Pesach Lodz 1946:
First post war Passover and the few survivors from a huge family gather to celebrate. The passage below, an extract from ‘Flight of the Swallows,’ is told through the eyes of a five-year-old boy, Vitya, born in Kazakhstan, and his father Dan, age 30yrs.
The candles flickered. Vitya watched the long shadows dancing on the walls. Uncle Sol sat with a white shawl draped over his shoulders, reading from a book spread before him.
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam
Aron, sitting next to him, whispered in Polish. ‘Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe.’
Vitya kept nodding, though the words made no sense. Papa had never spoken about God. But he liked sitting next to his cousin, his big protector. Every morning Aron took him on a tram to his Jewish kindergarten next door to his own school.
He glanced at Aron who had fallen asleep. No wonder, Aron didn’t sleep much at night, often got up and walked the streets. He overheard Aunty Rachel telling Mama about Aron. Just before the Lodz ghetto was to be liquidated and everyone deported to Auschwitz, Aron’s father pulled off Aron’s yellow star and told him to run away and hide. Aron crawled under the barbed wire to the Aryan side where Jews were not allowed and boarded a tram. He kept riding from end to end. After a while, the conductor warned him to get off, he was attracting attention. But the conductor was a good man, didn’t report him to the Gestapo.
Vitya tried to remember what happened afterwards, but perhaps he didn’t hear any more. Just that when the war ended Uncle Sol found him.
Uncle Sol had stopped reading and was pouring wine into small glasses, then returned to the book. ‘Once we were slaves in Egypt…’
At last Uncle put the book and everyone began to talk at once. Mama and Aunty Rachel started bringing out food. There was so much. It just kept coming: sweet fish cakes, soup with little balls, platters of meat, he lost count of all the dishes. Dismayed, Vitya watched the food Mama heaped onto his plate. She expected him to finish it all.
Checking first that Mama was not watching he slid some of it to Aron’s plate. Since they came to Lodz, Mama was always pushing food into him, got angry when he couldn’t eat it up. It was just because everyone said he was thin and green like a reed. But he wasn’t used to so much food.
At last the serious food was cleared and cakes arrived. He liked those. He could spend hours in the kitchen while Aunty Rachel whipped egg whites until they looked like mounds of snow or watch her mix chocolate filings. When she finished, she always let him lick the spoon and bowl.
The candles were getting low. Vitya rubbed his eyes. The last he remembered was the taste of an almond macaroon dissolving in his mouth.
Dan saw Vitya asleep in his chair, excused himself, and carried him to bed. Nina was already in her cot. For a moment he sat down on Vitya’s bed and closed his eyes. He’d gladly lie down too, but Rosa would get upset. This evening was such a strain, pretending to pray after what happened to his family.
Loud voices were coming from the big room. He pulled the coverlet over Vitya’s shoulders, kissed him, and returned to his place. Sol was talking:
‘Soon the borders will close. This could be our last chance to get out of Poland.’
‘Last chance? What makes you say that, Sol?’ Jacob asked.
‘They’re only letting out Jews.’
‘Why would we want to leave?’ Jacob filled his glass with vodka. ‘We should all drink to here and now. We have plenty of food, a roof over our heads and jobs. After the years in the army, I’m enjoying this.’
‘Food isn’t everything,’ Esther, Rosa’s cousin said. ‘We’re applying to go to Palestine.’
‘Palestine?’ Jacob scoffed. ‘But that’s under the Brits. They don’t let anybody in.’
‘They let in a few. If not, we’ll have to make our way via Cyprus,’ Esther said.
Dan frowned. ‘That’s risky. I’ve heard the British sink illegal boats and take the refugees into detention. You could find yourself behind barbed wire.’
Esther flinched, her Auschwitz tattoo stood out against her pale skin. Dan realized he had said too much. Esther and her sister Klara were teenagers when the war began. They were both beautiful, at what cost they had survived Auschwitz was too frightening to even contemplate. He got up and put his arms around her.
‘Sorry, Esther, I just don’t want you to take any risks.’
‘We’ll be right Dan.’ Esther patted his hand. ‘You know we couldn’t live in Poland.’
Sol passed the wine around. ‘Our last toast for tonight,’ he raised his glass, ‘we’ve just celebrated our release from slavery from the pharaohs. I’ve been a slave to the Germans. I won’t repeat that mistake with the communists.’
‘Flight of the Swallows’ by Raya Klinbail is available in Avenue bookstores, at www.booktopia.com.au and Amazon (e-edition)
The book’s title is derived from the song ‘Donna, Donna’ where the swallows are free to fly and are the ones that survive.