CHAPTER THREE: AGE SIX
On the first day of the new school year, Bonne-maman came with me to see the principal and to register me into grade one. When all the papers were signed, I was taken to a classroom where I recognized some of the children that were with me last year in kindergarten. Everyone looked a bit shy, and we were glad when our teacher asked us to sit down at a desk and to introduce ourselves, one at a time, so that everyone knew everyone's name. We had to call the teacher "Mademoiselle" and she taught us to put up our hands when we wanted to ask her something, such as permission to go to the toilet.
Then we received our first reading book, the one we would be working on for a good part of the year, and she said that we had to take good care of it, because there weren't any to spare.
Mademoiselle had dark hair, and she wore pretty dresses. I liked her, even though she got angry if we started to speak to anyone without her permission.
During the weeks that followed, we learned to read words and sentences, and once I could do that on my own, I did not wait for the rest of the class and I read my book all the way through. After that I became bored because we had to go over everything again.
I started to do a lot of day dreaming, and I drew pictures in my scrapbook or on my slate. Whenever Mademoiselle asked a question that I could answer, I put up my hand, but after a few times she started to ignore me. She said we had to give a chance to someone else, even though the other children did not know what to say. So I stopped putting up my hand.
I started to read my own books, just as Papa had said I would, and pretty soon I had read all of them. Papa was proud of me, but the other children in the class did not like it when I could read better than them.
I was glad to go home at the end of the day, and I looked forward to the holidays. Once more I helped Bon-papa build a "sukkah", and we went to the synagogue to dance with the Torah. And then there was Hannukah again, and shortly after that we had the winter break and no school for a whole two weeks. The time passed too quickly for my taste, but before I knew it, we received two more weeks off for Easter, which was also the time for Passover.
Sometimes when Papa came, on a Sunday, we would go to the cinema. Before the movie, there was always a news-reel showing the German soldiers with guns. They were always smiling as they watched long lines of Bolshevik prisoners marching in muddy fields. The prisoners were not smiling and they kept their hands on top of their heads. Last week, after the news-reel, I heard someone whispering that now that the Americans were in the war, the "Boches" would start getting a taste of their own medicine. Then someone shushed him, and I forgot to ask Papa what it all meant.
After the movie, we would stop for an ice-cream, and he would buy me a comic book with lots of stories that I would read for the rest of the week.
For Passover we had a big feast, and this year I could read the Haggadah much better than last year.
After the meal was over and we had sung a lot of songs, Papa announced that I would go back with him to Antwerp for a few days, since I was on holiday, and I was all excited although I could see that Bonne-maman was upset. Her mouth tightened and she gave Papa a dirty look.
The next day, I put a few things in my satchel. Papa was just carrying his briefcase. He took me by the hand and we walked to the station. I had to walk fast because I had to make two footsteps for everyone of his, but I did not mind. I did not want to miss the train.
On the way to the station he said that he had something serious to tell me.
"You are a big boy now, and I think it is time to tell you the truth," he said. "As you know, your mother...Maman, had been sick for a long time." He paused, as if he did not know what else to say. I knew it was going to be bad news, but I had guessed as much a long time ago, and I was prepared for it, although I still felt a queasiness in my stomach.
"I am sorry to have to tell you," he continued in a soft voice, "that she died. She loved you very much, but she cannot come back to you because she is dead. Do you know what "dead" means?"
"Yes," I said.
I knew what dead meant. It was like the red cow, and like the woman with a big hole in her back. It was like the chickens hanging by their feet at the market with their throats slit.
I did not say anything until we boarded the train. And then I asked him how long it took to go to Antwerp.
On the train he gave me some candy, and then he told me that I would have someone to play with at the apartment. "His name is Jacques, and he is a year older than you. His mother and I have married, and I hope you will like her." I was not quite sure what to make of that, so I just put it out of my mind and asked if we would see my cousins Benjamin and Ned.
"Of course, your uncle Rubin is anxious for us to get together. As a matter of fact, we're invited there for supper this evening."
I was happy about that since I liked my uncle Rubin, and I had not seen Benjamin and Ned for a long time. Ben was a year younger than me, and Ned a year older. I always had so much fun with them, almost as much as with Maurice. I wondered where Maurice was and I asked Papa about him. He did not know, he said, but he was sure that he and his parents were well and somewhere in France. I had another cousin, Edgard, but he was just a baby. His mother and father were my aunt Rushka and my uncle Don. I did not see them very often because they lived in another city. They came to my uncle Moniek's wedding, that 's where I saw them last.
