“Through foggy glass, Ilse can see the station sign on a bar on the platform: Berlin Friedrichstraße. This will be her last look at this station — her last look at Germany, her home — for quite a while.”
The train squeaks; it needs to be oiled soon. It lurches into motion, and Ilse tightens her hold on her small, little knapsack. Her cap, a woolen, ratty, brown one that her mother knitted for her, almost falls off her head, and she pushes it back as she staggers to get a steady grip on one of the balance poles.
Through foggy glass, Ilse can see the station sign on a bar on the platform: Berlin Friedrichstraße. This will be her last look at this station — her last look at Germany, her home — for quite a while.
Her stomach seems to go in loops, and her eyes blur as the back of her throat burns with sorrowful tears. It’s her home, Germany, and while she would not like to admit it, Germany isn’t safe for girls like her anymore, for people like her anymore…
Ilse wishes her parents, her Mother and Father, were coming, so they could be safe too. All people like her are being persecuted, oppressed, killed. Just due to their Jewishness.
Es ist das ganze Führer schuld (It’s all the Fuhrer’s fault), she thinks in German grudgingly, as she cannot speak English. Er ist der grund, warum ich meine familie verlassen! (He is the reason I have to leave my family!)
The train is moving steadily now, and Ilse looks frantically out the foggy window, searching for a last trace of her parents. It might very well be the last time she ever sees them. For it is 1939. The war is starting, and the Third Reich is looking for Jews to kill, to send away, to abuse. And she has to leave her country, her Germany, without her parents because it isn’t safe anymore.
“Wir kommen und holen sie, sobald wir aus Deutschland bekommen können,” (We will come and get you as soon as we can get out of Germany) they said to her, just last night, as she packed only a few necessities into her knapsack. “Dann können wir sicher in Österreich leben, nur um die drei von uns, ohne sorgen.” (Then we can live safely in Austria, just the three of us, with no worries.)
Ilse accepted and argued no further. But she could not help the thoughts that swirled into her head. Aber ich will nicht alle von meinem einsamen, nach Österreich zu gehen, bis sie leben mit mir kommen können. Was ist, wenn meine neue mutter nicht gut ist? Was ist, wenn sie nicht aus Deutschland kommen? Was passiert, wenn du dich selbst getötet hat? Und was ist Österreich ist wie hier, Deutschland, wo Juden ducken müssen und zu verstecken? Was geschieht, wenn wir sterben? Was wäre wenn… (But I don’t want to go to Austria all by my lonesome until you can come live with me. What if my new mother isn’t kind? What if you can’t get out of Germany? What if you’re even killed? And what if Austria is just like here, Germany, where Jews must cower and hide? What if we die? What if…)
She sees them, just under the station sign. It’s hard to in a sea of parents who also bid their children goodbye. But there’s no mistaking her mother’s chestnut hair and her father’s ocean blue eyes, both of which she inherited.
More tears spread to her eyes, and everything seems to sink in another layer. She’s leaving Berlin, her home for all her fourteen years. She’s leaving Liesl, her Lutheran best friend who also hated Nazis and what they were doing to the Jews and others of the country. She’s leaving her parents. She’s leaving her life, which is now rolled up in a big, three-hundred millimeter knapsack, jumbled up and uncertain. She’s going to Austria, a country she has only heard tales of, where they at least speak German so she’ll understand people, but she will be an outsider, looking in on a nation holding hands in a circle. She will just be that little Jewish girl in the corner.
She stands at the window, now hysterically sobbing, saying her farewells as her parents struggle against the crowd to come to the window and touch her hand for the last time in a while. But it’s too hard, and the train pulls away, leaving her parents at the wrath of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Many children sit on the train as well, varying in age, color, and gender. But they all have the same reason for leaving and the same destination. This seems to give them a strange, tragic bond.
Ilse sees a short, blonde girl of around eight, her hair ratty, her face so dirty that her tears form clear streaks on her face. Ilse’s heart wrenches as she sees the four other kids following her, all mirror images of her, obviously siblings. It hurts her that a girl of such young age is now entrusted with the whole of her very large family.
