TThere was a drawer in the kitchen cupboard where they kept many various keys. Aleksandar was always intrigued by that drawer because no one was quite sure what all these keys were for. ”So they have piled up during lifetime” – the father used to say, but Aleksandar couldn’t understand where all these keys had piled up from in the first place. Obviously, somewhere there were matching locks. From time to time he would open the drawer and looked at the keys: long and short ones, curved and fine ones, heavy ones with thick bows – maybe for some high metal gates or big double door decorated by carvings; or narrow and small ones for some cellar padlocks or for boxes made of rosewood and decorated with nacre, where some grannies would keep their jewellery and old letters. Since Jews had been forbidden to go to school, Aleksandar spent most of his time reading books, playing with his red race car or looking at the keys in the kitchen drawer imagining what kind of mysterious and magic locks they would open.
The day before that the police issued an order that “all Jews registered in Belgrade must sign up on the 8th of December at the yard of Judenreferat, Police Department for Jewish Affairs in George Washington Street 21”.
”Every Jew is allowed to take only as much luggage as one can carry by oneself. When coming to sign up, everyone must hand over one’s apartment keys with a piece of paper with one’s name and street address attached to them. After leaving the flat, the door must be properly locked. Everyone should take a blanket, cutlery, and food enough for one day. Who fails to come shall be punished most severely.”
All Jews were to be sent to a concentration camp.
The aunt came early that morning. She brought along a linen suitcase and a jar of plum jam. Mother said that she wouldn’t even dream of asking the aunt where she had got the jam and how much she had paid for it. Following the mother’s directions, Aleksandar and Selma prepared some warm clothes, especially woollen socks, for “cold feet make you freeze faster” as she used to say. Mother anxiously walked up and down about the flat checking if everything was left clean and neat. Then she started to go through all the keys in Aleksandar’s favourite drawer.
– Dear Lord, what are we going to do with all these keys? – she asked aloud.
– Why, mother? – asked Aleksandar – What is one supposed to do with keys?-
– Everything we are supposed to hand over to the Germans must be neat, and the keys must be marked! –
– But, Ranka, – interjected the aunt – only the apartment keys must be handed! –
– I know, but what if someone comes and sees all that mess and has no idea what all these keys are for? – kept insisting the mother.
Then she closed the drawer and took out a piece of paper and a pencil.
– Dobračina… Dobračina…..- mother kept repeating, – Dear Lord, what is the street number of our house? – she exclaimed finallу.
– Еighteen, mother. – said Aleksandar.
– Eighteen. – the mother repeated and wrote it on the paper.
– The Fre-lihs, Frelihs – repeated the mother – Can it be seen well? Is it legible? Oh, my God, I wrote it so ugly.-
– But it is all right. – the aunt reassured her.
– And what about the keys in the drawer? – asked the mother.
– Just write “various keys” on a slip and leave it in the drawer with the keys. – the aunt suggested.
– That is exactly what I am going to do! – the mother said and wrote “various keys”. Then she rose to take a look at written words from above like a painter checking proportions of his portrait, and bent down again to add “piled up during lifetime”.
– There, they will understand that. – she said and put the slip into the drawer.
After that she went to the entrance door, took out the key from the lock, put it down on the table in the kitchen and attached the paper with the name and their address to the key with a piece of string. She stood there for a long moment holding the key between her thumb and index finger high above the table and watching the words “The Frelihs, Dobračina Street 18” shaking, bouncing and trembling while hanging on the string. When the paper finally settled, the mother sighed:
– That’s it… we are ready. –
When they came out in the street the air smelled of Košava wind and soot from chimneys. It was very cold. December could be so cold in Belgrade. Uncle Julije said once that the Košava wind blows all the way from Ukraine smelling of shtetls, but Aleksandar didn’t know how the shtetls smelled and couldn’t recognize their smell in the wind. They turned right and walked to the corner of Dobračina and Gospodar-Jevremova streets, then through Gospodar-Jevremova Street to Francuska Street, and further on towards George Washington Street. The mother, the aunt and Selma wore thick scarfs wrapped around their heads, while Aleksandar had his father’s cap to warm him. Selma held her teddy bear Pepi in her hand while Aleksandar jammed his red race car into the pocket of his coat. After a few steps he realized that the car was turned upside down. He turned it around so that now the front of the car was sticking out of the pocket. Aleksandar wanted his red race car to see where they were going, too.
