Three black locomotives sat idling on the tracks beside the
Jozsefvarosi freight station on the eastern outskirts of
“Move along, you dirty Jews!” a Nazi soldier screamed, swinging his rifle to strike a young Jewish man across the back. “Schnell machen! Faster. Faster!”
Harsh voices echoed across the freight yard as black-booted Nazi officers rolled back the rusty doors of the waiting cattle cars. German soldiers used curses and rifle butts to drive a huge mass of frightened, bewildered people across the platform toward the train. The soldiers wore red and black armbands displaying the swastika of the Third Reich; their captives each wore a yellow, six-pointed star prominently displayed over their left breast. Guards with automatic rifles stood watch on top of the cattle cars.
Gretchen moved closer to her brother, Hans. Their position on top of an old freight wagon at the far end of the platform afforded them a clear view of the entire proceedings. “They’re being led like sheep, aren’t they?” Gretchen said quietly. “Thousands of frightened sheep, huddled together, simply going wherever they are led. Hans, why don’t they fight back? Why don’t they run away?”
Hans sighed. “They’ve given up hope, Gretchen. I suppose they’ve been told so many times that they are worthless that they’ve started believing it. Besides, what good is it to fight when the soldiers have automatic rifles? Those who resist would simply be shot on the spot.”
Gretchen clutched his hand. “Isn’t this a train headed for
Gretchen began to sob. The Nazis had already taken the life of
their mother while they lived in
Hans swallowed hard and squeezed his sister’s hand.
They watched helplessly as the soldiers loaded the first cattle car, shoving and cursing until there was not room for another person. When the car was crammed to capacity, a soldier placed a single loaf of bread and a bucket of water on the floor and then rolled the door closed with a loud thud. A second soldier locked it.
Hans and Gretchen continued to watch in agonized silence as the loading progressed. A group of bystanders began to form. As the people watched, the soldiers continued to herd the silent Jewish families toward the second and third cars. They cursed and shouted, kicking with a polished boot or striking out with a rifle whenever a straggler moved too slowly.
An old man hesitated at the edge of the platform, looking for someone to help him step across the empty space to the cattle car. With a trembling hand he attempted to adjust his glasses, but they slipped from his grasp and fell to the platform. A young boy rushed forward to retrieve the glasses, but a soldier leaped ahead of him, smashed the glasses under the heel of his boot, and then used his rifle to knock the old man across to the floor of the car. There was no protest, no attempt to escape. A few soldiers with their guns were in control of the thousands of helpless people.
A timid mother with a baby and two young children struggled to step across to the cattle car. Her oldest child, a little girl four years of age, screamed with fear and turned to run away. A soldier picked the child up and hurled her into the car. Gretchen winced.
Hans’s heart was heavy as he watched the loading continue. How
could the Nazis be so heartless? How could they sentence these innocent people
to death, simply because they were Jewish? Old men, women, little children—it
made no difference to the Nazis. The German people had believed Hitler’s lies,
hatred was so strong that it could motivate an otherwise civilized people to kill innocent men, women, and children. Among the helpless group were those dressed in well-made and expensive clothing. They were, no doubt, at one time business owners, doctors, or lawyers.
“They’re packing the people in so tightly they can’t even sit down.” Gretchen was angry. “They loaded eighty-seven people into that one car.” Her voice rose to a shrill scream. “Eighty-seven people, Hans! With just one loaf of bread and a bucket of water!”
Hans glanced at her and then back at the train. “There’s nothing we can do, Gretchen. Please keep your voice down.”
“How long will the trip take?”
Hans paused. “About a week.”
“Will they stop to give these people food or water?”
Hans’s lips became a thin, hard line. “Not a chance.”
Gretchen dug her fingers into his arm. “Hans, somebody has to do something. The Nazis have no right to kill these people just because they’re Jewish!”
Hans tried to quiet her. “Gretchen, you must not draw attention to us,” he whispered.
She raised a tear-stained face to look at him. “But look at those
people, Hans. Some of them are so weak now that they can hardly stand, and many
of them will be dead before they even get to
Hans shook his head grimly. “There’s nothing to do, Gretchen.”
A man in the elite black-uniformed Schutzstaffel—the SS guard—came striding across the wooden platform toward the freight wagon. “You there,” he called, gesturing toward them with his Mauser automatic. “What are you doing here?” The officer was so close that Hans could see the white death’s head on the shiny black visor of his hat.
Fear swept over Hans. “W-We’re just w-watching, Herr Captain,” he stammered.
“Move out of here!” the Nazi barked. “Mach schnell! Before I decide to put you on the train with those dirty Jews.”
Hans seized his sister by the arm and moved toward the edge of the wagon. “Ja, we’re going, Herr Captain. Come on, Gretchen.”
The officer stood watching as Hans and Gretchen quickly climbed down from the freight wagon and walked across the platform toward the end of the freight depot. When they were safely behind the building, Hans stopped and turned toward the street. “Come on, Gretchen, let’s go home.”
