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.
Did your cousins leave the orphanage with you? Or did they stay?
No, they didn’t. My father did not take them, and their own parents being dead, there was no one to pick them up. I’m sure they didn’t stay there long, but have no idea of how and with whom they left. It is possible that Aunt Paula, their grandmother, picked them up later in the day, but I don’t think so because had that been the case, I would have met them at her house that evening, and I don’t remember any such thing (which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen).
yes Alex, I remember liberation day (in my case 8 April 1945). But it was scarry; we were liberated in Vienna by some VERY angry Russians (and righly so) of the army of General Malinovsky. As soon as we came up from our hiding in the cellar, we went right back down again, especially women were at danger. But when we finally dared to surface, I must say, the Russian soldiers were very kind to all children (not the the adults, they tried to shoot my father, assuming that a healthy young man must have been German soldier). My grandmother who spoke quite well Russian (old Trotzkite) got from them a lot potatoes, which was very helpful. Since so many Austrians were complicit there was never any big celebration. The biggest Nazis were the first to hang out the window their white sheets.
In Belgium, and in most of Western Europe, Liberation was an unmixed blessing. Yes, the allied troops drank a bit more than the Germans, but no one much cared. The total fear that was part of everyday living was finally over.
In Austria, it was difficult for the Soviets to separate the sheep from the goats, and that, as you mention, led to some problems.