Thomas (Tim) Linehan is a Broadkill Review Contributing Editor for 2019. His new YA Historical novel, Hannah Gould is about a Polish, Jewish girl with the partisans in WWII. Well researched, the story provides insight into the valiant struggle of the Jewish partisans against the powerful Nazi regime. Even more extraordinary is the story of the real teenage partisans fighting for survival that the book is based on. The author hopes to increase the awareness of teens and adults to this lesser known aspect of the Holocaust. An excerpt, Chapter 6 is provided here.
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After running a half hour or so, Hannah could see trucks and other vehicles farther up ahead.
Soldiers, she thought. Most of the farmers here didn’t have trucks. They might be army trucks.
Veering off the road, she ran to a small group of trees lying at the edge of a field of tall grass. Crouching low behind the larger of the trees, Hannah waited for the trucks to pass by. While catching her breath, she looked behind for anyone following. The field lay still.
She sat on the cool grass and quickly removed the man’s dress pants. She stood for a moment, stooped over, and pulled the work pants over her bare legs. The material was still damp and felt cold and clammy. She had no belt, but her hips held them from falling down. A good fit. Maybe the sun would dry them before dark. Papa said to stay dry in cold weather or she would get sick.
Squatting low, watching and listening for trouble, her head and face ached. The soldier’s slap puffed up her cheek which blocked her vision in one eye. The makeshift bandage that the farmer placed was falling down so Hannah removed it.
Trying to think through the pain and decide what to do next, she thought about the soldier back in the woods trying to kill her. But the whole thing seemed strange. He could have killed her right away, but he was doing other things. She felt the same way she did years ago when Sol Wertz pulled his pants down. They were alone in the garden toolshed in Warsaw. She ran home, not knowing what he wanted her to do. Beila tried to tell her. That’s what girlfriends do. And now, with the soldier. Hannah shuddered, suspecting what it all meant. She tried to put it out of mind, afraid she might be right.
. . . . .
The truck was only a couple of hundred meters up the road and moving slowly. Startled by a swishing sound from behind, Hannah turned her head back toward the rustling.
Two soldiers were upon her. She tried to leap forward, but the closer one grabbed her around the waist and with powerful arms yanked her body up from the ground. Her back was against the strong man’s stomach and she had no leverage to break his grasp. The other soldier ran toward the road and flagged the truck which stopped across from the field and waited.
How did they see me in here? They’re going to hurt me, too. Get away. Kick him. Punch.
She squirmed and twisted to try and break free.
“Let me go! You’re hurting me. Papa, help,” Hannah yelled.
The man laughed and shouted something she didn’t understand. Three more soldiers surrounded her now. It was no use, her stomach hurt, she couldn’t breathe.
“You are coming with us, girl,” one soldier said in Polish.
Hannah stopped fighting. Two men grabbed her wrists and with one behind and another leading the way, they motioned her to move to the truck.
I could stab them with the knife. But then they might take it away. Any of them could use it on me. No, wait for a better time. I hope they don’t know that I stabbed their soldier friend by the woods.
She looked at her coat and hand for signs of the man’s blood. A trace of caked blood lined the cuticle of her thumb and stuck in the folds of skin on her knuckles. The coat had a blotch over the right pocket. It looked brownish, rather than red.
At the truck, an officer said something and motioned Hannah to get into the back. She was sure they were Ukrainians, and wished she understood them better.
Six soldiers sat on the wood floor in the back of the truck. Mama would say each one looked like a schlump. But they didn’t smell too badly. The lead man said something to the others as Hannah put her foot on the stirrup by the rear bumper and began to climb up. A few chuckled and she could feel their probing eyes. A hand on her buttocks and then a strong push sent her sprawling headfirst to the floor of the truck between the lines of seated men. They seemed to enjoy her plight. A few of the soldiers got into the truck behind her and the vehicle started to move forward.
As the truck bounced and jostled along, Hannah sat on the floor curled up in a ball with her head bent low between her knees. She shivered with fear that these men might be the same as the monster in the woods. Her head and cheek began pounding again from the rude shove and impact with the truck floor.
It seemed about an hour or so, kilometers from her home, when the truck finally stopped just outside of a small town. There were railroad tracks and a depot where signs in Polish pointed to loading areas. Though she had not seen a freight yard before, the place appeared to be as she would have imagined it. There were voices toward the cab of the truck, out of view. She thought she heard someone speaking German.
Where are they taking me? What are they going to do to me?
The truck started up again and she could feel it turn into a driveway. Facing to the rear, Hannah and the soldiers could only see what they just passed. More soldiers and military vehicles came into view. Some of the vehicles displayed swastikas. German officers and soldiers were pushing and shouting at townspeople.
The truck jolted to a stop with a squeal of brakes. The last man onto the truck jumped to the ground and saluted an officer. Then the leader reached into the back of the truck, grabbed Hannah’s ankle, and pulled her across the dirty truck bed. She collapsed onto the hard gravel yard and started to cry.
A German officer signaled a stocky SS guard who hoisted Hannah up to her feet. Hannah was afraid to look the officer in the eye. She never wanted to see those cold eyes again. Half in a daze, she wondered if they all had that same stare. The German looked at Hannah sharply.
