Two novels about train voyages in Europe - then and now
It is 1992 and Rosie Manon, now an elderly woman, reflects on her long life - especially her experiences when she was a young woman in Europe as the world hurtled toward war. Michele Zackheim tells her story in the novel Last Train to Paris.
In 1933 Rosie was RB Manon, a reporter with an American newspaper based in Paris. Her beat became Berlin, where she fell in love while reporting the escalating restrictions of the Nazi regime.
I found it fascinating that the preface to this book mentions that the author’s cousin was abducted and murdered in Paris in 1937, and she weaves this into her story along with the sensational trail of the murderer. In Paris the news includes the abduction and murder of a young American woman – Stella Maur – Rosie’s cousin. The murder is a sensational news story and one that RB covers with a fellow reporter. The names have been changed but the crime and the description of the trial that followed are essentially as they were.
The story moves seamlessly between Rosie’s childhood and teenage years in Nevada, her family roots in New York City, her own years as a young woman In Europe and her long career as a journalist, to her retirement home among her gardens in the United States. It is the return of a trunk left behind in Europe 50 years earlier that stimulates the memories she shares with the reader.
It is hard for us to imagine now the fear and the courage that those in Europe in the late 1930s early 1940s lived with on a daily basis. It is a generation mostly gone now, who had those stories to tell from first hand experience. It is easy enough to understand that many felt it could never really get so bad – they could not really believe they’d have to leave their homes or perish.
There would, in reality, have been many last trains from many places as the Nazi’s rolled into one country after another. For Rosie it was from Berlin to Paris. In Berlin, at the time of Kristallnacht it became clear that American citizens must be evacuated immediately, Rosie among them. There is one last train on which they are guaranteed safe passage to Paris and those who are left behind are at their own peril.
Last Train to Paris was the first of two books about Europe during the Second World War with the word “train” in the title that I read recently.
The second, a simple but sublime, novel is The Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman. This time the train is heading to Warsaw, 50 years after the couple we spend this journey with left Europe during the Second World War. Jascha and Lilka met and fell in love in the Warsaw Ghetto. Jascha was a wily smuggler and Lilka training as a nurse. They endured the war and made a new life afterwards in London, England. Jascha became a novelist who wrote a book about the Warsaw Ghetto that became a lasting international bestseller.
For 50 years the couple have lived a rather secluded life in England. Now, Jascha has been invited to present a reading at a literary event in Warsaw. He has no desire to return to Poland, but Lilka would like to re-visit the places she remembers from her childhood before the war. She remembers idyllic walks in the parks with her father, the shops along the fashionable streets, the beauty of the city before the war.
Finally and a reluctantly convinced Jascha boards the train to Warsaw with Lilka. They are a long married couple, they know well each other’s peculiarities - they tease, they kvetch, they love each other, they drive each other crazy with irritation at times. We are the fly on the wall as they travel, complain, make love and endure this journey into the past.
Along the way both Jascha and Lilka reveal some moments from the past they had never before shared – Jascha falling in love with Lilka in the ghetto, telling her “what Graham Greene said about love? He called it the Ministry of Fear. As soon as you love, you fear. You have something to lose.”
We all know you can never really go back to what you remember – it is not there now, especially in a country so changed by war and the post-war communist years. Physically the city has changed – even the street names – it is no longer recognizable, except for a tiny moment the place has changed as fundamentally as the people who left.
It is only memory that keeps a city, a time, a place the same as it was when we were young. And the magic of a writer to take us there.