I thought that it was a vacation like any other, just my mother, my brother and I staying in a pension in Spa, a small resort town close to the territory of Eupen-Malmédy, two small provinces Germany had to cede to Belgium following the Treaty of Versailles after WWI. Spa used to be a fancy resort town that gave its name to all the spas of the world.
I did not find it strange when my mother asked me if I wanted to take my roller skates along on vacation. She even insisted that I could carry them in the white cloth bag she had sewn. But I saw no reason, no reason at all to encumber myself with such a load. After all, we were going away on a “two week vacation” and would be home soon, so my roller skates stayed home in Leipzig with all of our family’s precious possessions including our furniture, Persian rugs, fancy dishes, books, photo albums and our toys which would be sold at auction with the proceeds going to the Nazis.
I was never to see my two grandmothers again nor my Weiser uncles Mulke and Nathan. My Weiser grandmother, with whom my uncle Josef had flown from Leipzig to Paris, died in Paris before the deportations started. My Birnbaum grandmother was murdered by the Nazis in the extermination camp of Belsec in Poland. No trace or written record remains of her. My uncle Nathan and Mulke’s names figure on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, together with the names of all the 80,000 Jews deported from Czechoslovakia.
For me, it was just a school vacation like any other. To me a vacation meant freedom from our maid Lisel who, at home, had to accompany us children everywhere, who did everything for us, except that in 1938 we didn’t have a maid anymore. The Nazis didn’t allow German women to work for Jews. For a while we had a Swiss maid Martel but finally just a cleaning lady. Alas, now the responsibility of taking care of me fell on my older brother Henry.
As usual during our vacations, the people around us spoke German as did Madame who owned the small pension where we were staying. In Spa in June, the rhubarb was ripe, followed by red currants which I learned to separate from their stems with a fork This way I was allowed to help Madame and my mother make jam.
Henry and my mother had taken private lessons both in French and in English for a long time before our departure from Germany while I had to learn long lists of Hebrew words that made no sense to me and which did not stick in my head. How I loathed Dr. Kalaii who spoke such broken German to us students in class. In addition, I had to take private lessons from him after school several times a week at a time when I wanted to play and run around instead of memorizing an endless and meaningless vocabulary in a “dead language.” At that time, Hebrew, though being revived, was still considered a dead language by my family.
How much more fun to listen to my brother practicing his English at home, especially the “the” sound illustrated in his English book which showed an open mouth with the tip of the tongue coming out. I heard him and my mother make fun of Madame Beka, their French teacher who also spoke broken German, but with a French accent. No word was ever said in front of us children about emigration and never did we guess that all those language lessons were in preparation for the day we would leave Germany, for either a French, English or Hebrew speaking country. Actually I learned both German and Hebrew in the first grade. I learned to read both languages at once. We also studied Bible stories since I remember slithering on top of my desk as the snake in the Adam and Eve story.
After a few weeks’ stay in Spa, we took the train to Brussels, my mother asking everybody who would listen: “Où est la guerre?” (where is the war?) instead of “Où est la gare?” (where is the train station?). I can still see the angry people who tried to tell her that nobody needed la guerre barely twenty years after the end of WWI. Everybody in that part of Belgium remembered the ravages and atrocities committed by the Germans during their occupation during the WWI years of 1914-1918.