Paulette Dubois, who had traveled on the train with me from Brussels to Cul-des-Sarts, became my best friend there. In our dormitory room, our beds were next to each other. She had an older brother, Leon, who came to visit her on visitors’ day. His hair was cut in the latest fashion and he wore stylish, hand-knit white cable knee socks. It was the Swing and Zazou period. So I gave Paulette the nickname of Zazou and that is what I have called her ever since.
After about a year, like most of the other girls from Cul-des-Sarts, Zazou was transferred to another colonie, Sunny, and we lost touch until after liberation when I went to see her at the candy shop where she worked as a sales girl while I was going to the lycée. Her father had been deported so her mother had a hard time economically after the war. I don’t know what her brother Leon did for a living at the time to help support his family.
It must have been the summer of 1950, a year after I arrived in New York, while playing tennis on the public courses of Central Park with my brother, that we met Zazou’s brother Leon, who had become one of my brother’s French-speaking friends. Leon announced that Zazou would be arriving in New York in a few weeks. So it happened in 1950 that I renewed my friendship with Zazou once more. Both of us were lonely in New York. We met to go ice skating, me dragging her around the ring all evening because she was poorly coordinated. Soon Zazou met Gerson Jerus, ten years older than she, who had spent the war years in the Belgian Congo. Zazou was always full of life and fun while Gerson was reserved and took himself very seriously. I was invited to their wedding in New York. Gerson worked on Wall Street, so I sometimes ran into him when I worked for Michelin/Citroen, at 29 Broadway, close to Wall Street. At one of those chance meetings in the fall of 1953, he told me that he and Régine (Zazou’s real name) were moving to Southern California. This encounter happened a few months before Manfred and I married. I told Gerson about our plan to move to Los Angeles after our wedding. So we met again, this time in Los Angeles as a foursome. We didn’t live very far apart. I remember a seder led by Gerson, who came from a very Orthodox family, with his sister Ida there too. Then, shortly after Manfred and I moved to Downey in 1956, Zazou and Gerson bought a house in Anaheim.
In the meantime, Gerson, who didn’t like working in an office, responded to an ad for a salesman of brassieres. Because his family had been in the foundation (corset) business in Antwerp, he felt confident that he could change his career to become a traveling salesman for Love, the name of the company, to sell bras to specialty stores all over California. He became very successful, constantly expanding his territory. We lost touch when we moved to Northern California. In the meantime, Régine and Gerson adopted a little girl who had a hard time constantly being disciplined by her very strict father. Régine developed cancer and died young. Her daughter then found her birth mother and went to live with her. Zazou did not want to see me when I offered to visit her after hearing that she had cancer. She wanted me to remember her as she was, sparkling and full of life and so I do to this day.
Rosinne, who also traveled with me on the train to Cul-des-Sarts with her little sister Alice, was shy, but more mature than I. She took the good care of her little sister very seriously. Before spending three months in that convent in Flanders, the two of them had been staying in the Jewish orphanage at Wezembeek. One day the Germans came to pick up all the children and took them to Malines, the gathering camp before deporting Jews from Belgium to Poland. The Queen Mother Elizabeth, a Bavarian Princess who had married King Albert of Belgium before the First World War, intervened personally with the German authorities in Brussels, who released all the children. As Rosinne told it, “we left Malines with more children than we had along when we first arrived there.”
Paulette Larmant (Cyngieser was her real name) had arrived a month prior to the five of us in the second contingent of Jewish children. The two Paulettes and Rosinne were the same age as I, twelve. Paulette Larmant was a politician who knew how to enter into Madame Van Hal’s good graces. She boasted to us of her father who was part of the Jewish Underground. Not only had he jumped once from the train that took Jews from Malines to Poland, but he had subsequently organized a jump at a curve where the train had to slow down. I learned that one had to jump sideways and roll down the embankment and then run into the woods. (See “The XXth Train by Marion Schreiber, p.302, #1366 Jacques Cyngieser, the father of Paulette Larmant-Cyngieser managed to escape from that particular train. However, when I looked at the issue of the newspaper Le Soir which showed in tiny print all the Jews deported from Belgium, I felt very sad that Jacques Cyngieser did not survive the war.) After the escapes from the XXth train, the Germans hermetically sealed all deportation train wagons to prevent further escapes. Paulette’s father chose to ignore the danger of being shot by the guards while organizing jumps. I was very impressed that her father was such a hero. Every week she looked at her parents’ letter to see if her father had signed. If he had not signed, it meant that he was gone on underground activities.
