Unexpectedly, these days my almost 90-year-old mother is reminded of the dark days of her youth. In daily telephone conversations, she, alone in her apartment in New York and me from Berlin, hiding and luck are subjects we discuss over and over.
My mother was born in Germany and raised in Belgium. Like many European Jews in the early 1900s most of my maternal and paternal relatives moved west, in both their cases to Brussels, where they made good lives for themselves. Until…
When the Holocaust started my grandparents did as all Jewish families did. They made agonizing decisions. Stay or try to flee. Hide or try to pass for gentiles. Keep the family together or separate from the children. Keep the children together or apart. Was there a correct decision? My mother is convinced it all came down to luck.
My maternal grandparents tried all the options. Early on, grandfather Saul got a chance to flee to England with the hope of getting his family out of the continent afterwards. At the last minute, before boarding the ship in France he turned around, not able to leave his family. Under assumed identities they all went into hiding in the Belgian countryside hoping that luck would be on their side.
On May 2, 1943, in need of cash, Saul, a furrier, gathered goods and went to Brussels to try and sell them. But there was a killer lurking in the name of Icek Glogowski, or as he was infamously known, Jacques the Musser (traitor). Glogowski was a Belgian Jew and Nazi collaborator responsible for the deportation and death of hundreds. Literally driving around Belgium with the SS he would point out Jews or people who looked like Jews in the street.
On that fateful spring day, Jacques the Musser spied my grandfather on a tram traveling down a broad Brussels avenue. When the Nazi officers went to arrest him, he ran, was shot in the leg and caught. Sent to the Malines transit camp he was put on a train to Auschwitz, and was gassed to death and cremated three days after arrival. He was 37 years old.
My mother is reliving those events consumed by the question: if her father had not gone that day and went another day would he have made it home to his family? Was it his bad luck that Jacque the Musser spied him that very moment?
When he did not return, my grandmother, was beside herself with fear and uncertainty. As she tried in vain to find her husband, she placed my mother, then aged twelve, in a convent and put her sister, nine years old at the time, with supportive neighbors who could not keep her for long. Villagers had told the Gestapo they were hiding a Jewish girl and she had to go. By the time they came back for her she was gone. Luck. She joined my mother, but because they disliked the strict nuns and were constantly hungry, the sisters threatened to run away if they were not removed.
This time good luck again intervened. My grandfather had a customer, Louise Anciaux who was headmistresses of a boarding school outside of Brussels. My grandmother, now at wits end, begged Mademoiselle Anciaux to take in her girls. At great peril, she risked her life and took the girls in. For 18 months, until the Liberation, the sisters pretended to be Catholic school girls. In fact, they were what is commonly now known as Hidden Children, separated from their parents, not sure if they were dead or alive, living constantly under stress of being found out. Headmistress Anciaux was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for her brave deed. She too was lucky.
These days, as my mother is confined to her home, she often says she feels exactly as she did when she was a child. She talks about the frustration of being forced to stay inside; of not being able to do what she wants – of enemies that want to kill. “Everything boils down to luck,” she says. “One day my father went to Brussels and he was caught by the SS. One day you go to the supermarket and you get caught by the virus. One day you get saved by a hero or you die. It’s all a matter of luck.”