“Are you a Jew?” he asked, in broken Polish in a peculiar way. What should I say? I did nothing wrong. This one looks like the SS officer at the pit. If I say I am, he’ll kill me. It’s not fair. I hate them. All of them.
Bent over, Hannah stood shivering, with teeth chattering and streams of tears cutting through the coating of dirt on her face.
“Ja, you are a Jew. I can see by your filthy appearance,” he said in precise German.
He gestured to the guard and simply said, “Train.”
Hannah felt her heart racing in her chest and a lump growing in her stomach. She fought back an image of a huge pit, even larger than the one where Papa and Mama lay dead.
They are going to take all these people to the woods and shoot them. The soldier bullied Hannah toward an open cattle car, pushing and shoving her with his rifle. The railroad yard was an awful sight. Trying to stay with family, townspeople were being herded into the open freight cars of the long train. Above their pleading in Polish and Yiddish, the Germans shouted orders. A mother clutched her child, an old man seemed content to be huddled
with the rest.
The place was so confusing. There was no time to think about hiding or getting away. Hannah didn’t know where the train was bound, but what was happening seemed the same as before. Another pit.
. . . . .
A young man wrestled with two German guards in black uniforms. Hannah saw and heard from across the yard the crack of a rifle butt smashing the man’s face. He dropped vertically in a single motion, legs collapsing under his body. His face was oozing blood.
About twenty meters from the train car, Hannah quickly glanced up and down the tracks. Her temple and cheek throbbed, but she tried to think through the pain.
Somehow she had to get away. Maybe under the train cars? There was no time left. She could see more German soldiers on the opposite side of the train. Pushed into the swarm, Hannah was swept up to the railroad car by the steady flow of bodies. The crude wooden step funneled the herd into the car. The woman in front of her tripped on the front edge of the floor and fell forward. The crowd pressed into Hannah’s back and she tripped over the fallen woman and landed on flattened palms.
The splintered hardwood floorboards were coated with dried mud, urine, and smeared cow droppings. The smell was strong. Hannah tried to hold her breath, but soon gasped for air. She crawled to the back wall of the car. Her hands stung from slapping the floor. People flowed in through the doorway. Hannah got to her feet, back to the wall.
“Where are they taking us?” she asked an old man with a thick gray beard. “Probably to die,” he said, eyes shallow and tired.
“I mean, to what town?” she replied. He shrugged his shoulders.
“I mean east or west...” He stared at her saying nothing. “Never mind.”
I can’t stop this. Hannah’s eyes filled with tears. The truck that brought everyone to the pit stuck in her mind. Tightly packed, the car left no room between bodies. In a stupor, she could only stare into the backs of the people wedged into her space. Soldiers were shouting outside. Then the big doors were slammed shut. Papa’s voice echoed in her head, far away. He had given up. Hannah stood in the dim light, surrounded by sobbing, crying old men, women, and children. She looked into the faces. Worry and fear everywhere. A little child buried her face into her mother’s skirt. How could these Germans shoot little children? What is wrong with these people?
She felt her shoes slipping into the spaces between floorboards of the car. The walls were rough and splintered from years of use. People should not be in here. It’s for animals. Now I’m trapped.
The train started with a jolt, metal slamming into metal followed by an ear-piercing squeal. Tightly packed, everyone swayed together like one living thing. After a time, above the cries and yelling, someone called out, “Where are we going?”
A man said, “The train is moving north, toward Bialystok.”
The air was stale and the odor from bodies already stifling. Hannah was stuffed in between three old men and a heavy, sweating woman. “No. Not that way,” Hannah said. “Not north, go east to the forests, east.” Irritated, she yelled, “I can’t breathe. Give me some room.” She squirmed and forced the men to open a tiny space around her. The woman would not budge. The bloodied face of the young man at the train depot reappeared over and over in her mind. They’ll do even worse to me if I don’t get away. And I’m not going to die in some pit either. She found herself looking up toward the ceiling near the back of the railcar. Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light. Sunlight streamed through a gap in the wall near the ceiling. A missing board. Of all the railcars, what luck to get this car, she thought.
The gap was large enough. She knew what to do to escape. She just had to decide to do it.
The train rattled along for an hour, loud and dizzying. The pounding in her head was sickening, the mix of smells nauseating, but the flow of air through the wall reaching her nose made it bearable. These people can only guess what is waiting for them at the end of this ride. I already know. I’ve seen it. I can’t stay with these people.
Peering through the spaces between the planks that made up the cattle car walls, Hannah tried to focus her eyes. Trees rushed by. Woods lined the train tracks, now thick, dark and deep. The farmlands along the way had disappeared a long time ago. The only way to escape was to jump off the train, when it slowed down entering a village or city.
Now is the time. Go.
Hannah squirmed her way toward a tough-looking old man standing against the wall below the gap near the ceiling. Strands of barbed wire were wrapped around the opening, but the wire hung low leaving a space large enough for her to slip through. The car bounced and jostled her around as she squeezed between swaying bodies. Some looked annoyed with her, some continued to sob ignoring her.