Rosalie completed our dormitory. She was older by three years. Her family had fled Belgium during the Exodus in 1940. When they arrived in the south of France, they were interned as foreigners in the Camp de Rivesaltes (where Manfred’s family was interned, as well as my aunt Lene Birnbaum-Dresdner). Because her family spoke French, her father and her would roll under the barbed wire at night, walk to the nearest village to buy loaves of breads and then smuggle themselves back into the camp to sell them on the internal black market. She told us these stories at night in our dormitory in the dark while the village church bells would peal out the hours. It was scary. Rosalie had a different personality from all of us. Somehow she had a chip on her shoulder and felt that everybody was always against her. Wherever she worked, she made waves with her feisty temperament. There was also this acrid smell about her. She must have perspired more than the others or she did not change her clothes that often. I never mentioned that odor to anybody and perhaps I smelled the same since we took a bath only once a week or less and changed our underwear only once a week. There was no soap during the war, only ersatz or artificial soap, a rough stony cake which didn’t lather, melt nor wash.
I saw Rosalie several times later in my married life. We arranged for a reunion in Rouen, where she lived with her husband and six children. Bella, who used to be Isabelle, and her husband came from Brussels as well as Alphonse with his wife Etta. At Rosalie’s house outside Rouen, in typical French fashion, all of us sat down to Sunday dinner at about 1 o’clock and finished the meal at 5 o’clock. Later, at 11 o’clock, all of us decided that we were hungry again and were served cold cuts.
Both Rosalie and Bella met Manfred and me in Paris together with their husbands a few years later yet, and a few years later yet, Bella and Henri visited with us from Belgium before flying home from San Francisco via Boston. Rosalie’s oldest daughter came to stay with us in Menlo Park one summer when, by coincidence, my friend Jeanine, who had gone to high school with me in Brussels, sent her daughter to a diving program at Stanford University. That summer we had two young girl visitors, each very different. We took them to Los Angeles and let them ride our bikes to Stanford Shopping Center and to the diving center at Stanford. After they went home, we never heard from either one again!
After about six months in Cul-des-Sarts, all at once the girls were moved away. I remained alone with Rosalie and Isabelle, who were both working as maids, making the beds and changing the sheets of the younger boys who all wet them at night. It never occurred to me to ask the Dame de Bruxelles why and where the other girls were moved to. La Dame de Bruxelles, as we called her, came every month to have a little talk with each of us children to find out how we were doing. Little did I realize that the main purpose of her visit was to bring money and rationing tickets to Madame Van Hal. One time, we older girls mentioned that we could use a bra. Madame Van Hauwaert was entrusted with the fashioning of bras for us. Mine was in the shape of two kippot attached together.
Little by little, especially during school vacations, I developed a closer friendship with Monique Dumont and Riri Elias, Mme Van Hal’s two granddaughters, both about ten, and both cute girls anxious to make friends with us older ones. As to the boys, there were so many. At first there were Henri Desmet and Jacques Boon with the auburn hair. Jacques only stayed for a few months. The older boys were two or three years older than we older girls, except for those in our class like Henri Desmet and Oscar de Wilde, who found me again through the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum, which forwarded his address to me. Manfred and I stopped in Chicago where he lived with his wife, downtown in a high rise with floor to ceiling windows. We could see the Sears Tower from his apartment on the seventh floor. Oscar, actually Fred, was very excited to find somebody from Cul-des-Sarts, where nobody had paid much attention to him. At that time, he was too young for the older boys and too old for the young ones. He was happy to see all the photos I had and to reminisce with me.
Jean Van Couteren, Ferdinand le taureau (the bull) as we called him because of his short but stocky build, was full of an electric vitality. He was of Hungarian ancestry with jet black hair. He organized the soccer matches and was friendly with Pierre from the village, Rosalie’s boyfriend who even wanted to marry her after Liberation, and in general was a top-notch organizer.
After the war, Jean, whose parents were communists, moved back to Hungary, where they came from originally. He then joined the Hungarian military, where he enjoyed a long and successful career. Many years after the war, when I was married, we saw him and his wife in Brussels at a reunion with many former Cul-des-Sarts “kids.” By then, Jean had become the military attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in Brussels. Manfred told me that the function of military attachés is to spy. Following the 2005 Conference of the Hidden Child held in Brussels, Manfred and I traveled to Budapest to visit Jean and his wife. Both were very happy to see us. After the fall of the Communist government, their lives had been disrupted. Jean was retired, with a meager pension and no status, whereas before, he was military attaché in Paris with many perks.