Gretchen shook her head. “Nein, we have to stay, Hans,” she argued. “Maybe there’s nothing we can do for these people, but I need to stay and watch. As horrible as it is, we can’t just walk away as if nothing is happening.”
“We don’t dare go back to the platform,” Hans replied. “You heard what that officer told us.” The cold rain began to fall faster, and Hans pulled the collar of his coat up against his neck.
“Maybe we can watch from a safer place.”
Hans thought for a moment. “There’s an old steel foundry across the tracks,” he said. “We can cross behind the train and watch from there. This is the side with all the action, but we’ll be able to see at least a little of what’s going on.”
Walking swiftly, Hans and Gretchen passed behind the freight depot, hurried down the block, and crossed the tracks behind the train. A railroad spur split off from the main line and snaked its way behind a rough wooden fence to terminate at the abandoned foundry building. Hans and Gretchen followed the tracks.
Two abandoned boxcars sat forlornly on the spur while various pieces of scrap steel and old equipment lay rusting in the waist-high weeds. A huge, cylindrical tank lay on its side. Large sections were rusted away, and Hans peered inside. Broken pallets and scraps of wood littered the ground beneath the tank.
Gretchen crouched in the weeds behind the fence to look through a crack between the planks. “Over here, Hans,” she called softly. “I can see the train from here.”
The railroad cars obscured most of their view. However, they could see enough through the spaces between the cars to tell that the platform was nearly empty. Most of the condemned Jews had been loaded, and the remaining two or three hundred were now being herded into the last cars. Hans sighed. The train was almost ready to roll.
Gretchen pulled at his sleeve. “Look, Hans. What’s that fellow doing?”
Hans twisted around and peered through the crack in the direction that Gretchen pointed. As he watched, a figure slipped furtively along the side of the cattle cars. Crouching low, the man paused at the forward end of each car, glanced upward toward the soldiers on the roof, and hurried across to the next car.
“What’s he doing?” Gretchen repeated.
“I don’t know,” Hans replied, “but it looks like he’s up to something, doesn’t it?”
“He’s carrying a pipe or some sort of tool.”
“I wonder what he plans to do with it.” As Hans spoke, the shadowy figure rose to his feet beside the third car from the front. Hans and Gretchen could now see that he was a young man about Hans’s age.
The youth glanced up quickly, then stepped away from the side of the train and swung the heavy pipe against the locked door. “He’s trying to smash the lock!” Hans gasped in astonishment.
“Hans, they’ll kill him,” Gretchen breathed.
The boy swung the pipe twice more and then dropped it beside the tracks. Bracing his feet in the gravel, he pushed with all his strength. The cattle car door rolled slowly to one side. “He got it open,” Hans exclaimed.
“Run,” the boy urged the car’s occupants, who stood blinking against the brightness. “Run for your lives! They’re going to kill you! Run!”
The boy stooped, picked up his pipe, and ran to the next car. Within seconds, he had managed to open that door as well. “Run,” he said urgently.
Two young women jumped from the second car to land sprawling in the gravel. They leaped to their feet and sprinted into the woods beyond the foundry. The sight spurred the others to action, and they poured from the two open doors.
A guard atop the train noticed the escaping prisoners. “Halt!” he screamed, throwing his Mauser to his shoulder. He pelted the scattering group with automatic weapon fire. A number of escapees fell to the ground. The three other guards atop the train spun around and fired a volley of shots. More people fell.
The escape attempt was over almost before it had started. Many of the Jews not hit by gunfire turned and raced back to the cattle car, desperate in their attempts to scramble back inside. Others simply raised their hands over their heads and walked back.
The youth with the pipe was attempting to open the door on the third car when he heard the chatter of the automatic weapons. He dropped his pipe and dashed across the gravel, heading straight for the fence where Hans and Gretchen were hiding. A trail of bullets swept the ground just behind him, but he dodged and twisted as he raced frantically for the refuge of the fence. Suddenly, with a cry of agony, he fell to the ground less than five meters from the end of the fence.
Hans leaped to his feet, but Gretchen seized his sleeve. “Hans, what are you doing?” she cried.
“We can’t just let them kill him!” Hans shouted. “I have to help him.”
“Hans, they’ll shoot you!” Gretchen screamed, but her brother had already pulled free of her grasp. He dashed around the end of the fence.
Somehow the youth had crawled to the end of the fence. Hans seized him by both wrists and dragged him around the corner.
“Leave me,” the youth ordered. “Get out of here. They’ll kill you!”
“I’ll help you,” Hans replied. “You’re hurt.” He leaned over, lifted the other boy in his arms, and ran along the backside of the fence.
“Just leave me here,” the stranger insisted. “Run for your life.”
“We’ll not leave you to die,” Hans whispered fiercely.
“Inside that big tank, Hans,” Gretchen called. “It’s the only place to hide.” She scrambled through one of the openings in the side of the tank.
Hans raced after her. As he passed a broken section in the fence, he glanced toward the train. Two Nazi soldiers were scrambling down from the roof of the cattle cars.