Born August 9, 1937, Berlin, Germany
Four years go by before I see another British soldier. The last one had been near the French-Belgian border when the British Expeditionary Force was being evacuated from the nearby beaches at Dunkirk. Again I’m with my mother. Before leaving the apartment she has told me that the Germans have run away but I don’t understand where we are going and why my father is not coming with us. She tries to explain to me it has been two years since he has been outside and he is not ready to face people. Along the way, many people are rushing in the same direction. My mother too is in a hurry but we pass a burning tank and I stop to look at it. No one else pays any attention but I’m fascinated by the flames rising from the turret. My mother pulls me away and we merge with the people who are passing by us. We arrive in a park where we join a large crowd of cheering people.
I look around me uncomprehendingly but I sense that my world has changed. I’m vaguely aware of a column of tanks stopped in the lanes of the park with soldiers and many cheerful and smiling civilians milling around them. My mother leads me toward a British soldier standing high up on a tank and looking down at us. We don’t share a language so the communication is nonverbal. My mother picks me up and hands me into the soldier’s extended arms which are reaching down for me. The soldier lifts me up easily and holds me in his arms with his friendly smiling face close to mine. I look down at my mother and she tells me to give him a kiss. I kiss him on the cheek and then look down at her again. Tears are streaming down her cheeks and I become alarmed. Unlike me, the soldier seems to understand her reaction; he continues to smile. Through her tears my mother tries to reassure me that she is alright. She tells me that they are tears of happiness, something I have not experienced before in my seven years, and it leaves me confused.
Early in 1942, when I wasn’t quite five years old, a German officer accompanied by two soldiers came to our apartment in Brussels. I remember being in the room that faced the street with my mother and the officer. The two soldiers were elsewhere in the apartment. The officer was searching through an armoire, possibly for foreign currency or other valuables, when the doorbell rang.
As usual when I heard the doorbell, I ran to the window to see who was there. I hadn’t reached the window yet when the officer bellowed at me. Scared, not knowing why he had yelled at me, I stopped and turned around toward him. At that moment, he threw at me a pair of rolled-up socks that he had found in the armoire. The socks missed me but I was so frightened by his behavior I started to cry. He then shouted at me, “Wenn ein Offizier vom Dritten Reich ein Befehl gibt must mann gehorchen.” (“When an officer of the Third Reich gives an order, you must obey.”)
Reacting like a mother bear defending her cub, my mother looked up at him and retorted in fluent German, “Is that any way for an officer of the Third Reich to comport himself with a child?” The officer then quietly told me to leave the room, but I grabbed my mother’s skirt and held onto it. There was a long silence before he returned to his search of the armoire. I don’t remember what happened after that.
In recent years, on several occasions I have asked my brother, Manfred, to validate some of my memories as well as to clarify my understanding of these long-ago events. In a sense, Mani (his nickname) is my memory since he is older by several years and he and I are the only ones still alive in our immediate family. I asked him once whether he remembered the time my mother talked back to a German officer in our apartment. I was disappointed when he said, “I wasn’t home so how could I remember it?” But then he added, “I was the one who rang the doorbell.” Excited by this revelation, I wanted to know what he knew about this incident.
For the first time, I heard Mani’s side of the story. He had been out on a business errand with our father. “We were walking home and when we turned the corner we saw a car parked on our very short two-block-long street. Cars were rare because the Germans had confiscated all private cars. Although the car was parked some distance from our house, Papa had a premonition that something was not right. He said to me, ‘Go on home and if all is well, come and get me.’” The thinking at the time was that women and children had nothing to fear from the German occupier.
Mani continued, “I was a bit puzzled but without questioning I did as he told me. When I got to the house we lived in, I rang the doorbell [we did not carry house keys] and was only slightly surprised when a German soldier opened the door for me. Entering the apartment I realized that the Gestapo—the German secret police—was doing a search. I knew about these things since I helped Papa trade in foreign currencies and had heard about the Gestapo conducting searches in people’s apartments.”
My brother continued, “We waited in fear that the Gestapo might find something, but fortunately they did not and left. Had Papa been home they would probably have taken him to their headquarters for further interrogation, which was usually done in a very violent manner.”
For nearly half a century following the end of the war my family never spoke about how we experienced living under the Nazi regime in Germany and later under Nazi occupation in Belgium. By the time Mani and I began to speak about it, our parents and our sister had passed away so it was too late to fill in the gaps in our collective memory.
For the first 40 years after the war ended, we didn’t think of ourselves as survivors since we were not deported to the concentration camps. Despite our years in hiding and our fears of being caught, we thought there really was nothing to talk about.
©2011, Harry Markowicz. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this Web site are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.