Translated by Jeanne Bonner
We were living in a small city called Bamberg, not far from Nuremberg, when my father left us after a few days of much-deserved furlough. He’d been given leave for his excellent performance as a senior officer in the Third Reich. I don’t recall my father staying with us for long in those days. In fact, not once did I see him out of his pristine uniform, which so thrilled my mother.
I never counted for much in our household, and even less since my brother had received Father’s blessing to join the Hitler Youth. After that, my mother could barely contain the pride she had in the two of them.
We were a well-known and admired family in our small city. At church on Sundays, everyone paid respect to the Schultz family. I was the only one who felt embarrassed, useless as I was between two strong men like my father and my brother, both of whom walked with sharp, precise strides, practically a march. It was as if a melody emerged from within, one only they could sense. No matter how hard I tried, I always got it wrong when I attempted to copy their goose steps. I had to run to catch up to them like a lamb that had lost its flock. They pointed to my brother as an example, repeating that I had never been able to get the steps right.
On the rare occasions we were together in that period, my mother always took the long way to church, seeking out routes where neighbors would bow to her, greeting us warmly.
“You’re almost twelve now but you just don’t want to grow up,” my mother would say to me. “Look at Mrs. Hass’s son. He’s your age but you seem like his little brother.”
I wished my father and brother could remain at home with us. When I saw them happily leaving for the front, it felt like they didn’t love me. Tall and bony, my mother was submissive by nature. When we brought them to the station, it only took one look from my father for her to swallow her tears. My mother, though, was strong. On nights when she couldn’t sleep, she’d clean the floors or polish the silver that she kept in two large suitcases above the wardrobe in her bedroom.
“Why don’t you let Hilde help you?” I would ask.
I thought she was trying to save our elderly housekeeper the trouble. She was the only servant who’d remained with us during the war years.
“Oh, poor thing, she’s tired,” my mother would say. “I can do it myself. Besides, I might as well since I’m not tired.”
“Why are you putting that stuff away? Are we leaving, too?”
“Robert, we’re at war. Anything can happen in the blink of an eye. We might even have to stow our most precious things.”
“Tell me about the war,” I would say to my mother. “Something that’s really happening, not folktales. When we’re alone, you treat me like a little child.”
“There are duties in life,” my mother would reply. “Duties for men. When you’re older, you won’t fail to carry out your duty.”
“You must love country above all else. You must be proud of your father and your brother and not whimper every time they have to leave. You hang on your father’s neck like a sack of potatoes.”
She went on. “We love each other deeply, but it’s the hope of winning that gives us the strength to be apart. The war isn’t only about victory, you know. It’s about earning glory. And we will prevail, Robert.”
“I wish you would sleep next to me, Mother, when I hear the planes overhead at night. I never told anyone that I’m scared because none of you seem scared.”
“You’re a big boy now, Robert,” she said.
But that night Mother slid in bed beside me. It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood. It was like the time I played chess with my father and my mother whispered to him that he should let me win at least once. He got mad, insisting that one must be deserving of victory and that to win, one had to want it and be willing to learn.
“You’re right, Papa,” I said.
That made my father’s blue eyes light up and he began stroking his gorgeous brown hair, which he wore parted down the middle. He was short and muscular, with pale skin, rosy cheeks and large hands, like a farmer. I remember once, my mother dared to raise her voice while referring to his rural upbringing. At that, he shut himself off from everyone, falling into a deep silence to show his aristocratic roots more clearly.
Our house felt cavernous. There was no one left sleeping upstairs. Since the start of the war, we’d been sleeping down below in case an alarm sounded in the middle of the night. It would be easier that way to reach the bunker that my father had built under the garden. My toys were still all lined up in my room on the upper floor but I rarely went up there because the sad warren of abandoned rooms frightened me. I didn’t really feel like playing, anyway, so for fun after school, I would race to the railroad crossing to watch trains, which I would later draw at home. I loved walking alongside the tracks, waving at the strangers on the trains. I often hid in the woods near the tracks and made snowballs to throw at the train cars, hoping to hit the windows. Some of the people would laugh or get mad. These trains never stopped at the signal master’s station. But one time, the sound of a passenger’s wails could be heard and Mother locked me in Hilde’s quarters, a tiny dark room with an iron-frame cot where I eventually fell asleep. She let me out the next day; Hilde was forced to spend the night in the kitchen sitting by the stove. She complained more than usual, saying she was a burden to everyone. She would often pray that she would die soon, and she did so even more after my mother had begun suffering from insomnia and would rise in the middle of the night to clean the floors.
