That day, at the meeting point in the courtyard in front of the Special Police for Jewish Affairs at George Washington Street 21, where they had to report every morning, Aleksandar’s father and Pavle, together with a group of fifteen other Jews, were assigned to forced labour at the pier. Pavle’s father Julije had already been sent with the other group, but they didn’t catch where. They were loading and reloading sacks and wooden crates at the quay the whole day until dusk. Instead of being allowed to go home, they were ordered to line up in two rows and wait. They were not allowed to sit down, so some fifteen people, dirty and exhausted by a whole day’s hard work, were shifting their weight from one leg to another, whispering among themselves and guessing why they were not allowed to go home like usual.
“They are purposely holding us on Shabbat,” someone said.
“Some ten days ago fifty people were shot dead by a firing squad in Belgrade as reprisal for the murder of a German soldier!” whispered someone from behind.
“Good Lord!” trembled someone else’s voice.
A moustached Serbian policeman was walking anxiously around the group. Up and down, muttering, swearing and cursing.
“Why during my shift? Why? Damn Yids!”
Two German soldiers were standing a little further away, leaning against the wall of a building, smoking and talking. One of them laughed out loud. The sound of a dog barking was heard somewhere from the neighbouring yard.
Aleksandar’s father was standing stooped, with his shoulders lowered, slow and exhausted. Pavle tried to hold him under his arm but he just waved it off saying “Let it go!”, he adjusted his cap, sighed deeply and straightened up. Pavle was standing nearby, ready to hold him if he stumbled.
“What are we waiting for?” Pavle asked, “The evening curfew has already started!”
“Who knows?” father sighed deeply.
The easy September breeze carried the smell of the river which mixed with the smells of sweat and dust absorbed by the hairs and the suits of the tired people. An elderly man coughed heavily and moaned as he stood in the row.
“Mister p’liceman, would you be so kind as to ask the Germans to let us sit down for a while. This man is not feeling well, he is an elderly man and he cannot stand any more, please sir?” someone asked.
“You communist gang!” the policeman shouted at him with his eyes wide open, grasping the strap of his gun with a quick movement of his hand as if he was about to take it off his shoulder, “Why don’t you ask them, smart ass!?”
Then there came a truck. It stopped next to two German soldiers. The driver sat at the steering wheel without turning the engine off, while a German officer got out of the truck cabin. The two soldiers straightened up, standing at attention as the officer said something to them briskly. These two immediately ran to the group of lined up Jews and started to force them onto the truck. Pavle held Aleksandar’s father, who was not trying to let loose any more. He helped him climb up and then held and pushed a few more elderly men upward, eventually jumping on the truck himself.
“Pavle, my son, this is not good at all,” the father shook his head worriedly, “Never before have we ridden in a truck in the evening.”
“Uncle, what do you think? Where are we being taken to?” Pavle asked anxiously as the two soldiers thrusted people onto the truck, trying to crowd them in even closer to make more space for the others. The moustached policeman also looked quite frightened, although he was yelling and thrusting people too. Finally, one of the two German soldiers jumped off the truck and closed the tailgate. He pounded his palm hard against the tin and waved to the driver. Off they went.
They passed by the Fire Department at Tašmajdan Park and then crossed Slavia Square, riding towards Karadjordje’s Park via the road to the Autokomanda, the former command centre of the motorized forces of Yugoslavia. Night had already fallen, the evening curfew had already started, so the streets looked empty and dark as if there was nothing else in the world except for that truck, grumbling and roaring through the empty city. As the truck bounced and shook, the bodies on the truck staggered and collided with each other. With the noise of the engine in their ears and the wind in their eyes, they grabbed each other looking for support. Only fear and suspense drummed louder in their ears than the engine of the truck, echoing with every kilometre passed.
“Pavle, my son,” father touched Pavle’s ear with his lips, “See to it that you don’t arrive with us where we are being taken to.”
Pavle was silently staring at one point, somewhere above the father’s shoulder. His thoughts were swarming rapidly in his head, his forehead frowned more and more, while the shadows and lights of the street lamps alternated rhythmically over his face. Then he abruptly ran his fingers through his hair and remained in that position as if he was holding onto the single lock that was admired so much by Aleksandar.
“Uncle…” Pavle uttered dryly, fighting with the wind, fear and a hard decision he had to make very fast. Father looked deeply into his eyes, smiled tenderly, taking him secretly by the hand in the crowd of the squeezed bodies.
“Don’t worry about us!” said father and squeezed his hand harder. Pavle looked at him silently for a while and then responded by squeezing his uncle’s hand.
At the very next curve, when the truck slowed down a bit, Pavle suddenly pushed the first man next to him onto the German soldier grasping the edge of the truck’s railing and then jumped. As Pavle was flying over the railing, it seemed that everything stopped and froze for a moment. Time stopped too. No one was breathing, and the truck engine seemed to be mumbling from somewhere deep under the water, muffled and dull. Only one voice, Aleksandar’s father’s voice, echoed sharply and loudly through the night.
“Run, my son, run Pavle, dear boy!”
“Halt, halt!” the German soldier bellowed as he was getting up from the truck floor, taking his gun off his shoulder. Then the truck abruptly braked with the squeaking and rattle of tin and metal, once more making everyone stagger and fall down. The sound of the truck’s cabin door opening and the officer yelling something in German were heard. Then two shots from a handgun, followed by one more shot from the gun of the German soldier on the truck. After the shots, everyone was silent and listening, both Germans and Jews, as well as the moustached Serbian policeman.
For a few long seconds the silence lasted and then everyone could clearly hear branches cracking under Pavle’s young legs, running as fast as the wind would carry him, deeper and further into the safety of the dark.
“He made it! He ran away!” someone uttered excitedly, as if every single one of them had escaped.