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< Echoes of Memory

Collateral Damage

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by Harry Markowicz

The much anticipated Allied landing in Normandy began on June 6, 1944. In addition to ground forces, large formations of Allied bombers—Americans flying at high altitudes in the daytime and the British at lower altitudes at night—were increasingly trying to disrupt the movement of German troops and supplies toward the front. Air raids of bridges, railroad junctures, and airports became almost routine in Belgium, where my family had taken refuge after fleeing from Berlin before the start of World War II. With revenge in our hearts, we cheered for the Allied airmen while hoping we would not become their unintended victims. 

The following quote, according to the website of the 457th Bomb Group of the US Air Force, is from a United States Army Air Force report on mission No. 111. He describes an air raid that took place on August 18, 1944, in a matter-of-fact style, using military jargon far removed from the feelings of those with even more at stake on the ground and rivers below: 

"Targets today for heavy bombers were of a tactical nature, the Eighth Air Force sending seventeen combat wings aloft to attack bridges, airfields, fuel dumps, and one aero-engine plant, in France and Belgium. The 457th’s target was a railroad bridge over the Meuse River at Huy, 15 miles southwest of Liege, Belgium. The bridge, a 350-foot-long span of partly temporary wooden construction, was on a main supply line to northern France. . . . cloud cover and haze made aiming point identification difficult. However, the patterns of the bombs dropped by the 12-aircraft formations from 25,000 feet covered the bridge. After the target the Group headed north-northeast to the Dutch border, then withdrew across Holland to Overflakkee. No flak or fighters were encountered at any time."

Articles in local newspapers from that time tell a more disturbing story. The bombing of Huy resulted in the destruction or extensive damage of houses, the death of 80 residents, and the wounding of 156 more. The railroad bridge across the Meuse River in Huy—the assumed target of the air raid—was struck by a single bomb that didn’t explode, thus leaving the bridge essentially intact for trains transporting German soldiers and their supplies. The municipal pool located in the Meuse River 250 meters upstream from the bridge, however, was accidentally bombed. According to an August 18, 2014, article on lavenir.net, an online news site for Bouge, Belgium, a courageous young man dove repeatedly into the pool and managed to save a dozen swimmers. But despite his efforts, seven people drowned or were killed by the bomb. 

Around that time, the word “Libération” was on the lips of everyone around me, but due to my young age, my understanding of the word’s implications was limited. To me it meant the hated German soldiers would be gone, but I was unaware of my family’s probable fate due to our Jewish identities if we had been caught. That comprehension wouldn’t begin to form until many months later when my Aunt Gutsha—physically and mentally unrecognizable—returned alone to Brussels from where she; her husband, Abraham; and their teenage son, Manfred, had been deported to Auschwitz on the 26th and last transport from Belgium.

My personal life prior to the liberation was in some ironic ways surprisingly “normal.” Mrs. Vanderlinden, with whose family I was living, was always warm and affectionate with me, frequently playing with me and giving me lots of attention. “Mammy” as I called her, never used a harsh word with me, except on one occasion when she feared I was about to reveal to the neighbors’ young son that I was Jewish, thereby endangering us all. Mrs. Vanderlinden had misinterpreted my actions, but shortly thereafter the Gestapo came to the neighborhood and though I was not detected, I was taken back to my parents’ hiding place in what appeared to be a vacant building in another part of Brussels.

My mother contacted the Belgian underground organization that helped Jews avoid deportation by providing money, false identification, and ration cards, but mostly by arranging for hiding places, in particular for children. Through this organization, my mother asked the Vanderlindens to move to a neighborhood where no one knew them, offering to pay for the move. The Vanderlindens agreed, and I rejoined them when they moved into their new apartment in a distant part of Brussels where I was able to pass for their son by assuming a new identity. I became Henry Vanderlinden, the son of a French-speaking, non-practicing Catholic family. My real identity had to be kept a secret, which I learned to do fairly easily.

Despite the penuries resulting from the Nazi occupation of Belgium, the Vanderlindens managed to spoil me, especially regarding food which was strictly rationed. For instance, on August 9, 1944, my seventh birthday, I ate a slice of “white” bread. By then I had been living with the Vanderlindens and passing for their son for nearly a year and a half. Mr. Vanderlinden worked for a commercial bakery delivering bread to grocery stores using a horse and wagon. As a very special favor to me, he was able to obtain a loaf of bread, extremely scarce in those days, that did not contain any of the sawdust or other fillers commonly used in those days of hardship to make the flour go further. 

On another occasion they surprised me with a gift of oranges. Before that I had never seen an orange. Most likely they had been smuggled in from France or Spain and sold on the black market. Buying anything on the black market was not only expensive but also dangerous as it was forbidden by the German authorities.

One day near the end of August 1944, my mother showed up unexpectedly at the Vanderlindens’ apartment. Her infrequent visits were always unannounced and she would stay maybe an hour or two before returning to my parents’ hideout. This particular visit was different. To my great displeasure she immediately informed Mrs. Vanderlinden and me that she had come to take me back to my parents’ hiding place on rue Charles Degroux. She didn’t explain why this counterintuitive move had to be made at a time when the Nazi war against the Jews was still going on. 