Alphonse was slender and walked somewhat hunched, with his hands in his pockets and a sarcastic smile unless a cigarette was dangling from his lips. As forward center of the soccer team, he shot most of the goals. He came to San Francisco with his wife Etty about 30 years ago. Etty mentioned that her partner in the shoe store she owned in Brussels had been hidden in a convent in Etterbeek. That’s when I found out that it was the same Marie who inadvertently called herself “Sarah” when she talked to me and the Knopf girls. Unfortunately I never got to meet Marie again to apologize.
Marcel was the tallest and also the most talented. He could draw a portrait from any photograph, enlarging and enhancing it. When he worked like that, he was engrossed. I always envisioned that he would become a great artist. Instead, he opened a radio and TV store. He was kind and understanding. We became good friends and took long walks together to discuss our inner thoughts until all his friends teased him to death so that he had to stop being my special friend.
There was another Marcel, his younger cousin, who was an excellent chess player. He belonged to a clique who played chess and who kept to themselves except when they were needed on the soccer team. This Marcel became a psychologist and wrote a book about his experience in Cul-des-Sarts (see the Bibliography list). He and his second wife visited with us in Menlo Park in 1989. When we visited Belgium a year or two later, we stopped at their house for breakfast straight from the airport, on our way to Cul-des-Sarts where we stayed for two days to get over jet lag.
On the picture: Jacques Dino who was our clown, always making people laugh, Alphone Mora with his half smile, Jean who moved back to Hungary, Monsieur Christian, the réfractaire, day counselor of the big boys and I.
Then there were the Nissen twins, their real name being Nissenbaum. Josef the nicer twin asked me, upon his arrival, if I was a Birnbaum. He had known my father in the fur business in Brussels and recognized me by the nose, the same as my father’s. It turned out that the Nissens also came from Leipzig. Those twins did not get along. George would buy himself butter on the black market, a rarity, and not share it with his brother. Rosalie pursued Josef all the way to Isra el after the war. She did get married there, but not to Josef.
I was friends with the German-accented Roger, who is on the picture of the gate to the chateau grounds. He sits under the sign “Kinderheim” together with me and Rosalie. When I finally got in touch with him by phone after the 1991 First New York Hidden Children Conference, he didn’t want to know anything. He told me over the telephone that he hated Cul-des-Sarts, where he was always hungry. After Liberation, he tied sheets together to get down from the dormitory and escaped that way to Brussels on his own.
Leon Sapier was in Wezembeek (the aforementioned Jewish Children’s Home), then Jamoignes, and finally Cul-des-Sarts. He moved to California where he met Zazou. I was very excited to meet him at Zazou’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah in Orange County. There I saw that very long nose, longer than mine, precede him into the hall. But he wasn’t too interested to meet me, nor was Marcel Barré whom we called “le beau garçon” (the handsome boy), who owned a business of fancy imported French furniture in Southern California.
The Ledent brothers were always of sunny disposition. Maurice, the older one, still is the same friendly guy. His younger brother made it big as the sole commercial representative of China in Belgium. I don’t know the details, but I heard that he owns a villa with a swimming pool in the south of France. We met them several times in Belgium and once by coincidence in the Hilton Hotel in Budapest. Actually I was always happy to hear when the boys were successful in life. Most of them had lost their parents and had to struggle after the war when the Jewish community was decimated and in difficulty, unable to give them much help.
Over the years, I heard of some suicides and deaths. Nathan Sandowski, whom I once met on the street in Brussels before I emigrated from Belgium to the US, was studying to be an architect. He died young.
Supposedly George the mean Nissenbaum twin committed suicide as did the younger Kayser boy, a precocious chess player.
After D-Day, on June 6, 1944, a rumor made the rounds that the Nazis were killing all the Jews remaining in Brussels. In order to prepare myself to become an orphan who could support herself, I decided to study shorthand, the only skill I knew about that would hopefully provide me with an office job. My mother used to take dictation from my father in shorthand, which she also used in her shopping lists. A kind counselor brought me a shorthand book with which I practiced by myself every day all through the summer. It turned out that I did study shorthand in the lycée which I attended once I was home again, but the school taught a different type of shorthand, so I had to start all over again. Once in the United States, I modified it to adapt it to English.