A Boy’s Distant View of The Holocaust

My best friend would be housebound three more days: He had been caught smoking. I hadn’t but nearly died trying. With no decent reading material left, my entertainment options were few. Hoping for the best, I had taken to the shade of my front stoop. The fickle ocean breezes were absent that late-summer afternoon, so the air was hot and muggy. The year was 1952 and the place Lisbon, Portugal.

Then a big man, a stranger, lumbered up toward me on the steep incline of our street. Jackpot! In each hand he carried a huge suitcase. Ours was a huge neighborhood of small two-story rowhouses, build on a hill at the Lisbon periphery. The first thing you saw on the way in was the elementary school. The stranger sat on one of the stone benches flanking the school gate.

I loved that school. It was a large, converted house with a Canary Island palm out front—no climbing allowed. Boys and girls were in different classes, different recesses too. Nine years old, that fall I’d be in a cookie-cutter middle school halfway across town.

The stranger resumed his trek. As he got closer, I saw he wore black except for a long-sleeve white shirt. A jacket was draped over one of the suitcases, a hat tipped back on his head. Before long he was overtaken by an Army motorcycle with sidecar. I knew the driver, Mário. He was the orderly to the captain across the street from us. After some bilateral handwaving, the big man got into the sidecar. The suitcases went on his lap. It was slow going after that.

As they passed me, the stranger’s hand kept his hat from deserting. At the top of the street, Mário unloaded the suitcases and helped his passenger out of the sidecar. They shook hands. Mário drove back down and stopped at the captain’s house. Seeing me, he waved and went through the gate. As he disappeared around the back, the stranger was being admitted to a house at the top. After a while, Mário reappeared with a leather satchel and went off.

That’s when Manuela, my sister, waved me in for our milk and snack. She was eighteen months younger than me. Afterwards, we went to the playroom. In it was Mother’s upright piano. As a young woman, she had provided musical atmospherics to silent movies at her local theater. Father was a rising bureaucrat in the government’s push to develop industrial capacity. He had gone to high school and university at night.

In my play area, I had an ambitious Meccano construction project waiting—a crane. In hers, Manuela had a dollhouse with tenants, a puppy, and all manner of doodads. We were still playing when the doorbell rang. Eugénia, our maid, went to the front door. I heard a man’s voice, then Mother being called. Indistinct talk was followed by the door closing.

Next thing I knew, Mother asked Eugénia for a cold glass of mazagran—sweetened iced coffee with lemon juice. Then she disappeared into the living room. Now, that was interesting. From the central hallway, I saw a man’s jacket and hat on the entrance rack. The stranger’s? Curious, I went over.

The stranger and Mother had taken the easy chairs, which angled inward and looked out the window to the street. Upright on the floor between them was a suitcase, the kind with leather soft sides. What about his other one? Mother waved me in, and I perched on the arm of her chair.

Returning with the drink, Eugénia gave it to the stranger. He thanked her and drank, pacing himself. She backtracked to the archway that connected the living room to the dining room. Hands clasped over her apron, she stood there as if on guard. Apparently, I didn’t count as chaperon. His drink gone, the stranger politely refused another. Eugénia disposed of the glass on the dining room sideboard. Then she returned to her guard post.

After introducing himself as Isaiah Rudnik, the stranger offered an ID card to Mother. She opened it so I could see too. The French translation, standard for international documents, showed it had been issued in Poland. The card returned, Mr. Rudnik explained that Poland’s communist government didn’t issue passports to Jews, only ID cards. In his, nationality was given as Jewish, not Polish. All that came in a fractured Portuguese sprinkled with French. Yet, it wasn’t too hard to follow. After all, Latin languages have much in common.

Portugal had been neutral in World War II, but gasoline and some food rationing had been in effect awhile. The war was long over, but Lisbon was still awash in refugees. They had first come when the Germans overran France in 1940, all the way to the Spanish border. The Portuguese government had then instructed its consul in Bordeaux to stop granting transit visas. The consul, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, refused and was immediately fired. As a result, ten thousand transit visa holders were allowed to cross into Spain hours before the Germans sealed the border. The vast majority went on to Portugal. After his death, Sousa Mendes was inducted into Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. A tree was then planted in his name.

The second wave of refugees came ten years after the first, when the communist countries started pushing out Jews. With relatives in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Rudnik had obtained an immigration visa to Brazil. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough money for the passage. This he hoped to get by selling clothes on consignment, mostly for ladies and children.

He allowed himself a smile. “Clothing is something I know well.”

I cleared the coffee table, and he laid the suitcase on top. Open, it revealed the second one nested inside. That one he opened too. It was now less than half full. Manuela was called to try on a nice, embroidered blouse. With Mother’s approval of the price, she kept it and dashed to a friend’s house. Mother bought all the nylon stockings left. Some she gave to Eugénia. Not into clothing, I passed. With it all paid for, Mr. Rudnick closed and strapped the outer suitcase. Then he thanked Mother for her purchases and for the cold drink.

“Is your family with you, Mr. Rudnik?” she asked. Her expression changed so abruptly that I felt something had gone wrong — but what? She turned to me. “Sweetie, please go up your room now. I’ll come and talk to you soon.”

As I turned to go, sobs burst out of him. At the bottom of the stairs, I heard him try to silence them. Eugénia hurried me upstairs. Flopped on my bed, I thought of a fear I had long outgrown and nearly forgotten. I must have been five or so. Winter was particularly hard, with darkness closing in before the normal 7:00 pm dinnertime. Father often had to deal with last-minute issues at work. Back then we had no home phone. And so I’d imagine him in some horrible accident, maybe even dead.

Sitting at the edge of the bed, Mother snapped me out of it. “Mr. Rudnik has left. He was sad because his wife and son died in a war far away. You were just a baby then. The good part is that he has a sister in Brazil and will be with her very soon. We should always do our best to help someone in need.”

“Like Mário giving a ride to a tired stranger.” I offered.

She smiled. “And us buying clothes from Mr. Rudnik.”

“I didn’t ask for any clothes.”

“But you let your sister get something nicer.” She patted my cheek. “Come down and help me label the new pictures in the album.”

Years later I asked Mother if she knew how Mr. Rudnick’s wife and son had died.

She said, “In an extermination camp. I still remember the name of it: Sobibor.”

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António Gonçalves

António Gonçalves is a first-generation immigrant from Portugal. As a young man he wrote short stories for a major Lisbon newspaper. He is now a retired chemistry professor who worked at the two largest Pennsylvania universities. As Daniel Rossi Vargas, he is the author of a coming-of-age novel entitled "That Would Be Telling," self-published through Amazon.