Chapter One
On the Train from Hell

Clackety-clack-clackety-c-l-a-c-k. . . The cattle train in which I’m riding through the Bavarian countryside suddenly slows down. I wonder where we are, exactly, and why we’re stopping here. I’m halfway dead from hunger. It’s been that way for months: over a year, really. I’m 14 years old by now, I think. My given name is Istvan (Hungarian for “Stephen”). But everyone calls me by my nickname, Pista. Our family name is Nasser, and I come from a long line of Hungarian Jews. Before the Holocaust, we Nassers had lived in Budapest, the capital, undisturbed and prosperous, for many generations.

I think I smell Mother’s paprikas potatoes. But. . . no. . . it can’t be. . . It’s just my imagination. I’m still in Bavaria, somewhere outside Muhldorf, the concentration camp where I’ve done slave labor for over a year, courtesy of Hitler and his men.

Rubbing sleep from my eyes as best I can with such skinny fists, I squint into the sunlight toward a tiny window in our crowded boxcar. From what I can glean as I sit on the filthy wooden floor, jammed against 80 or so men (all older than me, some in better, some in worse condition) it seems we’re approaching a town. A prisoner standing up and looking out the window reports that he can see whitewashed houses, green farmland, and storage sheds.

Now the train enters a tiny station and jerks abruptly to a halt. With all my strength, I force myself wide-awake. I’m weak as a newborn baby. But I’m alive. Yes.

Our comrade, peeking out the window, informs us that he sees the stationmaster dart from his office, his arms upraised, yelling, “Alles frei,” or “All free!” God, I hope it’s true.

Now the strongest among us stand up and stretch, try to jump for joy, and embrace each other. Eagerly, these lucky souls prepare for their first taste of long-awaited freedom outside our boxcar, and, more importantly, away from the forced labor facility from which we’ve just been evacuated. I’m too weak and sick to stand, much less join them, so I can only look on in envy.

Healthy or sick, no one aboard our train from Hell carries any belongings but the clothes on his back. I have, however, managed to bring my diary out with me. The diary is written on sheets of cement paper (that was all I could
find), and bound with wire.

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