Train of Doom

Captured by the Nazis in 1945 and headed to certain death, a 20-year-old makes a daring bid for freedom.

We had been locked in the cattle car for some 10 hours. We had not gone more than 10 or 20 miles. We had stopped innumerable times.

Alberto, Giacomo and I had been among the first to be herded into our cattle car. Instinctively, we had made for a corner spot, under one of the four small vents high up against the roof that, under normal conditions, served the purpose of ventilating the cars. The opening was blocked by a wooden plank, nailed shut from the inside.

I could visualize the plank being pried loose. Vaguely, we began to talk of escape.

After several hours of standing still at the station in the northwest outskirts of Bolzano, Italy, the train started moving. I was slumped down in the corner, jammed in among other bodies. Things were still more or less under control. We could still make jokes. We still had some food: apples and a few pieces of bread. I felt apathetic.

I was weighed down by a sense of fatalism: The deportation train was an irrevocable instrument of my fate. I had landed in this desperate situation out of my own carelessness. If only I had not gone to that meeting upstairs with “Cato” on that evening of January 2.

If only I had been ill and had been unable to keep that appointment with disaster. If only I had never joined the partisan underground.

But it had happened.

Giacomo started to feel ill and vomit. Eventually, even Alberto grew silent. But after a while, quietly, we started our discussion about our chances for survival. When I insisted that the Nazis would show us no mercy, Alberto seemed half-convinced.

At about 1 o’clock in the morning of Tuesday, January 9, Alberto said: “Well, if you want to go, I’ll help you get out, but I won’t follow.”

I could have said so many things, but I was not all that sure myself. And I had really not even made up my own mind. But then, all of a sudden, as the train started moving again after another of those interminable waits on a side track, I woke to the realization that we would never see Italy again.

That is when I made up my mind: If I had to die, I would die in Italy. It was, finally, as simple as that. It was the country, the language, the culture of my affections. Italy was where I had gone to school for seven years, where I had awakened to life as a teenager—to friendship, to love, to the wonders of the earth’s beauty and to the accomplishments of Italian art and civilization.

In Italy I had found joy in the Renaissance, the logic and symmetry of Latin, the structure of Greek, the soaring beauty of opera, of Verdi, Puccini and Leoncavallo. If I had to die, it had to be on this side of the Brenner Pass. That is, finally, what gave me the courage to make the irreversible move, to risk everything in a bid for freedom, which might have turned out to be a bid for dying on Italian soil.

Any thought of resignation suddenly vanished. On the floor of the boxcar, we had found a set of pliers. At great risk to themselves, Italian railroad men had planted them along with saws in the straw that littered the wooden floor of the deportation wagons.

It did not take long to pry off the plank that sealed the vent. It was a sturdy plank of plain, unpainted wood. The iron wheels clacking on the rails and the heaving and rhythmic puffing of the locomotive engine covered up the noise of our labors. With the exception of the prisoners in our immediate vicinity, no one in the boxcar was aware of what we were up to in our corner.

I had never given a thought as to where the guards might have been on the train. As it turned out, a few of them were posted on the rooftop of each third or fourth car.

I had hoisted myself on Alberto’s shoulders. I was now using the plank as a battering ram to smash through the barbed wire stitched across the rectangular vent. As I pounded away I could see more and more of the moonlit snow-covered mountains racing past us in the winter night, as if they were frames in a movie. The vent was, at most, four feet wide by three feet high.

I would have had a hard time snaking through that narrow opening still entangled in strands of loose barbed wire.

Alberto said: “You can’t go now. The train is going too fast.”

“I can’t wait, Alberto,” I shouted over the rush of wind beginning to surge through the open vent. “We are committed. If they stop the train, we’ll lose the chance. We must go now. There is no going back.” I was still confident that he and Giacomo would follow.

After a while, I had made enough of an opening in the barbed wire to feel I could squeeze through.

I was counting on my fur-lined coat to keep my face from being torn by the barbs as I started poking my head through the ragged strands of the wire. I hoped my heavy winter coat would soften the blow as I landed on the sharp rocks alongside the tracks.

