14 December 1943
This night train was not like the one that had brought her to Berlin all those years ago. You could walk down that train, stare out of the wide corridor windows, move from carriage to carriage, eat dinner in one set up as a restaurant. This train was just a series of self-contained rooms, each with a pair of long seats and two doors to the outside world.
Their room had been full when they left Berlin. There were herself and Leon, two elderly men wearing old-fashioned collars, a woman and her almost grown-up daughter, and two Hitlerjugend on their way home from their annual convention. Baldur von Schirach himself had presented the medals they'd won in a Reich-wide orienteering contest.
So far their papers had only been checked the once, during the long stop at Frankfurt an der Oder. Two drenched officials had come in from the pelting rain, dripped on all the proffered documents, and grumbled their way back again. Hers had survived a dozen inspections in Berlin, but she had still been worried that her face would betray her, that these people really did have a sixth sense when it came to Jews. Sitting back relieved, as the train pulled away, she told herself that she was simply falling for their propaganda, for the lie that Jews were somehow intrinsically different. Her father had always denied this - human beings were human beings, he had always claimed, no matter what faith they chose. The trouble was, he would usually add, some of them didn't know it.
The two Hitlerjugend had seemed like nice enough boys. They had admired Leon's tinplate engine, and tried to teach him noughts and crosses. The boy had certainly enjoyed the attention, his eyes wistfully following them when they disappeared down the darkened platform at Glogau. The mother and daughter had also got off there, leaving the two old men to sit behind their newspapers and smoke their foul-smelling cigarettes. 'Victory at Vitebsk!' ran the headline on one, just three words for the whole front page. She wondered how Breslau had fared - would it be as bad as Berlin?
She read to Leon as quietly as she could, aware that even this was irritating the two old men, but reminding herself of Sophie Wilden's oft-repeated advice - 'the more submissive you are, the more they'll wonder why.' When the old men got off at Liegnitz she breathed a sigh of relief - now perhaps she and Leon could lie down and get some sleep. But then, with the whistle already blowing, the door jerked open and a man climbed in.
He was in his forties, she guessed. Quite burly, with a weak chin and gold-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a black uniform, but not that one - there were no lightning flashes, only a number on the epaulettes and two stripes on the arms. She could smell the alcohol on his breath and see the animal in his eyes.
He was affable enough at first. He tried to talk to Leon, in much the same way the Hitlerjugend had done. But there was nothing genuine in it. Leon was only three, but even he could tell something was wrong, and soon his face was creased with anxiety, the way it had been after the Wildens' house was bombed. And the man kept looking up at her, as if for approval, the glances soon slipping from her face to her breasts.
'I think he should get some sleep,' she said, trying to sound firm but not aggressive.
'Of course,' the man said, leaning back in his corner seat. He took out a silver flask and took a swig. She could feel his eyes on her as she covered Leon with the small blanket she'd brought for that purpose.
'Are you all right, Mama?' the boy asked. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open.
'Of course I am. Now you get some sleep, and I will too.' She kissed him on the head and went back to her corner seat. It was furthest she could get from the man, but perhaps she should haven taken Leon's head in her lap - she couldn't decide.
Excerpted from Lehrter Station by David Downing. Copyright © 2012 by David Downing. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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