At Home in St Josse Again – 1944 to 1945
Through all the years in hiding, away from home, one thought sustained me, that of a happy reunion with my parents and my brother. While we were lucky to be together again, my parents did not seem aware of their lucky fate. This time they were older to face the hardships of the difficult period following Liberation. For the third time in his life, my father found himself without money (he had spent it all to pay for hiding places) and without a business (he still had no Belgian work permit). I found out then that in 1943 my father had invested the balance of his money in small diamonds for two reasons: one was that it was much easier to carry diamonds, which don’t take up much room in a pocket, rather than bank notes; the other reason was to have a bribe if caught by the Gestapo, like a diamond for one’s life. Actually, my mother had sewn the diamonds into the seams of their winter coats. Now it turned out that the diamonds were industrial diamonds worth next to nothing. My father was very angry that somebody had cheated him at the time of purchase. What a disappointment when he had counted on this little nest egg after Liberation!
In addition, after Liberation, my father had trouble with his Polish passport. Somehow he had managed to have somebody forge an extension to the passport during the German Occupation. At that time, the Polish eagle, symbol of Poland, was wearing a crown. Now he wanted the Polish Consulate to give him a legal extension. At the war’s end, the Polish symbol lost its crown. The Polish Consul was very puzzled by the eagle with a crown. Somehow my father managed to get the necessary extension, probably with a big bribe. My mother found herself without clothes, food or coal to heat our kitchen oven which we used for cooking.
One of the first things I did after I came home was to call my friend Vera Mannheimer. Her mother answered the phone and described where Vera and her Girl Scout troop were having a meeting, and so I walked to the park to meet her. At first, I looked at the scene from afar, watching Vera and her patrol playing games. They were wearing the uniform of the secular Girl Guides of Belgium: dark blue shirt, dark blue skirt, leather belt with two metal rings, and an orange kerchief around the neck. I kept watching, suddenly shy and hesitant to reveal myself in my old, shabby clothes. While I observed Vera at play, I noticed that her body had grown fuller, like mine, and that the features in her face had become more angular, like mine. We were both afflicted with a big Jewish nose. It would take me another fe w years to reconcile myself to my looks. When I finally stepped forward and called out to Vera, she was so delighted to see me that she immediately dismissed her patrol. We talked and talked to make up for the two years of separation. She invited me to apply to her Girl Scout troop. I was hesitant as I had no uniform. I then wrote a letter to my cousin Ruth in New York, who sent me one of her dark blue skirts. But that was later.
First, my Weiser uncles from New York had sent a soldier to our address in St. Josse. They were overjoyed to find us alive and well. The soldier had been our upstairs neighbor in Leipzig. Thanks to his military correspondence privileges, my parents were able to correspond with my uncles, as regular mail to the USA did not work yet. After all, the war was not over. We had just been liberated. For me, it was the end of the war though. I followed the German Occupation of Holland, which lasted through the 1944-1945 winter, the bolle winter or winter of the bulbs. That’s when the starving Dutch ate tulip bulbs. I also knew vaguely that there was still a war on in the Pacific, but that was so far away, so very distant.
My father decided that I had to go back to school. He took me to the Lycée de Bruxelles which was located in a beautiful park. The rule of admission was that one had to fulfill all six years at the same lycée. I would have to lose two years of schooling and go back to school with much younger students. I wasn’t ready for that. There was a school practically around the corner from our house, which I had passed all the years I walked to my elementary school. It was a high school run by the city of Brussels, not quite a lycée, but rather a secondary school with a curriculum in business and modern languages. That appealed to me. I would have to be set back one year as I had already “lost” one year of English and one year of geometry and couldn’t possibly catch up.
The principal invited me to follow her to my new class, where an English lesson was in progress. Miss Putmans, a very short and slight older teacher with a very sharp nose and a very clear British accent, was speaking English to her class. She barely interrupted her lesson to show me to a seat while continuing to give her lesson entirely in English. This scared me some. For every English lesson we had to learn about ten or twenty vocabulary words which we compiled in a notebook after having copied the words from the blackboard. At any time, Miss Putnam would take our copybook and ask us to translate any five of the words from French into English. I had to catch up a whole year’s vocabulary and keep up with the present lessons in grammar and reading. It was intense, but I could manage. After all, we were off three afternoons a week to study and do homework.
The school year was already in full swing for a few weeks by the time my father registered me at the Lycée Commercial L.E. Carter. I had to buy about twenty copybooks which had to get a blue paper cover to keep them clean. I also needed to buy several textbooks. At every expense, my father had a fit. Finally I learned to go to my mother for my expenses. Because Miss Putmans was such an intense teacher, I remember her best. We would stay the whole school day in our homeroom, except for recess, gym and music. As the teacher entered our class, we stood up at attention to greet her (we only had female teachers). The only male was the “concierge,” my friend Jeannine’s uncle. We went home for lunch, a five minute walk for me, but some students took the tramway home and then back to school during the two hour lunch recess.
