BEFORE AMERICA by Martha Anne Toll


MUTTER JUMPED OFF THE TRAIN holding little Max. She landed a meter away, her skin showing through the elbows of her coat, a remaining button hanging by a thread.

In place of air, a smoky stench. In place of sound, shouting soldiers. Mutter, Max, and Janko clustered with the women and children. The ground was scuffed with ice. Men were ordered into single file next to them; even Herr Professor Goldstein, who taught at Gymnasium, and Herr Doktor Kornblum, who used to grind eyeglasses.

Janko tilted toward Max and tried his regular tricks. He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes. Max didn’t giggle; he ogled Janko through his tears.

An SS man pushed through the women and children and thrust his thumb at Janko. “Into the men’s line.”

“He’s ten,” Mutter said.

Janko opened his mouth to correct her. Actually, he was eleven. But Mutter didn’t notice; she was glaring at the SS man.

“He’s only ten,” Mutter said again.

The soldier jabbed the butt of his rifle in the small of Janko’s back and began angling him away.

Mutter raised her voice. “He can sing.” With her free hand, the one that wasn’t holding Max, she gripped Janko’s shoulder and called him by his German name. “Johann, sing for the officer.”

Janko cleared his throat. The first thing he thought of was “The Four Questions” from Passover, Ma nishtanah. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Papa had rehearsed this song with Janko—stern and man-to-man—even though Janko was hardly old enough to sit through Seder. “Singing and memory are like members of the same family,” Papa instructed. “We are a people scattered around the world, held together by common memories. Songs help us remember.”

“Janko!” Mutter’s whisper sounded impatient. “Sing something different.”

Janko tried to recall the songs from the schoolyard where he went before he wasn’t allowed to. Before Aunt Ella’s dress shop had the windows kicked in and everything stolen, before Herr Goldman jumped out the window.

When the synagogues were whole. When Papa…

Mutter widened her eyes, hemmed by black circles, begging Janko to remember.

Janko struggled to summon tunes from Papa’s phonograph. It was forever ago.

Before the Aktion. That was when the police gathered the Jewish people who hadn’t been shot or jumped out of windows yet. “You’re the man of the family now,” Mutter had said, handing Janko a valise with clothes and jewelry and photographs. It was heavy but Janko did his best to drag it along. Mutter had to carry Max.

Mutter and Max and Janko were squeezed into the back of a truck to ride to a nearby town. They lived in a school with their neighbors and a lot of other people too, crushed together with straw mats for beds and not much food and no toilets.

After a few weeks other people needed the school. Janko never did find out where the students were. Janko and Mutter and Max were pushed onto a train that had to fit everyone in the school plus a lot more. They were supposed to settle east, in the Protektorat. Janko had once learned that the sun rose in the east, but this east was different. Janko’s family would be living there to make the Altreich Judenfrei.

Except Janko and Mutter and Max didn’t stay there, a ghetto overflowing with people from far-flung places, smelling of onions and sick and sewage. Instead they were stuffed into another cold filthy train and ended up here. Janko was still in charge of the valise, which he had left in a pile near the train tracks with everyone else’s. Mutter’s jewelry was long gone, sold for stale bread and milk; stolen.

Janko pulled himself up and looked at Mutter again. He fixed his gaze beyond the sad slate sky. With his palm, he cradled Max’s head against Mutter’s breast. Nothing came to him.

“He goes with the men,” the SS man repeated. The SS man pressed the butt of his rifle harder against Janko’s back.

Mutter leaned over, Max squirming in her arms, and hummed in Janko’s ear.

“Get away from him!” the SS man yelled.

But Janko had heard something; Mutter had unloosed a song.

Janko opened his mouth. “Vor der Kaserne/ Vor dem Grossen Tor.” Melody, soothing and relaxed, thawed the cold. “Stand eine Lantern/ Und steht sie noch davor.”

The tune was as familiar as breathing. Everyone knew the lantern by the barracks’ gate where Lili Marleen’s soldier last kissed her. Including the SS man. He put down his rifle and dropped his shoulders. The women around Mutter and Max shifted their gaze from the front of the line to Janko. The men next to them stopped muttering and shuffling and faced the singing. For the briefest moment, it felt less lonely.

The SS man poked Janko’s shoulder. “Come with me,” he said.

Janko looked at Mutter. She pressed her lips to his forehead, warm against his skin. Her eyes were closed.

