Fast Train to Zion by L M Rees

I run to the windowsill and sit cross-legged on the floorboards below, pulling my shawl around my shoulders. The first wisp of sunrise creeps through the broken glass. I unfold the map and hold it up to the dim glow. Mama is dressing in the corner. She’s muttering to herself again, something about the clothes still being damp. Tata and Uncle Zalman have already left so they’re going to be cross about the wet clothes too. My stomach is rumbling but I can’t worry about that now. I’ve got an important task to do. I must concentrate hard on these lines, these words, on this map of Poland.

I have to find Zion.

I start at the centre of the map and follow the black railway line with my finger right up to the top of our country. I know where top and bottom, left and right are. And I know about railway lines and rivers. Tata showed me yesterday. I go back to the centre and follow the black line again, this time all the way down.

‘Mama, I’ve found it.’

‘Is there nothing dry in this apartment?’

‘Mama.’

‘I hope it doesn’t rain today.’

‘Mama. It’s important. I’ve found Zion.’

Mama drops the pile of clothes on the floor with a dull thump and goes to the kitchen. I close my eyes and decide that today is another good day to travel all by myself. I imagine getting off the train and walking towards the hill. It’s warm and comfy here, my clothes are dry and my stomach is full. All the people around me are smiling, chatting, some are laughing. Those who got off the train with me are wearing woollen coats, but those further up the hill start to take off their shawls and hats. A lady with mermaid hair talks to me in a voice like melting ice cream. I’m going to like it here.

‘Vitka.’

I open my eyes and sit upright.

‘Keep your shawl on, Vitka, or you’ll get cold.

‘Sorry, Mama.’

‘What have you found?’

The beam of sunlight has faded but I can still see my map. ‘I’ve found Zion. It’s here.’

Mama sits next to me and wraps her arm around my shoulders. She points to the map with her bony finger. ‘Here we are in Łódż. Now, where do you think Zion is?’

I point to Zion on the map.

‘That, my little one, is the town of Zakopane. Remember when we went there on holiday?’

‘Can we go there by train?’

‘I don’t think we’ll be going back to Zakopane for a while.’

The grimy red glow of the sunrise spills back into our room and covers my map like a stain. It seems I haven’t found Zion after all, so I’ll have to start over.

Mama stands up. ‘You can reach Zion by being a good girl, working hard and looking after what we’ve got.’

She kisses my forehead and leaves. I’ll be here by myself until she comes back and it’ll be dark by then. Mama sews shawls and coats for German ladies all day but doesn’t bring any home for us.

I fold the map and put it on the windowsill, looking through the broken glass to see if I can spot the sun behind the sooty clouds. I wish Mordecai were here. I was always better at playing indoors than him, but I do get bored now he’s gone. He was only a year and a half older than me, but he could already reach the shelf in the kitchen where Mama keeps the biscuit jar. Sometimes Mordecai took more than he was allowed and she always thought Uncle Zalman was the thief. Mordecai used to like playing outdoors, until the day we went to work with Tata and Mordecai never came back. Tata was digging holes near the synagogue. Mordecai said Tata dug holes for dead people but I don’t know why dead people would need holes. It was fun working with Tata, until the soldier came and they started arguing. Mordecai shouldn’t have shouted at him. Mama always told us not to shout at anyone, even though she sometimes raises her voice. The soldier shot Mordecai and walked away.

That’s when Tata started telling me stories about the temple on the hill, and Elijah, and how we will all meet Mordecai again one day at the top of the hill. But I wish I were with him now. I’m not allowed to play outside anymore, even though Tata says our quarter is protected by a tall fence.

I pick up the map again and try harder.

Mama and Uncle Zalman are the first to come home. I want to tell them about my day; I know they’ll be impressed.

‘Why would they take us from our apartment and find us a better home elsewhere?’ Uncle Zalman says to her. ‘There is no Promised Land for us, Rachel, don’t be so naïve. I don’t care what they told you at the factory. It has no logic.’

‘That’s enough, Zalman.’

Mama is wiping tears with her sleeve. Maybe I’ll wait until later to tell them about my day.

‘Do you know where they’re sending our people?’ he says.

Mama sobs and beckons to me. I run over but stop just in front of her.

‘It’s no haven, Rachel.’

‘Not in front of Vitka,’ she snaps. I don’t know what they’re not supposed to do in front of me, but I’ve heard them argue hundreds of times.

‘Maybe she should know Mordecai was the lucky one.’

Mama takes my arm and pulls me into the kitchen. She crumples into the chair and hides her face in folded arms on the table. I take a few steps nearer and put my hand on her arm. She sniffs loudly but doesn’t move. I take a few steps back and close my eyes, trying to remember the train and the hill, the lady with the mermaid hair and the smell of fresh bread.

