Monday, April 28, 2008


Category: Issue 10


(This is a true story. I happened to my mother during WWII in Germany.)

Margot woke early. The sound of tractors moving trailers told her to hurry. She hurried across the trampled grass, skirting the tractors pulling the last of the caravan trailers into her way. The damp air was filled with the chugging of the tractors, the deep voices of the roustabouts calling to each other, and an occasional roar or whinny from the wheeled animal cages.

Margot unlocked her ticket trailer and made sure the closet and drawers were tightly locked. It was damp and chilly outside. She covered her black curls with a red-and-white kerchief and, after making sure her trailer was securely locked, grabbed her suitcase and marched on, toward the train station. The rest of the circus would already be there. This morning they would travel to yet another small German town where they would keep the war-burdened population happy.

At the loading platforms for the freight trains, the usual commotion greeted her. Men in coveralls rushed back and forth, calling to each other. Four men pushed the bear’s cage, the front tightly shuttered, onto a flatcar, where they locked the solid rubber wheels with wooden blocks.

Other blue and white caravan trailers stood in line, waiting to be loaded. Margot looked for the passenger car reserved for artists, but didn’t see it. It was probably at the front of the train.

She stepped around four neighing horses. A roustabout held onto their reins. In the still morning air the horses’ hides steamed, and the scent of hay and warm animals wafted toward her.

She stopped near Mary, the old lead elephant. Mary stood by herself, tied to a column with a thick metal chain, patiently waiting for her turn to be loaded. Near her, momentary quiet greeted Margot. She put her suitcase next to Mary’s post and sat on it. A cold draft made her shiver and she buttoned her knitted jacket.

A large crowd moved on the opposite side of the large platform, where another train, consisting of cattle cars, pulled in. The noise of the engine made Mary nervous, and she swiveled her large head back and forth in a hypnotizing rhythm, her trunk weaving a few inches above the concrete platform. Margot smiled at the big elephant. Mary must be tired, too. Margot stretched her legs. In a moment, she’d get up and look for Frau Walter, the other ticket taker. Together they’d find the passenger car.

Idly Margot watched the cattle cars and the group of people near it. Something about them caught her attention. Who were these people, and why were they here? They obviously didn’t have anything to do with the circus.

Several SS guards patrolled the periphery of the crowd, holding their rifles at the ready. Two large German shepherd dogs, sleek and dangerous, like vengeful ghosts, walked at the side of two of the guards.

Over the neighing of the horses and the racket of circus trailers being pushed, with squeaking wheels, onto flat cars, Margot made out crying children and men and women calling to each other. The uniformed men yelled orders, accompanied by occasional barking of the dogs.

Margot saw a flash of yellow on a young girl’s faded blue jacket; and suddenly, with horror, she realized who these people were. She squinted at the yellow stars on the jackets and dresses, her eyes burning. An old man, the star clearly displayed on his short-sleeved white shirt, leaned heavily on a girl, no more than fourteen. On her orange dress the star barely showed.

Margot dug her fists into her eyes. What happened there had nothing to do with her life, or with the circus. But these people were her people. As if drawn by a force greater than herself, she dropped her hands and watched.

A young mother held a screaming baby and with the other hand grasped a little boy, maybe three years old. She leaned into a young man whose black hat and locks marked him as an orthodox Jew. The young woman swayed with half-closed eyes, utter exhaustion etched into her face.

Two SS men forced open the doors of the first cattle car. The others herded the mass of tired people into lines in front of the doors, shouting, “Schnell, schnell.”
The crowd moved toward the open door, prodded by the SS guards’ rifles and occasionally nipped by the dogs.

Margot turned toward the safety of her circus. Maybe these Jews, some of them people she might be related to, really would be put to work. It wasn’t her concern. She needed to keep herself alive. She could do nothing else.

If she were safe, if she were Aryan, and if she were able to, she would turn toward them and try to do… something. Even so, what could she do? What could anyone do? Even a full-blooded German who’d show any sign of sympathy would be in danger of joining these people in their unholy trip. She put her hands between her knees and lowered her head in misery.

