It began like any of the indistinguishable, mechanical days which had followed one another in monotonous succession. By now, time—hours, days, weeks—had lost their individual marks; the calendar with its neat little boxes of dates and holidays seemed like some foreign relic of another age. Even Shabbat had merged, unnoted, unsanctified, into the large mass of minutes pushed behind: that many minutes lived, that many minutes yet free. In our windowless subterranean shelter there was no hint of the changing light outside, and day and night became mere formalities to which we adhered by the clock. The unshaded electric bulbs hanging from the low, sloping We lived as Christians, Catholics, like the scores of families who surrounded us on all sides ceiling were the only sun we had seen in weeks, months—no one remembered just how long.
We—that is, my mother, my two sisters and I—lived as Christians, Catholics, like the scores of families who surrounded us on all sides. We shared the pavement floor of their bomb shelter, we ate their food, we shared their trembling at the ceaseless roar and crash of Budapest above us; we shared their prayers and knelt side-by-side with them. Our society of maybe a hundred women, children and disabled men—the others were out fighting—became the whole world for us; only very rarely did anyone venture out into the death-infested streets to bring us news of the war-crazed world outside, and then, most of our people did not care to hear it. Thus day followed day, till we had lost the will to count them.
Yet, as soon as I woke up, I knew that there was something different about this day. I opened my eyes, looked around, and felt that empty place inside which reminded me that something very familiar, something very important, was missing. Turning on my straw mattress, I surveyed the floor around me: there lay the sleeping forms of my mother and sisters breathing heavily under their thin blankets. They were all here. My father was “outside” somewhere, working for the underground escape system, and my brother was in hiding somewhere else; he looked too Jewish to risk being with us. But they hadn’t been with us for months—it wasn’t either of them. Suddenly I remembered: it was Max. Max had not come back since the day before yesterday, and no one knew where he was, or at least that’s what they told me. He was much older than I, Max—perhaps even as old as my father—but he was my only friend in this place full of strange faces and fear. Where could he be? And he, who always kept his word, why didn’t he keep his promise to me?
Quietly, so as not to rouse the others, I crept to the edge of the curtain that my mother had hung up to give us a little corner of privacy, and tiptoed outside. Most of the people in the shelter were still asleep, and the lights, except for the center one which burned through the night, were not yet lit. The place was dark and full of shadows, and the thick air was very hard to breathe. But Max was not puttering around, up before everyone else the way he always used to be. I waited and waited, but still he did not come.
No one knew where he was, or at least that’s what they told me
My mother hated Max—she told me time and again not to go with him on our “promenades” around the shelter, but she never said it in front of him, and I went anyway. Max was wonderful. He’d come at any odd time of day with his big laugh, grab me, hoist me in the air onto his shoulders and say, with his big laugh:
“Well, my queen, where shall we promenade today? In the forest primeval? By the babbling brook? Or shall we just roam through the fields of laughing daisies?” I’d hang unto the dusty, blue beret which he wore for all our excursions, as we climbed into our coach-of-eight or stepped into an idly gliding gondola. Then each broken chair and bed and old box in the dingy cellar turned into trees and rocks and flowers; the sun shone or there were sudden violent storms, according to his mood; there were animals and people to watch; and then there were stories, countless stories to tell. Somewhere in the “fields” we would find a spot for our picnic, and through some magic power which I have never figured out to this day, Max would produce, from deep down in his cavernous pockets, a much-coveted candy for dessert.
When Max was around, the days passed like minutes; people watched us and laughed, and sometimes forgot that they no longer cared.
But there was another side to Max too: on some days a dark and gloomy look used to come on his face. In the middle of a promenade he dropped me, suddenly, as if I were no longer there. He would begin to mutter to himself and pace the shelter, his head thrust before him and his hands behind his back, fiercely, like a caged animal. After a while he’d get so worked up that he talked louder and louder and paced faster and faster, till, finally, he grabbed a box from somewhere, jumped on it, and tearing off his beret, began on one of his interminable tirades about G‑d and people and war. At the time, of course, I didn’t understand most of what he said, but the words which he used again and again were sharply imprinted on my child’s mind:
“Sheep, sheep—that’s what we are—we’re not people—we’re sheep that walk right into the wolf’s fangs. We deserve what’s happening to us, we deserve the war and the death and the torture, and let me tell you, there’s more yet to come, things unimaginable—hell on earth—before they will have done with us. Yes, hell—the hell you’re all so afraid of after your puny little lives are over—hell is here on earth, and you, you have created it in the name of G‑d! We deserve to live like animals because we are animals! For centuries and centuries we cowered and served and knelt like animals. We are not men—to men this truly could not happen—only to the shells of men who were taught to walk on all fours and not think. In the name of G‑d! Always in the name of G‑d! Well, look around, you worshippers of graven images, where is your G‑d now? Why is He hiding? Where is His justice to those who have served Him faithfully? Is this His world or isn’t it? And the one that spits on His name rides in glory. What a laugh, what a joke!” He looked around, eyes spitting fire, hands outstretched. “I’ll tell you why. Because,” and his voice fell to a sudden whispered hiss, “because He isn’t, that’s why. Your G‑d isn’t. There is no G‑d up there—only blue and infinite space, and that’s what you’re praying to.” Slowly, the women and children and crippled and old men turned from him; the nuns—there were three in our shelter—knelt quickly and crossed themselves.
