Saint Josse 1940-1941
After finding out that our apartment was intact, we left Square Ambiorix in a hurry. Our apartment was there with all its furniture, which belonged to our landlord. Of all our belongings shipped to Adinkerke, nothing remained. As we looked around, so relieved to be home, my brother spied our camera on the mantle above the fake fireplace, which we had forgotten on that frantic packing day in May. Now it was our only possession until, in fall when we had to put a load of coal in our basement, we noticed my friend Peter’s sled which he had entrusted to us for storage during the hectic days following the May 10th invasion.
I was never to see Peter again. His parents managed to drive all the way to Southern France with him. Wanting to have him safe in Switzerland, they sent him to an underground office where the Résistance would arrange his escape to neutral Switzerland. Nobody knew that the Gestapo had arrested all the people in charge and was waiting for innocent victims. That is when Peter walked into the trap. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. By then he was just twelve years old.
Mr. Rath died of a heart attack in Nice, France, but his wife survived the war. I saw her only once more in Brussels after Liberation, when she stroked my hair, smiled wistfully at me and asked if I remembered Peter. How could I ever forget him? For a long time I had hoped that he would return from Poland. After all, Helga Zauderer, who was my age, returned from Auschwitz. Mr. Zauderer had been one of my father’s business acquaintances. At one time, early during the deportations, while I was away in hiding already, my parents and the Zauderers made plans to escape to Spain or possibly to Portugal with their children. To cross so many borders illegally, they needed a passeur, or a smuggler, to guide them. When my father met the passeur, he didn’t trust him. After all, my father would have his whole fortune, whatever it was, with him to pay the guide. The Nazis paid a bounty for each Jew denounced to them. It turned out that my father’s intuition was correct. The guide took the whole Zauderer family straight to the Gestapo.
Only Helga returned from Auschwitz. When I visited her at the “Home des Hirondelles,” the Jewish orphanage on the outskirts of Brussels after her return from Poland, I asked her how she had managed to survive. She told me then that all the women in her barrack helped her, the youngest inmate, to survive. Her uncle in London took her in, and for a while we corresponded. She was very unhappy there. Then we drifted apart and lost touch.
The school year was not quite over and I had to return to school. My mother, with Mrs. Jonas’ help , sewed a dress for me from a cotton flour bag. It had been a fancy bag with an orange border and a blue line. At first I was apprehensive that my school friends would notice that mine was no ordinary dress, but when it was finished, I was quite delighted with its puffy sleeves and all the matching stripes. After a look in the mirror, I grew confident that nobody would guess that I was wearing a dress made from a flour sack.
My father had to earn some money quickly. The cash he had borrowed from Mr. Rath was running out. The one suit that he had worn all through our Exodus had a big hole in the pant seat which, though mended by my mother, was quite visible. He kept telling us how he would go see this or that customer on business and never turn his back to him, but exit facing them. We all laughed together at the thought of Papa backing away from people. Because the German occupying forces were buying up every type of merchandise, he managed to transact some fur business right away. Every time he came home with cash, my mother would run to make a deposit on sheets, blankets, tableware and clothes for each of us. It was an exciting time and seemed almost normal, at least to me.
I returned to the fourth grade in my flour sack dress and a makeshift cartable (school bag). I also had to repeat the test in calcul mental (arithmetic), a test I had done so poorly on the week before May 10th. In fact, I had been utterly relieved when the Germans invaded Belgium because I was sure that I would never have to face my teacher or my parents with that poor test score. In the train to Ostende, I so confided my relish to my brother, convinced that we were finally on our way to America. Whereas for the first test, my score was 2.2, I now received a 6.4, enough to pass but not my usual high marks. The teacher attributed my poor results to the “war,” but I realized that there was a weakness in my head to figure things like 25%, .25% or 2.5%, a weakness with numbers or percentage figuring that stayed with me until the invention of the handheld calculator.
As soon as the school year was over, after July 15, I entered the community hospital, located practically across from our house, to have my tonsils removed. Right after our return from the Exodus, my parents had taken me to visit an ear, nose and throat specialist at that same city hospital because my father could not afford a private doctor at that time. Apparently my adenoids prevented me from proper breathing, a reason I could not walk far during our journey home from France. They had to come out, and why not remove the tonsils at the same time? I had often played in the little square in front of the hospital which was just on the other side of the railroad tunnel. My mother could call me for meals from our balcony when I played there. Now I was inside the gray, drab building, in a large children’s ward. That first evening I made friends with the girl in the next bed. She was also Jewish and came from Austria. My parents said good night to me, reassuring me that I was going to feel much better once my swollen tonsils were out.
