For me, the current lockdown is a vivid reminder of the two years I spent as a “hidden child” in Belgium during World War II. Actually, I was neither a child nor confined to my quarters like that other, very famous hidden child, Anne Frank. I was a teen, hidden “in plain sight.” Still, in those years, the biggest burden turned out to be loneliness.
As readers of this blog know, my German-Jewish family fled to Belgium in 1938. Two years later, the Nazis invaded the country in which we had taken refuge, bringing with them their intent to exterminate all the Jews. In 1942, the local authorities sent a letter instructing my nuclear family to report to a “work” camp in Malines, where my mother, my 12-year-old sister, and I would help the Third Reich achieve its glorious destiny. My mother fortunately declared, in her native German, “We won’t do that.”
Unlike Anne Frank’s family, we separated. I spent most of the next two years working as a mother’s helper with four different families who were kind enough to shelter me. I owe them my life. Many things about that experience were difficult, but the hardest by far was the social isolation. Within a matter of hours I lost my family, my friends, my school, my plans for the future. Worse, I lost my identity. I could not reveal my real self to those around me. For their benefit I had to invent believable stories about my past and present. Why, for instance, did I rarely leave the house on my day off or go out dancing?
Actually, then as now, no one had locked me inside the house. But Brussels’ streets were patrolled by a legendary German agent named Adler who was excellent at identifying and arresting “hidden” Jews, and my mother was wisely cautious. She was chagrined when I ventured out unnecessarily. When she discovered that I had disregarded her instructions, she yelled and cried, declaring, “War is not a piece of cake.”
I felt my life slipping by. Would I be an old maid? I had never been kissed, gone on a date, been drunk or stayed up all night. I read voraciously, identifying with the characters in French romans-fleuves—multi-volume novels centering on the lives, loves, and deaths of fascinating characters experiencing world war. I identified with their victories and defeats. I fell madly in love with a married man named Emile, the brother of my boss and a member of the Belgian resistance. Emile hardly noticed me, but in my fertile fantasy world he asked me to join the resistance. The Gestapo arrested us. We were tortured, condemned to death and made love the night before we were executed. How delicious! The real Emile perished a few weeks before Belgium’s liberation.
Mostly I was very busy taking care of my charges and helping in the house. By the time I went to bed I was exhausted, but a persistent nightmare woke me often: a boatman rowed me to an island peopled by living skeletons that tried to grab me with their spidery fingers. How could I have had such an accurate vision of Nazi death camps?
My most difficult stint was with a Dutch family. My official cover was that I was their upscale niece, looking for a suitable husband. I hated my idle days filled with dusting my hosts’ 96 knick-knacks, reading stacks of women’s magazines, knitting with scavenged wool to please my “aunt” and playing solitaire. It was at this house, however, that I began to keep a diary, which decades later formed the backbone of At The Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust. Somewhere in its entries, amidst the passionate declarations of my love for Emile and realistic descriptions of the terrible times, I wrote, “I hope that my children will never have to live through anything like this.” Even then, I must have believed that I would survive the circumstances and go on to have a future. I don’t look back on these years with horror. Somehow I learned to be my own best friend, to enjoy my own company, and to trust myself and others.
The current lockdown occasioned by this new catastrophe is different. I am old now, and I hate having yet to go through another major disaster. Death has already robbed me of many of those I loved. The Internet, iPhones, FaceTime and Zoom lessen social isolation. As during World War II, some virtual strangers turn out to be extremely helpful: offering to shop, bringing me masks and home-baked goods. Reading and writing again provide solace. I write every day and fervently hope to finish Plunder and Survival, a book about the fate of fine art during World War II. For my protection, my three beloved grandchildren keep their distance. They do not have to deal with Nazis and gas chambers, but fate is full of nasty surprises.