“Stop . . . stop . . . stop,” Mother hisses at me. I am sitting on a pillow Mother put on the bare floor. I am pretending to be cooking my favorite foods in some pots and pans. It is going to be a delicious meal. It will look and taste like the meals my grandmother used to cook for me. We eat enough bread, potatoes, and cabbage to keep me from being very hungry, but we can’t get the ingredients for the foods I really like. Many stores are not willing to sell to Jews wearing the yellow star. “Buying on the black market,” says Mother, “is too expensive and very dangerous.” I am surprised that I have to stop playing. Usually, she likes me to play “Kitchen,” but now she wants me to be quiet as she anxiously peers out the window. Turning back to me, she says one word, “Razzia.”
I know what that word means: “Raid.” They are “checking on the Jews” in the designated houses. It is carried out by the Arrowcross, the Hungarian equivalent of the SS. We already lived in this house before it was “designated” as a house in which to collect the Jews before their transfer to the ghetto. It is close to my grandparents, who live just two blocks away, near the Dohany utcai synagogue where my grandfather is very active. We were allowed to stay here when the house was designated, but the new rules say that there has to be two people in each room. Pista, my stepfather, was taken away to a forced labor camp. Now, Mother sleeps in the living room on a sofa. That is a problem because you can see her from the entrance hall. There are no doors on the living room. Kati, my baby sister, sleeps in her pram in the same room with Mother. I sleep in the hallway on another sofa. An uncle moved in with us to prevent the government from putting strangers into the extra room. The apartment was too big for a couple and two children. He works in an office all day. We have a kitchen in the front near the entrance door and a bathroom with a tub and toilet off the hallway.
I am eight years old. I can see how nervous my mother is. Pacing up and down and thinking out loud, she says, “It is a raid, but we are on the third floor. It will take them a while to get up here, whether they find anything to steal or anybody to deport on the way up. It will be at least 20 minutes before they get to us.”
I do not understand why she is so scared, as she has often said, “Everything is completely legal.” We don’t have anything worth stealing in this apartment any more. The floors are bare. Our Persian rugs have been put in safekeeping with some Christian friends, as well as most of our furniture. We no longer have any paintings that are valuable. My former room still has some furniture in it, a bed and a table, but it is occupied by the uncle.
Now Mother turns to me and says, in a most serious voice, “I know you are a responsible kid. Here is what I want you to do. When the soldiers bang on the door, you open the door. When they ask where your mother is tell them sweetly that she is taking a bath. Ask them if they want you to call her. Just stand there and wait to hear what the soldiers say. If they want to come in, let them. If they want to wait in the living room, let them. Don’t do anything that could make them think that you are lying. Tell them again I am in the bath, and I will be. If they come in, they will hear the water running.”
I said, “Didn’t you have a bath this morning?” Our hot water supply is not very good and it is very expensive. We have to be careful how much hot water we use. It is a gas burner with a small tank on the wall, and after we ignite it, it takes a long time until the water gets hot. If you want to have a really hot bath, you have to leave the burner going all the time. Our cold water, on the other hand, comes from an old tap on the wall, and it is very noisy.
We hear some commotion outside. Mother says, “Quickly. I’ll explain. We don’t have much time. It is not I who is taking a bath. I didn’t want you to know, but now I have to tell you. I won’t be in the tub. I need some time to melt the two pounds of sugar I bought on the black market yesterday.” We are not allowed to have any sugar beyond the meager portions we receive with the ration card. She says, “If they find the sugar, they’ll take us away. They will kill both of us and throw us in the Danube. Or they’ll send us to a concentration camp.”
When the soldiers carry out their raids, they look for things Jews are not allowed to have: radios, certain foods, cigarettes, chocolate, and anything else that may catch their fancy. Lately, the German SS themselves are carrying out some of the raids. During the last one in our building, the old couple on our floor, on the other side of the elevator, disappeared. They were never seen again. Nobody speaks of what they had that the soldiers wanted. Maybe, I think it was dessert.
Mother disappears into the bathroom. I can hear the water running. Soon, there is a knock on our front door. I open it. Two SS soldiers in their uniforms are standing there. One asks, “Mother?” I can tell he doesn’t speak much Hungarian. I don’t even say, “Bath.” I just motion them in and point. “Bathroom,” I say. The soldiers are near the bathroom door now, and they can hear the water running. “Is the door locked?” one of them asks in broken Hungarian.
I try to think quickly: if I say yes they might rattle the door. If I say no, they might open it. I say, “Locked?” in a shocked voice. “Oh no, my mother never locks me out.” The soldiers lose interest and walk into the living room. They see the pram and ask, “Baby?” I say, “At Grandmother’s.” They lift the cover on the pram, and see that Kati is not there. Mother took her to my grandparents this morning. She usually does that when she goes to work at a girlfriend’s house who is a dressmaker and lives nearby. But today she came back after she delivered Kati because I had no school this morning. They search the rest of the pram, lifting the small sheet, and find nothing hidden. They walk to the bare window to check the street below. Then they walk back to the entrance door, and taking one more look around, they leave.
I call, “Mother, come out of the bathroom,” and I open the door. She is still trying to flush the last bits of the paper bag that held the sugar down the toilet. She has torn the bag into little pieces, but it takes a while. They wouldn’t all flush at once. If the soldiers had opened the door, they would have found her in all of her clothes, the water still running and floating pieces of the paper bag in the toilet. Now all the sugar is gone. Mother turns off the water, but she is crying, and I don’t know if she is crying because she is still afraid or because she is happy. But then she looks at me and says, “We are never going to have two pounds of sugar again.”
Erika Hecht is a Holocaust survivor and a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. Besides writing, she speaks about her experiences to history classes at schools in New York and other states. “Razzia” is a story from her collection about surviving the Holocaust.