Couvent St. Joseph, Etterbeek, October 1942 to February 1943
At nightfall my parents and I took the tramway to my new hiding place in a suburb of Brussels, my father carrying my small suitcase. I was bewildered. On the street we did not talk so that my parents’ German accent would not give them away. They had not told me much, only that it would be better if I did not live with them for the time being because of the Germans. Everything always happened because of the Germans. We had left everything behind in Leipzig because of the Germans, because of the Nazis, because of what they did to the Jews. I never sorted all that out. I just knew that because of the Germans I had to be afraid and that my parents were in even greater danger than I.
We stopped in front of a heavy gate on the Rue des Champs in Etterbeek. I could not see much of the façade in the dark. My father rang the bell. We were still in Brussels, in the city, but once beyond the gate, we penetrated into a different world. A heavyset nun received us with an effusion of friendliness that I would not see from her again. This was the Reverend Mother dressed in a gray habit with a rounded black headdress. We were taken to a dimly lit parlor where my parents said goodbye. Luckily all our goodbyes during the war were always matter-of-fact with little said, and yet we knew that it could be forever.
Somebody took me to my room somewhere above that parlor. I was numb with shock and cold and cried myself to sleep. The next day I discovered that I was in a convent built around a small courtyard with several wings extending toward the rear. Rows and rows of windows would stare at me when I crossed the yard, but I preferred the warmth of the parlor area where I spent long hours of loneliness and inactivity. The idea of a convent had been totally foreign to me. I don’t remember who made clear to me that I was a pensionnaire (a private boarder) and that I must not mix with the other girls who lived and played across the courtyard. I met Madame Marie and Madame Julia, both dressed in a white knee-length long sleeved smock and a white coiffe (headdress). They looked more like nurses than nuns. Madame Marie had a little girl, Mimi, over whom she fussed all the time. She would comb the little girl’s jet black tresses and talk to her with a heavy Jewish/Polish accent. Never did she admit to me that she was Jewish. Madame Marie worked in the kitchen every morning preparing the food for mysterious pensionnaires which she would take to them at lunchtime on a huge tray covered by a towel. She would hurry through the courtyard past a locked gate and disappear for a while. Only after the war, when I met her again as Madame Itzkovitz, did I learn that the pensionnaires were her husband as well as Madame Julia’s and some other Jewish people who spent the two critical years of deportation from 1942 to 1944 secluded behind the locked gate, hidden à la Anne Frank.
While Madame Marie was strict and seldom laughed, Madame Julia exuded life. She took care of her two children, Marianne who was about four and the toddler Walter, a crawling cherub often half-naked wearing just a diaper, blond curls and a perpetual smile. He was the only male presence in the whole convent except for the priest who came once a month to hear confession and celebrate Mass for the sisters and ordinary boarders. Madame Julia was full of humor, song and fun, like an oasis in this dreary place. I remember St. Joseph in black, white and gray, gray for the sky during the fall and winter of 1942/43, black and gray for the habits of the nuns, black for the smock I and all the boarders wore, and white for the “novices’” habits, and stranger novices there never were than Madame Marie and Madame Julia and later Mademoiselle Thérèse.
I felt like an intruder with my privileges. I ate with the “novices” and “little sisters” Marguerite and Marie-Thérèse. Later the sixth grade teacher would join us and ask me pointed questions. By then I had adopted a new identity: Sylvie Bourget from Paris. I knew my Weiser uncle’s address there, 1, rue George Delavenne near the Eiffel Tower, and made it mine. When asked about my father, I would drop my eyes and say in a sad voice that he was a prisoner of war in Germany. That stopped further nosy questions. The Reverend Mother lived in her own apartment and seldom made an appearance. Once in a while her “niece” Marguerite, holding the hand of a little girl, would come and visit her “aunt” in her upstairs apartment.29
I felt very awkward as I did not know how to fit into the life of the Convent St. Joseph. For days on end I sat in the dark living room reading all the books I could lay my hands on, mostly lives of saints and gory stories of Christians thrown to the lions or suffering other tortures, all for their faith. In my mind I made an analogy with my own predicament. Finally, in desperation and because I am a social person, I offered my help to Sisters Marguerite and Marie-Thérèse. Together we spent endless hours peeling potatoes and paring vegetables to fill enormous pots of soup for us and the boarders. The sisters were very young, with Marguerite full of jokes and smiles whereas Marie-Therese, taller and heavier set, of Flemish origin, was slower in French and slower in her thoughts. Little did I know then that both were all of 16 years old, delinquent juveniles like all the other inmates, who because they were the oldest were put into a nun’s habit and saddled with the responsibility of preparing the food and cooking it for about eighty children and more than a dozen adults. Even today, a grandmother for many years, every time I prepare vegetables for soup, especially leek, I see myself again in the convent’s kitchen.