The war was not over after our September 1944 Liberation. Starting sometime in June, the Germans sent V-1s (Vergeltungswaffe or vengeance weapon), their secret weapon, toward England. Hitler was convinced that he could still win the war. These flying bombs, as they were called, were equipped with a very rudimentary guidance system which directed them only straight ahead from the launching site. Many went astray or didn’t make it further than Belgium. Several times a day a V-1 would appear in the Brussels sky. I cannot forget this low-flying, small, pilotless airplane with stubby short wings, a bluish flame escaping from its tail, sputtering and suddenly stopping dead. Then the V-1 would dive and explode like a bomb. Many people called it a “flying bomb”. It was scary, but we soon learned that, if itstopped right above our head, it would strike elsewhere because it fell at an angle and not straight down. One early morning we were awakened by a loud explosion which shattered our windows. Henry came out of his room to see what was going on while my mother screamed for him not to walk barefoot over the broken glass. A V-1 had exploded very close by; luckily nobody was killed.
After that, all the people who lived in our building slept in the basement. Every family had a corner to put down mattresses and bedding. Our neighbor who lived above us, the one who had ranted while drunk about les Boches dans la maison before the war, now kissed his wife goodnight for all of us to hear before snoring through the night. There was comfort in numbers in the basement we ran to with every “alert.” In school we also ran to the basement when the “alert” sounded, strictly due to the V1s. We especially enjoyed alerts during tests, when we had to sit very close together in the basement and could work out our math problems with each other while our teacher looked the other way.
There still were great shortages of food. For the Jewish holidays, Mr. Jakobowitz, our upstairs neighbor, who had also survived the war with his wife and became very active in big black market operations, showed us the cans of American food that he was going to use, but didn’t share with us. Later we would get 102 packages of 4 lbs. each, sent by my New York Weiser uncles, as 4 lbs. was the maximum allowed by the U.S. mail. We received different food stuff such as cans of butter, oil, sardines, sugar, chocolate powdered milk, powdered eggs, spices, and spam. After we tasted the spam, we decided to exchange it for more palatable food. Every package was loaded with postage stamps, as each cost $2.00 and then some. Soon I had a collection of the presidents’ stamp series. After a while, my uncles could send us 10 lbs. packages with clothes. I received some very nice hand-me-downs from my cousin Evelyn, and then we got the strangest clothes, new dresses in colors of yellow and black and other wild colors from Klein’s on Fourteenth Street, clothes that we could not wear in Belgium, but that my mother could sell or exchange for more conservative dresses.
The weather got colder and the remainder of the coal in our cellar was soon gone. Now we lived in our winter coats inside our apartment, with a blanket wrapped around our knees while sitting, studying and eating our meals. In December, when the Germans counter-attacked in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, a mere 60 km from Brussels, my mother was beside herself. Who would hide us now that so many people have boasted of belonging to the Resistance and would be shot by the Germans, and where could we go in this bitter cold?
All the time my parents argued about everything. My father did not have much money, but he would go to the movies on Saturday afternoons all by himself without taking my mother. This bothered me. He started to do business in London, where he flew a few times, carrying his own jam as there were greater food shortages in England than in Belgium. What did we eat? Herring! We ate marinated herring, fried herring, cold herring, hot herring; the whole apartment smelled thanks to the bucket full of marinating herring standing around, and I loved it. I still love herring.
My brother was unhappy at home with my parents in discord most of the time. At Momignies, where he was hidden, he had worked for a printer and learned to typeset by hand. He was very proud of this acquired skill and wanted to go to work for a printer. My father had other plans. He could see himself starting a business buying the skins to make fur coats, and my brother cutting and sewing the fur coats. Therefore, my brother had to become a furrier to fulfill his father’s dream. My father arranged for my brother to enter into an apprenticeship with a customer of his. All my brother did was walk Mr. Dzubass’s dog and run errands for him. Henry complained to my father, who kept telling him to be patient because Mr. Dzubass was a very good customer who could not be offended. My mother had to fight my brother’s battle and finally Henry started working for another furrier.