The SS man shoved Janko through the line of women and children. He tried not to stumble as he was prodded along the frozen ground. Once, he twisted around. He could see Mutter, but he couldn’t get her attention. She was staring in front of her, advancing in her line, clutching Max to her bosom.

The SS man walked Janko past the brick buildings, past the smoke stacks, past the truck convoys, toward the forest, fenced in by barbed wire. Just inside the fence was a yellow house with black shutters. Colorful and regular, it looked out of place behind the brick and cinderblock. The SS man led Janko to the back of the house and pulled open the door.

“Frau Cook,” he shouted, startling the woman at the sink. “This one sings. Name is Johann,” and handed Janko over.

“As if I didn’t have enough to do.” Frau Cook wiped her hands—chapped and red—on a soiled white apron. She looked Janko up and down and grimaced. “Johann,” she said, more to herself than to him. She was a big woman with a few top teeth missing.

Mutter would never call him Johann unless she was talking to a grown-up. Mutter rarely even called him Janko. “Jankele,” she usually said, her lips making a smile as she drew out the ‘y’ sound at the beginning of his name. Same for Max. Mutter called him ‘babykins’ or ‘cookie.’

Frau Cook wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Over here,” she said, limping toward the end of the kitchen. “These hips,” she muttered, “the damp is bad for these old hips.” Frau Cook opened a narrow door to a closet with two huge burlap sacks, one for potatoes, the other for onions. Between the slats in the far wall, Janko could see gray light from the outside. Wind leached through.

“Your room,” Frau Cook said. “You’re a damn lucky boy that I’m giving it to you.” She looked Janko up and down again. “Another mouth to feed. The devil himself must think I need more work,” she said, shaking her head and pressing her tongue against the space between her top teeth.

Frau Cook took a few potatoes from the sack and returned to the stove, flinging her hand toward the stool under the kitchen table. “Don’t just stand there.” The stool was so wobbly, Janko had to catch himself from falling off.

Frau Cook scraped the potato peels into a frying pan. She slid the potatoes into a bowl that she covered with a plate. She stirred and jiggled the pan over the flame a few times, then scooped up the peels, speckles of brown fat dripping from them. Looking anxiously toward the door, she threw the peels on a saucer and said, “Finish up quick. They don’t like you to have our food.”

Even though his insides were laddered by hunger, Janko could hardly eat. At home, Mutter used to fry the potatoes, not the peels.

Frau Cook hobbled over to wash her hands. The metal sink was wide and deep, big enough for her pots to soak on one side. Her stubby fingernails were black even after she dried them on her apron. Mutter’s fingernails used to be long and tapered. Janko closed his eyes and conjured the smell of Mutter’s lotion. She rubbed it on her hands when she finished filing her nails after dinner.

The small window above the back door went from mushroom-colored to black. Frau Cook pulled the chain for the light and furiously accelerated her activity. She sliced the potatoes from the bowl and dumped them in a cauldron of boiling water. “Soup,” she said, removing a slab of meat—all gristle and bone—from a piece of brown paper. She took out a cleaver and hacked it up, tossing it into a pan with onions. “He doesn’t like waiting for his supper,” she mumbled. Maybe she had forgotten about Janko.

In Mainz, where Janko came from, Mutter would never cook meat like that, nothing but sinew. Mutter knew the name of Herr Rosenberg the butcher’s five daughters and his grandchildren too. There were so many, Janko could never keep track. It took a long time for Mutter to ask after everyone, but she wouldn’t be hurried. She told Janko to be patient, that family is everything.

Herr Rosenberg died after his shop burnt down. Mutter said he died of a broken heart.

“You’re not going to sit there all day, are you?” Frau Cook wiped her hands on her apron. “Follow me.” She pushed open the swing door to the dining room where there was a long shiny table with high backed chairs around it. Three leather boxes of silver were on the sideboard. Mutter and Aunt Ella had a box like that for the holidays, but they had to sell it after Papa …

“The big fork and the little fork go here, the knife on the other side,” Frau Cook said. “The Kommandant sits on the end.” She waved a soup spoon at Janko. “Put it across the top. Make it straight.” Janko looked down the expanse of table. Only one place was set.

Frau Cook tugged open the drawer in the sideboard and removed a linen napkin. “It has to be folded just so,” Frau Cook said, turning up the corners of the napkin. “To keep me in washing and ironing.”

