I have a photograph of a garden I look at often and longingly. The photo shows several family members sitting and standing around a small garden waterfall, topped by a sculpture of a little girl holding an umbrella. The year was 1938.
The individuals depicted in the photograph were tante Leah, mama’s youngest sister; her husband, Alex; his brother, Adolf; and his wife Estera; their sister Chany, with her husband Mendel at her side. Chany was pregnant with her second child. Two children fit in the foreground on the stone edge of the waterfall. One of the children, the girl, is the writer, and the other is Jackie, the brother of, at the time, as yet unborn child.
The only one of the individuals depicted in the garden of this photograph who remained alive after the Shoah, is me. Neither Jackie, a cousin whom I loved and admired, he was four years older than I, nor any of the other family members made it ... none, with the exception of the unborn child, Henry, who was born a few months after the gathering in the garden. Henry, or Harreke, as we called him, survived the war. I often imagine him in the photo, invisible, hiding within his mother’s body, as he did later, at the tender age of four, when he was sheltered and hidden from the Nazis in a monastery by the Benedictine monk, Father Bruno Reynders.
Months after the liberation from the German occupation by the Allies, I learned from Father Bruno, who had also hidden my sisters and me, where Harreke was located. I contacted the Abbot at the monastery where Harreke was still housed because his parents had not returned from the concentration camps. Through Father Bruno’s intervention, I was allowed to visit him, then later was allowed to take him out for weekend visits with me, my sisters, and mama. However, I had to return him to the monastery by Sunday evening. This became an excruciating ordeal. Every Sunday, upon our return to the monastery, Harreke, now almost seven years old, was distressed -- he cried, he screamed, “Flora, don’t leave me, please, Flora, I don’t want to stay here, I want to go home with you ...” My return home without Harreke was always difficult, I could not understand why we could not keep him with us until his parents and brother returned ... a return which unfortunately never materialized.
I asked mama why we could not keep Harreke with us, being no one was coming back from the camps. She said it was against the law because he was our cousin by marriage and was not related to us by blood. “Mama, we can hide him, after all, we were hidden and no one found us ... I’ll find a good hiding place for him in case the gendarmes come looking for him -- he’ll be safe.” “You don’t understand, mamele, things are different now. The Gestapo are gone and now we must do things according to the Law. Now we must obey all the laws.”
I was not happy about that because Harreke had become very attached to me, the big adult of fifteen years of age. I began to dread the weekly returns of Harreke to the monastery. The repeated screaming and crying. “Flora, Flora don’t leave me...” left me with incredible feelings of guilt. There must be a way ... but there was no way. At the time, Jewish children who were sheltered from the Nazis in religious or secular institutions, or by individual families, were legally retained in their custody until their biological parents who had entrusted them to those institutions, or families, returned to claim them.
The days, the weeks, and the months passed. While waiting for family members’ return, not having heard of, or grasped as yet the enormity of the massacre of our fellow Jews, we tried to settle into a semblance of a normal life. Mama went to the Joint Distribution Committee, which had opened an office in Brussels, and after they had helped us with a few basic pieces of secondhand furniture, they managed to find a sewing machine for mama, with which we were able to start earning a few francs to feed ourselves. I say “we” because we all helped with the work, my two sisters, after classes at the local elementary school, the same one we had attended for a short while before going into complete hiding, and I full time, together with mama.
In May of 1946, we were scheduled to leave Brussels for the United States of America ... as guests of the U.S. Army ... but without Harreke. We appealed to the U.S. Army Commander at the Military Headquarters in Brussels. We begged him to allow us to take Harreke with us. His reply was sad, but simple, “Madame Mendelovics, Henry is not yours or your husband’s child ... according to regulations, I cannot let him immigrate with you. Later, if you wish you can obtain custody, according to Belgian law, if his parents do not return, you can apply for a visa for the child ...”
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