This is the worst day ever- Magda can’t go to school anymore
This is the worst day ever, Magda Stein sobbed as she walked home. She walked past the renaissance palaces of Mala Strana, and across the bridge over the River Vltava. Normally she would look at the beautiful view of the Prague castle from the bridge. Today, she didn’t notice where she was going. It started raining, and the raindrops were mixing with Magda’s tears. People were looking at her, but 12-year-old girls cry easily, those strangers on the street probably thought she had an argument with her friends or lost something. This was much worse. Today, Magda had been told she couldn’t go to school anymore.
The teacher asked all Jewish children to go to the school gym after lessons. The headmaster was waiting for them. He was pacing up and down on the small, elevated platform that was sometimes used for children’s concerts and theatre performances, his shoes made a squeaky sound. He was pale and talked very quietly.
“We have been told that we are no longer allowed to have Jewish pupils. I am very sorry.”
His eyes were looking on his feet. Magda did that when she was lying. What will we do? she thought.
Magda loved going to school. She always had good marks, and she liked to hold her hand up first when the teachers asked questions. Sometimes, she didn’t know the answer when she put the hand up, but by the time the teacher called her up, she was ready to say something, and she was often right. It didn’t always work. The week before, she didn’t know the answer.
“So, what is it, Magda?” the teacher asked.
“Oh, I forgot! Sorry.”
Everybody laughed at her. Usually, Magda was part of the popular group of girls who laughed at the ones they singled out as weird. Girls like bespectacled Ela, who wore ugly shabby clothes and read books in the interval instead of playing or talking with the other girls. Sometimes Ela was so engrossed in her book that she didn’t notice the school bell marking the beginning of the next lesson.
“Four-eyed Ela, wake up, the teacher’s coming!”
Ela dropped the book, rushing to her desk. Or the fat shy Jana, always eating something her mother baked in their bakery shop. The girls called her Stuffed Face. But when the girls laughed at Magda last week, she didn’t like it.
Now, she couldn’t go to school anymore. My brother Oskar doesn’t like school; he’ll be happy. The only thing he likes is football. Magda thought.
In the physical exercise lessons, Magda couldn’t do the things other children could, jump over the vault, climb the pole or the rope. She always got the giggles and got stuck in the middle of the climbing rope.
“Come on, Stein, climb up or down.”
The teacher hated it, but she had to help Magda to climb down. PE was the only subject where Magda never got the top mark. Who cares? Magda’s brother Oskar was in his school football team, and he ran, too. He kept teasing Magda that she was fat and clumsy. Well, he is stupid. I am far cleverer than he is. Even Daddy says that. It’s better to be clever and clumsy than stupid and good at moving, like a monkey. The image of her brother turning into a monkey made Magda stop crying.
Magda’s father Bruno told her she was his little princess. When he was at home, Magda often sat on his lap, and he told her stories. Daddy loves me. Magda was not so sure about her mother. Of course, Mummy loves me, too, but she prefers Oskar. Mummy can be nasty to me sometimes. Last week, Magda ate half of the chocolate cake their cook Anna was preparing for dinner. There was plenty of it left for everybody, but Anna got angry. Magda’s mother Franzi got very cross, too — she sent Magda to her room without any supper. The punishment didn’t last long. Magda had a secret weapon whenever her mummy punished her. She cried, loudly, sometimes for hours, like an actress. Eventually, her father couldn’t bear it and came to her rescue. When Magda couldn’t cry any more, she started thinking about something very sad, like cute little puppies dying. Then she could cry again. It worked. Her daddy didn’t want his little Princess to be unhappy.
When she cried like that after the cake punishment, Bruno took his daughter back to the dining room after exactly 10 minutes, she checked on her nice Longines Swiss watch that she got for her birthday. She was still allowed to eat her dinner. Not the cake, her mother didn’t allow it. But Magda had enough of that cake anyway.
The cook Anna didn’t seem to like Magda; she kept chasing her from the kitchen. It didn’t occur to Magda that it might have something to do with her always eating sultanas and looking into the pots to find out what was Anna cooking. Once, Magda dropped the pot of soup she was tasting, and Anna had to make the soup again from scratch. Fortunately, Magda didn’t get scalded, but the soup went everywhere, on the hob and on the floor.
Anna used to be a cook for one of Franzi’s Czech friends, who was moving from Prague to Brno. “She’s a wonderful cook, but moody, I hope you can cope with that, Franzi,” the friend said.
The friend was right, Anna had a temper. Almost every month, she gave Magda’s parents her notice about something silly, only for Bruno and Franzi to beg her to stay. Yet, she always stayed and soon became almost part of the family.
