My Father and His shop

I remember him well; my father and his shop. Somehow I remember him and our shop better than all the rest of my childhood, I am thankful to God for that. Why?

I shall explain this later and you will understand.

Our house, with the shop below, was situated in the centre of the market place, a lovely, noisy place where most of the business of the town was carried on in those days. Every small town in Eastern Europe had its market place; the square of empty ground with side pavements and the old houses encircling it. There the families like my own lived for generations. The houses were big, double storied, with dark well-like yards.

The spacious flats, for all had large families and often relations lived permanently with them. Although they often looked neglected and dilapidated from the outside, they were however happy houses, full of wonderful smells, and full of children with content faces. There were no playgrounds, but the shops down below, and the market place were the most wonderful places of all.

My father had a sweetshop. What could be better for a little girl? And there were others. Shops with beautiful china, shops with gorgeous materials, shops with leather where the landlords bought their saddles and riding boots, shops with delicacies. Each family had been in business for generations and all were proud of their shops.

When the market place was empty it made a delightful playground, and on market days it was a fascinating place for children. With the dawn we heard the people arrive with their goods in carts, on foot, with their cattle, baskets, and boxes full of country produce: such as butter, cheeses, cream, vegetables, fruit and poultry. We heard the angry voices of women, the swearing of men, the bustle of preparations, and the erection of stalls. Suddenly, like a fairy-tale, the market place was full; full of neighing horses, squeaking pigs, cackling hens and lowing cattle. The stalls were heavy with food, materials, laces, pictures, medallions, linen and flowers.

I marveled again and again at how they managed to pile all those things in, in such a short time. The crowds, the noise, the calls of women praising their products, all mingled together.

This was the day we had all been looking forward to; and we children never failed to enjoy ourselves, just watching, running about, buying penny sweets from the stalls and touching all.

But my father's shop was the best of all. It was not an impressive shop being rather dark and narrow with a long counter running down the length of it and shelves all around. But the shelves had all the sweets one could ever dream of. There were boxes and boxes of delicious chocolates lollipops marzipan, wafers, matzo, biscuits, fruits in sugar, enormous chocolate eggs, halva, and Easter snowy lambs all made out of sweet stuff. Even the boxes were beautiful with their foreign labels and inscriptions. How I loved to look at them!

My favorite place was in a dark corner under the staircase leading from our flat to the shop where I stayed for long hours watching my father. My father'.

He was a tall, dark man, and though I do not remember his features distinctly, I know he had a wise and gentle face. Always in the same black suit, a cap on his head, he was there in our shop, serving the customers, counting the money, sorting the boxes, and talking to the people. When the ring of the doorbell announced a newcomer, he would hasten to greet him 'Your servant Sir, Good day.' Sometimes he sold a lot, sometimes

a pennies worth, but always gracefully, bowing low, and thanking profoundly. Our frequent customers were the rich people living just outside the town, who used to come to the shop in carriage drawn by two beautiful horses, often followed by a smaller carriage, drawn by four ponies containing their four little daughters. How my father loved their visits. The girls giggled, argued about sweets, and asked for different tit-bits. Their parents bought boxes and boxes of delicacies for their latest party, and the landlord, who was very fond of my father, teased him 'Mr. Baum, when are you going to Palestine?' It was my father's great dream to go there, and settle down there with his cousins. For as long as I can remember he was always on the verge of going, but he was torn between his two loves: his fatherland and the house and the shop in the market place. So he just talked about our going away and selling the business, and argued with my mother, who having small children and her own aged parents to care for, never encouraged him much. We were happy where we were and it was unthinkable for us children to leave the home we loved so much. I suppose we were not especially well off, but our lives were happy, our parents were good, pious people, who loved us dearly, and because of my love for the shop, I think I was my father's favorite child. My two big brothers were at school, and my baby sisters were either too occupied or too small, to take an interest in the business. I alone could stay there for hours, just watching, thinking, and dreaming.

But I did not dream of the lovely ponies the other children had, or of the house with the swimming pool, or the park full of peacocks and tame deer, where they lived. I was happy in my own home and I would not change it for anything else. I just dreamt about working in the shop and selling sweets, talking to the customers and sorting the boxes the way my father did.

