The Germans having retreated to the Siegfried Line, it now felt like the war was really and finally over. Various formerly unavailable foods were in stores again. Some surviving “deportees,” were returning to Brussels, and the hope was that some of our relatives would return, but that was mostly a vain hope. They really were permanently gone, although Hella and Gert, the children of my Aunt Trudi and Uncle Harry, did return, but they had never been caught by the Nazis. Gerhard was about eighteen at the time, and Hella was a couple of years older. Gert had lived for in Vichy France in one of the O.S.E. (Œuvre aux secours des Enfants, a Jewish humanitarian organization presided over by Albert Einstein) homes, and had then fled to North Africa, after which he had come back to Brussels. Hella had never left Brussels. She had been living with an older Christian “protector” for those years, but she too showed up at Aunt Paula’s one day. The fear with which we all had lived for those four years couldn’t quite be shaken, but life once more was settling in its old grooves.
My Aunt Paula’s house became a social hub, and it seemed as if no one could return to Brussels without making a stop at her apartment. The conversations in various languages were endless, eventually all lapsing into Yiddish, the universal language of the Diaspora at that time.
My aunt’s apartment had changed in one respect, and that was where my Uncle Nuhim’s sewing machine had stood there now stood a large, beautiful radio which was constantly on. There were few radio stations available on its many bands (AM, FM, Shortwave), but enough in French and English to keep up with the triumphant allied armies. All was well, as the Nazis were getting their comeuppance.
And then the Von Runstedt Counter Offensive swept back into Belgium. In the United States it is known as the Battle of the Bulge. For us, listening in my aunt’s apartment it was sheer terror. The possibility of the Germans returning struck fear in the hearts of everyone in Belgium, and there was absolutely nothing that we could do about it, except to listen to the radio. We heard about what was happening in Bastogne and Stavelot and other little towns and villages in the Ardennes, and worried. To give an idea of the size of the battle, it was the largest battle on the Western Front during World War II. American and British troops took nearly 89,000 casualties, 19,000 of them dead in action. For the sake of comparison, D-Day on the Normandy beaches had resulted in fewer than 6,000 deaths. For us there was absolutely no guarantee this tremendous battle would end in favor of the allies. After several days of fear, word came that the Nazis had been defeated, and relief flooded through the apartment of my aunt as well as every home in Belgium.
One morning, my mother walked me over to my aunt’s apartment and as usual, we all listened to the radio. On this day the radio offered somber, dirge-like music, and my mother immediately commented that someone important must have died. I dismissed that because when I was nine-years old, I knew everything better than my mother, particularly as she couldn’t even speak French. It didn’t take long. The announcement came that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president of the United States, had died. All eyes in the room filled with tears, because Roosevelt hadn’t just been the president of the United States. He had been our savior.