I saw such a horrible sight. My father, my mother, my two sisters and myself were in a long line. For what? We saw the most destructive thing. We saw… the train. What is the train? The train is the thing that takes you to where we will be tortured to death. Why were we being tortured to death? My father told me that it was because the men did not like us. Why do they not like us? My father did not explain it to me. I was only four years old. My two sisters were older than me. We did not understand what was happening. The bad men took our mother and father away from us. They were shoved into one box car while my sisters and I were shoved into another. We were afraid that we would never see our mother and father again. The doors were shut, and we saw total darkness.
We felt the train come to a stop. The doors were opened. We were pulled out of the train and then thrown to the dirty ground. They grabbed my sisters and pulled them away. Will I ever see them again? I was grabbed and yanked away and then thrown into a truck with other boys my age. We were shaken as the truck was taking me into a place surrounded by rows and rows of barbed wire. I was grabbed and thrown to the ground and then stomped on five times. I was yanked up and dragged to a cell where I was thrown onto the muddy floor, and I heard the door slam.
“Oh, how I would shoot your brains and watch them splatter,” the man said through a small opening.
For day few days I heard sounds of whipping and beating and shooting. I heard the loud screams of young boys being tortured and tortured and tortured until… the screams ceased. One of the men joked, “I just wish we could just bomb this place and kill them all at once.”
“We need them to feel the pain of death.” Another man replied.
This went on for a few more days. It was one morning. The sounds of whipping and beating and shooting… became sounds… of ‘boom’. There was another ‘boom’ and another. There were many booms. There was shooting, but the screaming… seemed to be coming from the men who were doing the torturing.
“Put your hands up.”
I heard, but it did not sound like the men who were torturing. I heard the door unlock. I looked back.
“You are now free,” he said.
We were all gathered in a place outside of the barbed wire. I watched as the bodies of the dead were being covered. Other men were destroying the barb wire. I watched as the train arrived.
“Listen up. Your captors have been destroyed. You are no longer being tortured. You are now free.”
It was another ride on the train. This time, the doors were kept open, and we were not packed in but had a little room to move. The train stopped, and we were escorted off. I looked back and said the train. I cursed it again and again and again and again.
I was walking around in a large tent. Everyone was looking to be reunited with their loved ones, but I could not find my sisters or my father and mother.
I looked around frantically.
My heart was glad as I saw my sister, Greta, waving at me. I ran to her but stopped. I looked at her bandaged feet.
“They burned my feet,” she replied.
She began to unwrap the bandage, and I saw the boils and burn marks on her feet.
“Where is Ursula?”
Greta wept and sulked. I knew that she did not survive.
“They cut off her head,” she puffed out, “and they used it like a ball.”
A man walked over to them with a grim look on his face.
“I am sorry,” he said. “At least you found your brother. Sadly, that is all the good news I have.”
I sat next to my sister. We snuggled and wept.
“If the Americans did not arrive in time,” the man added, “Greta would have been burn up.”
“Thank you,” I said to the man.
The man went away.
“We have no place to go,” I said hugging Greta.
I marveled at her words.
“I met another family,” she added. “They told me that they are going to a place called the Jersey City.”
“The Jersey City?” I wondered. “What is the Jersey City?”
“I have never heard of it either,” she added. “They saw that a very wonderful lady lives there.”
“Wonderful lady?” I was getting confused.
“I have never heard of her,” Greta continued, “but she welcomes people to this land called the Land of Freedom.”
“Land of Freedom?” I was wondering. “Does this land exist?”
“I do not know,” she replied, “but I think we should go and meet this lady.”
“How will we find her?” I asked. “This Jersey City could be a big city. We may never find her.”
“If things be true,” she said, “she will find us. She has a torch with a fire that is very bright assuring everyone that the way to the Land of Freedom can be seen by everyone who desires to come.”
It was a foggy night as we were on a ship being swung side to side by the waves. We have been at sea for two weeks in a small cabin on the lower deck with only a small porthole to see outside. I heard stories of seasickness that could be acquired by those who were on a long ship voyage, but Greta and myself were feeling fine. Her feet still had a few burn marks and blisters, but she was able to walk on her own with little pain.
