A young boy sits between his parents on the train as it chugs out of Pressburg station. He looks out at the wide Slovak plains stretching on either side, the farmland and small houses. It is all new to him; he has only known the dark and crowded streets of New York, the small tenement flat where his family lived, near to his many aunts and uncles. His favourite uncle, Joe, only a year older than he is, is more like a cousin or a best friend. He doesn’t know when he will see him again. He is being brave; this new life is the one his parents have chosen.
It is not new to them, they are returning home. After fifteen years in America, they have decided it isn’t for them. His mother, Ernestina, has left her parents, her brothers and sisters in New York and come back with Leopold and young Erwin to her husband’s family home, to a country they both know well. It is only Erwin to whom it is unfamiliar. Around him he hears the other passengers speaking German, Hungarian, Slovak. He understands most of it, his parents have been speaking to him in German and Hungarian all his young life. It is only now they are ‘home’ that they will switch to English.
He notices the valley is narrowing, the hills are closer and, as the train slows in Trencin, there is a real castle towering up on the hillside. He has seen tall buildings in America, but nothing so old, so romantic. And now they are nearing their destination, his parents point out the copper roof of the church tower rising above the house roofs. It is Zilina, his new home.
Erwin stands on the platform in Zilina, waiting. His suitcase is by his side. He has come early because he doesn’t want to miss this train. There are still soldiers arriving home with every train, but the war is at an end. Fighting on the Eastern Front ceased in 1917 and the Western Front is in its final days. But he is not thinking about politics, he is more interested in what is awaiting him, because he is about to embark on another journey to a new life. This time he is going alone – to Prague, where he will begin his medical studies.
He said his good-byes to his parents at home, in the little tailor shop in Horny Val that has been his home for the last eight years. They are so proud of their son, who enrolled in the Statna Realna Skola when they first arrived from America, and whose intelligence and hard work took him into the top class.
The young boy who had looked uncertainly out of the train windows eight years earlier was now a confident young man, with a wide group of friends and an ambition to step on to a wider stage. Once again, he was leaving family, this time on his father’s side but he knew he could return. His friends, too, were starting their university careers, some going with him to Charles University.
There had been moments of doubt: his father’s business was modest, and living in Prague would be costly, but Uncle Ignacz had come to the rescue. He saw that Erwin had intelligence and drive and he wanted to make sure that nothing held him back, so Erwin’s dream was about to be realised. He was embracing his own future at one of the most exciting moments in the history of his country – a country just weeks away from being formed.
They sit close together on the train, hardly noticing the other passengers, so absorbed are they in their own conversation, their own plans and dreams. Once again, he is making the train journey to Zilina. He has visited many times in the past ten years, coming home to see parents and family for special occasions – weddings, bar-mitzvahs, funerals- but this time it is different. He is not alone, and he is not just visiting. Newly married, he and Alice are going to settle in Zilina. Erwin has a job at the doctor’s practice in Kukicnova Street and Alice, newly qualified as a lawyer, one of the first women in the country to do so and certainly the first in Zilina, has also secured a position in the firm of Arpad Ring, one of Erwin’s cousins.
Zilina has become a familiar place, he can’t walk across the old town square or the newly named Masaryk Street without meeting people he knows, relatives, old school friends, friends of his parents. Soon he and Alice will be a part of that bustling and lively little town.
Masaryk Street, has not only gained a new name since he walked down it to the station all those years ago, it has become smart. Shops are more numerous and more affluent, young trees have been planted along both pavements and the weary horses and carriages have been replaced by motor cars. Elegant hotels have opened and Erwin, once again full of anticipation, can’t wait to walk with Alice on summer days up into the Tatras mountains or in winter to shelter under the arcaded walks of the town square.
It is an exciting time, Czechoslovakia is a young country, only eleven years old, but she is flourishing. All over, people are discussing politics, planning for the future, reading and being excited by new ideas – they are going to the theatre, and concerts, and seeing the new in architecture and art. Alice and Erwin are excited for their friends to visit, to attend political meetings, to discuss, and plan, and hope.
The train pulls out of the station. They can hardly believe it has happened. Where did it go? What happened to the life they thought they were going to have? Their new house on Masaryk Street stands empty. Erwin’s surgery, its window facing the busy streets, is still ordered, meticulously tidy, as if he could just walk in and greet the first patient of the day; but in Alice’s study, at the rear of the house, the light catches the dust motes, the law books sit regimented and unopened. It has been empty for over a year. That is another story.
In the bedroom, the wardrobes and drawers lie open. The sounds of crying and loving, of conflict and hurt still echo within its walls. Alice has only been back a few weeks, after a year away; the telegram she sent saying they belonged to different worlds is fresh in both their minds, but here they are, side by side in the same world, as the train moves inexorably forward, away from Zilina, away from friends, relatives, work, home. Home is not home any more, the Hlinka guard has started patrolling, Nazi rules are being introduced, Alice is barred from practising law and yesterday, the mob was at their door.
