On a gray morning at the end of August 1939, the taxi dropped us off with our suitcases in front of a narrow red brick house on a side street off the Chaussée de Louvain, an important artery leading out of Brussels to Louvain, the famous Catholic university town. No sooner were we settled in the second floor furnished apartment which was going to be our home through many tribulations for the next ten years, than a big commotion broke out at the bottom of the stairs. A family consisting of a boy of fourteen, his little brother of about four and the parents started to lug big suitcases up to the fourth floor, not without first trying to claim our larger apartment, in a Viennese accented French, from the overwhelmed landlord. Had we tried to move into our apartment in the afternoon rather than in the morning, we would have had to make do with the leftover one-bedroom attic apartment rather than the two-bedroom apartment with balcony, beautifully carved living room furniture, and a modern bathroom, which had been the landlord’s apartment before his retirement.
The landlord and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Van Cuick, had welcomed us in the morning and shown us around. They would prove extremely decent absentee landlords. M. and Mme Van Cuick had retired to their summer house in the Ardennes, the hilly French-speaking section of Belgium, in 1927. I found them terribly old and frail looking. M. Van Cuick told us about his experiences during WWI, when he was among the Belgian troops in the trenches that had been gassed by the Germans. The damage to his lungs incapacitated him for life. “Our” apartment was their pied-à-terre for their visits to Brussels but, for whatever reasons, they decided to remain in the countryside and rent out both their own apartments, both furnished, ready for refugees like ourselves. My father had found the apartment after a long search in “Le Soir” advertisements during his daily trips from Ostende to Brussels. His major requirement was an apartment with a full bathroom within his very low budget, which he was lucky to find in St. Josse-ten-Noode, a Brussels borough of blue-collar workers with very few if any Jews living there.
Our apartment felt like a palace after the tiny summer quarters of Ostende. Henry got promoted to his own bedroom, just big enough for a narrow bed and a small armoire. First my parents had to buy the bed, with the whole family taking part in the expedition to a discount furniture store, choosing the cheapest metal frame with mattress. The discount was credited to our upstairs neighbor, M. Ronquardt, a city employee, who lent us his discount card, and then returned the discount to us. He and his wife were childless, a very sedate couple except on the nights when M. Ronquardt came home drunk, swearing about the Germans living in his house, meaning us, knocking repeatedly on our door and yelling that we should move out: “Il y a des Boches dans la maison!” (There are boches, a derogatory term for a German, in the house). We would stand in our pajamas, terrified, facing our thin entrance door, expecting it to give way any minute. Eventually he would calm down and go upstairs again where his wife would let him in. Then he would beat her up. Sometimes he apologized to her and to us. We just knew that we were barely tolerated, although I never understood why people did not know the difference between the bad Germans and us poor German Jews who were not wanted in Germany.
I was relieved not to sleep in a crib anymore, yet the living room couch wasn’t much better. I had to go to sleep on the couch even when my parents played bridge with friends on the living room round table. There wasn’t much privacy in the apartment, least of all for me without a room of my own
Train tracks ran in a tunnel under the next parallel street. Each time a train came roaring by, the whole house would start shaking while all the dishes, glasses and fancy porcelain figurines in the two large living room breakfronts would rattle. To our amazement, nothing ever broke. At one time Belgium had a law that taxed property according to the number of windows that could be counted from the street. One way of reducing that tax was to build a building with an inside room. That was our living room, the room I slept in. The only daylight came in through the kitchen door, which was partly frosty glass, or through the double doors leading to our parents’ bedroom if they were left open.
Our fairly new modern bathroom had been added to the house years after the original construction, and therefore the pipes ran outside the building. The old toilet was a separate small cubicle with the door opposite the kitchen’s old-fashioned sink. Because my father could spend a long time in the toilet with the newspaper regardless of our needs, the bidet became an emergency toilet for us. We also used it to take a footbath if our feet got wet in winter. At that time, I never knew of its real use. After the first cold spell, we noticed the bathtub filling up with the kitchen sink water from the fourth floor apartment whose pipes were connected to our bathroom. At first we thought that it was an accident, and I was sent up to ask the “Batkos” not to pour anything in their kitchen sink but rather to pour their dishwashing water into the toilet as we mostly did. But they could not keep that up all through the winter, so we had to resign ourselves to bail the dirty smelly water out of the tub. The bathtub with its hand shower became totally useless until the spring thaw which luckily came before Passover.
