“NANA, WE’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!”
Turning from where I was desperately trying to hail a taxi, I watched my young niece
run into the street.
“Mila get back to the sidewalk with Anna!”
Tires squealed and a horn blasted. Following Mila, my twin sister, Anna, stepped into
the path of a car. The front fender grazed her, spinning her in slow motion. For an instant,
I shared her helpless vertigo as the world spun before my eyes, and sky and buildings and
pavement swirled around my head like a tumbling house of cards.
She fell with all the pageantry of a well-dressed bundle of sticks, arms outstretched,
the blue silk of her ball gown parachuted up and over her head, revealing spindly legs
covered by stripped flannel pajama bottoms. She landed on the road in a heap of colorful
fabric. My poor, delusional sister, dressed for a night at the opera, on the morning that
held our last chance to escape from the Nazis.
I rushed to her side. Mila knelt next to Anna, wiping blood from her forehead, and I
cradled Anna’s head in my lap.
The driver of the car jumped out and shouted, “I didn’t see her coming! She walked
out in front of me.”
“Anna, where does it hurt?” I murmured, my hands frantically groped through the
yards of fabric to feel for broken bones.
“Why don’t you look where’re you’re going!” yelled the driver over the blaring horns
of the stalled traffic.
“Look at my dress!” Anna moaned. “I’ll have to go back upstairs to change.”
“Your dress is fine,” I made an effort to brush away the dirt.
“Deszo will notice the stain on the skirt.”
“He’s too much a gentleman,” I assured her.
Anna winced as she tried to raise herself. “My head hurts.”
Looking up, I yelled at the driver of the car. “We have to get to the train station. You
have to take us.”
“Why?” He threw his arms up in the air. “Because this crazy woman ran in front of
“Yes,” I screamed. “Please, we have to catch a train.”
“There’s no way you can get to the train station in this traffic.”
“Please help us,” I begged. “We have to leave.”
Cursing, he slammed his fist on the hood. “Get in the car.”
Mila and I lifted Anna to her feet and helped her into the back seat of the car. The driver pulled back into traffic, lurched around a corner, nearly sideswiping a delivery
truck attempting the same corner from the opposite direction.
“Nana, how much time do we have?” Mila asked.
I checked my watch. Worry shook my hands. “Ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes until the train leaves?” The driver craned his neck around to look at me.
He shook his head, hunched over the steering wheel, the edge of his dirty wool coat
rubbed against the edge of his cap. “No chance. You’ll never make it.”
WE HURRIED THROUGH the stalled traffic and throngs of pedestrians. Three gypsy
children running against the current surrounded us. With ragged smiling faces, one
stretched out a hand and another surreptitiously tried to find an entrance into a pocket or
purse. Anna cried out as a young boy grabbed her coat. I slapped him away. Instinctively
I clutched the lapels of my coat shut. Shoved from side to side, we slowly made our way
forward. Pushed out into the street we moved between stalled cars.
Regaining the sidewalk, I clutched Anna as her feet slipped on a patch of worn shiny
ice and her legs collapsed beneath her. Mila was steps ahead of us, looking back from
moment to moment, urging us to keep up with her. Finally, we crossed the last street
before the train station.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the ill-lighted gloom of the cavernous main
hall. Our shoes slid against the slick marble floors. We stumbled over suitcases and bags
tied together haphazardly with twine.
Old women fleeing the terror in the villages sat in a stupor clutching their
grandchildren in one hand and their meager belongings in another. Men in military
uniforms paced listlessly waiting for orders. Beggars, limbs missing, were propped
against the steps, like discarded luggage. We slogged our way through the main hall
toward the stairs that lead to the train platforms. To our left, we passed a waiting area,
shrouded in darkness, in which rows and rows of benches were crowded with silent,
“Nana,” Mila yelled pointing to a sign overhead. “The train is on track three.”
“See if you can find your mother,” I shouted. “And get on the train.”
“Go!” I shouted. “We’ll meet you there.”
The crowd swallowed Mila and I prayed that she would get on the train. Even though
her success would mean our separation.
Clinging to one another in gray-cloaked clusters were those who had decided safety
was hiding in plain sight. Others ran from one place to another, imagining salvation right
around the corner. I grabbed my sister’s face and our eyes met. “You must help me.
We’ve got to get to the train track.”
For a moment, the clouds in her eyes parted and lucidity beamed through.
“Yes, let’s go.” she whispered.
We locked arms. Swept into the current of bodies pouring toward the entrance to the
tracks, we struggled to keep up.
On the tracks, an explosion of cold washed away the fetid stink of the terminal. The noise level rose to a roar. The mob surged with the desperate energy of passengers on a
sinking ship. Shouts from train conductors fought with the outraged defense of
passengers without tickets. Fights broke out as people clawed and shoved their way onto
to over-crowded trains. Above all of this, the monstrous hiss of engines and bonecrushing scrape of metal against metal heralded the trains’ departure.
I SEARCHED THE crowded platform. My frustration and fear mounted at the
impossible task of holding onto Anna while watching for Mila.
I grabbed a passing conductor. “Where’s the train to Geneva?”
“Ahead on the left,” he shouted. “It’s leaving,”
I grabbed Anna’s arm, leaned forward using my shoulder to wedge an opening in the
“Mila! Ilona!” My shouts were swallowed by the cries of my neighbors. I saw the
train and continued pushing until I reached an open space just along the edge of the
platform. I had to avoid falling onto the tracks, but ahead, I could see Mila arguing with a
conductor as she tried to get onto the train. I used all my strength to push toward her.
“My mother has my ticket!” Mila pleaded. She attempted to push past the conductor.
“Let me on and I’ll get the ticket from her.”
I dragged Anna along with me until she refused to keep up. I dropped her hand and
ran forward without a word or a look backward.
The conductor shoved Mila back onto the platform. “No ticket, no entrance. This train
The train shuddered, lurched forward and back. Undecided, it paused. A loud shriek
of steel and steam and I watched in horror as it started to inch forward. Mila noticed and
her attempts grew more desperate.
“Please let me on,” she cried, skipping sideways to keep pace with the train. “My
mother has my ticket.”
Mila looked along the length of the train and then sprinted. She stopped halfway
down the car and then started trotting to keep pace with the slowly moving train.
She pounded on a window of the train, screaming, “Momma!”
The window opened and Ilona leaned out. “Mila, how did you get here?”
Mila reached up and grasped her mother’s fingers. “Momma, give me my ticket.”
“I don’t have it.”
They were moving too quickly now. I ran to catch up, spellbound by the macabre
Ilona looked at me and yelled, “Take her home. It’s too late!”
“Why?” Mila cried.
Ilona glared at me and then at Mila.
“Tell her Ilona! Tell her!” I shouted. “There never were more than two tickets!”
The wind whipped the hair across Mila’s twelve-year-old face as it crumbled in
anguish. “Momma don’t leave me.”Ilona’s face was pained but defiant. My stomach churned with shame. Was this my
younger sister? Was she raised in the same house as Anna and me? She looked at her
daughter and then closed the window and turned away.
Mila stopped. Her arms fell to her sides. She stood helplessly watching the train
gathering speed. “But Momma, I love you.”