It was the signalman who played the spy, so I learned to stay clear of him and hide myself better in the woods where I felt myself master of the tracks and could observe the little white house and the well by the railroad crossing. One day when I was once again trying to balance on a rail, I felt the tracks vibrate beneath my feet as if a train were coming. I didn’t see any lights or signals, nor did I hear a warning whistle. Yet I was sure a train was approaching. It was a dark, cloudy afternoon and I stepped off the tracks just in time to see a black transport train with two locomotives arriving. It stopped at the signalman’s station. I threw myself into the snow and looked up to see a train car opened by an armed soldier. Two men exited, carrying pails in each hand while the soldier pushed them with the butt of his rifle, saying “Schnell! Schnell!”
From a distance, the soldier looked like my father and I ran out of the woods to get a better look. The man had a short, massive body and he wore the same uniform. I couldn’t decipher the face, but the way he walked and his demeanor made me call out, “Papa! Papa!” as I jumped up and then sank into the snow.
“Go home!” the signal master shouted while the soldier who resembled my father grabbed me by the arm with a brusque sweep and pushed me toward the edge of the woods, cursing. I wound up neck-deep in the snow but still, I couldn’t take my eyes off the train car. Dozens of arms were sticking through the window grates and from inside you could hear the voices of men, women and children, moaning while they begged for help. “Bitteschon,” they said again and again. “Wasser, wasser, bitte.”
The snowball remained in my fist but I couldn’t feel the cold. I considered throwing it at one of the windows for a second but then I hesitated and the train moved on, slowly disappearing into the fog.
All alone, I could hear the voices buzzing in my ears, growing louder, fearfully doubling in intensity as if an entire town was weeping inconsolably. I felt my wet hands burning. I was ashamed for not throwing the snowball for fun as I had the other times. Scrambling out of the hole, I swayed as I started off for home, mumbling my mother’s name.
When I arrived, I no longer wanted to see anyone, not even my mother, and I slipped into the house like a thief.
“Is that you, Robert?” my mother asked from the kitchen.
Standing in the middle of the living room, I had one thought only: to hide behind a piece of furniture. The voices still echoed in my head, begging for water.
“Oh Robert, look at the puddle!” my mother yelled. “You’re getting my carpet all wet. Your shoes are covered with snow and look at your hands. My God, what a state you’re in!”
My mother then began to remove my wet clothes. After Hilde fetched a hot water bottle and a wool blanket, they put me to bed where I lay delirious the whole night. They watched over me for several days but dodged my questions about the train’s true purpose. Mother reacted severely, threatening to slap me and report it all to my father. She then took to alternating between threats on the one hand, and entreaties and kisses on the other. In those days, my mother wore pants because she said it was cold and besides, in wartime, it didn’t matter how one dressed. But it made her seem severe, like a man.
I couldn’t bear it so I decided to escape. One morning, I jumped out of the window into the snow covering the backyard and instinctively began running to the signalman’s station. The railway worker was asleep on a cot. He wore a green uniform that was different from my father’s. And he had a rifle propped up against his large belly, which rose and fell as he snored. I didn’t dare take a breath as I stood there staring at him for a long time. I feared waking him and preferred he wake up on his own. Eventually he did, and shaking himself, he shot up off of the cot and grabbed the rifle.
“Who goes there?” he shouted.
“I’m Colonel Schultz’s son,” I said.
He didn’t relax even when he realized I was just a boy.
“I’ve already chased you off once so what in the devil are you doing, coming back?”
“I want to know who those passengers were.”
