I hear my voice quietly mumbling under my breath, self-consciously, a half-remembered prayer from my childhood - “Sh'ma Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One”. I can’t remember the rest. I search my memory for fragments. It was my mother, with her lustrous dark hair and warm lap that taught me to say this prayer at bedtime. My parents were observant and sent me to all the right classes and taught me the commandments. But when I left home as a young man it all fell away. After all, I was a modern man living in a modern country of philosophers, musicians and thinkers. I didn’t need this religion. The way ahead is for people to be free of all that and blend together. Well, I was wrong. I need it now. I desperately need to remember the rest of this prayer. I need to remember who I am before it is too late
I used to think that people who pray only in times of trouble were weak and betrayed their more logical selves. I congratulated myself on being stronger than that. You would not find me reverting to a weak and grovelling prayer, to a deity conveniently believed in during the dark times of my soul. Indeed I was wrong. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. G-d forgive me.
I close my eyes and leave my present reality behind. It’s something I’ve been able to do since I was a young boy. I’ve learned to ignore almost completely what is going on around me, and concentrate on a pure, inner space. Despite this, I notice my legs are aching and I try to move slightly but this train is very overcrowded, there is standing room only today. The press of humanity, with its all too real earthiness and pungent , yeasty, animal odours threatens to resurface me from my meditation. It’s an effort now, but I hang on to my fragment “Sh’ma Yisraeil Adonai ...” I wish I could remember more than the first line. I tried to grab my dusty prayer book before I left this morning, but I was rushed, so rushed, and couldn’t find it in time. I had always wondered why I bothered to keep it. Now I understand.
A jerk of the train forces my eyes open briefly. I am assaulted by the noise of my fellow-travellers. Babies cry, young mothers do their best to soothe them, young fathers stare into space, at each other. It’s dark in here. When I travelled the train more regularly I used to enjoy the changing scenery, the passing vibrancy and relentless verdant life passing by. Not today. I catch the eye of a man further down the carriage. He is praying too, his curled sidelocks gently swaying as he prays. I bet he knows the Sh’ma all the way through. I want to ask him, but I cannot push through the crowd and anyway, we must have reached our destination as the train is slowing, rasping to a stop.
Reluctantly I return to the present. There are so many people in this carriage. They all have suitcases, coats, toys and all manner of possessions, as people do when they travel. The things they think they will need wherever they are going. Clothes and photos and jewellery, books and momentos of who they are. We all have them – useless trinkets to anyone else, so valuable to their owners.
The doors of the carriage wrench open and we pile out, some of us are pulled out roughly, some fall out. There are a couple of old people at the back who don’t move, but we can’t stop for them. The noise is ear-splitting, there must be thousands of people on this platform, and the soldiers are screaming, constantly screaming, dogs are barking. I can smell the fear, the terror in the air, and I hear gunshots. A terrified whisper runs through the newly disembarked – “Auschwitz, this is Auschwitz”. We have all heard the rumours of course. Chilling outrageous rumours that I could never believe. Our persecutors are cruel in the extreme, but that? I still hold out hope - I might not be a young man but I’m healthy and fit. I can survive work, even hard work. I stand up a little straighter.
There are two lines, I wonder why. I see that the fit young men and women are on one side, and the frailer people and children on the other. The rumours come back to me as ice fills my stomach. People are screaming at being separated, at the evil and terror going on all around us. As I shuffle forwards towards the selection, I offer up the only prayer I know – “Sh'ma Yisraeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One”.