Refugee Train

IN THE weeks after I had passed fourteen, hardly a day went by in which my parents didn’t remind me that soon I would be a refugee. The word became part of parental rhetoric in the house. I suspect now that my father and mother pronounced it so often in order to familiarize themselves with it — to develop, perhaps, some mental calluses against the word, or to domesticate it as one domesticates and warms, by frequent use and comfortable complaint, a frost-haunted idea such as Old Age.

But the word would not yield. For we were members of a condemned race in the Vienna of 1939. When my mother left for the hairdresser, or I for school, we always kissed each other without admitting why. Each time might be the last. We lived from breath to breath. The supreme sound in the world was the footstep on the stairs. Outside, in the fine spring sun, troops of applechecked young men marched through the city and sang the Song of the Long Knives.

These dangers were bright and lethal and intimate. My father had been swallowed up by them and emerged again. But “refugee” was, for all of us, strangely beyond the imagination. I knew it had to do with being poor, with learning English and studying the mazed map of London. But none of these things plumbed the depth of the word. It became less fathomable the more quickly we approached it.

Our British visas arrived. The “Aryanization” of family properties was completed. My father decided to travel with my uncle and myself, and to let my mother and my aunt follow a few days later (the smaller the party, the less the danger). Clothing, books, dishes, the whole vocabulary of our daily existence, vanished into trunks. The great change was at hand.

It was barely dawn when my father, my uncle, and I walked to the taxi that would drive us out of our native street forever. Inside the cab my father slipped a heavy gold ring on my finger. The ring, I understood, had a sober purpose. As refugees in London we would have to live on what we brought, and we were permitted one piece of jewelry each. Yet the massive yellow band bedizened me. Its heavy gleam on my finger kindled the whole day into flamboyance. Our concierge, who must have discovered our departure after all, ran out of the house and to our surprise — for we had thought her sympathies uncertain — wept into a huge red-checkered handkerchief. A pebble hit the side of the car, an urchin’s voice pelted us with “Drive ‘em all the way to Palestine!”, and as the taxi turned the corner and my childhood bumped out of view, my father covered our heads and prayed for a safe journey.

Abruptly the station seized us, all color and fever. Tiers of soldiers, helmets polished by the sun, marched to a train, singing. Song also came from a group of Hitler Youth with their black velvet shorts and snow-white shirts, entraining, I think, for a picnic in the Vienna Woods. Great garish posters pulsed down from the walls, and beyond the glass walls of the station, on the rooftops all about us, a hundred ebony swastikas on a hundred crimson flags flared and fountained in the breeze.

But I who stood in line with my father and my uncle; I who plucked at the tightness of my blue beret and who saw the officer with the death’shead visor at the end of the queue (Judenpaesse — Jews’ Passports — it said above his desk); I who knew that such officers could give or withhold our traveling documents, could destroy, deliver, or — most usually — extort as they pleased; I, who was terribly afraid, didn’t feel a bit like a refugee. I felt closer than ever to the city, curiously fascinated by its glittering menace. I had never been in so clear and shiny and frank a Vienna; I thought I understood for the first time its cobbly twists, its baroque flourishes, and the gargoyles crouching in its nooks.

I even saw my father with a definition drawn newly out of the pressure, the dazzle of that morning. In “peace time,” as my parents had come to call the days before the Anschluss, he had been an abstracted pin-striped presence at the dinner table, and on Sunday a coffeehouse companion who would conscientiously debate soccer with his son before withdrawing behind newspapers to take “one glance at the situation” for the rest of the morning. Now, while we inched toward the Death’s Head, my father was quite changed. His deep tan from outdoor work at Dachau had not yet faded. The seven weeks of starving there still pinched his jaw into bold angles. This, together with his shaven skull, gave him the profile of a Red Indian. He was the last person I would have expected to be touched by the gusts of James Fenimore Cooper, my great boyhood author. Yet here he loomed up next to me, gaunt, wild, even a little absurd, wearing the black Loden coat he had worn ever since he had brought it back from the Camp, and which he would not go without even now, in the July heat. He glanced carelessly at the station clock, and as he stepped up to the desk of the Death’s Head and barked out in the prescribed Prussian manner our names, passport numbers, and destinations, I became, in the middle of my fear, astonished at something perverse, something oddly eager in my father’s eyes.