Then came the war, one of the nightmares I pray to forget. German planes appeared over the town, the shops were closed and the market square deserted. Frightened people talked in whispers: WAR I remember the whistling siren, roaring planes over our house, and the crump of falling bombs followed by the screams of women and children.

I remember crouching in our wet, dark cellar and the quiet weeping of my mother.

But the war did not last long. After a few weeks it was over and the Germans marched

triumphantly into the town. As children, we welcomed the end of the war. We had had enough of cellars, and the roaring of the planes. We walked behind the German soldiers, watching them curiously, admiring their cars, tanks and equipment. The grown-ups, less excited, but glad nevertheless talked and laughed, relaxing after the tension of the past few weeks.

The German occupation had begun. One had to get used to this idea and start living again. How little I knew of what was happening in the rest of the country where we lived. Hundreds in exile or in concentration camps, thousands homeless or destroyed: misery, poverty and suffering were all around us. But I was an ignorant little girl who could smile again because I was free to romp and play happily in the market square. My father however, although he re-opened his shop, was strangely silent and moody these days. Perhaps he regretted his lack of decision to go to Palestine, who knows?

At first everything went well. His business carried on as usual although supplies were getting shorter and shorter and we had fewer customers. Our shop was often very quiet and empty as the people did not have enough money to buy luxuries.

The first thing to upset our lives was the German order to wear bands with the King David star on our arms. I did not mind very much, because in a way it was fun. We were like soldiers proudly showing the badge of our regiment. But my family was upset. Now we often heard the word 'Jew.' In certain shops, cinemas and restaurants notices appeared saying: 'Entrance for Jews forbidden.'

Still our market place was free from this as we were all of the same kind. And then suddenly they started talking about a Ghetto, making our market square and the surrounding streets into a Ghetto and moving in all the Jews from the rest of the town to live with us.

We had a large flat and I thought it would be fun to share it with others, until the day they began to arrive! They came in groups led by German soldiers, pale and frightened some with small babies in their arms. They carried suitcases, the only belongings they were allowed to take with them. Small, old, men and women, all driven from their houses one morning and given only a few minutes to prepare themselves. And here they came with the soldiers kicking, swearing and shouting at them to disperse. Everyone had to find a place to live. They also came to us begging for shelter, tears in the men's eyes, and the women crying bitterly. I recognized many of them, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers and tradesmen.

My father brought them in until every hook and cranny was occupied. We even shared our beds with them and my mother's big kitchen was always crowded now. Small babies crawled on the floor, women cooked meals, prepared food, borrowed pots and cutlery, constantly arguing, quarreling and crying. The men sat in the house in gloomy silence, brooding over their losses and lack of work. But for us children it was a picnic. We soon made friends with other boys and girls, sharing our food and toys with them and showing them our favorite games and hiding places. The shop, of course was the centre of attraction, and although its supplies were rapidly diminishing, my father always managed to have something to give to the little ones. He was dearly loved by all, and was the only one who could pacify the quarreling families, console the tearful and give courage to the faint-hearted. We shared all our belongings with the others and it was like having an enormous family of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Our Ghetto was still open, and we could go to the town wearing our bands on our arms. My father could still run his business, buying supplies from local traders, and life (although cramped) was not too bad. Men slowly returned to work, some helping the other shopkeepers, some practicing their trades and occupations. A school was going to be opened in the Ghetto in a few months time, to which we would all go.

The winter came and with it new rules and regulations. The Ghetto was to be closed and guarded by German soldiers. All wishing to go to town had to receive special permission and state their reason. This meant one thing: HUNGER Now the children were merry no more, and the cold weather with its snow and frost increased our misery. The supplies of potatoes, flour and fat were diminishing rapidly, so we lived mainly on soup and bread which was rationed. The people were getting ill, thin and fretful. My father closed his shop and the rest of his supplies were carefully shared among us all. The school would not be opened after all, and suddenly I was afraid. I watched my father praying long into the night and by the light of the candles I saw him as never before. He became an old, disillusioned, and bitter man. All the people prayed a lot. One could see them in the evening in the candlelight heads young and old, bowed low, murmuring their prayers, and singing their hymns. Outside was the winter night with snow falling quietly on the trees, roofs and windows. The whole world seemed sleeping and peaceful. We children spent most of our time cuddled near the kitchen stove, playing silently with toys or listening to the stories my father read to us from the Old Testament. It was still a home and a peaceful life.

