On one of the first days of September, 1944, my father showed up at the orphanage and told me to pack my things. I was going home. My father explained that Brussels had been liberated by British and Belgian troops, and the Germans had been kicked out. I had been Arthur Martin in the Couvent St. Joseph for nearly three years and was now overjoyed at leaving it all behind. Although only eight-and-a half years old at the time, I understood the significance of my father’s news. Suddenly the fear that had been part of every day was gone.
On the tram that we boarded, I noted my father’s tricolored armband, red, gold, and black, the colors of the Belgian flag. It was a badge of honor, for it signified that during the German occupation, my father had fought the Nazis while in the Belgian underground. Other passengers also seemed to notice it. Needless to say, I was extremely proud of my father. One of the problems I’d had as a child in the orphanage was trying to understand why Jews hadn’t fought back. At the time it didn’t occur to me that to oppose the world’s greatest military machine you needed guns. Nevertheless, I was ashamed that Jews hadn’t fought back. Later I learned better, but at the time it was a bitter pill.
As the tram made its way to central Brussels, the streets became more crowded, and finally they were so crowded by both civilians and military personnel the tram had to stop. There is absolutely no way to describe the scene or the joy of this crowd. They were euphoric, they were wild. They overflowed the sidewalks on both sides of the street while heavy tanks rumbled down the middle of the avenue to the cheers of the flag waving, exulting Belgians. Women, men, and children threw flowers at the tanks, and young women somehow clambered on to the moving tanks to plant kisses on the cheeks and lips of the victorious young Tommies riding them. Some ripped off buttons from the soldiers’ tunics to save as keepsakes of this memorable day. It really was a day never to be forgotten by anyone who lived through it. To this day, any European my age remembers Liberation Day, no matter where that liberation took place, as the happiest day of his or her life, ahead of wedding days and births of firstborns. The Nazis really were a universal nightmare, but it was over.
The German occupation had lasted only four years, but most of the family and our friends had been murdered. I would never again see my Uncle Nuhim, his two children and their spouses (Rosa and Rudi, and Hilda and Saul), Uncle Harry and Aunt Trudi, Ferdi Fertig, my mother’s lover, his best friend, Max (whose family name I’ve forgotten), Frau Schteui, my candy lady , and Herr Kornberg, our landlord, and others whose names and faces I can’t even remember after all these years. Later I found out that nearly half the Jewish population of Belgium had been murdered in those four years.