Paris, August, 1945
In 1940, when I was twelve, I lived in the Centre-Val de Loire, in the town of Montoire with Mama, Papa and my ten-year-old sister, Machla, who was small for her age but very determined. At bedtime Papa would scoop her up, making her chortle and twist as he tickled her sides. That would make me and Mama laugh.
I could never fall asleep until I heard the cluck of Machla’s throat and felt her pats of breath on my cheek. In the morning, when I whispered, “Machla, there are trains coming.” She would be out of bed and at the window, grinning towards the distant tracks.
Each day after school we sat and watched the trains appear through the tunnel that lay a short distance from the station. We could tell a train was coming when the tracks began to whine and we could feel the push of warm air through the tunnel.
There were the freight trains from Poitiers and Bordeaux, the elegant passenger cars from Paris, and at dusk, the camouflaged military trains with their gun nests and sullen-faced soldiers. Papa said those trains carried armaments surrendered by Petain, weapons to be used in the war we could feel under our feet. Some people in town said it was the liberation of Paris by the people of Germany. Others, like Papa, kept to themselves, “It is a time to be invisible.” he said.
One cold October morning we saw Papa in a crowd in the town square reading a notice.
All residents are to remain in their homes for 24 hours beginning midnight 21st October. By order, Schutzstaffel.
“With no compensation for lost pay.” he muttered.
“What is it Papa?” asked Machla. He did not answer.
“It’s the train,” said Mr Marchand. “A train full of ravens.”
Papa took our hands tightly and led us briskly away. Papa did not like Mr. Marchand.
That night we huddled under the sheets, whispering. What did Mr Marchand mean about ravens? Our curiosity was such that all sense left us.
In the early hours of the 21st day of October, Machla’s bisque dolls began to rattle on the dresser. “It’s here, Maxime!” We pressed our faces to the window and watched the Gargantua creep to a stop in the distance. A minute later couplings clunked and the monster backed itself into the tunnel.
We tiptoed through the kitchenette, slipped into our shoes, and with the bite of cold on our faces, made our way through the streets and into the long grass across from the tunnel. Steam hissed and sprayed from its entrance while in the shadows the locomotive idled.
“We have to get closer.” Machla was up and running. I caught her at the entrance where we crouched in the dimness, breathing in the rasped steam. Then the moon broke through, bathing us in light; we ran into the tunnel.
The locomotive evolved before us. A BR52 class, the most powerful in the world with giant driving wheels and a boiler the size of a tram. Machla cocked her neck to feel its warmth on her cheek. “It’s beautiful.”
She was on the move again, running further into the darkness, her slightness silhouetted by the light of a carriage further along. I nearly stumbled as yet another BR52 locomotive came into view, then a flak wagon, with nests of guns at each end, their barrels directed skywards. Then the first passenger car, its light forming shapes on the slant of the tunnel, the faint sound of music drifting from an open door. Machla pointed. A nameplate. Amerika
Flickering lamplight and boots on gravel sent us scurrying under the carriage. Chatter, the waft of tobacco. I could have reached out and touched the shiny black boots. I wanted them to move away so we run home to Mama and Papa. But more men came, resting their rifles against the tunnel wall. It was hard to cry and not make any noise.
After a time, the locomotive’s engines growled, couplings clunked then took the strain as Amerika inched forward.
My body rolling between the trundle wheels, Machla and I making our way back home, silently into the alcove and under the sheets. Mama waking us with hot milk and grain bread. Papa kissing our foreheads before setting off for his day. But the moment had passed. I buried my face into the sharp gravel.
I awoke in dim light. My throat, dry and sticky. A hand cupped behind my neck. Water against my lips. Her voice, soft and kind, “There you are.” Mama, gaunt and weary. Then Papa, maddened, his hands trembling against the sides of my skull, his thumbs pressing into my wounds. “There is nothing left of her!” Mama had to drag him away.
When I returned home, all I could do was sit at the window while Mama did her best to calm Papa, who had taken to drink. I covered my ears trying not to listen, trying not think about the ravens picking over Machla’s bones.
Friends bought food and offered help. One said another notice had been posted, that Amerika was returning. When Mr. Marchand came to visit, Papa ran him out of the house. “Traitor pig!” Mr. Marchand spotted me in the window as he gathered himself. He smiled. I ducked from view.
That night I dreamt of laying on the track, underneath the train. Light flickered against the tunnel wall. A shadow in a doorway. I dash between the wheels and watch her wave. She’s alive.
