Monday, April 08, 2013

Survivor's Story: The Last Train: A Holocaust Story by Rona Arato

"We don't want the soup to get cold. We..." Mother froze.  Someone was pounding on the front door.

"Don't answer it." Anyu said.

The pounding grew louder. A voice barked, "Open up!"

Anyu wiped her hands on her apron. She walked to the living room... and opened the door. Two soldiers pushed past her, almost knocking her down. Aunt Bella ran in, followed by Kati and Magdi.

"You, Jews! Outside! Now!"

It is Hungary in 1944, and at last the police and SS soldiers have begun to round up the remaining Jews, the elderly, women and children, to transport them to the east, to the concentration camps in Germany.

Five-year-old Paul and ten-year-old Oscar and their mother are thrown into crowded boxcars and transported across the border to Austria and finally to Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank died. Barely fed, wearing only their light summer clothes, they endure the horrors of the camp through the long winter and into the spring of 1945. Anyu, their mother, tries to take care of them, combing the lice that spread typhus from their hair and sharing what food and warmth she has, but as the winter passes, she sickens and grows weak, so weak that Paul and Oscar have to hold her up, standing for hours in the cruel daily lineups that lasted for hours, knowing that if she falls, she will be shot instantly.

But one day as spring comes, the brothers see something in the sky, something that gives them hope. The boys watched, transfixed, as what is clearly a British fighter gets the best of a dogfight with a German plane. As the Nazi aircraft falls from the sky, the boys realize that the Allied Forces must be nearing Germany, and they beg their mother to hold on.

Then, one morning their roll call is ominously different. The soldiers herd them again into boxcars, this time so crowded so that some of them are forced to stand, sometimes packed so tightly that the dead and dying cannot fall. For days with little food and water they roll again toward the east, deeper into Germany. And then, one morning, the train stops.
Through a crack, Oscar peered outside. The soldiers were yelling and setting up machine guns. He closed his eyes. It's over. They are finally going to kill us.

Oscar turned away, when something caught his attention. What was it? 
Silence. The soldiers had dropped their weapons and were running away.

"What is that?" Paul peered through the crack.

"It's a tank." Oscar's voice trembled. "It has a star painted on the front. And there's a Jeep behind it."

He turned to face the people huddled behind him. "I think they are Americans!"

And then the door slid open.

Paul and Oscar were lucky.  The Death Train, as it came to be called, was fortunately intercepted before the Jews inside reached the place where they would be executed and their bodies hidden from the advancing Allied forces.  Eventually  the family was repatriated to Hungary, then in the Soviet zone,  and Anyu, Paul and Oscar were reunited with their father.  Paul grew up eventually made his way to Toronto, his grim story mostly untold, even to  his own children.

And then, one day in 2008, as he was reading the news on his computer, Paul sees a photo that brought back that moment when the death train stopped and the doors opened.
The picture on the screen shows a woman running toward the camera, arms outstretched, her face a mask of surprise. Yet what catches Paul's attention is in the background--an abandoned freight train. Sixty years earlier he was on that train. He was six years old on April 13, 1945, when two American soldiers in a tank liberated him and thousands of other prisoners. For sixty years he has thought about that day and about the soldiers who saved his lives.

In her memoir of her husband's experiences, The Last Train: A Holocaust Story (Owlkids Books, 2013), Rona Arato recounts a survivor's story just as he lived it, part of a ongoing history of that time. Author Arato concludes with the 2009 reunion of some of the survivors of the last train with their liberators, as Paul finds and embraces the very two soldiers who saved their lives by stopping their execution. Arato tells the story matter-of-factly, but it is of itself a gripping story for young readers, of a young boy's memories of a time in human history that should never be forgotten.

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