The cattle car grinds to a halt in the middle of the night. Hundreds of us from Kraków have been traveling for days. I can barely move. Around me is a stench that makes it impossible to take a full breath. I peer out from the wooden slats. I see a faint glow, hear the moans and groans of my family and neighbors. I panic. I have to explain to them what is about to happen. We have to fight. When those doors open, we can’t allow ourselves to be put into lines like animals. There will only be a few officers against thousands of us. We are weak, but I have to scream something to warn them. I open my mouth. It is only a gasp. No sound comes out. I strain to be louder. Still silence. With a thud in my heart, I know I am going to fail. We will all die.
Marie knocks softly and steps into my room at the Wildwood Senior Center. I am sleeping fitfully. My sheets are sweaty and stuck to my body. My eyes bolt open. “Did you have the dream again?” asks Marie. I give a quick nod. I glance down on my arm. A filthy green tattoo glares back at me --
98288. I begin every morning looking at this number, thinking about what it means, how much I have
lost. This number lets me stay nameless, in prison for a while each day, hoping I can fix some of the past.
I look up, realizing Marie has spoken to me.
“What do you want to wear today?” I remember this is the day of the Middle School visit. I am
being honored for my age and for what I have survived. I will have to find a way to get through the day. I
may not find the energy to endure these privileged kids, with their glassy, disinterested eyes that will
stare aimlessly into space, lacking all comprehension of what it’s like to lose an entire family, every
friend, neighbor and familiar face. They will never know what it’s like to start again in a new country,
with a new language, with an exterminated past. I allow my eyes to drift shut again....
My mother’s beautiful face appears in front of me. “Bertha Placzek,” I whisper the name to
myself, loving the feel of it on my lips. My father floats into the scene. He is tall and always dressed so
formally. “Rubin Placzek,” I pronounce his name with reverence. I feel a delicate hand in mine and
look down at the sparkling eyes of my baby sister. “Anne,” I murmur. I hear Anne speak my own
name in her musical voice, “Katerina!”
My eyes open slightly. My fuzzy brain barely notices as Marie dresses me and guides me to the bus waiting in the front drive, heading for the school visit. Settling into my seat, I stare out the smudgy windows until the bus glides to a stop. My eyes drearily open the rest of the way. People around me let out a couple of grunts as they shift to attention and I hear some complaints for water. The man sitting beside me, Frank is whining for a bathroom. The chipper attendants with their fake smiles announce that we have arrived. I wonder: “Why have I agreed to come here?” As I stand to stretch my legs, I see Bethany and Matt, the attendants, open up the doors: one in the back, for people with wheelchairs, and one in the front, for people who can walk. I inch my way to the front, carefully letting my cane lead the way. My body feels like lead. At the front door, Matt offers his hand with a side of his immense, phony smile. I reluctantly grasp his hand for extra support and slog to the pavement, waiting to be shown where to go. I look down at my feet. They look thick and twisted, covered in dilapidated brown loafers. I pause and try to recall why I wore these shoes. Once upon a time, I was meticulous about my appearance. Exhausted already, I drag myself inside the school.
Inside the entry hall, the first thing I notice is the young girl with bright red rain boots -- my
guide for the school visit. Her legs pull my eyes in like magnets. Those rain boots of hers ... so shiny ...
crimson ... my eyes squeeze shut trying to block what’s about to happen ... the distraction of my past ...
Anne is ecstatic. It is her birthday. Mama presents her with a large wrapped box adorned with ribbons. A breathless scramble to unwrap the box results in a glorious pair of glistening red buckle shoes. “Dancing shoes,” according to Mama. Anne falls backwards on the sofa in joy. “I have the prettiest shoes in the family!” she squeals. That day started so beautifully, but ended in a thunderous knocking on our apartment door that changed us forever. We were exposed, then captured and herded away, with Anne still wearing those precious red shoes, proudly prancing out that door and trusting her family to watch over her.
