In September 1938, when I was one year old, my family left our home in Berlin and crossed the border into Belgium. Although we had entered Belgium illegally, we were given residency permits; however, my father was not allowed to work legally. So he traded in foreign currencies, such as US dollars and British pounds, on the black market.
Starting with the Nazi occupation in 1940, Jews in Belgium were required to register with their local Jewish council set up by the Germans to help them carry out their anti-Jewish decrees. Sometime in late 1941, my father was summoned by the Jewish Council in Antwerp, where we were living. My father was ordered to report for work with one bag on a specified date. The selected Jews were told they would be working in German factories or farms to replace the German men who were serving in their armies. This explanation seemed plausible since the Germans were also recruiting Gentile Belgians to work in Germany.
Suspecting that the Jews who were going to work in Germany would not be coming back, my father decided to ignore the letter from the Jewish Council. Jews who didn’t report for work were threatened with severe punishment, for themselves and their families. My parents decided to move surreptitiously to Brussels, where they would not register us with the Jewish council. Although my mother didn’t know either French or Flemish—the two languages spoken in Belgium’s capital—she took the train to Brussels to look for an apartment. I remember her saying later that she was walking in the neighborhood near the Gare du Midi (the central train station) when she heard Yiddish spoken. Soon she had rented an apartment on the first floor of 44 rue de Suède. We resumed our lives: My father continued his business dealings. My brother and sister went to school, while I stayed at home with my mother, being too young to go to school.
An Orthodox Jewish family with 12 children lived across the street. Their youngest child, Gitele, was a girl my age, and the two of us always played together. She spoke Yiddish but we had no problem communicating since I spoke German with my parents. We played on the street and in our apartment. One time while my mother was taking a nap, Gitele led me to a hiding place where she initiated me in the game of “doctor.”
We lived near a brewery, and every day a wagon loaded with cases of bottled beer came down our street pulled by four huge horses. For some reason, whenever the wagon drove down our street, all the children would run away shrieking that the driver was a boogeyman out to get us.
The front wall of our apartment had a large window, which was opened by cranking it up with a handle. The strap holding the counterweight was broken, so my parents used to prop the window open with the handle. One day while Gitele and I were playing at the window, she accidently knocked over the handle causing the heavy window to crash down on her hand. Fortunately, part of the handle had prevented the window from closing entirely. She was taken to the hospital. When she came back several days later her hand was bandaged and in a sling. She reported that the brewery driver had been at the hospital and was very nice to her. After that we were no longer afraid of the dybuk/boogey man and even waved to him as he careened down our street in his majestic wagon. In September 1942, the Germans raided our neighborhood and took away all the Jews they could find, including children, the old, and the sick. Informed that the Germans carried out nighttime raids in Jewish neighborhoods in Antwerp, my whole family was staying with my mother’s brother and his family in their apartment outside of the Jewish area where we lived. We avoided being caught and subsequently deported. Following this raid we went into hiding until the liberation of Brussels in September 1944.
Several years after the war was over, my mother and I were walking on a busy downtown street in Brussels. Suddenly, my mother said, “Look, there is Mr. [_] with his daughter.” My mother and the man spoke for several minutes; meanwhile his daughter and I ignored each other. I didn’t have anything to say to her; I was waiting impatiently for my mother’s conversation with her father to end. After we parted and went in our separate directions, my mother said, “Don’t you remember them? They lived across the street from us on rue de Suède. Gitele and you played together all the time.” Of course I remembered Gitele, but to my great chagrin I had not realized it was her. After a moment my mother added, “Only Gitele and her father survived from their family.” ©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.