November 01, 2013
By Harry Markowicz
I was six years old and playing with several boys my age on the sidewalk across the street from the droguerie run by Mrs. Vanderlinden. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a man in a cassock entering the store. For the briefest moment I wondered what a priest might want to buy in a droguerie, a store in which only household cleaning products could be purchased. Before the Vanderlindens, who were hiding me, moved into the center of Brussels, they lived in an area called Bon Air on the outskirts of the city where I attended a nearby Catholic school. Although they had been nice to me, priests and nuns still made me feel uneasy.
A short time later, the priest left the droguerie. Apparently he had not bought anything since he left empty handed. I continued to play with my friends until it was time to go home.
Mrs. Vanderlinden, Mami as I called her, was alone when I entered the store. “Did you see the priest who was here?” she asked me. She leaned over to be closer to my height and took my hands in hers. She seemed troubled, “The priest said he knew that you are not my son and that you are Jewish. He added that if something happened to your parents he would come back for you.” She continued, “I don’t know how he knew but I told him that if anything happens to your parents you will stay here with us. I will not give you up!” Clearly, Mami was distressed by the implications of the priest’s visit. I felt comforted as she reached out and held me tightly in her arms.
* * *
I woke up to the sound of voices coming from the adjoining room. I sat up to see who was there and through the partially opened door I saw a man I did not know. He was wearing a trench coat and a hat— typically worn by the Gestapo in civilian clothes. Suddenly he looked directly at me and our eyes met. Still looking in my direction and speaking in French he asked, “Who is that?” I heard Mami’s voice but I could not make out her reply. This was followed by more talk but soon the voices became muffled. I heard footsteps going downstairs and then it was completely quiet again.
Mami appeared a little later and told me that the two men were gone. They were Belgian policemen in civilian clothes. She did not know why they came or what they were looking for. She added, “One of them noticed you when you sat up and asked me who you were. I told him you were my son. I also asked him whether he would like to see identification papers.” He replied, “That will not be necessary.”
That was fortunate since Mami did not have any documents identifying me as her son.
* * *
It was a sunny day and I was playing outside with Jean-Paul, whose parents owned the butcher shop across the street. We were throwing his small rubber ball back and forth on the sidewalk. The droguerie was on the same sidewalk behind me. While waiting for Jean-Paul to throw the ball back to me, in the distance behind him, I noticed a woman walking in our direction. She was not a stranger. In fact, it was my mother. I realized she was going to the droguerie and she would have to walk right by us to get there.
When I first moved in with Mami and Papi, I had been given some instructions: My name was Henry Vanderlinden, the Vanderlindens were my parents, and their teenage daughter, Florence, was my sister. Also, I would always have to speak in French and never let anyone know that I could speak or understand German. However, I had not been given instructions on what to do in the unlikely event that I saw my mother on the street.
As my mother approached we continued to throw the ball. She walked past Jean-Paul and she was getting closer to me. I returned the ball every time Jean-Paul sent it to me. Now she was next to me; I could have touched her if I had put out my arm. She ignored me completely as she passed by me and I did not even glance in her direction. Some time went by before I told Jean-Paul that I needed to go home. We threw the ball back and forth a few more times before I turned around and walked toward the droguerie. Once inside I ran toward the heavy curtain that separated the store from the living area in the back. I parted the curtain and I saw my mother talking with Mami. They both turned toward me smiling and I jumped into my mother’s open arms.
* * *
In Bon Air, where I first lived with the Vanderlindens, the whole neighborhood consisted of two-story row houses built by the municipality for working class families. Each front yard was enclosed by a low brick wall. A little boy my age lived next door and we often played together. He spoke Flemish, which I did not understand, so we communicated nonverbally. One day the two of us were sitting on the brickwall in front of the Vanderlindens’ house hidden from the street by vines. Looking toward me he startedto unbutton the front of his short pants. Almost at the same time, I was startled by loud shouts coming from the house. I turned around and saw Mami leaning out of an upstairs window. She must have run down the stairs two steps at a time because almost the next moment she was standing in front of me and yelling, “Don’t do that!” Although I had not done anything her tone scared me; I did not know why she was so angry; she had never yelled at me before.
