To protect themselves from Hitler, Ayden’s family must split up
MARCH. MARCH. The sounds and sights of the dozens of uniformed men who walked beneath our fourth-floor apartment were tormenting. The street, located in a nice part of Warsaw, Poland, used to be so pretty. Flowers would bloom in the spring, and in the summer we would play on the stoops. In autumn, the leaves would dance to the ground in the crisp air. In winter, the snow came. It fell in beautiful heaps, covering the frozen ground.
Now it was spring. The street was drab and ugly, and Hitler’s flags hung from every building. I ran to the window, my three sisters flocking behind me. I poked my head out the window.
“Who’re they?” I wondered of the men on the street.
“Ayden! Get away from the window!” Papa snapped in a low, urgent voice.
“Why?” I wondered. I was only nine then.
“Just do it.” My sisters and I pulled away from the window.
“How about the four of you go to your bedroom. Bring a game,” Mama suggested. “But stay there. Papa and I need to talk.” I groaned. It was awful to have to share a room with three younger sisters, and my parents had been promising that we would move. At this point, however, it was impossible for Jews like us to move anywhere. We reluctantly went into the room and shut the door.
We were in there for the majority of the afternoon. We tried eavesdropping, but it was to no avail. Eventually, Mama and Papa came to let us out. Over the supper table, we learned of the news that would change our lives.
“Ayden, Rachel, Leah, Sarah,” Mama said. “We have something to tell you.”
Papa continued. “Hitler is making it unsafe for us here. We must leave. And to do that, we must split up.”
His words pounded in my head like a gong. Unsafe? How could we be unsafe here, on this street where I’d lived my entire life? How could we split up? Where would I go?
“Mama and I are going someplace safe, but we can’t tell you where. Girls, we are sending you to friends in England. Ayden, we must smuggle you to Switzerland . . .”
Switzerland? Why did I have to be separated from my sisters? How would I survive? The table swirled in front of me, and Papa’s voice became muffled.
“. . . in a curtain. Understand, Ayden?”
Papa pursed his lips the way he did when he was annoyed. “A curtain. We are smuggling you to Switzerland in a curtain. An old friend of Mama’s works on a train. We are going to wrap you in a curtain. Then we are going to put you and the curtain into a crate. You will go with the cargo on the train. Mama’s friend will watch you. She will get you to a safe place.”
Papa spoke slowly and in short sentences to soothe me. Mama rubbed my back, and gradually my shortened breaths lengthened to normal. Still, I blinked back tears and tried to swallow. “When?” I managed to choke out.
Papa and Mama exchanged a glance, as if they knew their next words would break me. “Tomorrow afternoon,” Mama said softly.
I began to sob, wiping my tears on the rim of my shirt. Tomorrow? No! I
couldn’t just leave my home like that!
I don’t remember the rest of that night—my sisters breaking down as well—but the next morning we all woke on the couch with red-rimmed eyes.
Papa tried to make the morning cheerful, saying that since we were leaving, there was no need to ration the food in the pantry, while Mama went to talk to her friend on the train. We had an excellent breakfast, but none of us could hide the fact that we could hardly bear to go.
Just past noon, my sisters left. Papa and Mama told me to say goodbye quickly, and then Rachel, Leah, and Sarah, with Mama to accompany them, were gone.
I wanted to cry, but there was no time. Papa pulled down the curtain over the sitting room window and wrapped me in it. He threw me over his shoulder, and we left the apartment. All I had with me were the clothes on my back. In my left hand was a sandwich, and in my right, I clutched the mezuzah from my bedroom door: a small, ornate box containing verses from the Torah. To me, it was a sign of home, a sign that I would be reconnected with my family.
I couldn’t see even the faintest spot of light through the curtain, so I only knew we had reached the train station by the WHOOT! WHOOT! of the train.
I felt Papa be pulled aside, and I was set down. “Ayden?” he asked.
“I have to go soon. Ana will take good care of you on the train.”
“Okay.” I tried to keep my voice level, but underneath the curtain, I was crying.
“Hi, Ayden,” said an unfamiliar voice. “I’m Ana.”
I was squished a bit to fit in the box, but it wasn’t too bad. “Goodbye,” I heard the muffled voice of Papa say, choking on his words. “I’ll see you again, Ayden.”
I began to shake, tears streaming down my face. Why was this happening? Then I was lifted up and placed on the train.
The trip took a few days. I settled into a half-awake, half-scared-to-death state for most of it, startled every time the train hit a bump or jerked to a stop, terrified that someone would find me.
Ana slipped bread and a bottle of water into my crate two or three times a day and, as far as I know, sat by me all the time.
The only times I made noise were when I had to relieve myself. Ana would guide me to a corner, and when I was done, back to the curtain and crate. I could never see my surroundings. I never saw her face.
Finally, at some point, Ana whispered that we had arrived. I was picked up and carried to what I assumed to be outside. The sound of dozens of people talking was foreign after my days on the train. I tried to make out bits of conversation, but it wasn’t Polish.
I stopped moving, and Ana started speaking to someone. “Yes, this is him,” she told the person in Polish. “Ayden,” she addressed me, “I have to go now.” I was so tired of those words. I had gotten used to the train, and to be displaced again? My eyes felt watery, but no tears came. I wondered if I had cried so much that there were no tears left in me. Ana continued, “I’m handing you off to Mr. Berre. He and his wife will take care of you until your parents come.”
“Okay,” I managed.
I felt the crate be handed over, and I started moving. “We’ll set you down when we get to a quieter part of the train station. Then you can get out of the box,” said a man I assumed was Mr. Berre.
My journey was over. Now what?
