Sunday, 10 October 2010

THE SIGNS -A short story by Michael Braga Oct 2010

I am just about to enter the narrow path between the shops when I see them. It’s been a long while since I have seen that sign. The bald man pauses in his painting of the swastika as he looks at me with that insolent stare that is his privilege and birthright. Before he can advance, I spin around. Having just been to the butcher on the right; I blindly stumble into the kosher bakery on the left.

I steady myself as I enter the bakery’s warm cinnamon and apple Austrian fog. It is the smell of Marthe’s cooking from before the troubled times. I long to impulsively reach out to the china plate of gingery Pfeffernusse on top of the counter, but hold myself back. I am still shaking as the girl there looks up at me expectantly.

“Can I help you?”
I hold up my string bag with its joint of ham from the butcher.
“I’m sorry. I should not have brought this in here.”
I rush out and flee past the shops and the bus stop. The August sun is fierce but I am cold. I could have worn my woollen coat but it’s not safe to stick out. If the Gentiles have bare arms so will I. With no yellow star to mark me these days, I can disappear like a sweet spoon of honey in bitter coffee.
I come in breathless and sweaty but my icy hand and knuckles scream their winter song of pain. While Walter’s beloved ham is on the boil, I start on Marthe’s honey cake. He loves that too. In that childlike manner of his, he will lick each sticky finger off before wiping his hands on the linen serviette that I will then have to put in the weekly wash.
With the tin in the raging oven, the cold is conquered by the warmth in the small kitchen. Despite the briny boiling ham, the honey smells strong in the kitchen and reminds me of how different it was then.
Even my name, H______ was different then. I was young then, so young and everything seemed so high above me. Tall people with long faces draped in broad furs that swept our dark wood floors. Silky white walled cool rooms with their ceilings high to the sky and those steep glass jars of cherries and apricots hunkered down in the brick cellars. The only thing that remained the same here was the smell of the hot honey Mutti would stir into her beloved lemon tea.

My darling Mutti was wiser than my Papi. We had heard of the transports when we were expelled to the Ghetto in the East, but by that time Papi was a starving man and no longer himself. He had never been hungry for so long before then and like the other men the free jam and blankets they bribed us with did us all in. With the help of his brother Shmuli, who was in the Ghetto police, the two brothers drove us and the howling others to the Umschlagplatz from where we were to be expelled to the East with our precious promise of jam. Two thousand people in a small square. After that November day in the piss and shit soaked square, winter air has never felt crisp or clean to me.

Wise Mutti exchanged her pearl ring and her last ruby brooch with Mrs. S____son, in exchange for us slipping through that cordon and escaping the camps that time.

In the end though, Mutti was not wise enough. Trusting Marthe meant our betrayal and having to endure that terrible Lager for so long. An age and Mutti passed on, before the new Aryans came in and transferred us to the Grand Lager with as many rations as you asked for and thick wool blankets. A DP they called it a Lager for the dispossessed and displaced.
That DP was brought to an abrupt end by the ship that brought me here: a great big unsteady bathtub that lurched across the narrow sea. I sailed with Etjie, Kitty and the rest who giggled constantly. We are free, we are free! I knew better. We were off to a new Lager with better rules, but rules all the same. As soon as we docked I collected my precious paper money and slipped off leaving those giddy goats behind.
The new Lager was not like the last place. There was no routine, no appelplatz assembly at dawn, no breaks. With no special status, I needed an Aryan to hide behind, so I ensnared Walter.

Many months later, I saw Kitty here. She still lives in the Eastern Ghetto giggling her way from one day to the next. I know better. Where there’s a ghetto there are informants. There one day your own elders will become policemen and the next day they will drive you with blows to the Umschlagplatz on the promise of jam.

Time goes by very quickly here. We are relieved of the race rules –no stars, no decree filled announcements, no expulsions from the halls of government. My lovely blonde hair is now a dreadful gray with a nest of black shoots. My eyes maybe blue but they are watered down. All that stands proud is the hook of my nose. And that is what they see. I know it when I see them look at me. When the time is right they will come for me. That much I am sure of.

Two years pass and the signs are painted everywhere now. There are lots of new people here who come from an East that is farther than the East I know. They wait on street shop corners like itinerant peddlers, their darkness stark against the surroundings. So the Aryan Alliance gathers pace once more and I am very fearful. They have a new uniform this secret state army. In the old days death came accompanied by a gentleman’s hat, soft grey wool, shiny black leather whip and boots. Now they take their short hair and raze it to signify the razing that is to come. The newcomers try to fight them just like we did in the old City, but it is no use. They will lose just like we did.

One peculiarly clammy October afternoon, when I read the news of the riots, I catch cold and start shaking. I put my overcoat on and head for bed to right myself, and this is where Walter finds me three hours later. This is where the silence between us explodes into noise.
“Marie, Marie wake up!” Walter shouts and for a moment I forget myself.
Dear little French Marie with her cheeks rouged in blood at every selection, finally got selected by typhus. Now her name belongs to me and H___ is another dead statistic.
“Oh, liebchen, don’t worry,” I calm him down with the promise of food. “I was just trying on the coat for winter and fell asleep. Phish! I’m just a silly old goose. Here let me fix you your sup..”