It started to rain. Big drops of water ran down like tears on the outside of the window pane. On the inside, it fogged up and I wiped it with my hand so that I could look out at the roof tops. I knew we were close to Antwerp when I recognized the knobby masonry pillars that lined the railroad tracks. Way down below I could see the cobblestoned street and, on the sidewalks, the hats and the umbrellas of people walking. They all looked very small, although they were grown-ups.
When the train pulled into the station, I put on my satchel and Papa took his briefcase from the luggage rack. Once we had come to a standstill, I stepped onto the platform, with Papa's help, and we followed the crowd to the exit. I remembered the sounds and the smells of the station, and I made sure to hold on tightly to Papa's hand as we came down the staircase that led to the outside. Once we were on the street, he opened his umbrella and we walked to the apartment trying to avoid the puddles, although I felt like jumping into them.
I thought I was going to be happy to see my old room, but it was not the same any more. Everything looked different from what I remembered. For one thing, there was a strange boy in the house, Jacques. He was a bit taller than me, and he had black hair. I did not like him. Papa said that he was my step-brother and that we had to share our toys, but I did not want to share. Besides, he was stupid. I could read better than him although he was a year older than me.
When we arrived, his mother kissed Papa and wanted to kiss me too, but I kept well away from her. I did not want to be touched or hugged.
She kept talking to me and asking me questions, but I would not answer.
"Why don't you call me "Maman" like Jacques does?" she finally told me a bit impatiently. But I remained silent as I just stared at her from a distance.
"Why don't you answer? Please call me Maman, alright?"
I could see Papa getting annoyed, so in order to please him I answered "Yes...Madame." But I had no intention of addressing that unknown woman as anything else than "Madame".
"Give him time," said Papa speaking to her. "He is very stubborn, just like me. He'll stop brooding eventually."
After that introduction, we sat down to eat some soup and sandwiches, and then I went to look around the house, but it looked unfamiliar to me. My real home was now at Bonne-maman's, and I wanted to go back there.
I cheered up that evening when we went to visit Benjamin and Ned at my uncle Rubin's. My aunt Cecilia, Benjamin and Ned's mother, gave me a cap and a coat she had made specially for me. She cooked a big meal and we giggled a lot. For dessert she had baked some cookies. She said she was sorry that bananas could not be found any more, because she knew that they were my favourite fruit.
The next day Papa had to go to work and I stayed all day with Madame and Jacques. In the evening, I was glad when Papa came home. He could see that I was not very happy when he was away, and when he asked me if I wanted to go back to Bonne-maman's, I jumped up and started to pack my satchel. We had supper and then we went to get the train to Charleroi. It was dark by the time we got there, but I was delighted to be home. Papa said he had to go back that same evening but he would come down as usual on the week-end. I could tell that Bonne-maman was angry with him, but she invited him nevertheless to spend the night and to go back in the morning, "because of the curfew," she said, "why take any chances?"
"What's a curfew?" I asked.
"Jews are not allowed in the streets after dark," she answered in a resigned voice, "and your father might get arrested if they make an identity check on the train."
Papa looked at me thoughtfully, and then he agreed to stay the night. He left early next morning, and I hoped that there would not be any identity checks. I did not want him to be arrested.
The Easter holidays came to an end, and I went back to school. The teacher gave me a new book to read and I was very pleased. She also gave me new assignments to write out. It was nice to have something to do, but I still found enough time to make drawings on my slate or in my scrapbook.
Summer arrived and at last came the big holidays. I was as happy as all the other children in the class about that. On the last day of school the parents had been invited to visit the classroom and to speak with the teacher. Bonne-maman came because she could speak better French than Bon-papa, and I showed her some of my drawings as well as my notebook where I had written out all the dictations. The teacher had corrected them with a red pencil and had given marks after each one. I usually got ten out of ten, although she kept adding little notes to say that as far as my handwriting was concerned, there was room for improvement.
The director came in the class. He was a big man with a fat stomach and I always was a bit afraid of him, but he came over to Bonne-maman and told her that I had come first in the class. He was very pleased and he hoped to see me in September when I would start going to grade two.
And then we went home. In my satchel I carried my scrapbook and some drawings. We had to give back the reading books to the teacher. Bonne-maman carried my report card and she was beaming when she boasted to everyone we knew about the results. Papa was also proud of me when he came for his visit. I was glad we were now on a long holiday and I looked forward to it. Papa asked me if I wanted to go to Antwerp for the summer, but I preferred to stay in Charleroi where I had more fun.
