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The Numbered Child


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Old Fetch was the first Dutchman I ever met. Fetch Ten Brock. He came to Barnesville, Georgia, in the seventies from Trenton, New Jersey. He was a sculptor and mold maker. He entertained us kids by making little clay models of us. He would make them funny.

"Look how big you made my nose look," Johnny Logan said.

"Yah," Fetch said. "And your nose is so small? Such a smeller you should be proud of." Johnny laughed right along with the other kids and learned not to be self-conscious of his nose. It really was a honker.

by Peter Devooght

Everybody liked Fetch. His workshop was a popular place. The neighborhood kids gathered to watch him sculpt and listen to his funny stories. Sometimes after the other kids left, Fetch, Carrie, her little sister Vonnie and I would sit on their porch, talking and being silly. Usually there was a lot of laughter, but one day the laughter stopped.

Fetch wore a short-sleeved, striped shirt, and his heavily haired forearm was bare. That was the first time I saw the tattoo. It was a pale blue, faded with time, and stretched with age. I read them aloud. "S4008489. What are those numbers for?" I asked.

"Ach, those numbers. There were so many children in my family that Papa could not remember our names, so he gave us numbers."

Fetch fell silent after he told me about the numbers. His eyes got very sad. After a minute he went inside. He didn't come out again for the rest of the day.

Six years later I learned the truth about the numbers. Fetch and I were sitting on the porch enjoying a quiet day, sunny and warm, delighted by a cool breeze that worked its way through the trees. Fetch had bits of clay stuck to his arms, and as the sun dried them they turned gray. He brushed them off, and my eyes fell on those numbers. He caught the look.

"Ach," he said. "Now maybe you are old enough." He held his arm up before me.

"My father was in the resistance against the Nazis. When I was small boy, he was caught and they murdered him. I saw it. They dragged him out from the house and shot him. I watched him die."

His eyes dropped, as did his voice. He fought to get every word out.

"Me, they put into a barrack with other children. I found out later we were all children of political prisoners, but we were the lucky ones. There were a lot of Jewish children there. Thousands maybe."

"Me and Mama they put on train, and took us to a camp and they put the numbers on my arm. They took Mama away from me, and I never saw her again." Fetch lit up a cigarette, and coughed a bit, before continuing.

Tears welled in his eyes, and his skin paled. Fetch took a handkerchief out of his pocket. "They were all killed. Children just like me. Children." Now the tears flowed openly and ran down the side of his nose. He stopped talking for a minute and composed himself.

"So," he said, "now you know what the numbers are for. For me, they remind me that no matter how bad things are, they can get better, no?"

We sat together drinking iced tea, neither of us speaking, but I couldn't keep it up. I had to know more.

"Then what?" I said.

"Then what, what?" he asked.

"How did you get away from the camp?"

"When the British soldiers came to the camp, they tried to find out who we all belonged to, but it was hopeless. They took us out of that hell, and put us into another camp. I thought it would be the same, but they gave us food and clean clothes, and tried to find places for us to live. Mostly it was the younger children who found homes with good Dutch and French families, but I was too old. I was ten years old by then, and nobody wanted me until I met an American lady."

He lit up another cigarette and with it his whole demeanor seemed to change. His mood got lighter as he spoke of better times.

"She was a nurse in the army, and she said that she and her husband wanted a child but she could not have. They adopted me and took me to New Jersey where I grew up."

By this time, it was I who was crying. He took my hand in his. Despite the roughness of his skin, his touch was tender.

"Always you must have faith," he said. "No matter how bad it becomes, it can get better." He looked toward the distant clouds, deep in thought.

"Sometimes," he said, "it is hard to remember all the bad things that happened because everything turned out so good. I met my wife in Trenton and she also was a refugee, but from Poland. A lot of Polish people in Trenton. We were married for twenty years until cancer took her away, but for those twenty years she was happy, and I was happy. And now I have the two girls, and life is good."

Soon after that day I went off to college, halfway across the country. Even now, late at night, I think about old Fetch, and what he had been through. In my mind's eye I still see Carrie and Vonnie running to the house, laughing and giggling, skipping and dancing as Old Fetch sits on the porch. I know now he was watching them enjoy the childhood that was violently snatched from him, with the knowledge that not only can things get worse, they can get better.

Norman Shatzoff is a 66 year old goat rancher, retired Chief Petty Officer and Circulation Manager for the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, and the Griffin Daily News in Griffin GA. He is married to Shirley and together they have four children, all of whom live in Virginia, along with a passle of grandkids.

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