“All right, boys and girls,” the librarian said, clapping her hands. “Sit down campfire style.”
We rushed to our places, maneuvering ourselves next to who was our best friend that day, settling down much quicker than we usually did. It was story time, and sitting in a semi-circle on the carpet in a room filled with the smell of books was our favourite time of day.
I don’t remember many of these times. The times sitting campfire style in the children’s section of the library ended about fifteen years ago, for me. I was too young to realize how soon these times would end.
But one of those days, I remember. I was in grade two, and as I sat squeezed in between two of my little friends, the librarian told us that it was Holocaust Remembrance Day. She told us that a very long time ago, a man named Hitler had tried to kill all of the Jews. She told us how moms and dads, boys and girls were put on trains and taken to large camps where they were killed. We sat in silence, trying to imagine, but we were too small to understand something this big.
“What kind of mother would throw her baby out of a train?” she asked. “A good mother or a bad mother?”
It was a strange question, but children are used to strange questions. Hands shot up, my hand included. “A bad mother,” we stated confidently. Only a bad mother would ever throw her baby out of a train.
“This is a true story,” the librarian told us, holding up a hardcover book. I remember the large yellow star cut out of the front cover. “This actually happened. It’s about a girl named Erika.”
Erika told her own story in this book. She told about how when she was a baby, she was put on a train with her mother and father. She tells about how she doesn’t know if she had brothers or sisters. She tells about how the people in the car stood very close together, how they were afraid. She tells about how her mother held her close, and covered her little face with tears. We sat very still, listening. I was afraid for baby Erika, for the people shoved into the train car, going to a place where they would be killed.
“What happened next is the only thing I know for sure,” the librarian read. “My mother threw me from the train.”
My heart stilled. I struggled to understand what had just happened. The mother had thrown her baby Erika out of the window? The mother had thrown her baby out of the train? Why? What would make a mother do that to her baby?
“On her way to death,” the librarian continued, “my mother threw me to life.”
Baby Erika would have died if her mother hadn’t thrown her out of the train. Baby Erika wouldn’t have been able to tell this story if her mother hadn’t desperately pushed aside the barbed wire and hurled her baby onto a small patch of grass just past a railway station.
Children understand what is just, what is fair, and what is right. The depth of Erika’s mother’s sacrifice was not lost on me. I thought of my own mother. How she hugged me, how she tucked me into bed, how she kissed me goodnight, and told me she loved me.
My mom, I thought to myself, would have thrown me out of the train. It was strange to be comforted by such a thought.
This story has come back to me many times over the years. A few years ago, I hunted it down, typing, “baby thrown from train, children’s lit.” into Google. Erika’s Story by Ruth Vander Zee came up, and I knew it was the story I hadn’t been able to forget. I can’t help but see the contrast between Erika’s mother and so many women of today. Erika’s mother threw her from the train in a desperate attempt to save her child’s life. I think of the agony she must have felt in knowing that she couldn’t protect her baby, that her child was safer being thrust through a tiny window towards strangers than she was in her own mother’s arms. Women today have their children thrown into dumpsters. It is hard to understand these things. They were too big for me to understand fifteen years ago. They are still too big for me to understand.
But I have never forgotten how my heart stilled when I first heard of the mother who threw her baby from the train. I have never forgotten how I felt when I understood what made a mother do such a thing. The contrast of sacrifice and selfishness is so stark it hurts to think about. Mothers sacrificing everything for their children, and mothers making their children sacrifice everything for themselves.
“Was it easy for Erika’s mother to throw her baby from the train?” The librarian asked, shutting the book with the yellow star carved into the front cover.
There was silence as we thought about our answer. “No,” we said finally.
“Why did she do it then, if it was so hard?”
“She threw her . . .” I stopped, thinking about what I was going to say. “She threw her because she loved her so much.”
“What kind of mother throws her baby from a train?” the librarian asked again. “Was Erika’s mother a good mother or a bad mother?”
“A good mother,” I whispered.