The Death’s Head listened with half-closed eyes. He pulled out a file, dozed over documents. With the lazy disgust of a man who decides to wave away a mosquito before slapping it, he remarked that we owed the Greater German Reich the sum of ninety thousand reichsmarks.

“Beg to point out, my tax clearance is here,” my father said.

“You didn’t hear me,” the Death’s Head said sleepily.

“Beg to report my family has been living on soup-kitchen tickets for the last ten weeks.” My father produced three depleted ticket booklets. I had never been in a soup kitchen nor seen the booklets before, but I recognized the insignia of the Jewish Welfare Board on which my father had served for many years.

The Death’s Head frowned at the evidence. His black sleeve swung toward my father’s face. My uncle cried out, but my father stood straight and keen. The Death’s Head marked a small x on his forehead. Then I felt crayon on my skin, and my uncle submitted to it. We were passed baggage. My father caught the sheaf of documents thrown at him, and suddenly we were running to get our train, tearing at our heavy bags; and while we heaved through the crowd and the engine blasted white impatience through the blue air, I heard my father’s cackle. It was really a cackle, a prankster’s giggle at having pulled a mad trick. It came out of a grimace that revealed in my father’s mouth two front teeth whose length and wolfishness I had not previously noticed.

The sight and sound infected me. We scurried so ridiculously, we staggered so drunkenly with the heaviness of our bags. It was all so funny and crazy and desperate. And again I fell that this reeling of ours through the crowded platform, this tripping over valises and stumbling across children, was truer than all the sedate promenading we had done in Vienna; truer than the many days when we had been deferred to, flattered yet not tolerated, when lips had smiled yet curled all around us. All those “peace years” had been polite fake. They had to be sat through as rough boys have to sit through the last school hour. Now the bell had rung release. The city came down on us, one giant and garlanded bully. And we ran for our lives with the exhilaration of our pursuers; we ran those last few yards of native soil in mischievous hysteria, pulling and panting, scrambling through farewell wishings and raised-hand hailings, through jeers and jokes and through the throwing of a tomato that splattered the suitcase of my father just as we climbed the platform of a third-class carriage.

THERE we rested. The palpitation of my heart became the palpitation of the wheels. For a moment I wondered if I shouldn’t be conscious of being a refugee now. Vienna was rolling away underneath. Tomorrow, if all went well, we would step out of the train into a fresh universe. Still I could summon no solemn sense of metamorphosis or liberation.

I was glad when my father beckoned and the heavy suitcase handle yanked me back into his frantic spoof. It seemed logical, it was excellent, that instead of wiping away the tomato splotch he should put out a tasting linger. And after we had toiled our luggage across a giddy connection bridge onto a carpeted corridor, it seemed right that the first-class conductor should wear spectacles of an immense steel-rimmed dignity ill-supported by a clownish pygmy of a pink nose. He threw his head back in anger and asked what we thought we were doing. With another head toss he refuted my father’s tickets: we had no reservations; the whole matter was typically disorderly (“typically” in such cases always referred to our race); we had better report to the trainmaster.

And then it seemed quite natural that my father should affect obedience — that he should lead us slowly in the direction of the conductorial forefinger until the pink pygmy nose was out of sight, and that he should then, suddenly, with another cackle, swerve into a first-class compartment where sat a one-eyed Major of the Wehrmacht.

My father brought his heels together, bowed, rapped out “Permission?”

The Major turned his head slowly from the book he was reading. I remember him well. His peaked cap lengthened his long head and conspired with his long, flat nostrils to suggest a pale and precise stallion. His black patch made him look like one of those piebalds that are spotted over one eye. He took us in for two full seconds. He didn’t say a word. His head began to move back to the book again, but just when I considered ourselves cast out, his hand reached for the wine bottle in the middle of the compartment table and pulled it back toward his side. We were admitted.