Little by little I learned that this convent was a home for about fifty juvenile delinquent girls or daughters of unwed single mothers. The convent had to rely on charity in order to purchase food and clothes for the boarders. There never was enough food for them. Due to the lack of supervision, when an older girl was delegated to watch over a sick younger girl, she would eat the patient’s food. In fact the hungry girls would steal whenever and whatever they could. After all, they had nothing more to lose. How sorry I felt for the younger girls, so disheveled, so pale, so skinny, so quiet and serious. What a contrast little cherub Walter made, all pudgy, cuddly and smiling.
One day, a few very small Jewish children appeared in the big hall. Soon Mademoiselle Thérèse was added to the staff to take care of them. She was a heavyset young woman, dressed like the “novices” Madame Marie and Madame Julia in white. Mademoiselle Thérèse was a clumsy person with a very heavy German accent. She did what she could to keep her little charges well-fed, clean and happy but the task was beyond her. Little by little the five or six little toddlers sank to the same level as all the other older inmates and worse, as they were not prepared for such neglect. They were unkempt, always dirty with runny noses, dirty clothes and wet diapers. I heard later that Thérèse broke both her legs, I can’t remember under what circumstances, and that she was deported.
Endless days went by in this dreadful existence, relieved only every Friday night, when after dark my parents would come with a small box full of food, cake and fruit – le sale linge (dirty laundry) – we called it because they would pick up my dirty laundry and deliver fresh underwear. Not much was said in those short meetings in the dim light of the parlor. They asked me no questions and no complaint crossed my lips. I felt like a heroine, suffering in silence as I figured that their life was hard enough without my worrying them. While I was in the convent, my parents continued to live in our apartment going about their daily lives as best as they could. They purchased fake identity cards which showed them as Belgian nationals, in the erroneous belief that the cards would protect them if arrested by the Gestapo. I don’t know when exactly Henry went into hiding.
The convent had its own school that went only as far as the sixth grade, the grade I had just completed. Madame Marie, who noticed how bored I was all by myself, arranged for me to join it and introduced me to the teacher. I remember little of the class except that I had learned all that material previously and knew all the answers. The teacher constantly held me up as an example because I was so well behaved and so attentive. I even managed to learn the catechism by heart, as required. It embarrassed me greatly to be such a goody-goody but I was happy to be with kids my age and to join in their games at recess.
Several weeks must have gone by this way when my parents told me during their Friday evening visit that they had succeeded in placing my two friends Gina Knopf and her younger sister Ruth as privileged pensionnaires. Now we were three and there was strength in numbers. The first thing we did in the room we shared was to remove the crucifixes hanging over our beds and hide them in a drawer. We also mixed with the other kids in the social hall after school. At first we were horrified when some younger girl would ask us for our crumbs or the core of the apple we were eating innocently in front of them. We saw them fight physically over scraps of food and thought them uncouth until we realized that they were starved. After that first incident, we did not eat in front of the other girls anymore. Little by little we realized what a deprived life they were leading. About twenty-five girls slept in a huge unheated dormitory under a threadbare cotton blanket. There were beautiful blankets stored in cabinets to be used only when the “committee” came to inspect their favorite charity. Then, as if by magic, new and clean sheets appeared on the beds, together with the wool blankets, until inspection was over when they were returned to the cupboards.
At 5:30 AM all the girls had to kneel on the cold floor next to their bed in their thin nightgowns to recite endless prayers. Our room was located above the dormitory and often their mumbling would wake us up. All this we heard from Marie, a girl we became friendly with. We could tell that she was Jewish but we never admitted that we were. In fact, we played a trick on her. One day she told us a story, something that happened to her at home when her mother scolded her and said, “Sarah…,” when her name was supposed to be Marie! Back in our room, with a lot of giggles, Gina, Ruth and I composed an anonymous letter which we slipped into her smock pocket the next day. “MARIE, WE KNOW IT ALL. YOU ARE REALLY SARAH. BEWARE AND TEAR THIS NOTE UP! We wanted to warn her not to repeat such a mistake. The poor girl kept asking us whether the letter was from us, but we denied it each time. I am afraid that we made her miserable.
