy toes and open my mouth; a gasp of air floods in. But this is only for a second, and then I cannot stand so tall anymore.
Eli, he says to me, Być silna. Be Strong. I nod. I promise we will be safe, he says. I nod again.
I look around the carriage. Father and I are some of the lucky ones. We are standing. The ones on the floor are not so lucky. There is no air on the ground. Bodies upon bodies. Limbs upon limbs. I see them.
An old woman with skin like cracked pavement and eyes like glass lets out a small whimper a meter away from us. She is lying on her stomach, squashed between other bodies on either side.
She looks up at me with eyes of glass and for a brief moment seems as though she may say something. But she does not. Instead she collapses downwards. She does not move again.
The yellow star on her arm catches my eye. It is then that I realise we are the same. We are all the same.
I am standing on a street in the ghetto when I see Father running through the crowd of bodies.
Elijah! He calls out.
When he reaches me his face marked with lines is shiny and wet.
Father, I say, why is your face wet?
He looks at me with eyes of glass.
Your mother, he says.
That is all and I understand.
He grabs me into a tight embrace for what seems like hours.
I look down to his arm. A shabby yellow star stares back at me.
A few days later, the Germans demand that we pack up our possessions. We are to be sent away. We must leave the city. We are going on a trip.
The carriage jolts to a halt. Bodies fall sideways and voices wail in pain. I ask Father what is going on. He tells me that we must have arrived.
Hold my hand, he says, and do not let go.
The carriage doors slam open forcefully and a violent white light streams through onto the bodies lying on the floor. I hear German words being yelled at those close to the door. A few get to their feet as quickly as they can. They move towards the bodies that became motionless between our last stop and here. Together, they pick up the bundles of rags and skin and hair and toss them out of the carriage door, each landing with a crunch in the blazing snow.
We march through the ashen powder along the train tracks up to a building that looks like a railway station. I ask Father if this is what it is. He silently shakes his head; his eyes are distant and have become made of glass. He does not look at me.
I too look away. I watch the crowd around us, each with faces that show no expression. Then I see one of the soldiers, carrying a shotgun, dressed in black with the twisted, evil emblem of red and white and black on his arm. I look at my own mark and know which one I would be proud to display.
We walk through an archway. On the other side I can see rows and rows of small wooden warehouses. I see figures dressed in blue and white stripes in the distance. Even from far away I can see that they are bodies, hollow and empty.
We halt in the middle of a clearing. There must be thousands of us. I start to count, one, two, three…fourteen…thirty-seven…fifty-six.
I soon lose count.
I hear German words being yelled, a thunderous bang and then a body fall to my left with a soft thud. Father tells me not to look. No one around us is looking either.
I don’t listen. Slowly I turn and I can see. I can see the black outline of a body lying on its back as the snow around it turns the colour of cherries I once ate in the summertime.
We are all made to line up in front of people behind little desks. Each has a list as well as a yellow star, like me. They must be good too. A soldier stands behind each yelling out orders. They are to send us to either the left or the right.
When it is mine and Father’s turn, Father grabs hold of my hand so tightly that it feels as though he may break the bones.
State your name, says the little man behind the desk with spectacles and a yellow star.
Wladyslaw Jasiński. Age? Thirty-seven Occupation? Artisan.
And you? The little man asks me.
Elijah Jasiński. Age? Fourteen, I lie. Occupation? Student.
We are given numbers and both yelled at to go to the left. We march together with a group of others towards a large concrete building with no windows.
When we are inside, we are all told to take off our clothes. I hear others crying out in relief. We must be taking a shower, says one.
I look at Father’s face. It is shiny and wet.
Jestrśmy bezpieczni teraz. We are safe now.
We enter a large room made of concrete. It is cold.
Suddenly the lights go off. A panic of voices and Father grabs my hand. Być silna.
The lights come back on with a blinding flash. Father lets go of my hand.
This short story was published in Issue 4, 2013 of RMIT’s Catalyst Magazine.