Okie dokie smokie! The latest installment of the "Holocaust Arts and Writing Competition" series is in place and ready to go! Like the last few times, I don't think this will win. Unlike the last two times, I happen to like this piece, so I truly doubt it will win - they seem to like the in-your-face, 'lookie-lookie-lookie-my-theme!' type stories... and I think this is a bit too subtle to fit into that category.
The call came just after lunch – left track. Otto was working in the small vegetable plot Gretta had started when they first moved here. She had not been happy when he took the position of switchman, out in the middle of nowhere. For a while all they had was a telegraph, then the railways technicians came out and brought a radio and a phone. The phone wasn't very reliable – this far out, the wires kept breaking, and reception on the radio was iffy at best. It was no use trying to get a regular paper, but back then their whole world was each other and they didn't care. Otto stood slowly and walked out to the switch to wait for the train. They were fifteen miles from the nearest village, and it was as if the bowl of the heavens came down all around their small depot, closing out everything. Otto liked to watch the world go by and not get involved. He had nothing and no one to worry about.
He kept the plot going in Gretta's memory.
The call came at three in the afternoon – right track. Otto finished brushing the leaves away from his door and put the broom away. Warming his hands on his way to the switch, he reflected on how he could hear the train coming so long before he actually saw it. Maybe it was because he was nearsighted – decades spent staring beyond the horizon must have affected his sight. Gretta had always refused to look for long, she never watched for the train with him. She was always scared of the distances, of the far away horizon. Of what might be out there. Her only comfort had been the small village that provided their supplies, and the intermittent newspaper. Gretta had always made those trips – they usually lasted a week, and ended with a wagon rented from the grocers and a chunk taken out of his accrued salary. Gretta would be content for days, rearranging and restocking the pantry, and what better to spend his money on than his wife? Then it would be back to avoiding the windows. Otto had never minded what was out there. As long as it didn't come close to him and his, it was all right. He could deal with it as long as it didn't affect him.
The call came at close to ten o'clock at night – left track. Otto was getting ready for bed, but he pulled on his jacket anyway. Trains were infrequent way out here, like the news. The only thing beyond his depot was the hinterlands between Germany and Poland – there was nothing there, and there were more popular, more efficient routes to the populated areas. After fifty years, the trains blended together and seemed to come more often in his memory than they did in reality – usually about a month or two apart. And fifty years of every two months added up to a lot of trains. Otto could never tell when exactly a train would come. The call would sound at any time, and Otto just learned to not be surprised anymore. Gretta had never liked being awoken in the middle of the night, to keep the bed warm while he disappeared for an hour at a time. The repair trains would come about twice a year, to see if there was anything broken that couldn't wait another six months. They brought a treasure with them – reasonably current news. The rail men went all over the country, from city to city, and they heard everything. Gretta had always dressed up and cleaned the house for them. She would milk them for everything she could, for any word of civilization. Gretta had been a child of the cities, and a small part of her had mourned the loss of that life.
At least she wasn't suffering now.
The call came at three in the morning – left track. Otto spared a grumble for being woken up in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, but this was his job, and he wouldn't let his superiors down. Even if they were twenty or thirty years younger than him. As a young man, Otto would daydream hours away, about what cargoes they held, where they were going. He had been proud that he helped make the great trains run smoothly, without a hitch. Now, after years of disillusioned apathy, he found himself wondering again. What did the cattle cars carry? Who rode past in the engine rooms and cabooses? His senses were dim, and recently he imagined he heard voices – shouts, or songs – over the clack-clack of the wheels and the hissing of the steam. Sometimes it was louder, sometimes softer. In the flash of the speeding trains, he sometimes saw a hand or a face in the walls of the boxcars. But that was ridiculous. People traveled in passenger cars, not boxcars and cattle cars. He was getting old, perhaps too old. Too old to serve in the war the world was waging. Too old to care about more than when the trains would come and why so often now. His only company was the radio. The news it brought was unsettling. War was never good. He didn't know what exactly had happened – there was a period of time when the wire had broken, and it had been another five months before the rail men came back to fix it – but when they did, they weren't very informative. All they talked about the cleansing of the German state, and the deportation of everyone who wasn't Aryan. They went on and on about how Herr Hitler was leading them to victory and ethnic purity. They bragged to each other about the different loads they had carried, and how many. 800 Poles here. 600 Serbs there. 1000 Jews to some other place. They were relieved of society's burden when they related the burning of the mental hospital just last month.
