The Germans stole my childhood. That's something I can't get back. I was born on April 25, 1929. I had a brother. My father was a jeweler. And my mother was a stay-at-home [mom]. My mother was a fantastic piano player. And she spoke four languages: Hungarian, German, English, and French. Four languages.
When I was five years old more or less, I went to a Jewish kindergarten. And when I was six, I started first grade in that same school. My brother was in high school already.
He was something--and I'm not just saying this because he's my brother--but he was something special. He was so smart. First of all, he could repair anything. One time my father brought home three watches. He repaired them! He never saw how to do it, but he repaired them.
We vacationed in Poland. Summer vacations to the mountains or to Hungary. But everything finished in March '38, when Vienna was occupied by the Germans. And the Austrians were not much better than the Germans. In a way, they received them with open arms.
Right away, they took Jews to clean the streets. And my mother was one of them. She had to be on her knees and scrub, scrub the Austrian sign that was painted on the streets. And the worst part was that a little boy was standing there by her and he said, "Now, you dirty Jew, now you have paid." And when my mother came home, she had a nervous breakdown. Screaming and screaming. That's when it really started.
A Darkening Austria
In the beginning, I was in a Jewish school, so I didn't really see anything. But they put signs on Jewish stores saying that non-Jews shouldn't buy from there. Certain stores were closed down already. Just taken away.
At 7 in the morning on the tenth of November, we heard a lot of noise in the floor below. So my father got dressed right away and then [soldiers] came up to our apartment and the super came with them. And obviously he liked us because he told them, "There are no Jews living here" but they didn't believe him, so they knocked on the door. My brother came to the door because he had been listening, so he opened the door. And they came in and went into the dining room. My father was dressed and they started beating him up.
My mother was on her knees in the bedroom praying and we were each on one side of her crying. She was crying also. When they left, they told my father, "Go down to the truck." He went down, but instead of going out to the street, he went to the left side down to the coal cellar. In those times we had stoves that we had to heat with coal.
He stayed there in that cellar for one month. He was afraid to go up because there were no more men in our house. They were all sent to Dachau. It was a concentration camp, but not like the others. It was [from] before the war, really. And my mother, she would go down and come back with a pail of coal. But at 10 o'clock in the evening, you don't go down for coal.
I suppose she brought food for my father because otherwise he would have starved there. It was cold down there, so I'm sure she brought him clothing. But I didn't see it. In the evenings, we went to bed very early, my brother and I. I had to be in bed at 8 o'clock the latest. After we were asleep, that's when she went down. I went to see my father there also. I didn't bring down anything, but I went down to see him. We talked, you know. I was very close to my father. I would tell him about my school and friends. I didn't stay for hours and hours, but I visited him.
There was a little temple in our building. Naturally, when the Hitler Youth came into the temple, they had every evening singing and we had to listen to it. But they never saw my mother going up and down. They were too busy with themselves. There was no suspicion.
In those times, they didn't say anything to children. Just play with your dolls and do your homework. And that was that. I didn't know anything. I was just nine years old. I don't know what I felt, to tell you the truth. I know I was afraid. Everyone was afraid.
The First Escape
My father was--he went out on Christmas night, the 24th of December. Because he figured everyone would be drunk and at home. And my uncle and my aunt went with him. My mother's brother, Max, and his wife, Gertie. The three of them went to Germany and from Germany to the Belgian border because my father had a cousin in Antwerp. And the guy sent a car for him. My uncle and aunt smuggled themselves from the border to Antwerp, too. I know my father started working there. I don't know what he did, but it was some business related to diamonds.
And we went with a kinder transport. Kinder means children. Kinder transport through Germany to Cologne to Antwerp. There were about ten children. I went with my brother. The whole transport was maybe 15 children. I know we were in a train from Vienna to Germany. And in Germany there were another few children who boarded as part of the same transport. I have no idea who organized the transport. I didn't know anything because there were no televisions and I never listened to the radio. I just did my homework and played with my grandmother. Everything was new to me. I'm sure my mother arranged it and since my father was in Belgium, he signed the warranty guaranteeing someone would be able to take us in. All of us had to be guaranteed.
