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The Gas Mask

By Alfred Traum

Herr Tamer lived at the end of the hall. He was a tall gaunt man, a very private man, or so it seemed to me as a nine year old—a lonely figure who responded pleasantly to my greeting when our paths crossed. One day he knocked at our door and asked if he could come in to listen to Hitler’s speech. He didn’t own a radio and knew we had one that, even though it was old, was better than nothing.

So, Herr Tamer and my parents gathered around the radio when Hitler began his speech. It went on and on for ages—mostly ranting and raving and frequent interruptions of “Sieg Heil.” I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying, but noticed the expressions on my parents’ faces. My mother’s eyes were moist near to tears; my father sat stone faced. Herr Tamer’s gave no indication or sign of emotion to the “Führer’s” uttering. But deep down I knew that whatever Hitler was saying was not good for us Jews.

I was more interested in Herr Tamer’s gas mask case. He noticed my gaze, removed it from his shoulder, opened the lid, and handed it to me for a closer inspection. It was a dark green round metal canister with fluted sides. Herr Tamer had been enlisted in one of the many organizations that sprang up under the Nazi regime. He wore an armband that identified him as a member of the NSKK. As far as I knew, that was the extent of his uniform. I have no idea what the initials stood for, but I know they rated a gas mask. Many people, by that time, were walking around with gas mask canisters slung over their shoulders. Of course gas masks were not issued to Jews. They did not matter.

That wasn’t the first time that my parents and Herr Tamer had gathered around the radio to listen to similar speeches, and always with the same emotional impact. The worsening situation for Jews living under Nazi rule was already very much in evidence through restrictions, persecutions, fathers abruptly disappearing without warning. In some cases they reappeared, after several months, and were given just days to leave the country. We learned later that they had been incarcerated at Dachau or Buchenwald. 

The signs were all there. There was no future for Jews under Nazi rule. The only question remaining was where to go? Who would let them in? My parents had received affidavits for the United States, but it all happened too late for them. In 1942, they were shipped east to Minsk and there was no word from them or about them after that date.

In June 1939, my sister and I left for England on the Kindertransport. We were fostered by an English Gentile family that lived in London. The following Monday morning, after our arrival in London, I was enrolled in the local school and placed in a class appropriate for my age. I spoke only several words of English, which was just enough to get me into trouble. When one of the boys asked me, “Do you want a fight?” I used the one English word in my lexicon and answered, “Yes.” I wasn’t sure what he wanted of me, but was certainly shocked and surprised when he punched me. I quickly learned that I had to improve my language skills.

But when it came to arithmetic, and problems written on the blackboard for us to solve, they seemed pretty straightforward to me. However, the teacher was puzzled that my answers were correct—I finished before anyone else in the class, but she couldn’t figure out how I got there. Apparently, we learned math very differently in Vienna and did much of the calculations in our head. The English method seemed very long-winded to me. I thought, at least here was one subject in which I excelled. But she wasn’t happy with that. She wanted me to do it the English way and spent a considerable amount of time on the blackboard teaching me the English method. She needed to see how I arrived at the answer.

When it came to composition time the teacher indicated that it would be fine if I wrote my essay in German. It provided me an automatic “A” since she couldn’t read it and judged me mainly on quantity and neatness. I knew this wouldn’t last for long. 

A school staff member interrupted the class, asked for me to be excused, and indicated that I should follow her. She took me to a storeroom and pulled a square carton from the shelf. On opening it, I discovered a gas mask. Smilingly I accepted. Like all the other boys I was being issued my own gas mask. She showed me how to put it on and then proceeded to adjust the rubber straps. When she felt confident that all the adjustments had been correctly carried out, for a final test she held a piece of paper over the bottom of the mask and indicated for me to take a deep breath. She did this by inflating her own chest and motioned for me to follow suit. As I inhaled the paper held firmly to the mask, there were no leaks. She then wrote my name on the box and with a friendly pat on the back handed the box to me and told me to return to my class. For her, it seemed just the normal and right thing to do. However, to me, that gesture had a much deeper meaning. 

During playtime, many of the boys were swinging the gas mask cases around and throwing them, playfully, at each other. I held mine proudly into my side. To me, it was an affirmation that here in England I, too, mattered. I really mattered.

©2013, Alfred Traum. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.