They didn't talk about who the new superintendent was.
They didn't talk about who the new governor was.
They didn't talk about who was retiring, and who had gotten married.
Gretta would have gotten something more useful.
The call came at nine o'clock in the morning – right track. Soon after came a pattern over the wire Otto had heard only a handful of times before – the train was damaged, and would be pulling in to the supply train's offshoot track until it could be repaired. It was exciting for an old man who had expected to die quietly. The officer who jumped down from the passenger car in front had the swastika emblem on his chest, and ignored Otto completely. Otto went to inspect the train. As he slowly walked down the line of cattle cars, he heard muffled sounds from inside. Thumps, and perhaps shouts, a sort of soft sobbing sound. Turning to the young man, Otto asked, "What is in here, in these cattle cars?"
The man laughed and twisted his mouth, as if amused by something. "It's cattle, of course – what else would be shipped to the slaughter houses of Poland, the finest in the world?"
There were at least ten cars on the train, and they seemed full. "That's a lot of cattle."
"Of course! They are all diseased, and must be disposed of before they infect everyone." The officer acted like Otto was foolish for not knowing that, and Otto let it drop. The whistle blew and a loud moan lifted from all the cars in concert. Otto realized they must be sick – never had he heard cattle make such a sound before. Then he remembered his father's dairy farm, and the prized German Red Pied.
As the train began to move, he shouted after the guard, "What breed are they?"
And the guard laughed and replied,
All events and persons mentioned in this story are fictitious and not meant to represent any persons living or dead.
The attitude of the Nazis toward all those that were not Aryan was, "We need to have a pure Aryan race, therefore we must get rid of all the non-Aryans." However, their attitude toward the Jews was, "We must get rid of all the Jews, and also we must have a pure Aryan race." The difference is in the intent. The Nazis targeted the Poles, Slav, Serbs, handicapped, mentally retarded and homosexuals for exile and extermination because they didn't fit in to the new world view, or were a burden and obstacle to the Aryan society. On the other hand, Hitler was ferociously anti-Semitic even as early as 1919. He and his Nazi party were 'anti-Jewish' on every level, mainly racial – and the only way to get rid of a race is by genocide. Only after they began targeting the Jews did they bring the extermination under the banner of Aryan cleansing.
There is no denying the amount and diversity of the victim of German persecution. The numbers are horrifying, and the breadth of the German definition of 'non-Aryan' is sometimes breathtaking. But the fact remains that 'the Jews were subhuman, and the Jews were aiming for world domination, and the Jews were the cause of all that was bad in Germany.' And the Jews lost 6,000,000 souls.
This story is intended to be several things. First, it illustrates the utter incomprehensibility of the German attitude toward their victims. Otto sees the uselessness of their attitude, yet at the same time is ignorant of what's going on, and what everyone's talking about. Second, it is a metaphor for the rest of the world. The world was stuck in the past, they refused to see what was going on, they could hear the warnings, but didn't see what was happening until it was almost too late. The world was very nationalistic – my nation is mine, and that's all I'll worry about. Third, it is a tribute to the soldiers of World War II. They fought their battles without question, because that was their job. That was what they were trained to do. I salute the soldiers, for putting their lives on the line in defense of freedom, and the chance to retain our diversity.
EDIT: Thanks to Taltush/MeiMei (I think that's right) for your sharp eyes and timely review!