Some of the antidotes from THE ALTERED I had to be cut out entirely, but this one, like so many, was always a favorite of mine. It’s about how Joe would ride the tram to see a young friend. This sounds like a simple enough action, just get on a tram and go see a friend. But this was during Nazi occupation in Kraków, Poland and Joe was a little Jewish kid who wasn’t allowed to ride a tram. He wasn’t allowed to do anything he previously had done: sit on a park bench in a beautiful park called the Planty and watch the swans swim in the lake, go to a library, buy anything from a store, ride a train, or be out on the street after curfew. Joe was precocious. He got around these rules. He tried to pass himself off as Aryan, or at the least a Polish citizen. In some cases he succeed, and in others he had some close calls. These were scary times, especially if you were Jewish.
So I give you this short excerpt:
“My parents were very preoccupied during this time, trying to survive and keep their heads during conditions that were more dangerous and desperate to live with. However I continued with my childish lifestyle and behavior. To my way of thinking it appeared as if Mamusia and Tatuś encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. They never said no to me, and whatever I decided to do that day I simply accomplished it.
I lived in my own fantasy world, often pretending to be one of those trains I greatly adored. I walked the streets like I was a train. Whenever I was free to roam the streets I moved like I was a train. When I encountered a corner on the sidewalk I slowed down, then chugged around it like it was a mountain pass. Then I increased my speed having successfully made the turn onto the straight-away. My world was fantasy trains and trolley’s, characters in my favorite Karl May action books, and of course movies. Movies were another joy I was prohibited from because I was a Jew. But, this didn’t stop me, or any of the other kids who ran wild on the busy Kraków streets. Often we sneaked in at great risk of discovery. But, I loved movies so much it was worth the gamble.
I became friendly with a Jewish kid who lived across the street, with hair so blond it looked snow white. I called him Biały, Polish for”white”. He was an exact miniature of his father who had the same white hair. Whitey was a mean kid, but I liked playing at his apartment. His father and mother seemed to like me and I always felt welcome there. Whitey’s father was indulgent and his mother was a mouse. She was nice, but without a backbone at all. Whatever her son wanted he got. Mousey’s father was a very religious bearded older man. He lived with the family, praying all the time. Whitey and I loved to play nasty tricks on him while he was in one of his deep prayers. Usually, as the grandfather prayed, his daughter, who I called Mousey, would pour him a cup of coffee and leave it on the table in front of him. We did whatever thing we could think up to his coffee, we added salt, or pepper, whatever was on the table. Another time I dipped the tip of an umbrella in it, swirling the cream around. This resulted in a big mess with a puddle of coffee on the table, but he was so deeply involved in his prayer he didn’t notice the antics going on right under his nose. After his prayer he would take a gulp of coffee with great gusto, but then to our delight, splutter with disgust and spit it out in a long arching spray. Mousey, hearing the ruckus, shuffled in and squeaked, “Get out of the kitchen and leave grandfather alone.” It was halfhearted at best because I could see she was trying to hold back her own laughter.
When we weren’t pestering the poor praying grandfather, we played one of the myriads of Whitey’s games. Monopoly was our favorite. Ours was a Polish edition with the street names from the city of Warsaw. Unfortunately for me, Whitey and his family moved out of the Kazimierz. They moved far out of town beyond the tram line. Whitey’s father saw that I wanted to keep visiting his son so he arranged for me to have a tramway pass, valid for one month. This pass allowed me to ride any tram without paying the fare. I was so happy even though I had to walk about two kilometers by foot, but we could continue our Monopoly game anytime we wanted.”
– Joseph Kempler, THE ALTERED I: MEMOIR OF JOSEPH KEMPLER, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR.