1. "What is a Jew?"
It happened twice in the village that I was called a Jew. I wasn't sure what that meant. The first time was by some children. I tried shrugging it off but afterwards we talked about it. They said that I was the only child who didn't go to church, and I asked if that made me a Jew. One boy said:
"No. Everyone is born a Jew, and you stay a Jew until you're baptized by the priest. Were you baptized when you were a baby?"
I asked my mother. She said that I wasn't. I was circumcised, which meant having the little ring around my penis snipped off. That must have been the reason I never did well in peeing contests.
The second time was by some workers who were digging holes for telephone poles smeared with black creosote, the smell of which I loved. It was a very hot summer day. The flies were buzzing madly. My mother was sunning herself with a visiting couple in the garden. The workers were on the other side of the fence, bare-chested and muscular, their biceps rippling as they broke the soil and scooped it out. Perhaps, I thought, I would be a hole-digger when I grew up. My mother called to me and handed me a tray with glasses and a pitcher with a cold drink. "Take this to the workers," she said.
I took it to them excitedly. "Are you Yids?" one of them asked me.
I said I wasn't sure but that I hadn't been baptized.
(Sandgame, Page 9.)
2. "What does a Jew look like?"
Had I really wanted to know what a Jew was, I had only to look at the Jewish peddlers who came to hawk their wares in the village, or at the people who lived on my grandparents' street in Warsaw. But I didn't and never made the connection. I ran after the peddlers with the other boys and sometimes threw stones at them. They were dressed in black clothes and had beards and funny little braids around their ears. I knew they kidnapped children like the Gypsies, because that's what Celina said hey would do to me if I was bad. The only peddler to pass through our village unscathed was a cripple. The leader of our gang said it was a sin to throw stones at lame people.
(Sandgame, Page 11-13.)
3. "Who am I?"
Not being able to answer my classmates' questions was evworse. They hit me and, being the second weakest boy in the class, I couldn't stop them.
"Are you Jewish?"
"I don't know."
"Are your parents Reds?"
"I don't know."
"Where do you live?"
"On a big street with trees. Not far from here."
"What's its name?"
"I don't know."
"Are you a boy or a girl?"
That much I knew. I went home and cried so hard that my mother agreed to take me for a haircut even though it was a Monday. Mondays were bad days to go to barbers, because on Sundays they all got drunk. They were so hung over the next morning that they could cut your ear off by mistake.
Eventually I realized that we were Jews and that we were on the side of the workers and the Red flag. Not that this kept my mother from locking me in the house on May Day, when all the labor unions demonstrated, to keep me from getting hurt in a riot. I even came to understand that my grandparents weren't freaks but religious Jews like the rest of their block.
(The Sandgame, Pages 15-16.)
4. "The Jews crucified our Lord"
Not long after we returned to Warsaw, Celina left us to get married and I received a Jewish governess. Miss Janka. Her being Jewish made life easier, because whenever I fought with her I hid in the nearby church, where it never occurred to her to look for me. I already had a friend there, an old beggar woman I knew from the times Celina took me to mass. While I was hiding from Janka I helped the beggar woman beg, and sometimes I prayed and had long talks about life with her. Once I tried telling her I was a Jew. She got mad and said that it was all right to play Cowboys and Indians or cops and Robbers, but not Jews, because they had crucified the Lord.
(Sandgame, Page 16.)
5. "In what way am I different from them?"
In the shower you could see who had been snipped and who hadn't been.
(The Sandgame, Pages 16-17.)
6. "Jews don't come to school"
And then the war - World War II - broke out. After a month of bombing and shelling, the Germans captured Warsaw, and soon my homeroom teacher informed me that I had to stop coming to school because I was a Jew.
(The Sandgame, Page 17.)