I hear our front door opening. I rush back to the living room; it must be Tata. He has a bundle stuffed under his shirt. I like it when he brings a secret bundle home, as there’s usually a present in there for me. Uncle Zalman has put the other chair in my favourite place by the window and he’s looking at my map. He looks up at Tata and says, ‘You’ve put on weight, Yakov.’

‘I may be the only fat Jew in Łódż at the moment, Zalman, but we’ll all be stuffed like pillows by the end of this evening.’

Tata walks over to me, removes the bundle and puts it on the floor. He sits down cross-legged on the creaky floorboard and pulls me onto his lap, wrapping me in his coat. He unties the knot at the top of the bundle.

‘You know what day it is today, Vitka?’

‘Yes, Tata.’

‘Good girl. Zalman, is our house clear of all unleavened bread?’

‘When was the last time our cupboards were full?’ He buries his head in my map but I don’t think he’s reading it properly. Tata didn’t show him how to, like he did with me.

Mama comes to the doorway and smiles at us. The three of us look inside the bundle to find eggs, meat, apples, walnuts, horseradish, parsley, and a packet of flour.

‘Where did you get all that, Yakov?’ says Mama.

‘I told you I have friends on the outside. Being a grave digger has its advantages, particularly if you dig a little tunnel under the fence at the edge of our quarter–’

‘Quarter?’ Uncle Zalman says. ‘They’re calling them ghettos now. You’ll get caught.’

He can be really grumpy sometimes.

‘Don’t worry about me,’ says Tata. ‘Now, let our Passover begin.’

At eight o’clock, just before the electricity gets turned off for the night, Tata lights some candles on the kitchen table. He shares a chair with Mama and I sit opposite them on Uncle Zalman’s lap. I can tell it’s going to be good night; it’s past my bedtime, we’ll all have plenty to eat and Tata will tell us stories.

‘I’m big enough to need my own chair now.’

‘And warm enough not to need firewood?’ says Uncle Zalman.

I nod my head.

We had special plates and bowls for Passover when I was really little, but we’re using our regular ones today. We all take a sprig of parsley and dip it in salt water. Tata says it’s to symbolise the tears of Hebrew slaves from years ago, before even Uncle Zalman was born. Tata breaks the flatbread in half and passes one piece, the afikoman, to Uncle Zalman. He’s supposed to hide it and, if I find it later, I can ransom it in return for a gift. He turns it over in his hands.

‘Go and hide it,’ says Tata.

‘There’s nowhere to hide in this place.’

I jump off Uncle Zalman’s lap and tug his arm. Mama gives him one of those looks she used to give Mordecai when he came home covered in mud and got it all over the carpet.

‘I mean there’s barely any furniture left to hide it, that’s all.’

‘Make an effort, Zalman.’

Uncle Zalman takes a candle and plods into the living room. I get back on the chair, proving I’m big enough to need my own chair now. Mama nods at me to ask the question.

‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’

Tata smiles at me widely. He’s going to tell the story of the Passover. He brings one of the candles closer to his face and looks at Mama and me to make sure we’re ready.

‘The Hebrew slaves lived in terrible conditions–’

‘And we live in luxury,’ says Uncle Zalman, coming back into the kitchen and nudging me off my new chair.

‘They worked hard, but for their labours received no payment from the Egyptians.’

‘I won’t mention the Nazis.’

‘Don’t then. Please continue, Yakov.’

‘For their labours they received redemption, not here on earth but–’

I interrupt. I know this bit. ‘If I work hard and look after what we’ve got, I will reach the Promised Land.’

I sit on the edge of the chair and try to push Uncle Zalman over a few inches.

‘Exactly, my darling,’ says Tata. ‘Well done. You see, Zalman, you often get more sense from a seven-year-old.’

‘Granted.’  

Tata tells the rest of the story and we sing my favourite song, “Dayenu”. We wash our hands in icy cold water. I wish it was warm. Uncle Zalman then places me on the floor next to the chair and breathes into my face, making me giggle.

‘What are you doing?’ asks Mama.

‘During the winter, I used to blow feathers out of my mouth to tickle Vitka’s face, didn’t I, Vitka?

I try to nod but a big yawn gets in the way.

‘Feathers?’ says Mama.

‘Condensed hot air, if you will. Don’t be so serious, Rachel.’

‘Plumes of smoke,’ I say, mid-yawn.

‘Mordecai liked it too.’

‘Plumes of smoke.’ I start giggling again and rubbing my eyes.

‘You can’t fall asleep until you’ve found the afikoman,’ says Tata.