But in the spring the Germans enforced still more rules and regulations. All healthy men and women between the ages of 16 and 60 were forced to work.

One morning they came in waking us up at dawn, kicking doors, shouting commands, and chasing young and old out into the market square. Only babies were allowed to remain and as they were snatched from their mothers' arms, they were left wailing on the beds. We all met in the market place, hundreds of our friends and neighbors were dragged out of their beds like us. And now the selection began. Men and women were separated, while old people and children were left in different groups. We stood watching the soldiers in bewilderment and fright, as they counted the people fit for work, while distributing spades and tools among the men, and then loading them on trucks.

My father, my dearest one, and my two brothers were taken. My mother went with the women in a different group. I and my two little sisters were left alone. The little girls seeing their mother going, stretched out their small arms to her crying loudly 'Mummy, Mummy.' She saw us and stepped forward. Maybe she wanted to come and embrace us and say good-bye, or maybe it was just a little involuntary movement, or perhaps she wanted to ask the soldier for permission to go. But the soldier, a big, red faced man, rushed to her and slapped her heavily in the face. My mother swayed losing her balance, and then straightened herself and stood very still and very erect. There were no tears in her eyes. The whole crowd suddenly became very silent. I looked at my father, also standing very still, and I saw the pride in his eyes. He was proud of my mother and suddenly I also became proud of both of them, proud of our neighbors, proud of them all. They carried spades, wore old garments, looked ill and tired, but they carried themselves well.

Soon the loading was finished and the soldiers shouted the last command to disperse. We were free to go. I joined my grandparents and we returned slowly to the house. There was a lot of work to do that day, tending to the babies, cooking the meals and cleaning the house. For the first time in my life I was without either my father or my mother and I felt sick and hurt, lost and hopeless. But life had to go on. Soon there were the customary morning sounds in our kitchen. All worked as never before; the old ladies prepared breakfast, the old men cleaned the home and the children tended to the babies. We wanted to show our loved ones that they could also be proud of us. That day my childhood ended. I fully realized our tragedy and became a grown up person in spirit.

Our dearest ones returned the same evening feeling hungry, tired and depressed. The men had worked in the fields, while the women worked in the factories learning how to operate the machines. The long hours of work under German supervision had been a great strain on them all. I saw how tired my father looked and felt a pang of pity for him and for the rest of the exhausted people. My mother however, was full of good spirits. The Germans had promised them rations of food and she was looking forward to giving us some proper meals. How brave she was, she had never worked so hard before. Suddenly I saw her clearly, full of spiritual strength and courage. How glad we were to see her again, embracing us, asking about domestic happenings, grateful for all we had done.

Day after day, every morning at 5 o'clock, we said good-bye to them and were left to manage the house by ourselves. I became quite an experienced nurse and loved it. In a way this was still a happy life. Until one day'.

It was a summer's morning, quiet, dark and cool. The house was full of tired, sleeping people. Then suddenly I heard the voices of angry German voices giving orders. Then there were the heavy steps of soldiers coming nearer and nearer to us. Suddenly the doors flew open and the shout 'Alles raus, All out' echoed through the house, waking the people from their sleep. This was not the usual morning call for work. We looked at each other, frightened, hurriedly dressed and gathered the little ones together. We went down with our parents, bewildered and speechless, and full of misgivings.

Again the market place was full, this time full with crying babies, children half asleep and old people. The soldiers arrived in closed vans, hundreds of them. They were nervous themselves as every one of them carried a gun; they shouted, swore and kicked as never before. We all stood very still, terror on every face. This time they divided us into two groups; those able to work and those who were too young or too old. The vans came nearer and stopped next to us, and the loading began. This time they were loading us, yes US, the children and the old.

There was a moan, then weeping, then angry shouts and screams from the crowd. Mothers rushed forward, dragging their children from the vans. Fathers snatched their little ones and carried them past the standing soldiers, who, for a moment, remained where they were and did not know what to do. Then I heard a command; and shots, one, two, then more and more. I saw my mother embracing my baby sisters and then I heard her scream, a loud and piercing scream. She was falling down, down, down '.

Then mercifully all went black before my eyes and I saw no more.

