My Kir Royale is fabulous, and so is my company: Evelyne and Jean Pierre Grosfils, and my granddaughter Naomi. We are dining at Yume — a word which means “dream” in Japanese, but in this case refers to the name of an elegant Asian fusion restaurant in Brussels.
This is no ordinary dinner, or even an ordinary restaurant: Jean Pierre and I lived in this very building in 1944, when Yume was a Bauhaus-style private home. At the time he was eight years old and I was the family’s 17-year-old nanny. Before coming to the restaurant tonight, we visited Mrs. Jacqueline Grosfils, Jean-Pierre’s 101-year-old mother. In 1944, she hired me to care for her children even though I was Jewish and fleeing the Nazis, who I feared would deport me to nightmarish eastern Europe.
Naomi and I have always had a special bond. Like me, she is a born writer. From the time she was very young she identified with my family’s wanderings. When she was in elementary school, I talked to her class at the Brooklyn New School every year about the Holocaust. Some dozen years later, she invited me to speak to her own students in her classroom in the Bronx. Now she often edits my work, and I edit hers. In the spring of 2015 we decided to revisit my Belgian roots.
My nuclear family escaped from Germany, where I was born, and immigrated to Belgium in April 1938. We were lucky to miss Kristallnacht. Freed from Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism, I blossomed, became fluent in French and bonded with my new homeland of Belgium. Our refuge, however, was too close to Hitler and his expansionist project. In May 1940 the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium. In the ensuing shuffle, my father was separated from my mother, my younger sister and me. Fortunately, my dad managed to reach the United States, but the rest of his family was trapped in Belgium.
At first, the German anti-Semitic restrictions in Belgium were mild. But in June 1942, my mother received a letter ordering us to report to a “work” camp. We did not comply. Unlike Anne Frank’s family, we separated. During the following two years I stayed with four different families. The first were Nelly and Jean-Marie Wiame. Nelly, a high school teacher, entrusted me with newborn Lucette and Pirou, her beloved dog. I loved the Wiame family’s liberal, somewhat Bohemian lifestyle. They became my role models and in the far, far future my life would resemble theirs.
Like many of Europe’s hidden children, I came to minimize my Holocaust experience, preferring to dwell on the extraordinary courage of those who helped my mother, my sister and me survive. In addition to those who actually sheltered us, others provided food stamps and forged documents, and offered to lend us money if our small financial reserves ran out. I also realized that compared to a concentration camp, my life in Brussels was good. I was spared from witnessing murder, starvation and unimaginable cruelty — experiences which would have forever marred my consciousness.
When people ask me how I managed to navigate through the Holocaust, I sometimes say that it was okay because “I was the right age.” There is some truth in this silly response. I was old enough to be at least partially in charge of my life, and yet young enough to feel immortal. As I made my way around town I confidently, even defiantly, passed numerous German checkpoints, proudly producing my forged identity card. My nursemaid jobs were strenuous and left me little time to worry. In my spare time I tried, unsuccessfully, to continue my education, so that I could resume my “real life” when the war was over.
A diary that I kept during my hidden existence, and which incredibly survived these tumultuous years, belies my carefree recollections. It records my loneliness, my homesickness and my frustration at being a burdensome bystander in this war instead of being a member of the resistance. I described the often-uncaring attitudes of my employers and protectors. Some of the entries consisted of passionate love letters to Nelly’s brother Emile, a commander in the Belgian resistance who was killed shortly before the end of the war. I wept for friends who had vanished; I worried about the safety of my sister, hidden in anti-Semitic Flanders, and my mother, whose German-accented French betrayed her true identity. Instinctively we knew that being caught meant certain death.
My fears emerged in a recurring nightmare. An old man rowed me across the river Styx, which in Greek mythology separates the earth from the underworld. I disembarked on an island peopled by living skeletons, whose decayed fingers grabbed my skin. I woke up screaming. Ever since I have wondered at the eerie accuracy of the dream.
World War II and the Holocaust defined me. It took me years to relax and to learn how to play. Life did eventually fulfill its promises: a loving mate, children, citizenship and a profession.
For years I spoke little about what had happened to me. I did not share my memories and guarded them as if they were sacred, not to be spoken about. In 1980, I rediscovered my wartime diary and turned it into a memoir that I called At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up at the Edge of the Holocaust.
Upon our arrival in Brussels at 8 a.m., Naomi and I made our way to the Grand Place. The magic square with its perfectly preserved medieval town hall and guild houses enchanted both of us. On June 5, 1568, it was the site of the beheading of Counts Egmont and Horn, who opposed the draconian religious intolerance of Phillip II of Spain, and joined the revolt of the Netherlands. During World War II, those same counts became the heroes of the Belgian resistance.
Nelly, my idol, had died in 1977, but her son Jacques picked us up the next day to visit my unfortunately much-changed hometown. I did not recognize its center, now filled with the ubiquitous glass-faced high-rises. And yet, the homes in which I had lived were all intact, including the four-family apartment house my family had moved to when we arrived in Brussels in 1938, the quirky one where I stayed with Jacques’ parents in 1942-3, and my last Belgian abode before relocating to the United States.
Seven decades and previous visits had dulled my emotional reactions to the past, but not the joy of being with the descendants of my rescuers. I took immense pride in introducing them to my granddaughter — the ultimate proof that the Nazis did not manage to destroy my future or me.
The Grosfils’ former home, the site of our memorable meal, had been the last stop on my underground journey in the 1940s. Jacqueline and Jean Grosfils took me in when the German occupation of Belgium was almost over. Both came from stable upper-middle-class families. One of their ancestors was beheaded during the French terror and another fought in Napoleon’s army.
Two months after I joined the Grosfils’ household, the Allies arrived in Normandy, and another four months later Brussels was liberated. During the weeks preceding the Germans’ departure, their bedraggled army retreated along the avenue that fronted the Grosfils’ house, and we had front seats for the glorious show. I left the Grosfils and started on my long inner recovery. A friend I made at the time told me years later that when we first met I seemed “odd.” I had forgotten how to play. Indeed, all my life I would always feel closest to those whose life experiences had been similar to mine.
I lost touch with the Grosfils soon after I reached America and only resumed contact in 1996, when I published my memoir. From the time the full horror of the Holocaust became known, the Grosfils family was glad that they had helped me survive. But I think it was only when we re-entered each other’s lives that Jacqueline Grosfils truly understood the journey I had been on and the role she had played in it. Now I am close with the Grosfils family; we visit back and forth between New York and Europe and trade gifts, memories, conversation. My former charge, Jean-Pierre, is no longer a little boy, but in fact a grandfather himself!
After Belgium, Naomi and I went to Paris, where we visited the Mémorial de la Shoah. In view of Europe’s renewed anti-Semitism, six heavily armed soldiers guarded the museum’s impressive entrance. For two hours my granddaughter and I mourned the fate of the 77,000 Jews apprehended in France during World War II. We listened to the recorded testimonials of the handful who survived.
The story of the Holocaust is so horrendous that, even for me, who grew up on its edge, it is hard to comprehend. Often my thoughts turn to Ruth Iris Freudenthal, the only other Jewish child in my German elementary school. For three years we sat next to one another struggling with spelling, arithmetic and the polite disdain of the other children. Then I left for Brussels, where I survived, whereas she perished in Poland. How easily it could have been me.
__Jewish history is one long story of seeking refuge. From Hitler’s Berlin to Soviet Moscow, from fundamentalist Teheran to chaos-ridden Addis-Ababa — read more of Jewish refugees’ stories here._