HILEL KEMPLER

THE BOY FROM GRENADIERSTRASSE
In Berlin

         

Hillel Kempler was born in Berlin in 1925 to a Jewish family of Polish origin. They escaped Nazi Germany relatively early, in 1933, and reached Palestine, the future Israel. He overcame immigration difficulties, studied and worked as an electrician – a skill he also used during his military service in the Israel War of Independence, 1948, and later on. He proceeded from assisting in a vocational school's workshops to teaching and finally became the head of the vocational education department in the Tel Aviv municipality. Hillel married Esther in 1947. They had a son and a daughter. He passed away in 2014.

 



This text includes an interesting chapter about the passage of Hillel and his family through the Balkans. This is one of the reasons we publish this very interesting story about emigration, which is very actual today. (J.S.)"


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THE BOY FROM GRENADIERSTRASSE
In Berlin
(...)
On Route

Chapter 1
The train arrived at Karslbad in the evening. Mother was very tense until they reached the border control. She was afraid that if there was a delay, the border might be closed for her and the children. The Czech border policemen were actually kind. They carefully checked her passport and permit, looked at Mother and back again at her picture in the passport, smiled understandingly and wished her a pleasant stay in Karlsbad or anywhere else she was planning to visit. Intuitively they could dintinguish regular travelers from the refugees fleeing from Germany.
Mother knew the hotel from her previous trips. The front desk clerk even remembered her. The hotel was almost empty. Usually at this time of year, all the rooms would be occupied: Most of the guests were typically Jews from Germany, Poland, and Austria. This year, no one had any inclination to travel for rest and recuperation. Mother took a single room for the four of them. The clerk thought that that was going too far – four in two beds? The hotel manager had to decide. But he looked at Mother and the children and understood immediately: They weren’t here for the rest. He grumbled but allowed it. The passport was taken for the record. Mother could retrieve it the next morning at the local police station. In the not-so-distant past, no one would have taken such care with formalities. The clerk would merely record the guest’s name and passport number and hand the passport back to the guest.
Mother decided to stay there for two or three days. She was very tired after the enormous stress of the last few months had dissipated. The children also needed some respite. They walked around the city streets that were almost devoid of tourists, they peeked into the magnificent baths, most of which were locked, sat in the parks and the playgrounds. In the afternoon, the children found things to occupy themselves so that Mother could rest. They understood that she was in sore need of it.
The trip to Prague was not very long. They left early in the morning so that they would have time for some errands later in the day. The address of the Jewish community offices was written in a small notebook that contained all the information they needed for their journey. Mother decided that she would not be shy, she would not act as if she was a dignified woman come to rest. She would try to be frugal with their expenses and receive advice on contacts and assistance in accommodations from the community members. The family had become refugees and it was something that had to be accepted. She had no idea about the expenses that she would have later in the journey and how long her funds would last.
At the Greek Consulate, she was rejected outright. They were not willing to accept refugees, and in any case, their border with Turkey was very problematic. Violent border clashes erupted from time to time, and there was no chance that she would travel from Greece to Turkey. No, Mother should look for a different solution. She was not even given the opportunity to explain her special situation.
She similarly received little encouragement at the Bulgarian Consulate. They were not willing to accept refugees. Their country was poor and could not handle refugees. Furthermore, they no longer believe the German refugees. Several dozen of them who had recently received transit permits, never left the country. There was not way they could be located. They were probably hiding in the homes of local Jews. They don’t want to hurt the rights of their own Jewish citizens but they weren’t interested in any more than the Jews they already have. And any way, they generally don’t grant permits in countries that don’t border on Bulgaria. She should try Belgrade, where she was supposed to go. Mother’s spirits were low. She hadn’t expected a lot, but the answer she received weighed on her heavily.
A member of the Jewish community met the family at the community offices in late afternoon. He heard their story, tried to encourage them, suggested that he take Mother and the children to see the city and its sites. “The city is very beautiful,” he said, “there are sites of Jewish history, views, palaces. When you reach Palestine, and I am sure that you will, it won’t be so easy for you to come back and visit these beautiful sites. The children will remember these places all their lives. Even in difficult times, they deserve some entertainment and enjoyment.”
