Have you ever felt overwhelmed with embarrassment and yet everybody around you totally ignores you and your problem? It happened to me when I was almost ten years old. With a little figuring I’ll come up with the exact day….
On Friday, May 10, 1940 we woke up at dawn with waves and waves of low-flying airplanes zooming in formation over the gray Brussels roofs. I immediately knew that this meant war but my parents were a little slower to accept that fact. The radio announcer convinced them. From Friday until Sunday I was in shock. At first I was trembling all over and could not stop. Finally, my mother lay next to me on the couch to warm me. I was overtaken with fear deep inside me, a fear I could not explain to my brother, who usually made gentle fun of me, or to my parents. Until Monday I refused to leave our apartment. When I finally ventured downstairs into the street, I noticed that nothing seemed to have changed.
I heard my parents talking, very upset to be caught in Brussels at this particular time. We had to get to Paris, they said. My three uncles and their families were there and we would be safe. Didn’t Paris hold out against the Germans in the First World War? The main thing was to escape from the advancing Germans, but so many people wanted to flee as well. First, my father, who was always short of cash, went to borrow 1500 francs from Mr. Rath, promising him that his brothers-in-law, the Weisers in Paris, would repay him. As I heard several years later, the Raths, who had a car, reached Nice in Southern Unoccupied France, where they caught up with my Weiser uncles, who took care of my father’s debt.
A great trust existed between Leipzigers. After the war, my father told us that some Leipzigers who traded in furs and who managed to settle in England before the war were entrusted with their friends’ entire fortune for safekeeping. As a point of honor, they returned those fortunes to their friends or to their heirs after the war. That impressed me.
Our two huge oceangoing trunks (see picture of the one still stored at the Hellers Sr., Fair Lawn, New Jersey) appeared in our living room from the basement. My parents threw everything we owned pell-mell into them. There was chaos at the train station, my father reported every day. Finally, after several attempts my father managed to get train tickets for the four of us to the coast, the opposite direction from Paris, where he was so anxious to take us. It took until Wednesday to get us together with our hand luggage into a train compartment, destination Ostende, I believe. The trunks went their separate way to Adinkerke, close to the French border.
So it would be Wednesday, May 15, that I suffered the embarrassment of finding myself in a train compartment surrounded by strangers, still wearing my light and dark blue embroidered apron! How could I explain to our fellow passengers that in the constant excitement and commotion at home, nobody had warned me to remove it before we left our apartment? With a faint voice I started timidly to laugh it off. However, nobody was paying the slightest attention to my attempts at explanation, nobody was concerned whether I traveled with an apron or not, because by the time I removed my coat and noticed the apron, our train was stuck on the track. Night had fallen and everybody in the compartment faced the right window, where in the distance Gand was burning.
From Ostende we made it to La Panne by tramway. La Panne, or De Panne in Flemish, is a beach town close to the French border. While walking around aimlessly in the town filled with hordes of refugees, my parents ran into acquaintances from Leipzig, Mr. & Mrs. Wassermann, a childless couple who knew a place above a restaurant where we could find shelter for the night. Mrs. Wassermann had been an actress and enunciated German very distinctly and very clearly. I found her pretty funny. The mezzanine of the restaurant was already very crowded. Our family managed to squeeze in next to the Wassermanns. My mother complained about her little daughter having to sleep on the floor. As for me, it was a real exciting war adventure, my first. I slept very soundly that first night on straw covered with my mother’s foal fur jacket.
The following day, my father hired a driver with a horse-drawn cart to pick up our two huge ocean liner trunks in Adinkerke. One of the trunks was filled with all our worldly possessions, the other was filled with what was left of the furs my father had brought from Leipzig, his only capital. We did get to Adinkerke close enough to see the railroad station at a distance but due to a tremendous traffic jam consisting of military trucks filled with retreating armies from Holland and Belgium and a multitude of civilian vehicles wanting to escape the advancing German Army, our cart could not stop. The driver let us know that he was very anxious to get out of the area while it was still possible. My mother started to cry bitterly at the loss of all our precious possessions, the silver, the dishes, the bedding, everything we had to leave behind in Adinkerke. I decided then and there never to care that much about material possessions. In fact I felt then that the most important thing was that our family was together. The horse-drawn cart took us to a small town further away from the coast. We spent a night in Furnes. Thereafter my recollection is a little hazy. My father must have hired another cart to take us south. When the road got too jammed with fleeing refugees, the driver left us and our luggage at a very busy intersection.