“Triste nouvelle,” read my May 22nd e-mail from Francine Bauduin, informing me that my friend Babeth (Elisabeth Wolff) had died. The picture of the old woman that accompanied the loving announcement marked the passage of a lifetime. To me Babeth was still the child I met in 1939 at the Lycée de Forest in Brussels. We were twelve years old and she was my first true friend, probably the best one I ever had. Our deep friendship ended in 1945, and it took me decades get over the loss.
When we met, both of us were newly arrived German Jewish refugees. My nuclear family had come to Belgium in 1938 and though I had to struggle with French and get used to new mores, my life essentially remained intact. Babeth, however, had come to Belgium with the Kindertransport, a program that rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany and Austria. She had kissed her doctor parents goodbye at the train station in Berlin. Actually she was fortunate. Her foster parents, the Hollenders, treated her as if she was their fourth daughter. Still, Babeth was extremely homesick and welcomed the familiar environment of my house with its familiar food and customs. My mother nicknamed her “Sparrow” because she was so slight and plucky.
Babeth and I became extremely close. Today it is hard for me to conceive how innocent we were. Sex was a big mystery. We studied my parents’ popular medical encyclopedia and eventually figured it out. Babeth became well versed in politics, though her devotion to Communism sowed the seeds of our eventual estrangement. We both admired Eva Hollender, Babeth’s youngest stepsister, who attended the university and led an exciting life filled with dates and political intrigues.
On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium. Because we were German nationals, the Belgian authorities whisked my father away. Like two million other Belgians, the Hollenders as well as my mom, my sister and I separately fled the Belgian capital. Given life’s incredible coincidences I ran into Babeth as our families were trying to cross the border into France. Neither of us succeeded in reaching Paris, and we all returned to Brussels. Babeth and I spent another two rather normal years in Brussels before Jews were threatened with deportation. We all chose to disappear underground.
I hid in “plain sight,” surviving as a nanny. I missed my friend terribly. One day I ran into Babeth unexpectedly as we both secretly navigated the occupied streets of Brussels. This encounter resulted in a brief exchange of letters. In hers Babeth covertly told me that her oldest stepsister, her stepsister’s husband and their young son had been shipped “east” and had vanished. She also had no news of her own parents. After the liberation of Brussels on September 3, 1944, I could not wait to resume our friendship.
It was not to be. Weeks after the end of the occupation Babeth entered nursing school and was mostly too busy to see me. I suspected that her reluctance was caused by my lack of enthusiasm for her extreme leftist politics, or that she could not bear the fact that my family had escaped the actual flames of the Holocaust while hers had perished.
I bid Babeth farewell before moving to America. After I left she married Jo Boute, a doctor, and they had three children, the same age as mine. Jo and Babeth moved to Jemappe, a former, rather impoverished Belgian coal mining town. Babeth became an obstetric nurse. She always took the side of the disadvantaged. Francine kidded her about discovering countless barricades. I visited in 1964, and Babeth said that she regretted our estrangement, and hoped that perhaps the time had come to resume our friendship. We even considered exchanging our children during vacation time.
During the early post-war years she searched for her parents, eventually meeting someone who had shared her father’s concentration camp experience. She did not share what she learned with anyone, but whatever it was shocked her so much that she instructed her family not to mention the Holocaust.
In 2000 after the publication of my memoir, At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing up on the Edge of the Holocaust, which celebrates our friendship, my husband and I arranged to visit Babeth and her husband. To my horror she had erased the recollection of her life in Germany and of World War II from her memory. She even asked me how we met! Francine, who met her in 1968, confirmed that she was under the impression that the Hollenders were her birth family. I was part of this amnesia.
However, slowly, my visit in 2000, my book, which included photographs of her as a child, and a copy of the letter she had written to me during our underground experience, allowed her to recapture her buried past. She also responded to questions posed by her grandchildren, especially Lucie, who became interested in world history. From then on she contacted me every few months. She even worried when she did not hear from me.
Francine’s Facebook post announcing Babeth’s passing elicited a few responses. One of them recalled Babeth “as a wonderful newborn nurse.” The doctor who cared for her during her last illness was also one of her “beloved babies.”
Her death revived the regret of having had to spend my life without her. I wish that I known Babeth as a fun adult, a fulfilled health professional, a member of her own nuclear family. Now that she is gone I hope to recapture the fierce child and teenager that I loved so much.