Had I been given a choice, my preference would have been to stay with the Vanderlindens. Life with them, as I said, seemed normal—there was no need to hide, to whisper in German because my parents didn’t know French, or to be aware of the fear of the adults around me. Although I never forgot who my real parents were, I had become accustomed to pretending that I was Henry Vanderlinden. Mammy’s reaction mirrored my own disappointment but she too refrained from saying anything to try to change my mother’s mind. Apparently sensitive to our reluctance, my mother told me I could come back after the liberation. Indeed, after Brussels was liberated by Allied troops less than a week later, I returned to live with the Vanderlindens for another six months before finally rejoining my own family.

During the last year before the liberation my sister Rosi lived in the Ardennes Mountains with Louis and Angèle Serresia-Romainville, in a village named Bas-Oha. Uncle Louis, as Rosi called him, was a retired piano teacher. Their house faced a dirt road that ran along a bank of the Meuse River. Behind the house, railroad tracks ran parallel to the river. When my brother Mani needed a safer hiding place, he was brought to the home of Marie and Celestin Gaye, friends of the Serresia-Romainvilles. Marie had been engaged to Angèle’s brother, who was killed in World War I. The Gayes lived nearby in the town of Huy, which was also located along the Meuse River.

Getting to the Ardennes from Brussels required traveling by train. German soldiers were usually posted in train stations, where they checked the identification cards of “suspicious” passengers. My mother’s ID card was white, the color assigned to foreigners, and it was stamped in red ink with the word Juif (Jew). Until recently, Mani was convinced that our mother never visited Rosi while she was hidden in the Ardennes because of the great risks such a trip presented.

During the year that Rosi lived with the Serresia-Romainvilles, she wrote an average of one letter per week to our parents. Despite the risk, our parents saved all of Rosi’s letters. The mail at that time being subject to censorship, names of people and places were altered and news items were disguised. Although our parents hardly knew French, the letters were written in French, one of the two national languages, the other being Flemish. Apparently the young daughter of a German Jewish family who hid in the same building as my parents helped my mother translate her letters into French until the sad day the girl and her mother were arrested on their way to a grocery store and were never seen again.

Rosi wrote long, detailed letters about her everyday activities, from her piano lessons to her appointments with the local dentist, as well as about how they supplemented their diet with food they obtained without ration coupons by periodically visiting local farmers. She reported as well on local news, such as finding a piece of an Allied plane that had crashed and burned nearby and how some of the villagers buried the charred bodies of six crew members. She also shared news from Mani and myself, and occasionally from our cousins Manfred and Lotti, with whom she also corresponded. 

The main purpose of the correspondence between Rosi and our parents was to reassure one another that everyone was safe and getting enough to eat. The first time we met after the liberation Rosi said to me, “Nothing happened to us; we were not caught and we didn’t starve to death.” This was after we started learning the fate of the Jews who were deported to concentration camps in eastern Europe. Though we lost many members of our extended family, many years went by before we began to realize that we had also paid a high emotional price for our skin-of-our-teeth survival. 

Following a prolonged illness, Rosi died in New York City in 1996. Soon afterwards, her daughter Marna, who lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children, became the link between the surviving members of our extended family who, as a result of the war, ended up living in widespread regions of the world. That role was previously taken on by her mother, and her grandmother (my mother) before that. Marna also has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about the lives of our forebears.

Some years ago, Marna became interested in knowing what her mother wrote in her wartime letters, but because she doesn’t know French, she asked Mani and me to translate them.

Over the years Mani did the lion’s share of the translating, and Rosi’s letters can now be read in English. In the process, I learned a great deal about our lives during this period, although some mysteries remain unanswered. From one of her letters, an especially moving one, Mani and I learned that despite the enormous risks, our mother had indeed visited Rosi in Bas-Oha one Saturday afternoon. Some aspects of her account are unexplained. For instance, Rosi doesn’t indicate in her letter who accompanied our mother on this journey or how they traveled, nor why Mani, who lived nearby in Huy, was not present at this reunion.

In her letter of August 15, 1944, Rosi writes that Marcel (Mani’s nom de guerre) was spending the summer practicing the violin an hour daily and his afternoons were taken up in the municipal swimming pool. She describes the pool as consisting of four barges tied together in a rectangular shape in the Meuse River, which flows along the city of Huy. In the same letter, Rosi inquires about the bombing of Brussels. As the Allied troops were getting closer, the air raids became more and more frequent and the number of civilian casualties increased.

Rosi’s next communication is dated August 20, 1944. She reports on the bombing of Huy, which took place in the late afternoon of August 18, 1944. As soon as the air raid was over, Aunt Angèle rode her bicycle the five kilometers to Huy to make sure Mani and the Gayes were safe. It turned out Mani had had a premonition: he had spent a very small amount of time in the pool that day and had gone back home early. When the sirens started wailing, Mani and the Gayes had quickly gone into their shelter built into the hill behind their house. They were all right, but the house, like most houses in Huy, had a few broken windows. 

Rosi finished her account of the Huy bombing by stating that Namur was also bombed that day, resulting in 330 civilian deaths and many more hundreds wounded. She concluded, “It is no longer safe to travel.”

Over seven decades later, reading Rosi’s letter of August 20, 1944, I found out about Mani’s close call in the bombing raid of Huy. It reminded me of a statement I overheard my mother make to a friend after the war, “If we were going to be killed in bombing raids, we chose to die together.” It began to make sense. At long last, I understood the reason my mother made the dangerous round trip to the Vanderlindens to bring me back with her to my parents’ hideout just days before the liberation of Brussels.

©2018, 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.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 11harry markowicz

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