Fleeing to Nowhere
During the war our house and the major part of our town were destroyed. We had no other choice than to flee to the neighboring farms. I was happy on the farm as I ran through wheat fields and breathed in pure air. Without going to school and not having any homework, I felt I was on an endless vacation. Life could not have been sweeter.
We were, however, surrounded by bombing, day and night. The Germans had reached our borders, although I was not afraid of their presence, the heads of families felt differently and decided to resume their journey. My father did not share their view, since he felt there was no point in continuing to walk on without knowing our final destination. My mother, begged him to go with the others, which we eventually did.
Once again, bundles on our shoulders, we took to the road. From time to time I looked back at my cherished farmhouse so filled with happy memories, until finally I could not see it any more. I walked with the others, but against my will. We did not know whether we would find a safe shelter on the way. Was this move the last one? No one had any idea. So there we were, propelled along by fate.
I did not quite understand what we were running away from; since the Germans were still completely surrounding us. Pain, perhaps, - or death? In any event, the consensus was that we had made a wise decision.
After many hours of walking and late into the night, we arrived at the station of Meshtouta. The scene was devastating; the main building had been destroyed, along with the train cars still left standing and the only sign of life was the presence of the American soldiers. Was it a safe shelter? My father whispered, "Well, we wanted to defeat death when we were at the farm, and now we may well find it among those ruins and in this cold weather."
The American soldiers seemed to be busy. They looked taller to me than the British. Their appearance reminded me of the last class we had with Mr. Vilmai, our teacher, when we were told that France had helped the Americans free themselves from their most feared enemies at that time, the British. So now, in turn, the Americans were helping France. They were getting ready to go to Bizerte, the most crucial point in the battle. I marveled that these soldiers could come from so far, at the risk of losing their lives, whereas, we were desperately trying to find a peaceful spot.
The station was bristling with people - soldiers, fragmented families, civil servants. I held my sister's hand tightly in order not to lose her, since the other family members were out of sight. The station master, who used a wooden shack as his office, managed to collect the various families who had come from the farms. He offered us shelter in the only available freight car. First women and children were allowed in, and then the men, some of whom had great difficulty standing for lack of space. There was no way one could close the sliding doors.
The thought of a small German bomb thrown at us made me shiver! The way we squeezed together, we would not even have time to get out. We could not move a foot or an arm and there was little air for breathing. A woman fainted, and suddenly a wet handkerchief landed on her face, thrown from a mysterious hand.
We were told we were to be sent to Algeria. The question was whether we would be able to last until then, since we were exhausted from our walk, glued together like sardines in a can, and badly shaken up by the sight of war at the station. Occasionally our car was moved back and forth by the locomotive, which gave us false hopes. Actually it was not until dawn that we finally got under way. With increasing speed, the pure country air forced its way into our car, and that felt good. We did not quite know where we were going. All we cared about at that point was the fresh air and the pleasant sight of the meadows and green mountains. From the opposite direction we met trains loaded with soldiers. Again, these men were going to their death, while we were heading towards the unknown.
Copyright 2007 Emile Tubiana