The Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium is unique in that it is the most predominantly Orthodox, Chasidic, and Yiddish-speaking community in Europe. But it is also unique in that its Jewish life centers on the diamond industry.
Jewish life in Antwerp is very concentrated, intense, and convenient, with both the residential and commercial located in about one square kilometer stretching south from the diamond district. The main offices and exchanges of the diamond industry, the bourses, are located on Hovenierstraat. It is a short, narrow and very busy street. People are constantly rushing up and down it, in and out of the diamond offices, or stopping to chat, trade, or argue. Chasidic-dressed dealers bargain with elegant businessmen and scruffy conmen from the third world trying to offload suspect parcels of diamonds smuggled in from political trouble spots.
Some twenty-five years ago I was living in Antwerp and working out of an office in one of the bourses. I was fascinated by life in this heavily Jewish (and Indian) little microcosm of competing interests, dynasties, families, and allies in business. They seemed to be constantly scheming often working against each other as much as together. You never knew which old family friend from “back home” would swindle or blackmail you or who would kindly take in a new arrival and help set him up in business.
One of the characters who frequented Hovenierstraat almost every day of the working week was a beggar everyone knew as Hopla. He was a small, rotund elderly man dressed in a raincoat no matter what the season, with a small shabby hat on his head. He was always carrying a black bag and a walking stick, which he used liberally to prod or whack anyone he felt slighted him, made fun of him, or did not give him a big enough donation. He often shouted at people and was particularly aggressive with kids who loved to tease him. It seems he got his nickname because every time he succeeded in giving someone who provoked him a whack with his stick, he would shout out “hopla!” Just like a circus clown or acrobat delighting in his performance, or victory.
On my first day there, I ignored him as I walked by. He shouted at me. I ignored him. The second day he blocked my way, glared at me, and waved his stick. I was repelled by his aggression and yet drawn to him. I asked around. I heard from someone that he had been a musician. I also heard someone say he was really very rich, and begging was only a way of life, not a necessity.
So the next day as I took out some money to give him, I mischievously started humming the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which had been the signature tune of the BBC to occupied Europe in the war. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. He hummed the opening of the Sixth back at me. From that day on we became sort of friends. A tune from me, from Bach through Brahms to Shostakovich, and he would hum one back by whichever composer I choose. This became a daily routine. But he would never respond to any question I might ask about him.A few years later I left Antwerp and forgot about him. Until a friend from Antwerp, sent me an obituary.
His name was Saul Milevsky. He was born in Lodz, Poland. Between the wars he had performed as a violinist in various orchestras in Poland. He had been forced into the Lodz ghetto by the Nazis and finally ended up in Birkenau, where his skill as a violinist had saved him. But his parents had been murdered there. It was also said that he had two children who were murdered there too.
After the war, he joined a Zionist youth organization and headed to Palestine in defiance of the British, who tried to prevent Jews getting through their blockade. He was caught by Mandate patrols and interned in Cyprus. When he arrived in Palestine he joined the Irgun and participated in military action against the occupying forces. After the War of Independence, he earned a living as a musician playing in the Kol Israel Orchestra.
Some time in the 1950s he made his way to Brussels. He joined the Jewish community and was well known to the local rabbis. In Belgium, too, he played in several orchestras and was still playing in 1978. But an injury to his hand ended his career. He had a nervous breakdown and ended up on the streets begging. He found Antwerp much more lucrative than Brussels and travelled there every day of the week.
He had a regular beat, from the diamond area on to the Jewish stores and places of worship. One of his stops was at the butcher shop and delicatessen run by Anshel Fruchter. There he picked up whatever food they spared him, put it into the black bag he carried around, and went on his way. If he saw someone who looked needy, he would offer them some food from his black bag. He would always go to Reb Itzikel’s in Mercatorstraat for the afternoon prayers. It seems he was known to several prominent Chasidic rebbes. There are photos of him with some of them. One was with the Bobover rebbe smiling benevolently at him. Few in Antwerp had any idea about his musical expertise or intellectual past, or indeed of his heroic involvement in Israel’s independence. All they saw was a sad, broken little man who had survived the Holocaust.
After he died, the local community circular asked readers to send in anything they knew or remembered about him. Some readers wrote in to say that he was not poor. He owned several properties in Brussels. Some said his money went to distant relatives in Israel. Others say he had a son in Brussels, and he inherited it. Some said the state confiscated it all because he paid no taxes.
One contributor said that if anyone ever challenged him about his bad temper or why he particularly chased young boys who teased him, he would say, “I was in Auschwitz. You don’t know what I suffered. You have no right to question me.” Another quoted him as saying of his life, “I may breathe, but I do not live.” Perhaps the reason he ended up begging was his way of saying that those who had never suffered the way he had, owed him.
We who were so fortunate not to have to experienced what those who survived the camps did, can have no idea what people like Hopla went through. We cannot judge the way people reacted differently to the horrors they experienced. Some just could not deal with it, could not adjust to normal life. Some were mentally destroyed, if not physically. There were survivors who became caring human beings, determined to repay evil with goodness. Others just pursued selfish pleasure as if to make up for what they had lost. Some even became crooks. We at least should keep the memory alive of what humans are capable of towards other humans for no other reason than the pathology of prejudice. Hopla survived. But he did not live.
I am often reminded of the story in which the camp prisoners put God on trial for allowing the atrocities to happen to so many innocent people. After much debate, they found God guilty. Then one of those present got up and said, “Gentlemen, it’s time for the afternoon prayers.”
Saul Milevsky 1926-2006