But Erwin, ever practical, has also read the warning signs, he has been planning ahead, he still has American citizenship, they can leave. His mother’s relatives in New York will help. And so they sit, with so much to say, not speaking, looking ahead. Their journey will take them to Prague, to Belgium, across the Atlantic – and it will torture them in ways beyond imagining. The flight out of the back door of their house is only the beginning.
Leopold and Ernestina stand in line on the tiny platform. This isn’t the station that takes you south to Bratislava, or Pressburg as it used to be known, it is the small branch line that travels to the east. Ernestina clutches her suitcase, they have been told they are to be moved, the Hlinka guards are everywhere, keeping them huddled together in rough lines. They are glad that Erwin and Alice are safe in America, but they didn’t want to make that transatlantic journey again. This is their home, this is where their ancestors are buried.
At first it seemed they could weather this storm, they could make the adjustments, move from their home to the newly built camp just outside the town. Some of their friends were going, others had already left. Some of the younger ones are taking their chances up in the mountains. The older ones, like them, are with them in the camp. It is near the small railway line, they hear the trains rattling past.
The train arrives. There are misgivings, they have heard stories, but they are also reassured, they are being taken east to settle elsewhere. Ernestina makes sure she has her belongings with her, you never know what you might need. She looks at the train, it is unlike any train she has ever seen, where are the seating compartments? Surely, they aren’t going to be expected to stand in cattle trucks?
It is mid August. The ground is dry and baked, an unrelenting sun beats down. The rails shimmer in the heat. He has been in Bratislava for a meeting with the Department of Health. He is coordinating a team of doctors from the USA, who have come on a teaching mission to Czechoslovakia. He is professional and very busy. There is so much to arrange; every day there are visits to hospitals, universities and industries. And now on August 11th, it is going to Trencin, Teplice and Zilina.
Once again, the train approaches Zilina. Once again, he sees the copper roof on the church tower. His American colleagues are keen to get out, stretch their legs. For them it is one more town on their Czech tour, one more hospital, more buildings defaced by bullets, tarmac chewed up by tanks. As they leave the station and look out into Masaryk Street, that is called Masaryk Street no longer, Erwin notices the trees are still there. They have grown. It is the same town and not the same town.
He thought he knew the shops, but their names have changed. There are faces he recognises, but no-one nods to him on the street. He is with the visiting group of Americans, he doesn’t belong. And if someone does look twice and realises for a moment that the American in the well cut suit is Erwin, who sat next to him in class, he looks away again, too quickly, because he knows about all the school friends who will never return, the parents whose houses are now occupied by others, the remains of an empty camp near the railway.
Now he is back in that same square, visiting the hospital where he worked as a young man, going past the house that he and Alice had to flee. He is an important man, he is having meetings with government officials, receptions at the American Embassy and with President Gottwald. He is being interviewed on Czech radio and interviewed by Czech newspapers. Alice is with him and not with him.
The next stop is Stary Smokovec, then on to Kosice. He will never return.
She stands on the railway line, it is narrow gauge and straight. It disappears away to the eastern horizon. It is the ‘point of no return’. That is how it is described in Zilina, the point from which the Jews of the town were deported to Auschwitz in 1942. It wasn’t easy to find, you had to walk under the motorway and come up through a deserted industrial park.
Finally, she found it, but now as she stands there, it isn’t the memorial, it’s the railway line itself that speaks to her of another life. A life in which the normal and the hopeful and the domestic became the terrifying and the desperate and the political. Here as a tourist, she is in the place her ancestors lived, the place from which her grandparents were transported to their death and the place her father, Erwin, once had called ‘home’.
About the Contributor
Liz Kohn lives in St Albans with her husband. She retired from teaching three years ago to concentrate on her writing and research. The attached piece comes from the research she is undertaking into the life of her father and his first wife. Their marriage encapsulated the conflict between east and west within Czechoslovakia and spans the key events of the twentieth century. Liz is learning Czech in order to be able to read the documents and texts and has recently spent a month in Prague continuing her research.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
More from Issue Ten:
- Tracks of Life and Death by Liz Kohn
- A short course of treatment by Tim Love
- Heating disorder by Myriam Frey
- Heirlooms by Rosie Garland
- Mourning by Katherine McMahon
- The Ghost of my Mother is waiting for me in Arrivals by Claire Collison
- Pakistan Zindabad, from Abroad by Hana Riaz
- Adopt a vortex by Han Smith
- Sea Sickness by Eloise Unerman
- British Street Music by Tamim Sadikali
- Pomegranate by Caroline Gonda