October 23, 2019
by Harry Markowicz
During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, the mail played an essential role in my family’s life. Letters were practically the only means for members of my family who were living in hiding to keep in touch with each other. The receipt of a letter signified the writer was safe, at least at the time it was mailed or handed over to a non-Jewish person for mailing.
I was still too young to have learned how to read and write, but my sister, Rosi, and brother, Mani, my elders by nine and eight years respectively, corresponded with our parents and other relatives also living in hiding in Belgium. Fortunately, many of their letters have been preserved in my family. Most were written in French although a smaller number are in either Flemish or German. Recently, at the request of some of the post-World War II generation of our family, Mani and I have translated the ones in French into English so that they can read them. Until then, I had only skimmed some of them. It turns out they contain a great deal of information about my family during that period. They also elicit new questions for which there are no answers because the letter-writers are no longer alive—some murdered during the war, others having died subsequently.
Before the war, we lived in Berlin where my parents had emigrated from Poland following World War I. My mother’s brother Abram Horowicz, his wife Gutsha, and their two children lived around the corner from us. Their son, Manfred, was Rosi’s age and their daughter Lotti (a nickname for Charlotte) was two years younger. Manfred and Mani, born a year apart, became best friends. The two families were very close.
The two families left Germany separately and crossed the border illegally into Belgium before that country was invaded by Germany in May 1940. The Belgian authorities allowed us to stay in the country along with thousands of other Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. By then, the latter had been annexed into the Third Reich.
In September 1942, when the German occupiers started rounding up and deporting entire Jewish families, we went into hiding. Manfred and Mani wrote to each other. Both were moved around to different locations by an underground organization in search of safer hiding places. For a while, Manfred, aged 16, and Mani, aged 15, were hiding in the same home for convalescent boys in the countryside. They were unexpectedly forced to leave this location when German troops moved in looking for Belgian resistance fighters operating in that area.
The 19 Jewish boys hiding among a total of around 100 boys were taken to stay temporarily with l’abbé Joseph André, a priest who worked with the underground finding hiding places for Jewish children. While waiting for l’abbé André to find a safe place for him, Manfred decided to go stay with his parents in their hiding place in Brussels. Meanwhile, Mani was placed with a Belgian couple who lived in Huy. At this time, Manfred and Mani resumed their correspondence. Only the letters written by Manfred survived. Due to the censorship in effect at the time, they had to be careful not to reveal their real names, their location, their religion, or anything that might attract attention from the occupiers or their Belgian collaborators.
Mani went by the name “Marcel,” and Manfred was “Alfred.” Thus, Manfred started his last letter to Mani:
Like last time, I’m starting this letter before your mother comes because your mother is always in a hurry and that does not give me enough time to write everything. I promised you in my previous letter that I would write some jokes and I’m keeping my promise.
Manfred doesn’t start his letter with the date because he knows it’s not going to be mailed until the day my mother comes to his family’s apartment. From Manfred’s letters, Mani and I learned that our mother visited her brother’s family, apparently on a regular basis bringing and taking mail with her. Despite her blond hair and blue eyes, even brief excursions in public were extremely dangerous for our mother who didn’t know more than a few words of either French or Flemish, the two national languages of Belgium. However, we now face an enigma: What was our mother’s motivation for risking being arrested by the Germans or denounced by their Belgian collaborators by visiting her brother’s family on a regular basis?
Following the first paragraph, Manfred wrote several pages of jokes—18 in all—most in French and a few in Flemish. This is followed by a request that Mani send him jokes before adding one more:
And now . . . have you already heard about the latest invention in new weapons? No? It is a tank with a crew of 40 men. Think about it: 40 men for one tank! That’s fantastic, isn’t it? You’d like to know what these men do in one tank? OK, so listen now: 1 driver, 2 men for the cannons and the machine guns, 1 observer, 1 radio operator and the remaining 35 men? Well, they all get behind the tank to push it (because it does not work on its own, you know!) Did you get it?
I remember having heard this joke shortly before the liberation of Brussels at age seven, without really understanding it. It’s a humorous reference to the German war effort, which by the summer of 1944 was perceived by the populations of the occupied countries as failing to hold back the Allied forces. It reflects a new kind of optimism that the war will be over soon with the defeat of Germany.
At this point in his letter, Manfred writes in the date: July 9, 1944. He acknowledges having received Mani’s letter dated July 7, 1944, but he doesn’t mention how the letter got to him. Did my mother bring it or did it come another way? In any case, Manfred expresses delight at the fact that Mani has built a working crystal radio receiver based on the detailed instructions Manfred wrote in his previous letter dated July 1, 1944. Almost from the beginning of the occupation, Jews were required to turn in their radios to the German authorities. Although undependable and also illegal, crystal radio receivers made it possible to listen to uncensored news about the Allied war efforts via the French language broadcasts of the BBC.
Manfred writes that he regrets he is unable to lend Mani his headphones because he left them together with his crystal receiver with someone in the village (presumably where the convalescent home was located), as suggested by his father “who doesn’t want that thing in the apartment.”
In conclusion, Manfred writes that Mani’s letter gave him a great deal of pleasure; he also reminds Mani to write every week. Next to his signature, Manfred repeated the date: July 9, 1944. That was the last letter Mani received from Manfred.
Four days later, he and his parents were picked up at their apartment by the Gestapo and taken to the Dossin Barracks, a transit camp between Brussels and Antwerp. The last transport to leave Belgium bound for Auschwitz departed from there on July 31, 1944. Manfred, his father, and his mother were onboard that cattle car train.
On September 4, 1944, barely five and a half weeks later, Brussels was liberated by Allied troops. As soon as my mother obtained permission to travel from the Allied Forces, she and Mani went to pick up Manfred’s sister Lotti from the small Belgian village where she had stayed with the mayor’s family. Having survived Auschwitz and a death march to a concentration camp in Germany, Aunt Gutsha showed up unannounced at our house several months after the liberation of Brussels. She had learned through the Red Cross that her daughter, Lotti, was living with my family.
Sadly, Uncle Abram and Manfred did not come back.
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