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Back to School

When I returned to school in the fall of 1941, I became increasingly isolated from my classmates. Only a few dared to speak to me. The teachers were by and large reasonable and even kind to me, occasionally sending out signals of helpless sympathy. But the principal and the school as a whole made it clear that Jewish pupils were just temporarily being tolerated, that we would soon stop poisoning the air and be altogether removed. I was never called up to the blackboard anymore, nor was I given the task of supervising the class. And my seat was moved from the front to the back of the classroom.

At recess, when all the children ran outside to form football teams and other groups in the courtyard, I was not allowed to join any of them. I had to try to hide myself to avoid attacks and threats from boys who were not my classmates. I was frequently hit by “stray” balls or stones that were thrown by “mistake.” The supervising teachers either enjoyed the spectacle or were too afraid to defend a Jewish student from the bullies.

Another danger was posed by groups of older students who stalked the streets around the school and beat up Jewish children. My non-Jewish appearance and my various ruses saved me many times from being beaten up. Once, when accosted by a group of young thugs who seemed to have identified my racial origin, I went straight to the leader and asked him for directions to some street. This confused them sufficiently to allow me to walk away quietly. This ruse was used later to escape from more dangerous situations: asking for the time or taking out a cigarette and asking for light were favourite methods.

The worst was the paramilitary training class, which, by the war years, involved routine punishment for us Jews. The rabidly antisemitic phys-ed teacher, our leader, missed no opportunity to ridicule us, or to single us out for some difficult, demeaning task. And his behaviour encouraged the other kids to imitate him. After getting bad news from the front, Jews were seen as the evil enemy who threatened the innocent civilian population. We were meted out punishment exercises. These almost daily “training” periods were humiliating and demeaning. Little did we know how much more humiliation we would experience.

Another painful event was the daytime air raid exercise. When the sirens sounded, the class was ordered to line up and march in formation towards the shelter in the courtyard. Everyone lined up, except for the Jewish students. We were not allowed to contaminate the valuable air of the shelters; we were ordered to remain at our desks and not move anywhere. So Arpad (the other Jewish student) and I often found ourselves locked in the classroom together. It was awkward: we didn’t dare move from our desks or talk to each other. To complete our shame, the students, upon returning to the class, were ordered to check all their belongings, to verify that the Jews hadn’t stolen anything in their absence. Fortunately, daytime bombing rarely occurred so the isolation was more embarrassing than dangerous.

Despite these harsh realities, I managed to get through the school year. My report card showed no deterioration in my academic performance, thanks to a large extent to the silent support given to me by some of my teachers, who, in secret, showed small acts of kindness and sympathy.

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