Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jewish community in Germany, Austria, and the occupied part of Czechoslovakia, occurred during the night of November 9-10, 1938, and was organized by the SA paramilitary troops who were joined by civilians. By then, the borders were closed; in any case, almost no country accepted Jews who wanted to leave the Third Reich. A short time before that event took place, a policeman who was a friend of the family (years earlier his fiancée had been our family’s maid) warned my father that the persecution of Jews in Germany was going to become much worse and that we should leave the country as soon as possible.
Like many others, until that time my father had assumed that the Nazi regime would not last much longer: “the ‘World’ would not let it go on.” The policeman’s warning changed his mind. On September 26, 1938, my parents, my siblings Rosi and Mani (a nickname for Manfred), and I, managed to escape from Germany and to enter Belgium illegally. Our getaway was made under difficult and dangerous circumstances that included the temporary jailing of my father in Aachen, a spa town on the German side of the border with Belgium.
An estimated 60,000 Jews lived in Belgium immediately before World War II. Compared to countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union, the number of Jews in Belgium was small and only 6,000 were Belgian citizens. Many, like my family, had entered the country illegally from Germany or Austria in the years immediately preceding the World War II. Others, mostly Polish Jews, had immigrated to Belgium following the World War I. Most Jews in Belgium lived in either Antwerp or Brussels, often in close proximity, creating predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. We lived in one such neighborhood in Antwerp.
When Germany occupied Belgium in 1940, the invaders didn’t set up ghettos there largely because they were concerned about Belgian public opinion. Presumably for the same reason, it wasn’t until May 1942—two years after the German occupation began—that Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David to set them apart from the general population. This policy contrasted with the Germans’ attitude towards local populations of the countries they occupied in Eastern Europe, which they considered racially inferior. In Belgium, like in the other occupied countries, the German Authorities issued anti-Jewish measures in incremental steps to avoid alarming the Jewish population. Among the first demands, Jews were required to register with the Judenrat (Jewish Council) set up by the German authorities to convey and carry out their anti-Jewish decrees. Under the threat of punishment for noncompliance, my father registered our family.
Early in 1941, my father was summoned by the Judenrat and ordered to report at the railway station on a specified date with one bag. Those selected were told they would be working in German factories or farms to replace the German men who were serving in their military services. A plausible explanation, especially since the Germans were recruiting Belgian gentiles to work voluntarily in Germany. (Later, when they couldn’t get any more volunteers, they forced Belgians to work for them.) Despite that, many Jews who had come from Germany and Austria where they had been persecuted did not trust the Germans. While we were still living in Berlin, a family friend whose only crime was being Jewish had been sent to a camp, and after a few months his wife was given an urn with his ashes. My father suspected that the Jews who were going to work in Germany would not be coming back.
Although Jews who didn’t report for work were threatened with severe punishment, for themselves and their families, my father chose to ignore the summons from the Judenrat. My parents decided instead to move secretly to Brussels where they did not register us with the Judenrat. My mother’s brother Abraham, his wife Gutcha, and their children, Manfred and Lotti, who had escaped from Germany before us were already settled in Brussels.
At that time, it was still thought that Jewish women and children didn’t need to fear the Germans because the latter were only interested in the labor of able-bodied men. So my mother traveled to Brussels by herself to find an apartment. Her blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to pass for gentile. However, while she was fluent in German, Polish, Yiddish, and somewhat in Russian, she didn’t know either French or Flemish— the two national languages of Belgium. She took the train to Brussels and with her brother’s help, she rented an apartment on the first floor of 44 rue de Suede, in a neighborhood where many Jewish families lived. We resumed our lives in Brussels: my father traded foreign currency on the black market (US dollars and British pounds), as well as gold coins and ingots, which was forbidden by the German authorities. My brother and sister went to school, while I stayed at home with my mother since I was too young to go to school.
During the spring of 1942, German commanders received orders from their superiors in Berlin to deport 10,000 Jews from Belgium. The leaders of the Judenrat were told by the German authorities that they must get that number of Jews to volunteer for deportation to the east. The Judenrat informed the Jewish community that if they agreed to be relocated to the east, families would be kept together and work would be provided to the able-bodied. Only 4,000 Jews reported of their own accord at the Caserne Dossin, former military barracks located in Malines (Mechelen in Flemish), a small town between Brussels and Antwerp, from which railroad tracks led to Germany and pointed east. They were imprisoned there in crowded and primitive conditions before being deported to Auschwitz in sealed railroad cattle cars. This we didn’t find out until much later.
When the Germans’ plan failed to entice much more than 4,000 Jews to report to Malines they came up with another plan. During the night of September 3, 1942, they surrounded our neighborhood in Brussels, taking away entire Jewish families, including children, the old, and the sick. They were loaded on trucks and taken to Malines.
Before that roundup, word had reached Brussels just days earlier: the Germans had carried out two or three nighttime raids in Jewish neighborhoods in Antwerp. Starting at that time, we no longer slept in our apartment—we spent the nights with my mother’s brother and his family whose apartment was nearby, but located outside of the Jewish neighborhood. This precaution and the fact that we were not registered with the Judenrat in Brussels, as well as luck, saved us from being deported with those Jewish families who were rounded up by the Germans that night. Immediately after this, our family separated and we went into hiding.