I recovered from my faint, only to find myself lying in my Granny's arms inside a bumping van. I heard the moaning and whimpering of children and all the people around us. When my eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness, I saw that we were all crowded together lying side by side in the van.

We finally stopped outside the town where a train was awaiting us. The soldiers opened the doors and ordered us to descend. More and more vans arrived, all filled with stricken old people and frightened children. I looked feverishly for my small sisters, but it was impossible to find them among so many people. There was only my Granny, and I clung to her desperately. We were pushed brutally towards the train and loaded into empty cattle trucks. Through the open doors we started to enter; the old, the crippled, the sick, and the children. Babies were thrown in by soldiers without a glance, like parcels. More and more shouts'Out, Hurry 'swearing all the time. Now I knew, even though a child I suddenly knew the truth. We were going to the place from which there was no return, and the people started whispering those two dreadful words: GAS CHAMBERS. I cried desperately for I knew that I would never see my loved ones again, and nothing my Granny said could console me. Finally I fell into an exhausted sleep. When I woke up, our train was slowly beginning to move. The wagon was full of people, and the everlasting crying of hungry babies, and the smells of vomit, urine and sweat. I nearly fainted again, but somehow my Granny managed to push me near the door which was not properly shut and through which came a breath of fresh air. I peered through the opening and saw the train was moving slowly through the forest which was one of our favorite picnic spots before the war. The forest belonged to one of our best customers and was not far from the house of our Landlord. As I looked out I heard my Granny's quiet but urgent whisper: 'JUMP OUT'. Without thinking twice I obeyed her and pushed myself through the narrow opening of the door, and jumped out. I fell into soft sand and crawled quickly under the surrounding shrubs and hid myself. I heard the whistle of the train in the distance and lay there quietly for a long time. They had not noticed my escape and had not stopped the train. The soldiers were so sure that they had the small and old at their mercy, that they had taken no precautions against possible escapes. Moving silently I crept further into the forest and waited for darkness to come. Then I made my way to the estate.

It was late in the evening when I reached the house. I stood outside for a long time, watching them eating their supper through the window. I saw the servants clear the table and say good-night to their masters. Finally when I was sure of finding the Landlord and his wife alone, I walked quietly in. I am afraid I frightened them very much, but what else could I do? I managed to whisper out my story and they were most kind. They knew nothing about my family, although they heard what had taken place that morning, they had not been allowed to enter the Ghetto. They were moved and shocked by my story and perhaps out of resentment and hatred against the cruel Germans, they gladly took me in. They dressed me in peasant clothes, gave me food and took me upstairs to the loft where I spent the night. They took a great risk for me, as houses were often searched. They showed me an old wardrobe and told me to hide there if I heard any suspicious noises downstairs. During the day I would have to remain in it all the time, and keep very quiet.

During the following days I saw nobody except the Landlord, who at intervals brought me food and words of comfort. I still marvel at how he managed to keep me there without the knowledge of his large household. One night my host came to fetch me. There was a carriage waiting downstairs and he hid me inside amongst blankets, cushions and boxes. Then we drove away, on a long and exhausting drive. We finally arrived at a little forester house, and I stepped out of the suffocating atmosphere of the carriage, into the fresh, pure air of the forest. The place looked completely deserted, but after knocking on the door for some time, it was opened by an old man. He already knew about my coming and took me inside.

From that moment, until the end of the war I stayed there with two kind old people. I soon developed into a strong, healthy girl, helping in the house, loving the freedom, fresh air and out door life. Except for my memories, and an inward gnawing fear, I was not too sad. The old people had been told I was an orphan sent by a priest to the Landlord to be looked after. They never questioned this and they liked me and showed me much kindness. Was I really an orphan? I often cried at night thinking about this. I know now that I was, but I am grateful to God, for sparing me the awful knowledge at that time.

After the war I got in touch with my father's cousins in Palestine and I joined them soon afterwards and stayed with them until I married.

Now I am very happy. We have a little shop and as I sit there sorting the boxes of delicious chocolates, arranging the display of sweets, and selling them, I often think of my father. Somehow it does not hurt so much when I remember him: my father and his shop'But the rest is just a nightmare that I pray to God to forget and to forgive those who have done this to me and to my people. 


More by :  Pravin Gupta

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