My father clicked “Thank you.” My uncle and I stowed luggage. And as soon as we were ensconced the door burst open with the conductor’s indignation. “This is incredible!”

“We have the Herr Major’s permission,” my father said politely, securing a loose window shade.

“Really!” said the conductor. The Major, deaf, read his book and sipped his wine. The conductor cleared his throat officially. Perhaps to gain time, he asked for the ticket of the Herr Offizier. The Major reached promptly into His coat pocket and with a small thud unfolded his billet. An instant later my father presented our tickets with the same promptness and unfolded them with an identical thud. The exact repetition created a mirage of solidarity between the Major and my father. It reduced the conductor to a sardonic “Ja so?” The bite of his puncher into our tickets intended viciousness but sounded impotent, like a foot stamp. He didn’t counterattack until he strutted out, and then only with a long, sardonically drawn out “Interessant!” which intimated that the matter was far from settled.

Today you may find cunning in my father’s behavior. For us then it was sheer sudden mania, yet a madness wonderfully armed against the madness all around us. He sat on the scarlet plush in his black coat. More than ever he looked like a stoic, savage Cherokee. The unreason that lived in his eyes was like a talisman to us. He proposed we practice English. My uncle began to drill me in auxiliary verbs. The mystery of “refugee” rose as usual out of the print-smell of my primer. But it couldn’t fasten on my mind though with each bend of the Danube the known world fell still further behind. The stampede of landscapes seemed as insubstantial as the conjugation of “I am,” “I can,” “I have.” Only the bright cushions of our coupe were real. I felt snug among its prodigies and perils.

AND so Upper Austria floated away in green waves toward the horizon. The sun crawled up the window like a fabulous insect. I became hungry. I watched the wine level dropping in the bottle of the one-eyed Major who read and sipped, silent and steady, one knee folded neat above the other, the book held before his face like a mask, half Buddha, half spotted horse. I had a marvelous sense of closeness with whatever was to come.

The Bavarian hills welled up, subsided. In Franconia the dining-room steward wove chanting through the length of the train. The officer rose to an unsuspected height, deposited his cap, disclosed crushed blond curls, and, walking out, compressed himself into what seemed not only a stoop but a bow. I was hungry; I resented so prosaic a need in the middle of the dark wonders of our voyage. But I was so hungry. I watched everybody stream past our compartment toward the sign that ornamented the diner entrance at the end of the car. The sign said, with beautifully curlicued gothic letters, JEWS FORBIDDEN. A candy vendor shouted his way through the aisle. My heart hoped, my stomach prayed, my father was already poised. But the conductor materialized, whispered into the vendor’s ears, pointed at us through the glass door. The vendor went on.

And then the train pulled into Nuremberg. “Watch,” my father said. He pulled the curtain down the door. And before I saw how, he had put on the Major’s cap and greatcoat. Again it wasn’t the foolhardiness of his action that struck me, but the fact that this grinning desperado, who even look time out to mock the goose step, had once been my pin-striped “peace time” father. A moment later he leaned out of the window with a Prussian thrust, waving a bill and bellowing at platform concessionaires. Then the Major’s cap and greatcoat were in place again and we had six steaming sausages, six hunks of black bread, and six mounds of mustard, and were munching away.

By the time the Major returned I was once more lazing over English participles. He rolled the door open with such a bang that I sat up in terror. I thought our bootlegged feast had been discovered. But the Major, as if to make up for his explosive entrance, resumed his seat in silence and with a curious stiff gravity. He placed a white paper bag on the table, for some reason closer to me than to himself. He had also brought a new wine bottle, already half empty and growing emptier still as he took stately sips. He fixed me, me specifically, with his concentrated glance, and then sank back and appeared to fall asleep.