For some reason, she feels guilty of her lack of siblings. She, Ilse Rosen, has always been an only child, so does not carry the burden of siblings. This seems to make her even more sad, being around this broken family of five, and she walks to the back of the car to find another pole; the seats are all taken.
Ilse tucks one of her two chestnut braids behind her ear under the cap, which is beginning to fall apart at the seams. She blinks her blue eyes and fiddles with her necklace, a talisman of her religion with a tiny Torah inside of it.
Too many people crowd the windows for her to see out of them; so she settles against the pole, feeling the cold metal against her skin.
She doesn’t remember falling asleep, but all of a sudden, she jolts awake. It’s later in the day, and she can tell she isn’t in Germany anymore; a sign on a train platform reads “Wien Westbahnhof.” She has arrived in Austria.
The train is abuzz with motion, voices, and — for some reason — shouts and yells. Confused, Ilse turns back to the window —
— and it speeds away from the platform.
Ilse starts to panic. Her mind seems to go numb, wondering what just happened.
She was supposed to go to Austria, was she not? And the whole of the train? So why are they pulling away from the train station she has a ticket for?
The little, blonde girl she saw earlier stands next to her, keeping close watch on the little ones. She seems fairly calm — maybe she knows what is happening?
“Was ist los? Wohin gehen wir?” (What’s happening? Where are we going?) Ilse asks the girl, trying to keep the note of fear out of her voice.
“Hast du nicht gehört?” (Did you not hear) replies the girl. “Österreich wurde gestern abend überfallen. Die Nazis sind jetzt da. Juden — sie suchten wir sie. Es ist wie Deutschland. Wir gehen nach Amerika statt, glaube ich.” (Austria was invaded last night. The Nazis are there now. Jews — they’re being looked for. It’s like Germany. We’re going to America instead, I think.)
In that moment, it feels as if Ilse’s life is over. America? America? A whole continent away? Where they don’t speak German? Where Ilse will be having her temporary family?
She succumbs to tears as the train speeds on.
The next few days are a blur of travel for Ilse. Planes, boats, automobiles, a jumble of English words she cannot understand. People crowd the boat she’s on to get to where she’s going — Ellis Island, New York.
But then she pulls into the dock. There’s a large line full of other refugees, and there’s a tall woman with a clipboard. She reads off names of children.
Finally, she calls “Annie Johnson and Ilse Rosen?”
Ilse stands there awkwardly, until two women — one mother, one daughter — come and take her away. She guesses they are her foster family. The older woman smiles at her, the younger scowls and steps on Ilse’s foot as they walk away from the dock.
Ilse looks back to the ship she’s just left. There’s a big, green statue of a woman holding a torch of some sort. It fascinates Ilse. What is it?
She runs to an automobile, tagging along beside her foster mother (Annie: a tall, white woman with short, curly, blonde hair and yellow-amber eyes) and her foster sister (Mary Jane: a fifteen-year-old girl with the same looks as her mother, except she looks very annoyed by Ilse.)
She gets in the car and buckles her seatbelt. Ilse smiles sadly, remembering her parents’ automobile and how they used to drive all over Berlin. Her parents! Do they know she’s not in Austria? Are they okay?
“All right, sweetie,” says Annie, looking back at Ilse with a warm smile. In English, oh no, English, Ilse can’t understand, oh no! “We’re going to the end of Long Island, okay? Do you know what that is?”
Ilse tells Annie she cannot understand. “Ich kann nicht verstehen irh Englisch.” (I cannot understand your English)
Annie furrows her eyebrows, not understanding Ilse either. Mary Jane laughs. Ilse has a bad feeling about that — is Mary Jane laughing at her?
Oh, das wird Spaß machen, wenn meine eigenen Familienmitglieder gemein zu mir sind. Mutter, Vater, wo bist du jetzt? (Oh, this is going to be fun when my own family members are mean to me. Mother, Father, where are you now?)
The next day is Ilse’s first day of school, at least in America. She figures out that she and Mary Jane are the same age, so they will be in the same classroom. Ilse doesn’t quite know how to feel about this. Will Mary Jane be nasty to her at school as well?