“Marie! Stop it! You’re not well, love. You know it. You’re sobbing, tossing, turning all night and every morning you deny it? Well it needs sorting out. I’m going to call Doctor Sharples for a check up right now.”
“Walter stop it. I am fine liebchen. I was just tired. I was cleaning out the scullery. Come on now its egg and chip night, your..”
“No bloody’ egg and chips, old girl, I’m not going to let you give up. It’s Doctor Sharples or I call the ambulance. You look green enough for them to take you in right now!”
I could not risk the dispensary. Helena with her boils and abscess went there and up she had gone up in smoke. A sick Jewess might as well be dead as far as they were concerned.
“Don’t be a worried goose Walter. I’m as right as rain! Now come on I need some egg and chips and I have got a new bottle of that mustard you like so!”
“I know what you’re worried about but it’s over, it’s over! You hear me? It’s August nineteen bloody seventy six! It’s been over for thirty years! You are not in a bloody Lager camp, you’re in Croydon for heavens sake!”
“Walter, don’t fret so, please?”
“You were an Art teacher at Croydon Grammar Marie, what’s happened to you? You never worried like this?”
Never worried? I just now know that now I am too old and feeble to hide the worry. The worry strengthens as your legs weaken and can no longer run as fast as you may need them to. He carries on babbling as he holds me close to his damp coat that smells like a wet dog.
“It’s okay Marie, its over. You have Israel now, a homeland I’ll take you there just to show you its all kaput. I can’t take this worry.”

We spring apart after our uncustomary embrace and sit in silence. I wonder if I should tell him what I know, but how can this Gentile with his brown sweet rabbit eyes understand what is happening around him. What does he know of a homeland for Jews? Look what good Madagascar did. Instead of a homeland, came ghettos and ovens to burn in. Israel or Madagascar it’s all a sham!
“Walter, I..”
“It’s on the wireless Marie, and there’s even the television you could watch if you went round to Gertie’s. It’s all on there. We watched the reels at the Ritzy, you saw it. It’s over the camps are finished.”
The television-phtchah! This poor man has no idea of how easy it is for them. Goebbels may be absent but his trickery is everywhere!
“Walter, Walter, really don’t make a fuss..”
“Stop! I mean it, stop! If you don’t see Doctor tonight I’m getting Gertie round to take you to hospital.”
Fraulein Gertrude-she was no better than Stella K-----selling all those poor Jewish U Boat families in hiding to the dogs when their money ran out. I never stooped that low.
“I mean it Marie, you know what I know..”
In the end Walter gets his way he knows my old secret and I cannot afford to lose his trust or favour.
“Okay, let us have our meal liebchen, and we’ll call him round in the morning”

I saw to it that Doctor Sharples did not arrive the next morning and our argument raged every day for weeks.

One Friday afternoon, seven weeks later, Walter unexpectedly appeared with Doctor Sharples and Frau Gertrude skulking behind him. They forced me down into my own chair to let the Doctor examine me. A week later I received official notification that I was to be transported to the hospital for further tests.
Walter brings me the hospital letter and tells me I am too old to run. He is right, this war will outlive me. When he leaves for the pub, I know that he must never have to defend my wrongdoings as a collaborator. I will do what is right for the both of us.

The morning before my transport, I go to my secret store. It’s in the outside lav, a place Walter never goes to now we have one indoors. There inside the cistern is my roll of cloth with my Reisepass, Mutti’s Kennkarte, my thirteen cans of provisions and the envelope. Many families we knew in the old Ghetto had these envelopes .They were brought out on the night before the families scheduled transport and their contents were shared by all the family. I say the Kaddish prayer of the dead for them, and for Mutti, Papi and Marie. I lift the tinkling poison envelope out from the roll and head indoors. Inside I shake its precious contents out and stir it into the rich chicken stew Walter and I will feast on together later.


  1. will give this a read when I have did Saturday go Mike?

  2. Mike - I gave this a read and liked have a knack with creating some wonderful evocative descriptions. In this piece I especially enjoyed the syrupy honey thing and how you use is to realate the protagonists' dissappearance "underground". The subject of someone being haunted and forced to live on a daily basis with past events - in extremis - as you know is a subject I myself find intriguing.
    Your story is however lacking for me a sense of closeness to the protagonist...the story comes across as rather a kind of narrative account of what when on in the past whereas I want to feel involved with the characters emotions and in this version I just feel I am being told rather matter of factly about the predicament. I must admit I did get rather confused with the time sequence shifts and think these should be made clear. Take care if you use german colloquialisms as you tend to do - NOT to then mix these with English ones (eg "pub") as this jarrs my reading of the piece.

    Bren Gosling