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< Echoes of Memory

Our Poor Shtetl is Burning!

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By Harry Markowicz

After the Allied armies liberated Belgium and it was safe once again for us to go out in public, my parents started attending social events here and there in Brussels. Perhaps because they didn’t want to leave me home alone—I was around eight or nine years old—I often went with them to cafés where American musicians played jazz, balls where my parents danced, nightclubs where comedians told slightly off-color jokes in Yiddish, a movie theatre where we saw the movie The Dybbuk, and other social events attended by Jews who, like us, had lived through the war in hiding and who had not seen each other in years. Also in attendance were some of the very few Jews who had survived deportation to the Nazi camps. At the time, the word Holocaust hadn’t yet been coined. In Yiddish, people said: “Wir hoben dus mit gemacht” (We went through that).

Sometimes these outings left me with troubling memories. For instance, The Dybbuk, filmed in Poland in 1937, is a kind of Jewish exorcist story mixing reality with the supernatural. The dialogue spoken in Yiddish, is accompanied from time to time by ghostly music. In some scenes, the acting is stilted and spooky with the actors moving in slow motion. It was scary at my age, but no one bothered to explain it to me beyond a few words: “It’s a movie about a ghost; it’s not real, so don’t worry about it!” Of course, I worried about it for a long time afterwards. 

Other events left pleasant memories. I remember being in the Metropole, a fancy café-restaurant hotel that had entertainment and was located on Place de Brouckère, a large commercial square in downtown Brussels. My mother ordered a plate with potato salad and two wieners for me; it was accompanied by a glass of grenadine, a sweet red-colored drink. It all tasted delicious. Many years later, when Arlene, my wife, and I traveled to Brussels from Paris where we were living at the time, I showed her some of the places that I remembered from my childhood. We had coffee at the Metropole. When I mentioned that it seemed to lack the grandeur that I remembered, the waiter volunteered that the café-restaurant had once been twice the size and it used to have entertainment.

On one occasion, my parents and I went to a nightclub above a restaurant. We were sitting near the entrance at the top of the stairs. Suddenly several men started shouting above the din of the music and the many voices emanating from around the room. The angry yelling was going on out of my sight on the landing but it made me feel uncomfortable. My father went to inquire what was going on. The worst I could imagine was that someone refused to pay the cover charge that was collected at the door. My father reported, “Some people recognized a man they knew in a concentration camp. They say he did something bad there and they are refusing to let him enter. It’s not important…. ” I wondered what he had done. Maybe in his drive to survive he had stolen a piece of bread from another inmate who was saving it for later. Or could he have been a kapo (barracks overseer)? My Aunt Gutcha, who had survived Auschwitz, had told us that many kapos were brutal German criminal prisoners, but a few were Jewish and they were often as heartless as the others. I’m still wondering about the cause of the raucous scene all these years later!

I have memories of being in a cabaret once. Many people in the audience seemed more interested in talking with each other than paying attention to the performers. After years of hiding and deprivation of normal human contact, they probably felt the need for social interaction and this is where they could find it among others who shared their language, culture, religion, and above all, their wartime experience. An older performer stepped out on the small stage and he was introduced; he had been a renowned singer before the war. The orchestra began playing a Jewish melody, and he started singing a plaintive song* in Yiddish. He had a powerful cantorial voice such as I had heard in the Great Synagogue of Brussels on a few occasions during the high holidays.

S’brent, briderlekh, s’brent     (It is burning, brothers, it is burning.)
Oy, undzer orem shtetl nebekh brent.      (Our poor village, brothers, burns!)

Listening to the lyrics I realized the song was an appeal to Jews not to idly stand by and to come help put out the fire that was burning down their small town. I couldn’t understand some of the words, but in my mind, the song referred to the recent destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities everywhere in Nazi occupied Europe, along with the deportation and extermination of the people who had lived in them.

Shteyt nisht brider ot azoy zikh      (Don’t stand there, brothers, looking on)
Mit farleygte hent.     (With futile, folded arms)
Shteyt nisht brider, lesht dos fayer      (Don’t stand there, brothers, douse the fire!)
Undzer shtetl brent!      (Our poor village burns!)

He sang with such passion, with so much pathos in his voice, that tears welled up in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. I tried to hide the tears with my napkin. Perhaps preferring socializing to sorrow, no one around me seemed to pay attention to the singer. Being the only one to react the way I did felt strange.

*“Es Brent” was composed in 1938 by Mordechai Gebirtig in response to a pogrom that had taken place in a Polish town in 1936. Gebirtig intended the song to inspire Jews—his Jewish brothers as he called them—to defend their towns and themselves, a prophetic warning, I believe, of European Jewry’s impending conflagration. Gebirtig died in the Krakow ghetto in 1942. This song, along with the Jewish Partisans’ song, “Wir sinnen du,” are often included in Holocaust memorial ceremonies.
 

©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.

Tags:   harry markowiczechoes of memory, volume 8

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