A short time after this incident, my mother asked the Vanderlindens to move into Brussels itself so that their new neighbors wouldn’t know that I was not their son. They agreed and until they moved I stayed with my parents in their secret hiding place. Most likely it was at this time that my parents told me not to let anyone see my penis, except for the Vanderlindens. When I asked why, they explained that my penis was different from the other boys’; that is one way the German soldiers were able to identify Jewish men and boys. “What is a Jew?” I asked. I can’t remember their response; anyway I probably didn’t understand what they told me. However, I always remembered the incident that had made Mami so angry but it did not make any sense to me; I never connected it with my parents’ warning.
During the rest of the time that I lived with the Vanderlindens—a year and a half, but at that age it seemed much longer—Mami never again expressed any anger toward me. Indeed, she was always extremely kind and affectionate. The two of us frequently played games together, such as hide-and-seek; I loved all the attention she gave me. One could not have asked for a warmer relationship. Indeed, she was everything one could want in a mother, and more.
After the war, my sister Rosi’s friend, Fela, told us about her little brother who was hidden in an orphanage. The Germans found out that Jewish children were living among the orphans and they raided the orphanage. All the boys were told to assemble in one place but just before that Fela’s little brother asked permission to go to the restroom. He had no idea what was going to happen next. The Germans made all the boys drop their pants. By the time he came back from the restroom, the other Jewish boys had been ordered outside and the Germans were loading them in their waiting trucks. Fela’s brother owed his life to chance, as was often the case of those who survived the war.
It is hard for me to understand why in my mind I compartmentalized this knowledge from the incident that took place in the Vanderlindens’ front yard almost seven decades earlier. It was while I was engaged in the process of writing down my memories that the connection suddenly jumped out at me. Mami had not been angry with me; she was probably panicked by the possibly grave consequences of an innocent childish action.
* * *
From time to time, the Vanderlindens gave me presents that were expensive and extremely hard to obtain during the occupation. One Easter, they gave me a basket full of hard-boiled colored eggs. Like all food items, eggs were rationed, so they must have purchased them on the black market. The Vanderlindens were working class so I assume that my parents provided them money that my father had saved from before the war. Another time, they gave me half a dozen very large oranges that had been smuggled in from Spain. I had never seen an orange before. Oranges and bananas were simply not available in any store, even with ration coupons. Although they were not religious, for Christmas the Vanderlindens gave me fancy toys, among them an erector set that came in its own wooden box. The gift that perhaps meant the most to me was a small silver identification bracelet engraved with the name Henry Vanderlinden.
Several years after the war ended, my family immigrated to the United States. After graduating from college I worked for a year during which I saved all the money I earned so that I could go to Paris. I was motivated to go there after reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. (Before my sister passed away, she relayed to me that our mother had told her that I had a personality change after reading that book.) While living in Paris I visited the Vanderlindens a few times in Brussels. It had been a decade since I had seen them. During that time we corresponded, if not regularly, at least around the New Year holidays to exchange wishes. They had aged, Papi was in ill health, and Florence was married and lived abroad. When I visited they tried to make me feel at home but I felt somewhat alienated from them. It seems we didn’t have much to talk about. We didn’t reminisce about the war or the time I lived with them; those topics never came up.
On one occasion when I visited the Vanderlindens, Mami handed me an identification bracelet. Unlike the small one she had given me when I was six years old, this new golden one was made to fit my adult wrist. Harry, the name my parents gave me when I was born in Berlin 22 years earlier, was engraved on the front. My family’s last name—Markowicz—was engraved on the back. In the act of giving me this new bracelet, I felt her giving me back my own identity.
©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.