Sunday mornings we went to church with all the girls. We were lined up two by two just like Bemelman’s “Madeleine” with one little sister at each end and marched a few blocks to a very big church. It was strange for me to see the pomp of the Catholic Church for the first time. With Gina and Ruth, we would fool around during Mass and suppress nervous, self-conscious laughing fits when we had to walk to the front of the church to receive communion. This is where I learned to make the sign of the cross after dipping my fingers in the holy water in the built-in container at the entrance of the church. It still comes naturally to me while reciting “au nom du Père, du Fils et du St. Esprit, Amen.” I also learned to genuflect when entering and leaving the church. The worst was the convent’s life-size statue of Jesus on the cross with hands and feet dripping blood in stark contrast to his pale body and blond hair. We had to pass it every day on the way to our room. It was enough to give anybody nightmares.
Little Ruth, who was eleven, came down with a skin rash which Madame Marie diagnosed as chicken pox. We were moved to a second floor room in an empty wing across the courtyard, in quarantine. From one of the hall windows we could see the kitchen and our old living quarters across the courtyard. By then it was late October and bitterly cold. Gina, the dreamer, had been practicing on the piano in the unheated parlor and had gotten chilblains30. Our wing was totally unheated. There was a small wood-burning stove in the hallway. Since we were in quarantine, our food was left on trays outside the hall door three times a day. A few small logs of green firewood were delivered with breakfast most mornings. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get kindling and newspaper. It fell to me to light a fire whenever we had wood due to my limited experience of helping my brother Henry relight the kitchen stove at home, a one-time experience. Every morning, while stooping on the floor to tear up paper and prepare the firewood, I would pray and pray that the wood would take before the paper and kindling were all burned up. If we were cold before breakfast, we jumped around and sang at the top of our voices in order to warm up. Finally we were scolded and told to keep quiet in our quarters.
Did the Knopf parents realize what was going on with us isolated in a separate convent wing; did the girls tell their parents? One day Gina and Ruth were told to pack their belongings and left. After their departure I was left utterly alone, practically in solitary confinement in the empty wing. I remember looking out of the window into the courtyard, staying in bed a lot because it was warm there, or pacing up and down in the empty hallway, fully dressed with coat, gloves, and whatever warm clothes I had with me. I did not meet my parents in the parlor anymore. It was too dangerous for them to come visit me. Then the light bulb in my room popped and, with night falling early in December and January, I was left in the dark to undress. My best friend was the full moon or clear nights with just a moon sliver shining into my window. I can still feel this utter loneliness, the lack of tenderness, the lack of a human voice. I lived over two months alone in that room until one evening I was told that my parents were in the parlor. They had come with my brother to stay a few days as things were getting pretty bad on the outside. I became very upset at the thought that the Nazis were after my parents and brother and cried a lot. They left after just a few days. Shortly thereafter I was instructed to pack and to say my goodbyes as I would be heading for a new hiding place. First I was taken home where I bathed in the love and attention of my family. After a very short time, my mother packed my big suitcase again as it was time to leave.
That’s when I heard about what happened to some of my family’s friends. The Knopfs had found a hiding place of their own but could not bear to be cooped up day and night in one room. One day they decided to go outside for some fresh air. They were spotted, arrested and deported. None survived Auschwitz. The daughters Gina and Ruth were hidden in a convent somewhere in the Flemish part of Belgium. Talk had it that their parents’ friend, Mr. Z. was offered his mother’s freedom by the Gestapo, who were arresting him in his apartment, if he would denounce ten of his friends which lead the Gestapo to another family we knew, the Shapiros from Vienna with son Benny about my age. The mother hurled herself down a stairway at the Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Louise in a desperate move to stave off deportation. For a while she was in a hospital with two broken legs but eventually she disappeared like all the other arrested Jews. I had met Benny, their son, in Beloeil, my first real hiding place.
P.S. – While trying to find a picture of the Convent on the Internet May 2013, I came upon a blog from Alex who was hidden at the convent with his younger cousins. They were the very small Jewish children who arrived while I was also at the convent. I had forgotten that these small kids, coming straight from their refugee parents’ house, spoke only German, therefore the need for Mademoiselle Thérèse, who also spoke German, to take care of them. According to Alex’s email, he stayed at the convent until the end of the war when his parents picked him up again. His family must have made it to the United States after the war since we corresponded in English. I emailed him the above chapter and never heard from him again.
29After the war I learned that Marguerite was really the Reverend Mother’s daughter.
30Sores caused by the exposure to cold on her fingers.