One day we went to the market and I noticed that everyone seemed to be very excited. There was a lot of head shaking, eye rolling, and gesticulating hands. I listened to what was being said and I gathered that a new directive had been posted at the city hall, and at various other places, and Bonne-maman and her friends were nervously talking about it. They all looked rather upset. On the way home she was unusually silent and deep in thought. I asked her what all the fuss was about, and she informed me tersely that I would not go back to my school in September.
"Why?" I asked her, a bit surprised and not quite believing my good luck, although I felt less adverse to school ever since that complimentary report card that everyone was so pleased with.
"The Germans came out with some new regulations: Jews are not allowed to attend the public schools any longer."
"How would they know that I am a Jew?"
She looked at me as if I had said something silly. "Just to make sure that no one can make a mistake about it, we have to start wearing a yellow star on our clothes wherever we go." She gripped my hand a little tighter. "Wherever we are still allowed to go," she added bitterly. "No more movies, or public parks!"
"No more movies?"
"I'm afraid not."
I got really angry at that. "That's not fair!" I cried out. "Why not?"
"It is the law now," she answered, "and we must always follow the law, even if it is unfair. It's the way we Jews have always managed to survive."
I did not understand her explanation and I was very upset for the rest of the day.
The following morning we went to City Hall where we were given strips of beautiful yellow stars with the word "Jew" printed in the middle. They had to be cut out like the paper silhouettes we did at school, except that they were made out of cloth. We went home and Bonne-maman spent hours and hours sewing them on all our clothes. I was very proud of mine, and I could not understand why people were staring at us when Bon-papa and I went for a walk down the street. They were probably jealous because they did not have any. I wanted to show my star to madame Patrice, but Bon-papa said we were not allowed to set foot in the tavern any more. So we went back home.
That week was full of surprises. First of all, Papa showed up in the evening even though it was not the week-end. He was not wearing a star and I was going to ask him why, but just at that moment my aunt Rushka arrived. She kissed Bonne-maman, greeted the rest of us and then looked horrified when she saw the yellow stars on all our clothes.
"Are you crazy, mother?!" she said.
"What else can we do?" answered Bonne-maman.
And then the grown-ups sat down at the table and had a long discussion. I was not sleepy and I could sense the excitement and the fear as they argued for a long time. I learned that my uncle Don had been arrested and that my cousin Edgard was not living with his mother, but with a nice family she had found for him. Then they noticed that I was listening and they started to speak in Polish so that I would not understand. Finally they seemed to reach a decision, and Papa left that same evening saying he would be back in a couple of days. Aunt Rushka stayed for the night and left early next morning. She said that she had a lot of work to do and that she would be back as soon as everything was settled. In the meantime she enjoined all of us not to make ourselves conspicuous, which meant staying inside the house all day.
"Don't go anywhere," she ordered Bonne-maman, "not even to buy food. You are too well known here. I'm sure you can make do with what's in the house for now."
Bonne-maman agreed but she looked very unhappy about everything.
"And for God's sake," added aunt Rushka as she left the house, "get rid of those identifying targets."
Bonne-maman used up a good part of the day removing with scissors all the stars that she had spent so many hours sewing on. No one came to the store that day, and we did not go out. I whiled the time away by drawing, or playing cards by myself until Bon-papa came to join me. I wanted to put on some records on the gramophone, but I was told it would be better not to make any noise so that people would think there was nobody home. I knew something serious was going on and I did not complain too much, but I was both frightened and angry at all the changes that seemed to be happening so fast. Why couldn't things remain as they were? I was not allowed to step outside, or visit madame Patrice, or go to the movies, or to the market. As if that was not enough, I also became worried when I saw Bonne-maman packing some clothes in a number of bags and suitcases.
"Are we going somewhere?" I asked her.
"I don't know yet, but we have to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice." She looked at me, and then she tried to hug me but I did not feel like being hugged so I squirmed away from her.
"How is this all going to end ?" she muttered, and I saw her wipe a tear.
I went to pick up my satchel and put a few of the things that I wanted to take with me if, as she said, we had to leave in a hurry.
Aunt Rushka came back that evening and she said she had managed to find a place for the "children". I did not know whom she meant until the next day.
To my great surprise, Papa arrived accompanied by Jacques and his mother. We all sat around the table and Bonne-maman served some tea and the apple strudel which she had baked that morning. It could have been a party, but I could see that she was very upset. After a while, aunt Rushka looked at her watch and said that it was time to be going.
