The other evening, after a satisfying dinner, I was lazily surfing the net when I came across a photo of a beach filled with Syrian refugees running across the sand, trying to climb aboard a rickety ship. Suddenly my heart started to beat faster, and my brain shifted back to 1940, when my mom, my younger sister and I spent restless nights in the dunes along Belgium’s coast. From our makeshift campsite we could see the border posts of our promised land: FRANCE. It had taken us three days to traverse the 90 or so miles that separated Brussels, our adopted home, from the Belgian-French border, but now we were not able to cross, even though we were German Jews trying to save our lives. We did not possess the correct documents. Belgian citizens had green identity cards, and foreigners like us had white ones with red stripes. For three days running we tried unsuccessfully to sneak by the guards. In the end, our repeated failures did not matter: the German troops were advancing and would vanquish both Belgium and France within days.
While in the dunes we bonded with other refugee families, which was a great comfort—especially for my mother, alone with two underage daughters. As a group, we finally gave up and returned to La Panne, a nearby Belgian summer resort. We rented a small house and managed to find enough food to make dinner. It felt good to wash, to use a real toilet, to stretch out in a bed. The respite was brief. The shelling began at 2 AM and did not let up until the next morning. The fifteen of us assembled in the house’s cellar. I sat on top of a pile of coal, Harry S. clutched his wife, my sister had her head in our mom’s lap, and Kurt S. pressed his head against the wall, continuously moaning, “Oh my god, oh my god.” At 5 AM an eerie orange light filled the cellar. The house next door had caught fire. Would it be safer for us to stay or to face the bombs, we wondered.
We did stay, and emerged when the shelling was over. The German soldiers strutted around the small town, offering chocolate bars to the distressed citizens. The upstairs of the little house was in shambles. Every window was shattered. A piece of shrapnel lay on my pillow, and glass shards had ravaged the upholstery.
Unbeknownst to us, the British had managed to evacuate their army from Dunkirk, a small nearby seaport. The saved soldiers formed the nucleus of the mighty armada that would start to liberate Europe in 1944, four years later.
As a group we decided to return from the Belgian coast to Brussels. At first we walked, sheltering at night with various farmers. I’ll never forget the cattle killed by shells or shrapnel, their stiff legs pointing up to heaven. Occasionally, when the sights became too grim, Gus, our leader, told his daughter and me to look straight ahead. In time we reached our non-violated homes in Brussels, thankful to once more feel sheltered. Two years later, we had to leave and hide. But once again our luck held, and we survived. (For more on this story, see At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust.)
Being a refugee, a migrant, or an undocumented immigrant is hazardous. One may drown in the process, end up in an extermination camp, or face a lifetime of struggling to survive on difficult, low-paying work. But there is also is a fair chance of landing on one’s feet and ending up with a satisfying, “normal” existence.
Another two years after emerging from hiding, I had to migrate once more. I arrived in New York in May 1946. Again I had to learn a new language and get used to the mores of another country, but my migrations had ceased. It took another few years for me to stop feeling like a refugee. Even though I was already a young adult, this country has allowed me to belong. For better or for worse I am an American. I am grateful, and I hope that I paid my dues.