I was born in Berlin in 1937. The following year, shortly before Kristallnacht, my father arranged for my family to be smuggled across the border into Belgium. We were very close to Uncle Abram—my mother’s brother—and his family. Their apartment was around the corner from ours in Berlin, and they also crossed the border illegally into Belgium around the same time.
In August 1942, when the Germans began nighttime raids in Jewish neighborhoods in Antwerp, my parents decided that sleeping in our apartment had become too dangerous, because it was located in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brussels. Our family split up, and for several nights, my sister, Rosi, and I slept at my Uncle Abram’s apartment, which was not located in a Jewish area. That was the last time I saw Uncle Abram and my cousin, Manfred.
Two years later, while taking refuge in a public bomb shelter during the frequent air raids, Uncle Abram, Aunt Gutsha, and their son, Manfred, were denounced by an anonymous person. After spending a few days in a transit camp, they were deported on the last transport from Belgium to Auschwitz on August 1, 1944. Their daughter, Lotti, who was hiding with the mayor’s family in a small village in the Belgian countryside, avoided capture. Brussels was liberated barely a month later on September 4, 1944.
Although I have no real memory of Uncle Abram—without looking at his picture I wouldn’t even know what he looked like—I have the feeling that I know him and that he has always been a presence in my life, probably due to a number of connections I’m about to describe.
After the liberation of Belgium in September 1944, Lotti lived with us while we were waiting for news about her parents and Manfred. Aunt Gutsha survived Auschwitz and a death march to a concentration camp in Germany, where she was liberated by black American soldiers from a segregated US Army unit. It wasn’t until years later, after we had moved to the United States, when I met one of these World War II veterans, that I became aware of the discrimination they faced from their own countrymen.
Following a period of convalescence, Aunt Gutsha eventually made her way to our house in Brussels. I remember that every day she would go somewhere to look for news of her husband and son. I was told lists of names of survivors were posted by the International Red Cross, but it was hard for me to visualize this mysterious process. After it was determined conclusively that Uncle Abram and Manfred would not return, Aunt Gutsha and Lotti immigrated to Israel.
My mother had ten siblings and only two survived the Holocaust: one in Ireland and the other in Palestine. She had left her mother and her other siblings in Poland in 1926 to move to Berlin and marry my father. Although she hardly ever mentioned them, I had the feeling that Uncle Abram was the one she missed the most. From letters that Manfred wrote to my brother, we know that despite the great danger, while living in hiding our mother frequently visited her brother Abram.
In the dining room of our post-war house in Brussels, there hung a large oil painting in a heavy golden frame depicting a bowl overflowing with a variety of fruit on top of a table. I remember looking at it often as a young boy and wondering why the grapes spilled over the edge of the table. My mother told me Uncle Abram had painted this “nature morte,” so its presence too made me feel like I knew him. It didn’t surprise me when I learned many years later that Orna, one of Lotti’s two daughters who live in Israel, was also an amateur painter whose house was decorated by her own paintings.
More recently, Orna sent me a letter Uncle Abram wrote to Lotti in June 1944. This letter confirmed my impression that he was sensitive and very intelligent. The letter was a response to a question posed indirectly by Lotti: Mother Superior at her school had suggested that if 13-year-old Lotti converted to Catholicism, she would be safer. Instead of telling Lotti outright not to convert, he left it up to her, but very wisely, he gave her several concrete examples of why she shouldn’t do it starting with the simplest one: “If you buy a dress and the following week you decide you don’t like it, that’s not a big problem.” By implication, changing religions was a more complicated matter.
He writes further, “Mother Superior, as you wrote to us, is interested only in your welfare, . . . We believe that is not a sufficient reason to change religion. Besides, you have not had sufficient time to learn and understand what is a religion.” In concluding, Uncle Abram says that he wrote the letter in French so Lotti could show it to the family that was hiding her and also to Mother Superior so they could all explain it to her further. In effect, he was appealing to their good judgment to make the case against conversion.
Last year, Orna wrote to ask me to get some information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where I do volunteer work. Orna and her sister, Rachel, had made arrangements to have memorial markers, called Stolpersteine, set into the sidewalk in front of the Berlin house where their grandfather Abram and their uncle Manfred once resided.
The dates of deportation and of their deaths will be inscribed on the brass memorial markers. The ceremony will take place at a future date due to the coronavirus pandemic. This too brings me closer to my Uncle Abram, as well as to his granddaughters, Orna and Rachel.
© 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.