She needed to get away. She kept telling herself to get up and go to the front of the train, safe from this terrible sight. Her legs wouldn’t obey.

The young mother with her little family moved forward a few steps. The little boy, thumb in mouth, looked at Margot with big, dark eyes. With a jerk, he tore lose from his mother’s grip and pulled his thumb out of his mouth with an audible pop. Yelling, “Elephant! Elephant!” he raced toward Mary.

The mother screamed after him, “Solomon, come back!” She hugged the baby tighter, shot an imploring look at her husband, and screamed the boy’s name again. The young man helplessly watched his child running. He grabbed his wife’s arm, holding her to him. Tears streamed down his face.

“Shh,” he mouthed.

Solomon had been her father’s name. Margot couldn’t tear her eyes away from the little guy in his short black pants running toward Mary and herself.

One of the SS guards, smart black uniform hat shading his cadaverous face, barked an order to his dog. The dog bounded after the boy, silently, like the shadow of death. The child was but a few meters away from Margot and Mary. The dog snarled and grabbed him by the seat of his pants. The boy sat down hard, with a thud, and started to cry. The dog stood over him, growling. The SS guard barked another order, his voice loud and cold.

“Kill him!”

The dog stopped growling. The child screamed in panic.

Margot bit her lip hard. The salty taste of blood invaded her mouth. She cowered on her suitcase.

Next to her, three men finished loading the bear cage. Instead of jumping from the flatcar they stood riveted, watching. Everywhere men stopped working. The train official, in his smart gray uniform, sharply called them back to work. Shoulders slumped and men turned their backs to the scene.

The young mother held the baby to the crying father. He grabbed her around the shoulders, yelling, “Don’t, don’t!”

He clamped a hand over her mouth, and her eyes, bulging in fear, screamed louder than her voice could have.

The SS guard stood, his rifle at his side. A grin, like the rictus of death, disfigured his face. Anticipation glittered in his eyes.

Suddenly chains clanked. Next to Margot, Mary stepped forward as far as her chain would let her, stretched her trunk to its fullest extent, and trumpeted right into the dog’s ear. The dog hesitated, and, yelping like a whipped pup, ran back to its master, tail tucked in tightly.

The little boy picked himself up from the ground, a sob hitching in his throat. With a wondering look at the elephant he turned and toddled back to his family.

The guard, his dog hiding behind him, put his rifle to his shoulder. His lips tightened. He swerved the rifle between the child and the elephant.

Margot could stand it no longer. She got up from her suitcase and stood as tall as she could. She yelled, “This elephant is the property of the German Reich. It’s needed for the war effort.”

The guard hesitated and shrugged his shoulders. He lowered his rifle and turned toward the slowly moving group of people.

Solomon and his family had disappeared into the throng. Margot took a deep breath and bent to pick up her suitcase. Someone touched her shoulder, and she almost fainted.

“It’s all right. It’s just me,” Frau Walter’s familiar voice reassured her.

Margot breathed in as deeply as she could to steady her roiling stomach.

“You just did a brave thing, but it was foolish, too. That Nazi could have put you also on that train.”

“He wanted to kill the child,” Margot said, her voice shaking. “I yelled about Mary to distract him.”

“It worked. You also saved old Mary, by the way.” Frau Walter petted the wrinkled gray hide of Mary’s trunk.

Two roustabouts who had watched the scene came up to them. One of them smiled at Margot. The other one said, “You stopped him from shooting.”

Margot smiled back shakily, saying, “Yes. I’m glad.”

The roustabouts untied Mary to lead her to her trailer, and Margot picked up her suitcase. She glanced at the group of Jews. A few stragglers still got into the cattle cars, and the guard with the dog helped another guard close the doors on the first car.

“Let’s go,” Frau Walter said. “We want to be out of the sight of these monsters.”

She picked up Margot’s suitcase and resolutely marched on toward the front of the circus train. Margot followed, head bent and heart aching.