Family of Strangers


FRIDAY February 15, 2013

I was sent by Adams Express Company in a box 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep 2 feet wide. I traveled in a box with only one bladder of water and a few biscuits.

This dangerous experiment.

To break the chains.

We didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t have anything to play with. I never went out. My mother wouldn’t let me. I was at that time six years old and I didn’t know how to play but I used to play with the chickens and with the straws. . .there was a lot of straw on the floor.

They are listening for us. The dogs sniff and sniff and even stick their heads inside.

I got 12 dollars a month for the little work I did.

I was a depressed and confused child, but with the passing of time, I began to believe that all children lived away from their parents.

Suddenly everything changed.

My father fell ill one Friday and went to the hospital. I promised to visit him on Sunday to bring him shaving cream.

Inspectors with police at Slussen, direction Götgatan. 10.40.

All directions Inspectors and police in Slussen. 11.00.

4 civil police in the ticket hall Fridhemsplan right now, direction St Eriksgatan.11.15.

Sometimes we would doze: once I woke to find mother had vanished.

We realized that many had not returned from their work sites.

Ticket inspection Mariatorget t-bana. 11:45.

Police in yellow vests on the platform in Huddinge 13.05.

We searched for a hiding place.

Ticket inspection Mälarhöjdens T-bana 13.10.

We lived through hours of terror.

Blue Ticket Inspectors in Thorildsplan13.30.

After we dyed my dark hair blonde, I got a job as a dishwasher. I had a false ID and wore a cross. A boy on the tram pointed at me and yelled. He wanted to go back to the sewer because he wasn’t used to the light and he was afraid of people. My disguise had failed. I never left the apartment again.

There was a hole cut in the box for air, and it was nailed and tied with straps; in large words, “This side up” was written on the box.

My parents were certain the police had come for them. The terror on my mother’s face as she opened the door devastated me. I had expected her to be happy at my homecoming; instead, gloom and despair permeated our home.

No one can imagine who has never experienced this.

Civil police inside the barriers in Liljeholmen 13.50.

T-centralen civil clothed police making inspections 15:30.

Police at Rågsveds T-bana checking people. 16.25.

Not knowing what moment I might be captured while traveling among strangers.

Inspection south direction Norsborgståg; departure from aspudden 16:22.

Inspection Kungsträdgårdens T-bana 17.00.

You will oblige me much if You will Direct this letter to Virginia for me, to my Mother, if it will suite You, beg her to direct her answer to You so that you can send it to me if it suites Your convenience.

I would play by myself, always pretending that I was talking with my mother, always pleading with her to come for me.

The next day, a strange man came to the house, removed my brother and me, and accompanied us by train to a convent. I was sure I had done something terrible.

Ticket inspection and police on the red line towards Ropsten at T-centralen. 19.07.

I remember my body always aching. Yet I seemed unable to cry and I dared not make noise. There was no place to hide and I did whatever I could not to bring attention to myself. I longed to be noticed, to be touched and caressed.

Through the dark hours of the night, and not a house in which I could enter to shelter me from the storm.

We no longer looked like children.

My preparation for this voyage consisted in the accumulation of a little money, perhaps not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents, and a suit which I had never been seen or known to wear before.

19:22 police are inside the barriers in Hagsätra and checking ID.

Police at T-centralen entrance Sergels torg! 22.15

Ours was a life in shadows, where a careless remark, a denunciation, or the murmurings of inquisitive neighbors could lead to discovery and death. From the age of 4, I never saw the world outside. I never knew that children live together with their parents, never knew that they play in the park while their mothers watch over them. Everything had been taken from me. I came to feel that I was a nothing in this world, and, at the age of 5, I felt old and worn out.

I traveled by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, ferries, and finally, for added safety, a delivery wagon that brought the box to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society before daybreak.

22.10 Police searching for “immigrants” in Medborgarplatsen. SHARE INFO!

2230 Police Slussen.
Saturday February 16th

It was very wet and dark. I was very scared and I was shaking. I tried to be calm and only asked Daddy if we still had far to go. I began to realize that my parents had no awareness of the sorrow I carried, and no desire to know of my hidden past. I came to believe that my feelings had never been important to anyone.

One sewer worker brought us eggs in his teeth. He had to crawl to come to us.

Water seeped from the walls.

16:30 ticket inspection Gamla Stan.

My little brother was never scared.

I longed to see my older brother, believing that he could protect me. Hoping I might see him, I routinely looked through a keyhole when no one was looking.

The latest tip we have received came in at 16.30. It may mean that the Reva-police are off today (one can always hope!), but if not: don’t forget us in all Saturday commotion.

We found shelter in a storage room, hiding in a far corner under a mound of cement. I leaned against my younger sister and felt her heart racing.

I saw doors ajar, furniture in disarray, feathers, torn from bedding, floating in the air.

