The Night Train by ZP Heller

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

By ZP Heller

When I try to explain the kinds of storytelling I’m looking for, I tend to use the words “personal” and “individual” interchangeably. Then a piece like this one comes along and reminds me that isn’t quite right. In The Night Train, ZP Heller reaches outside his individual thoughts and tells an intensely personal story of family history and the journey they took to uncover it. It’s a story of relationships—mothers and sons, brothers and grandsons, friends and strangers, language barriers, personal space, and connections across time.

Heller, a graduate student at The New School and a frequent contributor to AlterNet, is hoping to turn The Night Train into a book on how his grandparents survived the Holocaust and left Poland after the war.

The Night Train
by ZP Heller

A two-note chime echoed throughout the Krakow Glowny station. It was followed by a metallic voice that warned, “Prozim pozor!”

My brothers and I were on a crowded platform, waiting for the night train to Prague. Peter and Ben sat on their duffel bags, playing chess on a handmade set we’d bought yesterday in the Rynek marketplace. I’d volunteered to stand guard. With a firm grip on Mom and Grandmom’s black rolling suitcases that came up to my stomach, my eyes darted along the platform in search of possible pickpockets.

A woman pushed a stroller past us, followed a few paces by a dawdling girl with white stockings. They clearly posed no threat. Unlike, say, the two ruddy-faced men who came next, arguing in Polish about something I couldn’t understand. One of the men took a swig from a bottle he was brown-bagging and then spit it onto the track below.

The station had been warmly lit, with a surprising amount of commotion for 10 o’clock at night. In fact, most of what we’d seen in Krakow made the city seem like an Old World jewel. These concrete platforms, on the other hand, were frightening reminders of the city’s Cold War past. Sketchy men in trench coats weaved in and out of the crowds that boarded trains for Vienna and Budapest. All the while, they kept looking over their shoulders to keep tabs on the policemen patrolling closer to the station.

I was feeling more uneasy than normal in a foreign country, and now I was starting to worry about Mom and Grandmom too. They’d left over a half hour ago to purchase our tickets for a private sleeper car. Our train was due within the next five minutes and still there was no sign of them.

“Ain’t nothin’ you can do now,” Ben said, as he castled his white king behind a fortress of wooden pawns that he hadn’t moved yet. Peter, who’s five years older than Ben and two years my senior, sat Indian-style with his chin in his hands. Peter should’ve graduated Penn State the spring before but didn’t, and Ben was still in high school.

“Maybe one of us should go look for them before the train gets here,” I suggested. The two of them looked like brothers, calmly sitting there with their curly brown hair and broad shoulders. A pickpocket sizing us up might have thought I was adopted, if he thought we were related at all.

Peter looked up at me and said, “I think he was talking to me, man.”

My family travels nearly every year, and yet this trip was like none we’d ever taken together. This was our first journey into Eastern Europe; our first glimpse of what life was like for our ancestors before the Holocaust. Six days before, we toured the industrial town of Volumin near Warsaw, where Grandmom lived with her family until Germany marched on Poland. Four days before, Mom bribed a Polish groundskeeper at the Lodz cemetery to show us the graves where our paternal great-grandparents were buried. Two days before, we visited Auschwitz outside of Krakow, though not because any relatives had died there. We just figured that since we were in the vicinity, we ought to pay our respects and behold the camp for ourselves.

We were also traveling with our seventy-three year old Grandmom for the first time, which set us on a much slower pace. I’d had horrible visions about Grandmom’s safety all week. Her purse would be snatched in Warsaw’s Stare Miesto, or she’d be targeted by thieves on motorcycles in Volumin. Ironically, she was the only one of the five of us who spoke Polish, Czech, and Uzbek, not to mention Yiddish. She was our guide, taking us to all of her family’s old homes and haunts. After our grandfather passed away a few years ago, she was also one of the last links to life in Poland, which was why Mom had wanted to take this trip.

The atonal alert sounded again on the loudspeakers: “Prozim pozor!” This time the broadcast was followed by a slew of messages which I assumed either meant the train was coming, or that the Pelta-Heller boys should report to the office immediately because something awful has happened to their Mom and Grandmom. Just then, a steel blue train pulled into the station, and Mom and Grandmom returned.

“C’mon guys,” Mom said, as the throngs began pushing toward the open car doors. “We weren’t able to get a cabin to ourselves.”

