On the day before Yom Kippur, one of the Jewish high holidays and a day of repentance, mother told Aleksandar to get ready because he was going to visit father at Topovske Šupe concentration camp. Father requested to see him.
“Ner akhayim! Ner neshamah!” mother said aloud as she lit two candles on the table.
“Mother, the candles are so small!” Selma said surprised.
“There are no candles, Selma, we have to save them,” mother responded.
Their aunt stayed with Selma, while Aleksandar and mother packed a piece of bread and an onion in a piece of checkered cloth for father as they left the flat.
They walked because Jews were forbidden to ride the tram. They walked for quite a long time. Mother was wearing a yellow star on her coat and a yellow armband. She was silent as she hurried forward with such long steps that time and time again, Aleksandar had to run to catch up with her. Finally they reached the concentration camp Topovske Šupe. Several brick buildings that used to serve as cannon and gun storage by the Yugoslav Army before the war, as well as the surrounding area, were turned into a camp for Jewish and Roma men by Germans.
German guards were at the main gate. Mother said that they had to go around to find father behind the fence at the other side of the camp. As they approached, Aleksandar saw many people behind the wire. They were all tired, ragged and dirty, wearing yellow stars on their chests and yellow armbands. A violin was heard somewhere from the camp accompanied by a hoarse voice singing in the Roma language. When they were just steps away from the wire, it seemed to Aleksandar that all the camp’s inmates were looking exactly at him with their watery eyes and pale stares. He snuggled up to his mother and took her by the hand.
Then he saw his father. Father was standing behind the wire, leaning against the concrete post which held the fence together. He was all bent, feeble, dusty and grey in his face, with big bags under his eyes and sunken eyes. Aleksandar was appalled by the sight and to him, the wire fence seemed to have extended and reached halfway up the sky.
“You are burning with fever!” sobbed mother.
“Have you lit the candles? Erev Yom Kippur, you haven’t forgotten?” asked father, as if checking if he himself hadn’t forgotten, without waiting for the answer.
“I have lit the candles. Don’t worry!” mother kept repeating.
He bent down on his knee, clasping the wire convulsively with one hand and crumpling his cap with the other, as if he could squeeze water out of it to quench his unbearable thirst. He solemnly looked straight into Aleksandar’s eyes. Aleksandar was breathing short and fast. His father’s eyes were shimmering with a glow, while his lips moved from time to time as if he was saying something mutely. Then his father stretched out his arm slowly through the fence and handed his cap to Aleksandar.
“Take it, my son. Take it, Aleksandar. I won’t be needing it any more.”
“But, father…” stammered Aleksandar.
“What are you saying?” mother stared blankly.
“Aleksandar, my son, do you remember the story about Jonah?” father continued, stressing every single word with a calm voice.
“You do remember, I know. We always tell it on Yom Kippur. Far away on the high seas Jonah’s ship was caught in a strong storm. And Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. He lived three days and three nights in the belly of the big fish and after three days, God took pity on him and Jonah survived,” then father took a short break, looking into Aleksandar’s eyes to make sure that his son understood him.
“And just as Jonah lived in the belly of the big fish for three days in the terrible darkness and survived, so shall you, survive this darkness, my son. You must survive, you must promise me that!”
Aleksandar slowly stretched out his arm, and as if being enchanted, put his hand down on his father’s cap. He felt the cap soaked with his father’s sweat. His father’s index finger convulsively caressed his fingertips for a little moment. Then his father quickly pulled his arm back behind the fence. Standing on the other side of the wire with his father’s cap in his hand, Aleksandar raised his eyes and saw tears running down his father’s cheeks.
“You’d better go to avoid the evening curfew” father coughed and got up on his feet, wiping the tears off his face quickly, “Thank you for the food. Kiss Selma for me”.
Father stood leaning against the concrete post which held the fence around Topovske Šupe concentration camp. He could feel his fever rising and his body’s strength leaving him. The high pitched sound of the Roma violin played faster and faster behind him in the barracks. Through the metal fence as if through a spider’s web, he watched his wife and Aleksandar walk away. They did not turn around. Aleksandar was holding his cap in his hand.
Words and thoughts swarmed in a whirl, catching up with each other, not letting him think straight. Father mused.
The Germans turned Belgrade into Nineveh, the city of sin and godlessness. God should have sent Jonah again to redeem the Ninevites of their coming destruction. God shall forgive our Belgrade one day too, just as he took pity on the Ninevites. Tonight, on the eve of Yom Kippur, His mercy will be back, it will be so. God will take pity.
Aleksandar’s father got on his knees. I only pray the Lord forgive me that I shall not be there to take care of my son and watch him grow up. Forgive me for the vow I made, dear Lord, for I shall not be able to keep it. I shall not be able, my son, Lo Alehem. You forgive me too, forgive your father! Barukh Shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed! Barukh Shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed!
Father beckoned. You are no longer a child, my son. We have no time left for you to be a child! You haven’t had your Bar Mitzvah but this came along instead of your Bar Mitzvah. This was your Bar Mitzvah, today.
“Do you have some food?” a fellow camp inmate uttered in a tired voice.
“Yes, I do, Mošo, here you are. Share it.” Father handed over the parcel wrapped in checkered cloth to Mošo.
Aleksandar and mother were only a few steps away from becoming out of father’s sight. He saw Aleksandar put on his cap and disappear behind the corner.
The father quietly started to sing Kol Nidrei.