Crouching behind houses and hedges, I carefully made my way in the daylight towards the station. I lay in the long grass, watching leather clad men as they stepped from long black cars onto red carpet. An orchestra played. Buoyant. Patriotic. Keeping low, I ran into the tunnel. A minute later, I pressed myself against the wall as Amerika eased past while on the platform, aides hurried to reposition the carpet when the carriage overshot its mark; soldiers and officials nudged each other along.
Minutes passed before the latch of the carriage door clicked and turned. The orchestra lulled then stopped. A man of small stature stepped onto the platform. Immaculately dressed in military browns and clean shaven, he walked with a limp and had a thin mouth that pointed down at the corners. Another man in a modest jacket and armbands stepped forward. Mr. Marchand? When the man in brown turned back to the carriage, a small girl floated into view and into his arms. “Machla!”
A soldier jumped from the platform, striking me across the face with a pistol. A voice rang out in French. “You there! Stop what you are doing! That is my brother!” The soldier took me by the neck and threw me onto the platform. “You must stop that!” cried Machla.
“You there,” said the man holding Machla, his French perfect. “Step over here.” I could not feel my legs as I moved forward. “This is your brother?”
“Yes. This is Maxime.” said Machla, bloodying her hand on the side of my face. She seemed comfortable in his arms.
“I see.” He stared at me, expressionless, no colour in his eyes, just black. It frightened me…it frightened me.
“So, take her,” he said, shifting on his feet, making me flinch. “Be happy. And my kind wishes to your father. He should keep a better eye on this precious one.” He passed Machla into my arms. “Escort them home.” Mr. Marchand gathered us. We followed the red carpet out into the street.
Machla buried her head in my neck, her warm breath musky and familiar. Mr. Marchand held one of his arm bands against my face as we walked. “You know,” he said. “That’s why I came by yesterday. To tell your papa a girl had been found on the train…,” he hesitated, staring at the bloodied arm band. “He was angry, Maxime, your papa.” I didn’t know what to say. I was too happy.
Mama fell to the ground when she opened the door. Papa appeared from inside and scooped Machla into his arms, squeezing her so tightly she yelped. He looked down at me then at Mr. Marchand. Papa pushed us inside and slammed the door.
For days Papa did not speak to me or let me near him.
“Why won’t Papa speak to me?”
“He is very upset about Machla being on the train, with those men.”
Machla appeared in the doorway. “But the men on the train were good to me, especially Joseph. He has a broken foot, and, well, me with my size. And Mama, he has seven children, seven!” Machla dotted the air as she named them in quick succession, “Hildegard, Helga, Heltmut, Hedwig, Holdine, Harald and Heidrun and they all live in a big house on an island. And there was another man, the one everyone liked speaking to. He liked my drawings and said he was an artis—”
“That’s enough Machla!’ yelled Papa from the bedroom. It gave us all a dreadful fright, Machla began to cry. “They were nice men! And I liked being on their train!” Papa ran from the bedroom, fists shaking at his side. Mama threw herself between them, “No Levi. Let her be.” Papa just stood there, snorting like a bull. “To your room, both of you.’ said Mama, softly.
Later, Machla explained what happened that night. When she heard the men’s voices, she ran for the carriage door. “It was so warm. I hid behind the biggest chair I have ever seen. After a while, the train started moving but I stayed where I was. The floor was soft and I was cosy.” She was discovered by a cleaner, who raised the alarm. “There were so many men with guns and I was quite afraid. Until Joseph appeared. He picked me up and took me into another carriage. I told him how sorry I was for being a sneak and how we just wanted to see the train. He was kind and accompanied me on a tour of the train. Oh, Maxime, it was beautiful! Blue and red velvet, timber with squirly patterns and the bathroom had a gold faucet with hot water! And every car had its own telephone, they were always ringing. Then, when we arrived in Hendaye, I had to stay on the train. But I didn’t mind, I had pencils and paper and a comfortable bed to nap on and I gorged myself silly.”
She said the journey back was just as good but the man who had liked her drawings began raising his voice to the other men. “Joseph told me he had met with an important Spanish man, who had made him angry. I told him that Papa always says there’s a good time coming and not to be mad.”
I’m sure, in time, Papa would have forgiven me. But we did not have that. Not long after, on a sunny day in Montoire, another train came.
Wilson J. Wilson 2019
Author Notes: Maxime spent four years in Bergan-Belson before the camp was liberated by the Americans on the 5th June 1945. He is the only member of his family to survive. He now lives in Paris.