A man cleared his throat outside the front door. Frau Cook jerked her head up from her folding. “Get out,” she hissed, as if it had been Janko’s idea to come into the dining room in the first place. From the kitchen, Janko could hear Herr Kommandant scraping his boots in the hall. Frau Cook grabbed a beer stein and admonished Janko, “Don’t move.” She hurried in and out again. “Take the top off the soup, boy! Can’t you see it’s boiling over? Me with my hands full, doing the work of three slaves.”

Breathless, Frau Cook trundled back and forth with a tray, talking to herself and sweating. She kicked open the swing door with a load of dirty dishes and put them by the sink, then arrived with more. Janko couldn’t imagine what that man did with those dishes and silverware all by himself. He felt weak from the smell of Herr Kommandant’s dinner.

Frau Cook settled back into the kitchen. “Finally,” she sighed “The rest of them will come now and have their cigars in the sitting room, before they do other things.” Janko heard the front door opening and closing. He could smell the smoke. He was past exhaustion, but he was ravenous.

Frau Cook considered him. “Johann was it?” She tipped the soup pot and peered in. “We have to save it for later.” Moving the dirty dishes aside, she picked up a heel of brown bread. She motioned Janko back to his stool, and sent a nugget of cheese and a clay pot filled with jam skidding toward him. “No one’s going to eat this.”

While Frau Cook finished up the dishes, the back door opened and a few women in ragged coats and bare legs filed through the kitchen. They had blond hair and spoke a language that wasn’t German. Frau Cook shook her head and followed them with her eyes, then folded her soiled apron and laid it on the table. She clapped her hands diagonally as if she were beating the cymbals in a marching band. “Time to lay me down,” she said. “Say your prayers, boy.” But she didn’t wait for his prayers. Instead, she looked past him. “It doesn’t do those men any good, the ones out there. It doesn’t do anyone any good,” she said.

Janko didn’t know what she meant by ‘it,’ but he didn’t ask. Nor did he mention that the only people with whom he would ever pray would be Papa and Mutter and Max. A long time ago they prayed on Friday nights when Mutter lit the candles, and at shul, too, when they used to go. Janko was a big boy, so he got to sit with Papa and the other men. Papa was important at shul.

“Remember your room?” Frau Cook asked. She escorted Janko to the back of the kitchen. “Lucky we have a toilet too,” she said, pointing toward the other corner. She shook out a burlap bag emptied of its potatoes, and handed it to him. “You can have this for a blanket. A luxury,” she whispered, and went on whispering to herself. Janko couldn’t make out what she was saying, but through the dark, he saw her shoulders hunch as she closed the door behind her.

It wasn’t a room. It was a closet. Even after Aunt Ella moved in with all the cousins, Janko’s room wasn’t this small.

First, he tried lying on his back. He heard men trudging up and down the steps to the second story, grunting and clearing their throats. The floor above creaked and groaned. Next, he tried turning over on his stomach, his arms splayed around the vegetable sacks. Even though Janko was the man of the family now, he squeezed his eyes shut so he could pretend he was between Mutter and Papa, as if he had crawled into their bed after a nightmare.

Maybe Mutter would come for him tomorrow.

In the morning, Frau Cook told Janko it was time to practice his singing; there was going to be a party tonight. “The Kommandant must have heard some good news,” she said, shaking her head. “I wonder how that can be.”

Maybe Mutter would come after the party.

“I’ll have to teach you some songs,” Frau Cook said. She must not have realized that Janko already knew some songs. Frau Cook leaned her ample bottom against the kitchen sink, slapping her red palms on her apron. Then she belted it out so her missing teeth showed.

Janko wanted to cover his ears. Frau Cook had a way of spitting when she sang that didn’t sound too different from the guards outside. Janko didn’t like imitating her, but Frau Cook insisted on it. She rocked back and forth and started into "Oh du lieber Augustin," then interrupted herself. “You know the story, don’t you?” She chuckled to herself. “They find Augustin drunk in the street and figure he’s dead, so they pile him in the pit. He wakes up at the bottom—people dead from the plague thrown on top of him—and plays his song. They hear him and he’s rescued.” Frau Cook could hardly contain her laughter as she kicked open the swing door and trudged upstairs, whistling between her missing teeth. She returned with the Kommandant’s boots, thigh high and black. Stuffing them between her legs, she started furiously polishing them.