The prospect of getting to be free, and stand again, was delightful, but I was ambivalent. My curtain and box had become a sort of haven that I was hesitant to leave behind. They reminded me of Papa and our sitting room. Home. I gripped my mezuzah even tighter. Would I ever return?
Mr. Berre set me down and opened the crate. I heard the top hit the ground. He carefully lifted my curtain, set it on the ground, and began to unravel it. I was expecting him to be old, with graying hair, but the face that peered down on me, the first face I’d seen since Papa wrapped me up, was more youthful, with black, moppy hair, green eyes, a crooked nose, and chiseled features.
“Hello,” he said. “You must be Ayden. I’m Mr. Berre, or Elias, if you’d prefer.”
“Hi,” I said quietly. I wiped my face with my sleeve in an attempt to clean up and blinked fiercely, trying to adjust to the light. I tried to stand, but my balance was wobbly, and I clutched Mr. Berre for support. “Easy,” he said. “Just take it easy. We’ve got only a little way to walk before we get on the train.
“My wife, our daughter Zoe, and I live in the country, so it’s quite a ways from the center of a city like this one.”
I nodded mutely as we boarded the train and sat down on the soft, red seats. I was trembling with uncertainty. My journey was over. Now what? Would the Berres be nice? How long would I stay here? What would my life be like? Even more, I now wondered what type of train had taken me to Switzerland. I had so many questions, but I didn’t trust myself to talk. Eventually, I forced one out. “What language are they speaking?” I nodded to the people across from us, who were deep in conversation.
“French. We’re in the French part of Switzerland.”
“Do you speak French?”
“I don’t. Will I learn?”
I nodded and leaned my head against the window, content to watch our train leave the station and the city. From what I saw, the city was large, like Warsaw. Oh, Warsaw. Home. I missed home. I began to shake more, rubbing my mezuzah for comfort.
I was so confused, so scared. Why did Hitler not like Jews? Why did I have to leave? Mr. Berre must have noticed my discomfort, because he spread the curtain over me like a blanket. I buried my head in it, desperate for some familiarity, even if it was the darkness of the curtain, and fell asleep.
When I woke and poked my head out from under the curtain, the view out the window was of lush grass and scattered farmhouses, all beneath a vibrant expanse of blue. It all seemed like a joke, a place being this pretty and serene when my family was split up and I had no real idea of where they were.
I turned to Mr. Berre. “Are we close?”
“Yes, it’s the next stop. You were asleep for about an hour.”
My eyes went wide. I doubted I had really slept for more than ten minutes or so on the first train, with Ana, and now, although I was still uncertain, I felt the most alive I had since before my last day in Warsaw.
The train rumbled to a stop in front of a platform. Mr. Berre and I stood and got off the train. Being outside was exhilarating. Fresh air, warmth from the sun, and light.
I followed Mr. Berre over to a woman with red hair and a little girl, who I assumed were his wife and daughter.
“Papa! Papa!” the little girl yelled and ran over to Mr. Berre. He scooped her up and kissed her on the forehead. “Hello, my little Zoe!”
The woman followed Zoe over. When she saw me, she grinned. Her smile was wide, and inside, I swelled with warmth. “Why, you must be Ayden! You look just like your father! We went to college together, you know. I’m Lara. Ms. Berre.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said quietly. A family. A happy, whole family. I clutched my mezuzah so tight my knuckles turned white.
“This is Zoe,” she continued, taking the little girl into her own arms. “She’s four.” Ms. Berre turned to Zoe. “Zoe, this is Ayden. He’s . . .”
“Nine,” I said.
We walked to their cottage on the outskirts of a village. The house was small, but it was way bigger than my apartment. The Berres insisted I have their spare bedroom.
I had my own bedroom for the first time in my life. My own bedroom, only because my family was scattered to the edges of the world. The thought hit me with a sharp pang of sadness, and I gripped my mezuzah again.
I had arrived on a Friday, and so I started school on Monday. It was such a relief to be safe, but I missed my family with every waking minute. I wanted to send a letter home, but the Berres said it wasn’t safe. They said that Hitler could find out where I was. My inability to do anything weighed down on me like a full sandbag.
And so, for the first few months, I went to school, I learned French, and I learned how to work on the farm. But I was quiet and reserved in school, hiding behind my ever-growing brown hair. I didn’t really put my heart into learning French, and every time I worked on the farm, it was so different from living in the city that I was overcome with sadness.
Summer came and went. So did autumn. By winter, I’d made some friends. We played in the snow and celebrated my tenth birthday.
Two more birthdays passed, and I would think of my family and wonder where they were and how they were doing.
Then, three weeks ago: March 16, 1942, a letter came. I was outside doing chores when Zoe came running. “Ayden! You got a letter!”
My eyes lit up as I accepted the envelope from her. I ran inside and sat on my bed, clutching my mezuzah, as I tore it open.
We miss you so much! We are sorry it took this long to write, and we still cannot say where we are. Just know that we are safe, your sisters are safe, and you are safe. We will win this war and be together again. Remember this, and be happy.
Mama and Papa
I grinned. I felt as though I were a balloon, free and light. The burden I was carrying had dissipated; I could be happy, knowing my family was safe.
I became aware of a knocking at my door. “Come in!”
Zoe burst through the door and sat down next to me, expectant. “What’d it say?”
“They’re safe. My family is safe.”
“Am I your family too?”
“What’re you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I can tell you about Warsaw, if you’d like?”
And so I did.
Now I write down all my stories, from Poland and Switzerland. For so long, I was afraid, and inside, I’d refused to let myself leave Warsaw. Now I have decided to embrace both of my lives because they’re both a part of me. And I know that I will see my family again.