The next morning, an orderly enveloped my whole body tightly in a long sheet. I felt like a mummy. Then he sat me on his lap in the operating room. Somebody stuffed a wad of cotton full of ether under my nose. All the time, the bearded doctor explained every move to the five or six students who stood respectfully around him. I heard and understood every word but could neither talk nor move. I was asked to open my mouth and a clamp was stuck into it. Now my mouth was wide open. The doctor said: “Now you yank the tonsils out, you see, it does not hurt at all.” Meanwhile, I felt an intense sudden burning sharp pain down in my throat – gosh, it hurt like blazes. The clamp was removed and I could spit out blood. I felt overpowered by that whole gang of doctor, students and the man who held me tightly on his lap.
When I was asked again to open my mouth, I refused and squeezed my lips and teeth tightly together. The doctor warned me that if I did not open my mouth voluntarily, he would have to force it open, which would hurt me. In no way was I going to cooperate with him after what he just did to me. With two spoon handles and by holding my nose closed, he forced my mouth open and introduced the hated clamp again. At least I had the satisfaction that he had to work for it. I heard his whole explanations again like through a mist, and saw everything as if through a constantly moving screen. Another yank, way down in my throat but upwards into my nose, and my adenoids came out. I will never forget how violated I felt, I who had gone to the hospital so confident and trusting that they would cure me there. Now I was a mass of pain and disillusionment. I hated the whole world.
Later that day, my parents came to visit me but my throat hurt so much that I refused to speak to them. I stayed in the hospital for several days. Sometimes during the day, I could whisper to the girl next to me, but at night, when my parents came, I remained silent, wanting to punish them for my pain. Finally I was home again and soon this hospital nightmare became just another episode in my life. I don’t know whether it was a coincidence of my body wanting to grow suddenly or whether the food deprivations of the war had anything to do with it, but after I had my tonsils out, I suddenly liked all the foods I hated before. Always skinny, I could eat huge quantities without gaining weight well into my early twenties. Unfortunately that changed during my middle age and worsened as I entered old age.
I saw my friend Vera Mannheimer again. She was a refugee from Berlin. Her father was a lawyer but had no license to practice law in Belgium. His wife, who was not Jewish, supported the three of them. She also saved him from deportation two years later. Somehow word got to Vera’s parents that we had lost everything. Her older sister Irene had died of tuberculosis earlier that year. The two sisters, very close in age, had always worn identical clothes. Now I was going to inherit all of Vera’s outgrown clothes while she would graduate to her older sister Irene’s. I was very grateful, if not a little embarrassed by all that charity, and I developed a closer friendship with Vera and her friend Suzy Hertz during that summer.
When the Knopfs eventually moved to Brussels from Ostende because foreigners and Jews were no longer allowed to live in the proximity of the “Atlantic Wall” which the Nazis were erecting to protect them from Allied invasion, Gina and Ruth joined our little clique of German refugee girls. Later yet, Marion, whose mother was German but not Jewish, joined our group. Her Jewish father was out of the picture. Either he had emigrated from Germany to another country or had been caught earlier by the Nazis. Marion, who at ten and a half looked twenty with her short black curly hair and tall, well-endowed body, lived with her German mother and her younger brother Joachim in a luxurious apartment owned at one time by the famous Belgian Socialist Emile Vandervelde (1866-1938). The entire apartment building in a fancy, centrally located street was occupied by German officers. Marion’s mother worked as a cook there, but she also lived with one of the officers which gave Marion many privileges. I had never seen such an opulently furnished apartment; it had a front entrance reached by an elevator and a rear entrance and service elevator for the staff. Marion had invited us for a swim in the basement’s huge Olympic-size swimming pool. In order to avoid questions, we took the service elevator to her apartment and later down to the pool. I can still see the huge swimming pool filled with German officers, all in white slips. We enjoyed our swim in the shallow end of the pool, and the fact that we were daring to be in the “lion’s den,” so to speak.
The Knopfs did not attempt to flee in May 1940 when the Germans attacked, for lack of a place to flee to. I just remember that one day they came from Ostende where they were still living because Mr. Knopf had been arrested as an enemy alien. My father went with Mrs. Knopf, who spoke little French, from police department to police department until they located Mr. Knopf. In the meantime, Mrs. Knopf, Ruth and Gina stayed in our apartment. I think that Mrs. Knopf and Ruth slept in the living room on my couch while I shared my parents’ double bed with Gina. All night she kept kicking me until I fell out of bed. The next day I let Gina sleep at the edge of the bed. My father managed to get Mr. Knopf freed thanks to his Polish passport. The Poles were allies, after all.
During those few days that the Knopfs stayed with us, Ruth came home one morning crying. She had gone by herself to play at the little square in front of the hospital, where there were always a few old men sitting on a bench or playing cards. One man had told her to lower her panties and he had touched her. Both her mother and my mother gave the poor little girl hell that she had complied with the old man’s request. After that she did not go downstairs to play by herself anymore. Later that year, the Knopfs moved to Brussels. They did not live far from us but, because of the borough boundaries, the girls went to a different school.