New York City, where Ilse is, is a giant, majestic, beautiful, and very busy city. But they all speak English. It’s exactly like she imagined — Ilse is an outsider.
Ilse sits down at her desk, next to Mary Jane, who instantly moves away. Mary Jane begins to gossip in English with her friends. Ilse grudgingly thinks that the girls are talking about her, as they keep staring and laughing at her.
Finally, class commences. The teacher is a short, fat woman called Mrs. Waldon. She looks very strict with a slight unibrow, beady eyes, and a sharp nose. She wears a pink blazer, a white button-down, and a matching pink skirt.
“Good morning, class,” says Mrs. Waldon.
“Good morning, Mrs. Waldon,” the class chants in unison. Should Ilse say something too? Puzzled, she tries to imitate their sound.
“Gud mohrneng, Meesus Weldan,” she says loudly.
Some kid at the back whispers “I hope she thinks Mrs. Waldon is fat.” Wow, what a compliment to the teacher! Or, at least, she thinks it’s a compliment. But she decides to imitate the statement anyway.
“I sinke dat uoo ar efat,” she says, proud that she can imitate English.
Mrs. Waldon goes bright red and looks murderous as the class cackles in laughter. Mrs. Waldon marches to her desk, picks up a long, flat wand, and raps Ilse on the back of her hand, leaving an angry wound.
Ilse, just as angry now, whispers “Saukerl,” (Bastard) the only curse word she dares speak.
“What did you say?” demands Mrs. Waldon.
Ilse decides that maybe she will benefit from imitating the teacher. “Vwaat deed uooo seay?”
The teacher turns purple and looks as if she will hit Ilse again when Mary Jane speaks.
“She doesn’t know English,” Mary Jane says quietly. “Don’t blame her, she just is imitating sound.”
Ilse isn’t sure if Mary Jane has said something good or bad, but she feels grateful when Mrs. Waldon lowers her wand.
“Not even a syllable?” Mrs. Waldon asks Mary Jane.
“No,” Mary Jane replies.
“Then she will have to go to the kindergarten and learn the alphabet,” says Mrs. Waldon decisively.
The class now roars with laughter for reasons she cannot understand. But then, something clicks in her brain.
Kindergarten? It’s a German word. And that’s where the little ones go to to learn the alphabet and numbers.
Oh, no! Oh, no, oh no, oh no!
Ilse can’t go to kindergarten, she just can’t! She’s fourteen, not five! She covers her eyes with her hands, feeling hot tears leak out of them, and sobs very loudly. She sobs so loudly that the sound bounces along the classroom walls, and everyone moans and stops laughing.
“Oh, for God’s sake, shut up, will ya?” says the voice of the boy who Ilse imitated. He walks in front of her desk, scowling, and then kicks her foot under the table.
Mary Jane laughs and sidles up next to him.
“Saukerl!” Ilse screeches, and spits on his shoes.
“Hey!” the boy shouts. “What does that even mean? And oh my god, how dare a Jewish girl spit on my shoes!”
She understands the word “Jewish” and the message this boy is trying to convey. The tears pouring down her cheeks are full of rage now, positive hatred and rage. She kicks him.
The boy starts toward her and pulls one of her braids very hard. Ilse howls and kicks, kicks at everything on him, toes flailing, until he stops.
“Thomas,” Mary Jane is saying, flushed and slightly upset. Her eyebrows are furrowed and her mouth points downward a little bit. “Stop it!”
Thomas lets go of Ilse, sneers at her, and walks back to his desk. Mary Jane glares at Ilse and then walks back to her desk as well.
It bothers Ilse that the teacher saw none of this happen. She’s telling the principal that Ilse must go to the kindergarten.
This day is not starting out well.
Finally, Mrs. Waldon comes back and drags Ilse outside of the building, which is called M.S. 181. They walk for a very long time, until they stop at P.S. 285.