A few days before the holiday, my mother would purchase a live carp in the “Midi” (the area near the Gare du Midi) where the kosher stores were located. For lack of a refrigerator, the carp would swim in our bathtub until the day before the Seder when my mother would prepare the carp for gefilte fish from scratch. But first she had to kill the carp, which wiggled under her hand on top of a board. Henry and I would beg her to hit the carp over the head with the kitchen axe before cutting the fish up. My mother would laugh and assure us that the carp was dead already even if it still wiggled. Finally she listened to us and gave the carp’s head a whack with the reverse side of the axe. This is an unforgettable experience of my childhood repeated again after the war. Only by then I was old enough to go purchase the carp, which arrived at our apartment half dead wrapped in newspaper, to revive quickly when thrown into the filled bathtub.
All our daily activities took place in the kitchen. My mother cooked on the small three burner gas cooker, or in winter on top of the coal fed stove/oven which heated the kitchen as well. In one corner stood a tall red velvet armchair, my father’s chair while he listened to the old fashioned radio on a shelf above. Next to the gas burner stood Mme. Van Cuick’s old-fashioned sewing machine which would never be idle after May 1940, and then again after Liberation in September 1944. Both my brother and I spent many hours doing our homework or playing board games on the kitchen table. The wallpaper and linoleum floor were in bad shape when we moved in and deteriorated further to an almost slum-like appearance over the years. For my father these were just temporary quarters until the visa for the United States would come so that we could emigrate again and start a whole new life.
At 26, rue Joseph Dekeyn, where we quickly felt at home, we made friends with the refugees who had moved to the top floor the same day we had moved in. The little brother called his big brother “Gidi Batko,” which was supposed to mean the “older brother Guido” in Bulgarian. Batko was the nickname we gave the family and that is the only name I remember. The father was an engineer who, among other things, had invented a gadget to peel potatoes. He showed us pictures of his model from which he expected to grow rich in America. (The apple peeler which I have in my cupboard looks very close to the drawing I saw in 1939) The family spoke Bulgarian among themselves. With us they spoke a strongly Viennese-accented German.
Guido had brought along an Austrian copy of Monopoly, which kept us engrossed for many long rainy afternoons upstairs or down in our apartment. When the “Batkos” left in the winter of 1939, the Jakobowitzs, an elderly childless couple, moved into their vacant apartment. The Jakobowitzs came from Nürnberg (where Mr. Jakobowitz had been the director of a toy company) and traveled from Germany to the New World on the famous SS St. Louis. When Cuba reneged on their visas and did not let any passengers into the country, no other country was ready to accept the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The captain of the ship slowed down the return to Hamburg until finally France, Belgium and Holland each took in some refugees. That is how the Jakobowitzs had ended up in Brussels. My parents became good friends with the Jakobowitzs, with whom they played a rowdy game of bridge. All of us were on hold to immigrate to the United States.
Our small apartment house had a cellar in which every tenant was entitled to a partitioned section to store coal. We needed two kinds of coal, the ordinary, cheap kind for the kitchen stove and expensive anthracite for our feu continu, the small furnace which graced the living room’s fake chimney. However, because of the very expensive anthracite coal, my parents seldom bothered to get it started. The bedrooms were never heated. Sometimes the wallpaper in my brother’s room was white with frost. In winter, we children always undressed and dressed under our covers.
In time we met some neighbors. Every morning after breakfast at about 9:00 AM, my mother took two big cloth shopping bags, walked down to the “Place St. Josse” with its open air market and made the rounds of all the stalls for fresh vegetables and fruit. Then she stopped off at the baker and the butcher before returning home to cook the hot noon meal as was customary. The vegetable stand lady lived in a basement apartment at the entrance of our street and knew everything that went on in the neighborhood.
