My father was also an accomplished storyteller endowed with a prodigious memory. He was born in 1909 in Salonica, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, now Greece, and would sometimes tell me stories on Sundays, the only day I spent time with him. I loved hearing of his childhood and he reminisced his pranks and sibling rivalries, summer fun, the awful French school, but also the loss of his father, the fire that destroyed the city in 1917, and the near-famine they experienced thereafter. There were tales of companionship, adventure, endurance and privation but also of a loving family, all told to me in riveting detail.
In these days of pandemic where we are all at home, I thought the following story, depicting an incidence of cholera that took place in 1913, would be relevant. My father was only four, and his child’s view of the events offers a slice of life of a long-gone era tinged with present significance.
My first awareness of death came a few months after the takeover of Salonica by the Greeks, in 1913. It was difficult getting used to all the changes, and people were continually reminiscing about the good old ‘tiempo del Turco’, or Time of the Turks, under which the Sephardim community had been living for the past five hundred years. By this time, we had moved upstairs, to the middle floor of our building, with my Aunt Boulissa above and another family downstairs. One day, a member of that family became very ill. The doctor arrived, recognized the unmistakable signs of Cholera and called in the Greek sanitary services. Their reaction was swift, though we thought of it more as a calamity brought by the Greeks. They put us all in quarantine and brought in a string of gendarmes to watch over us day and night, making sure we didn’t leave the house.
There was but one way to get supplies and I enjoyed the process immensely. From a window, we would lower a hamper tied to a rope, with money inside. A bandanna covering their mouths, the pluckier greengrocers, leading donkeys saddled on both sides with baskets laden with victuals, would fill our hamper.
From the window, I could watch day after day, the sidewalk across the street being sprinkled with quicklime, poured out of a watering can. It was a whitish liquid that turned yellow after a time. The next day, it would be sprinkled with plain water until it recovered its pristine white color.
I was jubilant; I was no longer left alone with my mother all day long. Everybody stayed put at home, and it was like a holiday. I could not understand what it was all about as I had the word ‘calado’, down with a cold, mixed up with cholera. Father nervously rolled cigarettes, my brothers rehearsed their German lessons and my mother complained that the grocers took advantage of the situation by putting inferior goods into our hamper.
One morning, I discovered that the door leading downstairs to the cholera-stricken neighbor’s apartment had been left unlocked. From the landing, I caught sight of my little neighbor, Estrellica, who was chewing on something and, looking up at me said, “Do you want passicas, raisins? Come down, I’ve got a pocketful.” I climbed down and she gave me a handful. I had started eating them when I heard my mother’s imperious voice calling, “What are you doing downstairs? Get up here this minute! But what is this you are eating?” “They’re passicas, Mamica; Estrellica gave them to me.” Holding her cheeks with both hands, I heard her uttering a fearful “Oh, my God!” I thought that she was going to faint. Everyone came running and stared at me in consternation as the news of my escapade spread through the whole building like wildfire.
The passicas were soon thrown down the toilet and my hands were washed in alcohol. “All we needed was this rascal Maïrico making us all croak with cholera!” was the general outcry. Father kept his composure and firmly opposed the request of all our neighbors that I be closeted alone in a bedroom to await the outbreak of the dreaded disease. My mother, as any mother would, declared that she would not hesitate to be closeted with me if necessary.
From that moment on, I became an object of great curiosity. Ten times a day, family and upstairs neighbors would inquire if I felt any bellyache or dizziness. I had never been the center of such attention and to further boost my importance, I went from one to the other just to state that I felt no bellyache at all, nor had I had any dizzy spells; and I enjoyed watching them all raise their gaze to heaven.
Our neighbor died after a few days. Her body, soaked in quicklime, was removed by the special services. From the window, we watched the solitary hearse moving away.