Pitchipoi – The Place Beyond

Internees in the Drancy transfer camp outside of Paris referred to their deportation destination as Pitchipoi, “the place beyond.” They were told that in there they would have better accommodations, food, and meaningful work. It was a lie.

Germany and Jews take center stage in any history of the Holocaust, as well they should. Less dealt with are the hundreds of thousands of Romani (a.k.a. Gypsies) murdered and France’s cooperation in the rounding up and exportation of targeted ethnic groups (i.e., Jews and Gypsies).

Approximately 63% of European Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust. The Romani call this period O Baro Parrajmos, the great devouring. Parrajmos is one of the ugliest words in Romani, avoided in polite company. Among other things, it means “rape.” It is estimated that as much as 50% of the European Romani population was murdered in the Parrajmos.

Valley of Wolves is an espionage thriller. It is also historical fiction. In this chapter, we arrive in Pitchipoi through the eyes of Hishoro (click here to learn more about her). The chapter begins with a Romani song written in a concentration camp. If you want to hear it sung, click here. I think the tune will surprise you.

I am nearing final production on this novel and am planning on a summer release. Following is a taste.

Phabol lampa măskar o logori
Voi svetil amare Romange
De man, Devla, dui bare phakora
Te urav Nemso te mudarav.
A lamp is burning in the camp
It shines on our Roma
O God, give me two big wings
So I can fly and kill a German
(from “Phabol Lampa,” a Romani song of the Porrajmos)

Pitchipoi (“the place beyond”) – May 2, 1943

Hishoro huddled with her family in the cattle car. Unlike their journey from Gurs to Drancy, they were packed in with Jews as well as other Gypsies. Not long into their trip, a recently interned Jewish woman told her that Pitchipoi was in Poland.

“Don’t believe the newspapers,” she said. “Poland is worse than France.”

Now, five days later, the stench and heat of the packed humanity pressed in on her from all sides. She needed air. Worming her way to the wall, she stood under the ventilation slot and managed to get a couple of breaths before being pushed out of the way by others seeking the same relief.

“There’s a sign up ahead,” a man who displaced her said.

“Can you read it?” the man next to him asked.

“Almost. There, Birkenau.”

“Never heard of it. You?”

“No, but we’re five kilometers from it.”

Hishoro fought her way back to Keti and the boys. They drank the last of their water yesterday and their last meal had been the thin soup of Drancy. The twins were cried out. Keti was too tired to complain. The train clacked on. Leaning against Keti, she dozed off, the press of the other passengers keeping her on her numb feet.

The throng lurched, shaking her awake. The door rattled open and those nearest it tumbled out.

“Schnell! Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!”

Guards barking. Passengers falling, jumping, being hauled out and dragged. Hishoro scrambled out with her boys into a storm of blows, insults, shouted commands, and terrifying confusion. She gripped them both by the hand and held her ground until Keti was beside her. “Stay together.”

People poured out of cattle cars up and down the siding, as far as the eye could see. German guards in high boots and gray uniforms with lightning bolt insignias beat the arrivals into massive columns. The river of humanity moved, carrying Hishoro and her family with it.

She filled her lungs, glad for the air’s lightness, free as it was of excrement, urine, and sweat. The freshness soon gave way to the oppressive taint of burnt hair and flesh. Ahead, dark gray smoke billowed out of towering brick chimneys, smudging the brilliant blue sky. She tightened her grip on the boys’ hands.

They flowed toward the smoke clouds on the horizon. The river split into two streams around an officer holding a pair of white gloves. Were it not for the SS uniform, Hishoro would have taken him for a Gypsy. His broad face, dark hair, and brown eyes reminded her of her uncle.

The officer shone in the rabble, a slight smile on his generous lips, his high boots gleaming. People moved to the left or right depending on the flick of his gloves. As she came abreast of him, his heavy-lidded eyes opened a margin wider. He uttered a single word, “Zwillinge.” He flicked his gloves and a man in striped pajamas shoved her into the column on the officer’s right. She carried the boys and Keti in her wake.

The column shuffled forward. Marshal music blared from overhead speakers. At the sides, barking dogs struggled against the chain leashes of their snarling masters. “Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!”

The column stopped alongside a brick building. Groups were herded in. The line surged forward, filling in the gaps.

Hishoro stepped inside, blind in the gloom. The boys were ripped away from her hands. Someone shoved onto a wooden chair. Rough hands jerked her left arm across the table and pushed her sleeve up.

“Don’t move. This won’t take long,” a man said in French. Her eyes adjusted and his skeletal frame came in view. His skull was topped with dark stubble. His filthy stripped shirt was several sizes too large.

A man with a clipboard stepped next to him. “Name?”

“Hishoro Velveloz. Ouch!” She jerked her arm but the prisoner’s grip held firm.

“Be still. It will be ugly enough without you moving the canvass.” The man continued pricking the outside of her forearm, making her blood flow.

“Papers,” the record keeper demanded.

Hishoro dug into her skirt pocket and handed the family packet to him. He opened it and glanced right. Tracking his gaze, she spotted Alfonso seated not far from her, followed by Pierre and Keti. The man jotted notes. He kept her papers. The skeleton rubbed ink on her arm.

Rising as one, the group was driven into the courtyard. “Get undressed! All clothing in the bins!” All around her men, women, and children disrobed. One woman pulled off her dress, but kept her shoes and underwear on. A guard prodded her with his sub-machine gun, shouting orders. Arms crossed, she shook her head. His gun burped and she fell backwards, awash in blood.

Hishoro tore her clothes off, then stripped the boys.

They stood bare, baking under the hot sun. The mass moved forward again. She was prodded onto a low stool and told to hold her arms out at her sides. Electric clippers buzzed like angry bees as the crew of men made the arrivals bald from head to toe. Hishoro stared at the rafters, unable to face her own shame.

They were pressed into a room. Hishoro held onto her boys. She squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to know whose skin pressed against her naked flesh. Water crashed down, hot and scalding. Someone screamed. She opened her mouth and gulped, not caring if she burned her mouth or worrying about the water’s metallic taste. Doors opened and they splashed out. Groups formed; Jewish men separated from the women, Gypsies herded off to themselves.

The Jews were issued striped pajamas. The Gypsies dug through the bins for their clothes. Hishoro spotted a riot of flowers on a field of red. She pulled the kerchief out, put it on her shaved head, and tied it under her chin. It smelled of pesticide. Digging out a blouse and long skirt, she threw them on and dressed the twins.

Her eyes met Keti’s. The sorrow there was beyond tears. She pressed her forehead against her sister’s brow for a moment’s comfort.

“Look, Dalé, they decorated my arm.” Alfonso lifted his arm, the dark Z with its string of numbers standing out on his raw, red skin.

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