In the meantime, Henry bought a correspondence course in journalism with his earnings. He also entered a newspaper contest for a children’s story which was supposed to have a moral. He wrote a very cute story without a moral. He was even given a second chance to conform more closely to the rules, but he couldn’t compromise and wouldn’t change the end of his story. That sort of ended his writer’s ambition. Finally, Henry wanted to join the US Army and see the Pacific, but my parents wouldn’t let him. My mother’s friend Mrs. Gurfein’s son did enlist in the U.S. Army, as he couldn’t tolerate living in an apartment with his mother, his very religious father and his mother’s rich lover who supported them all. He was later killed in action in the Pacific.
I was busy with school and the Girl Scouts. In fact, despite the unpleasant climate at home between my parents, I had a good time in school, at Girl Scouts and even at home. Madame Wolfenstein had also survived the war up in her Mansarde (attic) in St. Josse. She had supported herself by sewing for people. Nobody had denounced her to the Germans. Now she came every day to sew for us. Our landlords’ old-fashioned tread sewing machine stood in the kitchen, the only warm room in the apartment, and Mme. Wolfenstein was kept busy, turning collars of my father’s shirts, making alterations to old clothes or to new clothes from our relatives in the U.S., and new clothes for all of us. Her husband had died in the Camp de Gurs in France and her son never returned from deportation. Little by little, she would sell my father her son’s winter coat and suits, which she would then cut and tailor to fit. Even the ugly clothes from the USA she would transform into wearable things. She was amazing, cutting patterns out of her head on the kitchen table, telling me about her life in Poland when she was young. She had gone to work in a factory when she was nine years old. At twenty-two, she headed her own atelier, making skirts in Berlin, where she had prospered. Now her hair was white and her hands crippled with arthritis, but she continued to work at our house and share our meals. She was my surrogate grandmother, always kind and forgiving of my quick temper, grateful for my mother’s generosity.
The Knopf girls came back to Brussels from the convent where they had spent over a year. They stayed a few weeks with us. They wanted to become nuns and were angry once they had to move into the Jewish orphanage “Home des Hirondelles.” Their parents did not come back from Ausschwitz. Their sole final traces are their names engraved on one of the walls of the National Memorial to
the Jewish Martyrs of Belgium, located in a hidden locked small park in Brussels. However, after a while both Ruth and Gina became ardent Zionists and couldn’t wait to get to Palestine where they had relatives. Unfortunately I lost track of them.
Mr. Jakobowitz was arrested as a collaborateur because he had worked closely with the Germans during the Occupation. Because Mrs. Jakobowitz cried and complained that she could not handle the long trip to the jail all by herself, my parents volunteered me to go with her to carry the weekly care package. We traveled by tramway and then had to stand in line to have the weekly package inspected by the prison guards. Meanwhile the people around us jeered us as collaborateurs and threatened us. It never occurred to me to complain to my parents or to refuse to go. I must say that Mrs. Jakobowitz had always been kind to me, sewing doll clothes with me before we went into hiding. The jeering didn’t bother me since I had a clear conscience, but I was glad when Mr. J. was released. In time, Mr. J’s lawyer got him off. First he faked a trembling hand during the time he was in jail and then, one day, he was free and his healthy and happy old self again without the shaking hands.
Eventually the Jakobowitzes moved back to Nürnberg, Germany where they originally came from, where Mr. J got a position in the toy industry. Herbert Kolb, my brother-in-law, who returned from Theriesenstadt to Nürnberg, his hometown, with his parents after the end of the war, remembers him as a very active member of the Jewish Community. Eventually the Jakobowitzes died. Years later I saw a notice in the local Jewish newspaper that the Holocaust Museum of Washington D.C. wanted information about passengers of the SS St. Louis. I was able to inform them that the Jakobowitzes had survived the Deportations in Belgium. I even could enclose a photograph.
One Tuesday, May 8, 1945, while I was walking to school after lunch, a man shouted to me across the street, the Boulevard Clovis, “La guerre est finie!” (the war is over). I continued my short walk to school while a great joy slowly engulfed me, an overwhelming feeling that stayed with me the rest of the day. In the evening, together with my friend Vera, we walked to the center of the city. The joyous celebration was in full swing, with thousands of delirious people milling around, bands playing, people singing and dancing. We hooked onto a conga line to cross the Grand Place. Vera had told me about the celebration after the liberation of Brussels in September, which I missed. Now I could take part in this unforgettable collective exuberance. I had every good reason to celebrate my survival, as well as that of my family.
I had no inkling on that day in May 1945, that the long awaited U.S. Visa would arrive eventually, that I would have just enough time to pass my final oral examinations at the Lycée in 1949, before leaving my friends, my bicycle, Brussels, Belgium and Europe for ever. How could I know, in 1945, that I would cross the Atlantic Ocean with my parents on the SS Queen Mary for the more welcoming shores of the United States? A wonderful life awaited me, but this chapter of my story ends on May 8, 1945.