The Shades of Life

A windy day, heavily cast skies spreading gloom than cheer. London is unpredictable. Whether the people or the weather, both equally hard hitting. For the twenty years in this city now I, Nathan, should have adapted to these vagaries. But, deep inside, my connect with Poland as a Jew remains intact. 

“Martha…….Martha……..” I shout searching for the call bell button fixed to my wheelchair. 

“It isn’t an easy life staying dependent on outsiders”, I was annoyed.

All by myself, widowed and childless. A life of dependence on strangers is horrific in every sense. The handsome monthly pension however could not make me change my mind of living in Germany. London had been my childhood dream and it had to become a reality. Wheeling myself towards the desk I rummaged through the book shelves, searching for the ‘Journal’. My most prized possession and probably the only connect with a faded childhood. 

“Martha”, I retorted yet again. “How often do I have to refrain you from the study?”

“I don’t need housekeeping here”, I was fuming till Martha appeared.

“I shall keep that in mind Dear Sir” “Pray, how can I help?”

She was certain he was looking for the ‘Journal’. The text was in his hands most of the day. It was the ‘reassuring toy’ that puts a child to sleep.

Without waiting for an answer, she walked towards the shelf and drew out the Journal. Placing it in his hands with utmost care, she turned and left the room.

Flipping the pages, as I relaxed into the warmth of the quilt, I was transcended back in time.

3 August 1939 – The Golden Autumn

The solemn Polish summer is bidding earthlings goodbye. As autumn glides in with the grace of the ballet dancer, most people are deep in work. Stocking up firewood, food and clothes in preparation for the harsh winter is a major occupation. Autumn in Poland is a writer’s muse and a photographer’s fancy. The trees take on shades of golden and rust creating a mystical aura. I walk down the street as the swaying trees cast shadows, creating imaginary forms. The boys at school have been talking of Nazi camps in the periphery of Poland. They say the situation in Europe is highly volatile and for us Jews, it could be impending doom.

I live in Warsaw, capital of Poland with Father, Emmanuel and Mother, Mariam.

By now dark clouds have spread over the amber dusk sky like a façade. I look up and smile before stepping in. Father was lighting the fire with a perplexed look.

“It is not going to be an easy winter, Mariam!”

Father, Emmanuel, just returned from the daily radio show in the community hall. This was the only source of news as they were no longer allowed to have independent radio sets at home. Filtered news telecast also carried a hidden trail of terror. Yes! The Nazis were marching towards Warsaw. Poland had been hit and they were advancing slow and steady but determined to take on the capital at any cost. There were discussions in hushed voices that Jews would not be spared. 

The community of Jews is not new to Poland. We have been enshrined into the culture of the country for centuries. Our fathers and forefathers remain the building blocks for economy. We are not an “alien race”, but very much engrained in the homeland.

I, Nathan, am unlike any other Jewish boy. I have poor self esteem and overwhelming hatred for being a Jew of colour. I have inherited mother’s skin colour. The constant reminder from people that I would always stand out from the community. This gnaws at my confidence and despite best efforts reflects in my behaviour towards Mother.

I despise myself for transforming into an irritated and vengeful teen. 

5 August 1939 – Mother, Father & Everything Jewish

I was taken aback as Mother snapped back at me for leaving unfinished chores. It was abruptly rude as I wasn’t used to this tone from her. 

She was always calm, composed and ever smiling. 

Father often praised her, saying, “These are the reasons why you stood out from the crowd and I fell in love with you.” Mother blushed. But the blush hardly brought any colour to her cheeks. I hated this. 

At 15 years, I enjoyed being alone in the attic. Mostly fantasizing the perfect world for myself.

Like all Jewish families, ours too is a conservative household stressing on family values and the importance of charity and weekly prayers at the synagogue. Father works as a clerk at a merchandise shop stitching and selling uniforms for the army. That is why he is the first to receive news of the advancing Nazis and what havoc they were unleashing onto Europe. 

My bringing up has been in a disciplined manner. Father woke up to a set time, grooming and getting prepared for the day as per a set time and leaving for work at just the right time. Infact the same time every day, not a minute hither. 

Mother too worked with clock like precision, organising and managing the household. She took up odd jobs from the drycleaner which included darning and ironing clothes for the society’s elite. 

Changing seasons, family circumstances, nothing at all seemed to alter the running of our household from dawn to dusk. 

Thus, it was quite natural that I too grew up working by the clock. As a preschooler, I was poked fun at for the skin colour but at that age it didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was the continuing reassurance from Mother that I am the ‘son of God’. Mother often quoted the ‘Rabbi’ from the weekly prayers at the Synagogue. She sang me lullabies and built up stories depicting me as a ‘warrior’ and ‘saviour’ since I was the ‘son of God’. So time moved on! 

I understood Mother’s fears and insecurities, as she had faced the wrath of the family for the initial years of her marriage. She had to convert and commit to prove her alliance to the family. Falling in love had not been easy. She was the daughter of migrant labour who had escaped the shackles of slavery to give education a chance. But sadly, her insecurities had passed on to me.

24 August 1939 – Let’s Talk

As I entered home after school, Mother greeted me saying, “Freshen up and get right down lad. Let’s sip our soup and talk.”

I nodded mechanically.

As we sat facing each other, Mother started, “Nathan, you know that we Jews, are a very close knit community. Everybody knows everyone. I found it extremely challenging to live with the weight of my skin colour. My parents had been delighted that I was heading for a better life. But most of the extended family had distanced themselves. Your Father and I had to be content living in this quiet neighbourhood, safe from biases”.

All I could do was nod or pretend to be listening, which I was, at least halfway through.

Mother sighed and continued, “You turn 16 years old in a week. You should know that I cannot withstand the past replaying my story with you. Your growing indifference is not hidden from me. Do you hold me responsible for any dilemma in your life?” “If yes, please don’t” “You are judged not just by the colour you inherit from me but also by the qualities you inherit from your Father.”

I continued drumming my fingers on the table. There wasn’t much to say? 

Time passed, adversity grew. The Nazi’s were now at the doorstep and Warsaw was in danger. Father’s employer shut shop. Being a Jew and a uniform supplier put him in a high risk category. He feared for his life. Shutting shop meant father lost his livelihood and during such uncertain times there would hardly be anyone willing to offer new employment. However, the kitchen was kept running by Mother’s dry cleaning work. 

September 1, 1939 – The Appalling Onset of Autumn

We rose to loud sirens and heavy military vehicles roaming the streets of Warsaw. Mother and Father were calling out my name with urgency and fear. Rushing down the stairs, I tried catching a glimpse of the hullabaloo outside through the starched white lace curtains. It is worrying to see the crowd swelling like a sea storm, running like the unsure direction of wind.  

It was clear that the enemy was in the city. 

Suddenly, a loud thud on the door made our faces go pale. However, Father decided to answer the door, primarily because he was less likely to invite suspicion of our origin. Regaining composure, he tip toed towards the door as if trying to tide over time and let the moment disappear into infinity. 

He glanced at us, “Sshhhhhhhh……” the index finger on his lips, was all the sound that came out of his mouth.

As the door lock clicked, Father opened it just enough for his toe to fit in.

“Oh! Hamish. It is you!” we heaved a sigh of relief.

Hamish, my father’s distant cousin and probably the only family member who visits us and keeps in touch. Father pulled him inside by the collar and shut the door.

He stood facing us, breathing heavily and a yellowish tinge to his fair complexion.

“What’s the matter?” “What brings you here?” Father questioned him while handing him a glass of water. By now Hamish had gained his breath back. Yet he spoke in a very hushed tone.

“Emmanuel, hell has broken loose. We are being hunted down like animals.”

“Run, hide or kill yourself…….because the Nazis aren’t sparing us.” It is difficult to make out whether he is annoyed or scared as sweat beads form around his temples. 

 “All Jews have been asked to wear arm bands to make them easily identifiable. I also hear we may be moved to a separate part of the city. A walled city being created especially for us.”

All the time Hamish spoke, Father patted his shoulder, reassuring him, giving him strength. Mother served him supper to comfort his raging emotions. I was a silent spectator. Not knowing what to expect, I confined myself to the corner of the living room watching this upheaval and adult discussions.

After everyone had eaten, Father spoke up, “Hamish, we will not wear any armband. Why should we make our identity obvious?” 

“Stay off the streets for only if we venture out, there is danger of confrontation.”

Hamish glanced towards Mother and me, “What about them?”

The moment he uttered these words, I knew what he meant. Blood rushed to my cheeks. Clenching my fists to control the surge of anger, I stared at him with bloodshot eyes.

Probably the message was conveyed. He turned towards the door and was gone.

Father turned towards me, placed his hands on my shoulders, a gentle squeeze, a reassurance and whispered good night.

September 10, 1939

We have been home so far, only father stepping out. He manages to find menial jobs off and on, paying just enough to buy milk and bread. News poured in that those of mixed race were not being spared. Door to door checking was underway and the German soldiers made it a point to call out for all family members and make a register entry. People were communicating in undertones at marketplaces, grocery shops and laundries. The buzz was that it will not be long before the Jews are forced out of their houses on the pretext of moving them to a safer area in the city. The ‘safer area’, what I managed to learn from some of my friends was what the Germans were calling, “the Ghetto”. What a weird word! But it definitely did not sound like a pleasant place. Wait and watch!  

September 11, 1939

Today Father’s return is marked with hustle. He announces that the grocery stores have begun rationing. Customers have to announce their religion first under strict vigil of the Police. 

He called out to Mother and me. The trembling hands and quivering voice were proof of angst within him. He signalled us towards the chairs.

“Both of you must leave home tonight Mariam.” I looked at Mother as her face was a million emotions before she leapt forward and held Father’s hand.

“Why?” “What has happened?” “You have been putting too much thought into the happenings outside” “Believe me! All will be well” “People have no work and they are using their brains to think of everything negative.”

“No, Mariam……No…No”

“They have taken Hamish’s neighbour. He wasn’t a Jew but he was of colour.”

“I have made arrangements. Hopefully, you shall pass through alive.”

I stood shocked. It can’t be happening. I remembered my friends telling me that there was no way a person of colour could make it alive. The German spread was like the stubborn, intricate cobwebs that were difficult to dust away. We had to give in. 

Mother and me got to preparing for the trip into the unknown. Extra coats and warm clothing was packed. All the money, which we Jews hide in all unimaginable places finally came out. From under the clothes drawers, from beneath the dining table, from under the ironing table and many such inconspicuous places.

“Father, it is still quite a risk. You could accompany us and we can take a covered carriage to remain oblivious.”

“No. Son….it happens the way I have planned”, he sounded adamant. I gave up and resigned myself to destiny. 

September 12, 1939; 2:00 A.M.

Having slept completely dressed, it wasn’t difficult to wake up the moment Father nudged me. I was up. A glass of hot milk thrust into my hands, it felt like the only thing comforting at that point. These are probably the last few sentences I write in my journal. I’m unsure if I will get an opportunity to write again…… So long!

London, Today

I closed the journal, because after that there were only empty pages with dates. I must have tried writing but nothing pushed me to do so. 

Today, despite being surrounded by worldly comforts, my conscience is guilt ridden.

I wheeled myself towards the sun kissed balcony for some respite to the paralysed lower limbs. The warmth of the sun made me drift into the past once again. To the moment when Mother and I had walked out of the house. We were to be transported by various means through Poland towards Austria, where some of Father’s friends had agreed to shelter us. Father would meet us there after being sure of the situation back in Warsaw. A sudden disappearance of the entire household could have invited suspicion of neighbours and patrolling parties. That is why this arrangement had been worked out.

As we neared the heavily guarded borders of Warsaw, the tension was high. No carriages were allowed and we walked past the heavily guarded post. Fear and worry writ large, we pulled our caps and mufflers lower to cover the faces. A revolving spotlight unexpectedly blinded Mother and she let out a scream. The guards were alerted, they shouted, “Woman of colour………” there was chaos as we tried to take shelter behind the armoured vehicles. 

“We are dead”, mother exclaimed panting. She clenched my hand and her grip grew tighter.

I don’t know what came into me, I pushed her down screaming, “You are dead, not me. I will live”. 

Saying this I ran towards the guards, both hands up in surrender, shouting, “I surrender. I will be your spy to track down Jews.” “Spare me death, spare me the ghetto,” he quivered.         “Jew woman of colour is behind the truck” and then he slumped down.

I was produced before a senior official, seated at a desk. I couldn’t dare look him in the eye. But when he spoke in a baritone, curiosity got the better of me.

“Boy, remember what you promised. We will watch you for ten days. Give results else you know what follows.” “A Jew and that too of colour, you are a big burden to this land.”

Swallowing a big blob of saliva stuck in my throat, I managed to blurt, “Sir, I know where they congregate, where they hide and where they will run for rescue.” “I will not disappoint.”

That was my last meeting with a senior. After that information and reports were shared at designated posts throughout Warsaw. I lived in a hostel for young German boys training for the army. My work and efforts were highly applauded. There was recognition which I had missed all my life. I was not in hiding. I lived a full life. Yet when it was time for bed, I longed for the hot cup of milk from Mother. I don’t know what they did to her. I was basking in the glory of the present, past was history.

When the Germans lost the war, I along with many other boys were sent to Germany and let into foster care. I got an education and moved to England for higher study, never to return.

The past haunts me more as I age. Appreciation and awards adorn the walls of the study, but I still feel a prick in my conscience.

Getting confined to a wheel chair is a punishment but not atonement. I wait every day for a way out. But some sins are hard to be forgiven and this is one of them! I turn away from the setting sun as for me the sunset came years ago. Signing the monthly check for the Old Age Home constructed at Warsaw I once again lean back into darkness!

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Disclaimer: This story is purely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and events are purely the imagination of the writer. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to any one and any place. 

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Saravjot Hansrao
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One Thought to “The Shades of Life”

  1. NARAYANI Manapadam

    Very poignant. Tales of atrocities against Jews by the Nazis always bring a lump to my throat. But the twist here was Nathan, and his punishment. A different take, sad but it must have been practical, for all of us have this survival instinct. I had to give a 5 star here.

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