Today they had to set the table for twelve. “The Kommandant at this end, but no one at the other,” Frau Cook scolded. “He doesn’t like facing anyone.”

In the afternoon, Frau Cook scrubbed Janko’s hair in the icy water under the kitchen faucet. She snipped around the edges with a scissors and combed it out. “Almost like new, Johann,” she said, slapping his cheeks to get the color to rise.

When it came time for dinner, it was the same as last night, except at a fever pitch. Frau Cook sweated and hobbled in and out of the swing door. The voices in the dining room got louder and louder. Every time Frau Cook came through the kitchen, she reminded Janko, “Make sure you remember our songs.”

Janko was so hungry, he was afraid he wouldn’t remember anything. When Frau Cook went into the dining room with another round of beer, Janko grabbed a few filmy onion scraps off the plates by the sink, and tried chewing some leftover grizzle. He wanted to ask Frau Cook whether Mutter was coming for him tonight, but Frau Cook was too busy. She grabbed Janko by the scruff of his shirt and headed for the dining room. The men were moving noisily into the room across the hall, balancing their chairs and beer steins.

“Bring him in!” the Kommandant yelled over his shoulder.

Frau Cook pushed Janko into the sitting room. It may have once been furnished, but without the men and the chairs, the room would be a plain wooden box, empty as a ballet studio.

The Kommandant passed out cigars. He was so tall, he had to stoop low as he went around the room lighting them. “Our Kommandant is a gentleman!” the officers cheered.

Janko trembled in the dusky smoke.

When the Kommandant sat down, he looked worn out. It seemed like it might be an effort to stand up again. He stroked the sides of his ginger mustache and said, “Sing for us, boy.”

“Hear, hear,” said the other men, sitting straight on the edge of their chairs.

It was too scary to look at the semi-circle of men in their gray-green uniforms, their jackets buttoned and their boots tall and shiny, so Janko found a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. He began with the Erika song—just like Frau Cook told him to—about a little flower named Erika, or maybe it was about a girl named Erika, who was crying for her man. Every time Janko paused for breath, the officers stomped their feet. “C’mon boys, let’s march!” Stomp stomp stomp.

Janko’s head was splitting. He needed to run to the kitchen and use the toilet. The cracking boots sounded the same as they did outside the flat in Mainz, only now they were in the room with Janko. He was the man of the family but it was hard to be brave. If only Mutter would come.

The Kommandant didn’t stomp; he seemed too tired. When Janko finished, the Kommandant sighed and asked, “What’s next?”

“It’s getting to be Christmas,” one of them said and Janko started in on “Lasst Uns Froh und Munter Sein.” Janko had always known this song; at school his teacher used to line the girls up on one side of the stage and the boys on the other, each group taking a verse for the Christmas pageant.

“Let us be happy and cheerful,” Janko sang, and the men put their arms around each other and swayed back and forth.

Janko was getting hoarse. He couldn’t figure out how to leave this room. By some miracle, the Kommandant yawned and said, “We’ll finish up with one more, boy.” Janko was so relieved, he went right into “Hänschen Klein” about little Hans who leaves to go out into the world, tra la la la la, but his mother misses him so much, tra la la la la, that he comes back to stay with her, tra la la la la.

The Kommandant’s feet were stretched in front of him and his eyes were closed. When the men clapped and shouted, he jerked awake. “Frau Cook!” he bellowed. “Take him away.”

Frau Cook limped in—she must have been in the hall listening the whole time—and put her arm over Janko’s shoulder to bring him to the kitchen where soon the women in the ragged coats would start walking through. She peered into her pot and put the remnants from the bottom in a bowl for Janko. “Thank me, boy. This is a feast.”

She started cleaning up. “Only one of me and an army of them to dirty every pot in the house,” she said. When she finished, she went through her ritual—folding her greasy white apron and clapping her hands. “Time to lay me down,” she said, ushering Janko to his closet. “Say your prayers, boy.” Janko clutched his burlap potato sack, wishing he could fall asleep and keep his eyes closed until Mutter returned.

But Frau Cook didn’t approve. Every day, in the dull light of morning, Frau threw open the closet door, and started in. “You’re a growing boy and you can’t stay in bed all day. Boys your age need to move.”

