Chapter 4: A Lucky Duck and Unwelcome Guests
It was March 19, 1944. The last clusters of ice were losing their grip on the tops of the trees in Podhoryan, as if they were too weary to keep holding on. The mountains behind the Storches’ house were still adorned with snow; a series of little crystal hats perched upon their peaks. Nazi Germany had been afflicting Srulik and his countrymen for the past several years, but today, the German hand was felt full force: Germany invaded and occupied Hungary.
Even before this new development could be fully appreciated, there was a crude knock on the Storches’ door. Gitu heard it first. She was about to answer when it occurred to her that this was not the sound of a friend coming to visit. She tiptoed to Mamme, who was grating a few home-grown potatoes for their evening meal in the kitchen. Most of the food they ate now was grown in their backyard.
Gitu whispered to Mamme, “Do you hear the knocks? Should we answer?
Will they go away?” Another knock.
Yoli came somewhat impatiently out of a back room. “Why isn’t anyone answering the door?” She approached the entrance.
“No, Yoli, one minute,” Mamme hissed from the door of the kitchen.
“Let’s listen first.”
What were they hearing? Were those male voices? They weren’t speaking Czechoslovakian, nor could Mamme and the girls discern the lilt of Hungarian, and it most definitely was not Ukrainian.
Again the gruff knock. The words sounded a bit similar to Yiddish, but without the comforting familiar tones. Oh, Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, there were Germans outside the door. The women paled. Tatte wasn’t home at this time of day. What should they do?
As it happened, the women of the Storch family didn’t have to consider any choices at all, for all at once, the door was pushed wide open. There before their astonished eyes was a squad of five German soldiers. Mamme felt her knees buckling under her. Gitu, who somehow maintained a strength and presence of mind in the most complicated of circumstances, rushed to Mamme’s side and put a supportive arm around her shoulder. Yoli, whose face was paler than her fair hair, retreated to a far corner of the room as if she could gain some protection there. What could they want? What would happen to them? Was this the realization of the bitter rumors that had been circulating about cold-blooded soldiers hauling away innocent Jewish families?
Meanwhile the German soldiers waited for no invitations, but simply entered as if that were the most natural thing to do. The shorter one began to examine the different rooms, while the darker one exchanged a few words with the blond, lanky fellow. The two remaining soldiers continued to look about the house, while taking notes in a little pad.
“The German army will be requisitioning this house. We’ll be stationing our men in this room over here. It will serve our purposes nicely,” the short man, who seemed to be of higher rank, explained in heavily accented Hungarian.
Mamme was struck silent. Did she have a choice? Could she protest this bizarre arrangement? Were they meant to share their house with a squadron of German officers?
“I see,” she finally said in a weak voice.
But her reply made no difference at all. The intruding German soldiers were not waiting for her consent. They simply took over a portion of the house.
Mamme, Gitu, and Yoli did not know what to do.
“Mamme, you’re not actually planning to stay in the same house with these horrible soldiers, are you?” Yoli asked, incredulous.
“Well, what do you expect her to do, Yoli? If we leave, won’t the Germans consider that as surrender? Instead of requisitioning just one room, they may take over the whole house!” Gitu countered.
“Girls, please don’t bicker. Especially now, I need you to be calm and united,” Mamme admonished them sternly. “It’s hard to even think straight with our knees trembling like this. So let’s take a deep breath and try to consider this logically. The first priority is to maintain safety. Is it safe for us to be here or is it safer to leave?”
Gitu and Yoli both turned to Mamme. They didn’t know the answer.
“And another thing,” Mamme continued. “Tatte and Srulik aren’t home now. We certainly can’t leave before they come. Otherwise how will they know what’s happened? How will we all stay together?” Mamme was so wise.
“Mamme,” Gitu said, “just imagine when Tatte walks through the front door and is greeted by a squad of five Germans. If it were me, I’d faint on the spot.”
“Gitu’s right,” Yoli agreed. “We have to find a way to prepare them for this shocking turn of events.”
Mamme took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. “Okay, then. This is what we should do: Yoli, I think that Gitu and I can stay here and watch the house. Maybe you should go out and see if you can find Tatte and Srulik to prepare them for what happened.”
“Okay, Mamme.” Yoli was relieved to leave the house and get away from the invading soldiers. “Are you sure that the two of you will manage by yourselves?”
“Der Aibershter vet helfen. He never abandons His people,” Mamme said, repeating her familiar saying.
“How do I know it’s safe to be outside? If the Germans came to our house, then there are probably more of them in the street,” Yoli thought to ask.
“You’re right, Yoli. With the shock of these intruders, I didn’t think of that. What if you hide yourself behind some bushes in front of the house, just to see if Tatte and Srulik are coming? If there’s a problem come right back inside,” Mamme suggested.
Yoli did as Mamme had said, and returned some time later with her stunned father and brother. The family resolved to stay together in their house. After all, they hadn’t been evicted. And while sometimes two and sometimes three German soldiers made themselves comfortable in the Storches’ front room, adjacent to the kitchen, where the kretchma had been located, the family made a brave attempt to follow their normal routine. Although Tatte still got up and went to pray at the shtiebel, and Srulik still went off to the talmud Torah with some sort of food and a loving kiss from Mamme, their lives were anything but normal.