I take a candle from the table, go into the living room and have a good look around. I reckon he’s hidden it under the floorboard where Tata keeps the books and maps. I place the candle on the floor and start pulling up the floorboard from its corner. I’m really sleepy but I’m not going to bed until I’ve found it. Mordecai would never have stopped looking until he found it and got his prize, and neither shall I. I lift the edge of the floorboard and lie down flat so I can reach, but my eyelids are sinking. All I can think about is the hill and Elijah. He’s coming to take me through the gates of Zion.

‘It’s here.’ A whisper.

‘Are we here?’ I ask.

‘It’s here Vitka. The afikoman.’ I open my eyes and sit up to see Uncle Zalman kneeling next to me pointing at the map of Poland.

I unfold the map and find the piece of flatbread.

‘Now go and claim your prize.’ Uncle Zalman winks at me. ‘Don’t tell them I helped you.’

I take the afikoman to Tata and get my reward. It’s a photograph. I’ve never seen a picture of myself before. I look chubby and shiny clean with a white dress and a ribbon in my hair. Mordecai is holding my hand and Mama and Tata stand behind us. We’re on the platform of Oświęcim railway station. Our names and “summer 1939” are written on the back of the photograph.

A scream. I think it came from downstairs. Mama stands and takes me in her arms. Tata tells us we should not listen and carry on getting ready for the ceremony of Elijah.

Shouting. Broken glass. Definitely from downstairs. Tata knocks under the table and says, ‘It’s Elijah. Vitka, open the door and let him in.’

I can hear heavy boots on the wooden stairs outside our living room.

‘What about Elijah, Tata?’

I can feel Mama’s arms shaking. ‘Don’t worry, my little one, Elijah’s already here. Stay away from the door.’

I try to wriggle free but she holds me tight. Our front door crashes open and two soldiers come in. They say something to Tata but I don’t understand anything, only his name. They point to Mama and then to the kitchen doorway. Mama takes me there and holds me tighter. It hurts.

‘I have a work permit,’ says Tata. ‘We can stay here.’

A soldier hits my Tata on the head and shouts. I can feel myself crying and I’m not tired any more. Uncle Zalman takes two pieces of paper from the shelf above the biscuit jar and hands them to the soldiers.

‘Mine and Yakov’s permits,’ he says.

Mama starts crying too. The soldier throws the pieces of paper on the floor and starts shouting at Mama and nudging her with a gun towards the front door. I scream. They shout again.

‘We’ve got to go quickly, my little one.’ She carries me to the front door but I don’t want to go. The other soldier points his gun at Tata and Uncle Zalman. The first soldier shouts again.

‘What are they saying, Mama?’

‘Fast.’ Her voice cracks. ‘Go fast.’

One soldier pushes us down the stairs. I hear the bang of the gun behind us. At the bottom of the stairs, there is another, quieter gunshot.

The blood red sunrise seeps through the carriage’s tiny window. I think I’ve slept all night. The train stops and me, Mama and all the other Mamas and children move onto the platform. We’re at Oświęcim railway station; maybe we’re on holiday again. Some people carry suitcases with their names and addresses painted on the sides, but Mama doesn’t have anything. We walk towards the gate.

Mama and I stand in a queue. People at the front give their names to a woman at a small desk. There are a few soldiers walking around, saying things to us. They can speak a few words of Polish but they sound funny. They can’t say ‘Oświęcim’ properly; they say ‘Awsh-vits’. Uncle Zalman would correct them if he were here.

When we’ve given our names, a tall man in a smart uniform beckons us towards the gate. He smiles at me. I think he may be Elijah. I tug gently at Mama’s sleeve and she tightens her grip on my hand, so I suppose she must be thinking the same thing. He leads Mama, me and some other people through the gate to a courtyard, then leaves. Maybe he isn’t Elijah after all, but I know he’ll be here soon. There are already a lot of other people in this courtyard. I look out for people I recognise from the hill, smiling people taking off their shawls and hats. I can see plumes of smoke rise behind a big building and I giggle to myself, thinking that Uncle Zalman is there blowing giant feathers at me and Mordecai. There’s a smell of overcooked bread, like smoke and ash.

We follow the other women and children to a large, square room, where they are getting undressed. The lady next to us tells us to join in. Silent women with short hair and striped shirts arrive, fold our clothes and take them away. The hiss of a water tap fills my ears and I close my eyes, waiting. I hope I’ll see Mordecai again soon. I look at the top of the hill, where a glistening sun rises behind a golden temple. I bow my head in prayer, ready to go through the gates of Zion.

About The Author

L M Rees has an MA in creative writing with distinction from the University of Wales. She won the Exeter Writers Short Story competition in 2021 with her story Stand Up. She has had short stories published in Lucent Dreaming, Yours Fiction and Writers’ Forum. Her non-fiction book
Mongolian Film Music: Tradition, Revolution and Propaganda was published by Routledge in 2015 and re-issued in paperback in 2020.

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