He looked at me with hostility then sat down, but this time he leaned the rifle against the wall.
“I don’t know anything,” the signalman said. “I do my duty, whatever my superiors like your father order me to do. I am a hard-working soldier, I follow my orders…”
I interrupted him to ask a question. “Are you a soldier or the station chief?”
“I am a railway worker in soldier’s uniform. I’ve always wanted to be station chief and now that they built this, the only trains that come through here are those cursed trains. And they’ve confused my home for a latrine.”
He spit out the extinguished butt, which had been resting on his lower lip, along with brown jets of saliva.
Then he began again: “If you could smell the stench! They’re having me serve as a soldier but I would prefer the front to cleaning up the shit from these animals, which I have to do twice a day. It’s humiliating.”
“So two trains come by here a day?”
I must have looked at him with apprehension because he responded immediately: “That’s when I bury it, but there are many other trains.” Then he remembered himself, “Go home instead of asking all these stupid questions. I’m a soldier and I am ordering you to stay away from here for good. Understood? Now marsch.”
Suddenly there was the sound of a train from outside. After jumping to his feet, the man grabbed his rifle and opened the door. He had me go out first, pushing me with a little shove of his hand.
But instead of going home, I ran back to the spot in the woods where I watched as the same scene as the day before was repeated. This time there were two armed soldiers, one of whom stood by the train windows, hitting anyone who dared reach for water with the point of his bayonet.
I scooped up some snow and rolled it into balls, throwing them against the barred windows of another train car that wasn’t being patrolled. But the guard noticed. He raised his rifle in my direction, he took a few shots, sending me tumbling down the snowy slope. Trembling with fear, I crouched there for a long time with my face and body half-buried in the snow, unable to move. It seemed as though it wasn’t only the train wailing, but the whole woods.
When I finally lifted my head again, the train had left but the sobbing continued. Sometimes faint, sometimes loud. Was I the one crying?I touched my wet cheeks but I didn’t know whether to blame tears or the snow so I began walking, surrounded by the utter silence of the woods. The groans began again, even fainter but real. I went in the direction where the voice seemed to be coming from, and as I ran, I tripped over a mound of snow; the weeping was coming from underneath.
“Who’s there?” I shouted.
No one answered, but the snowy little mound moved and I saw a slender arm laboring to poke out, followed by one tiny hand waving, then another. I bent down to touch the arms and to shake them with all of my strength just to be sure this wasn’t a nightmare.
Digging furiously, I found a small girl who was wrapped in a coat that like her hair and eyelashes was covered in icy snow. I wiped her face but her frozen tears had become like droplets of candle wax and they wouldn’t budge. I helped her stand up, and removing my coat, scarf and gloves, I covered her with my clothes. This nice little girl who was somehow still alive could only stare at me with wide eyes.
“What’s your name?” I asked her. “Where are you from? Who are you? Why can’t you speak?”
She stood there stiffly, without moving. I began rubbing her arms and blowing my hot breath on her face to warm her up.
“Come with me,” I said. “Come home with me. I have to go because my mother is waiting for me.”
She began looking around, her eyes tearing up, but she didn’t say anything. I picked her up and held her in my arms; she was as light as a feather. Although my coat weighed more than she did, I wasn’t strong enough to carry her all the way to our house. I could feel my heart beating in my chest while my teeth chattered from the cold. Before placing her back on the ground, I smiled and explained we still had a bit farther to walk. Only a few more steps, I said, we would be somewhere warm.
She looked at me with frightened eyes. Worried she’d try to escape, I took her hand and I pulled her along the icy path through the woods. She tried to break free but the sudden movement, hampered by the heaviness of the two coats on top of her, made her fall on the ice. While I tried lifting her up again, I heard my mother’s voice and then Hilde’s. They were looking for me.
“We’re here,” I yelled. “Come quick, Mamma!”
When my mother saw the girl, she went pale and seemed about to faint.
“Robert,” she said, her voice weak, “who is this child wearing your clothes?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I found her in the woods. She hasn’t said a word. Maybe she’s deaf.”