I blink again. My guide is small girl, like a waif really, not more than 10 or 11, I estimate. Her hair
is knotted tightly on her head in an old-fashioned bun. She is looking at her feet, as if she is afraid. She
stands alone, waiting. Other kids twitch and squirm. I could see they did not want to be here waiting to
greet their guests. At least I have something in common with these children. A middle-aged man, the
Principal, approaches me and asks my name, finds the right name badge and begins to place it on my
chest. I grab the sticker, ripping it off my sweater and crumpling it tightly in my fist. The violence of my
motion shocks the Principal. I don’t care.
The night is frigidly cold. The winter coats we wear to protect against the wind all share
something in common – an enormous gold Star of David with the word “Juden” stamped in the
middle. The word is like an accusation to all of us, reminding us that we don’t belong, are not loved,
respected or wanted. We are worse than animals. I blink the tears out of my eyes, grip Anne and
Mama’s hands tightly and stare up at the stars in the indigo sky.
Badgeless, I trudge toward the young girl in the crimson boots. Despite having witnessed my
reaction to the badge, her face lights up as I get close. “My name is Elle.” She places her hand on my
elbow, leading me away from the others. As we walk down the colorfully-lined hallway, I notice a variety
of posters welcoming Wildwood Senior Center to the Middle School. Elle absorbs it all, as if seeing it
herself for the first time and judging whether it sends the right message to me. She observes the
hushed conversations of kids clustered in corners. She looks away from them. She says, “That’s mine.” I
look where her finger is pointing. A white poster is hanging unevenly on the wall -- bright colors of red
and white. No blue. She looks down and says, “I know that you are from Poland. I chose your colors.” I
can’t help but show a flicker of a smile. I remember that when I was younger I would create paintings to
hang up in the class room. But that was before those posters were taken down and replaced by
photographs of Der Fuhrer. I feel my breath getting uneven again at the intruding memory ...
“Name, Age?” Men go to one side and women and kids go to another. I stand in line with my family, my mother holding Anne, Papa standing in front of us -- protecting. Papa steps forward and responds to the solider, calling out his name and age in the strongest voice I had ever heard him use. At the end though, his voice cracks, probably in fear for us. We pray that he will be sent to the right – to the line of the young, tough men. But he is shoved to the left, stumbling into line with the older fathers and grandfathers and very young boys. Before I can think about what this mean for Papa, it is my turn. I am sent to the third line, with my mother and baby sister. This line is nothing but wailing and moaning women and girls. Our shrieks do nothing to keep us together.
Elle escorts me into a crowded classroom. The children sit at their desks, either talking
quietly or aimlessly looking ahead. I notice that the boys cluster together and the girls sit whispering on
the other side of the room. When they see me a hush falls over the room. I see them staring at my
shoes, deciding who I must be based on these poorly-chosen shoes. Elle pulls me to an overstuffed chair
in the front of the schoolroom. She steps aside to an old desk in the center of the open space and sorts
through some papers, and then plucks up a stack of index cards and a remote control. She turns, looks
at me briefly and then out across the sea of faces, searching for an interested or welcoming face. She
sees what I do -- apathy. I see her draw a long breath, and then begin. Soft music plays quietly in the
background as she introduces a history of Poland before the war, the round-ups, the Ghettos, the cattle
cars, the Selections .... But this is not what catches my ear ... it’s the song in the background that has me
mesmerized. I remember this song ... a soft old jazz tune with a steady dance beat.
The band picks up the tempo now with a swingy jazz number from the 1920’s. My school friends and I are thrilled. Since the Nazis took power, this sort of music is frowned on. It’s too “American” -- a bad influence they say. Things are getting worse for us in Poland. There is not as much food, businesses are closing and not many clubs play our songs anymore. But we are young and dreaming of better times. We don’t know there will be a war. We can’t possibly imagine what’s about to happen. Without a further worry, we crowd to the dance floor and begin to sway to the music, eyes closed and oblivious to our fate.
Elle finishes her speech and looks over at me. This is my cue. I stand, using my cane. I shuffle to the front of the classroom. I hear a few snickers. Anger boils up inside of me. They don’t know the feeling of losing their entire family, having no one left and no one to go to when you are having a bad day. I breathe deeply and allow my eyes to close gently, looking for the willpower to finish what I had come to do. But then, without any warning, I am attacked by the sharpest pain of all ...