Her main concerns in life were her freckles and her grades. She spent all her lunch money on exotic creams to rid her face of these blemishes.

Now she was gone.

Police at Subway station Slussen 19:00.

In the beginning I was very scared, but later I became used to it.

We were hotly pursued to Boston by hunters from Georgia.

My mother gave me to a man from the “underground.” It was because I was Jewish, he said.

I took my four small children and fled.

I hope to hear from you again.

Tons of police and a few security guards in Rinkeby. 23.00.

People felt sorry for us and one lady gave us gooseberries.

I will never forget the people — moaning, numb shadows — moving about forlornly.

It’s a terrible feeling. You know, you are among people and you are like on an island all alone.

Total isolation, total loneliness.

Every time I tried to break the silence, I was always quickly reminded how lucky I was, far luckier than most.

Danuta and Maria got my sister and me false ID cards. On the eve of the final roundup, we escaped to their home. We hid, submerged in the water, all night. By morning others were hiding in the brush and I heard a guard scream, “I see you there; come out!”

Most obeyed, but we hid in the water for several more days.

I pulled a suitcase out from under my bed and I put her in the suitcase and I told her that “You may not cry, and you may not speak. You may not say anything.” She had red hair, a freckled face, and was always neatly dressed in a black school uniform with an immaculate white collar. “If you make a sound they will take you and you will die.”

I went through the woods to a road…traveling all night: laid low all day, … I made no stop: so great were my fears of being pursued by the pro-slavery hunting dogs of the South.

10 police inspecting train at Medborgarplatsen. 23.30.

While the overseer was eating supper I got off my shoe and slipped off a chain and ran. I ran….I heard a shouting, hallooing, for dogs to hunt me up…

When I looked out the window, there were buses lined up in front of the gate.

That night I stole a boat and managed to get as far as the Ohio River….After I crossed I hid…on a bridge that has two stories. My pursuers passed right under me as I was lying on the top part and could hear every word they said.

24.00 Cops in Rinkeby, Gullmarsplan and Medborgarplatsen! They are inspecting subway trains!

Sunday February 17th

On the Underground Railroad I heard hounds were on my track but I knew I was too far out of their reach where they would never smell my track.

I whispered in my mamma’s ear.

I dreamt that the war would end so that we could go out into the world. Once, I asked some sewer workers for field flowers. I lay on my Mamma’s knees and my little brother was on Papa’s. I was not allowed to talk loudly. We couldn’t move or get up. There were more than twenty other people there. Every day the Polish sewer workers brought food to us: black bread and margarine.

Ours was a home where memories were not welcome, a home with no past.

The slave-hunters pursued me, and one night they pounced upon the whole family, and, without judge or jury, hurried us all back to slavery. We had to run away. We ran straight ahead and we didn’t know where we were going. I was encouraged to believe that I was too young to understand, and that the only thing that mattered was that we were all very lucky to be alive and together again.

We ran together through the main pipe.

0.55 Police at Medborgarplatsen, entrance Folkkungagatan.

I walked barefoot in a summer dress.

20.10: Police right now at Odenplans subway barriers.

I got a pin in my foot but I took it out myself because I didn’t want to delay the others. Remember me & send me greetings to your husband & to all my Friends inquiring after me & say to Miss Rosa that I am as Free as she is & more happier.

I heard how cars drove above us. People’s voices. Children playing and laughing.

21.03: Police at Östermalmstorg, entrance Östermalmstorg.

We had a metal lamp that was lit all the time. It hung from a hook.

22.16 Police inspecting at Central station.

We finally reached a cement pipe and we stayed there the whole day. It was so cold there that we couldn’t stand it. There was no place to sleep. Papa brought us water in a jug, which he carried in his teeth. When I left you I was carried to Richmond & sold & from there I was taken to North Carolina & they sold me & I escaped & went back up to Virginia.

I was shaking from the cold but I felt happy.

I saw nothing in the darkness. But I felt the girl’s eyes.

Between Richmond & home I was caught & put in jail & I remained there till the owner came and took me & carried back to Richmond and then I was sold to the man who I now leave, he is nothing but a butt of a human being.

This dangerous experiment.

We travelled at night led by the North Star and hid in a big thicket. The next night we heard gunshots and I was sure scared this time.

I was scared to go in and scared to go out.

The next day our friends led us away again. By then we were only eleven. The others had died.

To break the chains.

We had become a family of strangers.

The poem’s content originates from letters and testimonials of both those hiding from and escaping via the Underground Railroad and the Nazi’s during WWII in addition to the flood of status updates regarding police and ticket inspections on the FB site “REVA spotter.” REVA is a Swedish project between the police, Migration Board and Correctional Treatment, targeting paperless people via such methods as racial profiling.

The Swedish version was published in three parts in three different newspapers:–nojen/poeter-skriver-om-reva/

By Johannes Anyuru and Sara Nelson

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