“You’ve gone insane,” she shouted. “Do you want to ruin your father and our whole family? Come inside quickly. We must not be seen.”
As she spoke, her trembling hands unbuttoned the two coats the girl was wearing but opening the first was enough to reveal what she was looking for. She tore off the yellow star that had been sewn on the girl’s tiny overcoat, and before I could even complain, she crumpled up the yellow piece of fabric, digging a hole in the snow with her heel to bury the star as she did so. Then she stomped on the snow for what seemed like a very long time. It was as if she were a dog burying his waste. She looked so funny, I almost laughed.
“You’ve always wanted a little girl,” I said to Mother who stared at me without moving. “Here’s a daughter for you and a little sister for me.”
“Oh, Robert,” my mother said under her breath. “Robert, Robert.” Then she burst into tears.
We went in the house to the room where I’d decided the girl should stay. Hilde was going back and forth between my room and the kitchen to refill the hot water bottle and bring soup and sweetened fruit. I begged my mother to feed her, to spoon something into her mouth, but she had a faraway look. I began doing it myself while Hilde grumbled, but in a voice that was uncharacteristically kind.
A spoonful at a time, we fed the girl, who now appeared to be smiling at me while she swallowed the food in ever bigger bites. As she ate, I explained how and where I’d found the girl, adding that she couldn’t be deaf because I’d heard her wailing, just as I’d heard the people on the train.
“She needs a doctor,” I kept saying. “She’s not deaf. She’s sick. We need to help her talk. Isn’t that right, Hilde?”
“The young lady will be our special guest, if that’s what you wish.”
That evening, I was as happy as someone who’d discovered gold. Even Hilde seemed more energetic. Mother was the only one who couldn’t understand. Suddenly she jerked me away from the bed, yelling, “Get away from her! Don’t touch that animal!”
“You mustn’t talk that way, Mother,” I replied. “She’s little. Can’t you see she’s already fallen asleep? You always said you wanted a little girl named Silvia. From now on, we’ll call her Silvia.”
Leaning over the bed where Silvia slept, I pronounced loudly, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I baptize you Silvia Schultz.”
“You’ve become deranged,” Mother said, sobbing. “Do whatever you want. Have your little toy. But only until your father comes home.”
After that, I stopped going to the signal master’s station, and I no longer heard the wails of the passengers ringing in my ear. My love for Silvia only grew stronger as she learned to say a few words in German, although she could not -- or would not -- speak in any other language. It seemed like she had forgotten her native tongue. She was growing up nicely and becoming quite lively, too. She knew how to write her numbers from one to 10, and she’d even confided in me her age: she was six. We played all day in the room upstairs, which I’d reopened after she arrived. We slept there in twin beds and I even convinced Mother to wish Silvia goodnight.
We weren’t allowed out of the house; I’d promised as much to Mother so she would be kind and considerate to Silvia. There was nothing, however, that I could do about the disgust Mother felt when she touched Silvia. In fact, Hilde was the one who dressed her every day and put her to bed at night.
After a while, Silvia began walking around the house by herself. Every now and then, she would stop to touch a piece of furniture or an object, almost as if she were looking for something. She stroked Mother’s furs, burying her little hands inside of them. She even liked to try them on, running to the mirror to see how she looked.
“Tell her to stop,” Mother would say. “She’s ruining my furs. She’s making them dirty.”
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” I would say. “She understands everything.”
My little sister was plumping up nicely, and every so often a quick smile would flash across her chubby cheeks. But at night, when she was alone with me, she often cried and I would hold her close to console her. Once she hugged me and gave me a kiss in front of Mother.
“Give Mother a kiss, too,” I said to Silvia.
My mother stiffened and she looked at the child with contempt but she didn’t move. Then putting on her fur coat, she said she had to go to the post office to send a telegram to Father. I ran after her. Meeting her at the door, I said, “Silvia must stay with us until the war is over. Then we’ll look for her parents.”
“If you can find them,” my mother replied in a strange tone.
A few days later, my father returned from his post at the front.
“You had to call for me now when they need me most? With the Russians and the Americans closing in on the Third Reich?” he said.
