Аleksandar and Selma had practically not left their flat for several months. Mother would say that it was too dangerous for Jewish kids to be in the city even with their parents, let alone unaccompanied. On the other hand, almost every day mother would go visit father at Topovske Šupe concentration camp on Autokomanda to bring him some food. Aleksandar and Selma would stay at home alone, or their aunt would come to spend several hours with them. Since the day uncle Julije had not returned from his forced labour shift, there had been no trace of him. Father did not find him among the other inmates of Topovske Šupe. Nobody knew what had happened to him. They suspected the worst. Nor did they have any news about Pavle. Aleksandar heard them mentioning that Pavle “had run away to the woods”, but he couldn’t understand what exactly that meant. No one wanted to explain it to him but he did understand that in some way Pavle had somehow outwitted the Germans, which made Aleksandar happy. His aunt was beside herself with worry. Mother would ask her to stay overnight with them in the flat but she kept refusing, hurriedly returning back to her home before the evening curfew so that she could “be there for Pavle and Julije if they came back”. Since the evening curfew for Jews would start even earlier than for the rest of the citizens, the aunt was always in a hurry.
“Well, at least you must eat with us!” Mother would say but the aunt would just wave it off saying that it was the children who had to eat, for she already had lunch before she left home.
Aleksandar didn’t believe that his aunt already had lunch because she looked so thin and pale. Besides, earlier he had heard his mother complaining that it was very difficult to get food on the black market because everything was so expensive and Jews were forbidden to buy goods before half past 10am. After that time there was nothing to be bought in the already poorly stocked shops. Prices at the green markets kept rising because of shortages and counters were half-empty. Nor was there any money because father had not received his salary since April, when he had been thrown out of work since Jews were forbidden to work in public services. That was why mother sold grandmother’s jewellery and later on, even the dining table made of oak wood. Selling the table made the father angry but mother would respond that “they had to live off of something”. Now, they sat around an old small table that was covered with a dry cracked veneer instead of the oak dining table. That small table used to stand on the mezzanine floor of the stairway landing and they used to put flowerpots on it. On the other hand, Aleksandar’s aunt had nothing to sell because they had been thrown out of their apartment in the synagogue way before their own misery. That was why mother would say, “We all have to help and take care of each other, at least us, the closest ones.”
After the aunt would leave them, mother would sit in the kitchen crying, with her hands covering her face. She worried about father and all of them. Selma would come to mother and caress her knee. Aleksandar would go to his room and get under his bed to play with his red race car. It was then that he would think about his classmate Bogdan, whom he had not seen for a long time because Germans forbade Jewish children to go to school.
Nor was father there anymore because he was imprisoned in Topovske Šupe. There is a lot that is not there anymore, Aleksandar thought, rolling his red race car left and right under the bed.
But that day it was the Jewish New Year-–Rosh Hashanah. They used to go to the synagogue to visit uncle Julije, the aunt and Pavle during Rosh Hashanah every year. Having given it a good think, the mother decided that in spite of everything they should go and visit their aunt, “to be there for her now that she was having the hardest of times.”
Aleksandar patiently let mother comb his hair. Today, he wanted to do everything to please her and to help, so he didn’t protest about mother’s insisting that he be “tidy and neat.” When Aleksandar and Selma were ready, mother first looked at herself in the big mirror that was in front of the door, combing her hair and adjusting the blouse around her neck and over her shoulders. Then she took two linen yellow stars from the top shelf and attached them to the back and front of her hanging raincoat with safety pins. After that, she put on her raincoat and silently tightened the yellow armband around her sleeve. There was a star of David on the armband, above and below the star “Jevrejin” in Serbian and “Jude” in German was written. As she opened the door, she avoided looking into the mirror again. She took a little basket and silently beckoned the kids to come along with her.
They walked down Dobračina Street and then went along Laze Pačua Street towards Knez Mihailova Street, sticking to the narrow alleys and shortcuts all the way to Obilić Crescent. It was as if the whole city loomed over them and they became tiny figures in a maze. Mother walked with hasty steps pushing the children before her. She walked upright, with her head high, looking straight in front of her, avoiding the looks of passers-by. At Obilić Crescent, mother told the children to wait and then approached a group of men who were standing aside on the pavement holding some shopping bags in their hands. They had a short conversation. Mother took out something from her wallet. One of the men took it and quickly put it in his pocket, while the other pushed something wrapped in newspapers into her little basket.
She came back to the children and explained in short, “I bought two apples and some honey from the black market, so that your aunt and us can treat ourselves for the holiday.”
They descended the stairs and arrived at Kosančić crescent, just in front of the synagogue.
In the synagogue’s courtyard there was a group of drunken German soldiers grimacing arrogantly, roaring and laughing, standing beside some women with red or bright orange messy hair. Some of the Germans were holding bottles and taking long gulps, thrusting the bottles into the womens’ hands from time to time to make them drink. Or, they would pour liquid over their heads and breasts. Music could be heard coming from a radio somewhere-– a deep female voice sung in German. All over the courtyard there were scattered wooden pews taken out from the synagogue. A couple of officers sat on them smoking cigarettes. All over the paved stone ground, colourful splinters of broken stained glass were spewn, which used to decorate the windows of the synagogue. Empty bottles and other scrap glittered. The gate and fence was broken down. The synagogue itself looked miserable, as if beaten up. The star of David on the top of the building was taken down. Instead of stained glass, there were planks and sheets of cardboard nailed over the windows with some thick curtains fluttering here and there. One German in his undershirt yawned loudly, stretching at the top of the stairs in front of the entrance to the synagogue.
It was such a terrifying scene that Aleksandar, Selma and their mother were completely speechless from horror. Selma might have even cried but at that very moment the German in the undershirt spotted them and started yelling.
“Sau Juden! Ihr dreckigen Juden!”
Frozen by fear, all three of them looked straight in front of them and stiffly walked fast, at an almost running pace before turning around the corner. Just some ten meters away there was a shanty that the aunt now lived in. Totally pale, mother knocked on the door loudly. She never stopped knocking until the aunt peeked out and opened the door wide.
“What are you doing here? My darling children, my dear Ranka, what are you doing here?” She was surprised for an instant and then quickly pulled them inside, “come in quickly, this street is full of Germans.”
They were all silent for a while.
“Shanah Tovah!” mother said, handing the aunt the little basket.