The apartment my father had rented in Ostende was a furnished two level affair. There was a small kitchen with a tiny breakfast nook and a half bathroom off the first landing. The two bedrooms were up another flight of stairs. This was a summer rental not meant for year-round living. Forever my mother would complain of the lack of a living room, the lack of privacy, the lack of everything. My parents had to share the double bed in their bedroom, the first time in their lives without twin beds. To my dismay, the pink crib with a metal frame next to my brother’s bed in the other bedroom was meant for me. I knew that I could not complain and yet here I was, eight years old, forced to revert to sleeping in a crib, even if pink and extra-long. I would have many nightmares in that crib, dreaming about armies of bad people coming out of the wall to get me, waking up screaming to be taken into my parents’ bed, never owning up to the specific nightmares except to my brother who was my confidant. He gently made fun of me and my reoccurring bad dreams.
I was full of expectations and apprehension when my mother took me to register in the new school. Even though Ostende is situated in the Flemish part of Belgium, the school had a French section. I was told to sit on a bench in the second grade, I who had already been promoted to third grade in Leipzig after Easter, when the new school year starts in Germany. Now it was the end of June and close to the end of the school year. Oh how I was anxious to learn French. Every evening my father would take me on his lap to teach me how to read French. He was proud that he had studied four years of French in school and that he remembered it well. Every day he would travel from Ostende to Brussels because he could only transact his fur business there. On the train he would read “Le Soir,” the daily newspaper, underline every word that he did not understand and then look it up in the dictionary at home every night. I would overhear conversations between my parents (there was no privacy in our tiny apartment), stories about Mr. K. an ex-Leipziger, who was a long-time resident of Belgium with a work permit. He was supposed to sell my father’s furs but kept lowering the price he paid my father, pocketing the difference. My father felt powerless, even worse, he had to act grateful toward the K. family which had been very welcoming.
In 2000, when I looked through the list of participants of the Leipzig Gathering, I saw the name of Rachel K. and recognized her. I told her how welcoming her family had been in 1938 during our brief interlude in Brussels, and again in 1939 when we finally settled there. I reminded her that she had lent me German children’s books, and in general had been delegated as a teenager and the youngest in her family to spend time with Henry and me. Rachel, who had since moved to Israel with her family, remembered nothing of the Birnbaum family.
July 15th marked the end of the school year. Now we were free to go to the beach every day. Henry was responsible for getting me there and back while our mother was busy tending to her many household chores. Off to the beach we went, Henry and I, to the land of enchantment where we could play all day long with children, running home just for meals. I learned all about the tides, how the beach could be very narrow at high tide or very wide when the tide went out. We would watch people who fell asleep in their lounge chairs unaware of the rising tide. Then, when the water started to lick their chair, we would shout at the last minute to wake them up: “Monsieur” or “Madame” and laugh at their dumbfounded face while they picked up their things to run for higher ground.
All the children at the beach were involved in the same type of paper flower shop game. Every morning we would dig out a big hole to sit in and flatten out one side for the display case. We would scrape the sand flat with the side of our hand or, if we wanted to do a more thorough job, we could fill a handkerchief – yes, it was the time before tissues – with sand and use it to flatten out the sand of the “display case” of our paper flower shop. Then we had to go gather seashells; only perfectly shaped whole shells were accepted as currency. When our little bucket was full, Henry and I went on a shopping spree from “store” to “store.”
There were at least a dozen different paper flower shops operating on the beach every morning. As soon as a store was open, the owner would sing: “venez acheter au Bon Marché, la boutique est ouverte.” (Come buy at the Bon Marché, the boutique is open now). That was the signal for us to scramble to that store and ask for the price of the various paper flowers stuck in their “display case.” Henry would negotiate the price down to “une poignée” or one handful of shells. I was the one to pay because my hands were smaller.
