Jane Ingram

An Excerpt from Christa


Chapter One

The suffocating stench of bodies crammed together in a locked railcar imprisoned me, along with about two hundred others, for about a day and a half. Odors of filthy, soiled clothing, human sweat, and bodily excretions permeated the railcar. Each person occupied only a square foot of space, preventing them from having any sort of privacy, even to urinate. Since I was just four feet tall, my nose was smothered in the armpit of a man next to me. My mother was oblivious to my situation. Her eyes never looked at anything or anyone; they just stared into space. Behind me, a tall man realized my fate, and without bending his knees, he grabbed me under my arms and lifted me to his right shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The height of the railcar was so low my bony back was pressed against the damp, moldy ceiling. My pelvic bone was digging into the man’s shoulder. It was hard to breathe. Without a word, he passed my gaunt body to another man, who again passed me to another, bringing me to eye level with a screened opening on the outside wall of the railcar. Barely able to turn my head, I looked back for my mother, but I couldn’t see her. Had she fallen? She couldn’t have. There was no room to fall. Over the crying and wailing of the passengers, no one paid attention to my urgent calling to her, “Mama . . . Mama . . . Mama . . .”

My fingers held tightly to the woven-steel mesh opening; my nose pressed to it for just a smidgen of fresh air. The fields outside were snow covered, pure white, and clean, like cotton sheets lying out on the lawn to dry. A faint smell of burning wood refreshed my nostrils. I couldn’t see any houses, but I did see one cyclonic line of smoke, probably from a chimney. For a moment, my mind wandered back to our living room on Kleigenspiel Strasse and the fresh smell of burning wood just after Tilda, our maid, lit the evening fire. I loved that smell. And I loved Tilda, who baked fresh muffins for my afternoon snack upon my return from school. However, the reality was that I wasn’t in front of our fire nor eating fresh muffins, but traveling on a crammed railcar to points unknown.

The free arm of the man who held me and that of the two people alongside of him pulled as hard as they could to remove the metal screen of the opening. After several attempts, a corner of the screen came loose, but only because the wooden frame around it was rotted. This gave them the encouragement to try to free the other three corners. With one last heave, the entire metal screen was detached and was now up against my face. Turning it sideways, they threw it out, where it bounced off the side of the train.

Now I could put my whole head out of the opening and see the snake-like train rounding a curve. “You can go,” he said.

I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do. Go where? With his large, callused hands, he turned me around so that my feet were now level with the opening. He yelled out something, and moments later, several leather belts were passed from over his shoulder, along with two from the men on each side of him. Since he couldn’t maneuver while still balancing me on his shoulder, supporting me with his left hand like a waiter carrying a large tray with plates, he turned to the man next to him and said something, but I couldn’t see what they were doing. And then I felt a hand go under my back and over my stomach, and something pulled tightly around me, restricting my breathing which was already labored just from fear alone. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. There were so many different dialects of German and other languages that I wasn’t familiar with.

Since my father was an officer in the German Army, I was privileged to go to a diplomatic school where only proper German was spoken. Even Tilda, our maid, was from a region of Germany that has its own dialect, but she learned to speak the same proper German as the students in my school and the one my parents spoke. So whatever these men were saying to me was totally foreign.

The weight of my legs was resting on the sill of the opening, taking some of the weight off the man’s shoulder. I tilted my head back as far as I could to find my mother’s face. I still called to her, but if she was answering me, I would never hear it above the sound of the people crying and chanting prayers.

With all my fear, my racing heart, and my efforts to breathe, I desperately tried to hold my bladder, but I knew by the hot, wet feeling in my panties that I had peed all over this man’s shoulder.

Suddenly I could feel myself moving forward, being pushed out the opening. Traumatized, I dropped. Whatever was around my waist now tightened and was digging into my rib cage. The pain was excruciating. Now dangling from the moving train, I couldn’t stop myself from swinging and bouncing off the side of the wooden car. The draft of the train forced me to fly out and then bounce back, hitting the side of the car. My left side, back, and head felt like I was colliding with a brick wall. Again, there was another drop to where my feet no longer hit the side of the car. My legs were flaring out, looking for purchase perilously close to the steel wheels. What are they doing? Where is my mother? “Mama, Mama, Mama, please help me.”

Then my lifeline ceased. My feet hit the soot-covered snow, and I fell hard on my hands and knees. A trail of belts lay withered on the ground like a side-winding snake. Remarkably I could stand up. Even though I was still tethered to the belts, I started running after the train. “Mama, Mama, Mama. Wait for me, Mama. Wait for me.”

Breathlessly, I stopped. I stood there, staring at what was now the only link with my family fading into the distance — my mother. Her dead eyes could not see me even when I was standing next to her. I fell to my knees and leaned back on my legs, not even feeling the cold snow. Other than my own breathing, there was only silence.

Just two weeks ago, I was sitting in a heated schoolroom listening to Mr. Julienne tap his wooden rubber-tipped pointer on India on the pulled-down world map that covered the blackboard. Just a week ago, my father kissed me goodnight on the forehead, told me how much he loved me, and how proud he was of me for receiving the “Award of Excellence” from my school. And my mother had lain next to me in bed as we admired the wallpaper we picked out for my bedroom walls a few months before at Kleitzs’ decorating shop. The walls were covered with little rosebuds with light green leaves. She said to me, “If we stare at the buds long enough, maybe we will see them open.”