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Tommy Guns and Other War Toys

By Harry Markowicz

Following the liberation of Belgium in September 1944, my parents, siblings, and I came out of hiding and our lives started returning to normal. As a child born shortly before the start of World War II, my memory of a “normal” life was very limited. We got back together as a family and soon after moved into a row house at 33 rue Paul Leduc, in a quiet neighborhood of Brussels where we knew no other Jews. Whether that was a choice or happenstance, I don’t know.

I started school in the middle of the year as a first grader. I had turned seven the previous August, so I should have been in the second grade, but my schooling had been interrupted by several moves while we were in hiding. For a short time, I had even attended a Catholic school in an area of Brussels where Flemish was spoken, a language I didn’t know, which set me back further.

Now that I was living with my parents in a different neighborhood, the closest elementary school was just one and a half blocks from our house on a street called avenue Frans Courtens. It was a very small school with few children; it was eventually torn down to make room for a new highway. Most of the children in the neighborhood attended a larger school farther away. All the children in the neighborhood played together, regardless of the school they attended. One day during recess, soon after I started going to this school, a boy my age approached me and shouted, “Sale Juif!” (“Dirty Jew!”). I was really startled! During the occupation, I had never heard the expression, and I didn’t know what he meant. His tone and the expression on his face made him appear angry to me. I am still surprised by my own reaction—I thrust my hands out to his chest and pushed him away from me. In my mind’s eye, I see him sulking off, maybe even crying. 

I have fonder memories of another incident during recess around that time. Two slightly older girls—maybe eight or nine years old—each grabbed me by an arm and pulled me backwards into the bushes that surrounded the courtyard where we played. When we were out of sight, they simultaneously kissed me on my cheeks and then let me go. They were gone before I realized who they were and what had happened. 

In my school, the fourth through sixth grades—about 12 students altogether—were all taught in one classroom by the school principal. With so few children, I had the opportunity to be the lead in the annual school play. In addition, with limited competition, it was easy for me to be among the top students in subjects like French and math; I received several of the prizes handed out at the end of the year. Generally, the prizes consisted of books, but one time I received a bank savings booklet inscribed with my name and the sum of 50 Belgian francs—about one dollar. (I still have the bank booklet, so if the bank is still in business, I may be the owner of a small fortune in euros.) 

Another advantage of attending such a small school: I was able to learn the material students were studying in the classes above mine. When I finished the fifth grade, the principal told me that I had already learned the sixth grade material. So I was able to join my cohort in the seventh grade at the Athénée de Schaerbeek, an all-boys secondary school. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At one end, avenue Frans Courtens ended in a gigantic field that extended for many miles. Plans had been made before the war to construct a major highway on this land to link Brussels to its airport. It was several more years before this roadway was built. In the meantime, the barren land provided the neighborhood children with a wonderful natural playground. We spent many hours in this giant sandlot letting our imaginations run wild. We often played war games: sometimes cowboys and Indians, but usually partisans fighting the Boches—the Germans. Everyone wanted to be a partisan, so we had to take turns playing the German soldiers. 

Although the field had very limited vegetation, the chalky land consisted of rises and depressions, providing ample places to plan attacks and hide from the enemy. One day, we found a British “Tommy gun” partially buried in the ground and we dug it out. It lacked its stock and was somewhat rusty, but it immediately became part of our weapons inventory. In fact, it was our only weapon, so we took turns using it. Only partisans got to carry it, since it was an Allied weapon. Everyone else had imaginary guns. But soon we were able to vastly increase our arsenal when we made a new discovery. 

At the far end of rue Paul Leduc, maybe 500 or 600 yards from our house, there was a solarium consisting of an open-air, Olympic-size swimming pool in the middle of a very large grassy field, itself surrounded by a tall cement wall. During the summer we spent many hours swimming and playing there. Somehow, we found out that on the other side of the back wall of the solarium, a veritable treasure was waiting to be discovered by us: a whole field of broken-down Allied tanks.

They were not guarded, and no fence surrounded them. After all, who could walk off with a tank, especially a damaged one? We didn’t waste any time before exploring our new acquisitions. No need to pretend anymore; we now had the real thing. Some of the tanks had lost their turret or tracks, but others were still in relatively good condition. We climbed all over the tanks; soon some of the more fearless among us found ways to open the hatches on the turrets and also the driver’s compartment, so we climbed inside. Being claustrophobic, I was afraid someone would close the hatch from outside, so I didn’t spend too much time inside the tanks. They were stripped of their weapons, but that hardly mattered to us. One boy discovered that we could make the turret on one of the tanks turn; it still had a working battery. This tank graveyard was awesome, and for a while, it became our favorite playground.

One boy refused to join us inside the tanks. Standing back, sounding like a lecturing parent, he would say, “You are going to get hurt.” We just pooh-poohed him, but in retrospect, we should have listened to his warnings. 

One day we were going home for lunch from school, walking as usual two-by-two accompanied by our teachers to the next corner. At one point, the lines broke up when some of us turned left at rue Paul Leduc while others turned right. An apartment building was located at that intersection. When we reached the corner, someone started yelling down at us from a third-floor window. We all looked up. It was Louis, one of our gang who liked to bully the rest of us. He was smiling and proudly showing off his arm, which was in a sling, his hand completely wrapped up in a large white bandage. While playing in one of the tanks, he told us, the hatch closed down on his hand, and the end of his middle finger was cut off. 

This incident persuaded us to give up our armored weaponry in favor of rejoining the infantry, which required only lighter or imaginary weapons. In any case, shortly after that event, the tanks disappeared from the field, maybe to be recycled for another war.

© 2020, 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.