After we had assembled a stock of at least five flawless paper flowers of various colors, we would return to our own store, sing the opening song and wait for buyers. This time Henry would be the one to receive the shells in payment because he had the bigger hands. We could do this all day long. Sometimes we were too lazy to collect shells upon arrival at the beach; instead we would heckle the different stores, vilify their flowers or just pick an argument. Obviously our French was getting better. Never did we make our own flowers as we had neither crepe paper nor wire for the stems. Every day we had to start our business from scratch, except that we took our surplus shells home as capital for the next day.
While business was quiet, right next to our boutique, Henry would start building a big hill with a flat roadway going all around and through complicated tunnels. Sometimes I was allowed to flatten out the roadway with the sand-filled handkerchief. Then we would line up six to eight glass marbles of different colors at the top of the hill, on the roadway, holding them back with our outstretched hand until we let them go all at once. Now the “Tour de France” was on its way. Each color marble represented a different country and went by the name of the top cyclist. Upon arrival down at the bottom, a display was built on the sand with a duplicate marble indicating the overall placement. Other kids would come to participate with encouragements for their favorite cyclist. There was not only a lively paper flower market going on at the beach but a marble trading market as well. We traded in French, English or Flemish but mostly without too many words. Every morning Henry had to study the situation so that we would dig our store in a safe area away from the rising tide. The only person I ever met who knew the song and who played the same game at the beach was Hilda Tayar now in Jerusalem, whose family lived in Antwerp before the war. Her family spent vacations at the beach in Ostende.
One Sunday morning that summer, my father took us for a walk on the Boardwalk, Henry and me. He asked us how we liked Belgium and Ostende in particular. His next question was whether we wanted to stay in Ostende, never to return to Leipzig. We both told him how happy that would make us, how we liked the sea, the beach and our freedom. From overheard conversations between my parents I learned that we were really on our way to America, to New York in particular but that we had to wait for our “affidavit” which had something to do with a “quota” and a “visa.” I also knew that we had to leave Germany because we were Jewish, a fact that didn’t make much sense to me then.
All that time I had no friends of my own. One day my mother told me to be at the beach in a certain spot to rendez-vous with two girls, Gina and Ruth Knopf. How excited I was at the thought of finding two new friends. Apparently Gina, who was just a few months older than I, and Ruth who was a year younger, were even more excited at the prospect of making a new friend. After the three of us met, they forgot all about the expensive big doll they had taken to the beach that day. When they looked for the doll the next day, it was gone, of course. We met and got acquainted in a sparring match of words, all in German. I made fun of their Berliner accent while they treated me as a peasant from Leipzig. From then on we were inseparable. Our parents became good friends and played bridge together. Herr Knopf was very short and bald, always dressed to kill with affected speech. Mrs. Knopf was a charming, fun-loving woman who became my mother’s dear friend.
Sometimes, Gina, Ruth and I had discussions centering on our rich uncles. Mr. Knopf’s uncle supported him with a living allowance sent from England every month, which the girls boasted about to me. In the fall my uncles Benno and Schleume Weiser, my mother’s two brothers, came to visit us on the way home to Paris from England where they had gone on business. They marveled at all the pages of my school copybook. For every page they paid me one Belgian franc, to me who never saw even a centime from my parents. Suddenly I felt ten feet tall. After that I too had to boast about my rich uncles, a fact which offended my two friends. For several days we did not speak to each other. Their parents mixed in and wanted my parents to punish me for being so boastful. Finally it all died down after the parents stayed out of our childish quarrel so that we could resume our friendship.
Several Sunday mornings my father would take me to the fishing harbor on the other side of town to buy a paper bag full of fresh tiny shrimp for one franc. He never cared about being kosher, whereas my mother refused to eat shrimp, as shellfish is a forbidden food for Jews. My father taught me how to open the shrimp’s belly, followed by twisting its head and tail off. The fresh, salty, tiny shrimp were delicious. While eating and walking around, we could enjoy all the hustle and bustle of the harbor, of fishing boats mooring and fishermen weighing their catch. I loved the color, the noise and the smell of the fish market. Many years later I found the same noise and smells at the Fulton Fish Market (now defunct) in lower Manhattan where I walked during my lunch hour, a welcome respite from my typewriter.
