AMALIE’S HELL – A WORKING TITLE
She is cold, she shivers, and the darkness surrounds her. This is an inhumane place! Or is it? Why are we gathered here in this time and space? Or are we? The questioned posed is…Is this real or is it a construct? Do we move forward or backward in time as we choose or are we set in place, in this chaos? This is something I will not answer but leave to your imaginings.
SO LET US BEGIN …
I am standing here alone, detached, in the light away from the shadows, and wondering. Why am I here guarding the frail broken body on the hard metal bed in this cold room? Her body convulses. There are two others present, a nurse and a man, who by his dress, I take to be a priest. They ignore me as if I am invisible. Tears run down the nurse’s cheeks through the worn channels caused by age and despair. I feel I know her, as I know the body shivering in the bed. The priest is bored. He watches the second-hand trail slowly around the huge clock face. He is waiting for the end, the moment he can fulfil his duty and take his leave. He becomes thoughtful. He remembers when he first met her thirty-five years ago when he was a young man commencing his ministry in this place. She has been alone such a long time. He composes himself to wait with patience, he owes her that much.
Perhaps now I should introduce myself, I am Amalie and I am waiting for me to die. That is why I am here in this inhumane place.
I shall start at my beginning. I think it is an unremarkable tale. Or is it? Perhaps it is, but none the less, one that needs to be told. I was born in a small village near Allenstein in Prussia. I do not ever remember knowing the day or the month of my birth, only the year 1866. We are a close knit family, my father Maximillian, Rebekah my mother, Sisters Laura, Olga and the baby Frederike. I have an Uncle Abraham, he is a Cantor in the synagogue in Loebau, but we never speak of him, for as far as the other villagers know we are Lutherans, it is not safe to admit you are a Jew.
I was a quiet child, not studious but clever and industrious with a needle. Later in life I rely on these skills as I became a milliner, designing and creating beautiful hats for rich, ugly, old women. But I am moving forward too fast through time, so back to my beginning.
The animal -like keening intrudes on my senses and I find it hard to keep the thread of the story moving forward. What is this place? Dante’s Inferno? It is a place of unspeakable horror and dark imaginings. There is noise, chaos, screaming, hammering and the soft low moaning like an animal in pain. Again, I pose the question, is this real life, or an over-ambitious writer’s construct and once again I leave the answer for you to resolve.
I am going to jump in time to 1886. It is becoming too dangerous for us to remain in Prussia. My father has decided we will leave Allenstein to make our way in a new land. Papa and I will go first and Mother and my three sisters will follow when we establish ourselves and have the money for their passage. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and we hope for a new start in Australia. We know so little about the country we are going to, only that we will be free of fear. We sail from Bremerhaven aboard the Saale, our destination Melbourne, Australia. This will be the Saale’s first trip to the Antipodes and we will travel through the Suez Cannel, I am longing to see the great pyramids of Giza. The voyage will take somewhere between 110-150 days depending on the weather.
We know it does not snow in Australia and I am having difficulty imagining winters without snow. For the months prior to leaving life was a frenzy of activity. We spend long hours, mending and sewing and packing for the voyage ahead. Papa had to go to Konigsberg to obtain our travel permits and was gone for several days. I spend this time with my sketch book capturing scenes I know I will never see again and drawing my mother and my sisters. As excited as I am to be going on such an adventure I know I will miss them.
The trip to Bremerhaven itself was an undertaking, as I have never travelled outside my town and Papa said it was a 500 mile trip to the port. We travelled firstly by sleigh and then by train. I have never seen a train. I have seen pictures, but that is never the same. The day of our departure arrives. We leave early in the morning and Uncle Abraham arrives with the pony sleigh. . It is snowing and the snow crackles underfoot. Abraham and Isaac, my cousin, haul the four trunks on to the sleigh and lash them down. Mama and Papa cling to one another and the younger children cry. We do not know if we will ever see them again. Mama kisses me, holding me tight she presses a necklace into my hand, “a memory” she says “a memory.” I give Mama sketches of Papa and me, for remembrance, then Isaac hands me into the sleigh, father swings up to sit beside Uncle Abraham and we are off. The trip to the rail depot was long and took many hours, we are warm under the furs, but the silence is heavy. I pass my time by trying to take in all the different scenes, so I may capture them in my drawings.
When we reach the rail depot, the noise is overpowering, the smoke makes my eyes run and the heat turns the snow to muddy slush under our feet. Papa tells me that the engines are stoked with coal to provide steam for power. To me, the engine looks and sounds like a huge red, black and gold fiery dragon belching steam and fire.
It was all so long ago, I wonder looking back how all of this came to happen … why do they hate me so much? What did I ever do to apart from marrying their father? I was a good wife. He was for me the love of my life. My children, what has happened to them? What do they know of me? I hear the low animal keening and realise it is me. I am making the noise, at least the me on the bed is. This is such an unhappy place, a haunted place. I apologise, I am digressing. Shall I return you to the story or have you tired of my reminiscing? We were at the train depot, let us continue.
It was mayhem, so very busy. Uniformed men were bustling around with papers, all very official, the people looked very important; there was a babble of voices. I was suddenly aware and conscious of my rustic dress and plain attire, but I smile to myself because there is not a bonnet on any of the women here that is a patch on mine.
There are piles of trunks and boxes. Packages are piled up in heaps and secured with string, ribbons, leather straps and anything else that can be used to secure them. A large woman watches over an even larger woven cane basket that contains four very big, angry, white geese. They hiss and peck at anyone who ventures near them. I stay well clear. Our permits are finally stamped. Now Papa and Uncle pay a man in uniform to take our trunks for loading.
