In July 1942, I was eight years old and living in occupied Belgium. The Germans had just begun to round up Jews and deport them so it became imperative for my family to go into hiding.
Suddenly I found myself in a strange place away from home, away from Mum and Dad. I say “suddenly” because I don’t remember having expected it, nor having understood the reason for it. I was a quiet, inward-looking child. I had learned early to observe adults and their facial expressions as one scans signs for a change in the weather. I did not make demands, rather I waited to see what the adults had in store for me. Though I did not understand their priorities, I always hoped for good things from them.
This first move was to a children’s holiday home, together with my little sister Danielle. It was summer. There were about sixty children, far too many to count and mostly younger than me. The outdoor playground had swings and a sandpit. I watched, wide-eyed, stunned by the strangeness of being away from my home and parents. The other children ran around the playground, happy and shrieking with excitement. This was to be the first of many moves.
Though the unknown is always scary, I remember feeling excited about going to each new place. There had not been any preparation. I simply “found” myself in a new place. My parents never did discuss major decisions with me.
For two and a half years I led a truly nomadic life. We were at the children’s holiday home for less than a month. On one Sunday visit, Mum found out that there were many more Jewish children staying there. She felt that this was dangerous, and took us away. In fact, the place was raided by the Germans soon after.
We were then sent to a family in the country. They fostered children for a living, and were looking after eight Jewish children. The Derbecques were keen to make money. We had nothing to do all day, and were hungry most of the time. Nobody paid any attention to us. But the master of the house used to frighten us, saying with a sneer of satisfaction that if we were discovered by the Germans, we would suffer a terrible and instantaneous end.
The Derbecques’ only son of nine wet his bed regularly, and the smell permeated the house. My mother was offered a servant’s job with them and she came unexpectedly to see what the place was like. When she saw the piles of wet sheets waiting to be washed by hand, she decided it was not for her. And we had plenty of stories to tell her. Soon afterwards, my parents sent a young Belgian woman to fetch us home. That particular homecoming I shall never forget. We arrived in the evening, and Mum had cooked tomato soup. Mum was a good cook, but nothing has ever tasted as good as that tomato soup.
Of all the places that I stayed at, the next one was the only one that I regretted having to leave. That was the home of the Van den Borrens, their daughter Marianne, her American husband Safford Cape, and their three children Anne, Philippe and Miquette. It was my third move in about four months, and I went there towards the end of 1942.
I lay in bed on my first morning there, anxiously wondering whether I should get up or wait for someone to come and get me. Nobody came, so I got up, dressed and sat on the side of my bed, full of indecision. I needn’t have worried. They were very easy going people. They made me feel welcome, and soon I stopped worrying whether I was doing the right thing. In the two months that I was there, I do not remember one harsh word or look. Mrs. Van den Borren, Nana as she was called by everyone including me, had a broad smile that made her whole face crinkle up. She had taken charge of the children of the house, and I became one of them.
I didn’t go to school. It was considered too dangerous. I was nearly nine and, while I was there, I discovered that I could read whole books. This was incredibly exciting and – just as important, it kept me occupied all day. The house had three floors, each with a large landing and floor to ceiling shelves full of books. On the second floor were children’s books, and when I finished one I could go and get another. One day I read three books! I sat on a chair – always the same one – by the wall of the dining room. I was in a world of my own. Nobody questioned what I was doing or interrupted me. They let me be – myself. It was magical. The reason I was moved on, was that the Germans came to arrest the American son-in-law, and it was no longer considered safe for me there.
I had to go back to my parents. This was not the happy arrangement that it should have been. The fear of being discovered by the Germans dominated everyday life. A total of six adults were hiding in this house. The most important day-to-day activity was practising how fast everyone could get into the hiding place, a space under a staircase camouflaged by a cupboard. I did have one diversion. The landlord had an English grammar book, and was teaching himself from it. He asked me to come and learn English with him. He was a good-humoured man and I used to relish those sessions.
