November 01, 2013
By Harry Markowicz
It was August 1945, the month I celebrated my eighth birthday. My parents, my sister, Rosi, my brother, Mani, and I were on vacation at the seashore in Belgium. We were staying at the Midland Hotel, a small, three-story building separated from the dunes and the sea by the main coastal highway. Very few other guests were staying at the hotel. With the exception of one or maybe two houses, there were no other buildings on either side of the road for as far as the eye could see in either direction. Cars only rarely drove by on the highway. Occasionally, a streetcar ran on the tracks that followed the coastline on the opposite side of the road. The whole landscape seemed deserted. Eleven months had passed since the liberation of Belgium by Allied forces in September 1944 and my parents had come out of their hiding place. The war in Europe had ended barely three months earlier and I was readjusting to living with my own family after a two-year separation during which I lived with strangers. I had lost most of my ability to speak German and had to relearn it in order to speak with my parents. Rosi, Mani, and I spoke French with each other but we switched to German to speak with our parents, who were not fluent in French.
Following the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, my family and I had walked this very same road, having joined the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Belgian civilians and other refugees fleeing the advancing German troops in the hope of finding safety by crossing the border into France. While France admitted Belgian and Dutch citizens, anyone who was stateless was turned back at the border. That is how we ended up walking back from the French-Belgian border on the same coastal road toward our apartment in Antwerp. By this time Belgium had surrendered and the country was entirely occupied by German troops. Meanwhile, the fighting was continuing in France. Along the way, my family and other refugees were picked up by German trucks coming back empty from the front. The Germans were not motivated by altruism; their goal was to clear the road of refugees so that they could proceed unimpeded with the delivery of supplies to their forces fighting in France. The German soldiers didn’t show any hostility towards us; my brother recalls that they even gave us bread since there was no possibility of buying food along the way.
The Midland Hotel was owned by Monsieur François, the owner of La Marée, a café in Brussels frequented by my father and his business partners. Monsieur François informed his regular customers that after five years he was finally reopening his seashore hotel and invited them to spend their vacations there. That’s how we joined a small number of guests also staying at the Midland Hotel. The war was over but many aspects of prewar life had yet to return to their normal rhythm.
When we first arrived, Monsieur François told us that we could go down to the beach but he warned us that the minefields planted by the Germans in the dunes were still being cleared. Almost across the coastal highway from the Midland Hotel, a narrow pathway about six to eight meters across led from the road to the beach, which had already been de-mined by volunteers. Ropes marked off both sides of the passageway while signs posted behind the ropes warned the passersby not to venture into the dunes because they were still mined.
During our first afternoon there, we were relaxing on the terrace of the hotel. A waiter took our orders for drinks. Soon thereafter, we noticed several men walking out on the pathway leading to the beach. When they arrived at the highway we realized they were carrying a man. A car came along and stopped, and the man who had been carried was placed in the car after which it drove away. We didn’t know what we had witnessed. Later, we found out from Monsieur François that these men were volunteers who were de-mining the dunes. They had maps made by the Germans showing where they had buried their mines. However, over the years the sand that made up the dunes had shifted, making it difficult to correlate the maps with the exact location of the mines. One of the volunteers had stepped on a mine and was killed. Because the mines were linked to one another, a second mine exploded and another man, the one we saw being loaded into the car, had his leg blown off. I had an uncomfortable feeling; men were risking their lives and limbs to de-mine the beaches and dunes so that others like us, less than 100 meters away, could enjoy our seaside vacation.
While we were at the Midland Hotel, we were joined at various times by friends and relatives. My parents invited Florence, the teenage daughter of the family that had hidden me during the war, to stay with us. My cousin Matty, a captain in the US army who was stationed in an American army field hospital in Liège, Belgium, frequently joined us on the weekends. Besides going to the beach, my brother and sister rented a tandem bicycle with a small seat in the back for me. We rode along the coastal highway for many miles. In a small resort town, one of many along the coast, we saw a group of German prisoners of war rebuilding a road. They wore parts of their uniforms but no one seemed to be guarding them. We watched them for a while from a distance, enjoying the spectacle. At the same time, we felt the punishment was insufficiently harsh in view of what we, and millions of others, had endured during the war.
Later, I asked Mani and Rosi whether the volunteers who were de-mining the dunes were also German prisoners of war. They didn’t know, but the fact that no one seemed to be very upset by the incident that had occurred our first day at the Midland Hotel led me to believe that my gut feeling was correct.
Among my other memories of our stay at the Midland Hotel, there is one that on occasion still bothers me. At that time, life was gradually returning to normal in Belgium but there was still some food rationing. As hotel guests we were able to order anything on the menu without restrictions. One morning, I ordered un oeuf à la coque—a soft-boiled egg—for breakfast. The egg was served in an egg cup. With one blow of a bread knife, my brother “decapitated” it for me. I proceeded to eat my egg and when I was finished I turned it upside down. When the waitress returned to our table she looked at me and exclaimed, “Ooh! You didn’t eat your egg!” Without thinking about it, I replied, “No, I didn’t.” Turning toward my parents, she then asked, “Could I buy it for my little boy?” Following an awkward moment I turned the egg around to show her that I had indeed eaten it. She looked surprised and we all burst out laughing, causing her to be embarrassed.
I remember the disappointment expressed on her face. Without intending to do it, I had played a cruel joke on this woman. For the briefest moment she thought she would be bringing an egg home to her little boy.
©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.