There 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 the keys were for. They piled up during a lifetime, father used to say but Aleksandar couldn’t understand where all the 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 look at the keys: long and short ones, curved and fine ones, heavy ones with thick bows. Maybe some were for high metal gates or big double doors decorated by carvings; or narrow and small ones for some cellar padlocks or for boxes made of rosewood 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, the police informed the Jews that “on the 8th of December all Jews registered in Belgrade must report to the Police Department for Jewish Affairs on George Washington Street 21”.
The order also proclaimed: “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 their apartment keys with their name and street address on a piece of paper attached to it. After leaving the flat, the door must be properly locked. Everyone should take a blanket, cutlery and enough food for one day. Whoever fails to come shall be severely punished.”
All Jews were being sent to a concentration camp.
The aunt arrived 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 where she got the jam and how much she had paid for it. Following their 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 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, dear” interjected the aunt, “Only the apartment keys must be handed over!”
“I know, but what if someone comes and sees this mess and has no idea what all these keys are for?” mother kept insisting.
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 finally exclaimed.
“Еighteen, mother.” said Aleksandar.
“Eighteen.” mother repeated and wrote it on the paper.
“The Fre-lihs, Frelihs” repeated 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 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!” mother said and wrote, ‘various keys’. Then she rose to take a look at the words written from above like a painter, checking the proportions of his portrait. She bent down again to add ‘piled up during a lifetime’.
“There, they will understand that.” she said and put the slip into the drawer.
After that she went to the front door, took out the key from the lock, put it down on the kitchen table and attached a paper with their name and 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, watching over the words ‘The Frelihs, Dobračina Street 18’. She started shaking, bouncing and trembling while hanging onto the string. When the paper finally settled, mother sighed.
“That’s it… we are ready.”
When they came out onto the street, the air smelled of košava, a mix of wind and chimney soot. It was very cold. December could be so cold in Belgrade. Uncle Julije once said 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 Street, then through Gospodar-Jevremova Street to Francuska Street, walking further towards George Washington Street. Mother, aunt and Selma wore thick scarves wrapped around their heads, while Aleksandar had his father’s cap to keep him warm. 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 the front of the car was sticking out of his pocket. Aleksandar wanted his red race car to see where they were going.
Both his mother and aunt carried a suitcase. They were heavy and it was not easy to carry them in the cold wind. However, to Aleksandar it seemed that his mother and aunt slumped more under the burden of the yellow stars sewn on their backs and fronts than under the weight of the suitcases, while the yellow armbands drained the strength from their arms and made the suitcases even heavier.
While walking down the street, they encountered more and more 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 a larger group didn’t make it any easier for Aleksandar. Instead they seemed even more helpless and lonely in that featureless procession of yellow stars. Aleksandar looked at the houses they passed by but there was nobody standing at the windows. A passer-by would come along and would hastily turn around the first readily available corner, 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 what 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 the Judenreferat, Police Department for Jewish Affairs on George Washington Street 21. It looked as if the whole world was on the move! The only time Aleksandar recalled seeing so many people was at the races. However, he realized he had never seen so many Jews gathered in one place. German soldiers gave orders in front of the entrance, dividing the crowd into rows and calling small groups to move forward from time to time. On the other hand, those who had already finished at the police offices were being directed to the other side of the street, where German guards escorted them onto trucks headed for the concentration camp. Even onto carriages drawn by horses or oxen, or directed to walk on foot. People were pushing their way through the crowd, shoving and calling each other. “Koen, Koen! Altaras, is there anyone from the Altaras family? 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 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 met her in the street, Aleksandar asked mother why Aunt Zora was not wearing a yellow star and she explаined that Aunt Zora’s father was a Jew but her mother was a Serb and that the Germans did not consider one a Jew if one’s parent was married to a Serb. All that had been quite confusing for Aleksandar and hard to understand, for he remembered clearly seeing Aunt Zora at the synagogue too. It was obvious that there was someone, probably some German clerk, who was somehow deciding who was and who was not a Jew 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 here somewhere.” answered mother.
“Aunt Zora, Aunt Zora!” Aleksandar pulled her sleeve, “Do you know my classmate Bogdan Živković? Your neighbours the Živković’s? Will you inform them please, that we are being sent to a concentration camp!”
“I will, my darling!” Aunt Zora answered, she bent down quickly and kissed Aleksandar’s forehead loudly and then Selma’s cheek, disappearing into the crowd shouting “The Hercogs, the Hercogs.”
A few hours later, mother, aunt, Selma and Aleksandar approached the demolished King Aleksandar bridge with the procession of Jews. A new pontoon bridge had been constructed along the demolished bridge’s pier.
“We are being led to Sajmiste, the fairgrounds!” someone in the procession exclaimed, “It is a concentration camp for Jews now.”
Aleksandar wondered how the fair could be a concentration camp because his father had said that “It was the gate to Europe for our Belgrade.” But nothing could surprise him anymore, for uncle Julije had said that “War is a terrible evil that brings out an animal in a man.” That was why, he guessed, all these German soldiers who were escorting the procession became more and more nervous and rough as the day went on.
It was already late afternoon. The weather had been grey with occasional rain all day and now the rain turned into snow, squeaking under their feet. The snow was trodden, turning into pools and mud. All around him, Aleksandar felt the smell of coats taken out of wardrobes full of mothballs and lavender. People were breathing loudly because of fatigue and their breath turned into vapour that rose above the whole procession, winding up to the grey December sky. The sky was already murky in the dense fog and semi darkness. Ravens croaked, 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 scarves, sleeves, boots and suitcases. And then he saw Bogdan, standing aside just a few meters away.
“Bogdan!” exclaimed Aleksandar as he broke free from the river of people and ran 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. Mother screamed from the procession “Aleksandar!”
“Don’t forget me!” said Aleksandar, breaking his hands loose from Bogdan’s and running back to the procession following his mother’s voice.
Aleksandar turned around a few more times, bouncing to see better. Bogdan was still standing in the same spot motionless. And then, pushed away by the steady and silent steps of people walking across the pontoon bridge, Aleksandar could no longer see him.
The knocking at the door broke the silence. Bogdan’s father opened the door and saw their neighbour Zora standing at the doorway. She dropped by to inform them that the Frelihs were sent together with other Jews to a concentration camp and that in that 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 putting his arm halfway down his 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 suddenly reminded him of another occasion when he was a soldier of the Serbian army in the Great War. He 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. Whether we had human dignity, a 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 ran, 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 like the back of their palms. He got to the piers of the demolished bridge looking over the Sava river when the endless grey procession of people glided over the snow, heading to the pontoon bridge on their way to the other side of the river. Only the yellow stars and armbands shone as if the night sky was full of stars. He stood watching the procession hastily, bouncing to see those who were walking further away from him better. Then he saw Mr. Frelih’s cap, he was very familiar with it but this time it was on Aleksandar’s head.
“Aleksandar! Aleksandar!” he shouted with all his strength.
“Bogdan!” he heard Aleksandar’s voice as Aleksandar pushed through the procession and ran to him. As he approached, Bogdan grabbed his hands tightly. He wanted to tell him all sorts of things but he couldn’t find words.
“You have come.” Aleksandar said 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 in the middle of the pontoon bridge he couldn’t see it anymore. He stood there, he didn’t know for how long. Only muddy footprints in the snow witnessed that there had passed a stream of people and that all of this was not a dream. He looked 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 those few moments they had held each other’s hands and that Aleksandar pushed his red race car into his palm.