But I didn’t believe him. I didn’t like the way he had stared at me. His middle finger kept tapping slowly against his knee. I had the shuddery intuition that the moment his “good” eye had closed, the other one had started to see. The black eye-patch became a huge fierce pupil which drilled right through my skin. I tried to escape. But no matter in which direction I twisted, his head seemed to follow me. I tried to find refuge in the window. The gingerbread scenery of Franconia hastened away from a livid sunset, much too busy to give me relief. My father sat stoic and soundless. My uncle didn’t rescue me with a grammatical challenge though we hadn’t yet covered irregular verbs. The compartment grew dusky to the wheels’ metallic, monotonous excitement. I was delivered to the persecution of the Cyclopean eye. And then the other eye sprung alive, as I’d known it would. The officer impaled me on his single prong, said in a high-pitched North German accent:

“A young man who lets his ice cream melt is nothing but a brat.”

I was stunned. My father, though, snapped to. He lifted a big soggy ice-cream cup out of the white bag.

“Eat the ice cream the Herr Major brought!”

“A wooden spoon is attached for the convenience of our young wastrel,” the Major said bitterly at the liquid mess.

I used the spoon. I ate. With the mono-glance still leveled at me, I tasted no flavor, only wetness. I licked steadily while the Major, ceremonious and somnambulistic, his visible lid closed, took sip after sip. It was the most fathomless ice-cream cup I have ever encountered.

“Opportunities must be taken to the fullest,” the Major said, a shade less implacable, “especially by people who need them.”

“Yes, sir,” my father said.

“Our side is taking our opportunity to the fullest.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I therefore expect die other side to take its opportunity to the fullest.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then there can be fairness. Because fairness is possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

All of a sudden the Major stood up. “One can drink to that!” He reached behind him into a leather bag, and with three categorical gestures produced three glasses for us.

“I am entitled to drink to that with intelligent persons no matter who,” he said, icy, to an invisible heckler, poured the last of the bottle into the new glasses, and threw it, with a fine shocking curve, into the streets of Frankfurt that had begun to flank us.

“A toast to fairness,” he said, lifting his glass.

“Thank you, sir,” my father said, and imitated him along with my uncle.

“No one is too young to lift his glass to that!” the Major thundered, for the childhood taboo against “intoxicants” had made me hesitate for a second.

“We have the honor to toast fairness!” the Major proclaimed from his impressive altitude. “To decency! To honest opportunities! To no hard feelings!”

With each exclamation his arm rose higher. It must have been a strange spectacle, our disparate foursome performing a rite in a side-shaking coupé. I didn’t see its end because I closed my eyes before the unknown impact of alcohol.

SOMETHING formidably tart bit my mouth and stung me. At the same time the train jumped to a halt. Perhaps the Major’s glass was jolted out of his hand, perhaps he threw it down to observe the custom. At any rate there was a silver splintering, a great shouting of “Frankfurt!”, a banging of doors and a wildness of porters, and almost instantly the evening sagged soft, heavy, wayward, into my life’s first tipsiness. The hours that followed held danger and significance, but I can’t give a responsible account of them since my own experience didn’t happen to me but disported itself at a certain frivolous distance in the form of errant masks and jumbled pageants.

A gnome-like orderly, for example, flashed up and vanished with all the Major’s belongings and, so it appeared, with even the Major himself on his back. A big woman with a fur piece gaped and dissolved. The conductor came, his puncher gnashing at our tickets; a horde of other travelers, tramping, intruding, disintegrating — and then nothing. The clatter of wheels again, like distant hoofs in the abrupt night, blackness, and my father huddled in the shadow of his Laden coat; a huge jagged ghost afloat in the dark, probably the Cathedral in Cologne. Resumption of darkness, of the hoofs, and — of a sudden — our coupé blinding bright, littered with the contents of our luggage, and a man with a gray uniform and a red mustache grubbing into our bags like a mole, plowing up heaps of trousers, shirts, soaps, books. The conductor leaning by the door, his glasses aglint and agloat. And the conductor leaping to hold up a little jewel box. Here my memory comes alive with sound. The Red Mustache, a portentous bass, blared that the smuggling of jewels by Jews meant automatic arrest, forfeiture of passports. My father had to fish out a key. The little box snapped open. An Iron Cross lay on blue velvet. My father cackled a cough, explained that this was his cousin’s decoration, awarded posthumously during the Great War, for heroic resistance against the Russians. He begged permission to take it with him. The Red Mustache became thoughtful even though there was no such cousin. And the cross looked like one of the many medals my father had produced at his plant. While my thoughts floundered over such contradictions, the Red Mustache was succeeded by a pink-cheeked man in a green uniform. The train rolled again. My father pulled down the door shade, took out his jackknife, and scratched into the Iron Cross a crevice of laughing gold. And only then did I realize that my father had perpetrated another grotesque hoax — and that we had done it, we had passed the border, we had actually passed the German border, we were in Holland. Now we must truly be refugees.

