Beloeil – Summer 1942
I returned home from Hachy at the end of July 1942. It was summer vacation, but I was not too anxious to be outside on the street with my beloved trotinette. I couldn’t ride it and hide the yellow star at the same time.
Everything at home was difficult because of the war, the rationings and the persecutions of the Jews which had started in earnest in June. The food rationing was tighter. In addition there were ration tickets for clothing, shoes, soap, practically everything. Our kitchen wall was covered with a huge map of Europe with pins aligned to mark the ever-changing front lines. Each country’s army was represented by different color pins. Henry and my father were in charge of keeping the map up-to-date. I was not that interested in the progress of the war on the different battlefields. I heard about the conquest of El Alamein by the German army, then by the British and then by the Germans again. It all happened so far away and made no sense to me. I had never heard of the Middle East oil fields which the Germans coveted.
My parents were happy when they found another hiding place for me to stay in outside of Brussels, in the fresh country air with good food and plenty of kids to play with, well beyond the Nazi threat. I believed that my parents were in greater danger than I and that they too should leave Brussels, but nobody asked for my opinion. My mother packed my big suitcase again. A lady accompanied me on the very slow and crowded train. By late afternoon we arrived in the village of Beloeil. When we walked toward the Château de Beloeil, along a very wide tree-lined avenue, a distinguished-looking man dressed in a dark suit came toward us. He extended a welcoming hand to the lady carrying my huge suitcase who introduced me to him, the Prince Eugène de Ligne . He looked down at me with a smile, shook my hand and bade me welcome. I had no idea that I was going to live in a castle together with a real prince. His personal welcome filled me with gratitude that this important man had found the time to welcome me, a little Jewish girl of twelve, who was going to be hidden in his castle. Actually, the prince and his family occupied most of the real castle while the children’s home was confined to peripheral buildings which, in times past, served as armory or stables. Our dining hall was on the ground floor and the large dormitory rooms for girls were located above.
The boys were relegated to the other end of the huge park, in the orangerie (conservatory). We only saw them on rare occasions when all of us were involved in a major game. Sometimes we met Benny Shapiro, the Knopf girls’ shy friend.
The home of Beloeil was sponsored by l’Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance Leopold III, a foundation for underprivileged children. Leopold III was the king of the Belgians at that time. There were plenty of children whose father was a war prisoner in Germany or with other hardships. The home was organized according to the scout model, with us children divided into several troops. Three patrols made up our troop, les Eclaireuses. Each patrol had a patrol leader and an assistant. We were given a uniform of shorts and a long-sleeved sweater for cool weather. Later on we received our summer uniforms: very colorful shorts and a matching shirt, to the merriment of the staff who wondered where this huge quantity of wildly colored material had come from. Just like in the musical “The Sound of Music,” it came from the chateau’s draperies.
Our day counselors (bénévoles) were young women belonging mostly to the Belgian nobility who volunteered to work with underprivileged children during their summer vacation before going back to their studies at the university. From dinner until breakfast, regular female employees took care of us. The directrice of the home was a Baronne Rollins, a widow who came back to live in Belgium after her husband died in the Belgian Congo. I learned this from her children, Eric and Sankicha, who were not supposed to mix with the underprivileged children. We, the few Jewish girls, were a different sort. So when Eric or Sankicha were bored, they came to talk or play with us. At the time, Eric26 was ten and Sankicha fourteen, not too far from our age. There was an older daughter Huguette of seventeen who definitely did not want to mix with us. I enjoyed the scout pageantry with the daily horseshoe formation for the raising of the flag after breakfast. We sang the many songs I had learned the previous year at day camp. I felt patriotic with a special allegiance to our patrol, and I always expected to be among those singled out for outstanding achievements. The patrol leader got to carry the patrol flag, a decorated piece of material attached to a broomstick. Together with the flag came a kerchief around the neck. It wasn’t long before I aspired to become patrol leader so that I could carry the flag.
After a very short time, Gina and Ruth Knopf came to join me, except that now their names were changed to the more French sounding names of Ginette and Renée. I still have the photographs, black and white of course and so tiny, of our patrol performing a dance to the tune of Grieg’s Peer Gynt. How we practiced with our counselor who would wind up the portable phonograph again and again. How I hated the sissy role of being the queen of the flowers waking up in spring. We were just one act of many of the huge show taking place outdoors on visitors’ Sunday, a day when nobody came to visit me. The Knopfs came to visit their girls and brought me sweets from my parents. It was such a heavy letdown that my parents did not come. For the next two years, on every visitor’s Sunday, I would first hope against hope and then get depressed for the rest of the day.
Some of the exciting activities at Beloeil happened when the Senior Scouts came to visit to organize a huge game of Capture the Flag, which lasted practically all day. Then during the night we were awakened and given a flashlight to play another game in the dark. Never had I participated in so free an activity. Never had a game seemed such a reality. Never was I so scared to get lost in the huge park in the dark. A week later, we (Gina, Ruth, our patrol leader Fernande and I) were moved from the dormitory above the dining hall to a castle tower room, completely round with curved walls, curved windows and a curved door. A winding stairway led downstairs to a separate locked door which we were not allowed to use. Only four beds fit in the tower room, which was connected to the older girls’ dormitory by a short hallway which we had to cross to get to the bathroom.
