Life went on at the orphanage. We continued attending a very cold school on nearly empty stomachs during the winter. Summers, hunger was somewhat relieved by the theft of pears from the fenced garden. We played children’s games in the courtyard, and amused ourselves as we could, trading holy pictures and rosaries, as well as scratching our lice and scabies as needed. We made friends, told stories, argued, reconciled. I was even stupid and comfortable enough to let one tall girl I liked very much, Adrienne, know that I was Jewish and that my real name was not Arthur Martin. No harm came of it, but to this day, I consider it the most stupid thing I’ve ever done.
The week’s highlight was the arrival of my mother, who came every other Sunday afternoon, bearing a dish of chicken soup or a piece of fatty beef (which she thought would be more nutritious for me), and sometimes she even brought a desert, a lemon pudding in a cup. I remember sitting on a curbstone, in the courtyard of the convent, near the door from which she would emerge, praying to the Child Jesus to make my mother appear bearing her Jewish chicken soup. When she did appear, unfortunately that was not all she bore. She brought news of the outside world, and that news was not good.
I had noticed that Robert and Irene’s parents, Rudy and Rosa, had stopped visiting, and I suspected the worst. On one of her biweekly visits my mother told me the reason. They’d been taken to Maline by the Nazis, the town from which the trains to Auschwitz left. And so they were gone.
Wolfie’s, or I should say, “Marcel’s” parents, had also been taken, but their story was somewhat different. It seems that Saul, Marcel’s father, had been arrested while walking in the street. He also had been shipped to Maline, to await shipment to the east. What had happened, however, was that that his train had been attacked by Jewish partisans, the only attack of this type on record in Western Europe at the time. During the attack, he had managed to escape and returned home to his wife in Brussels. It didn’t take the Gestapo long to recapture him, this time at home, and to take his wife. Neither one of them survived. All four of these cousins were young people at the time, in their early thirties, with most of life still ahead of them had it been a rational world, but all were murdered.
Even as a child I felt that I was living in the middle of a great disaster in which almost everyone died, except me. I felt that nothing could happen to me (obviously an irrational belief), but nothing ever did. There were no visits by the Gestapo or the SS at the Couvent St. Joseph. Certainly, these were not normal conditions in which to grow up for a Jewish child, but I knew what was happening outside, and I counted myself lucky. Both my parents survived. None of my cousins’ parents did. When they left the orphanage after Liberation Day, they all really were orphans.
I’m so glad that you have written your story Alex. It is riveting. Thank you!