The dense darkness was filling with a damp, dank air of a former fairgrounds pavilion in Judenlager Semlin at Sajmište. Aleksandar was very tired, but instead of sleeping he had been listening to the inmates coughing night by night, as if a sick orchestra had been playing a very complicated symphony, accompanied by the monotonous clatter of the rain on the roof and the echoes of drops falling off the punctured ceiling and splashing on the puddles all over the pavilion. He had not been able to warm him up since the košava wind crept into his frail children bones during that winter in the camp. It seemed to him that somewhere on his back there were four or five icicles hanging from below his shoulders and shoulder blades stabbing his lungs with their sharp points. “I suppose, that is why I also cough in that orchestra by night.” – thought Aleksandar. He was pulling down his father’s cap tighter over his ears and face trying to feel the smell of the father’s hair and perhaps fall asleep hidden in it.
Aleksandar had been taking care of Selma, the mother and the aunt. After all, he had promised the father that he would take care of them all, since he was the only men in the family now.
The mother used to say that hunger filled the pavilions with anxiety and anger, while the reason melted like а thin candle in a wind. Selma was so weak and meagre that the mother kept fearing that she might simply succumb to exhaustion and die before her eyes any minute! The aunt was there, too. The mother used to say that the poor thing was ”barely of sound mind”. The aunt would sometimes speak aloud with uncle Julije and Pavle as if they were here and mother would hug her pressing her to her breasts repeating: “Just a little bit more, hold on just a little bit more, b’ezrat Hashem!”
Aleksandar also kept repeating to himself: “Just a little more, hold on one more day!” He firmly believed that their turn would come to be transferred to that other camp, a labour camp in Romania, or Poland – he was not quite sure where to – as long as they would leave that horror and stench. Never before had Aleksandar seen dead people, but here in the camp he kept seeing them every day: the bodies lined up in the bathroom in the Turkish pavilion, the dead people being carried away from the hospital in the Spasić’s pavilion to be taken across the frozen river Sava and be buried at the Jewish cemetery, or those shot by Germans in front of everyone between pavilions three and four. However, when Germans had told them that the camp would be emptied and all inmates transferred, a new hope arose and that was why Aleksandar kept repeating: “A little bit more. Hold on one more day!” They had been driving people away to that new camp day by day, their turn would come. He had been watching every day from afar groups of inmates getting in that grey bus without windows, as a matter of fact, it looked more like a van. Then they would slowly set off towards the pontoon bridge over the river Sava, followed by another van waddling along loaded with the stuff of the inmates. Aleksandar wondered where they had been taken to and what that other place looked like. It had been said that there were other Jews there who had already been transferred from other camps. “May be the father will be there waiting for them? May be uncle Julije have got there even earlier? Only Pavle is not there. He’s in woods.” – Aleksandar kept musing on.
He raised his head, took his father’s cap off his face and propped himself up on his elbows. His mother was lying next to him embracing Selma and from the other side Selma was embraced by the aunt. Thus they were keeping Selma warm with their own bodies. He couldn’t see them in the darkness, but he could feel them, together with the rest of several thousand inmates’ bodies squeezed on the floor of the pavilion. Then he laid down again pulling down the cap over his face.
Aleksandar had been familiar with this space, though it had looked quite differently during the Car Exhibition. Back then the chromed parts of brand new models of the cars had been gleaming, their shining bodyworks reflecting the spotlights. He was amused by the thought that he might have been lying on the very same spot where that new Mercedes Benz had been parked, which he had been looking at almost two years ago.
He put his palms over the face pressing the father’s cap to his eyes, mouth and forehead as if he was washing his face.
All of a sudden neon letters lit up on the walls of the pavilion: Steyr-Daimler-Puch, Buick, Saurer, Cadillac, Tivar, Hotel Moskva, Mercedes… The father was talking to Mr Demajo, Aleksandar was stretching his arm over the ropes to feel the cold metal of the chassis of the car. Somewhere from behind Pavle’s voice was saying that the German cars were the best. Aleksandar turned around, yet Pavle was not behind him, but a big blue bus moving slowly, approaching quite gradually closer and closer to Aleksandar. Aleksandar kept rising up on his toes to see better through the front windshield, but instead of a driver and passengers there was water up to the roof of the bus, leaking in thin streams through the edges of the doors and windows splashing on the puddles all over the pavilion. “Aleksandar, Aleksandar” – he heard Bogdan calling him. 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 mate. “Hurry up! Let’s go!” – Bogdan shouted pointing at the shining red Mercedes Benz W-154 M163, the invincible race car of the world champions. Aleksandar was shifting gears convulsively squeezing the wheel. Bogdan was sitting next to him at the assistant driver’s seat. They both had leather racing caps which covered whole face leaving just a little space above the nose and around the eyes for car racing goggles. Aleksandar’s racing cap smelled of the father’s hair. Aleksandar and Bogdan were racing around Kalemegdan’s Park, and soon through the shouting of excited crowd, and the noise of engines and squeaking of wheels, they would pass the stands where the father and Pavle were watching. What a surprise it would be for the father and Pavle to see two of them!
That morning that German officer who used to hand out candies to the inmates’ children walked into the camp. Aleksandar had been seeing him on several occasions during last days. This time Aleksandar came to him to get a candy for Selma. He took off his hat and stood before the German.
– Wie heißt Du, mein Junge? Komm, nimm Dir einen Bonbon! – he said to Aleksandar with a gentle voice holding out a candy wrapped in a shiny silver paper on his open palm. Aleksandar took it with a quick move, while the German smiled and patted him on his head ruffling up his hair. As he was walking back to the pavilion Aleksandar thought that now his lock might be hanging a little over his forehead the same way Pavle‘s lock did. But there were no mirror to check it.
Then he saw his mother calling him excitedly:
– We are packing up! We are leaving! Today our group is leaving, thanks God! – she was shouting excitedly – We were instructed to take only valuable things with us, the rest must be wrapped in a package with our name written on it, and it will be delivered to us separately. We don’t have any valuable things any more, though… the mother was saying, as if to herself.
Soon after that they were standing at the camp exit. Belgrade was shining across the river Sava, beautiful and silent. Just like the days before, there were two vehicles parked in front of a group of about 80 inmates. One of the two was an ordinary van in front of which the inmates were putting down their luggage, a group of German soldiers loading it into the vehicle. The other one was a grey van that looked like a bus, except that it did not have any windows, and it was waiting for the passengers. Aleksandar took a look at it. The brand of the van was “Saurer”. He remembered seeing one similar at the Car Exhibition, but he had never seen such a model – the one without windows.
Then that German who used to give candies appeared opening wide the door of the grey vehicle:
– Auf geht’s, steigt ein, wir fahren los! – he invited them to get in with a gentle voice and with the same smile he had when giving candies to the children.
The inmates were getting in two by two and sitting down on the wooden benches. Mother got in first carrying Selma in her arms, then the aunt, and finally so did Aleksandar. They sat crowded one against the other. A murmur filled the tin inside of the vehicle. When the door closed with a bang, the passengers realized that the same damp and dank air from the pavilions in Judenlager Semlin was still following them. Together with the darkness a silence crept into the vehicle, accompanied by the fear.
While they were swinging in the complete darkness as the van gasped and bounced, Aleksandar pulled down the father’s cap on his face as tight as he could, and took a deep breath searching for a trace of the father’s smell. He thought for a moment, and then he took his cap off his face and spoke loudly:
– Don’t be afraid, mother! Just as Jonah lived in the belly of the big fish in the terrible darkness three days and three nights and after three days God took pity on him, so shall we survive this darkness.