Hillel would remember the tour forever. The man was nice and did everything he could to entertain the children and interest them. His family had lived in Prague for generations. He told them stories and legends. In the ancient Altneushul synagogue, he sat on the Maharal’s seat (Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel) and told them one of the most magical stories about the Golem and his actions. In his fruitful imagination, Hillel saw the Maharal’s face and dignified beard, he imagined the Maharal sending the Golem of Prague to defend the Jewish homes that were under attack. He saw, as if it were happening in front of his eyes, the Golem and his enormous body, covered in body armor from head to toe, marching down the streets of Berlin, striking at the gangs right and left. Hillel almost shouted, “Mother, if we had the Golem of Prague in Berlin, he would have protected us and banished all the Nazi gangs. We wouldn’t have had to escape and Father would have come home.” She looked at him with compassion. How this little seven-year-old weaves together imagination and reality!
Initially Mother hesitated to enter the Old Jewish Cemetery with the children. “A cemetery is no place for a child,” she said to their escort, but she was persuaded that it was both important and expedient. Instead of talking about the dead, the man spoke about the living. In front of the large tombs, he described the people and the families they represented, he told stories of wisdom and heroism of the people who had lived in Prague hundreds of years ago. It was as if an entire city with houses, institutions, activities, and problems, was there in the cemetery. “It wasn’t frightening at all,” Miri declared as they left the cemetary, and Mother concurred with a nod.
The electric trams, with their thick network that was spread throughout the city, took the visitors from site to site. Squares, monuments, beautiful palaces, statues. The children were interested in everything. Their escort, who had a wonderful talent for description and story-telling, transformed every silent pile of stone into a living, breathing body. Mother also enjoyed herself immensely.
They had lunch in a restaurant in the Jewish quarter. Their escort insisted on paying for the meal and for the numerous rides on the tram. After lunch he had a surprise for them: a three-hour excursion on a boat that took them along the river that crosses the city. The boat was full of children who were on summer vacation from school. Their cries of joy overpowered the sound coming from the loudspeaker: someone was making an effort to describe the various sites visible on the river banks. Hillel tried to mix in with the children but he got tired of trying. He didn’t understand one word of their language and they didn’t understand him. Izzie also made an effort, and tried using facial expressions and hand festures. The older children, Izzie’s age, knew a few words in German and some contact was made, but this was gone as soon as they disembarked.
When they parted in the evening, the man hugged the children and kissed Mother’s hand and thanked the family for the tour. Yes, he thanked them. It was an experience for him, he said, to see how they learned about, understood, and enjoyed the city’s sites and its Jewish past.

Chapter 2
The date of their travel to Budapest had to be confirmed with the Hungarian Consulate. Even this simple procedure took a long time. The passport was taken for inspection, and the family was instructed to wait. What else was there to check, Mother wanted to ask, but she said nothing. She was afraid that her question would annoy one of the clerks and would delay them further or, God forbid, cause their permit to be revoked. A brief interrogation, the same questions all over again. Mother was instructed to buy and show them the tickets to Budapest and from there to Belgrade. She dragged the children along to the train station and returned with the tickets. She received her passport, after receiving yet another warning that she was required to leave Hungary within 48 hours.
They took a night train to Budapest. The train had sleeper cars, but they were too expensive. The family made do with seats in the second-class carriage. These were upholstered seats that you could fall asleep in. Each cabin had six seats. The train wasn’t full and two seats in their cabin remained empty. They tried to figure out how they would sleep. Hillel had an idea. Above the benches, along them, were shelves made of net to hold packages. He would climb up and sleep in one of these nets. If Miri wanted to, she could sleep in the second one. He had noticed the shelves the moment they entered the cabin – they reminded him of the hammock the family used to swing in when they vacationed in the woods. But more than he was thinking about a solution for sleeping, he wanted the amusement of swinging in the net. Miri didn’t want to climb up and she settled down with Izzie on one bench, with their heads at opposite ends and feet touching. It was not so comfortable but it was possible to fall asleep.
The border police officer inspected the passport. It was already early morning, the beginning of dawn appeared in the east. He wrote the precise time on the permit. He spoke no German and pointed with his finger to the time he wrote. There was no need for words, it was all clear. How strict, how cruel, thought Mother, but she remained silent.
They left the two large suitcases at the train station luggage storage and took only their small bags with them. They could manage without the suitcases for one night. They went straight to the nearest police station to register as required.
From the moment they arrived in Budapest they were struck with fear, a lack of confidence, they felt as if they were being followed, as if someone was looking for an excuse to harass them. There was no overt indication of this feeling, but you can’t really argue with feelings.
They found a room in a cheap hotel near the train station and left their things there, intending to go to the Yugoslavian Consulate. According to procedure, a final entry permit to a destination country could be issued only in the country you leave for the destination country. It was ten in the morning. The hotel clerk, who spoke a little German, gave Mother the address of the Consulate. He was very kind. He explained the location and marked the walking route on a city map. “But Madam,” he added with a smile, “Today is Sunday and the Consulate is closed. They will only be open tomorrow.” Mother completely lost track of the days, she hadn’t thoughout about that.
The children wanted to go for a walk. Izzie remembered that he had studied about Budapest in his geography lessons, and the city was described as a collection of palaces and monuments. He remembered that it also had an ancient fortress that protected the city. Hillel and Miri immediately wanted to take a trip on the river. “Like Prague,” they said. Off they went. Izzie assumed the role of their guide. The map was in Hungarian, but the hotel clerk also gave them a guide in German, with all of the sites marked. Hillel took the map into his hands. He knew how to read. Although he only had gone to school for half of the year, he quickly learned how to read. When he walked on the streets of Berlin, he liked to decipher the street and store signs. He would stop near a newsstand and read the headlines. Sometimes he would be confused by the occasional headline in Gothic letters: He saw that the letters were similar to the ones he knew, yet different. Sometimes he even managed to read some words written in those Gothic letters. He would add the letters he knew to the unfamiliar letters and try to solve the riddle. He was thrilled when he managed to decipher a word.
Hillel held the map. The letters were familiar, but he couldn’t understand what the words meant. Izzie explained that these were street names and they didn’t have to have any meaning. Hillel wouldn’t accept this explanation and he tried to read the letters and prononounce the words. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t prononounce the strange letter combinations. He gave the map back to Izzie. “You lead, he said. “I’ll know how to take us back to the hotel.” Everyone knew that he was right. Hillel had a rare sense of orientation: he would know the way to a place after going there once. Even in Berlin everyone knew that Hillel would never get lost, he would always find his way back home. Even on their first day in Prague, Hillel was the only one who managed to bring them to their room without asking anyone for directions.
They walked along the river, looked at the palaces, rested in the parks. They didn’t take a boat trip. It was Sunday and there was a long line at the piers. They couldn’t ask for details in any case. The Hungarian language had a strange sound to it, they felt. Not even Polish, which Mother spoked, helped them communicate. They took a bus across the large bridge and reached the fortress. They were tired. They sat down on one of the benches in the Fishermen’s Bastion and looked at the view: a green island in the middle of the river, a series of bridges, sailboats and river boats. From time to time a horn was sounded by one of the boats, warning other boats in its vicinity. The pastoral scene was good for Mother. She was calm. Her bitterness toward the Hungarian authorities diminished a bit. What a little rest and a panorama can do!
The entire family was at the Yugoslavian Consulate even before the gates were opened. The clerk looked in the passport, perused the paperwork in his file, and without a word stamped another large red stamp in the passport. “Gute Reise!” he said in broken German, and handed Mother the passport.
The train to Belgrade was supposed to leave in the evening. The hotel clerk had inquired by telephone. “Don’t you have any more luggage” he asked, aware that the family had arrived at the hotel with a few handbags. Of course we do, said Mother, they are in the train station. They could see the clerk thinking. He knew that they arrived from Prague, and now they are continuing to Belgrade. They quickly understood that the luggage was stored in the northern train station, but the train to Belgrade leaves from the southern train station. The two stations were far from each other. Mother was shocked. She had no idea, no one had told her about this problem. She had purchased the tickets in Prague, and apparently no one there was familiar with the train system in Budapest.
Troubled thoughts ran through her mind. If they were late for the train they might exceed the approved time limit, and then what would happen? Would they be put into jail? Maybe they would be returned under guard to Germany. The hotel clerk tried to clam her, it wasn’t late, there was enough time. He took the initiative, called the bell-hop to bring a trolley, instructed Izzie to take the luggage tickets, and he sent both of them to the northern train station.
It was not that far. They returned with the luggage about thirty minutes later. The hotel clerk ordered a tax for them and made sure to tie the suitcases on the taxi’s roof. “You are an angel,” Mother mumbled repeatedly. He refused to accept any tip. He hinted to the bell-hop to leave so that no tip would be given to him, either. Hillel and Miri received some postcards of the city. “As a keepsake,” he said. Mother couldn’t get over the difference in treatment.

Chapter 3
The train arrived in Belgrade after midnight. The conductor told them that the train’s destination is Istanbul, and from there, the train will return to Paris. If only we could continue at least until Istanbul, Izzie thought to himself, we would shorten our hassles and get closer to Palestine. Thinking this, he had no idea how many years it would be until he reached the desired goal.
They spent the rest of the night at the train station. The first-class waiting room had comfortable armchairs. The station clerk ignored the second-class tickets they held in their hands and allowed them to rest in the upholstered chairs. They all fell asleep in a wink, Mother included.
They washed themselves and got organized in the bathroom. The waiting room was empty, and Mother indicated to Hillel and to Izzie to go into the women’s room. It was more convenient getting ready for the day together.
Mother wondered what she should do. Rent a room in a hotel and then go to the community offices, or perhaps go straight to the offices and present them with a fait accompli. It was audacious, she thought, to appear suddenly with her children and suitcases. Maybe they weren’t ready to take us in yet, and the community’s letter of assurance to care for them was meant only to appease the authorities and should be used only for a time of real need. On the other hand, she felt in sore need of support, and advice, even on where to rent a room. In a hotel or perhaps in a private home? She thought that maybe it would be best to telephone the community offices and try to find out. She recalled her telephone conversation with Mr. Spitzer, his warm, balanced tone, and especially their second conversation, when he informed her of the community’s decision. She made up her mind. She would call him directly, at his office. She would wait until ten o’clock. She didn’t want to surprise him as soon as he entered his office.
They spent the next several hours in waiting in the regular waiting room, the one for all passengers. Early in the morning, when they finished getting organized, the station clerk had ordered them out of the first-class waiting room.
Mr. Spitzer was in his office. He was surprised to hear that the family was already at the city train station. “Why didn’t you inform me of your arrival in advance?” he asked. “We would have made arrangements.” He thought for a moment and continued, “Wait there at the station, I will take care of everything.”
The uniformed driver who showed up at the station did not have to look very far. He easily identified the family that stood waiting in a corner. He introduced himself as Emil. Mr. Spitzer sent him.
Near the community offices, in the center of the city, was a large Jewish restaurant surrounded by a large, well-kept garden. Emil brought the family there, gave Mother four vouchers and said, “This is for your lunch. After lunch, wait for me in the garden. Don’t worry about the suitcases, I’ll take care of them.”
They waited in the garden for several hours. Mother began to worry. If she had only known how Emil was running around the city to find them a place to live, she wouldn’t have been so worried.
He brought them to an apartment in a quiet side street, very close to the river that crosses the city. The landlord, a widow who was not Jewish, rented one of the three rooms of her apartment. Another room functioned as the kitchen, dining room, and bathroom. A dark curtain blocked out one of the corners of the room, and a large wooden tub there indicated the use of this space. Everything looked clean and orderly. A double bed was on one side of the room, and a narrow couch on the other side. The woman brought in another folding bed, which Hillel insisted was for him. He always looked for anything unusual in any situation. Mother started to ask about the rent, but Emil immediately hushed her. “It’s taken care of,” he said and gave no further explanation.
Toward evening, Mr. Spitzer arrived. He apologized for being very occupied by his business, but he wanted to see if everything was alright. From his briefcase he drew out a bundle of vouchers for the restaurant and several weekly tram passes. “The landlord will make you breakfast. Eat your lunch and dinner at the restaurant where you ate today. Tomorrow evening I would like to see you in the community offices and then we’ll discuss the situation.” He spoke with a determination that you couldn’t challenge. Mother was embarrassed, she blushed. She had gotten used to the idea of receiving help, but to such an extent? Mr. Spitzer understood what she was thinking, he didn’t want to cause her further discomfort. He lightly stoked the children’s heads, said goodbye, and left. Mother thought that his voice was a bit shaky.
The next day was free for them in all respects. They had no obligations and no need to make any plans. Even if Mother wanted to do something, she didn’t know what to do. Her apprehensions about the rest of their journey were somewhat relieved. Everything seemed brighter, rosier. In early evening they met Mr. Spitzer in the community offices. They didn’t stay there – Mrs. Spitzer invited them to her home. She wanted to meet the family that her husband had told her so much about. They spent three hours at the Spitzers, talking. Their two girls, whose ages were close to Miri and Hillel’s ages, were also allowed to join them. The four children quickly tired of the conversation and went to the children’s room that was full of games and candy. The children could not speak with each other but body language and hand gestures solved the problem.
They asked Mother questions and she answered them. She told them about her family, and she heard the story of the Spitzer family. The atmosphere was warm. They treated each other as family members who hadn’t seen each other for a long while. Gradually, in the course of the conversation, Mother received an answer to the question that had been bothering her for the last two days: What motivates Mr. Spitzer to care for her and her children with such love? After all, they’re strangers, there are no family ties binding them.
In the telephone conversation from Berlin to Belgrade, Mother had described the family’s life in brief but with emphasis on the key points; how they established themselves financially after coming to Berlin as refugees at the end of the First World War; their status when the Nazis rose to power; her and Father’s hard work; the fall, when Father was forced to flee and leave everything behind; her decision to leave with the three youngest children on a journey to an unfamiliar world, an adventure without any guarantee of success, subject to the dangers of detention, imprisonment, and even a danger to their lives.
During that conversation, scenes from his life rushed past Mr. Spitzer. He suddenly found a great similarity in the lives of the two families. His family, originally from Slovakia, lost all its property in the First World War. He arrived in Belgrade penniless. He took any job that was available. In the evenings, he studied. Not organized studies, but he registered for and took every available course in electricity, a profession that capitvated him. He was hired by Phillips and after a series of promotions he was now the company’s authorized in all of Yugoslavia.
When he had put the receiver down, a horrible thought split his head. The very same thing could have happened to his family, too! Who could guarantee that Serbian natioanlists wouldn’t do in Belgrade what their colleagues did in Berlin? He spontaneously decided to help the family as best as he could.
He told Mother that the same day, he tried to obtain information about the available travel options for the remainder of the journey. As a rule, all the countries in the region had shut their doors to Jewish refugees. Even innovent tourists, who were not Jews, encountered problems. There were not many options when, according to Mother, she had little chance of entering Palestine legally. In Syria or Lebanon, the borders appeared to offer some chance of crossing them illegally. The problem was how to get there. He wouldn’t advice Mother to apply directly to the consultates of these countries because such a request might create resistence that would be difficult to overcome. She must wait patiently and hope for success.
Neither did he forget the children. Schools were closed, children were on vacation but the community organized summer school for children over Bar-Mitzvah age – studies of Judaism, Zionism, and even Hebrew language studies. He offered Izzie to attend the summer school as long as he was in Belgrade. Izzie wasn’t so keen on the idea, after all he didn’t understand the local language and didn’t know how he would fit in with the other kids. But Mr. Spitzer, in a fatherly tone, persuaded him that it was for the best.
Their days developed into a routine. In the morning Izzie left for school while Mother and the two younger children went for a walk in the streets, without a specific aim. Hillel would lead them. He knew the vicinity of their apartment very well by now. He could even lead Mother to Mr. Spitzer’s office, which was very far away from this neighborhood, very easily. He was in goof spirits and one day, he mischievously made the wrong turn intentionally and declared that he had lost his way. Miri was scared. Mother tried to read the street signs but the names meant nothing to her. She wanted to ask passersby for assistance, but they didn’t understand her. Only after ten minutes of deception did Hillel “suddenly” discover the right direction, and they quickly returned to their room. Mother guessed that Hillel did it on purpose and she was angry. At first, he denied the prank, but eventually he confessed. He wanted to see if Mother could find her way on her own.
The city was decorated with flags, colored lights, and images of King Alexander and his son Peter. Izzie brought the explanation from school: In two days, the tenth birthday of crown prince Peter will be celebrated. According to the King’s orders, the day was a holiday for the entire country. Alcoholic beverages would be distributed for free in the city squares, and candy for children would also be distributed. Travel on the tram would also be free that day. Ceremonies would be held for various population groups.
On the way to their room, as they walked along the river, they saw three white boats, flags strung to the length and breadth of the vessels and up to the masts. They heard that there would be festivities on the shore in the evening.
Rows upon rows of colored lights lit up the three boats in the evening. The lights made the number 10 on the mast of the boat in the center. On the shore, an orchestra was playing. Fireworks were launched from one of the boats. The noise of the fireworks was heard for a long time – they looked like stars in a rainbow of colors and multi-colored rays of fire. People were clapping and shouting. People broke out in folk dances. Hillel never saw such joy in his life. He liked it very much.
In the morning, Mother allowed Hille and Miri to walk along the river by themselves. Workers were cleaning up the site, dismantling the stage. In one corner, near the wall of a building, the workers had made a pile of broken chairs. A group of drunken men had destroyed them during the night. Hillel noticed a man walking around the pile, looking left and right, drawing closer and then walking away. Suddenly the man crouched, pawed through the pile, and removed parts of a chair – legs, seat, and back. He stood up, tied it all up using a piece of string he took out of his shirt, and he walked away. Two policemen appeared from nowhere, with batons in their hands. They must have seen what Hillel saw. A whistle was blown with force, the man looked back, threw the bundle away and then started to run. The police officers were faster than him and they mercilessly beat the man with their batons. He screamed in pain, and cried, he begged for them to leave him alone, but they wouldn’t stop. Blood poured from his head. He lay there, unconscious. A police car came around the corner, the two police officers threw him into the car like a bag of rags. The two children ran home to their room. Miri was crying. Hillel was also on the verge of tears, but he made an effort to control himself. They told Mother. At first she didn’t believe their story, but the children’s emotional state convinced her that they were speaking the truth.
That day, they didn’t take their regular walk. Hillel sat on the steps of the building and different thoughts ran through his head. He remembered the night that the Zisapels were beaten by the Nazis, and stories that he heard of Jews being beaten on the streets of Berlin. The police here were doing the exact same thing, he thought. Only the uniforms were different. He understands that the man wanted to steal the broken chair parts, and the police men punished him for that. But such a punishment? The chair was broken anyway, and they almost killed him with their beating. He thought about the birthday celebrations for the Prince. So what if he’s the son of a king? Was it necessary to make such noise, did everyone have to dance and sing in the streets? His own birthday was celebrated at home, only with his family. Hillel started to connect the fesitivites to the theft. There was probably so much money expended on the festivities, and this poor man merely took a broken chair. Where is the justice, where is the justice, he began to ask himself.
Justice was an issue that had recently began to bother Hillel. He looked for the justice in all the events they were recently involved in. Who did wrong to whom and why, and why don’t people intervene on behalf of the victim. In his childish-mature imagination, he dreamed of situations in which he, Hillel, would come to the rescue a child who was being beaten by his friends, he would snatch the baton out of the hands of a bully who was beating and old man and make him run away. He imagined himself wearing the knight’s armor that he once saw in a museum, holding a long sword, defending a group of Jews who had been pushed into a train wagon. He suddently felt a sense of superiority and satisfaction—he would be the hero who would save the weak innocents.

Chapter 4
Meanwhile more refugees from Germany were concentrating in Belgrade, young couples with no children and single adults. Their meeting place was the park near the Jewish community offices. They exchanged information and ideas. Some wanted to emmigrate to Palestine, others wanted to find a way to South America. Although it was rumored that emmigrating to South America was a reasonable possibility, reality did not prove this to be the case.
The community clerks advised the refugees to refrain from organizing as a group or initiating any collective action. The clerks assumed that as long as the transit permit requests were for individuals or couples, the obstacles could be overcome, but if the authorities of the neighboring states realize that the refugees are organizing in groups, they would enforce more stringent restrictions.
Among the refugees there was one family that stood out: parents and a son who was about Izzie’s age. They had escaped from Hungary, spoke only Hungarian, and communications were based solely on body language and hand gestures. According to a rumor, the father had fought with a gang, members of the anti-Semitic Horty party, who tried to set fire to his store in a small town where they lived. The father wounded one of the gang and managed to scare them off. The village police officer told him explicitly to flee, otherwise he would be killed. He, the police officer, would not be able to protect him. In one day he packed his belongings, left his store in the hands of a friend, in hope that one day he would receive the fruits of his labor, took his family and went to Budapest. Traveling from Hungary to Yugoslavia was still relatively easy and they reached Belgrade in a few days, going straight to the offices of the Jewish community. The family wasn’t thinking of emmigrating to Palestine, they wanted to go to Argentina. There, they heard, Jewish immigrants could manage.
The couple made a fine impression at the Argentine Consulate. They were a young couple, well-bodied and intelligent. The Consulate agreed to issue an entry permit, but then it emerged that the couple had a son. Processing of their file was suspended and they were told that unfortunately they couldn’t issue permits for families with children. All the couplde’s pleadings didn’t help. An order from higher up prevented the Consul from deviating from procedures. They were advised to leave their son in Belgrade, and go to Buenas Aires without him – maybe there they would be able to convince the authorities to issue an entry permit for their son. They deliberated for several days. The community clerks assured the parents that they would care for the boy and for all his needs. The couple made up their minds – they would leave their son with the community representatives and go, and hopefully they would obtain an entry permit for their son there.
The parents decided to say goodbye to their son at the community offices rather than take him to the train station. It was a difficult sight. The parents cried, the boy cried, and everyone present joined in the sobbing. Hillel, with his childish sense of justice, was angry with the parents. How could they leave their son behind and go?
Two more weeks passed before Mr. Spitzer informed them that a solution seemed to be emerging. With the help of friends and businessmen with whom he had ties, he managed to convince the Bulgarian Consul to permit the family’s transit through Bulgaria. He stipulated only one condition: Mother would first have to obtain an entry permit into Turkey, so that she wouldn’t remain trapped in Bulgaria.
During those two weeks, they had already inquired about transit options through Turkey. They received strong hints that they had to pay, “grease some palms.” Someone in the Consulate would need to receive a considerable sum to arrange for the transit permits. Mother removed several hundred marks from her rapidly shrinking roll of banknotes. With a sense of gratitude and trepidation she thought that she might have had to fund their extended stay in Belgrade out of her own money.
When Mother received the permit into Turkey, she was also given a note with an address in Istanbul. “If you need assistance, go there,” she was told.
Mr. Spitzer and Mother went to the Bulgarian Consulate. They were immediately ushered in to the Consul. It seemed as if they were getting priority treatment. The Consul inspected the Turkish permit, and confirmed that it was in order. When he perused the sheet of paper listing the children’s details, he raised one eyebrow and said – I was told that you are traveling with three children, but according to this information I see that one of the three is no longer a child. He is a young man and according to our definitions, he does not belong in the category of juveniles.
Mother was shocked. So was Mr. Spitzer. The Consul started to page through a pile of documents, he called his secretary, and she brought him more papers. It seemed as if he was in some distress. He finished reading and blurted, “I’ll give you the transit permit. The case is borderline, it can be interpreted differently. I hope that our border police won’t give you any trouble.”
The entire Spitzer family came to the train station to see the family off. Mrs. Spitzer brought a basket with food and a large bag of candy “for the ride,” she said.
The Bulgarian border police did give them trouble, and how. The policeman looked at the family, checked the passport, shook his head ‘no,’ and descended from the train carriage. He returned with an officer several minutes later. The officer spoke German. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This permit is not in order. The Consul shouldn’t have issued it. The passport is also not in order. The young man needs a separate passport of his own. We consider him an adult.” He asked them to step off the train. At first, Mother tried to refuse but the policeman’s threatening gestures convinced her that there was no way she could object. She tried to persuade the officer that the train would depart, and where would that leave her and the children. He understood. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You will have to return to Belgrade.” He explained that a boy who is fourteen or older is considered an independent adult in Bulgaria, and according to government policy, such young people were not permitted into the country, not even for transit purposes. Such a young man might remain in the country and pose a security risk, a source of social agitation. This policy had only been recently determined, in response to the events in Germany and the wave of refugees, including political refugees, that was anticipated to try to enter his country.
For half a day they waited at the border station until the train to Belgrade arrived. Mother’s heart pounded. What would happen if the Yugoslavian border police, several hundreds of meters away, would not let them return to Belgrade? At least that fear proved to be unwarranted. The policeman looked at the passport, looked at the exit stamp that was issued less than one day earlier, and he allowed their return. The train conductor demanded payment for the ride to Belgrade. He was not interested in what happened, he argued, his job was to demand a valid ticket from every passenger. There was no choice, four new tickets were purchased on the spot.
Mr. Spitzer at first didn’t understand where Mother was calling from. He was sure that she was already in Sophia. She explained their situation, choking down her tears.
Emil the driver quickly came to the train station, loaded their suitcases and picked up the four of them, taking them directly to the familiar apartment. The landlady was ssurprised to see her former boarders, who had said goodbye only one day earlier, back in her place.
Mother was dejected. Izzie walked around feeling guilty as if it was his fault that the family was stuck in Belgrade. Mr. Spitzer had an idea, a difficult one, but he thought it was the only solution under the circumstaces. He deliberated how and whether to propose the idea to Mother and the children.
After several days, he decided on a course of action. He took Izzie on some tours around the city. He explained that it was because the boy couldn’t attend summer school any more, and since he traveled a lot all over the city on business anyway, Izzie could accompany him, to help Izzie pass the time. As if unintentionally, the trips included many visits to trading houses and showrooms of furniture and carepentry workshops where furniture was made. Mr. Spitzer would discuss the carpentry trade with Izzie, about how it could be acquired, and how it could help you get along in life.
On one of these trips, Mr. Spitzer suddenly remembered that he had to go on an urgent business trip where he couldn’t take Izzie. He suggested to Izzie to wait for him in one of the small carpentry shops and watch the work process. The furniture made by the small workshop was beautiful. Only the workshop owner and five laborers worked there. Izzie walked around the machines, and tracked the pieces of wood that gradually became part of a complete piece of furniture. He asked one of the workers if he could help, and his wish was granted. In the evening, he told Mother all about his day.
The family received another invitation to dine with the Spitzers. The younger children went off to their games after dinner, as before. In the course of their conversation, Spitzer returned again and again to describe how he learned a trade and how it helped him get ahead in life. Mr. Spitzer casually asked Mother if she didn’t think that Izzie, too, should learn some profession. It could certainly help in the future, especially since Palestine is a developing country, tradesmen of all kinds would certainly be in demand. Mother agreed but in their present situation, she said, she saw no practical option for that. But maybe there is one, suggested Mr. Spitzer, as if he had just thought of the idea. To the best of his knowledge, there were no factories in Palestine where a person could learn a trade, but in Belgrade, apprenticeships were an established practice. In his recents trips around the city with Izzie, he got the feeling that this profession interested him. Maybe Izzie would agree to remain in Belgrade, learn to become a carpenter, and then immigrate to Palestine as a professional. Mother was astonished – “Leave Izzie here on his own?”
Listening to the conversation, Izzie felt torn in two. Working with wood had begun to appeal to him, he imagined himself creating ornamented, carved cupboards and breakfronts with his own hands, with lacquer and shellac. On the other hand, how could he stay in a strange city alone without his family, without Mother’s support and care?
Of course, Mr. Spitzer added, as if he was thinking out loud, this arrangement would also solve the issue of traveling to Bulgaria. The Bulgarians would have no excuse to cancel the permit that they issued.
For several nights, Mother tossed and turned at night. Her face was swollen from crying. Izzie couldn’t fall asleep either. The children understood the gravity of the situation and they walked around the house on tip-toe, did everything that Mother asked them, or anything that they thought she might ask them to do. Mrs. Spitzer came to visit them in their room. She took Mother for a walk along the river. She explained to Mother the details of the plan that she herself has become personally involved in. The owner of a small carpentry shop, a Jew who was known in the community to be an honest, fair person, was willing to take Izzie under his wing. The boy would live with him as a member of his family, and would work in the shop as an apprentice. He would receive pocket money for his personal expenses. After he studied and attained a reasonable mastery of the Serbian language, he would also be sent to vocational classes in the evening to learn the theoretical knowledge required for the profession. After two years, he would earn a professional certificate and then an entry permit to Palestine could be arranged for him. By then, the fact that Father had not left Palestine would no longer be relevant and the British Consulate in Belgrade would no longer refer to the matter. Of course, she added, our home will be open to Izzie, and we will offer the boy our counsel and assistance on any question he might have.
Mother and Izzie discussed the issue for many hours. The children also participated in the conversations. They all were undecided. It would be difficult to leave Izzie alone in Belgrade, and it would be difficult for all of them to remain there with no chance of being reunited with Father and their two older sisters.
When a decision was made, Mother tried to act as quickly as possible. She visited the carpenter’s home. Mother shed many tears with the carpenter’s wife who promised to treat the boy like her own son. The carpenter himself also made a good impression on Mother. She became used to the idea.
The next day, Emil the driver transferred Izzie’s few items of clothing to his new home. Mrs. Spitzer took him on a shopping trip, bought him some new clothes, work clothes and work shoes. She even bought him an alarm clock, so that he could awake in the morning without anyone’s help. Mr. Spitzer himself went to the consulate without Mother to renew the family’s transit permit.
Mother went to the Polish Consulate to order a new, individual passport for Izzie. She explained the situation, signed some forms. Izzie was there, too, and he signed the forms as well. A thick red line was drawn through Izzie’s name on Mother’s passport, and he was assured that he would receive his new passport in a few months. Meanwhile he received a provisional document that confirmed that a passport was being issued in his name.
As expected, the parting was difficult. Izzie’s “foster mother” also came to the train station. She hugged him and tried to soothe him. She was crying, too. Izzie was aware that a chapter in his life had ended and a new period was beginning, but he was not sure how he would survive in it.