This story took place in Soviet Union at the
end of 1941 during the Second World War. I
came into class with a school principal.
"This boy will study in your class", said school principal to the teacher. "He is a refugee from Ukraine and missed a lot of lessons, please help him catch up".
I was shown a desk to sit at the end of the class. There were only boys in the class. My new classmate was a tall, thin and poorly dressed boy. He scowled when I went to his desk, and moved to a free place next to him so that I could not sit down.
"Again?" shouted the teacher, "Move immediately to your place!"
With the school principal gone the lesson continued. It was a new class in an unfamiliar school and in an unknown city, where I arrived with my mother during Second World War.
"Hey", said my new classmate, "are you literate?"
Strange question, I thought, is anyone in the third grade not literate?
"Yes, I am".
"Then copy this poem", ordered the boy and gave me a dirty piece of paper.
It was a sexual poem with a lot of abusive words. Actually, I already knew some foul language, but so many abusive words in one poem I've never seen before. I copied the poem and returned to him. He took the poem and whispered,
"If you will tell anyone about this poem, my friends will kill you!"
During the lunch break he approached me in the corridor.
"What's this?" he asked.
"It's my lunch".
"Give it to me".
I was confused. The boy was taller and stronger than me. I never encountered a situation like this. I gave him my lunch and decided not to take a lunch to the school anymore. Also I decided to ask the teacher to move me to another desk. I will tell her that I cannot read what she writes on the blackboard. But I did not have to do it because my classmate suddenly disappeared.
"Your Shtrik has been expelled from school", said me one of the boys. "He stole the teacher's purse, and was caught by the security guard".
So I learned that my neighbour's name is Shtrik. It obviously was not his real name but a nickname. I hoped that I would never meet him again, but I was wrong. A few days later I met him on the street. He was in the company of two guys. The first had long blonde hair, and the second looked like skinhead. Shtrik blocked my way.
"This is my friend", Shtrik said to the guys, "Right?"
Last question had been addressed to me. I said nothing.
"Come on, show me your pockets," said Shtrik and without waiting for an answer, he quickly searched my pockets. I had a rouble.
"My mother gave me rouble to buy a lunch", I said.
"Give it to me", he demanded and took my money. "If you complain to your mom, my friends will kill you", he said.
The guys laughed. The blonde with long hair ordered,
"Say: ride a red rose".
I knew that many Jews cannot pronounce the letter "R", and they say this sentence like "Hride a hred hrose", but I never said like this, and clearly repeated,
"Ride a red rose".
"You're lucky", said the blonde with long hair and gave me a cuff on the nape. Then he and his friends went away. Perhaps Shtrik lived somewhere near my house, because we often met on the street. Every time he checked my pockets.
"Do you know why nobody attacks and beats you?" he asked, taking away once again my money, apple or lunch, which I carried to school, "Because you're my friend. Would you like to see how the real thief works? Let's hide in these bushes. Do you see that yard where winter clothes are hanging on a rope? Now someone will lose his coat!"
Then I saw the skinhead I've met in company with Shtrik. He was carrying a large bag.
"Get ready", whispered Shtrik, "now..."
At this moment the door of the nearest house opened and a hefty man appeared with a stick. He immediately began to get rid of dust in the clothes. Skinhead passed and turned the corner.
"Sorry", said Shtrik, "we are not lucky today. I'll show you another time".
The crime situation greatly increased during the war in cities. Robbery and theft have become common. I and my mom kept our door bolted, opening it only at the sound of a familiar voice, like a fairy tale about seven little goats. In the city some murders occurred, police raided and arrested the whole gang. It was an open court session in the premises of the city circus. Entrance was free, and I came to see the trial. A circus ring was surrounded by high iron grilles, which are used when lion's trainers performed their show. The gang consisted of ten people, with two women among them. They stayed calm, lazily answered questions, as if they not worried about verdict. The prosecutor said terrible things, and they were all sentenced to capital punishment. When the gang was walking away, I saw between them the blonde with long hair I've met in company with Shtrik. A few days later I met Shtrik again.
"Wait", he said, "Show me your pockets".
"I have no money", I said.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Those are my coupons for free dinner".
"Give it to me; now I'll have free dinner".
"Shtrik", I said, first time referring to him by nickname, "I got these coupons at school, because my father is a soldier and he fights in battle. I will starve without these coupons".
"That's not my business", said Shtrik, "And if you will complain to anybody, my friends will kill you".
His voice has lost the confidence. On this day I had no dinner. The next morning he again stopped me on the way to school. Maybe he was waiting for me?
"Hey, you", he said, "Take your coupons back". And answering to my questioning look he added, "My father also fights now at war. My mother picked up another guy and we're leaving tomorrow. I saw you in the circus. Goodbye".
With these words he turned away and disappeared from my life forever...
Sometimes, remembering childhood, I ask myself again and again: why he gave me my dinner coupons back? If he does not need them he could present them to his friends, sell to someone or just throw them in garbage. Why he waited for me and returned my coupons back? Could the nobleness wake up in the soul of this licentious boy? And I cannot find the answer.