I was crying the whole time we were in the train compartment. But we heard singing from a group of young people going to Israel. My brother took me to that other compartment and there was one girl telling me not to cry. And in the meantime, I enjoyed the singing, but then I went back to my compartment to be with my brother. He is more important than singing. And when we arrived in Antwerp, we spent a day in an orphanage until the people who wanted to take me in came to pick me up. And then I was with them from February until the end of August. Seven months. Seven months with a Belgian family.
My mother was still in Vienna. She stayed to liquidate everything and prove we didn't owe anything to the government. Everything was lies. Lies and lies.
So finally in August, [my mother] was finished with [the liquidation] and she and her mother, my grandmother, smuggled themselves from Vienna to Germany. From Germany to Holland, they had to walk through the woods. [pauses] And then they had a car that took them from the border into Belgium. There were six or seven people in the car. And one of the soldiers from the border shouted "Stop!" but the driver was a smuggler. He didn't want to stop. So he continued driving and the soldier shot at the car, but instead of hitting one of the wheels, the bullet went into the car and my mother got it. So she died in her mother's arms.
When I saw my grandmother, [she] told me that my mother was dead. So naturally I started crying. And they had to call the police. They took out the bullet. I have the bullet at home. And then she was buried in Antwerp. And that was in August '39.
I could live with my father in the same house because he had one room, so there was space for me too. I was sleeping with my father and my brother had a bed that folded out. And my grandmother came everyday to cook and do laundry. But in the evening, she went back to her son--my uncle and my aunt--and she stayed with them every morning. My uncle lived just a few doors down and my grandmother had a tiny, tiny room there. My grandmother was a very heartfelt person and helped because there was no woman in that apartment. I would've made a monument for her if I could.
On the tenth of May, the war broke out. All men from 16 up with German and Austrian nationality had to go to a certain place. My brother and I went with my father, but we thought, they have to register and that's it. To see if they are spies or whatever. And then in the evening, he'll be back. But he did not come back. Belgium didn't have room to have camps for that many people, so they sent everyone to the south of France. Then we found out that my uncle and my father are in the barracks of that camp. They were sent by train and I'm sure they didn't know what would happen to them.
My aunt found out they were in the south of France somehow. They were there nearly a year. Most of them left afterwards. My uncle came back from south of France to Antwerp. But my father remained there and rented a room. He sent us papers, but the Germans didn't let my brother and I out of Germany. My father had taken with him some gold pieces--maybe he knew something was not kosher--so he could rent a room with that money. I don't know what work he did in the south of France, but he did speak French, so that must've helped.
Jews and non-Jews wanted to escape the Germans. We tried to escape to the seashore, thinking that maybe we can get a boat to England. Naturally, we were walking. It was more or less 40 kilometers--I don't know how much that is in miles.
There were a few hundred people on the road. On the way we stopped to rest in barns with horses and cows. They weren't sleeping right next to us, but close by. We were there three weeks because we were walking all that way. The villagers also gave us food. Not just to us, but to whoever asked for it.
We wanted to get to France, to be with the men. So we went to the French border and there were English soldiers and one of them was a Jew. And that soldier told us, "The Germans are in Paris already." So we knew that we could not get to the south of France. So we walked around and went to the seashore like all the other Belgians. And when we arrived there, the last ship to England had left. So we knew, that's it. We have to return.
During our walk [back], there were German trucks and they started to be nice. They probably knew that no one liked them--not the Jews, but not the non-Jews either. They said, "Come on the truck and we'll take you wherever you have to go." There were religious Jews also and they took the religious Jews also. So we came back to Antwerp.
