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My New Identity

I went through a period of refining my story so that it would be sufficiently detailed and believable. When I went for a meal or a rest at one of the shelters and people asked me why I, a 12-year-old boy, was living alone, I would tell them my sob story.

Someone would say: “Oh, I am also from Kolozsvar! Where did you live?

On Rakoczy Street,” I would respond, hesitantly.

Me too. What number?

I would mumble a number and some story about forgetting the details during the turbulence of the past few months. The stranger would nod and say that he lived on the other end of the street, near the Catholic church named Sainte Catherine. The next time, I would add the catholic church to my story. Or if someone asked whether I knew the Katona family who lived on the same street, my answer was evasive, but the Katona family became our neighbours in my story from that point on.

When it came to my people, I just had to start talking about how they had both perished at the cruel hands of the damned Bolsheviks, shed a few tears, and all questioning on the subject would cease.

I selected a fictitious school–the Petofi Street Gymnasium–and a few popular names for teachers. When someone pointed out to me that I must be wrong because there was no Gymnasium on Petofi Street, I must mean Arpadi Street, I would laugh out of embarrassment and admit my mistake. The next time, my school was situated on the correct street. My story was pretty solid by the time it was critical to have all the details worked out.

In the meantime, I had learned to live on my own, away from our yellow star home for several days at a time. It was more dangerous to go to and from our “mini ghetto” than to live on my own in the refugee shelters.

The few catechism lessons I had taken from a priest back in 1943 came in very handy now. In the public shelter before we sat down to eat, we always recited a few prayers. The “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” came rolling off my tongue, as if I had been saying them forever. I also made the sign of the cross when I walked by a church or recited prayers. When a priest was present, we had to greet him humbly and genuflect in front of the crosses that hung on almost every wall of the shelter.

Another aspect of hiding my religious identity was more difficult and embarrassing. In washrooms, I had to hide my penis behind my hands if others were present. Similarly, I had difficulty taking showers at the shelters, as I could never count on being alone. Being discovered as circumcized was the surest, deadliest giveaway.

All in all, I kind of enjoyed my privileged status as a poor refugee child from the east. I never forgot that I was posing as someone else, but it made me laugh inside to see how easy it was to fool people and milk their sympathy. “If only they knew…“, I sometimes thought, when I sold my story to yet another person. I felt myself to be quite the little actor.

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