Both the mother and the aunt were carrying a suitcase. They were heavy and it was not easy to carry them in that cold wind. However, to Aleksandar it seemed that the mother and the aunt were more stooped under the burden of the yellow stars sewn on their backs and fronts than under the weight of the suitcases, while yellow armbands were draining the strength from their arms making the suitcases even heavier.
While walking down the street, they were encountering more and more new groups with suitcases and yellow stars, mostly women and children. Gradually they formed a procession of people walking silently. The fact that they were in larger group didn’t make it any easier for Aleksandar. Instead they seemed even more helpless and lonelier in that featureless procession of yellow stars. He was looking at the houses they were passing by, but there was nobody standing at the windows. A passer-by would come along, but would turn around the first corner hastily, as if hurrying to move as soon and as far away as possible from the procession, that was becoming bigger, wider and longer with every step. Aleksandar shuddered wondering how it would be like in the concentration camp: was it going to be like in Topovske Šupe? He could still see his father: grey, in tears with sunken eyes.
A large crowd of people gathered in front of the offices of Judenreferat, Police Department for Jewish Affairs in George Washington Street 21. It looked as if the whole world was on the move! Never before had Aleksandar seen so many people, or at least so many Jews gathered at one place. German soldiers were giving orders in front of the entrance dividing the crowd into rows and calling small groups to come in from time to time. On the other hand, those who had already finished in police offices were being directed to the other side of the street where German guards were escorting them further to the concentration camp on trucks, in carriages drawn by horses or oxen, or on foot. People were pushing their way through the crowd, shoving and calling each other: “Koen, Koen! Altaras, is there anyone of the Altaras? Kalderon, where are you the Kalderons?” Some were shouting trying to find their relatives so that they could stick together as they went on. And some of them were not Jews, as it was obvious because they didn’t wear yellow stars, but they came to say goodbye to their Jewish friends and relatives.
Thus Aunt-Zora ran into the Frelihs calling “The Hercogs, the Hercogs.“ Aunt-Zora was related to them somehow, but Aleksandar was not quite sure in what way. Once before, when they had met her in the street, Aleksandar had asked his mother why Aunt-Zora was not wearing a yellow star, and she had explаined that the father of Aunt-Zora was a Jew, but her mother was a Serb, and being married to a Serb she was not considered a Jew by the Germans. All that had been quite confusing for Aleksandar and hard to understand, for he remembered clearly seeing Aunt-Zora in synagogue, too. It was obvious that there was someone, probably some German clerk, who was deciding who was and who was not a Jew somehow by his illogical and arbitrary judgement. But Aleksandar remembered one more thing about Aunt-Zora: she lived in the same apartment block as Bogdan!
– Have you seen my father’s family? – asked Aunt-Zora breathless.
– No, we haven’t, Zora, but I’m sure they are somewhere here. – answered the mother.
– Aunt-Zora, Aunt-Zora, – Aleksandar pulled her sleeve – do you know my classmate Bogdan Živković? Your neighbours the Živkovićs? Will you inform them, please, that we are sent to the concentration camp! –
– I will, my darling! – Aunt-Zora answered, bent down quickly and kissed Aleksandar’s forehead loudly, and Selma’s cheek, and then disappeared in the crowd shouting: “The Hercogs, the Hercogs.“
A few hours later the mother, the aunt, Selma and Aleksandar were approaching the demolished King Aleksandar’s bridge in the procession of Jews. A new pontoon bridge had been constructed along the demolished bridge piers.
– We are being led to Sajmiste, the Fairgrounds! – someone spoke in the procession, – That is a concentration camp for Jews now. –
Aleksandar was wondering how the Fair could be a concentration camp, because way back his father had said that “it was the gate to Europe for our Belgrade.” But nothing could surprise him any more, for uncle Julije had said that “a war is a terrible evil bringing out an animal in a man.” That was why, he guessed, all these German soldiers who were escorting the procession were becoming more and more nervous and rough as the day went on.
