Trembling, too terrified to cry, and barely breathing, I tried and failed to understand what was happening. When I finally caught my breath and asked my mother what was happening, she responded in a tone of voice I’d never heard, “Mirele, this is serious. It is not a game. No matter what, you must hold on to me or Aunt Ala at all times. We must not be separated. You must instantly obey all the orders I give you without asking any questions. Always do what I tell you. Do you understand?” Unable to speak, I just nodded solemnly. We practically flew down the five flights of stairs to the big front door, and out onto the street. Our usually safe, familiar, and friendly block had been transformed into fiery chaos and danger. We quickly headed for a bomb-shelter, which was located in the basement of a nearby apartment building. We had become part of a confused, panicked, screaming mob of men, women, children—all running for our lives. It was almost like one of today’s computer games—except we living, breathing, human beings, were the targets. Low-flying German planes randomly machine-gunned people down on the streets. We dodged the bricks, broken glass, and flaming chunks of exploding buildings that hurtled crazily through the air, and plummeted down upon us. Shaking, I kept asking my mother why all this was happening. “You wouldn’t understand, Mirele,” she repeated.
By the time we reached the bomb shelter, I was all but paralyzed by fear. My Aunt Ala put an arm around me, and held me tightly to her. We clambered down the narrow stairs and into the basement. The bombing had cut off the electricity, and the subterranean room was so dark that we could barely see each other’s faces. We tried, without much success, to be polite as we cautiously made our way through the packed room and into a small space in a still vacant corner. We were hot and sweaty, and the foul smells in that dank, dirty, fear-filled cellar made it difficult to breathe. Eerily unlike the deafening clamor in the streets, the only sound now was the soft hum of people softly praying that we would not sustain a direct hit, and that the tall building above would not collapse on top of us. Huddled tightly together with our families, neighbors, and anyone else who had been nearby when the bombing had begun, we tried to act as normally as possible. We were all nervous, but somehow understood that if one person lost control and started screaming, then everyone else might also. If anyone was mean to another person, it might start a fight that would endanger all of us. Even I somehow understood that the survival of this terrified group depended on each individual being calm and considerate to each other. After a while, we were relieved to see that someone had thought to bring a flashlight, and someone else had brought candles and matches. Once there was a little light, people began to calm down a bit. No longer distracted by the bombs, my thoughts turned to my father, my uncles and my grandparents. Worried, I asked Ala where they all were, and if they were safe. She assured me that they all were quite safe in shelters. She cradled me in her arms and told me she loved me. I buried my face in her sweet-smelling sweater, and as her calm, loving voice resonated through me, my eyelids began to droop.
Suddenly, just when we were beginning to feel a little bit safe, just when we had started to breathe a little more normally, our worst fears became a reality. We were stunned by the terrible whistle of a bomb very close overhead. This was quickly followed by an ear-splitting crash as it smashed through the roof of the apartment building. Everyone held their breaths again—waiting for the explosion. And the horror that would follow.