All the time we lived in Ostende, my mother kept complaining that she had no maid anymore, that she had to do all the housework, shopping, cooking and washing every day by herself. After a few months, during nice weather, our family walked to Mariakerke on Sunday late morning, all dressed up, with Henry and me walking in front and my parents following us in order to better supervise our behavior. We had to walk like that all along the boardwalk almost an hour until we reached Mariakerke, where we stopped for a hot lunch. I understood that we had to walk so far for a meal because the restaurants in the much smaller town were more affordable than the Ostende ones. This outing was undertaken solely to please my mother who did not need to shop or cook that day; otherwise there was nothing joyful about it. Most of the time around our father, we had to be quiet because “children had to be seen but not heard.” On the way home, we children did not have to walk in front of our parents because by then it did not matter anymore whether we stayed clean or not.
My parents also made friends with the Schindlers, a family who owned a kosher restaurant. I developed a close friendship with their sixteen year old daughter Rebecca who reminded me of my cousin Ruth. She was about the same age with the same long black hair. I remember many fun afternoons in their restaurant with laughter and songs. My mother taught Rebecca to swim at the public swimming pool, where she would go with Henry but rarely with me. Rebecca taught me the Flemish song and dance en vogue at the time:
Hitler had een dicken Kop
Mussolini blast ‘em op,
En Daladier, spelt er football mey, hey!
Hitler has a fat head
Mussolini blows it up
And Daladier plays football with it, hey!
We danced the Lambeth Walk to the song. After the war I heard that the Schindlers caught a boat to escape to England during the May 1940 “Exodus.” The whole family perished when the boat they traveled in was sunk by German planes during the dangerous Channel crossing.
Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) came around and then Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the day Jewish adults fast for 24 hours. For Yom Kippur, my mother had put a huge pot on the stove to cook a chicken and soup since we had no refrigerator. By the time we walked home from synagogue at the end of the day, the chicken and soup would be ready. It was Henry’s and my duty, after we returned home from synagogue for lunch, to light a small flame under the pot so that soup and chicken could simmer till evening. Later in the afternoon, Henry and I walked back to the synagogue to listen to the shofar. Then our family walked home. When we got home and my mother lifted the pot’s lid, horror of all horrors, the chicken was gone. She became absolutely furious when she realized that we had no festive meal, only soup. Immediately Henry was declared the culprit who ate the chicken meant for all of us. All his denials got him nowhere. I could not understand when and why he would have committed such a major crime, since I had spent the whole lunchtime and afternoon with him before we walked back together to the synagogue. I said so but nobody listened to my logic. Not only was Henry severely punished, but he was made to feel guilty of his crime for years. In addition, he was stamped a liar by my parents. Many years later my mother realized that our landlord’s two teenage boys, who had access to our apartment, made a feast of the chicken, but by then it was too late to make amends to Henry.
A new school year started in September. This time I was put in the first grade where I learned that one cherry plus one cherry equals two cherries. I came home crying. My parents told me to show the teacher how well I could read French thanks to my father’s reading lessons, and to ask her to promote me to the second grade again. In a halting voice I went to talk to my teacher who listened to me read and then reinstated me to my second grade desk. This class was a combination first and second grade. By then Ruth Knopf was in the same classroom with me on the first grade side while her sister Gina was in a different classroom in third grade. I could easily listen to the work in first grade when I would hear Ruth Knopf’s German accent as the whole class read together, while I also followed my own grade’s work.
To learn poetry by heart took me a long time at home, but I desperately applied myself to learn to recite in front of the class like everybody else. I also wanted to make friends with all the girls in my class. At first I was never picked when we played drop-the-handkerchief during recess. I noticed that the leader was a Spanish girl by the name of Angela. She was always well dressed and coiffed with a big bow in her hair. Her sidekick was Raymonde, another Spanish girl with a speech defect and slow brain. Together, the two girls dominated the recess games. It took me a while to ingratiate myself into Angela’s graces. I proceeded by first making friendship ouvertures to Raymonde, who then got me into the inner circle. I vaguely heard about the Spanish Civil War at that time. Raymonde, in her halting voice, told me about bombardments, her parents being killed, famine and hardships in Spain. She never wanted to go back there to live.