Herded to Zelem
At that time it was '41. In November, while my uncle was working in Brussels, we got papers that we had to be at the train station at so-and-so time and we can take a suitcase with us. So, okay, we went. My uncle Max volunteered because he didn't want his mother to go with two children. Max and Gertie went with us [instead]. We had to be at the train station at noon. And we were allowed to take 20 kilos in a suitcase. And the train was pretty full. We had no idea where the train was going. We got to the German-Belgian border. And the train stopped there, but we didn't know what was going to happen. We were stranded there a whole day. Nobody knew where we were going or what was happening. At around 10 o'clock at night, the train started going back into Belgium. In each village, they deposited so-and-so many Jews, which the village could absorb, so to speak. There were quite a few stops before us. But we didn't see how many people got off at each stop because it was so dark out. [My brother and I] went to a village with the name of Zelem. And that was at 11 o'clock at night. We had a member of that village waiting at the train station and crowd of people showed up because they had never seen a Jew before and thought we had horns.
I think that when we went by train to the border, they wanted to send us to Poland, but the concentration camps were not ready yet. It was too early. It was 1940. So then from January until April, we were in Zelem.
We had a big bag of jewelry from my mother, from the shop of my father. Gold pieces. And I had some savings, which I got for my birthday and holidays. And my brother had savings, the same kind. So we took the savings, put them together, and like that we paid the rent.
Max and my brother went to see how we could leave. They went to Brussels. My brother had a friend from school there, in Brussels, who found us a room with a big kitchen and a bathroom. So my brother picked us up from Zelem and we went to live there. This was April, after four and a half months. We had to go to Brussels, not Antwerp anymore, because the Germans wanted all of us in one place.
In a way, we lived in peace. In Antwerp I had gone to a Jewish school and then I went to the convent [in Zelem], but in Brussels I went to a regular school. A government school, so to speak. There I started learning Flemish. My teacher was fantastic. Afterwards, it became dangerous to go to school. But I still visited my teacher because she was very friendly and we bonded. She told me a few times that she could hide me in a convent. And I said, "Thank you very much, but no. I cannot leave my grandmother." And she answered, "Whatever will happen to her will happen to you. You can't save her." And I said, "I don't mind. Whatever will happen to me will happen and that's that."
If she would be killed, then we would be killed together. I was not afraid. I don't know why. We didn't know what happened after Jews got deported, but we knew they didn't come home. Even when the bomb sirens went off, I didn't go to the shelter. I was on the third floor and figured whatever will happen, will happen. I wasn't tired, I just had suffered too much already. I didn't really care about the future even though I was very young. I became indifferent. My grandmother didn't feel the same way, but she wouldn't go down to the bomb shelter if I didn't go. Working with my uncle in his coat shop helped with the waiting.
In June, we had to pick up the yellow star from the Jewish Community Center. And we had to put it on our clothing. At the beginning, we went out with the star and I was very proud. I was proud to be a Jew! I was proud to have a star. But it was too dangerous, we started hiding the star with our arm, or a book, or something. Finally we took it off our clothing because it was useless. We didn't want to show it. That was in July.
Towards the end of August, my brother received a paper from the Jewish Committee, they brought it--I suppose they had to--that said he needed to go to the train station in 24 hours and if he's not there, his family will be taken. And he said, "I'm young, I can work." They sent him and everyone else who got those same papers, to Maylin. That's between Antwerp and Brussels. And at the end of August, they sent them on a train towards Poland. Well, they didn't know where they were going, but when they came to the German border, my brother threw out three letters from the train. In German. But on the other side, he wrote in Flemish, "Please, whoever finds these letters, please send it to my little sister. She will pay the postage."
And we got the letter with a stamp on it. They just sent it to us. And in the letter, he wrote, "In Maylin, they are treating us well. And on the train, they went with a private train." Not in a box car. A regular train. That's what he wrote. And that's how they transported them. Anyway, that was the second letter. And he wrote that whoever gets the same letter he got should take a lot of food because they will take away half of it and then leave some for them. And they took away his fountain pen, his harmonica, and whatever money he brought. But they treated him rather normally. The third letter was a short one because he didn't have much paper. And it said, "We are in--I don't remember now the name of the town--and we are going to Poland." We didn't know anything, but we knew one thing: if you get to Poland, you don't come home alive. That's it. How we knew that, I don't know. It was a rumor. But it was not a rumor, it was the truth. And that was it. We didn't hear from him anymore.
