The German occupation had lasted four years and was now over, 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 Fingerhut, 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. Half the Jewish population of Belgium had been murdered in four years. I often think about the horrors those who died endured, yet I can’t really imagine it. The deaths of so many, and the way they died is in the process of being forgotten, possibly because of the sheer excess of it all. What the Nazis did to the Jews is simply too horrible to be believed. We shrink from the lesson in all this horror, and what it says about how thin our veneer of civilization really is.
Oddly enough, after several days, a few of the deportees returned from various slave, concentration and death camps at the other end of Europe. I don’t know how they made it back so quickly, but they did.
When I was at my Aunt Paula’s apartment I was the only able-bodied one. Lily was still in her wheelchair, writing her letters to Dr. Sperka, playing her records, and reviewing her fan postcard collection, and once-in-a-while still had an attack of the disease that crippled her. Going down and up the stairs was quite difficult for my aunt because of her swollen ankles, although she did go out occasionally, to get meat and do some shopping. Whenever the doorbell rang, it was my job to go down as unofficial doorman, particularly as I was now tall enough to reach the key which dangled from a nail above the foot of Lily’s bed, right next to the door.I don’t think I will ever forget the sight which greeted me on one of these trips downstairs after the bell had rung. I turned the key, opened the door, and saw two living skeletons in what looked to be striped pajamas. Although one was slightly taller than the other, their faces were nearly indistinguishable. They were just skulls with huge eyes set on incredibly thin necks. Their appearance gave a hint of the ordeal they had undergone. I immediately grasped that they were returning concentration camp survivors, and although I didn’t know them I showed them upstairs to my aunt’s apartment. I don’t remember which camps they had survived, but once upstairs and made comfortable, they were immediately plied with questions as to whether they had, while in the camps, seen some of our relatives and friends, a process repeated later, when other survivors showed up. The answer was usually negative, but sometimes someone had seen one of ours in a concentration camp or in a death camp. In one case someone had talked to my Aunt Trudi in Theresienstadt a couple of years earlier. In another someone had seen Ferdi and Max walking together into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. However, that was all we heard of those who had disappeared.