I was born in an unfortunate time. As a very young child, I was taught to walk quickly, keep my head down, never look strangers in the eye and certainly never to speak to them. I learned to blend into the background and make myself invisible. I was too small to completely understand what was going on, but I sensed enough to understand that the adults were deeply fearful. As things got worse and as I began to become more aware of what was happening around us, the fear took hold of me, too, like tentacles. It did not let go. I felt the panic everywhere; it emanated from everyone. I could smell it in their sweat. I could sense it in the darting eyes, the furtive glances, and the hushed, secretive conversations which ended abruptly the moment they became aware I was in the room.
Over time, I could feel it getting worse. Grownups started to disappear. Some neighbors – a father and son – went off to work in the morning and never came home. People said they saw them being taken away. My school friend’s mother went off alone to the market, never to return.
At first, nobody could believe the truth because it was too terrible to comprehend. They could not believe that such a thing could happen to them, in modern times, in a modern country. This was not the middle ages!
Soldiers shot an old man in the middle of the street and kicked him as he lay bleeding to death. They laughed. This news sent chills, waves of nausea, horror, terror through the community.
They started to search the apartments so we created hiding places, where we ran the instant we heard the first boot on the stairs. Mine was behind the stove.
One night, the soldiers came to our building. We heard them calling in the street and ran to our places. They weren’t afraid of our hiding. They were on to our game. I could hear them, banging on doors, kicking them in, shooting off their guns. I heard screaming of people I knew. “Why!? Why are you doing this?” they asked. “We’ve done nothing wrong!” they cried. It was like a mouse trying to reason with a hungry cat.
I knew what was happening. I’d seen it a few nights before, when they went to the building across the street. Shivering, terrified people in their pajamas stood outside in the cold, guarded by other soldiers with guns. But this night, I was in my place, huddled in a ball, trying not to sob or make any noise, though I was sure they could hear my heart pounding even in the street.
I heard them come into our apartment. It was empty, or so it seemed. Maybe on spite for not finding anyone, or for fun, or out of pure evil or because they were too lazy to really look for us, they shot up our apartment. They laughed and fired bullets everywhere, as if they never had to worry about a lack of them.
Finally, they left. I waited a long time to be sure before I pushed aside the panel and crawled out.
I found only my mother still alive. The soldiers’ bullets had penetrated the other hiding places and had killed my father, my brother and my grandmother. My mother wouldn’t let me look but I remember the blood dripping from my brother’s secret spot.
That night, my mother packed up a small bag with some clothing, photos, whatever small valuables she had, and a enough food to take us only until the next day. She said a few prayers – it was the best we could do, because we could not bury our family properly — and we left. I had no idea where we were going. I don’t think she did either, but we both understood in our own way that remaining there was impossible. I remember walking for a long time.
The next year or so was a blur to me. We moved all the time. We lived in hiding, like fugitives, like animals. Some people were kind. They gave us food and shelter, at great danger to themselves, but we were afraid to trust or endanger anyone too much.
My mother learned about some people who might provide false documents for us, and we traveled to see them. It was a far and dangerous journey but we had no choice. We were among the lucky ones. We got the papers and my mother found a way for us to leave the country. I don’t know how she did it. She never spoke of it. When I brought up the subject, she closed down completely, overcome with such obvious sadness and pain, I quickly learned never to ask. It was a secret she took to her grave. I always suspected she gave herself to a man in exchange for this favor, and could not bear to think about the shame she felt at betraying my father. She did it for me. This I know. She would not have done it for herself, alone.
We went on a boat, across the sea. And later, another boat, across an ocean. We started a new life in a new land. We assimilated as best we could, and had, by outside appearances, a normal life.
My mother never remarried. She lived to 91. The sorrow and fear never left her eyes. I think, until the day she died, she always expected them to come for her and her family again.
I married and had children and tried my best not to transfer my lingering mistrust of strangers to them, my mistrust of life in general, nor my paranoia nor my deep sense of loss of the life I might have lived had my world not been turned upside down. I’m not sure I succeeded very well. I think it was all well-embedded in my genes.
Here is what I know: There is no such thing as permanence. The life you think you are living can be pulled out from under you at any time. You comfort yourself with the belief that although such atrocities might have happened in the past, they could never happen again. Humans can be so bitterly cruel to each other, it’s hard to comprehend they are of the same species. Without vigilance, life quickly becomes tragedy.
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