More important than the camera we had left behind when we fled from the Germans, my green scooter remained parked on the landing next to our apartment door. It was going to be a source of boundless joy for me. My brother and I would walk the scooter all the way to the Parc du Cinquantenaire, uphill all the way and then, standing together on the scooter, ride all the way home. My brother, standing in the back, would steer and brake by pushing his heel onto the tire. The tires had never been in good condition and soon developed a big crack. Through the crack the pink inner tubes would balloon out until it sprang a leak. My mother spent a lot of time fixing the inner tubes. Soon I knew the motions too. Finally, I was heartbroken when my scooter’s inner tubes could not be repaired anymore due to the cracked tires, until a neighbor suggested that we have the tires recapped at a much more reasonable price than that of new tires, which were next to impossible to find on the black market anyhow. My mother understood my attachment to the scooter and paid the twenty francs it took to repair the tires to last another few months.
One thing my brother and I had to do during the summer vacation following the Exodus was to help my mother stock up on basic foods such as sardines, oil, chocolate and sugar. There were lines everywhere. The Belgian people remembered the First World War and its food shortages. My mother, who lived in Germany during that war, also remembered especially the food shortages when she and her friend would travel to the countryside in search of food. Henry and I would stand in line for a whole hour to finally get our turn to purchase a small ration, then my brother would pull a cap out of a bag and a hat for me, and we would go to the end of the line again, in the hope that the merchant would not recognize us. To my great embarrassment, this did not always work. If we were recognized by the merchant, he would chase us, yelling, joined by the people in line. We accumulated a few ounces here and there of sardine tins or oil but never enough to last.
Soon we needed rationing tickets to get allocations for the various basic foods. We still had to stand in line for hours. We also learned to cut in line by creating diversions. Henry would organize and I would execute faithfully, admiring his craftiness. Then, Henry started to teach me how to steal. He overcame my reluctance by pointing out that we were not really stealing, just taking a candy here and there. He would be the lookout, while I was supposed to also look around and then dip my hand into the candy bin. I was terribly scared and clumsy at this, maybe deliberately so. The first time that my hand almost reached a candy, the man called to me, “Hey, what are you doing there?” We both ran away and Henry never asked me again to steal with him. I never told on him to our parents, and neither did I ask him if he continued to steal by himself. I guess the start of the new school year saved us from further lines and other mischief. Soon such delicacies as sardines, oil, sugar, chocolate and white flour disappeared from the store shelves and my mother had to find different strategies to feed us.
It must have snowed a lot during the winter of 1940 and 1941. At the first snow, full of excitement, I called up my friend Vera to go sledding in the Bois de la Cambre where I used to go with my friend Peter. We stood on the tram platform with my sled, facing several arrogant-looking German officers in their spick-and-span uniforms and shiny black boots. We could follow their conversation without letting on that we knew German. At that time, the thought crossed my mind how much I would love to shove one of those officers off the platform. It remained just a thought.
When I was in sixth grade in Belgium, our class walked to a public indoor swimming pool every other week to learn how to swim. We couldn’t graduate from sixth grade without passing a swim test. On one of these walks I looked down and saw a dull silver coin. I picked it up and noticed it was a five cent square piece with rounded edges and without a hole. That intrigued me because all the centime pieces had a hole in the center. I kept the coin and became interested in collecting more coins. The irony of the whole thing is that much later in my life, I noticed that I didn’t have that particular five centimes piece anymore, my “good luck” piece during my years in hiding. Actually, I was sad, but by then I had a lot of other coins in my collection to comfort me. Eventually my collection of coins from all over the world would fill two large binders, thanks mostly to my grandson Joshua who was very young when he helped me organize it.
When I looked for a picture of that five cent piece in my coin catalog, I only found a picture of a similar fifty cent piece dated to the German Occupation during the First World War. That made sense to me because the finish of the piece was so dull and cheap, just like the coins issued under German Occupation during the Second World War.
After the war when I was in high school, a new girl joined our class. She had lived in South Africa during the war and gave me a few coins, one of them a small shiny one. When I showed these coins to my father, he pounced on the small shiny one saying, “This is an English gold pound. I’ll buy it from you for five francs.” By then I was fifteen years old and knew the value of an English gold pound. I don’t remember today whether the value on the black market was 200 francs or whether it was more. My father sold it for me on the black market. That was a lot of money at a time when my weekly allowance amounted to two or three francs, the admission to a movie. The first thing I went to buy was a box of watercolors in a specialty store.
 Mrs. Jonas was a German woman married to a Jew who fled with him from Germany to Belgium. After the German May 10th invasion, the Belgian authorities gathered all the German male citizens, regardless if Jewish or not, and shipped them to a camp in St. Cyprien in Southern France. She helped my mother with the cleaning and washing, which was done by hand.
If you want to see a similar flour bag, I refer you to the exhibit at the entrance of Hoover Tower at Stanford University where WWI decorated flour bags from Belgium hang high on a wall.