"The Schubert Quartet" by Robin Ray


I don’t know what woke me up just now, but my head feels like there’s an overweight clown with leaden boots performing cartwheels in my skull. I caress my temples thinking my eyes are going to pop out like a frightened wolf in a Merrie Melodies cartoon. Jacob, one of the skin-and-bones men sleeping in the wooden, unforgiving bunk above me, leans over and asks if I’m okay. His voice is weak, almost as lifeless as his eyes. I groan, tell him yes, but even so, I’m still not sure.

Getting up, I stretch, shake off the fatigue that enveloped my frail 14-year-old body throughout the night, slip into my leathery, weather-beaten clogs, and don my cloth cap, its broad blue stripes matching those on my pajamas. It’s cold this morning. Even though this is expected because we’re in the midst of winter, today seems especially chilly. I’m sure the uncontrollable chatter of my gritty teeth can wake the dead. My chapped feet feel frozen, like I’ve been trekking through the Himalayas for days. I look at them. They’re bloodless; the frigid pads of a near-corpse. I don’t understand why the room is so icy. It isn’t a particular spacious hut, or barracks as I’ve heard people refer to it. In fact, with the two parallel rows of three-tiered bunk beds along the walls, a narrow walk space between them, and 60 ragged men sardined in them, one would think there’d be enough heat just from the bodies to survive comfortably. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This shelter does remind me of the schoolhouse I’d attended just a month ago. I sincerely wished they had a fireplace or stove of some kind in here. I doubt anyone would complain, not even weak Jacob in the middle tier.

“Hey,” I whisper to him, “are you getting up, too?”

“Please,” he answers, his pleading red eyes piercing me, “today is going to be just like the rest – hard. Let me get a little more sleep.”

Nodding, I turn and tiptoe towards the center of the dusty room lit solely by the early morning light sneaking in through the openings in the rafters. My pajamas, as thin as moth wings, barely comfort me, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. Glancing around, I stifle a giggle because, even to this day, this room’s creaky wooden floor, bare, cobwebbed ceiling, and unfinished wooden walls, remind me of the outhouse in the back of Uncle Shmuel’s small farm in Stahnsdorf, that little town in Brandenburg where I used to spend my summers. Except this crowded giant latrine smelled worse, like someone left a mud-rotted sheep carcass out in the open. Gazing around further, it seems like everyone else is sleeping, not just Jacob. I’m surprised I’m the first one awake, considering I’m the youngest.

I’ve been cloistered with these men since I was brought to this campus with my sister Elisheva by graven-face soldiers a month ago. At least I think it’s been a month, on a train, packed in with hundreds of strangers I’ve never met before. Our mother and father didn’t come; we never knew why. A stranger in a black felt coat with a yellow Star of David over his heart had said it’s best we forgot about them, but I still hold on to the hope they’ll come for us some day. Later, separated from Elisheva, another stranger told me to just go along with the soldiers and everything will be all right. “Elijah,” he told me, “even though you’re only a lad, you’ve already seen a lot, probably more than other boys your age. “Yes,” I agreed, “like people getting shot in Potsdamer Platz in brought daylight. I even saw young girls running away with foreigners, most likely to Switzerland or Poland.” “The depths of our troubles are many,” the lanky stranger, whose name I’ve since forgotten, added. “I’ve seen queues of grown women crying on Tauentzienstrasse and other streets in West Berlin although I never knew why.” Still, somehow, even though he said I needed to be brave, the lines by his sullen eyes betrayed the notion that perhaps he was wrong.

Because there are no other boys my age in this wooden cottage, I occupy my time by playing checkers with myself using strips of cloth for the pieces and lines drawn in the dirty floor as a checkerboard. As usual, I win. My invisible partner isn’t all that much of a challenge. Maybe he lets me win out of sympathy. Kind, thoughtful compatriot. I would never beat him or take him away like the outsiders who are bad to us.

The sun is coming up now, rising slowly like a just-caught burglar. I can hear the black crows cawing on the barbed wire fence in the distance. Soon, the grownups will be awakened and whisked from this room for hours. I’ve learned not to make deep friendships with any of them because, sometimes, one of them won’t come back and I’ll have to befriend someone new. That’s not easy to do considering how quiet they tend to be, not like the kids I used to play with in the past.

Even though it’s hard here – bleak and hopeless as some of the men say – one of the things that sustains us is the Schubert Quartet. They are a group of four men who sleep in the bunks on the other side of the room. At night, they get together and sing or hum their individual parts of classical string quartets. So far, they’ve performed Boccherini and Mozart, but their fervent concentration on the music of Franz S