After Easter of I941, I started to school. It was a real treat to get away from the sandbox, the old woman and the yogurt. Siegie was already in the second grade. He walked to school every morning. Mom took me to school on the first day. but after the first day, Siegie and Manny and Fritz, and a few other kids from the apartment complex walked to school every morning.
We had a ten-minute walk. We crossed a street only once. The blocks we walked had other apartment complexes on both sides with a few businesses In between. On our side of the street, we had apartment buildings. A coffin manufacturer and a butcher shop. Across the street were a department store and a business run by handicapped people. Most of the handicapped people were missing a limb of some kind. On our side of the street, the government was building a bomb shelter. In the middle of the street were the streetcar tracks. The streetcars were very reliable. They usually stayed on schedule unless the SS or the Gestapo had stopped them to look for criminals. One morning as we kids walked to school, we saw the SS stop a streetcar. They pushed some passengers into the street. The SS slapped them around. They knocked one of them down and shouted, "Juden verboten," “Jews forbidden." I had never seen anything like that. We kids looked at each other wide-eyed with mouths open. We talked about what we had seen on the way to school, except for Manny Sperling. He didn't say much at all.
My teacher, Herr Hartmann, was an SS teacher. He was a heavy-set man with blond hair. He stood about six feet tall. He looked much taller to me because I was so short. When he first came into the classroom, he stood and watched us for about ten minutes. Then he wrote his name on the blackboard. Each of us first graders had to try and write Herr Hartmann's name just as he had done. Even though we didn't know how to spell, we had to copy his name as best we could.
That seemed to be important to him, but the one thing that he really insisted on our doing well was the Hitler salute. He showed us how to place our toes together so that when we snapped our heels together, he could hear a loud click. Immediately following the snap. our right hand had to go up, and we had to say with clearness and precision, "Heil Hitler." The whole thing had to be done by the numbers: (I) heels snap: (2) hand up: (3) "Heil Hitler!"
We practiced and practiced that more than anything else. It didn't take long for me to see that when he came to school in a bad mood, if we were off just a little on our Hitler salute, we would put him in a worse mood, and we really suffered for it. He would slap his pointing stick on the desk and give us a hard look. Heaven help the one who didn't perform by the numbers: heels snap; hand up; "Heil Hitler!" The student who performed the worst had to go the front of the room for punishment.
Herr Hartmann kept a set of steel ball bearings about the size of golf balls. He placed the bearings on the floor. The poorly performing student had to put one knee on each of those bearings and kneel there for a while. I can say from personal experience that I didn't have to kneel very long before I broke out in a sweat. When I was finally allowed to stand, my knee caps felt as though they had separated from my knees. Walking was difficult, and a Hitler salute was impossible. I wasn't very good at it, and Siegie was worse than I was.
Except for that kind of treatment, I always liked school. I liked the routine, the predictability of school. I liked our geography classes, too. They were enjoyable because we got to spin the globe and put our finger on a spot when the globe stopped. One day we were asked to pick a spot where we would like to go someday. I spun the globe and my finger landed on Lubbock, Texas. It sounded like a fascinating place to go to. I always remembered it.
I was glad I was a first grader. First graders got to go to the basement first for air raids. Manny Sperling sat right beside me, and we giggled and elbowed each other. We tried to scare each other by saying, "You'd better hurry. The bombs are coming." While we were at school, the bombs never came, but we had to act like they were coming to keep Herr Hartmann happy. We marched in single file down the hallway and down the stairs. At school, I had to take the stairs one step at a time to keep Herr Hartmann from thinking I was panicking. That wasn't nearly as much fun as at the apartment. We practiced our air raids on the last day of the week, every week. We sat in the basement against the wall in complete silence while Herr Hartmann watched us from his seat. Finally, the long steady blast sounded the "all clear," and we returned to class to finish saying our lessons.
At school, we settled into a routine pretty quickly. Every morning Siegie, Fritz, Manny, the rest of the kids from the apartments, and I took our ten-minute walk to school. We always pretended we were the gunners who manned the antiaircraft cannons on our apartment roof. We pretended we were shooting down planes. One of us acted like a falling plane and made whistling noises as he crashed into the ground. Sometimes our playing almost made us late to school. We didn't dare to be late. If a student was late, Herr Hartmann berated him very roughly. Herr Hartmann disciplined him, usually with the ball bearing treatment. We just did not want to be late.
If someone was absent from school or was sick, Herr Hartmann usually mentioned the student's name and told why the student hadn't shown up for class. I guess that's why It was so strange to me when Manny Sperling didn't walk to class with us one morning. Herr Hartmann didn't even mention that Manny was missing. As a matter of fact, none of the other students asked about Manny either. I was curious, but I was afraid to interrupt Herr Hartmann and ask him.
When school was over, I decided I would tell Mom about it. When I got home, Manny and his mother were at our apartment. His mother had been crying. I went outside with Manny. I asked him what was wrong. He said that he and his mom were going to move. Manny's mom and my mom were friends, and both were upset. Later Mom told me that Manny and his mother had to move because the authorities were rounding up all the Jews. She told me that Manny and his mom were Jews. There was that word again. It didn't make any sense to me; however, it didn't take me long to learn what being a Jew meant.
When we went to the butcher shop, Mom started stopping on the sidewalk. She looked to see if anyone was watching us. If no one was watching, she quickly entered the butcher shop. The butcher shop owner was a nice guy and always spoke to me. He would say, "Hi, Manfred. How are you today? How about a bite of bratwurst while your mother shops'?"
I always liked going there, but one day as I walked home from school, I saw that the butcher shop windows had been broken out, and his shop had been ransacked. That morning the shop was normal. That afternoon It was wrecked. The shop owner was gone, and the words, "Juden Rous," "Jews Get Out," were painted on the walls. It just didn't make sense to me.
When I was a year older and entered the second grade, it still didn't make sense. That's when a new saying started. If a student accidentally slammed a door and startled everybody, someone would ask, "What's the matter with you? Are you a Jew, or what?"
If a student put his hat on crookedly, someone would ask, "What's the matter with you? Are you a Jew'?" When a student answered a question Incorrectly. Herr Hartmann would ask, "What's the matter with you? Are you stupid? Are you a Jew'?" It wasn't hard to figure out that to be a Jew was bad. More and more, l saw Juden Rous painted on walls everywhere.
One day while Siegie, Fritz and I walked home past the bomb shelter the government was building, I saw my friend the butcher. He still wore his butcher shop clothes, and he helped to build the shelter.
I shouted at him and tried to get his attention, "Hello! Hey, hello!"
Fritz grabbed me and said, "Manny! What is wrong with you? Don't you...