The following is an excerpt from the Etgar Keret’s short story collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories, which was published this week in paperback by Riverhead Books.
On Holocaust Memorial Day our teacher Sara took us on bus No. 57 to visit the Museum of Volhynia Jewry, and I felt very important. All the kids in the class except me, my cousin, and another boy, Druckman, were of Iraqi origin. I was the only one with a grandfather who had died in the Holocaust. The Volhynia House was very beautiful and posh, all made of black marble, like millionaire’s houses. It was full of sad black-and-white pictures and lists of people and countries and dead folks. We walked past the pictures in pairs and the teacher said, “Don’t touch!” but I did touch one picture, made of cardboard, showing a thin pale man who was crying and holding a sandwich in his hand. The tears came streaming down his cheeks like the lines you see on the street, and my partner, Orit Salem, said she would tell the teacher that I touched it, and I said I didn’t care, she could tell whoever she wanted, even the principal, I don’t give a damn. It’s my grandpa and I’m touching whatever I want.
After the pictures they led us into a big hall and showed us a movie about little children who were shoved into a truck and then suffocated by gas. Then an old skinny man got on the stage and told us what bastards and murderers the Nazis were and how he took revenge on them, and even strangled a soldier with his own hands until he died. Jerby, who was sitting next to me, said the old man was lying; the way he looks, there’s no way he can make any soldier bite the dust. But I looked the old man in the eye and believed him. He had so much anger in his eyes, that all the violent rage of iron-pumping hoods I’ve seen seemed like small change in comparison.
Finally, when he finished telling us what he had done during the Holocaust, the old man said that what we had just heard was relevant not only to the past but also for what goes on now, because the Germans still exist and still have a state. He said he was never going to forgive them, and that he hoped we, too, would never ever go visit their country. Because when he went with his parents to Germany 50 years ago everything looked nice, but it ended in hell. People have short memories, he said, especially when bad things are concerned. People tend to forget, he said, but you won’t forget. Every time you see a German, you’ll remember what I told you. Every time you see German products, be it television (since most televisions here are made by German manufacturers) or anything else, you’ll always remember that underneath the elegant wrapping are hidden parts and tubes made of bones and skin and flesh of dead Jews.
On the way out Jerby again said that he’d bet anything the old man never strangled anybody in his life, and I thought to myself it was a good job that at home we had an Amcor refrigerator. Who needs trouble?
Two weeks later my parents came back from a trip abroad and brought me sneakers. My older brother had secretly told my Mum that that’s what I wanted and she got me the best pair in the world. Mum smiled when she gave me the present. She was sure I had no idea what was inside. But I immediately recognized the Adidas logo on the bag. I took out the shoebox and said thank you. The box was rectangular, like a coffin, and inside lay two white shoes with three blue stripes and the inscription “Adidas” on their side; I didn’t have to open the box to know what they looked like. “Let’s put them on,” my mother said and took out the wrapping paper, “to make sure they fit.” She was smiling all the time, and had no idea what was going on. “They’re from Germany, you know,” I told her, squeezing her hand tightly. “Of course, I know.” Mum smiled. “Adidas is the best brand in the world.” Grandpa was from Ger- many too. I tried to give her a hint. “Grandpa was from Poland,” Mum corrected me. For a moment she became sad, but soon recovered. She put one shoe on my foot and started to tie the laces. I kept quiet. I realized there was nothing doing. Mum didn’t have a clue. She had never been to Volhynia House. Nobody ever explained it to her. For her shoes were just shoes and Germany was Poland. I let her put the shoes on me and kept silent. There was no point in telling her and making her even sadder.
I thanked her again and kissed her on the cheek and said I was going to play ball. “You will be careful, eh?” my dad called, laughing from his armchair in the front room. “Don’t wear out the soles right away.” I looked again at the pale hide covering my feet. I looked at them and remembered everything the old man who had strangled said we should remember. I touched the blue stripes of the Adidas and remembered my cardboard grandfather. “Are the shoes comfortable?” my mother asked. “Sure they’re comfortable,” my brother answered for me. “These are not cheap Israeli sneakers. These are the same sneakers that the great Cruiff wears.” I tiptoed slowly toward the door, trying to put as little weight as I could on the shoes. And so I made my way gingerly to the “Monkeys Park.” Outside the kids from Borochov neighborhood had formed three teams: Holland, Argentina, and Brazil. It so happened that Holland needed a player, so they agreed to let me join, although they never accept anyone who’s not from Borochov.
At the beginning of the game I still remembered not to kick with the tip of my shoe, so as not to hurt Grandpa, but after a while I forgot, just as the old man at Volhynia House said people tend to do, and I even managed to kick a tie-breaking goal. But when the game was over I remembered and looked at the shoes. All of a sudden they became so comfortable, much bouncier than when they were in the box. “Some goal, eh?” I reminded Grandpa on the way home. “The goalie didn’t know what hit him.” Grandpa said nothing, but judging by the tread I could tell that he, too, was pleased.
This is an excerpt from The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Etgar Keret.