Start of Main Content

A Bedtime Story

By Harry Markowicz

During World War I, Germany invaded neutral Belgium with the intention of eventually conquering Paris. Major battles took place on Belgian soil and the country was left in ruins at the end of the “Great War.” Remembering the atrocities committed by the Germans during that war, most Belgians hated the “Boches” even before their country was invaded once again by Germany on May 10, 1940. Partly because of that, many Belgians were willing to help Jews, although the penalty was death or deportation to a concentration camp.

After Germany invaded Belgium, the restrictions and persecutions imposed by the Germans on the Jewish population were gradually and systematically increased so that each new one was a relatively small step up from the previous ones. The “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was decided at the Wannsee Conference held in Berlin on January 20, 1942. In June of that year, the order was given to the German officer in charge of Jewish affairs in Belgium to deport 10,000 Jews to Auschwitz. An appeal was made through the Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB) for Jews to volunteer to be deported to work for Germany. Of an estimated 60,000 Jews residing in Belgium at the beginning of the war, only about 6,000 were Belgian citizens. The rest were immigrants, including from Poland, Austria, and Germany (where my family and I lived before we left Berlin in 1938, the year after I was born). Only 4,000 Jews accepted deportation, not knowing that their real destination was a concentration camp in Poland. To meet the quota for the first transports of Jews to Auschwitz the Germans resorted to different strategies.

In August 1942, the Germans started raiding Jewish neighborhoods. The first three raids took place in Antwerp. The news spread rapidly from Antwerp to Brussels, where my family and I lived. The Germans surrounded whole neighborhoods during the night and took away entire Jewish families regardless of age and state of health. Until then, the Germans worked through the Association of Jews in Belgium, which they had established to facilitate their control of the Jewish population. Previously, only able-bodied Jewish men were selected to work for the Germans. This was now a new situation— all Jews, including elderly people, babies, young children, and the sick, were being taken away. Obviously, all these individuals were not suitable for factory or farm work.

My parents decided that it was not safe for us to stay in our apartment since many Jewish families lived in our neighborhood. My mother’s brother Abraham, his wife, Gutsha, and their son, Manfred, and daughter, Lotti, lived not far away—but in an area that was not particularly Jewish. We stayed with them at night, going back to our apartment only during the daytime. A few days later, in early September, the Germans surrounded our neighborhood at night and loaded all the Jews they could find into their trucks.

After this raid, my whole family went into hiding. My parents moved into a third floor apartment in a quiet side street. The windows overlooking the street were covered with newspapers, as was the custom in Belgium when an apartment was unoccupied. The landlord, as well as several neighbors on the street, knew that a Jewish family lived in the “vacant” apartment. Indeed, some of these neighbors regularly did the food shopping for my parents.

With the assistance of an underground organization, my sister, Rosi, my brother, Mani, and I were hidden in several locations, each in turn having been determined to be unsafe. At first, the three of us stayed with an elderly Gentile couple who lived near us. In exchange for a large sum of money, my parents arranged for them to move into another neighborhood where they were not known and we could pass for their relatives. Unfortunately for us, shortly afterward they returned to their old neighborhood into an apartment previously occupied by a Jewish family. To complicate matters, their 18-year-old grandson who lived with them decided to join the Rexistes, a paramilitary movement that supported and collaborated with the Nazis. After that, Rosi and I stayed in a children’s home in the countryside, where other Jewish children were hiding as well. When my mother visited us, she found out that Jewish adults were also hiding there and she decided it was not a safe situation.

By 1943, we each ended up living with a different Belgian family, where we felt relatively safe and were treated very well considering the wartime conditions, such as the general lack of food and heating fuel.

To keep in touch with our parents and to reassure them that we were all right, Rosi wrote them long letters. During our last year in hiding, from September 1943 to September 1944, she wrote 53 letters, which my parents kept. The last letter was dated “Wednesday, September 15, [19]44, eight days after the liberation.” In her neat handwriting, she describes in great detail the retreat of the defeated army, which took place in front of the house where she was living next to the banks of the Meuse river. From the house she had a front-row view of the highway across the river. She writes:

From time to time we went into the shelter when Allied planes strafed the convoys of German vehicles which have been streaming by continuously for eight days. On the dirt road on our side of the river, we saw the pitiful remnants of an army in retreat dragging itself by us. The first ones we saw were Mongolians and Russians [former POWs who switched sides to fight with the Germans] dragging themselves rather than walking. They were dirty and miserable, their knees almost touching the ground. Then we saw German specimens—white-haired old men pulling carts to which they were attached by straps....