Mother clearly hadn’t the courage to tell him the real reason for the telegram.
He didn’t appear at first to notice Silvia, who stood, frightened, in a corner of the room, her eyes coldly trained on my father’s boots.
“The rug, dear,” said my mother. She was also staring at his boots, so covered in melting snow that two dark water stains began spreading across the rug.
My father looked up, his gaze traveling to where Silvia stood staring at him. Both my mother’s eyes and mine were glued to the carpet where the stains were growing larger.
“Who is that child?” he yelled suddenly. “What’s happening here in my house, Grete? Is this turning into a synagogue? A dump? A scrapheap?”
“I’m the one who found her,” I said to Father who seemed intent on thrashing my mother. “She was in the woods, near the railway tracks where you see the trains – those trains that…”
He didn’t let me finish my thoughts. Instead with a blow to my face, he sent me flying across the room to where Silvia stood, so petrified by him that she was frozen in place, like a rabbit facing a hunter’s rifle.
“Don’t touch her, Papa,” I said, in tears. “You are not her father. Beat me instead.”
He raised his hand to strike me again but mother came between us, and he attacked her with a savage hand, unloading all of his rage upon her.
“Forgive me,” my mother begged, “if we took her away from him, we would have lost Robert – maybe forever. Calm down, Fritz. Let’s try to discuss this.”
“Did you know she was Jewish?” my father asked, speaking in a calm tone again.
“Of course, I knew,” Mother replied. “I knew as soon as I saw them walking out of the woods together, even before I hid the yellow star. Who else would be in the woods? They must have lost her or her parents pushed her from the train to save her. But she hasn’t said anything.”
My father motioned to the child to come closer but Silvia didn’t move.
“You two go upstairs,” he said to Mother and me. Turning to Hilde, he said, “You stay in the kitchen.”
Mother and I stood outside the door to the cellar, motionless, awaiting anxiously to see what would happen.
I could hear my father interrogating Silvia, demanding her name, age and hometown as if she were a soldier.
“Are you Polish? Hungarian? Romanian?” he asked angrily. “Which train brought you?”
“I don’t remember,” she mumbled.
“You must remember and answer me fully if you want to see your parents again.”
After an unbearable silence, my father’s voice exploded in the air. “What, have you lost your tongue? May the devil snatch you up!” shouted Father. “Follow me. I’ll send you where your parents are.”
The door was suddenly thrown open and my father appeared, holding Silvia by the collar of her dress. She hung in the air like a kitten.
“I don’t remember,” Silvia kept saying.
“I’ll bring you down to the bunker where you’ll have to get your memory back by tomorrow morning.”
I threw myself against my father. “I’ll report you!” I shouted. “You’ll never see me again.”
He dragged her into the underground bunker and then immediately came back upstairs, smiling. His irritation appeared to have disappeared completely. He looked at us almost tenderly now that the source of the tension was no longer right in front of our eyes. I understood he wanted to forget about it just then and was trying to be accommodating with my mother and me.
“Grete, get me the chess set,” my father said. “Come on Robert, let’s see who’ll win.You’ll need to guard your pieces well.”
He gazed out, daring me to beat him but not without a touch of admiration because for the first time, my will to win was equal to his. Mother poured him a glass of cognac and sat down on a chair next to us. But she didn’t watch our match. Instead she read the newspapers my father had brought.
I had to win. I concentrated all of my energy on the match, as if the stakes were Silvia’s life.
After a long silence, my mother asked about my brother, Helmuth. “When his regiment is back in Germany, couldn’t he perhaps come home? He is after all just a boy.”
“You want him to come home now? Are you giving up, too?” my father replied, without looking away from the chess board. After a moment, he said, “Did you put provisions in the bunker?”
Hearing my mother assure him she had, I was secretly happy for Silvia.
That night, I went back to sleeping in my own room after a long absence. I felt at ease there because Silvia was safe and my father was home with us. I fell asleep quickly, filled with the satisfaction that I had beaten my father at chess.
