> Holocaust Studies > People

Jewish Women on a Train

May 25, 2015 | by Faigy Schonfeld

After seeing the whole world bleed and collapse in on itself, this cannot be happening. We must jump.

The following account happened to my grandmother shortly after being liberated from a concentration camp. It is written in the manner in which she told me.


A wind, a breath – my lungs – at last! I inhale, soothed by the rhythmic clack and cough of rolling train beneath me, tilt my face to the window. It is slightly ajar and the beauty of the Czechoslovakian countryside is draped in midnight cloak. I close my eyes. Just...for a bit. A little peace, closed eyes, breathing, wind on my cheeks.

“Ssh, Zelda, try to sleep a little.” Sheindel wraps her fingers around mine. She is a sweet sister, Sheindel, self-appointed as she is, as my caretaker. She is only five years my senior but it is thanks to her I am alive. I am 15 now, but I was only 12 when I left home for the last time. I turn to offer her a smile.

“Where do you think they're taking us?” she whispers.

I shrug. “I heard Malka talking with some of the officials in the front cabin. We're going to someplace in Germany. From there, maybe, we can go home?” And find Tatte and Mamme. And Yosef Chaim and Ruchel and Ahrele. I don't say this aloud but the words hang heavy and limp between us, waiting.

We are silent, and the air is filled with the hammering of the train grinding and knocking along the tracks. Thump-clack-bang-thump-clack-bang-thump-clack-

My eyes flutter closed and Mamme is suddenly on the insides of my eyelids, glowing as always. I think of Ahrele, those coal eyes of his, how frightened he had been that day, when we were separated, when we tumbled off the wagons into Auschwitz...

I swallow, and blood and ringing bullets and nightmares fill my throat. I open my eyes quickly. The peace is gone. I draw a deep, shaky breath and Sheindel squeezes my hand.

A scream pierces the silence. I sit up sharply.

Shouts and cries. We all freeze. Terror crawls up my throat. Screams. From where?

“What's going on!” demands Breina loudly. She is the tallest girl in our wagon. She elbows her way to the front and puts her ear to the wall of the cabin. Even in the dim light, I can see her eyes growing wide, cold with horror.

We are silent. We all look at Breina.

Cries from the neighboring wagon slice the heavy silence. I cannot breathe.

“It's the girls,” she says, trembling. “In the next wagon. There are soldiers there. Maybe Russian. They must be hurting them.”

We go still, all of us. Cries from the neighboring wagon slice the heavy silence.

Sheindel looks at me, knowingly, sadly, and I know. The girls are being hurt, stripped of their dignity. Slowly, slowly, my hand reaches up, over my mouth. I cannot breathe.

The screams from the other car are shrill but around us it is a graveyard.

Desperation clenches my lungs and I struggle to breathe past it. We must escape. I look out the window; Czechoslovakian hills sweep by. There is no way for us to jump. This train is flying.

I cannot restrain the tears. Now, why now? After all this, after seeing the whole world shred and bleed and collapse in on itself, after...oh after everything, and still living on, hanging on to the last bleeding scraps of holiness, after all this…

No. This cannot be happening.

I lean over and rest my sweaty cheek against the cool windowpane, trying to grab fistfuls of air and push it through the fire of my lungs. Mamme, please.

I stiffen. Mamme. Mamme, smiling, soft crinkles around the oceans of her eyes, small face wrapped in cream Shabbos silk. Mamme, soothing, humming, singing the songs of a Jewish woman, of a sacred princess, of love and fire and devotion so fierce and desperate that it defies logic. The embodiment of dignity and modesty.

The cries are more hysterical now and I hear Sheindel breathing heavily beside me. I look out the window again. Dark hills spin and glitter in the train's belching smoke and disappear, fleeing and merging into more. My hair flies in the wind. No, I cannot jump. This is not saving myself; this is suicide.

You mustn't let the soldiers get you! Mamme cries. You're a princess of God!

I cry out, fear wrapped so tightly around my throat, and I surrender. I'm a Jewish woman and I will meet my fate. I square my shoulders and look at Sheindel. Her eyes are wide and I can tell that, as usual, she knows what I'm about to say.

Before I can speak, she shakes her head. No.

I inhale shaky breath. “Sheindel, we have to. We have to jump. The soldiers will be in our wagon in a few moments.”

“No! Zelda, you will kill yourself! We cannot jump out of a speeding train!”

No!” Sheindel cries, “No! Zelda, you will kill yourself! We cannot jump out of a speeding train!”

I am shaking so hard I can barely catch my voice. “Sheindel, to stay here is to kill yourself too. I am jumping.”

“Zelda!” Sheindel shrieks, and she is crying too. She grabs my arm. “You are not! You are staying right here!”

The girls gather around us. Breina clutches my wrist.

I shake my hand free and fling open the window completely. Sheindel screams. Everyone erupts around us.

I don't care.

I lean over the window, breathing hard. God, I am Yours. I am Jewish. I know this is what I have to do. Please.

I kick off my shoes. I climb onto the bench, teeter on the windowsill. Its wood is firm beneath me and…

I can't.

I can't let go.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I notice Sheindel removing her shoes. And Breina. And Malka and Raizel...and more girls.

The train barrels on and I stand, clinging to the window frame, my clothes whipping. The wind roars and my eyes sting. I wait, breathing carefully, willing myself just do it.

Suddenly, Sheindel is standing on the sill too.

We look at each other and she nods. With that, I breathe in and leap, into ice air and nothingness. Oh, God what did I do?

And I landland! – and roll. I am flying, spinning, rolling down, down, down. I can't breathe…

And I stop. Flat on my back, soft grass tickling the nape of my neck, star-swept sky above me.

For a moment, I just breathe. Then I flex my fingers. I bend them and open them. Bend, open. Bend, open. I reach up to feel my cheek. The musky scent of earth and grass are in my nose, my mouth. This is not heaven. I am alive.

In the distance, I see little brick homes, doors opening, people running towards me. I hear a cough to my right. I turn my head.


Her skin is white, she is scratched and bleeding, Sheindel licks her lips and smiles.

An elderly man is suddenly upon us. “Children!” he cries, “What-!”

I try to sit up, but he restrains me. “Don't move!” he says sharply. He crouches down and I see his eyes are warm. “Let me fetch a blanket and some help. You mustn't move in the meantime.”

I lay back down and wait, savoring the soreness of my joints and rush of beating heart inside me. I am alive.

“Zelda,” Sheindel calls. “Listen to that man. Better not to move until he gets some help.”

“Yes,” I croak. I love her, Sheindel.

I can hear people around me but my eyes close on their own. I am so....limp. Tears fill my eyes and leak out, searing my cheeks. Oh, God.

I am lying on the ground, aching all over and crying, and so, so happy.

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