“Why is He hiding? Is this His world or isn’t it?”
“Look at me,” Max continued, jabbing at his breast, “look at me. I am safe because I have no religion—no one will touch me, for I am a man, nothing less and nothing more than a man. There are no Christians, no Jews, no Muslims—there are only men; there is only this!” Suddenly his wild hands found me and hoisted me high up into the air. “This is my god! The child, the man, the human being—that’s my god and there is no other!” My mother came then and looked at him with tears in her eyes. She took my hand and led me quietly away. But he would go on for hours, until, completely spent, he threw himself down somewhere and slept. When he woke, it was as if a storm had passed and the sun shone with a washed brightness.
But now Max was gone—gone since the day before yesterday—and there was nothing to do, no one to talk to, no one to romp with. Listlessly I walked back to our little, curtained-off corner.
Slowly the shelter came to life. My mother got up and prepared breakfast—a few crackers with some jam we still had left. But neither of my two sisters nor my mother touched the food.
“Don’t be foolish, Anna, you must eat. Whatever we have left we must use for our strength.” My sister just looked at the floor and didn’t answer.
“But why aren’t you eating, Mommy? Why isn’t anyone eating?” My mother looked away, too.
“I’m not hungry this morning, but you just eat—you eat my portion also. I’ll eat later.” There was that solemn look on her face, and she watched me sadly as she used to on special days, before we moved out of our house and stopped being Jews. Suddenly, she put her two hands on my head and said a few words quietly, the way my father often did. And then I started to cry.
“Where is Max, Mommy? Why doesn’t he come back? You know where he is, don’t you?”
“Nothing happened. Do you understand? Nothing at all happened . . .”
“Shh—don’t talk about him. You mustn’t talk about him anymore or mention his name. It’s dangerous.” The special tone of that last word was very familiar to me, and usually it answered everything, but today I perversely persisted.
“Why? Are you still angry at him for what happened with that—”
“With nothing,” my mother broke in quickly, “nothing happened. Do you understand? Nothing at all happened. You must not forget that—it’s very, very important.” Now her tone was very serious, very intense. I nodded, slowly, and kept quiet. But after a while I went off by myself and sat down to think about what I knew had happened.
It was the night before last, the night when Max left.
He had barged in on us after the curtain was already up, while my mother and sisters were out talking to some of our neighbors. Left to ourselves, we began to rummage through all our belongings, just for the fun of it. Suddenly his hands found a little black book hidden under piles of clothing. He looked into it curiously, and then slapped his thigh and laughed louder and louder, till he was almost shrieking. My mother ran in, and, seeing the thing in his hands, she stopped short and looked at him.
“Are you completely crazy? Watch yourself!” she whispered. But he just went on rolling on the floor and laughing.
“Of all the insane things in the world! A siddur, a siddur!” he was spluttering, choking, “not a gun, not a pill, not even food to save themselves with. A siddur!” As suddenly as it came, the laughter went, and he was in a rage. He grabbed my mother and shook her. “Why did you keep this? What do you think this magic object will do for you, huh? Can’t you understand that you really are not a Jew? That I’m not a Jew, that there is no such thing as a Jew?”
Now my mother just looked at him, and her eyes said nothing.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, or where you got that thing from. Take it and leave; we would like to go to sleep.” Then she looked steadily into his eyes and crossed herself solemnly, while he stared, with the siddur in his hands. But he didn’t leave right away. First he tore out all the pages of the siddur, shredded them, spit on them and stamped on them wildly with his feet. A cold shiver ran down my spine, and I made a move forward—but my mother’s eyes were on me, and I froze. Then Max took my hands and looked at me.
