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< Echoes of Memory

The Unspeakable


by Harry Markowicz

At first, the Nazi occupation of Belgium did not seem so troubling to us because the German authorities didn’t start persecuting Jews until October 1940, almost six months after the invasion began on May 10, 1940. In addition, anti-Jewish laws were introduced gradually to avoid alarming the Jewish population, which might have provoked disobedience among Jews and opposition from Belgian authorities. The German leaders also wanted to avoid raising Belgian public opinion against them as happened during World War I.

One of the earliest demands required Jews to register with the Judenrat (Jewish councils established by the German authorities throughout occupied Europe to facilitate control of the Jews). The Jewish councils were charged with conveying orders to the Jewish population and for enforcing the implementation of anti-Jewish measures. Being law-abiding, my father registered our family: himself, my mother, my siblings Rosi and Mani (nicknames for Rosa and Manfred), and me.

During the early months of the occupation, my mother still corresponded with her own mother who lived in the small Polish town of Widawa, located near Łód´z. My mother’s father had died young, but not until my grandmother had given birth to 11 children. By the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, my aunts and uncles had reached adulthood and all had their own families. Most lived in or near Widawa. My grandmother’s correspondence consisted of brief messages in Polish on plain manila postcards bearing the stamps of the Judenrat and of the unmistakable Nazi eagle, indicating that the mail was strictly censored. I remember my mother translating the last postcard she received. It said simply, “Thank you for the food parcel. Don’t send any more parcels. Other family members are already gone and we are next.”

Early in 1941 my father received a summons from the Judenrat ordering him to report at the railway station in Antwerp, where we were living, on a specified date with one bag. Those selected were told they would be working in German factories or construction sites to replace the German men who were serving in their military forces. It was a credible explanation, especially because the Germans were also recruiting young Belgian gentiles to work voluntarily in Germany.

Nonetheless, many of the Jews who had sought refuge from Germany and Austria did not trust the Germans. Eighteen months earlier, my family had narrowly escaped from Germany under difficult circumstances, including the temporary jailing of my father. While we were still living in Berlin, a family friend whose only crime was being Jewish had been sent to a concentration camp, and after a few months, his wife was given an urn containing his ashes.

Although the first groups of Jewish men selected to work for the Germans sent postcards home stating they were fine, my father suspected they would not be coming back. He decided to ignore the summons from the Judenrat in spite of the severe threats from the German authorities. Instead, we moved secretly to Brussels but did not register our new residence with the Judenrat as required. My mother’s brother, Abraham; his wife, Gutsha; and their children, Manfred and Lotti, had escaped from Germany before us and were already settled in Brussels when we got there.

At that time, the Germans selected only able-bodied Jewish men for forced labor. Consequently, it was generally assumed that Jewish women and children didn’t need to fear arrest and deportation. So, my mother took the train to Brussels to find an apartment. Although she was fluent in German, Polish, Yiddish, and somewhat in Russian, she didn’t speak either French or Flemish—the two national languages of Belgium. With her brother Abraham’s help, she rented an apartment on the first floor of 44 rue de Suède, near the Gare du Midi (the central train station), in what happened to be a Jewish neighborhood.

We resumed our lives in Brussels. My father traded US dollars and British pounds, as well as gold coins and gold bars, on the black market. My brother and sister went to school while I stayed at home with my mother, because I was too young to go to school.

One night early in September 1942, the Germans surrounded our neighborhood in Brussels and rounded up all the Jewish families, including children, the old, and the sick. The families were loaded onto trucks and taken to Malines, a small town between Brussels and Antwerp where they were imprisoned in the Caserne Dossin, a former military barracks, conveniently located next to railroad tracks that carried trains toward Germany and eastward. They were kept in this transit camp in deplorable conditions before being deported to Auschwitz in sealed railroad cattle cars.

But, this we did not find out until much later.

Before that raid, word had reached Brussels that just days earlier, the Germans had carried out two or three nighttime raids in Jewish neighborhoods in Antwerp. Having heard these rumors, my family started spending nights with Abraham and his family, as well as with friends of my parents whose apartments were not located in Jewish neighborhoods. This precaution and the fact that we were not registered with the Judenrat in Brussels contributed to our avoiding being deported. Immediately after the raid in Brussels, our family separated and we went into hiding.

The Committee for the Defense of Jews (CDJ), consisting of Jews and Belgian non-Jews, was one of several underground organizations that was set up to assist Jews by providing false identity papers, fake ration coupons, and money. Perhaps their most important objective was finding hiding places for children. Members of those organizations urged Jewish parents to let them place their children in orphanages, convents, sanatoriums, or with sympathetic gentile families to give them a better chance of avoiding capture by the Germans or denunciation by Belgian collaborators.

Parents had to make heartbreaking decisions to give up their children to strangers. To assure the security of all involved, the underground organizations did not tell the parents where their children were hidden so that they could not visit them. My sister Rosi, my brother Mani, and I were placed with various families. We were moved around periodically when specific situations became too risky. In between hiding places, I would rejoin my parents.