“Where do you think you’re going, girl?” a rosy-cheeked peasant woman said as Hannah pressed into her side. Looking away, Hannah squeezed her way to the back wall. Losing her balance, she fell into the farmer’s chest. He showed no change of expression. He looked down at Hannah and their eyes met. She pointed at the opening in the wall with her face and eyes. Looking up at the hole, he said nothing, but shrugged his shoulders. Cupping her hands together, she motioned with her arms and hands mimicking a hoist that would lift her up toward the opening.
“There is no escape from this,” he said in defeat. “The Germans, they are everywhere.”
“Please help me,” she said.
“You will be killed by the fall,” he insisted.
Balancing on one foot, Hannah slid her other leg up along his stomach until her foot was about waist high. She looked away from his eyes toward her foot and then back to him.
His face was covered in doubt, but then Hannah felt a strong grip on her raised foot. The man motioned her to hook her arm around the back of his neck.
With one powerful thrust, Hannah felt herself rise up to and through the opening into the rushing wind streaming over the train cars running at full speed. She sat on her thighs for a moment balanced on top of the wall. As she pulled herself through the opening, she felt a tug on her blouse.
A sharp, stinging pain traveled from her side near the rib cage across her back. She reached a hand behind and felt the steely barbs on the wire that had ripped open her skin. She hadn’t noticed the barbed wire nailed to the outside of the railcar walls. Bright red blood smeared the back of her hand and wetness spread over her side. The blouse stuck to her skin.
Hannah grabbed for the roof and tried to pull one leg through the opening. The cattle car was swaying and bouncing and the roar from the tracks and the wind was deafening. Her shoe was hung up on the same plank where she had been sitting. She couldn’t twist her leg enough from that angle to free her foot. She was stuck. No amount of pulling would help. Hannah felt stupid and helpless.
How am I going to reach the forests if I can’t even get off a train?
Her back and side stung and burned and the slamming sounds of the train worked against her. She could feel tears coming.
Oh no, you’re not going to cry now. You try harder.
Placing the back of her shoe against the edge of the hole, she tried to pull off the shoe. Too tight. Then she felt pressure on her foot. The farmer inside slowly and gently turned and twisted her leg and foot through the opening. Her leg swung down along the outside wall of the car. At the same time her other leg slid along the wall board with her thigh catching the back side of her knee and checking her fall. Grabbing the top of the wall and lifting herself up, Hannah slipped her other leg over the wall and out. Fortunately, her feet landed on the only support available, the hitch that connects the cars together.
Hannah wanted to look around the side of the railcar just ahead but it was far too risky. Blinded by the forward car, she thought, What now? When should I jump? There was no way to know when.
For her to jump from the train and not be killed, she must know what is up ahead. There were wooden poles and steel railroad stanchions all along the tracks every so many meters. If she jumped at the wrong moment and hit a pole, she would be killed instantly.
After a few kilometers, Hannah decided she would have to do something. Her legs were aching. The train was moving too fast to jump now, even if she were to miss the poles and stanchions. She didn’t know how much time she had until the train stopped. If I jump off here, which way should I go? Can I figure out which way to travel without being seen? Papa, what should I do? She hung on for a half hour more.
Finally, Hannah felt a slight decrease in speed. Then a sharp lunge forced her body into the car wall. She nearly lost her balance. They must have reached a town or a station.
There will be Germans or Ukrainians there. Jump off. Jump now!
There was no time to think about it anymore. As she leapt from the car hitch into the air past the blind end of the cattle car, in a flash a railroad stanchion whizzed by in front of her. She caught a glimpse of a few men at the edge of the woods near the railroad clearing, then the ground. Hannah hit the gravel hard, landing on her hip and shoulder. Her head bounced off the ground as she rolled and tumbled through the scrub grass, small bushes, stones, leaves, and sticks. Something bone-hard slammed into her brow. Then nothing.
. . . . .
Hannah woke looking at the leaves and brown dirt of the path that traversed through woods. The ground was spinning around in her head. She could feel the thick shoulder of a big man supporting her as the dead weight of her body bore down on her stomach. Only vaguely aware, she felt nauseous and did not even care to know who this powerful man could be as he carried her aloft on the run. Pain started coming from all directions—forehead, shoulder, hip, and stomach. She heard muted voices. A few men around them moved quickly, almost silently. Just before passing out, she thought she heard some Yiddish mixed in with Polish. Then once more, nothing.
Tim began creative writing in 1985. He holds BS and MS degrees. He is an Institute of Children’s Literature graduate and member of the Coastal Writers (at Rehoboth Art League in Delaware). His YA Civil War historical novel, Drums of Courage was published in 2005. Tim’s poetry has been published in The Broadkill Review. In 2015, his short story "Chance Meeting" won a Judges Award with Cat and Mouse Press (Lewes, DE). In preparation for writing the manuscript, Hannah Gould, he worked directly with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives in Washington, DC and Gratz College, Tuttleman Library, Holocaust Archives in Philadelphia. Tim interviewed and knows personally several Holocaust survivors who assisted him in the research with personal testimonials.