At about that time I noticed that all the girls (I went to an all girls’ school) talked in a higher pitch than I did. Somehow I had a German guttural inflection “à la Henry Kissinger,” the Jewish-German refugee from the Nazis who became Secretary of State under President Nixon. So I trained myself to speak at a slightly higher pitch until it became second nature. I never discussed these struggles with anybody. My parents neither had the time nor the interest to listen to my problems. My father had a very hard time providing for us under adverse conditions. He also tried to obtain a residency permit for us to move to Brussels so that he could stop the daily commute.
In second grade we had to learn to crochet. Our first masterpiece was going to be a gant de toilette (wash mitt). Washcloths in Belgium were not the flat kind but the shape of a small sac to put the whole hand inside. I grew impatient with moving the crochet around in circles and, in my desire to make a quick end to it, I skipped a stitch here and there until my mitt came out all pointed. The teacher made me try again and again by unraveling the pointy part and making me crochet around and around again. She did not understand how I managed to end up with a pointy mitt each time until she stood right next to me the whole time I was crocheting. Then she saw how I skipped stitch after stitch. She finally explained to me that I could not skip a stitch if I wanted a mitt with a straight top, and I finally succeeded. Later in Brussels in elementary school I had to learn to knit socks with four needles and later yet, in Cul-des-Sarts, I learned how to knit lace doilies. Knitting didn’t come easily to me but I persevered, ripping and starting over again and again until I could admire my flawless finished work. We also had to sew an undershirt in fourth grade, all by hand, with complicated “English” double seams. The school curriculum was old fashioned, as sewing machines still were a luxury and women had to sew by hand, also to mend socks.
After Easter vacation, my mother, not wanting her son to lose a year of school as he had also been set back a year upon starting school in Ostende, went to see his school principal, who agreed to move him ahead for the rest of the school year. Having accomplished this so easily, my mother decided, on the way home, to stop at my school with the same purpose. My school principal spoke German and agreed to move me right away into the third grade. Now I had to catch up on fractions and other difficult subjects. This time I really had to apply myself all the time in order to understand whatever I had missed in fundamentals during the first six months of third grade. I think that Henry helped me with my homework, especially fractions which were totally new to me.
When the Distribution des prix (year-end prize distribution) came about at the end of the school year, I got 10th prize out of 20 students, smack in the middle of the distribution curve.
During the harsh winter of 1938/1939, I was not allowed by myself on the boardwalk. My mother claimed that I was so skinny and lightweight that the slightest blast of wind would blow me over or, even worse, a high wave could sweep me away. One day I wanted to test my mother’s theory. After school, I walked up the short street to the boardwalk, watching the fury of the storm, the wind and the huge waves crashing against the boardwalk. I stayed away from the railing though. I noticed that I was strong enough to resist the wind and went down the side street again, satisfied with my experiment. I was wearing my cousin Ruth’s outgrown fur coat that made me look like a fat snowman. The fur was goat and exactly that color: dirty gray. Every time I bent my elbow, the leather would crack. If I lifted my arm, the underarm seam would rip. My mother was constantly sewing the seams of that coat. I hated that stiff fur coat that felt like a straightjacket.
On one school holiday, I found myself along the main street when a parade came by. At the head of the parade marched the crown prince Baudouin, oldest son of King Leopold III. I knew then that the prince was exactly my age. He wore a white sailor suit with long pants, while my older brother still wore short pants at that time. I actually felt sorry for the prince who had lost his mother, Queen Astrid, in a car accident. Yes, I felt more fortunate than he.
We knew that my father had been trying to get a residence permit to settle in Brussels so that he would not have to commute anymore. The day came when I had to say a sad goodbye to the Knopf girls after another summer of daily beach trips, of playing flower shop and following the “Tour de France” with marbles. This time we were moving to a real apartment in Brussels.
Daladier was the Prime Minister of France at the time.
During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, Spanish children at risk were sent to other countries for their own safety. Many Belgian families adopted such a Spanish child.