During that same two-year period, my parents lived in what appeared to be an uninhabited three-story apartment house. The landlord who rented the apartment to them was taking a chance because they were Jewish. Taking even greater risks, the Dierickx family who lived across the street from my parents bought food for them using false ration coupons provided by the underground and carried it to their apartment along with the mail.

The mail served an essential function; it was practically the only way the family could keep in contact. Because mail was subject to censorship, Rosi and Mani (I was too young to write) addressed their letters to the Dierickx family who then brought them to our parents along with news from the outside world. I said earlier that the underground organizations that placed Jewish children in hiding places generally didn’t tell the parents where their children were hidden, but for some unexplained reason my parents knew where we were. My mother, who did not appear Jewish with her blond hair and blue eyes, visited me on several occasions.

Uncle Abraham and Aunt Gutsha remained in the apartment house they had been living in since before the German occupation. The underground found hiding places for their children, Manfred and Lotti. In Berlin before the war, they had lived a block away from us. Manfred and my brother, Mani, were close in age and were best friends. During the occupation, 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 Belgian Ardennes, where generally there was no German presence. It consisted of a former sanatorium that had become a temporary home for boys who were convalescent.

At one point, Mani needed to move to a safer hiding place. My mother asked one of the young women, whose work for the underground included escorting Jewish children to their hiding places all over Belgium, whether Mani could join his cousin Manfred. Soon thereafter, Mani and eight other Jewish boys were brought to Eprave where ten Jewish boys were already living among 90 non-Jewish boys.

The home was run like a Boy Scouts camp; the Belgian flag was raised each morning and lowered every evening, accompanied by the sound of a bugle. These activities were forbidden by the German occupiers, but were practiced as passive acts of resistance. Several of the caretakers who looked after the boys were in hiding themselves; some were wanted by the Germans for not reporting for forced labor in Germany. One of the counselors was a young American who was also in hiding; his parents and siblings lived in the village. He taught English to the Jewish boys.

One day, German troops came to Eprave, probably to look for partisans in the forests and the many caves in the area. The 19 Jewish boys were immediately escorted by one of the counselors to the parish house of Abbé André in Namur, a nearby city. Abbé André was among a group of Belgian priests and nuns who helped to save hundreds of Jewish children. 

Finding hiding places for the boys who came from Eprave required time, and after several weeks, Manfred decided to wait with his parents in their apartment in Brussels. Perhaps the fact that the parish house was located directly across the street from the Gestapo headquarters in Namur contributed to his making that decision. Mani chose to stay on in Namur with Abbé André. Almost three months later, he was taken to the municipality of Huy to stay with friends of the couple with whom my sister Rosi was staying in Bas-Oha, a village near Huy.

While Manfred was staying with his parents, they went to a shelter during one of the frequent Allies air raids. They were denounced by someone who perhaps didn’t live in their building. Arrested by the Gestapo, they were taken to the Malines transit camp. From there they were sent to Auschwitz on the 26th, the last transport from Belgium. Among the 25 thousand Jews deported from Belgium, only around 1,200 survived. Cousin Manfred and Uncle Abraham were not among them.

We learned what had happened when my Aunt Gutsha made her way back to Brussels after the war ended. She had survived both Auschwitz and a death march from Auschwitz to a camp in Germany.

After the liberation of Brussels, my parents learned that Abraham, Gutsha, and Manfred had been deported, and not knowing their fate, they brought my cousin Lotti to live with us. Several months later, Aunt Gutsha unexpectedly showed up at our house. Through the International Red Cross she had been able to find out that Lotti had survived and that she was living with my family.

After dinner that evening, Aunt Gutsha started describing in great detail what she had gone through after they were arrested. She spoke for hours while the whole family sat quietly at the dining room table. She had found an audience to whom she could relate. She spoke of the long dehumanizing journey in cattle cars, the arrival at Auschwitz and the selection process, the shaving of the inmates’ hair, and the striped dresses. She pulled up her sleeve and showed us the number tattooed on her forearm. We all leaned forward to look at this unexpected sight.

Aunt Gutsha continued by describing the horrible living conditions: the constant hunger and how eating “stolen” potato peels would result in a beating or worse. She described the dreadful working conditions and how they slept in bunks crowded together like sardines in a can with other inmates. The worst part, according to Aunt Gutsha, were the Appels—the roll calls every morning and evening when they returned from work: the inmates were counted over and over until they were all accounted for; a process which often required them to stand for hours, sometimes in snow or in hot sunshine.

That was the first time we heard firsthand what life and death had been like in the concentration camps. It was a lot for a seven year old to assimilate. When I was a little older I started fantasizing about being in a concentration camp, knowing that children were not allowed to survive.

For some unknown reason, I never saw my parents grieve Manfred and Abraham, nor their own parents and siblings (my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins) who lived mostly in Poland and were also murdered in Auschwitz. Looking back, it was like a taboo; we never spoke about what happened to our extended family. No one ever brought up the subject in my family. In fact, we never even shared with one another our own experiences during the Holocaust. 

©2017, 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:   echoes of memory, volume 10harry markowiczanti-jewish legislationauschwitzhidingdenunciationoccupationselection

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