We didn’t have a refrigerator. Only the basement provided a cool place in summer to store cooked soup, or the kitchen window sill where my mother kept butter in a dish filled with cold water. Monsieur Libioulle lived behind a garage door a few houses down the street. Later, during the two years we were in hiding, he stored some of my parents’ belongings in case they were deported. I made friends with a girl wearing a brace on her leg. She had contracted polio when very little. I had other friends up and down the street whose names I have forgotten.
Shortly after we settled in St. Josse-ten-Noode, we heard the declaration of war by England and France on September 3rd, 1939 on our radio which we would later have to turn in by Nazi decree during the Nazi Occupation. My mother’s first thought was for her nephew Benno Weiser, my cousin, who had escaped from Germany to Poland. The word “war” rang a long time in my head without a concrete meaning. I just saw that everybody around me was upset and expected changes. This particular time was called la drôle de guerre in French, meaning the phony war. The word “war” would take on a real meaning on May 10, 1940 when the Germans invaded Belgium.
In December 1939 Henry became Bar Mitzvah. In preparation for this important day, Henry was taken to the tailor, who fashioned a two piece dark blue wool suit for him with knickerbocker pants, the latest style. When my father complained to the tailor that the jacket sleeves were a bit short, the tailor replied: “he won’t grow anymore.” Henry was not quite thirteen years old then. That sort of became a family joke.
The day of the Bar Mitzvah, the service in the big Portuguese Synagogue, rue de la Régence, was followed by a very small reception in our living room with no more than twenty guests for coffee and cake. My mother pushed my father to make a speech for the occasion. He was not prepared and so did not have much to say. There was little joy or fun on that day. For Henry and for me the presents were the most important part. I only remember a small red leather pocket calendar that Henry received from his friend Hans Gabbe, originally from Berlin. We were both surprised at the fancy unpractical gift for which Henry had absolutely no use. He much preferred the books that Mr. Jakobowitz gave him from his own library, illustrated books about the beginnings of aviation with pictures of the early balloons. I found the book fascinating, especially the numerous illustrations.
All during the fall of 1939 Henry and I had been going to Hebrew School at the Synagogue, rue de la Régence, Henry in the Bar Mitzvah class and I in my own age group. It was almost an hour’s walk each way on Sunday mornings through the Parc de Bruxelles in rain, shine or snow. I still remember the ice statues carved during one contest in winter as well as the amoureux (lovers) sitting on benches on sunnier days. That was the time I had to learn the whole Shema by heart as well as the evening prayer, all with great difficulty. I was relieved when Henry’s Bar Mitzvah put an end to my boring religious studies. My religious education got a second wind in 1941, when my parents found a cheap private teacher for me and the Knopf girls, who had by then moved to Schaerbeek, a borough adjoining St. Josse. All I remember is that he predicted the end of the war and, if I am not mistaken, the end of the world as well. He was a dreamer and I still wonder today what became of him.
Then the sad news came from my uncles in Paris that my grandmother, whom my Uncle Josef had fetched from Leipzig and flown to Paris while it was still possible to get her out, had died peacefully. Apparently she first removed her golden earrings the day before. Now my mother was going to get them. In fact, today I still own one of those earrings; the other was the victim of a burglary when our daughter Nadine and family lived in Los Angeles. They were gold coins from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire converted into earrings.
Tante Lene, my father’s half-sister, and her husband Alfred Dresdner came to visit us in our St. Josse apartment. Stretching my ears, I heard their story of how they had to jump over ditches to cross the border from Germany into Belgium illegally, after which they were caught and interned in the border Camp de Marneffe in Belgium. Now they managed to live in a different part of Brussels. A few weeks later, Uncle Alfred, who had heard that my always generous Weiser uncles had sent me some pocket money from France, showed up at our house with a green beat-up trotinette (scooter) with big, fat tires (pneus ballon) and many rusty spots. I heard whispers that Alfred, who had picked up the scooter at the flea market, overcharged me. No matter, the scooter became a source of great joy for both my brother and me during a time when we practically had neither toys nor friends. The streets of Brussels are not only hilly but paved with cobble stones. That’s where the big tires were helpful. We could spend an hour walking our scooter uphill, then step on it, I in front and Henry in back in charge of guiding and braking, to scoot downhill all the way to our apartment.