We didn’t return to our apartment except for my mother who went back to retrieve a few of our belongings. As my mother was walking in our street towards our house, a man riding a bicycle caught up to her. She recognized him as a Jew but she became frightened when he started asking her where her family was currently living. Giving out such information could turn out to be dangerous. Some Jews worked for the Gestapo identifying Jews in an attempt to save themselves and their families. Fortunately, my mother was able to get away from him. The Comité de Défense des Juifs or CDJ (Committee for the Protection of Jews), a Jewish and Belgian under-ground organization set up to assist Jews, in particular Jewish children, urged Jewish families to give up their children to orphanages, convents, sanatoriums, as well as gentile families to give them a better chance of avoiding being captured by the Germans. Essentially, the CDJ worked to counter the actions of the official Judenrat. With the assistance of the CDJ, my sister Rosi, my brother Mani, and I were placed with different families. We were also moved around when particular situations became too risky. In the meantime, our parents lived in what appeared from the outside to be an uninhabited four-story apartment building. Their landlord knew that they were Jewish; a neighbor across the street did their grocery shopping using false ration coupons provided by the CDJ.
Uncle Abraham and Aunt Gutcha stayed in the apartment building they had been living in since their arrival in Brussels. The CDJ found hiding places for their children, Manfred and Lotti. My cousin Manfred and my brother, Mani, were born within a year of each other and were close friends. In Berlin, we lived a block from each other and they frequently played together. While in hiding, from time to time they corresponded with each other from their respective hiding places. In one of his letters, Manfred described the place where he was staying in Eprave, a village in the Ardennes Mountains where generally there was no German presence. It consisted of a former sanatorium, probably for patients with tuberculosis, which had become a temporary home for boys who were convalescent.
At one point when Mani needed a safer hiding place, he asked our mother to find out from Mademoiselle Jeanne—the young woman who was our contact with the CDJ—whether it was possible for him to be placed in the boy’s home where Manfred was hiding. Soon thereafter, Mani and eight other boys were taken separately and brought to Eprave where they joined ten other Jewish boys who were already there among the ninety or so boys. It was run like a Boy Scout camp; every morning the Belgian flag was raised, and it was lowered every evening accompanied by the sound of a bugle. The Boy Scout movement and the raising of the Belgian flag were forbidden by the German occupiers; for all the boys and their caretakers, participation in these illegal activities represented a form of passive resistance. Several of the caretakers who looked after the boys were in hiding as well; they were Belgian young men wanted by the Germans for not reporting to work in Germany. One of the counselors was a young American also in hiding; his parents and siblings lived in the village. He taught English to the Jewish boys who were interested.
One day, German soldiers came to Eprave, probably to look for partisans in the forests and the many caves in the area. All 19 Jewish boys quickly left Eprave and were directed to the parish house of Abbé Joseph André in Namur. This humble priest helped to save 300 Jewish children by finding hiding places for them. He has been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations Finding safe hiding places for the boys who came from Eprave was a very slow process, and Manfred decided he would rather wait at his parents’ apartment in Brussels. The parish house was directly across the street from the Gestapo headquarters in Namur and Abbé André was being watched by the Gestapo who suspected he was working with the underground. That may have contributed to Manfred’s decision. Mani stayed on in Namur with Abbé André. It was almost three months before he was taken to Huy to stay with friends of the couple with whom my sister Rosi was staying in a small nearby village called Bas-Oha.
While Manfred was staying with his parents, they went to a public shelter during one of the frequent Allied air raids. Somebody, maybe someone who didn’t live in their apartment building, denounced them to the authorities. They were arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the Malines holding camp. Together with his parents, Manfred was sent to Auschwitz on the last transport from Belgium. Around 25,000 thousand Jews were deported from Belgium; only 1,200 survived. Manfred and my Uncle Abraham were not among them. We learned what had happened when my Aunt Gutcha returned to Brussels after she was liberated from a concentration camp in Germany, having survived Auschwitz and a death march to Germany. Lotti survived living with a farmer, and after the liberation of Belgium she stayed with us until her mother came back. For some unexplained reason, I never saw my parents grieve for my cousin Manfred and my mother’s brother Abraham, nor my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins who were killed during the war. It was like a taboo subject; we didn’t speak about what happened to our extended family, although we knew their ultimate fate. Possibly, it was too painful for my parents or they wanted to protect us children by not bringing up the subject.
Sadly, other than my Uncle Abraham and my cousin Manfred, I never met any of these close relatives while they were alive; they lived in Poland while we resided in Germany and later Belgium. Despite severe food shortages, at the beginning of the occupation my mother was able to send food packages purchased on the black market to her mother and siblings in the Lodz ghetto. In return, my mother received plain manila postcards from her mother with the address on one side and a brief message on the other. They were stamped with the Nazi eagle from the censorship office of the Judenrat, and I believe they were written in Polish. On the last postcard sent by my grandmother, she wrote: “Thank you for the sausage and the rest. Do not send any more packages. The other family members have left already and we will leave soon also.” The message was not explicit, but the meaning was ominous.
Since I started volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum several years ago, during the Days of Remembrance I participate in the public reading of names of the victims of the Holocaust. I always include the names of a few of my family members who perished.
Abraham Horowicz—Born in Widawa, Poland, in 1900. Died in Auschwitz in 1944. Manfred Horowicz—Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928. Died in Auschwitz in 1944.
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