Even while helping to hoist me by the waist, then easing me out by the legs and feet through the narrow opening, Alberto, somehow, kept holding me back, as if afraid to let go.

When all of me was hanging out, with my hands holding on to the lower edge of the vent, above the roar of the train and the swirling wind, Alberto kept shouting last-minute instructions.

Ricordati, il lancio dei paracudisti!” We had talked about kicking oneself away from the side of the train, to steer clear of the suction of the speeding cars and not get pulled in and crushed under the wheels.

“The paratroopers’ jump! Remember the paratroopers’ jump!” he kept shouting above the pounding of the big metal wheels on the rails and the sudden piercing blast of the locomotive’s whistle.

The train seemed now in a frenzy to take us to Germany.

Instead of helping me pry loose the flaps of my coat caught on two barbs of the wire, Alberto held on to it. He would not let go.

Angrily I shouted at him to let me go: “Lasciami andare!

Finally I took his hand and violently pried his fingers away from my coat.

Alberto looked frightened. Frightened for me. My coat was my last link to him. Like an inverted bell, it had cupped over my body, covering my head and shoulders. I had to free myself.

Finally I succeeded in ripping the edges of the coat free of those metal thorns that held me prisoner.

I pushed myself off the side of the cattle car, letting myself fall slowly, as slowly as I could—in slow motion, I thought.

But actually it was a violent fall. I landed with explosive force. The rocks on the side of the tracks tore at my hands, which I had thrust in front of me to cushion the fall. Even so, my face slammed into the rocks as if pushed down by a giant fist.

I felt no sensation of pain or shock at first, just a sharp “thunk” through my entire body.

I looked up, then quickly ducked again, pushing my face down as close as I could onto the bed of rocks. As the train shrieked by, I sensed that it was entering a tunnel. A few cars passed as if on top of me. I became vaguely aware of a beam of light, a searchlight mounted on the last car sweeping past, brushing my shoulder.

There had to be guards on the roof of some of the freight cars. I kept my head down; out of the corner of my eye I saw the beam of light coming close to me, and then very unexpectedly it was yanked away.

I realized the guards on top of the cars had to duck. That was why the whistle was blowing—to warn them to duck as the train was about to enter the tunnel. And their searchlight had to swing away.

I felt I could look up now. The last two cars of the transport were about to disappear inside that black hole—the mouth of the tunnel. The searchlight had been turned off. The rear of the last car became a dark object receding into that black hole. The shrieking sounds became muffled. There was an acrid metallic smell—a lingering cloud of smoke. The clattering of the wheels grew faint and distant. The train of the doomed was gone.

I started to get up, anxious to find out whether I could still walk. I felt shaky, but, no, my legs were all right. Nothing was broken.

But everything within me was shaking. I had taken an enormous step. There was blood somewhere. At first I did not know where. I just felt it. I had to look for it with my fingers. Meanwhile, incredibly, like a sleepwalker, I started walking after the train, actually toward the tunnel instead of away from it. Confused thoughts raced through my head: What had I done? Why hadn’t I stayed in the safety—the safety!—of the boxcar with the others?

We could have helped each other. We could have seen it through together. We could have comforted each other.

Instead, now I was totally on my own.

Following his bold escape in the snowy mountains of Bolzano, de Hoog went on to serve as a special assistant to Italy’s first post-war premier. Later he worked as a journalist in Greece before traveling to the United States “to see what the New Deal had accomplished,” he says. He learned English during his Atlantic crossing. Shortly after arriving, de Hoog enrolled at Dartmouth, where he earned a degree in three years. “I recall him telling me that he sometimes felt he had lived an entire life by the time he entered Dartmouth,” says classmate Edward Nickerson ’49. In 1983 de Hoog visited Mauthausen, the Austrian concentration camp where he surely would have met his demise had he not jumped from that train, and was inspired to write Tulipano, his 2012 memoir from which this story is adapted. de Hoog, now retired from filmmaking, lives in Santa Barbara, California.


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