Saturday, July 7, 2012

Uprooted: Part XIV

These Saturday blog entries are devoted to a serial novel titled Uprooted, a story about Ralph Kand, a young crippled man from Estonia during those difficult and challenging years from 1939-1945. As the Red Army approached Tallin, capitol of Estonia, Ralph secured a spot on the very last boat of exiles fleeing their Homeland. When the boat neared Gdansk in Poland, a Nazi patrol boat brought them to port where they were placed in a refugee camp. He and another man slipped away during the night to continue west toward freedom.


After a fitful sleep in the countryside the two men woke to continue in the direction of a railroad of some kind that would enable them to make better time. As they came to clearing they saw a farmhouse below a series of wheat-colored rolling hills hemmed by neatly assembled rock walls. Hans picked up the pace and Ralph limped along behind.

The rutted tractor path led to a set of small outbuilding. Hans slowed, allowing Ralph to catch up, then proceeded as if they were nonchalantly passing through. As they came around to the south side of the house they were startled to find an old man sitting out front on a stool whittling. The old man lifted his eyes indifferently, showing no sign of either surprise or fear, or even curiosity. Hans asked how far to town, but the man just looked at them.

"This is Poland," Ralph said and he berated Hans for addressing the man in Estonian. Ralph looked at the man and asked, in German, whether he had any food.

The farmer now studied the two strangers with more seriousness. "Where are you from? What do you want?"

"We are Estonians. We are looking for a new homeland where we can be free. The Red Army has overrun our land."

Hans elbowed Ralph. "Ask if he has food."

Ralph glared at his travel companion. "I asked already."

The old Polish man opened his mouth and began to speak. "The Nazis took our corn and potatoes to feed their armies. We can feed you but it won't be much. What are your names?"

After introductions were made the men were invited inside the small wooden house. There was an oilcloth covered dining room table where they were invited to sit. Ralph noticed diced vegetables on a cutting board at the counter, evidence that someone else was in the house. The farmer turned and barked something in Polish. A woman wearing a loose apron emerged, nodded to the guests and went back to her business of preparing vegetables for the cabbage stew.

The afternoon passed quickly as the men exchanged stories. News had become unreliable so that these kinds of exchanges were an invaluable means of keeping up with what was going on. Ralph did most of the talking because Hans' German was weak.They learned that the farmer's wife had died the year before and that this was his daughter. He told them how to reach the train station near town. He did not believe that Ralph and Hans would have any trouble getting onto a train. "You will have a problem with the Nazis though when they check your papers."

The farmer told how they should take the train to Wroclaw. "There you can catch another train to Prague. From Prague you can go anywhere."

Ralph wanted to say that Czechoslovakia was not far enough, but here he bit his tongue and thanked the farmer who said, "You'll have to stay the night and get a fresh start in the morning." The two travelers welcomed this unexpected kindness. They were further surprised when the farmer handed them each a palm of coins, "In the name of God and His Son. It won't take you to Prague but it will help you reach the border." Hans made the sign of the cross as Ralph slid the coins into the pocket of his trousers.

The money was not essential for boarding the train. It was assumed as the stepped in that they had tickets. There were no assigned seat. But the farmer was right in predicting a problem with the Nazis. After boarding Ralph and Hans moved quickly to find seats in the last car. Ralph nervously waited for a conductor to stamp his ticket, but the conductors were delayed. A pair of Nazi soldiers had been making their way through the cars instead, checking identification papers.

Ralph tugged on Hans' arm. "We have to go."

"How? Where?" Hans said with his eyes.

The train car had a siderunner like the runners on old American automobiles from the Roaring 20's. They stepped out onto the narrow runner, holding a railing. Ralph pointed up and Hans understood. The weather was nice and they could use the air. Hans helped Ralph climb up on the railing where he was able to get a handhold and pull himself up. He leaned down, grasped the other man's hand and yanked him up with a heave.

"We should have done this at night. They're going to see us here."

"Do you see any other options?" Ralph lay flat on his back, rocking gently with the train. He stared at the sky, disbelieving that only a few days before he had been with his mother urging her to leave with him. It seemed like months ago.


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