The dense darkness filled the damp, dank air of the former fairgrounds pavilion in Judenlager Semlin at Sajmište. Aleksandar was very tired but instead of sleeping he listened to the inmates coughing every night, as if a sick orchestra had been playing a very complicated symphony. The coughs were accompanied by the monotonous clatter of the rain on the roof and the echoes of drops falling off the punctured ceiling and splashing into puddles all over the pavilion. He had not been able to warm himself up since the košava wind crept into his frail child’s bones during that winter. It seemed to him that somewhere on his back there were four or five icicles hanging from his shoulders and shoulder blades that stabbed his lungs with their sharp points. I suppose that is why I also cough in the orchestra at night. Thought Aleksandar. He pulled his father’s cap down tighter over his ears and face trying to feel the smell of father’s hair and perhaps fall asleep hidden in it.
Aleksandar had been taking care of Selma, mother and aunt. After all, he had promised his father that he would take care of all of them since he was the only man in the family now.
Mother used to say that hunger filled the pavilions with anxiety and anger, while reason melted like а thin candle in the wind. Selma was so weak and meagre that mother kept fearing that she might simply succumb to exhaustion and die before her eyes any minute! The aunt was approaching that state too. “Poor thing, she is barely of sound mind” mother used to say. Aunt would sometimes speak with uncle Julije and Pavle as if they were there and mother would hug her, pressing her to her breasts and 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. Bodies lined up in the bathroom of the Turkish pavilion, the dead people were carried away from the hospital in Spasić’s pavilion to be taken across the frozen river Sava and buried at the Jewish cemetery. Some were shot by Germans in front of everyone between pavilions three and four. However, when Germans told them that the camp would be emptied and all inmates transferred, a new hope arose and that was why Aleksandar kept repeating affirmations to himself. They drove people away to the new camp day by day, their turn would come. He had been watching from afar, everyday groups of inmates got into the 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 Sava river, followed by another waddling truck that was loaded with the inmates’ stuff. Aleksandar wondered where they were being taken to and what that other place looked like. It was said that there were other Jews there who had already been transferred from other camps. Maybe father will be there waiting? Maybe uncle Julije got there even earlier? Only Pavle is not there. He’s in the 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 lay next to him, embracing Selma and from the other side, Selma was embraced by the aunt. Thus, they kept Selma warm with their own bodies. He couldn’t see them in the darkness but he could feel them, together with the rest of the several thousand inmates’ bodies squeezed together on the floor of the pavilions. Then he lay down again, pulling the cap over his face.
Aleksandar had been familiar with this space, though it looked quite different during the Car Exhibition. Back then, the chrome parts of brand new car models gleamed, their shining bodyworks reflecting the spotlights. He was amused by the thought that he might have lay on the very same spot where that new Mercedes Benz had been parked, which he looked at almost two years ago.
He put his palms over his face, pressing his 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… Father was talking to Mr. Demajo, Aleksandar stretched his arm over the rope to feel the cold metal of the chassis of the car. Somewhere from behind, Pavle’s voice said that German cars were the best. Aleksandar turned around, yet Pavle was not behind him. Instead, a big blue bus moved slowly, gradually approaching closer and closer. Aleksandar kept rising up on his toes in order to see better through the front windshield but instead of a driver and passengers there was only water up to the roof of the bus. The water leaked in thin streams through the edges of the doors and windows splashing onto the puddles all over the pavilion. Fish flapped and gasped on the floor. “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 beside the driver’s seat. They both had leather racing caps, which covered their whole face leaving just a little space above the nose and around the eyes for car racing goggles. Aleksandar’s racing cap smelled of father’s hair. Aleksandar and Bogdan were racing around Kalemegdan Park, puncturing the shouts of the excited crowd, the noise of engines and squeaking of wheels. They passed the stands where father and Pavle watched. What a surprise it would be for father and Pavle to see the two of them!
That morning, the German officer who handed out candies to the inmates’ children walked into the camp. Aleksandar saw him on several occasions during the last few days. This time, Aleksandar went 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 single piece of candy wrapped in shiny silver paper in his open palm. Aleksandar took it quickly, while the German smiled and patted him on his head, ruffling up his hair. As he walked back to the pavilion, Aleksandar thought that his lock might now be hanging a little over his forehead in the same way Pavle’s lock did. But there was no mirror to check it.
He soon saw mother calling to him excitedly “We are packing up! We are leaving! Today our group is leaving, thank God!” she shouted, “We are instructed to take only valuable things with us, the rest must be wrapped in a package with our name written on it and will be delivered to us separately. Though, we don’t have any valuable things anymore…” mother said, as if to herself.
Soon after, they stood at the camp exit. Belgrade was shining across the Sava river, 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 truck, where the inmates loaded their luggage. 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 a similar bus at the Car Exhibition but he had never seen such a model-–one without windows.
The German who used to give out candies appeared, opening the door of the grey vehicle wide. “Auf geht’s, steigt ein, wir fahren los!” he invited them to step in, using a gentle voice and wearing the same smile he had when giving out candies to the children.
The inmates went inside two by two and sat down on wooden benches. Mother got in first, carrying Selma in her arms followed by aunt and Aleksandar. They sat crowded against one another. A murmur filled the tin 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 in accompanied by fear.
While they swung in complete darkness as the van gasped and bounced, Aleksandar pulled down his father’s cap over his face as tight as he could and took a deep breath, searching for a trace of his father’s smell. He thought for a moment and took his cap off of his face.
Speaking loudly, Aleksandar exclaimed, “Don’t be afraid, mother! Just as Jonah lived in the belly of the big fish, in the terrible darkness for three days and three nights–after three days, God took pity on him. So shall we survive this darkness.”