During the rest of the journey my lame brain wrestled with that realization. I recall mistily that the electric luggage van on the Hook of Holland transferred not only our bags but also myself, and that this caused amusement around me. Later, on the boat, the salted Channel wind blew some alertness into my mind, but I still couldn’t focus on a sense of relaxation or relief or of entering a new existence. On the contrary, the highly varnished blue-gold dome of the summer seamorning closed over my head with a resonant chaos remarkably like the oceanic station hall in Vienna of the day before. The same sun which had glittered on the swastikas now bounced off the white lifeboats of the ferry. The world swung above whitecaps, dipped below gull cries. Loudspeakers chorused “Roll Out the Barrel . . .” Floods of French tourists clattered and chattered down on us. They screamed with each pitch of the boat, as on a roller coaster in an amusement park, and asked my father (my uncle being busily seasick) to snap them against life preservers. My father complied. Then he anchored himself on a valise, watchful as ever in his Loden, waiting.

Waiting for what? For the soil of England, which felt gratifyingly solid but no different from the one we had fled? For the old lady in the train compartment, who knitted black wool and whose pensive pale-nosed silence created in my groggy mind the mad fancy that she was making an extra eye-patch for the Major? For the unending succession of red roofs and green hedges which hypnotized me to sleep again? London’s dun-colored clangor which burst my eyelids open? The taxi that brought us through a hazy, veering street hive to the flat my uncle’s “contact” had secured for us? Or for the room into which we were finally led by a seventeen-year-old girl with a pink strap falling down her bare arm?

MY FATHER had, of course, been waiting for that room. We all had. That room triumphed over my hangover. It swept aside even the pink strap which, to my fourteen-year-old sheltered self, was an enormity. The room contained, even if it didn’t immediately offer, the final truth of our journey.

It was a huge room. “A suitable two-fam’ly room.” as the girl said, waving at the curtain that ran through the middle. It was a room into which, she promised, “the Mum” would enter in a moment to greet us. It was a room dark, low, breathtakingly dusty. Dust festooned the paper lampshades with its flakes; dust made the sunken armchairs look like scaly hippos; dust covered the unwashed dishes in the sink and hung from the wall phone. Dust slept on the room’s lumpy landscape like snow and lent it the air and mood of dream. The room was in many ways the most startling marvel of our trip.

My father took one of the slipcovers that lay, for some reason, stripped next to an easy chair and applied it against a wall. A small avalanche of flakes fell; a white spot showed up. My father, abstracted, produced white spots all over the wall. From corner to corner he walked, poising the slipcover. My uncle and I watched him and strolled tranced among the furniture like sightseers among famous ruins.

And then “the Mum” came down on us. She screamed even before she entered, as if she had just been violated in the hallway. She was a ruddy, chunky creature with a florid badge-ofoffice housecoat that swarmed behind her as she ran up to the slipcover my father had used. She picked up the dust-smudged cloth to cry “My best! If it isn’t my best! Ja!” Against the gray dunes of the room she stood like a pagan priestess in her purple gown, holding the smudged slipocver aloft with one flaring sleeve, pointing with the other in declamatory pantomime at a number of objects and pouring out geysers of what sounded to me like a forgotten heathen language.

