I am trying to reach, in memory, a time before the war began. What was I like then? I think that I inherited my mother’s preference for solitude. We lived in a small villa on a road leading out of Prague, north of the most industrialized part of the city; my father worked as an engineer in one of the factories. There was another house down the road, and a pub catering to those who did not want to go thirsty into the centre, where they could expect to pay more for drinks. I had no brothers and sisters at the time; my brother was not born until I was seven. A girl about my age lived in our villa, and there was another boy slightly older than me living in the house down the road. I wasn’t close to either of them, and though I did play with other children in the park, I had no close friends and spent most of my time alone with my toys. Children in those days were not surrounded by toys as they are now, so I can still remember most of mine. What sticks most firmly in my memory is a large curtain made from an old sheet, on which my mother had drawn Walt Disney’s three little pigs. Behind this curtain we prepared plays with several stuffed animals for an audience that rarely showed up. From then on, puppet theatre became a passion, and before I grew up I made several of them, one in the concentration camp at Terezin.

Like many children, I was afraid of being alone in the dark, and before going to sleep I would ask for the door to the lighted hallway to be left open. Once in a while, when my parents went out for an evening, I would make a terrible fuss, although they never left me alone in the house; there was usually a maid.

When my mother first took me to school (I was two weeks short of turning six), it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. That day they let the parents stay in the classroom, by the door, and I spent the entire first lesson keeping an eye on my mother to make sure she had not abandoned me to the mercies of so many strange children and to the completely unknown woman forcing herself on my attention. Like most children, I did not enjoy school (in this sense, the war made my childhood dreams come true, for I was not allowed to go). But I learned well; I was quiet and longed for praise though I hardly ever volunteered to answer questions. When I was seven and had just got used to my classmates, we moved, and I had to get to know a whole new set. The Nazi laws did not permit me to start fourth grade.


Memorial
Chatwin Revisited