Because the mail was subject to censorship, these letters were addressed to a neighbor, who then brought them to our parents. The same neighbor mailed my parents’ letters to us using his own return address so that any correspondence could not be traced to my parents. After almost seven decades, it’s interesting to try to decipher the pseudonyms and codes Rosi used to foil the censors who might read her mail. Naturally, as a teenager she did not have any expertise in the cloak-and-dagger world. On occasion, she erred by writing a real name or an actual address. Realizing her dangerous mistakes, she blacked them out completely with her pen. Paper being hard to come by, that was her solution to any revelations she made inadvertently. Today, it’s amusing to see that by holding up her letters to a light it’s possible to read the crossed-out information. Of course, such “errors” could have led to our arrest and deportation.

Infrequently, when I was between hiding places, I stayed with my parents in their apartment. It was small, unheated, and very sparsely furnished: a double bed, a small table with a couple of chairs, and for me a crib that I had already outgrown. The makeshift kitchen had one electric burner with a heating coil that often broke, forcing my father to use all his resources to repair it. After nightfall, my parents spent all their time in the back room, since any light in the room overlooking the street would have been visible from the outside.

With her blond hair and blue eyes, my mother did not look stereotypically Jewish. She could pass for a Gentile as long as she didn’t have to speak, since her knowledge of French and Flemish was limited and would easily identify her as a foreigner and therefore subject to further investigation. She sometimes left the apartment to visit me, my sister, and my brother before my two siblings moved to the Ardennes, which required travelling on a train. One day, my mother was walking on the street around the corner from their hiding place when she saw German soldiers walking toward her and became frightened. She happened to be in front of a salon de coiffure, a beauty parlor, so she stepped inside. Grasping the situation, the hairdresser invited my mother to go quickly into the living quarters in back of the shop. When my mother hesitated trusting this stranger, the hairdresser said, “My husband is Jewish; he has been hiding here since the beginning of the German roundups of Jews in Brussels.” This courageous Belgian woman may very well have saved my mother’s life while taking the chance that she, and for sure her husband, would have been deported to a concentration camp.

The backyard of the house where my parents lived was at a right angle to the backyard of the house with the beauty parlor. Nine- or ten-foot-high brick walls separated all the backyards. By chance, the two backyards were partially contiguous. My parents arranged with the hairdresser and her husband that in case of imminent danger to either couple, they would climb over the common wall with a ladder and would find refuge in the others’ apartment. The front door of the house was reinforced with a horizontal steel beam, part of a bed frame, to slow down access to the house. My parents went over the wall on six occasions when the Gestapo came at different times of day and night looking for a Russian engineer who lived next door. Another time, they fled over the wall when German vehicles pulled up in front of their house. It turned out to be a false alarm: The Gestapo had come to arrest the Jewish family living in hiding in the house next door.

I don’t have a clear memory of the family that was arrested except that they had several older children. The mother and the youngest daughter had been arrested earlier on their way to a grocery store located up the street. The mother almost never went out, leaving the food shopping to the younger daughter, who could more easily pass for a Gentile, but on this occasion the mother accompanied her daughter. Later, the Gestapo found out where they lived and arrested the rest of the family. 

One time before that family was arrested, I was staying with my parents when they came up for a very rare visit despite the curfew. Everyone was in the back room chatting and probably exchanging news. It was exciting for me to have these visitors, but soon after they arrived, my mother told me to say goodnight to everyone because it was my bedtime. I had to go to sleep in the front room. Like any sixyear- old, I protested; I wanted to hear the adult conversations. One of the neighbors’ daughters offered to tell me a story. This may have been the first time anyone had told me a fairy tale. I don’t have any memory of it, but I can still recall the sense of wonderment that overcame me. When she finished telling the story, I promptly fell asleep. I never saw her or any other member of her family again.

Several nights later, I was awakened by loud noises coming from the street. It happened again and this time I heard it distinctly: several bursts of machine-gun fire. I didn’t dare move and stayed under the blankets trying to imagine what was happening. The next morning I asked my parents, who slept in the back room, if they had heard anything. They hadn’t and my father added, “It was probably just a dream.”

©2013, Harry Markowicz. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.