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On Reassuming My Identity

By Harry Markowicz

My earliest memory dates to the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940; I wasn’t quite three years old yet. My sister, Rosi, and my brother, Mani, being quite a few years older than I, had memories that reached back to our lives in Berlin before the war. They remembered also being smuggled into Belgium on September 26, 1938, at the exact time Hitler was giving a history-making speech on the radio. He asserted that the three and a half million Germans living in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, a state created artificially by the Allies in 1918, were being expelled and exterminated by the Czechoslovakian government. He stated that his patience had run out, and he was demanding the return of that territory to Germany. One might even conclude that Der Führer’s fiery nationalistic speech facilitated our escape from Germany by distracting the border guards.

Once Belgium was occupied, the German authorities gradually introduced anti-Jewish laws, which became harsher as time went by. Jews had to turn in their radios, register where they lived, shop for food only at certain hours, and observe a more restricted curfew than the rest of the population. Also, their businesses were confiscated, doctors and other professionals were not allowed to work, and able-bodied men were selected to perform forced labor in construction and factories.

Starting in May 1942, Jews older than the age of six were required to wear the yellow star on their outer garments. Then, in August of the same year, the German occupiers started rounding up entire Jewish families, including women, the elderly, the sick, and children of all ages. They were transported to transit camps and deported from there to the East. As a result, a few weeks after my fifth birthday, my immediate family split up. We went into hiding separately with the assistance of a Jewish and Belgian underground organization set up in part to secure hiding places for Jews, especially children, in hospitals, convents, orphanages, and private homes. Many Belgians took tremendous personal risks to help Jews hide from the Germans and their collaborators.

I was hidden for two years, but unlike other Jewish children who were hidden out of sight in attics, basements, armoires, root cellars, sewers, and other unsanitary and dreary places, I was, for most of that time, out in the open. I lived with Belgian families, and for a short time together with my sister in a children’s home out in the countryside.

My first three hiding places were of short duration, at most a few weeks or maybe a couple of months. From time to time, when my living situation became too dangerous, I stayed with my parents in their secret hiding place. During those times I was literally hidden from the outside world. My final hiding place, the one where I stayed the longest, was with the Vanderlindens, a working-class Belgian family. My name became Henry Vanderlinden and I assumed a completely new identity, different from my own in every respect—name, origin, family, language, religion, customs—in order to enable me to pass for their son.

Brussels was liberated by the Allied armies in early September 1944. Soon afterward, our lives started to return to normal. We came out of hiding and after a two-year separation, Rosi, Mani, and I were reunited with our parents. I had memories of living together with my family in Brussels earlier in the war, but a great deal had happened in the meantime, most of which I couldn’t understand.

Once liberated, I readily gave up my nom de guerre, Henry Vanderlinden, and reclaimed the name given to me at my birth, Harry Markowicz, except for my parents who usually called me by the diminutive ‘Harrichen.’ In a long-distance phone conversation with my father two days before he died at age 93, he still called me by that name. Reassuming my original identity occurred more gradually and not without some mixed feelings, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

I no longer had to pretend that the Vanderlindens were my parents and that Florence, their daughter, was my older sister. However, the emotional ties that I had formed while living with them for approximately a year and a half were difficult for me to give up. I had become very close to Mrs. Vanderlinden, Mami as I called her, although I was aware she was not my mother. In all respects, she treated me as if I were her son. In appearance, we didn’t stand out from any other working-class Belgian family.

Following a brief reunion with my own family after the liberation, I returned to live with the Vanderlindens for more than four months, although I am not aware of any reason for it, other than I wanted to stay with them. I wouldn’t have remembered that except I know I was still living with the Vanderlindens during the Battle of the Bulge, which took place in December and January 1944–45. I have a clear memory of Mami telling me that the reason all the Allied flags had been taken down from the houses on the street was that the Germans might come back. Although she assured me that everything would be alright, I detected fear in her voice.

While no longer necessary for the purpose of survival, making myself ‘invisible’ to avoid attracting attention has remained a lifelong habit except when I feel I’m in a very secure situation. When I was with my parents, I was embarrassed because they were obviously foreigners; I felt insecure because we were outsiders. Furthermore, I was ashamed that we were Jewish. I also felt guilt associated with being Jewish. If so many people felt the need to kill us, I reasoned, there must have been something wrong with us. That feeling remained with me for a long time, and I avoided telling anyone that I was Jewish. 

From a young age, I learned the important role of language for survival and it has remained an issue for me. During the occupation, passing required perfect fluency without a trace of a foreign accent. Even a slight accent or a grammatical error could have been a deadly giveaway. One time before the wearing of the yellow star was required, my father and brother were walking on a street. A German car with four SS officers pulled up next to them and one of them speaking in German asked for directions to a specific location. My father replied in French, “Je ne parle pas l’allemand.” (I don’t speak German.) The Germans drove off. By his quick thinking, using the few French words he knew, my father had saved both my brother and himself.

After the liberation, I spoke German with my parents, but I had lost some of my fluency—I had forgotten some words and my vocabulary had not kept up with my age so that I often had to substitute a French word or expression for a German one. Also, I didn’t always understand everything my parents were saying. If Mani or Rosi were around, they helped me communicate with my parents in German. I remember one occasion when I created my own German word for the word ‘ladder.’ I don’t recall the word I had coined, but I have a clear picture of my whole family laughing hysterically at my invention. 

I was embarrassed when my friends heard my parents speak in broken French; it marked my parents as foreign. Children acculturate easily and French had become my best language—my maternal tongue. It didn’t feel normal to speak German. On the outside, we continued to speak German only in whispers. The Germans were gone, but speaking in German in Belgium at that time resulted in hostile looks in public spaces.

Although my parents spoke fluent German, occasionally a Yiddish word or expression would be slipped in the conversation. Later in life when I had occasion to speak German with non-Jewish German speakers, I hesitated to do it, lest I let slip out a Yiddish word unintentionally, thereby ‘exposing’ myself. Several months after we were free, we moved into a house in another neighborhood in Brussels where we were the only Jewish family. I don’t know whether my parents planned that or they just happened to find a house they liked in that area. In the local public school, I was the only Jewish child. It wasn’t until middle school that there was another Jewish boy in my class—Claude K. 

Claude’s parents were friends of my parents and they socialized with each other. Once we even went on a vacation in Spa, a resort town in the Ardennes Mountains famous for its healing mineral waters. We drove with them in their car. Claude’s father was a reckless driver and drove the car into a ditch. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Claude was not a very good student and tended to get into trouble from time to time. Sometimes our classmates made fun of him. As far as I know, they didn’t express any overt antisemitism but still I felt somewhat ashamed because we were both Jewish; I didn’t want to be associated with him so I didn’t seek his friendship.

My parents didn’t encourage me to join any Jewish youth organizations, such as Hashomer Hatzair, so I joined a secular Cub Scout troop and later the Boy Scouts where again I was the only Jewish member. Despite my efforts to pass, obviously, some people knew that I was Jewish.

One day, soon after I joined the first grade class in the neighborhood school, a little boy my age came up to me during recess. His angry face close to mine, he yelled, “Sale juif!” (dirty Jew). I had never heard that French expression, even during the Nazi occupation. Although I wasn’t sure what he meant, from his aggressive manner, I realized that he wasn’t just informing me that my hands or knees were dirty from playing in the courtyard. Later, at home I asked why that boy would say that to me, and also, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” I don’t remember the reply; I was probably too young for it to make sense to me.

I did, however, know the equivalent expression in German: “Verfluchte Juden,” (damn Jews).

©2015, 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.