Opening and closing his hands, the boy Joseph prepared to run the guard post. The right time, he knew, was coming. Every day there was just one right time.
Today, it would be easier. A Polish woman, and a pretty one at that, was leaning over to talk to the German soldiers at the barbed-wire gate. Perhaps she was bringing food that the soldiers would sell to their "brothers" in the Jewish police. Maybe some bread or blocks of cheese would find their way into the ghetto later that night. When he got back from the other side, Joseph told himself, he'd find out.
He had to watch the eyes of the soldiers. Were they both looking at the woman as they talked? Where were their hands? Far enough from their guns? Joseph was small and very quick and this was not the first time he had come to this same gate. He thought, "It's just like playing soccer. Watch the opponent, watch the foot, watch the ball... Now!"
He darted from the narrow alleyway, past a few stragglers, and into the streets of occupied Warsaw. The guards looked up just as Joseph flew by, felt a momentary panic as they realized he could not be stopped, faced each other and laughingly returned to their conversation with the young woman. They had little taste, anyway, for shooting down these young Jews. Let someone else take care of them.
Into the city of his birth, Joseph scurried. How strange. He felt uneasy in his stomach every time he escaped the ghetto. He had to get food. But even as his legs propelled him toward the fish warehouse his grandmother owned before the war, memories came lines of Polish poetry and Yiddish songs, his father's face, always with a cigar, and his elder half-brother's angry one. He was only twelve, yet he remembered everything.
He remembered how Grandma used to tease his father. "I had twelve sons, but you Shlomo, you wanted only one favorite. So in your old age, you skipped the rest and you go
t Joseph." Papa wasn't really that old, and he didn't have a beard so you couldn't see any gray hairs. Joseph was proud of his father, although he didn't see him much before the war started. Now he didn't even know where Papa was.
Joseph walked briskly into the twilight. He would have to get back home directly if nothing turned up. Ghetto traders came out an hour after dark. There was no early curfew for the Poles, but everybody seemed to be hurrying. Where were they all going? It reminded Joseph of when he and his friends dropped mud balls on anthills just to see what the ants would do.
Reuben, Baruch, Zygmund and Joseph loved to play together, and among their favorite games was pretending to be brave soldiers of Poland. When Joseph recited the patriotic poems of Adam Mickiewicz, the boys became the fierce horsemen of King Jan Sobieski, and together they gloriously battled the Turkish invaders and saved Poland and all of Europe.
Just a year ago, in May, Joseph had heard the first rumors of war. His mother and sister Shulamit had been talking about it as they cooked dinner. Mama had read Hitler's warnings in the newspaper that attacks on German nationals in Poland must cease, but Hitler was always going on that way. "He has his greater Germany," Mama had flatly stated. "Isn't that enough?" She got up to check the potatoes and lamb in the oven. "Would the Germans really want to start a war, another war," she asked herself out loud, "because a few Germans in Poland were complaining?"
Joseph had hardly been able to wait for dinner to end. He ran to tell his friends. The Germans were coming, he knew it, no matter what anybody said. This was great!
Joseph's friends joined in his joy. "Let the Germans attack," Reuben had boasted. "We'll show them. We've got the best cavalry in the world!" Horses against tanks, Joseph bitterly thought now as he slipped down a little used lane. He had outgrown his old shoes and his feet hurt. Still, Joseph
knew, he was lucky to have a pair of decent shoes at all.
Before, Joseph had not wanted for anything. He had been only five when his parents had separated, but Papa came regularly to the house, bringing fresh fish for the family and gifts for Joseph, too. A toy train from Switzerland, books of poetry (this is how Joseph discovered the great Mickiewicz), and even a piece of amber with a tiny bug stuck right in the middle of it.
Mama gave Joseph gifts as well, but most of them came from her patients. Mama was a dentist. She had never said so, but Shulamit had boasted to Joseph that Mama was the first female dentist in all of Poland.
Joseph, curious, frequently crept to the door of her office and listened to the people moaning inside. It seemed to him that whatever Mama was doing only made things worse. Yet, after a short while, Joseph would hear a soft voice saying, "Mrs. Krauze, here's a little something for the boy to have later." And Joseph loved the delicious homemade cabbage rolls and honey cakes Mama's patients made just for him.
So blessed was Joseph. Even Shulamit, who was constantly rushing off to swimming practice, often found time to take her little brother along. With her long legs and arms, lean and muscular body, Shulamit was a champion swimmer. She was in the Vistula River so much that the family promised not to sell her if she turned up in the catch of the day!
Joseph wanted to be a great swimmer, too, so he pestered Shula (only he called her this) until she finally promised to teach him when they went to summer camp. Everyday, for three weeks, this odd couple, the gangly young woman and the short, dark boy, made their way hand-in-hand to a little-known and hidden pool in the river.
Each time Shula led him into the water Joseph became terribly excited. But when the water got deep enough for him to swim, Joseph balked, insisting he forgot how to do the strokes.
"How could you forget?" Shula would shout i
n exasperation. "We practiced them together just yesterday!" In desperate hope, Joseph would fling himself in the water and wildly kick and beat his arms. It never worked. He'd come up gasping and Shula would pull him to the riverbank again.
The sweet days at camp had ended without Joseph learning to swim on his own, but one Saturday in late September Joseph begged his sister to go one last time to the river. Shula took Joseph on the trolley to one of her favorite spots on the outskirts of the city. It was a sunny day, but not very warm, and no one else was there. As they faced the river, Joseph and Shula stripped to their bathing suits underneath the canopy of a tall linden tree. Joseph waited, as he always did, for Shula to enter the water, but this time she stayed behind. When he stepped in, Shula swooped on him, lifted him up and tossed him into a deep pool.
Joseph was stunned. His feet hit some sharp rocks at the bottom of the river and he instinctively pushed off. He was at the same time alive and dying, paddling strenuously and motionless, feverish with thought and cool, very cool. When he arose, Joseph was swimming awkwardly and, despite his hard feelings, spun around to search for Shula. His sister, he saw, was near. The water was still, a dragonfly buzzed by, and the sun shimmered at the top of the tree.
In that moment, Joseph thought of Grandpa Aaron's face when he came home after praying for hours at the synagogue. Joseph wished he could see Grandpa and tell him that now he knew how to swim. He'd have to wait. Grandpa Aaron lived in Aleksandrow with Aunt Miriam, Uncle Samuel and their two girls. It was difficult for Mama to get away from work, so Chanukah was usually the only time Joseph got to visit Grandpa. Sometimes Mama and Shula had to leave early and Joseph stayed the whole eight days of Chanukah with him.
Grandpa Aaron was very religious, but he was still a lot more fun than Grandfather Joash. After Grandma had died, Gr
andfather Joash had become even more dour and rarely went out except to do his daily shopping. Grandfather Joash lived in an apartment in Warsaw, not very far from Joseph's house, but Mama hardly ever took Joseph there, and Grandfather Joash was too stubborn, Mama said, to come see them.
Nonetheless, Joseph's mother and father had agreed that the family should do things together as much as possible. Papa always did his best to include Grandfather Joash, and a week after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Papa made plans for everyone to go to the cinema. Joseph had never seen a moving picture before and he was overjoyed. This was something he could lord over his friends for a long time!
But Grandfather Joash nearly spoiled everything. He simply refused to go, citing one reason after another. He was too old, his eyes were not good enough, it cost more than he used to earn in a whole week! Papa told Joseph that Grandfather Joash had never seen a movie before either and maybe he was a little frightened to go. Joseph could not understand this at all. "You're not scared, I know, Joseph," Papa said. "You'll just have to show Grandfather that doing something new is nothing to be afraid of."
After much conciliation by Papa, Grandfather Joash finally relented. Joseph was so happy that he didn't even make a fuss about dressing up in his best clothes. But when they went to get Grandfather Joash, he was not nearly ready. His shoes were still damp with polish and he was madly rummaging through all his closets and drawers for the black silk tie he had last worn at his wife's funeral. Mama calmly found it for him, but by the time he managed to put it on (and Papa dried the shoes sufficiently), it was getting late.
Fortunately, the theater was only a few blocks from Grandfather Joash's house. When Joseph, running ahead of them all arrived, he had a great surprise....