A journal of narrative writing.
Christmas ’56
Andre Kocsis

We went into the station building, which was jammed with people lined up at the two small ticket windows. We could not find my father, so we squeezed out the side door, where there was another crowd waiting to get in. My mother looked around in a panic.

“There he is,” I yelled. My father was off to the side, talking to a man in a stained workman’s uniform. He was handing the man some money.

We made our way to his side.

“It’s arranged,” he said to my mother. He took one of the suitcases from her, and lifted Miki in his other arm. My mother took my hand firmly, and we followed the workman around the back of the rail station, into some thin woods.

“Where are we going?” I yelped, as my mother dragged me along.

“Quiet,” my father said in a tone that clearly brooked no argument.

We walked in the woods for a few minutes, then emerged into an open yard with several abandoned boxcars on what appeared to be a rail spur. We made our way to one of these, and the workman cautiously slid the door open a crack. It was dark inside. My father put Miki up into the boxcar, then scrambled up into the murk himself. My mother handed me up to him, and then he helped her in. The workman slid the door shut. As I looked around in the semi-darkness, I was shocked to discover that there were already about two dozen people sitting on the straw-littered floor of the car. They did not make a sound.

We sat down in a clear spot. Both Miki and I were too overcome with surprise to ask questions. There was something oppressive and intimidating about so many people sitting there so quietly.

Over the next fifteen minutes, the workman came back with two more groups. One of them was the blond girl and her parents. She was still clutching her doll.

After another ten minutes, we heard a train engine chugging up the spur. With much shuttling back and forth, our boxcar lurching violently each time, they evidently succeeded in hooking us up, because we started to move steadily down the track.

The wooden sides of the boxcar had many cracks, and the wind whistled through our little home as we picked up speed. I wriggled closer to the wall, and could see through one of the cracks that we were again travelling through the countryside.

With the clatter of the train, everyone in the boxcar seemed to relax, and people started to talk. I made my way over to the blond girl. She looked a little younger than me, and her parents were very young.

“I have a doll just like that,” I said.

She hugged her doll closer.

“I have one that closes its eyes, too,” I continued. “Sometimes it gets stuck.”

“Me too. But it was too big to bring.” She looked sadly at her doll.

“My name is Kati.”

“I’m Tereza.”

“What do you call your doll?”

She hesitated. “Just Dolly,” she said.

“We can make a bed for it in the straw,” I suggested.

Tereza and I moved off into one corner, fed Dolly her supper and put her to sleep. The train sped along for some time, and whenever I looked out through one of the cracks, all I saw were fields and, every once in a while, a small house with smoke rising from the chimney. The sun peeked through broken clouds periodically, flooding the flat countryside with a weak golden light.

Then the train started to slow down, and the conversation inside the boxcar stopped. A couple of the men put their eyes to the cracks in the wall. Suddenly, the car lurched to a complete stop.

One of the men whispered hoarsely, “Soldiers!” There was an instant when everyone stopped breathing, frozen as if so many statues. Then, pandemonium broke loose. My father snatched up Miki in his arms, and pulled open the boxcar door. My mother grabbed my hand, and scrambled after him. I looked back, and saw Tereza, her eyes wide, mouth open, looking after me. We jumped down from the car. Ahead of us was a copse of young birches. I saw with surprise that people were pouring out of the other boxcars, already running toward the trees. Down the track, I could see soldiers. They were firing their guns into the air. We all ran into the trees, and kept running and running, until the sound of the shooting was far behind us. There was abandoned luggage among the sparse trees, as people threw away whatever slowed them down. I noticed that my mother no longer had her suitcase. The sun was shining again, and the white trunks of the birches seemed incongruously bright.

We finally slowed down in a meadow. I saw Tereza’s parents, but she was not with them. Her mother turned back toward the tracks, but suddenly there was the sound of shooting, coming nearer. We started running again. We ran for what seemed like a long time, until there were no other people, only Miki and my parents. We came out into a large field. In the distance, we could see a whitewashed barn, and near it, a small house with thatched roof. My father, still holding Miki in one arm and the suitcase in the other, walked with long strides toward the buildings. We tried to keep up with him, moving across the field of wheat stubble.

As we came near, we could hear dogs barking, and cows in the barn. There was an enormous haystack just ahead of us, and my father hurried toward it. He put Miki down in the haystack, and took off his leather coat.

“You stay here,” he said to my mother. “Keep out of sight.”

The three of us snuggled into the hay. We peeked around the stack, watching my father walk with deliberate steps toward the barn. We waited many minutes. The hay gave off a musty, warm smell.

Finally, my father reappeared. He was wearing farmers’ coveralls. He led us behind the barn, where there was a long wooden ladder leading to the door of the hayloft. I climbed up by myself, but my father had to carry Miki as he climbed, and at one point the ladder moved, and I thought he’d drop Miki.

The loft was dry and cozy, and we settled into the loose straw with my mother. My father left again. We heard the noise of the barnyard – the cows under us, the dogs yapping, a few voices. For some reason, Miki and I knew that we had to be quiet, without being told. It seemed like an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Miki was soon asleep, held in my mother’s arms, and the only sound was his rhythmic breathing, and, occasionally, the sound of some small creatures scurrying near the wall, underneath the straw. It was starting to get dark outside, and even the farm sounds disappeared.

I don’t know how long we had been there, but it was completely dark when we heard someone climbing the ladder. My mother peered anxiously into the grayness. A dark shape finally appeared in the doorway, and then the reassuring voice of my father.

“We’re going down.”

He took Miki from my mother’s arms, and we watched as he carefully negotiated the long ladder again, gradually disappearing into a pool of murk at the bottom.

“Be very careful, Kati,” my mother said to me. It took an eternity of slow steps, extending one foot below me to feel the next rung, before I finally touched the reassurance of solid ground.

After my mother descended, we quietly went to the little farmhouse. Its whitewash glowed in the darkness, and the thatched roof started at about the level of my father’s head. There were shutters on the two small windows, and only a few slivers of yellow light could be seen. My father knocked three times on the wooden door, and a man opened it a crack. He looked at the four of us for a moment, let us in, then locked the door quickly.

I was again amazed to see that there were perhaps a dozen people in the tiny dirt-floored room that served both as kitchen and parlour. Mostly my parents’ age, in city clothes, with a few small pieces of luggage, they filled up the whole room, two of them even sitting on the stone oven in one corner. There were no kids.

The man who let us in, a grizzled peasant with a handlebar moustache and several days growth of beard, looked at Miki, who was peering about sleepily in my father’s arms.

“You said he’s older,” he said in an accusing tone.

“I will carry him.”

“If you fall behind, I leave you,” he said with finality, and turned to the rest of the group. “We have to wait a few more hours.”

He went to a cupboard, and took out two huge loaves of bread and a slab of bacon, and started cutting them up. His wife, a plump red-faced woman with a gray kerchief on her head started distributing the bread and bacon. I suddenly realized I had not eaten in a long time. The bread was still warm.

After, I must have fallen asleep. My mother woke me. Everyone was preparing to go.