“There aren’t any assigned seats,” Grandmom added. The two of them had on long white summer dresses and were decked out in amber jewelry that they’d bought at the Rynek. We were shoved by the mass of people, and I suddenly felt a pang of claustrophobia. My head felt feverish and my nose began run. My arms and knees were jabbed by suitcases on all sides of me, but I held onto my bags tightly for fear of being trampled under foot if I dropped them. I couldn’t even move my hand to wipe my nose and had to let it drip onto my polo shirt. Then, not ten feet away, the woman with the stroller let out a piercing cry. Everyone started talking loudly.

“What happened?” I asked Grandmom, who was standing in front of me.

“Her child’s fallen between the platform and the train.”

“Oh my God!” I called out, hardly audible above the din. Peering over Grandmom’s tight bun of graying blonde hair, I could make out the little girl’s flailing arms. She was crying and appeared to be stuck from the waist down. The crowd around me was lined up six deep for the train. Some tried to back up to make room for the hysterical girl and her mother, while others still shoved toward the train. My family and I were pushed in both directions at once. With one hand still holding our bags, I held the other to Grandmom’s back so she wouldn’t be knocked over. A conductor with a large pink nose pushed through the boarding passengers and fished the hysterical child from the crevice. Her stockings were streaked with dirt and she was rubbing her shin, but she appeared to be all right.

By this time, Peter had managed to get aboard. Ben and I formed sort of a chain and passed him all of our pieces of luggage without anyone getting in between. Each black roller was easily twice as heavy as any other bag we had.

“They don’t fit!” Peter shouted down to Mom from the car. “Why’d you guys have to pack so much?” At this point, people behind us began to yell. Grandmom tried to reason with a man next to her, who had several gold chains around his neck that shook as he waved his hands in the air, pointing toward the train. I wondered if she was explaining that if wasn’t her fault her suitcase was designed for American airports and not European train travel.

Ben leapt aboard with Peter. Together, they turned the suitcases sideways so they could squeeze down the narrow aisle. Mom helped Grandmom aboard and I followed, schlepping a duffle on my shoulders and another in my arms. The aisle ran along the far side of the car between the windows and the enclosed couchettes. It was barely wide enough to walk down, so when the bags caused me to wobble in one direction or another, my shoulders slammed against the pale windowpanes. There was no sign of Peter or Ben. I thought maybe they’d made it into one of the couchettes, but each compartment that I looked into was already full. Since we didn’t have assigned seats, we kept walking to the next car, which was equally crowded.

When we’d initially planned to take an overnight train to Prague, I had this romantic notion of North by Northwest and Eva Marie Saint’s fold-up bed that Cary Grant hides out in to avoid the police. Of course, Cary Grant wasn’t traveling through post-Communist Poland. These couchettes didn’t look wide enough to lie down in, let alone hide out from anyone. Each one had two rows of seats and a small window in between. In theory, the couchette was supposed to sleep six. From what I could tell, there were two levels of beds that could be pulled down above each bench, but that transformation seemed possible only if no one had luggage and everyone was lying perfectly horizontal.

Our train lurched forward. At once, nearly all the passengers standing in front of us stopped and set down their bags. It was as though they all shared the general understanding that once the train was rolling, looking for a free couchette would be futile. A trickle of sweat ran down my back under the duffel, and I wondered whether we were going to have to spend the next eight hours in the train’s cramped hallway. Weren’t there enough seats for everyone? At the very least, there had to be a spot for Mom and Grandmom. But maybe the train’s capacity included standing room in the corridor, which I joked to myself was no doubt a Polish calculation. I peered into the couchette to my right. An elderly couple was seated between four guys in Adidas tracksuits. The confined room now looked very inviting. I thought maybe I should ask if one if anyone would be willing to move out to the hallway to make room for Grandmom, Mom, and me.

Just then, Ben reappeared at the end of the hall and said he and Peter had found a couchette in the next car down. We followed him, pushing over people who’d already begun to hunker down on their bags. We were thrilled not to have to spend the next eight and a half hours like them.
In our compartment, I shoved our bags onto one of the top shelves.

“This isn’t so bad,” Mom said.

“You weren’t the one lugging this behemoth suitcase down the fucking corridor,” Peter said caustically. This comment shut my mom up, and she sat down quietly and looked out the window. Grandmom said nothing, but took a seat next to Mom. When we first arrived in Krakow three days ago, Peter and Mom got into such a heated argument that he stormed off for half a day and no one knew where he’d gone. The rest of us tried not to worry and went to the Wawel Castle, but Mom was visibly upset all day.

Now we were too exhausted to lift the black suitcases any further. Peter and I stacked them in one corner instead, and squeezed into the seats next to them. Ben claimed the other top bunk and climbed up using the window ledge for leverage.

“Are you okay up there?” I called after him. The top bunk was so short Ben had to roll into it in an acrobatic feat. He couldn’t even sit up, and lying down, he had about six inches between his face and the pale ceiling.