Leipzigers would socialize with other Leipzigers whenever possible. There were the Bilds with their daughter Ruth, who was several years younger than I. Mr. Bild was a good friend of my uncle Schleume Weiser, of course also in the fur business except that he was a furrier. Mrs. Bild was cheerful and always made a big fuss when we came to visit. On our first visit, I was astounded to see that their toilet was off the stairwell landing, to be shared by several apartments. Their apartment was barely furnished. Most of the furniture consisted of cloth covered boxes serving as a dining table, end table, and chest for clothes. In time I realized that most refugee apartments looked like that. These were after all only temporary quarters until the visa for America came.
My parents played bridge with the Raths, also from Leipzig. Their son Peter was a year younger than I. Among his toys were armies of lead soldiers which he could line up for hours to simulate a battle. Our favorite game became the Russo-Finnish war. At first we set up all the soldiers in his living room. Later that winter, after the first snow, we played with Peter’s sled and made believe that we were the poor and brave Finns who could beat the mighty Russians on Lake Ladoga. The irony of this is that the brave Finns became allies of the Nazis during WWII while the Russians, after being attacked by the Nazis, fought them and became allies of the British, the French, and later of the United States. Sunday morning was the time when I could go visit Peter all by myself. The tramway No. 5 took me all around Ixelles, past the big radio broadcasting building until I finally got off at the Avenue Louise stop where the Raths lived – an upscale neighborhood. From Peter’s house it was a short walk to the Bois de la Cambre to go sledding. Mostly the adults played bridge while Peter and I played together. My mother had explained to me that Peter was Mr. Rath’s child with another woman before he got married. He then asked his wife to adopt Peter, who looked just like his father with blue eyes and blond straight hair.
I played on our street with the local children and sometimes I would take my trotinette to Square Armand Steurs (square meaning a very small park). One day in that harsh winter of 1939/1940, I convinced Henry to come play with me. Most of his free time was usually spent inventing and working on new game boards or reading. We joined the usual gang of children of all ages in a heated snowball fight. To our consternation, one of the children’s snow balls hit #72 on his cheek. #72 was the local grumpy policeman who very often patrolled the “square.” He wore a navy blue uniform with a short cape to keep him warm, and a white helmet styled like the French army helmets. Prominently featured on his collar was the number 72 which I remember to this day. Instantly all the children scattered except my brother Henry who felt both uninvolved and innocent. What could I do but stick with him when my instinct was to run away with the other children? The policeman grabbed us, didn’t want to listen to our pleas of innocence, but told us to take him to our parents. So we marched off together with the policeman, worrying about the punishment that would befall us at home. But luck was with us. When the policeman rang the bell to our apartment, nobody came downstairs despite several repeated attempts. That’s when it dawned on Henry and on me that our bell mechanism froze in the winter just like our bathtub plumbing did. We didn’t tell this to the policeman, who eventually left without another word to us, never to come back to our apartment.
Another incident involved my father. One day two police detectives in plainclothes came to our apartment to arrest my father. They had a warrant accusing him of burglary in the city of Antwerp of all places. This must have happened on a Wednesday or Thursday. We did not see my father again until late Saturday when he told us the whole story. First, flanked by the two detectives, he was taken by train to Antwerp with his hands in handcuffs. He mentioned to us that he tried to hide his hands just in case he met somebody on the train who knew him. Then he was taken straight to jail, duly registered and put in a cell with several other criminals. When his companions heard his offense, they predicted a jail sentence of several years. My father kept stating his innocence to whoever would listen to him. Knowing that no judge works on Sunday, he managed to see one on Saturday and was able to convince him that the whole thing was due to mistaken identity. My father came home so relieved and so were we to have him back. In later years we could laugh about this but not at the time.
Abruptly, the phony war ended on May 10, 1940