The first time I saw the man carrying a large black leather case was on the occasion of my neighbor’s wedding. It was a bright May day in 1939, a day full of promise for all of us in the neighborhood. My father had just written a new contract with some wealthy men from Denmark and Georg Leipowitz smiled at me. Leaning on the ledge of our open apartment window, I smiled back and an unfamiliar warmth churned inside me. I was eleven.
The strange man was standing directly across from our apartment, balancing on the edge of the curb like one of those circus performers I had seen last summer in the country. A black fedora perched on his head kind of cockeyed. It seemed to say “I’m someone important. Who are you?” He moved at right angles, very stiffly and seemed to be watching everyone and everything, while holding tightly to the worn handle of his leather bag.
One time, his gaze met mine and he blinked at the opposing sun. My heart raced and I pulled back into the shadows of our apartment. It was an odd feeling knowing he had seen me watching him.
As the afternoon wore on, I grew tired of surveying the passers-by and by the time I decided to retreat to Mama’s kitchen, I had missed the man’s departure. No matter. His presence on our street was going to make interesting dinnertime discussion for me.
“Papa. Do you know what I saw this afternoon across the street?”
With a twinkle in his eye, Papa looked up from his plate. As usual, his full attention was on me, his youngest. “Dear Lara, please tell us what you saw.”
As I recalled my observations of the odd little man with the big black case, Mama also became more attentive. She and Papa exchanged furtive glances.
“That is most curious.” His look became more serious and I wondered what it could mean.
“Do you know him Papa?”
“I can’t recall a man like you describe.” He spoke deliberately and with a hint of caution. “Don’t worry dear one. Just tell us if you see him again, alright?”
I nodded. Little did I know that the little man with the black leather bag was about to usher in a terrible darkness.
After dinner, our family gathered around the radio listening to the soothing melodies of the Norwegian national orchestra. The news broadcasts agitated my father. I couldn’t understand everything, but as always Germany was the focus. Father spoke of an evil dictator there who would ruin Europe. He said his heart was black.
It was October. The little bespectacled man had returned several times, but this time Papa was waiting for an opportunity to confront him. He said he just wanted to ask him what he was doing in our neighborhood.
I watched from the window of our second floor apartment as Papa crossed the street and confronted the man. I heard staccato voices and the man turned on his heel briskly leaving my father standing alone on the corner. Papa turned back toward our house, his shoulders sagging and his face ashen. I thought I saw tears.
His report that night at dinner was not encouraging. The man was definitely German. Papa discovered that he had been sent to survey the Jewish neighborhoods in Oslo. His black bag held a hidden camera and he had been photographing people, businesses, and the synagogue.
“For what purpose?” Mama’s voice grew shrill and I could sense her anger.
“I don’t really know Lena. I suppose they will invade Norway next. The country’s access to the North Atlantic will be important for their Navy.”
Through the winter Papa and Mama made plans to leave Oslo and go to Sweden. They knew if the Germans invaded it would come in the Spring and they also knew no Jew would be safe.
Then one day in early April, all was lost as our country was overrun by German troops. May 10, 1940 brought the Norwegian police to our neighborhood and to our door. They confiscated our radio and all those belonging to Jewish families. I watched from my window as their big trucks filled up with radio and wireless sets. Soon we would spend our nights in silence.
As the last truck pulled away, I noticed the man with the black leather case standing across the street. He turned to look up at me and smiled. I shivered.
Author’s Note: Of the 1,700 to 1,800 Jews living in Norway in 1940, less than half survived the German occupation, most by fleeing to Sweden.
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