SIXTEEN - Ester
In spite of the fact that Liběna is convinced that we stay with them, I spend the next few hours planning our move. I can’t bring myself to casually accept putting the Fafeks in danger. I will have to somehow convince her of this.
We have the radio on all the time now. There is a new message on it:
A state of emergency has been declared in the Oberlandrat region of Prague.
All civilians, without exception, are forbidden to go out on the streets between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am tonight. All bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, and other places of entertainment are to be closed, and all traffic on public highways stopped during these hours.
Whoever is found on the streets between these hours will be shot if they do not stop at the first command.
My heart sinks. This is going to make it all the more difficult for me to move Mama and myself from here. I am not even sure if the curfew is only for tonight. I seriously doubt it. They will keep the pressure on until they find us.
The announcement is repeated every thirty minutes. We are sick of it, but we do not turn the radio off, for fear of missing some new development.
Later in the day, they start running the announcement every ten minutes. This repetition of the announcement does an admirable job of amplifying the tension in the house. By the time Mr and Mrs Fafek come back from work, I am so tightly wound, I nearly faint at the sound of the door. I am expecting the SS to burst through the door at any moment, because after all, Otto is still out there...
My stomach churns simply thinking of Otto. He is like a ticking time bomb for me. He knows mama and I are here, at the Fafeks. What is to stop him from telling the Germans about it? Nothing at all!
We go about the routine of the day like robots. Cooking, eating, cleaning, making miserable attempts at conversation...but everyone is really living in their own thoughts. The situation is frightening. From 8:20 pm to 9:00 pm, the announcement is read out every five minutes, which essentially means it is on a non-stop loop. By quarter to nine, I am ready to either hurl the radio out the window or hurl what little food that I had for dinner out the gut!
A little after nine, Mr Fafek is standing by the window, looking out into the quiet and deserted street when he suddenly turns around with a sharp, ”Sheisse!"
This is followed by the unmistakable sound of vans roaring down the streets.
“It is a raid,” he tells us urgently. The Germans are doing the obvious. They are going door-to-door. Mama is pale as she hurries after Mrs Fafek. I follow. Mrs Fafeks leads us to the kitchen and indicates a spot right beside the door connecting the kitchen with the sitting room. We help her lift up a set of planks, revealing a tiny space underneath.
We don’t need to be told what to do. I can see Mr Fafek and Liběna are moving around the house, efficiently removing any trace of us. We have been careful, but even an extra mug of coffee or an extra dinner plate may raise suspicion. I suppose when you have been living on the edge for so long, it must become a norm. None of us is panicking, none of us even seems worried! That is important. Masks on our faces. Because that is the first thing the soldiers read. If you look like you are hiding something, you most certainly are!
So, we hide all our terror behind perfectly sculpted, bland masks and go about the business of fooling the Germans. There is no time, not even for a quick glance of thanks or good luck. Mama and I stuff ourselves into the tiny hole and Mrs Fafek shoves the planks in place. I am sure she stands on top of the spot for good measure.
And then...we hold our breaths.
It is not long before there is a thump on the door. I am glad that I can hear quite clearly in the gap.
I hear sharp thuds. I assume these are the soldiers’ boots. They seem to be coming from all around me, all at once. The sound must reverberate here, in this gap.
“Do you know Joseph Barsch?” I hear a guttural voice say.
“Yes, I knew Joseph Barsch. There are not many in Prague who did not know him.” This from Mr Fafek. I wonder if the German caught the slight inflection on the ′knew’. I hope Mr Fafek does not anger the German.
“And the family?” Guttural again.
“No.” I admire Mr Fafek even more now. His voice is giving away nothing. Nothing at all. It is completely flat. It conveys neither fear, nor anger, nor even any feeling.
My heart jumps into my throat as I hear boots directly above me. I look over at Mama and see that her breaths are coming in shallow, but she looks fine otherwise. A fine sheen of sweat breaks out over my forehead and upper lip as one set of boots is replaced by another. There is quite a bit of noise as, I assume, the soldiers go through the house looking for us, or at the very least some sign that we were ever here.
“I know three Otto Edelmanns.”
There is a break in the conversation. The German must have shown Mr Fafek Otto’s photograph because I hear him say, “No. Not this one.”
Again, there is a break in the conversation....no I must say, the interrogation because that is what this was. I am praying that this interrogation ends here.
The boot-steps continue for some time more. There is nothing more to hear. And then I hear the two sweetest words I have heard in years, ”Alles Klar“. All Clear.
The boots retreat. The guttural voice also leaves. The house is suddenly very quiet. We wait for a long time before daring to come out. Finally, Mr and Mrs Fafek help us out of the hole in the floor. This was a very, very close call. I want to thank the family for risking their lives in order to save ours. I realise that no amount of thanking is really going to convey the gratitude that I feel toward these people. So, I simply walk up to Mr Fafek and hug him, followed by a hug for Mrs Fafek and Liběna.
I am sure no one is really going to get any sleep tonight.
The next day, everyone is up early, looking tired and haggard. The radio is not saying anything about last nights raids, neither is it saying anything about a curfew tonight. I am glad that night-time mobility has been restored. I have every intention of leaving the Fafek’s home. I am still grappling with Papa’s death. I am forever going to feel responsible for Papa’s death. And now, if I stay here with Mama and Germans find out, I will have another three lives on my conscience.
Fortunately, I am saved from having to convince Liběna and her parents that it is in everyone’s best interest if Mama and I leave their house by Tomas. He comes in around mid-day.
“Ester, we may have to move you again. After last nights raids, the resistance thinks it is best if your Mama and you ride out the next few days in St. Charles Borromeo’s church over on Resslova Street. They are better protected from these random raids and you will be able to spends many days there, in comfort.
I am more than happy to hear this. I am not being ungrateful! I am truly worried about getting these good people killed. Tomas tells us that he will be back for us later in the night, when we can travel in a lot more secrecy. I can see that Liběna wants to protest. But, Mr Fafek puts his hand up, silencing her effectively, and asks, “Will it be safe to move?”
“Ok then. I think Mrs Barsch and Ester may be a lot more comfortable at the church.”
And just like that, the decision is made and a great weight lifts off my chest.
As agreed, Tomas comes for us just as the sun is setting. The streets will be fairly crowded at this time, thus enabling us to blend in. To be safe, he suggests that Mama go with him first and that Liběna and I follow after half an hour. It makes sense. The Germans are going to be looking for an elderly woman and a young woman. By going separately, we are dramatically reducing our chances of being spotted.
Father Petrek cannot be more than thirty years old, but he has the look of a man who has seen far too much in life already. I like him instantly. He leads us into the attic, where he says he has already made Mama comfortable. I enter the room in the attic, expecting to see Mama and my feet freeze on the ground. My ears start ringing loudly and the room starts closing in on me.