I stood up and answered the door.
“I hope you all are well,” the man smiled. “Sorry to disturb you on this night, but we will be arriving at our destination in about an hour. It will take time to deboard the ship.”
We had little luggage. We departed the cabin and climbed to the main deck of the ship making our way to the front. Ahead of us was foggy, but the lights became brighter. The ship rocked up and down and up and down and up and down until… the rocking slowed, and we slowly swayed side to side.
“She is almost in sight,” the father of the family we were traveling with shouted from behind us. “We are nearing the Land of Freedom.”
“Will she see us?” I was wondering.
Through the fog, I saw this light that was high in the air. As the fog was clearing, I saw a flame that was shooting into the air, and I saw a torch with a hand surrounding its base. I wondered who that person could be.
“There she is,” the father shouted. “The Lady of the Jersey City.”
The fog started clearing, and a beautiful lady holding a torch high to light the way to the Land of Freedom. She looked at us and said, “Welcome to the Land of Freedom. Those who seek your destruction are not welcome here, but I welcome you. You are now free.”
The ship docked. We were the first to step off. Greta stopped.
“What is wrong?” I was very confused.
She looked down at the ground. She bent over and unlaced her shoes. She removed her shoes and then the bandages.
“I wanted to touch the ground of the Land of Freedom with my own feet,” she said. “I want the dirt of this land to cling to my soles.”
“It feels good. Doesn’t it?”
I was surprised that the Lady of the Jersey City was standing next to us. I was amazed by her beauty and her crown on her head.
“You are now free,” she welcomed us… again.
“We are here,” I was very concerned, “but where do we go? We do not know anyone here.”
She reached back and showed us two tickets.
“The train is over there,” she said. “It will take you where you need to go.”
I trembled with fear. I glanced at Greta as she was shivering.
“Oh no,” the Lady of the Jersey City assured us. “It is not that train. You are free on this train. Come, I will show you.”
She took us over to the train station. It was big and beautiful unlike the train stations were saw back in our homeland. She escorted us into the station. The ceilings were so majestic. We walked into the terminal. We had never seen trains so shiny. There were windows were large. We had never seen windows on a train before.
“Welcome Lady of the Jersey City,” the conductor said. “Are you riding with us?”
“Not me,” she replied. “These two children have come from the land of tyranny and destruction. This is their first ride on a train in the Land of Freedom. They have never been on a train that had windows, tables, seats or beds. Can you give them some assistance?”
“Gladly,” said the conductor.
“Thank you,” said the Lady of the Jersey City.
“Thank you,” said the conductor.
“Thank you,” Greta said to the Lady of the Jersey City. “I hope that we can meet again.”
“One day,” she replied. “For now, get on the train, go and see the Land of Freedom.”
We waved farewell to this amazing lady that we had only met for a short time, but she had done so much for us. We wondered if we would ever see her again. The conductor took us aboard the train. We paused remembering the train where we were shoved into a dark boxcar seeing nothing but pitch blackness unable to move as we were packed in. This train was so much different. The conductor took us to our seats, but we were amazed at the bright lights and shiny brass, and our seats were a red velvet. We looked out our big window at the other trains that were waiting to depart. We were terrified at first, but our fears slowly slipped away. The train departed. We looked back to see the Lady of the Jersey City standing on a podium holding up her torch. We were going to miss her, but we were in a new land, and we were on a new and different kind of train. We were not going to be tortured or separated or thrown into a small cell. We were able to look out as the train went along. This was a train in the Land of Freedom. Unlike the trains in our homeland, we were able to see the land we were now a part of.
Greta spent only two years in this Land of Freedom. The burns and boils on her feet caused an infection in her body of which she was unable to recover. I kept her ashes in a special urn hoping to someday return to the Lady of the Jersey City. Being that we were the only members of the family to reach this land, I thought it would be proper for her ashes to remain here. I myself was able to have a family of my own in this land.
It was not until many great years later that I was able to return to the Jersey City. There were many ways to get there, but I wanted to go the same way I departed: by the train. Through the years, I grew a love of the trains in the Land of Freedom despite having the horrid memories of the trains in my homeland. My children were afraid to for me to travel alone, but by granddaughter, Zynga, came with me. She had just turned twenty-one and had always wanted to see the Lady of the Jersey City. She was a great bundle of joy, and she always enjoyed being with me.
As the train was rolling along, I looked outside the window at the snow covered ground. Zynga was sitting across from me wearing her furry hat, heavy coat, gray jeans and her bare feet on my lap. I grabbed each toe and say, “This little piggy going to the Jersey City. This little piggy riding the train. This little piggy having fun. This little piggy enjoying the ride, and this little piggy going wee wee wee on the train… with grandpa.”
I loved to hear her giggle. I only wished that my sisters and my parents could have seen her.
“Do you know why I like trains?” She smiled at me.
Looking out the window she said, “Because I like looking out the window to see the great things outside. What would happen if the train did not have windows?”
I paused for a moment. “The reason that some trains do not have windows is because there is no beauty to see outside.”
“That must have been horrible,” she sulked.
“Oh,” I said to her, “you cannot imagine the horror of being on a train without windows.”
“It looks like we are almost there.” She peeked at her iPhone. “I cannot wait to see the Lady of the Jersey City.”
“Attention passengers. We will be arriving in Jersey City, New Jersey in five minutes. Passengers deboarding should begin making their way to the exits.”
Excitement filled her smile. She jumped up.
“Put your shoes on. It’s freezing out there.”
As the train was slowing down, everything was unfamiliar.
“What’s wrong?” Zynga asked as she was putting her sock on.
“This is not the Jersey City.”
I was very concerned as everything looked different.
“This is the Jersey City,” she said as she put her shoe on and started tying the laces.
“This is not the Jersey City.”
“No, it is not.”
I called out to the young conductor, and he came.
“Sir, we are on the wrong train. We are going to the Jersey City.”
The train pulled into the terminal, but everything looked unfamiliar.
“This is Jersey City,” the conductor replied.
“But you are mistaken,” I said. “This is not the Jersey City.”
“It is Jersey City.”
“It is not the Jersey City.”
“Grandpa, this is the Jersey City.”
My anger was starting to grow within me.
“I know the Jersey City. This is not it.” I shouted at them.
“Old man, do not…”
“I know where he wants to go.” An older conductor appeared. “I know what he is looking for. I can arrange for a cab to take you there.”
Tapping the young conductors shoulder he said, “It has been a long time, but I know where he wants to go.”
We were in a cab passing by some grassland. We turned on a street. I was amazed at I saw her, the Lady of the Jersey City, standing high on her podium just as I saw her when I first came to this Land of Freedom, but it was a different land. I saw a structure in ruins, but it looked familiar to me.
“What are those ruins?” I asked the cab driver.
“That is the old train terminal of the Central Railroad of New Jersey,” he replied.
I was very sad. “What happened? Why did the trains stop coming here?”
“People don’t come by ship anymore,” the cab driver replied. “When the boats stopped coming here, there were no more people. When there are no people, there are no people to ride the trains. If there are no people to ride the trains, the trains no longer stop here. The main terminal building has been preserved and is the visitor center for the park.”
The cab stopped in a cul-de-sac that was close to the terminal. Zynga and I stepped out of the cab, and we made our way to the front of the old terminal. Despite the cold, there were a few people walking around. A frigid wind was blowing from the river behind us. I glanced over to see the Lady of the Jersey City standing tall with her torch held high.
“This was where we entered to go to the train.” I was remembering the day I came with Greta.
Zynga studied the building. She lifted her foot to unlace her shoe. She removed her shoe and started to peel off her sock. I was about to grab her foot to stop her, but she shoved my hand away.
“I want to do this. I want to feel that day you and Greta passed through here. I need to do this.”
It was crazy to me, but I thought that it would be wrong to stop her. She removed her other shoe and sock. I noticed that she was shivering as her bare feet was on the cold concrete ground. She slowly stepped to the entrance of what is now the park visitor center. She studied the door and went inside. I came behind her. She ran across the room, but I looked around. It was almost exactly the way it was when I first came here. A small scale of a blue locomotive was on display. A grand piano was ahead of me. I trudged through… and I saw the old platforms… empty. Steel bars were between me and they place where I boarded the train. As I stepped closer, I saw nothing but the bare concrete. It was a very sad day for me as I remembered that very day that I was sitting and looking out a window. I peeked at Zynga who was looking through the bars. She closed her eyes. She took a few steps along the bars. She threw down her shoes and jumped into an opening into the bars.
“What are you doing?” I shouted.
The security guards charged towards her.
“No! Let her go.”
They stopped dead in their tracks. Standing nearby was the Lady of the Jersey City.
“Please,” she pleaded. “Let her go.”
Zynga had pulled herself through, and she saw the Lady of the Jersey City who motioned her to go on. The security guards escorted me to the gate where I could freely walk in. There was no way my old body would get through those bars. I watched as Zynga was taking short steps on the bare concrete where the trains once came. This old place that was once full of trains was a rusted bare shell of emptiness. We came to Zynga who was slowly pushing her beautiful toes into the concrete.
“Listen.” She had that bright smiley face. “Do you here that?”
I assumed that it was just some fantasy she was having, but I noticed something. The tracks were appearing. There was the sound of a whistle. I did not believe that this was happening, but it was. The train was backing into the terminal. The conductor was standing in the doorway.
“All aboard!” he shouted.
The train looked exactly like the train I first boarded.
“Can we ride?” Zynga was jumping all over me.
“Will you be riding?” the conductor asked the Lady of the Jersey City.
She handed the conductor five tickets. Turning to the security guards, she said, “Why come to the train station and not ride the train.”
Everyone climbed aboard, and the train pulled away.
The train returned to the terminal, and we deboarded the train.
“Thank you for riding,” the conductor waved to us. “I hope to see you again.”
We walked back to the end of the terminal. We turned around, and we saw the empty rusted ruined shell with nothing but the bare concrete floors. Zynga bent over to pick up her shoes. When she stood up, the Lady of the Jersey City said to her, “I hope that you enjoyed your ride.”
“I did,” she smiled. “Thank you.”
“Your grandfather’s first train ride was not like this,” The Lady of the Jersey City added. “You are privileged to ride the train in the Land of Freedom. In the land where your grandfather is from, there was no freedom. The trains there are trains of tyranny and bondage. Their trains did not have windows because they wanted to hide from you the vast destruction that they themselves have caused. They tell you that they are doing what they do to do what is good for their own-made society, but they refuse to let you see what they have done. Many risks their own lives and even leave family and their friends to escape the trains of tyranny and destruction to ride on these trains in the Land of Freedom. Those who survive enjoy the freedom of riding a train where you see beauty. The trains in the Land of Freedom have windows so that you can see the vast beauty of being free. I must warn you that there are those who come to this land not to enjoy the freedom but to destroy it. They want trains without windows so that they can destroy you. You must defend this freedom from those who seek its destruction. If they continue to enter the Land of Freedom, it will be a land of freedom now more. Please, keep this land free for those who want to be free. As I hold my torch to light the way, may you reward them by letting freedom reign here. As your grandfather’s time grows short, may you continue to keep the trains of freedom running.”
They hugged each other.
“I must return to my place. I bid you farewell.”
“Thank you,” I said to her.
As we rode in the cab, I watched as the old train station went out of sight. As for the Lady of the Jersey City, she stood high on that podium holding up her torch to light the way. As for me, she was always going to stay with me, and she was always going to be with Zynga. As long as the Lady of the Jersey City lights the way, many will come to ride the trains into the Land of Freedom. The trains may be gone, but the truth is… the trains still come to the old train station in the Jersey City… and as long as the Land of Freedom remains a land of freedom, they will keep coming.
The photos of the box car and the men in the barracks are of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The photos of the old Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal and of the empty platforms are from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. The photo of the American Freedom Train locomotive is courtesy of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The ‘Lady of Jersey City’ is courtesy of the National Park Service and Liberty Island, Jersey City, New Jersey.
A special thanks to:
The Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, Virginia
Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
The National Park Service