It was late afternoon already. The weather had been grey with occasional rain all day, and now the rain was turning into the snow, squeaking under their feet, and having been trodden turning into pools and mud. All around him Aleksandar could feel the smell of coats taken out of the wardrobes full of mothballs and lavenders. People were breathing loud because of fatigue, and their breath turned into vapour rising above the whole procession up to the December sky which was already getting murky in the dense greyness and semi darkness. Ravens were croaking circling above the Sava river and around the demolished bridge piers.
– Aleksandar! Aleksandar! – a voice was heard. Aleksandar raised his head. For a moment he couldn’t see anything because his view was blocked by fluttering coats and scarfs, sleeves, boots and suitcases passing by in the procession. And then he saw Bogdan standing aside just a few meters away.
– Bogdan! – exclaimed Aleksandar breaking free from the river of people and running towards his friend. They grabbed each other by the hands and looked at each other silently for an instant. Their hearts were pounding as if they would explode.
– You’ve come! – Aleksandar said proudly with a big smile all over his face. A German soldier started shouting at the boys furiously. The mother screamed from the procession: ”Aleksandar!”
– Don’t forget me! – said Aleksandar, broke his hands loose from Bogdan’s and ran back to the procession following the mother’s voice.
Aleksandar turned around a few more times bouncing to see better. Bogdan was still standing at the same spot motionless. And then, pushed away by steady and silent steps of the people walking across the pontoon bridge, he couldn’t see him any more.
Knocking at the door broke the silence. When Bogdan’s father opened the door, it was their neighbour Zora standing at the doorway. She just dropped by to give a message that the Frelihs were sent together with other Jews to the concentration camp, and that at the moment they were in the procession moving towards the Fairgrounds. Bogdan didn’t hesitate a moment, but jumped to his feet and started to put on his coat.
– Where do you think you’re going? – said his father with a serious voice.
– Father, I have to say goodbye to Aleksandar! – Bogdan stopped with his arm halfway down the sleeve, – Please! –
His father was about to say something, but Bogdan’s look confused him for a moment, for it was not a small boy standing before him, but a grown up man, which reminded him suddenly of another occasion, when he being a soldier of the Serbian army in the World War One couldn’t have left his wounded war comrade. He remembered how he had learned that there were only a few really important moments in life, a few crucial choices one could make, which would determine for the rest of our lives whether we were humans, with human dignity, sense of right and wrong, conscience and moral duties – or not. “If that is one of these moments for you, then I understand, you have to go” thought Bogdan’s father.
He sighed deeply and said:
– All right, son. Just be careful, please! –
Bogdan was running, losing his breath, stumbling down and getting up on his feet again, taking short-cuts and jumping over the fences. He and Aleksandar certainly knew this neighbourhood well like a back of their palms. He got to the piers of the demolished bridge over the Sava river when the endless grey procession of people was gliding over the snow down to the pontoon bridge, and further on to the other side of the river. Only the yellow stars and armbands were shining as if it was the night sky full of stars. So he stood watching hastily along the procession, bouncing to see better those who were walking further away from him. Then he saw Mr. Frelih’s cap, he had been familiar with very well, but this time on Aleksandar’s head.
– Aleksandar! Aleksandar! – he shouted with all his strength.
– Bogdan, – he heard Aleksandar’s voice as Aleksandar was pushing through the procession and running to him. As he approached, Bogdan grabbed him tightly by his hands. He wanted to tell him all sorts of things, but he couldn’t find words.
– You have come. – said Aleksandar with his eyes full of happiness.
Then a German soldier started shouting at them.
– Don’t forget me! – Aleksandar let loose and ran back to the procession.
Bogdan followed Aleksandar’s cap for a while, and then somewhere at the middle of the pontoon bridge he couldn’t see it any more. He stood there he didn’t know for how long. Only muddy footprints in the snow witnessed that there had passed the stream of people, and that it was not a dream. He was looking across the river not being able to move, an immense and terrible silence weighed down on his shoulders. It was only then that he noticed that during these few moments they had been holding each other by hands Aleksandar had pushed his red race car into his palm.