It was a relief when a new place was found for me. The tension and continuous fear were just too much to bear. I had already met my new protector, Mademoiselle Madeleine, as I was to call her. She was a good friend of our likable landlady Mme Claesen, who had arranged this new hiding-place. I was eager to go there because my first impression of her had been favourable. Each beginning was exciting , with the anticipation that in this place, I would be welcome. And I would have an opportunity to get both attention and approval which I craved.
My new carer, a spinster, lived on her own. She wore her long fair hair in a bun, and led a very well-regulated life. I was totally dependent on her for things to do. She was a great knitter and, as wool was scarce, she would unravel old garments and make skeins to wash the wool. My first job was to hold the skeins on my hands so she could wind them into balls, or even wind a skein on a special gadget with four vertical sticks. I was happy to be of help, happy that she involved me in her activity.
Mademoiselle Madeleine was a devout Catholic. We went to church several times a week, both in the early morning and in the evening. It was late spring and I loved walking through the park on our way there. I felt safe in the church and loved the ritual. I was anxious about dipping my fingers in the holy water at the entrance, and crossing myself the right way. But once in there, I was a child and nothing more was expected of me.
By nature Mademoiselle Madeleine was very strict and unbending. Of course I had to do what I was told, and she had no sympathy for my difficulties. I found it hard to eat the very dry bread and jam that she put in front of me for breakfast. One dark, snowy winter’s day, she told me to walk to a baker’s shop across the large park. She might as well have told me to break through a brick wall. I got into a panic and refused to go. I was terrified of walking across the snow-covered park by myself. I had never refused anything she had asked until then. This was unforgivable in her eyes. The strange thing is that I cannot remember now whether I eventually did it or not.
Mademoiselle Madeleine taught me catechism and fractions. The catechism was easy to learn by heart, and I memorised it with great enthusiasm. The fractions, however, did not go so smoothly.
She had no experience of children. She was aloof, neither warm nor demonstrative, certainly not forgiving. Each conflict increased the bad feeling between us. In despair I gave vent to my anger and said that she was “only doing it for money”.
At the age of nearly ten, I once wet the bed and could not bear the shame of it. When she asked me, I told her I hadn’t. That made me a liar. I lay on my bed and cried for a whole afternoon. At that point my mother came and took me away. Years later she told me that Madeleine had been willing to keep me. They had discussed it and decided that it was no good because I was obviously so miserable.
Again I went back to my parents for a spell. At Mademoiselle Madeleine’s I used to listen with her to the radio each day. The Allies had reconquered Sicily, and landed in Italy. The Russian front was steadily moving West. We used to mark on a map, with pins, all the locations that had been taken back from the Germans. This illegal activity was exciting. We saw that the Allies were winning the war. But back with my parents I felt that time was standing still again. They were now hiding in one much smaller room behind a courtyard. Life was more oppressive. I remember Mum brewing tea out of apple peels, and Dad endlessly fixing the element of our one-ring little electric cooker.
I also badly missed the wonderful program of classical music Madeleine had allowed me to listen to on some evenings after the news. It always soothed me into a trance. For a short while I would escape the daily realities altogether.
Before long I was off again. This time I went to an outlying suburb of Brussels, to stay with a woman who kept a “café’’ (the French version of a pub or coffeehouse). I cannot remember her name. She had no children, and her husband had been taken away to work in Germany. My mother seemed to think that, if there were no other children, I would be looked after better. In fact, I was often lonely and under strain from being always watched by my new carer.
I had to share a bed with Mme X. I would crouch near the edge to avoid touching her. I learnt to house-clean, and I did it very enthusiastically, except when I had to wash down the wooden café furniture with water mixed with ammonia. Cleaning took up two full days a week. On Sundays, I was sent to church in the care of a girl I didn’t like. I swallowed my dislike, and I tried very hard to be agreeable. Soon I met some other girls I liked better, but Mme. X did not approve of them. Worse still, I did not get on with her beloved little dog. Once I put a packet of butter on the floor in the cellar. The dog got to it, and I was in great trouble.