Papa told me to get my things but I did not know what was happening, or where we were heading for. I asked him where we were going but all he said was that I would shortly see. Bonne-maman gave a bag with some of my clothes for Papa to carry and I went to pick up my satchel. Then she embraced me and cried. I had no idea as to why she cried; I had gone away before without all that fuss and mystery. She told me that she would come and see me as soon as she could. "See me where?" I wondered.
After first peeking out the window to see if anyone was about, aunt Rushka opened the door and led the way. I stepped outside for the first time in two days followed by Jacques, his mother, and Papa. It was nice to see the sun and to feel its warmth. We took some streets that I never had been to before and after a long walk we arrived at a large building. We went to the back of it and, after once more looking around to see if anyone was watching, aunt Rushka knocked at a door. It was promptly opened and we all stepped in to be greeted by a man with a little gray beard and a big smile.
"Come in, come in, and welcome to our church," he said. "My name is Barbeza, and I am the pastor of this congregation. And these are the children we were talking about," he added looking down and patting my head and Jacques'. He led us to a room where a man with deep blue eyes was sitting in a chair. He stood up when we came in. He was tall and dressed all in black, except for his white shirt and dark blue tie. He was holding a black hat with the largest hands I had ever seen. Pastor Barbeza introduced everyone, and the man shook hands with Papa, with Madame, and with aunt Rushka. They talked for a while and I heard aunt Rushka tell him that she would come down in a couple of days with some identity cards, as well as ration cards, which she would give to the pastor. "In the meantime please have this," she said as she opened her purse and took out some money. The man blushed and said he was not doing this for money.
"I know," said my aunt, "but it will no doubt come in handy. Use it for their expenses, I'll try and provide some more whenever I have a chance."
The man looked down at us, the children, and he asked if we knew what was going on. We both shook our heads to say no. I had seen so many surprises in the past few days that I was ready for another one. But I never expected what was coming.
Papa explained to us that because of the war and all the new laws about Jews, it would be better, safer at any rate, for us to separate. When the war was over we would all live together again. In the meantime we were to go and live with our godfather and his family and do whatever he said.
"I did not know I had a godfather," I said holding back my tears. I did not even know what a godfather was, and I sure did not want to be abandoned with him, whoever he was.
"He is your make-believe godfather, just as from now on you will have a make-believe name. You must forget your old name, and never reveal it to anyone. Or that you are Jewish. It may sound like a game, but this is very serious. It is a matter of life or death. Do you understand?"
I could barely speak. "Yes. I understand," I said in a strangled voice.
"Good. You are a brave boy."
"What about Bonne-maman and Bon-papa? Are they staying at the house? Will I see them?" I managed to whisper without breaking into tears.
"No, they are also going to move away somewhere until the war is over."
"And you? Will you come and visit? Where will you stay?"
"It will be safer for you if I don't visit for awhile, until conditions change for the better. In the meantime I will try to send you a postcard from time to time. I don't know yet where I'll stay, but tonight we are going to my friend RenČ Stoeffens. He agreed to take our furniture and all our belongings and store it in his basement until the war is over. Do you remember Mr Stoeffens? He was with us in the truck when we went to the seashore. His daughter Denise used to tell you stories."
I vaguely remembered her. It was nice to know that Papa had a friend where he would be safe. "But why can't I go with you if it is safe there?" I asked in a last attempt at not being left alone.
"It is just not possible, there would be too many of us and it will be safer for everyone if we separate. Now show me how brave you are, and give me a big kiss and a hug."
Aunt Rushka said that we should get moving. She told me my new name and made me repeat it three times to make sure that I'd remember it. Then she left, saying that it would be best if we did not all get out at the same time.
The big man asked Papa if he minded if we were brought up as Christians, but Papa said that he should do as he pleased. "Just treat them as if they were your own children," he added. And then he left with Madame by the same door we had entered, looking back a last time and blowing me a kiss.
I was now alone with Jacques and the big man, my make-believe godfather. Jacques had tears running down his cheeks and he sniffled away. His mother had kissed him and hugged him, and had waved back at him as she left with Papa. As much as I felt like it, I was not going to cry. I would be like the courageous explorers in my comic books, brave and strong, even when they found themselves alone in the jungle surrounded by unknown dangers, menacing wild beasts, and hostile cannibals.
We had to wait a few minutes before leaving. There was complete silence except for Jacques' snivelling. I had a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat, and I felt so puny next to Godfather, the giant. I hoped he was a good giant.