“At least you—at least the young and uncorrupted should know. There is no G‑d up there, my child; there is no magic power in these pages. Everything that you could ever do or be is in here,” and he jabbed my hand with his finger. “There is nothing, nothing up there. Remember that.” With that, he turned and walked out quietly; he walked right out through the door of the shelter. Seeing the dark, angry look on his face, I ran after him. “Max, Max, where are you going?” But gently he pushed me back. “No, my child, not now. Now I must go by myself. But I’ll be back for you—I promise. I will be back before you are up tomorrow morning.”
“A siddur, a siddur!” he was spluttering, choking, “not a gun, not a pill, not even food to save themselves with. A siddur!”
And that was the last I saw of him. My mother swept up the torn pages of the siddur. For a moment she hesitated, then she wrapped them up in an old newspaper and gave them to my sister.
“It’s the only way. It will have to go out with the garbage.”
And now my mother said that nothing had happened. I knew better, but I understood: it was dangerous.
The day dragged on. I wandered about the shelter, trying to work up the magic by myself, but it was no good without Max. At lunch I ate alone again; my mother said she had already eaten. Then I just sat in a corner and sulked most of the afternoon. From time to time I looked up hopefully, but no one ducked under the low archway into the shelter.
It was towards evening when I sensed a sudden commotion: someone had come in, someone new. I ran out to look—maybe it was Max. But then I stopped, frozen. The man who was hurrying forward, with his head bent and his hands pressed close to his sides, was not Max—it was my father, whom I hadn’t seen in months. As soon as he reached our corner, he sat on one of the beds with his back to the rest of the shelter. His face was deathly white, and I noticed a steady trickle of red dripping from his fingers. My mother hadn’t moved all this while, and then my father spoke quickly but quietly.
“I am a friend of your late husband’s who died recently in action. This is the first you hear of it. His last request was that I see you. I am wounded and in need of rest. You think up the details. Put up the curtain.” As soon as the curtain was up and my sister had gone out to tell my father’s tale to our closest neighbors, we saw my father’s hands. The skin was in shreds, and the bones of his fingers were exposed. His legs, too, under the tattered trousers, were bruised and bloody. My mother bandaged him with strips of a sheet, and in a few words, his story, which I understood only much much later, was told.
Someone had denounced him to the Gestapo as a Jew and a worker for the underground. They came looking for him in his hiding place. He jumped two flights out of a window, scaled one concrete garden wall after another with his bare hands and knees and with guns shooting behind him; he outran and outwitted a detachment of bloodhound-trained SS men, and now he was here.
“But soon I must go,” he said. “I can’t endanger the rest of you. You will hear from me as soon as I am safe. With the help of G‑d, our passports to Switzerland should be coming through soon.”
“And since when does our food give us strength?” my father asked softly
My mother was pulling out our little kerosene stove. “I will make you something warm to drink, and then, at least, sleep a while before you go.” My father looked for his watch, but it was gone.
“No, it isn’t time, yet. But it’s almost night.” My mother just stared at him.
“Do you know what you’re doing? How can you go on like this? You must eat something—you must have strength, I tell you!”
“And since when does our food give us strength?” my father asked softly. “And who knows whether fasting does not give more strength than food? This is a time when each man’s deepest nature is uncovered, and each man sees what he wants to see. Some see a mad, senseless chaos, and some see in the chaos the Hand of G‑d on each individual human being. Oh, if only we could understand! Baruch dayan emes.” Then my father lay down and slept, and a little while later he left us again.
It was only later, after the war, that I heard what else my mother found out that day. It was about Max. He had been found the day before, thrown into a doorway near our shelter. He had been shot through the head—maybe by Nazis who found him, maybe by Jews who feared him—nobody knew. But on him, tacked onto his clothing, they found a piece of paper with the word “Jude” scrawled in big letters. There it lay on his breast.
I had been sitting, idly playing with a flashlight, when my father left. Now my mother turned on me in fierce anger.
“Put that down.” But I was bored and rebellious and did not obey.
“Put that down, I say.”
“But why?” Then my mother’s anger faded, and she leaned close and whispered in my ear.
“Silly, because it’s Yom Kippur, and that’s muktzah.”
My hand dropped the flashlight almost of its own accord. It was Yom Kippur—that’s why nobody had wanted to eat! Blurred images of another Yom Kippur flitted through my mind—the look on my mother’s face, my father’s hands on my head, people all in white, and the whole day in shul—but it was all so far away.
Now I wanted to think about Max. Somehow I had a sad, empty feeling that he wouldn’t come back, and I was angry at him, for he, who always kept his word, had broken his promise to me.