Lithuania, 25 June 1941
“Evie! Wait up!”
Ascending the ancient concrete bridge behind me, my youngest, joy-filled brother waved his arms to get my attention. Those arms! Muscles stretched the sleeves of his brothers’ twice-handed-down shirt; buttons strained to contain his chest. How will I keep him in clothes?
The bridge was crowded with the usual hustle of people returning home from work but only when I stopped to wait for David did I notice the normal days-end laughter and banter was missing. People marched with stiff determination; no arm swinging, no eye contact, heads down. Even the farmers with their horses and carts shared the road amiably with the cars and trucks that hurried past. We wanted an end to Soviet rule but will the Germans be any better? The air was heavy with the random murder of dozens of Jews by their countrymen and neighbors yesterday. Rumor had it the police weren’t going to investigate.
Two years older than I was when Mother died, Daniel smiled every day of his life. Of course, he couldn’t remember that day, the day he and Adina were born. Her face as white as the bloodied sheets should have been, Mother had rolled her head to see me standing next to her bed.
“Look after our babies.” ‘Our’ babies. Hers and mine. “Keep the family together, Evie.” Then father’s hand had guided me out the door. Fifteen long years ago.
But today had been a good day – a farmer sold me a dry lamb bone and a few root vegetables. He’d charged dearly for risking his life to sell food to me but ‘sweetened the pot’ as he had said by throwing in some dirt-crusted potato skins. My mouth watered thinking about the thick, starchy soup I’d prepare for Shabbat.
“You want that you should leave me standing here with these parcels while you’re schlepping, David?”
Leaving the crowded footpath, David trotted up the road. A driver behind him accelerated fishtailing his truck on the cobblestones. Gaining control of the back tyres, he menacingly wove from side to side. When he increased his speed and headed towards David, I realised his intent. I ran, dropping my packages, arms stiff in front of me willing myself to reach out and protect him. David grinned at me between my splayed fingers. ‘Oy gevalt! Look out! Get out of the way!’ I shouted impotently. The truck hit. His body tumbled into the air then crashed, crumpled onto the road.
I knelt beside him and held his face in my hands. “David! David!” There was no response but I felt a pulse on his wrist. “He’s alive!” I shouted. It must have been a prank I thought; a stupid prank gone wrong.
Brakes locked, rubber scarred the stones, the truck spun 180 degrees. Two men, dressed in the ‘Sunday best’ clothes farmers wear when visiting the city, got out and swaggered towards David. One carried a rifle.
“Precision, Vytautas! You didn’t even dent the fender!”
“Shut up.” The driver snapped at his passenger. “Move away!” he shouted at me.
“They’ll take you to a doctor, David.” I stood to give them room to scoop him up and rush to the hospital.
A rifle exploded splattering blood on my face, my hands, my clothes. I was deaf; ringing filled my ears. The same bloody smell as Mother’s bed mixed with a burnt, dirt-metal singe and sent my head spinning. It threatened to pull me under but I fought for consciousness.
“Help me heft this filthy Jew into the truck.” the driver said.
It wasn’t an accident.
“Leave him alone! That’s my brother. I’ll take him to hospital.”
I ran back to David but the passenger grabbed my arms, slapped me twice in the face then threw me to the ground. By the time I got back to my feet, truck doors slammed shut and David was spilling his blood on the back tray.
Seconds later, skidding wheels showered pedestrians in a spray of pebbles. David bounced in the back of their old truck; less significant to them than the potato skins the farmer had discarded. Men’s laughter broke through the bells in my ears as they drove away. My legs collapsed beneath me. I didn’t know where they would take him. If only I hadn’t been impatient, told him to hurry up.
I felt arms around me. Strangers, bystanders. A woman in a worn tweed skirt coaxed me from the road and set me down, slumped against a concrete parapet. She seemed to hum words I couldn’t hear. I rubbed the fabric of her skirt between my fingers then wondered why I would notice her clothes when my brother had just been murdered. She took a yellowed handkerchief trimmed in broken lace from her pocket, wet it with her spit and wiped the blood from my face, my arms and dabbed away red specks on my blouse. For a moment, I was a child being mothered and a memory of something missed tugged at me then quickly dissipated. I couldn’t speak but deep in my throat, I growled at her. She was erasing the last traces of my brother. All evidence of David disappeared.
I was unable to stand, to speak, to comprehend. People eventually left me. I stared at the dry, dark spot that had once been part of David. I don’t know how long I was there; the bridge was deserted and the sun was low, the air chilled. I pulled myself up onto numb feet and stumbled almost falling backwards onto the footpath. Stomping circulation into my legs, throbbing pain shot up from my toes. It gave focus to my agony and felt good. Someone had gathered my parcels and laid them next to me. I thought again about the soup I would make to nourish my family.
Drawn to the pounding noise flowing under the bridge, I put my hands on the rough, pitted concrete railing, raised up on my toes and looked over. The river was relentless, alive, alluring. It thundered at the shore with a ruthless current that originated in a country far, far away. Everything in its path was carried away or destroyed. There was no choice, little resistance, only power. For a moment, I imagined myself joining its unrestrained escape to the sea. Then I thought of Fater, my brothers and Adina and knew I must go home. Would I tell them David was dead?