In the meantime, Max came back to Belgium, he smuggled himself through Paris and then to Brussels. My father remained in the south of France. He rented a room and sent us papers. My father didn't want to come back to the Germans, even though that's where his children were.
My brother and I would write to my father in France, but mostly my brother wrote. I would add a few lines. I had to write the whole letter by myself to tell my father what had happened to my brother. He had to know.
All of my father's running and hiding didn't even matter in the end because someone denounced him, so he went to a German concentration camp, Blechhammer. I had never heard the name before.
[In Brussels] I started working. The daughter of my boss had also been deported, but she came back and was in the store with me. A friend of hers came to visit. And I said that my brother had also been deported and asked her, "Do you know something about him?" And she asked, "When was he deported?" And I said the date. And she said, "Don't have any hope. That was the first transport from Belgium and they went straight to the gas." And she was in the second transport, that's how she knew it. So I knew he was not going to come back.
Life was scary. When you saw a car with a license plate of the Gestapo, your heart fell into your pants. But once when I was out shopping for food, I saw a car across the street from where we lived. I was so afraid to go into our house. There was a Jew who collaborated with the Germans. His name was Jacques. And he recognized Jews by the way they were walking, don't ask me how. So I didn't want to even walk near the car in case they caught me.
The Germans took whatever was in that package of jewelry that my mother had. It was hidden above the shop where Max was working. Since I couldn't go to school, he would take me along to the shop. I was thirteen years old, what else would I do? So I learned how to sew on a sewing machine. Gertie told a girlfriend where the jewelry was. She knew that girlfriend from when they were children together in Vienna and they were together in Brussels also. When they [the Germans] came to the front of the store, they said, "You have Jewish fortune hidden and if you're not going to tell us where it is, you will not see your children anymore." And to tell you the truth, I don't think I would have acted differently from her. If you're told you'll never see your children again. Jewelry stolen, but children are children. I understand that. At that time, I didn't, but now I do.
When Germans took away the jewelry, they sent a letter for my grandmother to go to the Gestapo to confirm that it was hers. So the boss where I worked, he went with my grandmother and he said goodbye to her because once you went there to the Gestapo, you didn't come out anymore. So you can imagine how I felt saying goodbye to my grandmother. And they asked her, "Why didn't you declare it before?" And she said, "It's not mine, it's my grandson's." And he had been deported already, so it didn't matter what she said. So she came back out. It was like--how can I tell you--a miracle. They sent us a letter from the Gestapo, that the fortune from us went to the benefit of the German country. I still have that letter.
My next door neighbor had a son who worked for the underground. The Gestapo came to our door and I answered it. They asked where François was and I said, he's not here now and I don't know where he went. His mother is at church, so you can always ask her if you want. And like I said, my Flemish was very good. Like a native. So the Gestapo just left. And I went back upstairs and my grandmother was trembling. But they came back for him--he was caught and was put in jail. He sent a postcard asking his mother for clothes, food. And one day in '43, my girlfriend, Lisa, went down and she opened the door. "Where's François?" they said. "Not here," she said. "Prove it." So they went up to the apartment next to our apartment. Lisa, my friend, took out every drawer from the kitchen and threw it on the floor until she found that postcard. And when they read the postcard, they saw that it's true. So they left. But until then, can you imagine? My grandmother and I heard every word. We always had a suitcase packed, just in case. So that night we took out the suitcase, ready to be caught, and we waited. And that fear--I can't explain it. I thought, that's the end. Because if the Germans wanted to search for somebody, they go room by room, roof to cellar. But in the end, they left. And I always say, I was saved by a postcard.
We were liberated when I was 14, in '43.
The years go by and you can't forget. You can't think about it constantly. But it's there still. You never, ever forget. Sometimes this detail you remember, sometimes another. But very seldom do you remember everything at once because it's too much to remember. Some nights I dream about my brother. I dream much more often about him than my parents. Don't ask me why, that's just how it is. I don't remember the dreams, just whom I dream about. I just see people. I never remember the dreams.