And not until she strode away in a ferocious hiss of skirts, not until she removed the key from the door with a mighty yank and streamed out of sight and down the stairs with a rumble and a mutter, not till then did I understand what she had meant. She had meant that she had given us her foremost, her largest room; the one, as she had pointed out, with the extension phone on the wall here; the one with the hassock there; the one with these, her best slipcovers, which she had been about to put on the chairs. And we had befouled her offering by befouling her slipcovers. We had ruined them beyond bleaching. And she had made them herself. Not if she were down to her last farthing did she want to be dependent on such guests. We were finished. We were evicted before we moved in.

We stood dazed in the dusk of the room. My father whispered. He held an accounting consultation with my uncle, of which the conclusion was that an “adjustment” would be cheaper than finding a new place by means of a new taxi. He held a spelling consultation with my uncle, and on one of the parchment envelopes from our escritoire wrote FOR DAMAGES. Into it he folded a ten-shilling bill. Cackling again, he gave it to me together with a clap on the shoulder.

“Give it to her,” he said.

And I went forth with a certain goose-pimpled keenness. I wonder now if I wasn’t hoarding my goose-pimples. Perhaps I had already discovered that terror successfully survived becomes adventure, and that all our Nazi suffering would someday become an unadmitted treasure. I do remember stepping down the stair carpet, whose mousy gentility was rained on by chipped plaster from the wall, and I remember listening with curious contentment to each gaudy squeak my footsteps made, smelling the sweetish stale scent the whole house exhaled at each pressure of my foot as though it were one gigantic and mildewed perfume atomizer. At the first landing I met the girl, her strap brash as ever. I hid my piquant paralysis behind a lack of language. “Mum?” I asked, indicating curves of housecoat. She gestured back: thumbed downward and raised two exquisite and slightly soiled fingers. I thanked her with an almost Continental bow and went down for two more stories until I reached an open door.

Behind it, talking into a telephone, was “the Mum.” From the wrought-up cascades of her gown I knew she was speaking to my father. One nod of hers at my envelope brought me inside the hall and had me deposit my burden on a table next to a sleeping cat as dusty as anything else in the house. Another nod dismissed me.

And so I walked upstairs again. This time I didn’t have to cope with a pink strap. But suddenly I became aware of sounds which I had heard but not understood on my way down — the code, the language, new to me, of a building with thin walls. Coughs, groans, passions, secrets, even boredoms rode the air. And it seemed to me, climbing through the many-tongued twilight of the staircase, that I had been traveling the whole past day through a long tunnel that began at our house in Vienna, and along whose windings there still stirred in niches the Death’s Head with the crayon, the bespectacled conductor, the one-eyed Major, the customs-inspector mole, the Frenchmen on the boat crying “Voulez-vous . . .”, the English lady knitting a black silence — a tunnel that finally widened into the musky murmurous grotto of this London house and ended before the askew bronze knocker and mottled green paint of a door.

I opened the door. I entered our room again. And the moment I did, our whole journey fell away from me. The tunnel died. I saw that we were staying. My uncle was unpacking. We had been pardoned by “the Mum,” we had arrived. My father was washing dishes in the sink. He actually washed dishes, and it was a heartbreakingly small and mean action for a man who had done such deeds on our voyage. Yet here he was. his black Loden coat doffed, his Red Indian self dead-crumpled on a sooty chair. He stood bent behind the sink, fumbling wetly.

And I believed it. I saw, for the first time, that my father’s hair was beginning to grow back except for a bald spot in the middle. I saw it because the electricity had been turned on, a weak watery yellow that drizzled down from a nude light bulb — a light that rinsed fantasy from all the dust and left only its drabness. I saw tacked on the coarse wood of the dresser the address of the Rescue Committee where my father and my uncle would go tomorrow in the hopes of finding a job. I heard the vast impassive roar of the foreign city all around us, and I stood still, barely beyond the threshold of the room. I put my hands in my pockets because I felt so frozen. I believed it all, and my heart shivered as your heart shivers when you must leave the theater after the show and walk in the hard cold streets that you must live in, must believe in all the days of your life. The magic and the madness were over.

I took my hands out of my pockets and stripped off the gold ring even before being asked. I knew the ring would have to be sold. It had come upon us. I was a refugee.