Аleksandar and Selma practically had not been out of their flat for several months. Mother would say that it was too dangerous for Jewish kids to be in the city even with their parents, let alone unaccompanied. On the other hand, almost every day mother would go to visit the father at Topovske Šupe concentration camp at Autokomanda to bring him some food. Aleksandar and Selma would stay at home alone, or the aunt would come to spend several hours with them. Since the day uncle Julije hadn’t returned from his forced labour shift there had been no trace of him. Rihard didn’t find him among other inmates of the concentration camp. Nobody know what had happened to him. They suspected the worst. Nor did they have any news about Pavle. Aleksandar heard them mentioning that Pavle “had run away to the woods”, but he couldn’t understand what exactly that meant. No one wanted to explain to him, but he did understand that in that way Pavle had somehow outwitted Germans, which made Aleksandar happy. The aunt was beside herself with worry. Mother would ask her to stay overnight with them in the flat, but she kept refusing it hurriedly returning back to her home before the evening curfew so that she could “be there for Pavle and Julije if they came back”. Since the evening curfew for Jews would start even earlier than for the rest of the citizens, the aunt was always in a hurry.
– Well, at least you must eat with us! – mother would say, but the aunt would just wave off saying that it was children who had to eat, for she had already had a lunch before she left home.
Aleksandar didn’t believe that the aunt had already had a lunch, because she looked so thin and pale. Besides, earlier he had heard his mother complaining that it was very difficult to get food on the black market, because everything was so expensive, and Jews were forbidden to buy goods before half past ten a.m. and after that time there was nothing to be bought in the already poor-stocked shops. Prices at the green markets kept rising because of the shortage of everything, and counters were half-empty. Nor were there any money, because the father had not received his salary even since April when he had been thrown out of the work, for the Jews were forbidden to work in public services. That was why the mother had sold the grandmother’s jewellery, and later on, even the dining table made of oak wood, which made the father angry, but mother would respond that ‘they had to live of something’. Now they would sit around an old small table covered with a dry cracked veneer instead around the dining oak table. That small table used to stand on the mezzanine floor at the stairway landing, and they used to put flowerpots on it. On the other hand the aunt had nothing to sell because they had been thrown out of their apartment in the synagogue, way back before that. That was why the mother would say:
– We all have to help and take care of each other, at least we, the closest ones. –
After the aunt would leave them, mother would sit in the kitchen crying, with her hands covering her face. She worried about the father and all of them. Selma would come to the mother and caressed her knee. Aleksandar would go to his room and get under the bed to play with his red race car. It was then that he would think about his classmate Bogdan, whom he had not seen for a long time, because Germans forbade Jewish children to go to school…
Nor was father there any more, because he was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Topovske Šupe. “There is a lot of that that is not there any more,” Aleksandar thought rolling his red race car left and right under the bed.
But that day it was a Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. They had used to go to the synagogue visiting uncle Julije, the aunt and Pavle during Rosh Hashanah for years before that. Having given it a good think, the mother decided that in spite of all they should go and visit the aunt “to be there for her now that she was having the hardest times.”
Aleksandar patiently let his mother comb his hair. That day he wanted to do everything to please her and to help, so he didn’t protest about mother’s insisting that he be “tidy and neat.” When Aleksandar and Selma were ready, the mother first looked at herself in the big mirror in front of the entrance door, combing her hair and adjusting the blouse around her neck and over her shoulders. Then she took two linen yellow stars from the top shelf and attached them to the back and front of her hanging raincoat with safety pins. After that she put on her raincoat and silently tightened the yellow armband around the sleeve. There was a David’s star on the armband, and above and below the star it was written “Jevrejin” in Serbian and “Jude” in German. As she was opening the door she avoided looking at the mirror again, taking a little basket and silently beckoning the kids to come along with her.
They came down Dobračina Street, and then went along Laze Pačua Street towards Knez Mihailova Street, sticking to the narrow alleys and shortcuts all the way to Obilić Crescent. The mother walked with hasty steps pushing the children before her. She walked upright, with her head high, looking straight in front of her, avoiding the looks of passers-by. At the Obilić Crescent the mother told the children to wait, and then approached a group of men who were standing aside on the pavement holding some shopping bags in their hands. They had a short conversation. The mother took out something from her wallet. One of the men took it and quickly put it in his pocket, while the other pushed something wrapped into newspapers into her little basket.
She came back to the children and explained in short:
– I bought two apples and some honey from the blackmarketeers, so that we and the aunt can treat ourselves together for the holiday. –
They descended the stairs and came into Kosančić crescent, just in front of the synagogue.
In the synagogue’s courtyard there were a group of drunken German soldiers grimacing arrogantly, roaring and laughing, standing beside some women with red or bright orange messy hair. Some of the Germans were holding bottles and taking long gulps, thrusting the bottles into the women’s hands from time to time to make them drink or pouring liquid over their heads and breasts. Music could be heard coming from a radio somewhere – a deep female voice was singing in German. All over the courtyard there were scattered wooden benches taken out from the synagogue. A couple of officers were sitting on them smoking their cigarettes. All over the stone paved ground colourful splinters of the broken stained glass, which had used to decorate windows of the synagogue, as well as empty bottles, fags and other scrap were glittering. Gate and fence were broken down. The synagogue itself looked miserable, as if beaten up. David’s star from the top of the building was taken down. Instead of stained glass, there were planks and sheets of cardboard nailed over the windows, or some thick curtains fluttering here and there from the windows. One German in his undershirt was yawning loud stretching himself at the top of the stairs in front of the synagogue.
It was such a terrifying scene that Aleksandar, Selma and mother were completely speechless with horror. Selma might even have cried, but at that very moment the German in the undershirt spotted them and started yelling:
– Sau Juden! Ihr dreckigen Juden! –
Frozen with fear all three of them were looking stiffly straight in front of them and walking fast, at an almost running pace turned around the corner. Just some ten meters away there was a shanty in which the aunt lived now. Totally pale in her face the mother knocked on the door loudly. She never stopped knocking until the aunt first peeked out and then opened the door wide.
– What are you doing here? My darling children, my dear Ranka, what are you doing here? – she was surprised for an instant, and then quickly pulled them inside, – Come in quickly, this street is full of Germans. –
They were all silent for a while.
– Shanah tovah! – the mother said handing her the little basket.