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Preparing for Pesach: Freedom

CALEV BEN DOR

They marched us down the length of Pozohony Street, toward the Margaret bridge and that was when we understood they were bringing us to the edge of the Danube, where they would shoot us and leave us to die under the ice. When we arrived at the foot of the bridge, a Soviet reconnaissance aircraft appeared out of nowhere over our heads. The death march stopped, and there was a moment of chaos while the Nazi guards sought refuge in the entrance to buildings and shot their Schmeisser sub machine guns skyward. Mother and I were standing next to a small public toilet of metal and painted green and mother pushed me inside. ‘Pretend you’re peeing’ she said. I stood there frozen with cold and fear, but I could not pee; when you are thirteen years old and frightened you cannot pee. The Soviet plane had meanwhile disappeared and the march resumed. Not a soul noticed that mother and I had remained in the toilet. Half an hour later, not a single person from the march was left alive. This was a key moment in my life, the moment that defines me more accurately than any other – more than anything I ever did, more than any place I ever visited, more than any person I have ever met. Not because I was spared – every survivor has his own story or a private miracle – but because I had nowhere to go….in this big wide world there was not a single place for a Jewish boy of thirteen whom everyone wants to kill. . So we went back to the ghetto. Years later on a trip I took to Budapest with Yair, we took a walk and found ourselves, without planning to, at the Margaret Bridge, We strolled along, chatting merrily when suddenly I stopped and, shaking, pointed at something ahead of us. At first Yair could not understand what it was that I was pointing at, but there it was: the public toilet made of metal and painted green. We stood there, two grown men, hugging and crying and stroking the green walls of the public toilet that saved my life, while the Hungarians who passed us on the street dud so with caution, convinced they were looking at two lunatics. My boy, I said once I was calm enough to speak, ‘it was in this place, without my even knowing it that I became a Zionist. It is the whole Zionist idea in fact, The State of Israel is a problematic place, and we’ll always have our arguments with it, but this is the very reason it was established. So that every Jewish child will always have a place to go.’ I hope that Yair understood. I am certain that he did not forget (Memories After My Death)

Then he [my father] told me in a whisper, without once calling me Your Highness or Your Honour, what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground, and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes, saying that Jews were all so-and-sos, while the teachers watched and said nothing, or maybe they were laughing too. And still in a voice of darkness with his hand still losing its way in my hair (because he was not used to stroking my hair) my father told me under my blanket in the early hours of the thirtieth of November 1947, ‘Bullies may well bother you in the street or at school some day. They may do it precisely because you are a bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are soand-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever’ (Amos Oz) A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station and Heaven forbid they should say we had stains on our skirts. In short, we had to try very hard to make a good impression…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust (Amos Oz) For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as its supposed to grow and that your rump sways the way a rump is supposed to sway. You could read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate. Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal. (Barack Obama)