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  • Heartless Willy
  • Leo Litwak (bio)

Father didn't have to give honest answers. He didn't have to admit we were Jews. It would have been simple to lie. We could easily have passed as pure Dutch. Even the name—Frucht—gave nothing away. He had friends in high places and the Dutch would have supported us up and down the line. What did it have to do with what was in our hearts? We had no duty to tell the truth to the commissioner. And yet Father chose to list us as Jews in the special census. Once we were on record everything followed. We lost business, car, bank account. They even took our bicycles. We had to wear the yellow star, palm sized, sewn permanently into outer garments, the word jood in black at the center. I was removed from school and friends and sent to an exclusively Jewish school. Then the final insult. Jews were yanked from other parts of the Netherlands and squeezed into the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter and the Chernitzes were foisted on us.

They were from Poland, Orthodox and rural, and had somehow found their way to the Netherlands. Their natural tongue was Yiddish. They spoke a garbled Dutch, larded with a Yiddish German. There were four of them: the bearded patriarch, his shawled wife, and his daughters, Sophie and Fanya. They lit candles Friday nights and donned prayer shawls. The father wore a skullcap around the clock. They stained our kitchen with the cooking odors of an ancient poverty that I feared might become the stink of our own decline. They were entirely out of place. Bump into any of them and they begged forgiveness. Entschuldigen mir. Forgive me. I'm sorry. They cracked their door to see if kitchen or bathroom was available, too timid to knock, then scurried for the room once they were sure we were out of it. They made themselves light walking down the hallway so they wouldn't disturb us. Their quarrels were muted to whispers. They claimed no space and I couldn't find it in my heart to grant them any. I had been exiled to a cot in the second parlor and the girls had my room.

Fanya, at fourteen, was the younger of the Chernitz daughters and always in the way. I would come out of the kitchen, bump into her near the door. I'm sorry, she'd say. Forgive me. There's nothing to forgive, I'd say. I almost bowled her over when I left our apartment. She was there fumbling [End Page 119] with the key, bearing a load of groceries. Excuse me, I'm sorry, and I said, Save your sorrys. Use them when you really make a mess.

She wore a shapeless smock and a full skirt. Her head was covered with a black shawl. She had a ruddy, peasant complexion. Her cheeks were plump and fiery red.

She came into the kitchen, saw me there. I told her, "For godsakes, don't jump!"

Mother called me to her room.

"Does it cost you anything to offer a little sympathy? They've lost everything. They don't choose to be here."

I asked what they'd lost. They had a better place here with us than they'd ever had.

"What's lacking in you, Willy? Don't you have a heart?"

"That's right," I said. "That's what I don't have."

"Heartless Willy." She tried to tease me into a lighter mood but it was an awful time and I wasn't up to it.

One afternoon I said to hell with it and returned to the old school and waited for Jan and Nick.

They wore the school uniform: green jacket, white shirt, black tie, black pants. They came down the stone stairs, shouldering each other and laughing, Jan solid and wide, Nick taller, leaner, very blond Dutch boys.

"Look at the lucky dog," Jan said, "outside while we're stuck inside. No wonder they call them the Chosen People."

It disturbed Nick that I wasn't wearing the star. "It's not only you who take the risk. It's six months...


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pp. 119-131
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