The problem was, Frau Cook didn’t want him out of her sight. “It’s for your own good I don’t let you have the run of the place,” she said. “There is a badness and an evil out there,” she whispered. Janko knew she was referring to the smoke and stench. She only let him out to walk around the house. He couldn’t get past the barbed wire anyway.

Outside, Janko strolled the perimeter of the yellow house, poking the frozen ground with a stick, watching skeletal men in striped uniforms make their way through the gate, up the hill into the forest, prodded by SS men with rifles. Janko was pretty sure there were no women in that procession, but in case they changed the rules, he always looked for Mutter. He couldn’t understand why she didn’t try to come by, why she wasn’t putting up a fight to get past the entrance guards. It wasn’t like her. She must have been too busy taking care of Max. Maybe Max was sick.

Inside, Frau Cook told Janko to make himself useful. She taught him to peel potatoes, putting her chapped red hand over his to show him how to avoid getting cut. “I wouldn’t want you losing a finger,” she said, though the knife was too dull for that.

At home, Janko used to help grate potatoes for Hanukkah latkes. Invariably he scraped his knuckles, trying not to cry when Mutter cleaned his hands in warm water under the kitchen faucet. When she was done, she put a bandage on and kissed him on the forehead saying, “You grate like a big strong boy!”

As the latkes crackled and sizzled, Mutter spread a cloth for them to drain. Little Max wanted to eat them right away, but Mutter said, “You’ll burn yourself, and besides we have to wait for Papa.” When Papa came home, they each got a plate of latkes with a dollop of applesauce and sour cream. Mutter lit the candles on the first night of Hanukkah, and Papa said to Janko, “Son, you lead us in the shehecheyanu prayer,” the one that thanked God for supporting us and protecting us and bringing us to this day. Janko felt like a grownup.




Maybe there were seasons, but at the Kommandant’s, outside was always the same shade of bleak. The place reeked regardless of temperature or hour. Still, it was hard to avoid noticing it was getting warmer. It could even have been spring. The ground was covered with slush that was the same color as the burlap bags in Janko’s closet.

“You could polish the Kommandant’s boots,” Frau Cook said.

Janko used to watch Papa shine his shoes. Papa’s quick, even brush strokes made the toes glow. “Someday you’ll do this, too,” Papa said.

At the Kommandant’s, the smell of shoe polish made Janko’s head throb. But anything was preferable to whatever was strangling the air outside. Even though Frau Cook muttered about the heat, she didn’t open the windows. “Too many flies,” she said.

Next to the sink, there was a mop that was half bald. Frau Cook had Janko scrub the floor. There was no hot water for cleaning, so she filled the bucket with cold water and some kind of concoction she put together from the dirt outside. “Use your muscles boy,” she said; “Your arms look like twigs. You’re almost a man; you need biceps.” When the floor dried, she had Janko sweep up the dirt and put it back in the pile outside for the next time.

At home, Mutter did the mopping. And Aunt Ella too, once she and all the cousins moved in. Mutter said the real cleaning was for Passover, when there was too much to do by herself. “And how can I do it with you under foot?” she said, picking Max up and kissing his pudgy cheek. Mutter held Max on her hip and told Janko to wrap up the bread and crackers; then she had him climb on a chair and wipe down the shelves, making sure there wasn’t a single breadcrumb left. Janko was big enough to carry in the Passover dishes; he never dropped or broke them.




Herr Kommandant stopped waiting for parties. He called for Janko after he finished his dinner, while he was still by himself at the head of the table, before the women come through the kitchen for the men who smoked cigars and went upstairs.

The Kommandant drew lines with his fork across the crumbs of the hardened bit of white cake that Frau Cook brought him for dessert. The cake was nothing like Mutter’s gugelhupf, with its elastic, stretchy dough, glistening on the breadboard. Mutter sprinkled almonds and sugar on top of it before she baked it.

Herr Kommandant would ask, “What do you have for me tonight?” But before Janko could answer, the Kommandant requested “Oh du Lieber Augustin.” For some reason, he especially loved that one. Janko tried to ignore the picture of people piled in a pit, dead from the plague. Putting his arms across his chest, Herr Kommandant rocked back and forth against the back of his chair. The tune seemed to take him somewhere he wanted to be; the wrinkles left his face and his mouth sagged. Sometimes he fell asleep.




A few rotten apples made their way into Frau Cook’s kitchen. “They’re a delicacy,” she exclaimed, cutting them up for applesauce.

Janko’s family ate apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah. Papa would dress with extra care for services, standing in front of the little hall mirror to get the crimp in his tie right. At synagogue, Herr Barth put a tallis over his head so you couldn’t see his face, only the end of the shofar. Rabbi Kohn chanted and Herr Barth blew out sound that was piercing and ancient, straight from the Bible. Janko would hold his breath to see if he could outlast the shofar’s final cry, but he never came close.

Janko got to sit up front with Papa. At regular services, there was only one Torah, but on Rosh Hashanah there were two—one with a blue velvet cover, the other in faded burgundy. Papa and Herr Feldman were important so they each carried a Torah down the aisle for the men to touch with their tallit. Mutter’s singing joined Janko’s, her harmonies soaring flute-like from the balcony, as synchronous as when she and Janko skated in parallel loops on the canal.

The Kommandant never harmonized.

After the parade of Torahs, Papa sat next to Rabbi Kohn on the bimah. Looking solemn and dignified, Papa clasped the burgundy Torah to his heart, as if he knew that with one careless move, it would unravel in a calamity of tangles.

Janko was too tall his clothes. The cuffs of his pants were at his calves; his shirt was hardly more than threads.

Frau Cook came back with a pair of wool trousers and two shirts. “Don’t ask me where these are from,” she muttered. She wouldn’t give them to Janko until she scrubbed them in the sink. “Soon enough you’ll need the warmth,” she said, holding up the wet pants. Her hands looked even redder than usual. “These trousers weren’t meant for water,” she said, “but what can I do?”

She was talking more to herself than to Janko. But now that she mentioned it, Janko realized it was getting colder again. And darker too.

There was less and less food. Doors slammed. Herr Kommandant talked on his radio at all hours of the day and night. One night after dinner, Frau Cook tiptoed into the dining room with a piece of stale cake and suggested she bring Janko in to sing. “Not now,” the Kommandant mumbled. “They’re coming. Russians. Americans. It’ll be bad for us.”

When they came, Janko was crouched in his closet, juddering in fear. He would be found; he would be killed. What if he weren’t found? In his terror, he couldn’t choose the worst scenario. He peeked through the cracks in the flimsy door and saw a cluster of soldiers with their backs to him huddled around Frau Cook. She was pointing toward Janko’s hiding place, talking too quickly to be coherent, giving Janko away, ensuring he would be shot.

A soldier walked over and threw open the door. It was over. Janko glanced up in dread, his hands around his knees, shaking like paper in the eye of a storm. He was shocked to find a black man, the first Janko had ever seen. The soldier looked equally baffled to have found Janko. He motioned for Janko to stand and brought him to the center of the kitchen. All of the soldiers were black men. Frau Cook was screaming now, gesturing outside. “He’s not mine! He’s one of them!”

The soldier raised his hands to silence Frau Cook, shaking his head from side to side. “Please,” she whimpered, her hands clasped together as if she were about to pray, “He’s one of them.”

The soldier nodded slowly, then put his arm around Janko’s shoulder.

“They’ll take care of you, boy,” Frau Cook said as they left. Janko couldn’t bring himself to look at her.

After that, it all blurred together. As if Janko’s memory ended when the soldier put his arm around him and walked him out through the camp. As if there had been no singing before his arrival at the Kommandant’s. Janko had expected Mutter to come for him. He had expected Mutter and Max to live.

There were months, years, he couldn’t account for, moving from Displaced Persons camp to Displaced Persons camp, answering questions, filling out forms.

Janko tried conjuring a replacement memory: Home in Mainz, copying the blackboard at school, trying to catch a glimpse of girls’ legs as they climbed the streetcar, kicking a soccer ball with friends, cramming for university exams, sharing holidays with cousins. Papa used to take them sightseeing in the German countryside.

Then one day, Janko was on a ship bound for America; he didn’t know how. All he knew was that he had better do something; he had better be somebody.

Martha Anne Toll

MARTHA ANNE TOLL’s fiction has appeared in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, and Wild; her nonfiction in The Millions, NPR, Heck, [PANK], The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Bloom, Narrative, and Washington Independent Review of Books.  "Before America" is an excerpt from her novel in process which is  represented by the Einstein Literary Agency and was shortlisted for the 2016 Mary Rinehart Roberts fiction prize. She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness, and abolishing the death penalty. Please visit her at and tweet to her @marthaannetoll.

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