“So this is what it’s like to be in a crypt,” Ben joked. Everyone laughed except Peter, who put on his headphones and leaned against the suitcases.

“See you in Prague,” he said to me, shutting his eyes.

Initially, there had been room enough for Ben on the bench next to Grandmom. Then our compartment door swung open and a Japanese man entered. He hoisted his backpack up next to our duffels and sat down next to Grandmom. He was rail thin—skinnier even than I am—and reeked of cologne that smelled unmistakably like the samples from a fashion magazine.
“Where are you from?” Grandmom turned to him and asked.

He looked at her blankly.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

The man merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled. I couldn’t tell if he really didn’t understand us or was just pretending not to. I think if I were in his shoes—in a crowded couchette with a bunch of strangers—I’d pretend not to speak their language too.
The pink-nosed conductor who’d helped the fallen girl entered to collect our tickets. Grandmom tried to make a little conversation with him in Polish, but he only stared at our tickets as he spoke. Once the conductor left, a heavy-set woman with a determined chin walked in and barked something in Polish.

“Passports,” Grandmom said to Mom, and they handed over all of our IDs. The Japanese backpacker understood this order well enough. The passport checker flipped through all of the papers, and said something when she got to Ben’s. Grandmom explained where Ben was, and surprisingly, the checker returned our passports and left without even looking in the top bunk.
Minutes later, the Japanese backpacker was out cold.

“Should we ask if he wants to turn down a couple of these beds?” Grandmom asked.

“How can we?” Mom said, “He doesn’t understand us. We should just try to get some rest and put Krakow behind us.” Grandmom gave my mom’s hand a light squeeze.

Pretty soon, everyone was asleep except for me. My knees were pressed against Mom’s. I wanted to sleep but was too uncomfortable. The couchette was too stuffy and I was sweaty. Everything began to irritate me, from the Japanese backpacker’s loud snoring to the muffled music coming from Peter’s headphones. He was asleep for Chrissakes! Didn’t he have the consideration to turn off his music? Inconsiderate and ungrateful. This trip cost Mom a mint and he’d had the fucking nerve to wander off without a word in a foreign country!

Then I began to think about the places we’d seen in the past week. Warsaw, with its culture just beginning to bud again, forty-five years after being razed. Then, on the opposite sides of the city, the two impoverished towns where my grandparents had grown up. The thick weeds in the Lodz cemetery laying claim to the Jewish graves the way they’d already taken the bodies beneath them. That is, what was left of the graves; Grandmom said that all of the marble had been stolen from our great-grandparents markers long ago. Grandmom was surprisingly strong all week, when she led us up the sunken stairs to her family’s old apartment. Or when we read Kaddish at the family graves in Lodz.

Then finally, we saw Auschwitz, preserved as a museum, a vital testament to the atrocities of Holocaust. Though I didn’t understand why there had to be an admission fee. Nor did it seem right that the streets were tree-lined and the lawns landscaped. The destitute sights of Volumin and Lodz made us weep, but the eerily empty barracks of Auschwitz knocked the breath out of us.

Was I in that couchette traveling across Poland in spite of the war? Or was I there because of it? After all, had it not been for the Holocaust, my grandparents probably wouldn’t have met in a displaced persons camp. I tried to tell myself that that was absurd, that their union had nothing to do with the war itself. Still, the thought made me incredibly queasy. My head and chest burned. I could only take short, stunted breaths as though I’d been crying.

I managed to stand and open the window. The night air ripped into our compartment like a banshee. The cool wind made me shudder, but it felt good to breathe deeply. In the moonlight, I could see us pass through shadowy fields and farms.

The roar of the engine was much louder with the window open, and I was getting cold. I tried to shut the window, but it was stuck. I looked back to see if anyone else was awake, but they were still fast asleep. Incredibly enough, the snores from the Japanese backpacker were still audible above the wind and the engine. I hadn’t thought to bring a jacket or even a sweatshirt because it was the first week in August. So I stood on my seat and reached into the duffel bag above me. My nose started to run again and it dripped once more onto my shirt. I pulled down a T-shirt and draped it across my chest. Shivering, I sat and listened to everyone snore. I knew I would have a cold by morning.

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4 responses

  1. wendy says:


  2. Gail says:

    I eagerly look forward to the next chapter. It is very compelling

  3. Leah says:

    What are you writing now? Any news on your book? I’ll buy it for sure!

  4. shell says:

    utterly fascinating - i was doing a time shift kind of thing when you described the train-crowds and cramped journey fraught with tensions of different kinds. i often wish my uk part of this amazing family had been more willing to retrace steps and show me …

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