Mrs. Waldon drops Ilse off at the first room on the right, Kindergarten #1. It’s a cold and immaculate room with several tables, a large desk and a bookshelf, and the cursive and regular alphabet tacked up to the wall.
Ilse sees many small, rowdy kids, and flushes in embarrassment. She doesn’t belong here, right now, in this room.
A tall, lean, ugly woman walks up to Ilse. “Helllllooooo,” she drawls. “Whaaaaat isss yoooour naaaaame?”
So she thinks talking slowly will help Ilse understand? Ilse feels white-hot anger prickle at her skin and insides.
The woman walks to the wall and points at the letter “A.”
“Aaaaay,” she says. “Aaaaaay foooorrrr aaaapppleeeee,”
Ilse moans and puts her head in her hands.
Finally! Finally, finally, the day is over!
Ilse has left kindergarten nowhere close to learning English, so she guesses she will be back there tomorrow. But at the moment, Ilse doesn’t care. She’s free!
But she’s lost in the alleys near P.S. 285, which isn’t good. She tentatively takes another step, hoping to find Mary Jane or a way home.
All of a sudden, her head bashes into the brick wall, hard. She swears she can see stars, but when her vision clears, she sees the face of Thomas, who has turned her around and is pressing her against the wall. His friends are behind him — including Mary Jane — laughing and giggling. Her heart sinks. But when she looks at Mary Jane again, Mary Jane looks positively uncomfortable with her mouth in a straight line. Is she feeling remorse?
Ilse squirms and tries to yell, but Thomas covers her mouth.
“How was the little Jew in kindergarten today?” he sneers.
Ilse screams, muffled against his hand.
“Talk to me! Did you have fun kicking me earlier today, huh?” Thomas shouts.
“No!” Ilse pleads, using the only English word she knows.
“Now I’m going to return the favor!” Thomas releases Ilse, and she falls to the ground. Ilse wills herself not to cry.
“You’ve gone too far!” gasps a voice.
Another boy pins her down by her feet as Thomas kicks her in the gut.
“Stop it!” yells Mary Jane, the voice she’s just heard, as Thomas kicks Ilse again. Mary Jane pries Thomas away.
Thomas stops kicking Ilse, as Mary Jane pleads. “Don’t kick her like that! Can’t you tell you made her angry before? You had no right to insult her religion!”
“Whose side are you on?” Thomas asks in disgust.
Ilse can’t understand this conversation, but she does know that Mary Jane just stuck up for her, and she is grateful. Mary Jane grabs Ilse’s hand and pulls her along. Thomas tries to grab Ilse back, but settles for a last kick on her lower back as the girls walk away.
They walk in silence for a while as they get toward home.
“Danke,” Ilse says, and Mary Jane seems to understand.
“You’ve got to learn English, girl.”
The next few weeks, Ilse doesn’t have to go to kindergarten. Because Mary Jane stays up half the night with her, teaching her English, and it works. They find alphabet books, and Mary Jane goes over each letter and word with Ilse until she understands. Ilse can now speak pretty fluently!
She’s glad she opened up to Mary Jane and accepted her help.
It’s May now, and Ilse sits down at her desk in Mrs. Waldon’s room.
“Good morning, class,” says Mrs. Waldon.
“Good morning, Mrs. Waldon,” smiles Ilse.
“Ilse, would you please pass out the new schedules for the fourth quarter?” Mrs. Walden asks politely.
Ilse’s smile is very wide, proud that she can speak English. “Yes, ma’am.”
So that makes her feel very proud, but the thing that makes her the most proud?
The day after she learned how to, she walked up to Thomas with Mary Jane. “You asked what it meant.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows. “Speak English now, do you?”
“Yes. You asked what ‘Saukerl’ meant, and I am going to tell you,” Ilse said with a smirk. “It means ‘bastard’. Seems to fit you, does it not?”
She left him with his mouth dropped open.
Ilse feels glorified. She fits into America, she speaks English, and she has a friend whom she can fight bullies with. She misses Germany and her home and family, but for right now, she is happy in America.
Ilse in America, she thinks to herself now, passing around the schedules. Who woulda thunk?