By Mai Listokin
My family’s suffering in Russia, Poland, and Germany during World War II prompted me to reflect on the values of courage, perseverance, hope, and the price of war. My great-grandmother’s ordeal in occupied Russia during the Battle of Stalingrad inspired this story, about a single mother’s sacrifice amid the inferno of war.
The months rolled on, and Berlin’s Jewish-owned shops, which had once bubbled with the chatter of customers, had closed, the little bells on the doors never to be heard again. Slander and insults against the Jews were painted across the wooden doors and windows. A blanket of invisible hatred was building, and an early winter seemed to engulf Berlin in a frozen feast of silence. By mid-August, Germany’s Nuremberg synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis, and Max’s little kitchen table radio kept on spewing dreadful news. In early November, his mother Emma, a hardworking single mother and chemist by profession, came home with a strange fabric yellow star declaring “Jude.” She told Max he would have to wear it to school every day, pinned to his shirt.
On the chilly night of November 10th, as Max was doing his homework, the loud noise of men shouting and explosions firing suddenly filled the air. Against his mother’s orders, he climbed the narrow staircase to the roof of their building and gazed out at his city. A cold, harsh light glowed from the glittering sea of broken glass. Up and down the dark allies people were rushing in every possible direction, casting rocks and metal rods against the windows of the storefronts. His mouth dropped when he saw the kosher butcher’s store being crashed and shamelessly broken into—someone was painting a red swastika on the wooden door. Close to midnight, Max’s mother rushed through the door, sweating profusely, horrified as she cradled her son in her arms. “Max, are you okay?” It was only the next day when Max and his mom learned of the full extent of that tragic night. They would smell the heavy smoke hovering over their city and feel the disturbing pain of broken glass under foot for days to come. He sensed that his youth had abruptly come to a halt, the honey color of his fond childhood memories fading into gray.
As it happens in life, the solution for Max arrived from an unexpected angle. It was Ingrid, Emma’s friend and lab coworker, who hatched a careful plan to help spare Max. Ingrid, whose own son Hans had passed away of typhoid a few months before, had found solace in the idea that she would help her friend’s son escape. She had requested transit papers for her and Hans under the pretense of seeking medical help for her ailing son in England. Once she received the papers and train tickets, she masterfully altered Hans’s picture to resemble Max’s photo. Together, Ingrid and Max would make their way to England where she would deliver her friend’s son, now Hans Schmidt, to his uncle in Liverpool.
The dreadful day of departure had finally arrived. Ingrid, dressed for the journey and carrying a worn suitcase, met Emma and Max at their house. Emma had been helping Max practice his new identity as “Hans” for the past month. To avoid the smallest suspicion during the journey to England, he was to speak only if approached and spoken to by the German authorities.
Emma impulsively decided to follow Ingrid and Max to the busy Friedrichstrasse Station. But now, after an intense month of planning, when the moment to let Max go had arrived, a terrifying fear engulfed Emma. What if Ingrid and Max were exposed and arrested? All of a sudden, as she watched Ingrid holding her son’s hand as they approached the platform, her heart skipped a beat—what if Ingrid simply stole her son and raised him as her own? But then she felt a sharp pang of guilt for even questioning the noble intentions of her longtime friend. Max seemed nervous and suddenly so small and vulnerable; her heart ached. From the corner of the ticket office, Emma observed Ingrid handing her transit papers to the policeman by the train tracks. She drew her breath in sharply as she noticed how the policeman gazed intently at Max’s face, matching it to his forged passport picture, and back to her son’s sweaty face. She mumbled a silent prayer, but Ingrid was calm and assertive, and was finally signaled to move forward and enter the train. Ingrid and Max climbed into the train car. Max’s eyes searched frantically for his mom through the dusty windows. Their eyes locked in relief just as the long and doleful sound of the horn echoed into the coming evening. Max planted a final kiss on the window, his small palms open in despair on both sides of his face, which was pressed against the glass. Was he crying? She couldn’t tell from the distance, but she could swear he was mumbling “Mama” again and again, like a sweet promise, or a prayer. He waved sadly behind the glass as the train pulled out of the station. Max was no longer able to see his mother through the hazy smoke, hovering like a cloud over the ruins of a burning city, his train snaking along the tracks through a burning Berlin.
Mai Listokin is a senior in high school, and always finds inspirational NYC minutes. She regularly writes poetry and short stories, and enjoys reading other writers’ works. An active person and environmentally conscientious individual, Mai documents her experiences through scuba diving, Riverside Park volunteering, and urban wildlife photography. Quarantine didn’t stop her creative process, as she paints, writes, and publishes her work in several online editorials, while industriously working on her college applications. She now eagerly awaits to begin her next chapter, where she plans to perfect her literary skills, and find her unique voice as a rising author.