Magda remembered when the Nazis arrived in Prague. It was 15 March 1939. They were standing on the pavement, Franzi was holding Magda’s and Oskar’s hands, Bruno was standing behind them. It was very cold for March, and sleet was blowing in their faces. Magda was watching those cars and tanks, driving on the other side of the road. Their steering wheels were on the left, not on the right like her daddy’s car. The cars used to drive on the left, but the Nazis changed that in one day. They just kept driving on the right when they crossed the border.
The pavements in Prague were full of people, watching the invasion. That was the first time Magda saw her daddy cry, although he told her that it was the sleet hurting his eyes when she asked him. He was not the only one, many of the adults on the pavement seemed to cry. Now the Nazis were in power. What used to be Czechoslovakia was now called Böhmen und Mähren. The country was much smaller now. After the Nazis invaded Poland, too, the war started.
Magda used not to care if she was Jewish. Sometimes she felt it was great to be both Czech and Jewish. In December, Hanukkah brought the candles, the dreidel game – the dice with Hebrew letters. She liked the little gifts of chocolate coins and other sweets that she and Oskar got every one of the eight days of Hanukkah, and the festive meals. Sometimes, Franzi let her light the candles. But unlike many other Jewish families, for Magda’s family, the celebrations did not end on the eights day. The family celebrated Christmas, too, in the house of her uncle Otto, who was married to a non-Jew.
Otto and his wife Marie didn’t have any children, but they always had a Christmas tree and Aunt Marie baked ten sorts of Christmas cookies. She had a cook, like Magda’s family, but she said that she preferred cooking the Christmas meal herself. All the family went there for dinner every Christmas Eve, and they always had fried carp with potato salad. Magda didn’t like carp, you had to watch for bones.
“Don’t talk, Magda, you will get a fish bone stuck in your throat and it would have to be cut out!” she remembered her father saying.
Bruno probably just wanted to scare her, but why not have meat instead of fish, and be able to talk at dinner? The Czech Christmas cookies were yummy, especially the little moon shaped vanilla rolls, made with ground almonds. Aunt Marie and Uncle Otto always left lots of presents for the children – Magda and her brother Oskar, cousins Irma and Gerd – under the Christmas tree. Cousin Hana wasn’t a child anymore, so she didn’t get any toys, but they always gave her books. The other adults never got any presents. Aunt Marie said the presents were from Baby Jesus, but Magda knew very well that Uncle Otto was buying them. Aunt Marie was a Roman Catholic like the Stein’s cook Anna. They both wore a cross on their neck. But otherwise they were very different. Aunt Marie was beautiful, whereas the cook Anna was fat and ugly, with a wart on her big nose.
“Anna’s nose is more Jewish than mine!” joked Bruno.
The religion classes in school were once a week, always the last lessons in the day, so that Catholic, Protestant and Jewish children could all go to a different class. Magda used to go to the Jewish religion class. The rabbi was old and couldn’t manage the children. There was such noise! The children talked, threw the wet sponge for washing the blackboard at each other and didn’t listen to the lessons. Magda only managed to learn some Hebrew letters. The letters were also used as numbers, strange.
“You sounded like a class of monkeys, not children.” Franzi once said when she was picking Magda up.
Later Magda went to the Protestant classes. The whole family was baptised shortly before.
“It might help us with the Nazis”, said Bruno.
The Protestant pastor Mr. Homola was nice. The way he told those biblical stories was a bit like theatre, he changed his voice, made faces. He also made Oskar, Magda, and the other Jewish children feel special. When they joined the class, he said: “We must all respect and be nice to these children, they come from an ancient tribe that founded our religion. They are our brothers and sisters, and they are living through hard times.”
It was nice, but it also made Magda giggle. Tribe? Like the American Red Indians from the books Oskar reads? I am not Jewish anymore; I am a Czech Protestant.
But the Nazis didn’t believe that. And now I can’t go to school, I will never see Pastor Homola again.
When Magda got home, Anna opened the door for her.
“Oh Anna, where is Mummy? Those stupid Nazis decided that Jewish children can’t go to school.”
Magda cried, and this time it was real. Anna embraced her, which was weird, but it was nice to be pulled to Anna’s large breasts, warm and soft, like lying on a pillow. Then she started baking a chocolate cake. That cheered Magda up and she stopped crying.
“Big chocolate cake, really?”
“Yes Magda, and it will be all just for you,” Anna said. “I will make something else for your brother.”
“Oskar hates school, he’ll be pleased!”
But she was wrong, he wasn’t. He tried to hide it, but Magda was pretty sure he was crying, too.