Opening my purse I finger the light gold chain, Mama’s gift and I slip the chain with the small gold star around my neck and inside my bodice where it would not be seen. The feel of it gives me great comfort. I look up to see Papa and Uncle retire to a corner; there with their backs to the crowd they bend their heads together in serious discussion. Uncle hands Papa a brown package larger and thicker than an envelope sealed with red wax. I realise then that Uncle is lending Papa the money for our voyage. But that is Papa’s business not mine and I keep up an idle conversation with Isaac who obviously thinks it should be him travelling with Papa and not me, a mere girl. Papa and Uncle re-join us and solemnly shake hands. Uncle does not linger and he and Isaac are up on the sleigh and with a brusque wave are off back to Loebau. He does not wish us, Waren Geschwindigkeit und viel Glück or in English, God’s speed and good luck.
I have told you what brought us to this point perhaps now you would like to know more about me…
In Allenstein my life as a spinster stretched ahead of me. As there had been no offers of marriage and I am in my twenty first year it is decided I should accompany Papa on this journey.
I am told I have a pleasing visage, being four foot nine inches tall and slender with rich brown hair, fair skin and grey eyes. My nose is a little sharp and my mouth a little thin, but I have a beguiling smile and a good sense of humour. I am rarely ill and really quite healthy. I am however very conscious of my hands, as I am missing the tips of two fingers on my left hand, a sign of my trade. The milliner’s curse, the pin pricked fingers, injuries that turn into abscesses causing the fingertips to rot away.
A Romany woman sits watching me, she gestures and I walk through the crowd to her quiet corner.
“If you cross my palm with silver little one I will tell you your future.” Curious I hand over a silver coin and she gestures for me to sit. She takes my hand and mumbles. She looks at me and sighs. “I see marriage, an older man and many children, but only three are yours and then they are lost. Before I can ask a question the Romany rises and walks away.”
Suddenly the air is alive with whistles and steam hisses from the engines. Papa is calling my name. He is angry and he chides me for wasting my money. We need to board, he hands me up into the compartment and we find our seats. Our bags are ones I made from old carpets from home and we stow them where we sit. Papa allows me to have the window seat to enable me to better view the scenery as we travel.
Clouds of steam envelope the station and the long drawn out mournful sound of the train whistle signals the movement of the train. It slowly moves forward chugging softly to itself. Before I can comprehend it, we are moving so fast that all the scenery is blurred. The wheels are clacking on the rails. I hold Papa’s hand and realise I have tears in my eyes. We are truly on our way and there is no turning back, the set of Papa’s shoulders and the way he looks straight ahead tells me he is also struggling with his emotions.
It is a long and dreary journey, once all the excitement has worn off. We sleep and eat where we sit, as it takes several days for us to reach Bremerhaven. The meals Mama and I had packed make welcome breaks in the travel and the cups of hot coffee that are available whenever the engine stopped to take on water were the best I have ever tasted. When we reach the station Papa leaves me for a while to ensure our trunks are taken to the wharf to be taken on board the Saale. We then made our way from the station to an inn near the wharf where we will wait until we have permission to board.
Never have I slept so well, the sheer pleasure of laying on a bed and such delight at being able to have a hot bath and some good hot food. While we wait at the inn we explore Bremen with some fellow travellers, the Jensen family, who are also undertaking the trip to Australia. I have never seen such magnificent buildings. We visit the Cathedral and the Synagogue. We explore the art gallery and I am in awe of the wondrous things I see there, the paintings and the sculptures. I come back to the inn after these trips and attempt to capture the images in my sketch book.
We write long letters to Mama and the girls telling them we are safe. We know once we are at sea it will be four to five months before we can send letters again. I am resolved to keep a journal and write in it every day and write to Mama and the girls frequently, that way I can post a packet of letters when we touch land and I have purchased some more watercolours and pastels so I will have a plentiful supply on the voyage.
Today we leave. It has dawned bright, sunny and there is a fair wind which is good. Repacking our bags with clean clothes, we make our way together with the Jensen family to the port to board the Saale. There are huge crowds of people all milling about and children were running about creating havoc as anxious parents seek to keep families together. Father presents our papers and we, along with the Jensen family are allowed to board.
We are fortunate not to be travelling steerage but do not have a cabin to ourselves and as we had formed a relationship with the Jensens we were pleased to find they were our cabin mates. It means there are six of us in the cabin and it feels a little strange to know we will be sharing so intimately with our fellow travellers. The cabin is reasonably large and the trunks needed on the voyage trunks are secured against the rear wall.
These trunks contain our bedding and food to sustain us on the voyage as well as clothing and personal possessions. Mine also contains hat blocks and materials for hats. We have some larger trunks that were sent on ahead and are now secured in the hold. Checking the trunks contents I am glad to see that none of the stone jars has cracked or leaked and I feel sure we will have had our fill of pickled vegetables and smoked meats by journeys end. Papa had also thought to secure 2 firkins of water and one of beer. These hang in nets above our heads. It is cramped and we have agreed to pool our supplies, so it should be bearable. Because we are paying for our passage and not bounty passengers we need to supply most of our own food. After all it will be only for around four to five months.
Mrs Jensen and I set about making the cabin habitable while the others go up on deck. We heard the band playing and finishing our housekeeping go up to find the others. I can see Papa standing at the rails looking out into the crowd below. The gangplank has been raised and the band strikes up Die Kaiserhymne as the Saale begins to ease her way slowly out of the docks, her horn sounding a melancholy note.
People are waving handkerchiefs both on the pier on and the ship and hats are tossed in the air, loud cheers sound on deck and on the shore. Making my way through the throng I stand beside Papa and holding his hand, I try to image what lies ahead. My stomach is churning and tears are falling and I wonder if I shall ever see my homeland again.