On the day before Yom Kippur, a great Jewish holiday, the mother told Aleksandar to get ready because he was also going to visit the father at Topovske Šupe. Father requested to see him.
– Ner akhayim! Ner neshamah! – mother said aloud as she was lighting two candles on the table.
– Mother, the candles are so small! – Selma said surprised.
– There are no candles, Selma, we have to save them. – responded the mother.
The aunt stayed with Selma, while Aleksandar and the mother packed a piece of bread and onion for the father and left the flat.
They were walking, because the Jews were forbidden to ride in a 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 was hurrying forward with such long steps that time and time again Aleksandar had to run to catch up with her. Thus they came to the concentration camp Topovske Šupe.
German guards were at the main gate. The mother said that they had to go around the camp and that they would find the father behind, by the fence. As they were approaching, Aleksandar saw many people behind the wire. They were all tired, ragged, and dirty, wearing yellow stars on their chests and yellow armband. A violin was heard somewhere from the camp accompanied by a hoarse voice singing in the Roma language. When they were just a step from the wire, it seemed to Aleksandar that all camp 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 they saw the father. The father was standing behind the wire leaning against the concrete post which held the fence, all bent, feeble, dusty, and grey in his face, with big eye bags and sunken eyes. Aleksandar was appalled by this sight and to him the wire fence seemed to have extended and have reached the halfway up the sky.
– Rihard, you are burning with fever! – sobbed the mother.
– Have you lit the candles, Ranka? Erev Yom Kippur, you haven’t forgotten? – asked the father, as if checking if he himself hadn’t forgotten, without waiting for the answer.
– I have lit the candles. Don’t worry! – the mother kept repeating though.
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 the water out of it to quench his unbearable thirst. He was looking straight into Aleksandar’s eyes very solemnly. Aleksandar was breathing short and fast. The father’s eyes were shimmering with glow, while his lips were moving from time to time as if he was saying something voicelessly. Then the father stretched 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.
– Rihard, what are you saying? – sobbed the mother.
– Aleksandar, my son, do you remember the story about Jonah? – continued the father 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 the father made 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 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 the father’s cap. He felt the cap soaked with the father’s sweat and the father’s index finger caressing his fingertips convulsively for a little moment. Then his father quickly pulled his arm back behind the fence. Standing on this 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 – the father coughed and got up on his feet, wiping the tears off his face quickly. – Thank you for the food. Kiss Selma for me, Ranka. –
Rihard stood leaning against the concrete post which held the fence around Topovske Šupe concentration camp. He could feel fever coming on him, and his body’s strength leaving him. Through metal fence as if through a spider’s web, he was watching Ranka and Aleksandar walking away down the street . They were not turning around. Aleksandar was holding his father’s cap in his hand.
Words and thoughts were swarming in a whirl, catching up with each other, not letting Rihard think straight. „Germans have turned Belgrade to Nineveh, a city of sin and godlessness. God shall forgive our Belgrade, too, one day, just as he took pity on the citizens of Nineveh. I can understand that tonight on Yom Kippur eve. His mercy will be back, it will be so. And just as Jonah lived three days and three nights in the terrible darkness of the belly of the big fish and after three days God took pity on him, so shall you survive this darkness, my son. I only pray to the Lord to forgive me that I shall not be there to take care of you until you grow up. Forgive me that 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! 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 was instead of your Bar Mitzvah. This was your Bar Mitzvah, today.”
– Rihard, do you have some food? – a camp inmate uttered in a tired voice.
– Yes, I do, Mošo, here you are. Share it. – Rihard handed the parcel.
Rihard was watching down the street. Aleksandar and Ranka were only a few steps away from getting out of his sight. He saw Aleksandar taking up his father’s cap with both hands and putting it on his head. And thus they disappeared behind the corner.
Rihard quietly started to sing “Kol Nidrei”.