I cleaned and brought beer up from the cellar at the week-end when the café was busy, and I learnt to iron handkerchiefs with enthusiasm and skill. But one day when Madame had three kilos of peas for me to shell, I rebelled. The peas were all right on the inside, but the pods were thoroughly rotten and slimy. I was not allowed to go and play till I had done them. My small rebellion came to an end but not without permanent damage to our relationship. I did have one wonderful treat: a young trainee teacher who lived next door taught me Flemish, which was the language of the locality. She was blonde and I found her angelic. I worshipped her, and spent many happy moments ruling up pages for her as a return favour.
We sometimes visited Mme Xs family – her sister and her parents, who were very warm kind people. As I gradually fell from favour, she no longer took me with her to visit them. Mme X had also evicted me from her bed. I now slept in the next room on a canvas deck chair. I was ten and a half, and tall for my age. Curling up in the deck chair was very uncomfortable, so I lay it flat on the floor. Of course, most of the time, I ended up sleeping on the floor. She stored some flour in that room, and I discovered that it was quite good to eat when I was hungry And one day, in my misery, I said to her the terrible thing I had said to Madeleine – “You’re only doing it for money!” I was too young to understand the risk she was taking by hiding me, too young to consider an adult’s feelings.
My mother came regularly to bring money for my upkeep. She would only stay a few minutes. Only once did I break down and cry, and she cuddled me. Then one day, as if in a fairy tale, she came and told me to pack my things. There wasn’t much to pack. This time she took me on a tram straight to my new place.
My parents had gone to hide with a kind and generous family called Preud’homme and Madame’s sister Laure had offered to take me. Here I found people who were good to me. I was treated with respect, and given freedom to do as I pleased while Tante Laure attended to her optometrist business. Her elderly father and I were company for each other. He enjoyed telling me lots of fascinating things about geography and history. Best of all, he took me to his vegetable plot and taught me how to weed. As nobody seemed to worry about cleaning the three-story house I put my previous experience to work to do some of the cleaning. This was greatly appreciated, as was my weeding. I couldn’t believe my luck. Instead of being taken for granted and expected to do whatever I was told, my help was actually valued.
I went to Tante Laure and her father in early June 1944. Brussels was liberated on Sunday, 3rd September 1944. Now there was to be one more move – going home to live with my parents and my little sister. After more than two years away from them, that proved , incredibly, to be as difficult a move as the others. Was I expecting a grand welcome? We didn’t stop to draw breath or talk about what had happened. We didn’t celebrate our survival or reunion. We got on with life as if nothing had happened.
So many places, so many strange people! Later, as an adult, I added them up: six places in all. Two of them I remember very fondly: the Van den Borren family, and Tante Laure. I fitted in easily. They gave me genuine affection, and I loved them in return. For the others, I have never even thought of feeling the gratitude that was surely due to them. Looking back, I have found a sure way of rating the places where I lived during the war: as I remember each one, I sense how freely I can breathe. In fact, this is the way I expressed it at a ceremony for Tante Laure and her family. They were honoured with the award of “Righteous Among the Nations”. I said that when I had arrived there, I could suddenly breathe and be myself. I basked in their kindliness, and their way of including me in their lives. Although I could not have put it into words, I felt it instinctively, like a plant that grows towards the sun.
I thought for many years that nothing important had happened to me during the war. I was in my late fifties and a grandmother when I began to look back on those years. Now I could feel the sadness and fear which I had had to freeze out then. Oh the dreadful loneliness of it! But I could also see my remarkable strength and perseverance. In spite of everything, I had kept on trying to “fit in” and to please, hoping to be loved. I found solace in my reading, the snatches of classical music, my visits to church.
I never lost hope that the next place would be a good one. What else could be the reason for all those moves?
Floris K. – Belgium