The gray beast swaggers to Mama, who is still gripping Anne in her arms. The grim monster lunges forward smelling of alcohol and smoke, placing his boots on the packed, cold dirt directly in front of what’s left of our family. His gloves hands frame Mama’s face roughly. I press behind Mama’s shabby coat, trying not to be seen. The solider barks a command to another soldier and re-enters my view. Without warning, he grabs me by the shoulders, jerking me around to follow him away into the night. My mind goes blank. I’m paralyzed with fear. Then Mama cries with the most the most terrible sound I have ever heard. I twist my head back over my shoulder and am horrified to see Mama dropping little Anne to the cold ground and then falling to the frozen ground herself, begging on her knees. “‘Let me keep her – my girl – please!” My captor stops and turns to Mama, speaking in broken Polish: “Fine, take your pick.” Without another word, he shoves me back toward Mama with disgust
and whips baby Anne up in his arms, storming away into the murky dark. Suddenly aware of what is happening, Mama collapses in a heap, weeping: “Nie bior? moje dziecko!”... “Don’t take my baby!” I suddenly comprehend what is happening and fall toward Mama’s arms. But she is motionless, drowning in her own sobs. I try to hug her and to have her arms hug me back, but she is unable to move from the crouching position. My mother screams for all the night to hear. It is terrible. But Anne’s screeches are so much worse. Only a baby ... a beautiful girl in red shoes ... trusting she would be all right and learning in the last moments of her life that she would not be protected.
Days later I see the cart pass in the courtyard. This wagon is just one of many that creak past all day long, loaded with bodies dumped so carelessly on top of one another. Bitter cold and snow
is already causing the bodies to freeze together in a grayish white lump. The mass is a blurry monochromatic jumble except for ... “Oh God” ... I see a miniscule splash of red ... “Oh God ... Anne! It was supposed to be me ... I should have saved you.” I fall to the ground, burying my head in the icy sludge and praying I can fall asleep forever and block out this guilt. Death will save me. How can I go on?”
So many years later, standing in this classroom, I can still smell death. I can hear the wails of people as they leave this world. I fight back the tears and decide to share my story. Maybe these children today will hear me. So I begin with just a few words: “My name is Kasia Placzek. “ I describe my beautiful family before the war, dances, school, friendships and vacations. Yet before I know it, the memories are rushing out. My breathing becomes faster, heart racing, tears in my eyes. I can’t hold anything back. I explain that, at first the differences in our daily lives are insignificant. Everyone trusts that things will get better and remaining in Poland with our families and businesses is the best option.
Nothing can convince us to imagine the horrors that will arrive. By the time we understand our fate, it is
too late to leave. I detail the arrests, the Ghettos, the camps and the lack of food. Most of all, I tell how my baby sister Anne was snatched away from us in the night. Her shrieks and those little red buckle shoes still haunt me at night. I remember the last thing she said to me as we huddled in the line that winter night: “Kocham ci?” “I love you.” As I watch the children in this schoolroom, I see that more and more eyes meet my gaze. The room is completely silent. They are stunned. I stop speaking and look down, observing my scruffy old shoes again. I find my way back to the chair alone. Looking for my guide, I see Elle glance down at her red boots with a troubled expression on her face. She looks up at me, and our eyes lock. She understands.
Back in my room, it is evening. I sit on my bed, feeling that a weight is lifted from my shoulders. I made some kind of difference today. I move to a rotting bookcase across the room. I select a 78-record which is thick, shiny and full of memories. I run my fingertips across the vinyl and feel the ridges. Opening the record player lid, I carefully place the record on the turntable. With a crackling sound, the music begins. The disc circles and swirls to that jazz beat I first heard more than 80 years ago. I find myself swaying as the memories come flooding back. But this time I keep my eyes open. These memories matter. I am Kasia Placzek. I had a wonderful family, with noisy dinners, glittery dances, holidays at the lake and evenings in the living room with candles and music. I wait for the memories to turn dark enough to take my breath away in pain. This time, it’s not happening. I am listening to the music in peace. I look down on my arm, wondering if some miracle has taken away my tattooed number. The number is there. But this time, I pull down my sleeve to cover these numerals that have defined my life forever. I have a name and a voice.