That night, I had a terrible dream; it was as though the earth trembled, shaking my bed and causing the trees in the woods to fall, blocking the train tracks. I woke up suddenly. Through the window, now thrown wide open, I could see the pale sky while a deafening noise made me feel disoriented.
Jumping out of bed, I yelled, “Papa!” In the next moment, a sudden flash blinded me and the room was plunged into darkness.
When I came to again, I heard loud banging on the wall. A lot of time must have gone by, and I wasn’t sure where I was. A weak light entered the room, filtered by a tangle of ceiling beams and debris from the broken wall plaster. I heard a voice at intervals that sounded mechanical; it was speaking in a foreign language, repeating the same words over and over. I wanted to move, but I was like a prisoner, my legs squeezed by something with a jaw-like grip. Confused, I began crying and yelling in a bid for help.
With my hands, I began digging myself out of the rubble of bricks and dust where I had fallen. The banging on the wall began again, with the sound sometimes close, sometimes far. I could hear the picks and the shovels at work and the foreign voices that seemed to guide them. Finally, the sky above me opened up and I saw a pair of heads and then two soldiers in uniform and a man in a white lab coat. They were talking to me but I could only understand their gestures and their encouraging smiles. The man with the lab coat was the first to lean into the opening above where I was buried. After he freed me from the rubble that had pinned me down, he took me in his arms and we walked out into the sunlight.
I was still blinded for a long time. My eyes were wide open now but they refused to see. In front of me, there was only smoke and debris. My house had been swallowed up in a crater of ashes. All around me were voices coming through loudspeakers and sirens from Red Cross vehicles. I babbled, “Where am I? Mother? Mother?”
Through the many incomprehensible voices talking over each other and giving what sounded like orders, I heard someone call me, “Robert!”
I turned around and saw Silvia standing in front of the bunker, which had emerged unscathed, except the door was no longer attached to the hinges. She ran toward me. Holding her hand was a young nurse. She had a sign hanging around her neck by a cord that read: “Miryam Lewy, Born 1939, Budapest.”
Breathless, I looked at her closely to make sure it was really Silvia.
“It’s me, Robert! It’s me,” she assured me.
“Where’s Mother?” I yelled, sobbing. Then lowering my voice instinctively, I asked, “And where’s Father? Where are they?”
“They found me in the bunker,” Silvia said. “I was alone.”
“Where are they?” I shouted. “I want to look for them.”
I thought about breaking free from the arms of the stranger who held me. Looking alternately at me, then at Silvia, the soldiers and the nurse were discussing the situation. Full of fear, I began trembling. I was afraid of everything – and everyone – and I couldn’t manage to say my name even as the nurse, holding a sign and a pencil, asked me yet another time.
“What is your name?” The foreign woman spoke to me in English.
I looked at Silvia, silently imploring her for help. She removed the sign from her neck and asking the nurse for a pencil, she crossed out her name and changed it to Silvia. Now all of them were laughing, amused by what she had done. She smiled, too, and looked at me sweetly.
“What’s your name?” the young woman kept repeating in English as she walked us toward the Red Cross vehicle. “What’s your name?”
Silvia answered for me. “Robert.”
“Robert?” she repeated in English. “Robert, just Robert?”
The nurse handed me a piece of chocolate and waited for my answer.
“Robert Lewy,” Silvia replied, smiling. Then she turned to me and said in German, “You’re my brother, right?”
Edith Bruck, a 2021 finalist for the Strega, Italy's most prestigious literary award, was born in Hungary in 1931 but has been writing in Italian for more than half a century. She is the author of more than a dozen novels, short story collections and works of nonfiction. Bruck is also a prolific poet. In addition to her prodigious literary output, she is a committed Holocaust witness who visits Italian schools to share her experiences.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer, editor and literary translator. Her essays and reporting have been published by The New York Times, Brevity, the Boston Globe, Catapult, Longreads, Marketplace, NPR and CNN. She is a 2022 NEA literature fellow in translation; her project consists of translating short stories by Edith Bruck, a transnational Italian writer who frequently writes about her experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust.