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The Black Life

Extract

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Germans really showed their yellowing lupine teeth in Thessaloniki. Previously they’d made our lives difficult by shutting down Jewish papers and encouraging anti-Semitic activities, as well as looting synagogues. There were some executions, supposedly of Jewish Communists. The party knew the men were only the former.

I had been developing my skills as a clandestine operator, sneaking around the streets avoiding Germans both in uniform and in plain clothes that were much better quality than any Greek’s. My brown hair and pale skin meant that I could pass for a gentile. I was sixteen and still at school, though I paid little attention to lessons and frequently played truant. The teachers told my parents.

‘How are you going to be a doctor if you don’t study hard?’ my mother demanded, when she was ladling out soup one evening. Food was scarce and my father had to use all his contacts to obtain even basic supplies.

‘Who said I wanted to be a doctor?’

‘Oh, so clever, my son. What about a lawyer or a professor?’

I glanced at my father.

‘You can work your way up the business,’ he said, almost apologetically.

I didn’t favour the suggestion with a reply.

‘Albertos was a lawyer,’ my sister said. She was only partly in contact with the real world and had little interest in Golda, the daughter she’d given birth to a year earlier. My mother and her sisters took care of the cheerful little mite.

Dario Alalouf, whose parents were dead, had become a regular at our table. ‘And a very good one, from what I heard,’ he said, smiling at Miriam tentatively. It was obvious to everyone except my sister that he was head over backside in love with her. He limped because one of his feet had failed to recover from wounds sustained in the Italian war. 

‘There’s nothing wrong with the jewellery trade,’ my brother said. He was working as a salesman, though his missing hand put some customers off.

‘Really?’ I said, with no doubt irritating petulance. ‘The Nazis take what they want without paying and all’s well?’

‘We…get by,’ Isaak responded meekly. Since his injury, he’d gone into himself. Mother had to get him up in the morning and make sure he washed himself.

In my arrogance and innocence I thought I knew it all. The party was doing what it could against the occupiers – the defeated Italians were present too – and the resistance movement EAM had spawned an armed wing called ELAS. Many older comrades had slipped away to the mountains to fight and I was waiting to be given permission by the youth organization. Yes, I was full of myself, but I soon found that my imagination was limited. At dawn on Saturday July 11th (the Shabbat, of course – the Germans were masters at arranging things on their victims’ significant days and festivals), all Jewish men between eighteen and forty-five were ordered to report to the Freedom Square (a carefully chosen location) for registration. Father was in his early fifties and I was too young, but Isaak and Dario had to go, despite their medical incapacities. I followed them, slipping into the large crowd of Christian Greeks that was gathering to watch. It was already hot and our men were ordered to remove their hats – another blow against Jewish tradition on the Shabbat. I later heard that there were over ten thousand men and they were made to stand in line for many hours. Those who collapsed were beaten and had water poured over them. Then German soldiers demonstrated physical exercises, forcing their malnourished victims to follow suit. I saw Dario crumple to the ground and receive several kicks. Eventually he got back to his feet. It was then that a tall Christian in a good suit and hat near me started to laugh.

‘Beat the shit out of them!’ he yelled. ‘The Yids are lice on the skin of Greece.’

People around him cheered.

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