A Single Oy

This brief excerpt offers a look at the experience of Jews transported from a Lithuanian ghetto to a concentration camp during World War II. Author Levi Shalit was a Lithuanian Jew active in the Yiddish press in interwar Lithuania, postwar Germany, and in South Africa, to which he eventually emigrated. Shalit also produced a memoir, Beyond Dachau (1980), which details, among other events, the experience of being liberated by American troops from a concentration camp at the end of the war.

The journey from Shavl to Stutthof lasted three warm, sunny July days. The cattle cars were crowded, but not unbearably so. Through the half-open doors we could see the lush Lithuanian countryside, the golden-yellow sheaves of rye standing in the fields. The aromas of field and forest were intoxicating. Accustomed to traveling and being on the move, we Jews had been cut off from field and forest and isolated from the world for three years. Thus, after the first anxious hours, we rather enjoyed the first day of the journey.

All the way to the German border, people pressed toward the doors. Everyone wanted to gaze out at the countryside, to catch one last glimpse, even while hoping against hope that we would soon be on our way back.

The train sped through stations, past the very towns where we had been born and raised. With wistful eyes we looked out into the Lithuanian provinces where we had had friends and family, places that had long since become Judenrein, cleared of Jews. The train raced through Lite as if offering us a final farewell tour — one last look at all the years we had dwelled in this land — before hurling us into purgatory.

The guards were friendly, even allowing people to sit beside them by the open doors. But this lasted only until we reached the German border. They must have been acting on orders, knowing that as long as we were on Lithuanian soil, we might try to escape and might even be able to find a place to hide. Once we reached Germany, there was no more playing around; the instant we crossed the border, relations between prisoners and guards came to an end.

After a day and a night at the Tiegenhof station we were transferred at daybreak onto flatcars, 150 or more people to a car. It was not far to the factories, the guards reassured us, and there we would be able to rest.

We rode standing up. The sick were fainting. We held on to one another so as not to fall off as the train puffed along. The guards sat silently on the roof of the locomotive and in between the cars, aiming at us with their machine guns as if they could not wait to be rid of us.

In the middle of a wood, the locomotive slowed. Suddenly: oy — a single oy escaped from hundreds of hearts. Our blood froze. From behind a barbed wire fence, a gruesome picture came into view: skulls jutting out of the ground, bodies half buried in earth.

The train came to a halt. In the distance, extending for a kilometer, long columns of people appeared. Dressed in striped clothing, they plodded along in straight lines. The clatter of their wooden shoes let us know they were prisoners.

Among us, a deathly silence took hold. We became strangers to one another. Each of us was mute, absorbed into himself.

When the columns had disappeared into the distance, the train began to move forward.

How much longer did we travel? Perhaps ten minutes, perhaps more.

The dark woods and the wire fence came to an end. We emerged into the sunshine. Before us stood a gleaming white house with a terrace where two children were playing.

By the side of the road was a sign: Camp Stutthof.

“Out!” came the command.

Click here for the original story from Azoy zaynen mir geshtorbn

With Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Ellen Cassedy is the winner of the 2012 Translation Prize awarded by the Yiddish Book Center for “Oedipus in Brooklyn” and Other Stories, by Blume Lempel. She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), which includes translated excerpts from Levi Shalit’s memoir.

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