The Story of a Life
was often close to leaving both the place and the man, but for some reason I didn’t. Another one of the refugees who saw my distress couldn’t restrain himself. “Boys your age are already doing more important things,” he said. “Haven’t you learned your lesson?”
    I didn’t know which lesson he meant. At any rate, I loved to pray. The thought that one day I, too, would be able to stand, prayer book in hand, and pray, was stronger than the humiliation. That strong man had no pity on me. Sometimes it seemed to me that he was hitting me in order to uproot my desire to pray.
    For two months I studied prayers with this man, whose name was Pini. Then he obtained a visa and sailed off to Australia. He parted from the
minyan
with a bottle of liquor. His friends in the black market didn’t seem particularly happy for him. Me, he avoided.
    I was glad that he had sailed off. His indifference and his cold anger continued to scare me long after he had gone, although the prayers that he had left me with gave me great pleasure.
    A month after he departed, prayer started to flow out of my mouth. The feeling that I was able to follow the man who led the prayers, to repeat his verses along with everyone else, infused me with courage. Even the drab dealers, indifferent and selfish, seemed friendly to me.
    I was mistaken, of course. One of those who came to pray suggested that I smuggle cigarettes to Sicily. When I refused, he said threateningly, “You watch out! If I catch you here, you’ll regret it.”
    The threat sounded real to me, and I stopped coming to
minyan.
Fortunately for me, later that same week we moved to another camp, and my desire to pray was sent into hiding.

14
     
    THE WAR SPAWNED many strange children, but Chico was one of a kind. His memory, it was said, was phenomenal. He could repeat thirty numbers as if they were but three, and he would do so without making a single error. The first time I saw him was in the refugee camp in Italy, on the way to Palestine. He was part of a troupe of child performers between the ages of seven and eight. Among them were jugglers and fire-eaters, and a child who walked a tightrope that he had strung between the trees. There was also a girl singer, Amalia, who had the voice of a nightingale. She did not sing in any particular language, but in one all her own, a mixture of words that she remembered from home, sounds from the pastures, noises from the forest, and prayers from the convent. People would listen to her and weep. It was hard to tell exactly what she sang about. It always seemed as though she was telling a long story full of hidden details. Her seven-year-old friend would dance alongside her, or sometimes he would dance alone. Amalia loved watching him and, though she was hisage, or perhaps even younger, she would gaze at him like an older sister. Her look was mature and full of concern, as if she wanted to shield him under her wing. There was also a child who played sad Russian songs on his harmonica. He was six years old, but looked younger. They made a crate for him, and he’d stand on it and play.
    These little troupes sprang up on the roads and wandered from camp to camp, and at night they would entertain those who were tired of the war and of themselves. At that time people didn’t know what to do with themselves, with lives that had been so unexpectedly spared. There were no words; the ones left over from home sounded hollow. Sometimes a man would appear and words would flow from his mouth. But the words he used were from before the war, and they sounded like coarse scraps, devoid of all taste. Only the speech of the small children still had some kind of freshness. I say small children, because the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds were already corrupt: they traded, changed money, pilfered, and robbed like the grown-ups. But, unlike the grown-ups, they were agile. The years in the forests had taught them how to move quickly, how to climb and to scurry about. They

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