It was mid-September; the year was 1947. I had just told my parents that I was going over to Michael's house to work on a project together. Michael has been one of my close friends since he moved here about ten years ago. Little did I know that my life was about to be forever changed on that five-minute walk down the streets of London, England.
Evidence of the war that had ended two years ago was still evident. Much of the city had been flattened by the constant bombing by the Germans, and was now rebuilt, but that is not what I am speaking of. People's faces told stories, stories of what it was like living in a country at war, where the war was actually happening in the country itself, not somewhere halfway across the world. The city will never be the same again, I thought as I walked, not looking where I was going.
Something hit me. I stumbled backwards a few steps before catching myself, and looked to see what hit me. It was a boy, who seemed to be about my brother's age, eighteen.
"Are you all right, sir?" I asked, offering a hand to help him pick up his books, which had strange writing on it, and belongings that had hit the ground. Though he looked to be about a few years my senior, I was both taller and bigger than he.
"Habakkuk. My name is Habakkuk," he said in an accent unlike I have ever heard before. Habakkuk was also a name that I had only heard once or twice before in my life. He quickly took his books from my hands. "Thank you."
"Call me Juliet," I said. I remembered the strange writing on the books, and was curious to what this was. "The writing on the books?" Curiosity made my voice, which was usually fairly audible and distinguished, quiet and barely heard.
"Hebrew," he replied. "This one is a copy of the Torah." He handed a book to me and I glanced at it, nodding and handing it back to him.
"Can you read it?" I asked, curious to know why someone who could read Hebrew had Hebrew books, like we had English books at home. I did not see how someone would possess books in a language that they did not know how to read, especially in Hebrew. "Are you Jewish?" I asked. As soon as the words had left my mouth, I was ashamed. My parents had always taught my brother and I never to ask personal questions of others, especially in a situation like this one.
The boy did not seem ashamed of my words. He only pulled me to the side of the narrow street, and into a small building. "My cousin's shop," he explained. "I'd rather not talk on the streets."
The small shop contained many small items, such things like cards for holidays and stationery. Such things seemed to be handmade, and were simply beautiful. I had been into this shop before; Michael and I had come here, and he had even helped make cards once. This small building was familiar to me, a place where I felt comfortable talking.
"You have studied a bit of history and current events, haven't you?" he asked me. I nodded. Everyday during the war, my family and I would listen to the radio in the evenings, and often during the daytime, too. All of the good programs that my brother and I enjoyed listening to were in the evening, but news played almost all day. Oftentimes in the evening, we would gather around the radio and listen to both the news from around the world, followed by radio programs and such.
"Have you heard of Hitler?" he asked. I nodded once again. We English people had been trying to stop Hitler and the German Nazis from advancing throughout Europe, and invading our beautiful country. Hitler also was the one responsible for killing many people. My uncle, a British soldier, had told my brother and I about all the concentration camps, something that no one should have to deal with, and I am sure that things were a lot worse than he made it seem.
Tears filled his eyes, and he sat down on a wooden chair in the back of the store. "When I was only thirteen-years-old, Hitler ordered that all people of Jewish descent or religion were to be taken out of Germany and killed. I am only half-Jewish, and the other part of me is full German. Both of my parents were loyal citizens of Germany, and my father was a journalist for a local magazine. He was fired for his job just because he is Jewish. I remember the night that we were taken away...
"We had been ordered that we had to wear the Yellow Star of David on all of our clothes, so my mother took yellow cloth and sewed a star on all of my clothes, as well as hers and my father's. People who I once thought of as friends ridiculed me and even kicked dirt at me. Things got worse, and my father started to become anxious, as if dreading something inevitable. Then, we got the announcement. All Jews had to leave their homes, and board the train. They told us that we were going to Austria to work in war factories, making bullets and things like that.
"They lined us all up, outside. My mother brought as many things as she possible could, many of our family possessions. The sole item that my father brought with him was his old copy of the Torah with his old style manuscript in the margins. I was so frightened, and only brought a change of clothes, because I thought that we would need it in the factories. The SS officers ordered us to walk to the train station. I stayed by my mother's side as we ran the three miles to the train station, the officers shouting at us during every step.
"We got to the train station, and they forced us to get into the cars. They were not exactly what you would think of as cars, but they were more like storage boxes for corn or beans or even animals. There were about fifty of us to a car, where about five could fit normally. The train ride seemed to last forever." He wiped his eyes on his sleeve as he spoke in a quiet voice.
"We finally got off of the train, and my mother was taken away from my father and I. I do not know what happened to her, even to this day. What happened next, I was glad that she did not have to endure. My father and I were parted from one another, and he was sent to the..." His voice trailed off and he was unable to speak.
A girl appeared in the doorway and handed Habakkuk a cup of water. He gulped it down gratefully and continued with his story. "My father did not live," was all he said. "There was only one in the barracks that I stayed that I had known before, an older boy named Matthew. We became like brothers, living for one another, and we would have stayed up late into the night talking, if we had been allowed. Once, the capo was beating him, and I could not bear it anymore. They had already beat many of us to death. I started to run to the capo, but Matthew shouted at me to stop. Things like this happened all the time at the camps.
"Each day, we received a stale piece of bread and a small bowl of thin soup, if soup it could be called. It was more like water, but we ate hungrily. We only had two sets of clothing, both ragged and little more than a few pieces of cloth sewn together," he said.
"What happened next?" I blurted out. I had heard news about this Holocaust that had been happening in other parts of Europe on the radio for quite some time now, but I didn't know what it was like.
"One day, American and British troops came to the camp. All of us thought that they would kill us. The German guards and the SS were trembling as they stood in a line, as we had done many times. An officer told us that we were free to leave the camp and go back to our homelands. A few left, but many of us did not remember our homelands, and we did not leave.
"'Habakkuk,' Matthew said to me in a whisper. 'We are going to England.' These were the only words that he spoke to me. We left for England, but when we got here, neither of us had anything. We were starving, thin, worn and beaten. Miriam invited us into her home, and here we are today," he said. A slight smile touched his face, but the smile fell quickly. "But many were not as fortunate as I. All of my friends, relatives and neighbors, except for Matthew, were killed, or did not survive."
"I am so sorry," I said. "I didn't know." My eyes watered with tears of compassion for the boy who was but a few years older than I, but forced to grow up much faster than anyone normal.
It was quite a bit of time before I really thought about our conversation in that small shop that autumn day. Now, I am grown, married, and have children of my own. I realize that it is such a blessing to have the ability to live freely. My oldest, Jeremiah, is now twelve-years-old, and I have told him about this autumn afternoon. People should have knowledge about this and the tragic loss of many innocent people. Jeremiah's teacher asked me to speak in front of his class about the Holocaust, and my heart poured out its thoughts and reflections that I have spent the past twenty-seven years pondering carefully. This wintery afternoon has perhaps had the most affect on my life, more than any other day, and I would like others to be able to share these memories with me.