Some evenings Eric would come to visit us – he had the key to the door downstairs – with a big board game box tucked under his arm. We would close our door to the dormitory room. The surveillante (counselor) left us “older” girls alone as long as we were not too loud. From our tower window, we could see below the empty “moat” on one side and beyond the prince’s terrace. Sometimes a valet wearing white gloves would serve the prince sitting outside.
On one special occasion, we were taken on a tour of the whole castle with the guide naming all the Princes de Ligne (there are several ranks of nobility with the title of prince as the top rank. The Princes of de Ligne were not related to the royal family) from about 1400 on in the endless portrait gallery. The guide’s talk was impressive; some princes had been in the Crusades, and all of them had participated in one war or another. The guide rattled off the whole history of the castle, including how often it had been destroyed and subsequently rebuilt. I only listened with half an ear as I did not know enough history at the time. We were also shown a movie of the Prince’s oldest daughter’s wedding to a Spanish marquis. We children were instructed to call the Prince Monseigneur and not the less formal monsieur.
Occasionally, the Princess de Ligne came into our dining room to make announcements or to check up on us. While the Prince was blond with dark eyes, the Princess, Philippine de Noailles, had black hair with blue eyes. It was explained to us by our counselor that they were a truly handsome couple. The Princess would shush us with a stern voice or admonish us to better behavior, especially if we did not act too enthusiastic at some of the meals, which consisted of split pea flakes or a pink tapioca pudding which tasted awful.
When I first arrived at Beloeil, I did not have a false name. I just knew that we were not to talk about our being Jewish or hidden. Soon, Gina, Ruth and I made friends with two sisters from Berlin, Dorawho was Gina’s age (about six months older than I) and Ruth who was some two years younger. Dora had jet black hair while her sister’s hair was light and gathered on top of her head into a Tolle, (a big horizontal curl) a very German girl’s hairdo. Gina was fair while her sister had short straight black hair. I never realized that I stood out with my dark red hair and black eyebrows and eyelashes. Dora knew everything. She had even listened at her parents’ bedroom door during the night and recounted some of their conversations. She also gave us an incomplete sex education. Both she and her sister spoke with a heavy German accent. I reconnected briefly with first Ruth Hochhäuser at the 1991 New York Hidden Child Conference, then at the 1995 Hidden Child Conference in Brussels, Dora came up to talk to me but we had nothing in common, just those two months in Beloeil.
When we Jewish girls misbehaved or requested special privileges such as not to share the public showers with the younger girls as we were starting to develop, the directrice took us for a walk and reminded us that we were Jewish, that we should not forget that we were just tolerated and that we should not feel entitled to a request for special privileges such as a later curfew or more private showers. “Why do you Jews always have to be different?” she would ask. I was proud to be Jewish but kept quiet even though I could not understand what an adolescent’s modesty had to do with being Jewish or different. We girls of twelve and thirteen could not understand why an adult treated us like that or why the Baronne did not like us.
The final straw came when she forbade Eric and Sankicha to speak to us. Now they had to hide when they wanted to play or just talk with us. Our counselor was Christiane de Jonghe d’Artois, whose father was a real count. She was a lot of fun and especially kind to us. She understood how homesick we were and how we needed an adult to talk to. More so than suffering from being Jewish and hidden, we suffered the pangs of adolescence without knowing it. One day, our troop went for a long walk in the huge park. When we passed the cottage where the Prince de Ligne’s oldest son Baudouin lived by himself, Mademoiselle Christiane as we called her knocked on his door. Prince Baudouin, then about 25 years old, stuck his head through the open window. Mademoiselle Christiane started to flirt with Baudouin, who was not very responsive. Finally she told him in English to offer us children a cold drink on this very hot day. I was so proud to have understood her English, and we got a pitcher with cold lemonade.
Beloeil was a beautiful and pleasant place. The staff was kind and caring, the huge park a wonderful playground where we could almost get lost through the many hedges and vine-covered walkways. It was like a miniature Versailles. On very hot days, we were allowed to play in the water-filled basins. The water only reached our ankles, but some girls managed to fall into it to cool off.
Sometime in September, we got instructions not to use our real names anymore when corresponding with our families, then not to use it anymore at the colonie but to choose a Belgian sounding name not too different from our real ones as all our clothes were marked with our initials. So I became Sylvie Beekman, a name which became my nom de guerre (war name). At the same time, the attitude of the staff toward us changed. School had started, but I did not feel welcome in the classroom, a sixth grade with younger children, or was it possibly a combination class of fifth and sixth graders?
I don’t recall if the day counselors (bénévoles) had left to return to their studies. I did not get an explanation when, one day, Gina and Ruth left. Then somebody pointed out to me that I was too big and too old to stay in a home for children up to twelve years old, and that there was no class for me beyond the sixth grade which I had just completed in Brussels. Finally it was made clear to me that I had to leave. I don’t know whether I wrote this to my parents or whether they were informed by the administration. The lady came again to take me home. If I was happy to be home again after about two months in Beloeil, I could sense how tense my parents were. A few weeks later found me at the gate of the Couvent St Joseph.
When I visited this chateau in 1986, I was surprised to see how shabby it looked. An amusement park had been set up at one end of the huge park to help provide an income, I presumed. I then realized that likewise during the war, the Prince did not mind the extra income the “Colonie” provided.
26 I was saddened when I learned from Dora at the First Hidden Children Conference in Brussels in 1995 that Eric had died in a motorcycle accident.