Not all days in school were equally pleasant. As mentioned before, winter 1941 was one of the bitterest on record in Europe, made somewhat more unpleasant by the shortage of coal, the only heating fuel used at the time in that place. In our classroom we had a pot-bellied stove which worked only intermittently because of coal shortages. When we entered the classroom it was bitter. The cold was made even worse by the fact that each day began with a prayer for which god required that we put our hands together with fingers straight. However, my hands were so cold that I couldn’t straighten my fingers out. Breathing on them helped somewhat. Later, if and when the room warmed up, it was easier to move my fingers, and I was able to use my hands to write on my slate.
We sometimes had music in our classroom. It was provided by Mrs. Bartolotto playing the piano. At these musical events, we often sang. Mrs. Bartoloto (this was probably not her name, but she was a lady with an Italian name who deserved a name, although I couldn’t recall it) was a volunteer, the only one we had, and she and her husband owned a music store in the neighborhood. For some reason not discernible to me, Mrs. Bartoloto took a liking to me, and to tell the truth, I also liked her. She was kind and gentle, qualities in short supply at the orphanage, although I don’t want to mislead by saying we were generally treated harshly. We weren’t. But Mrs. Bartoloto was special.
One evening, I think it was around Christmas time, she asked me if I would like to go home with her for lunch. At the time the mid-day meal was still the important one. Of course, I agreed, and she had to get permission from Mother Superior to take me home, which permission was granted. I accompanied Mrs. Bartolotto to her apartment over her store and was introduced to her husband. The apartment was beautiful, but that could have been my imagination. I was familiar only with the apartments of a bunch of refugees who didn’t have the time or the money to acquire furniture. I believe she guessed that I was Jewish, because the Couvent St. Joseph was an orphanage for little girls. What were four boys doing there? However, she didn’t say anything.
We sat down at table and began eating. It was some of the best food I’d ever had, especially when contrasted to the usual fare at the orphanage. It was all delicious, and best of all, at the end of it, there was a present for me. It was probably the best present I’ve ever been given, coming at a time when presents were really scarce. It was a soft, blue and white, wool scarf that Mrs. Bartolotto herself had knit, and that one was unusually welcome. It was wonderfully fuzzy and warm. It was a present I’ve never forgotten and for which I will forever be grateful. It helped against the cold, and I kept it for many years, and when I finally lost it (long after it had developed some holes) I mourned it as I might have the passing of a dear friend.