After I don’t know how long at Rabbi Bamberger’s orphanage my mother showed up and took me home. Now began a more or less normal life, a life punctuated by Jewish holiday parties organized by various Jewish social/charitable groups to which my mother took me and at which I quite often received useless presents. Some of these parties were organized by British and American Jewish soldiers stationed in Brussels, while others were organized by mostly left-leaning and competing Zionist organizations. One summer I was able to attend for a week a camp run by Hashomer Hatsair, a Socialist Zionist youth organization, at which kids spent most of the time playing a form of killer dodge ball and singing with great enthusiasm Hebrew songs I didn’t know. Of course, there was also a lot of energetic Hora dancing, which I greatly enjoyed as I didn’t have to know Hebrew to participate. However, I had to leave early as my mother didn’t have the money to pay for the stay, but while there I had a wonderful time. Something similar happened with the Belgian Boy Scouts. I also enjoyed that for a week, but the Scouts were somewhat more insistent about demanding payment. All these organizations wanted to get paid, and my mother really didn’t have the money to pay them. There were just the two of us; my mother was earning a meager living, and my father contributed nothing. Rather than being grateful to my mother, I really disliked being poor. I very early became conscious of the fact that everything cost money, that there were lots of things out there I wanted, and that most probably I would have to do without.
By now I was a big third grader and had begun attending a public school within one or two blocks of the famous Mannenkepis, The Ecole Primaire Charles Buls, which itself was attached to a teacher training school, the Ecole Normale Charles Buls. Occasionally one of my classes would be taught by a student of this school of education while the rest of the prospective teachers leaned against the walls, observed and took notes. Some of those lessons were really memorable, and I still remember several of them, among them the method of calculating the volume of a solid by the displacement of a liquid while in a bathtub shouting “Eureka!”, a class on the effect of heat on solids, another on the effect of cold, and one lesson about Belgian history which involved a rebellion and a secret password, but I’ve forgotten which rebellion (there were so many and all so unsuccessful!) although I do remember the secret password.
I also remember getting my first Belgian history book in third grade. I went home that afternoon, and by next morning I had finished the book. Belgian history was fascinating from its earliest days (remember Ambiorix?) when it wasn’t even a country but a string of rebellions, until the evening in 1830 when a crowd surged out of the opera house, inspired to rebellion this time by a stirring opera titled “La Muette de Portici,” and established the modern, independent Belgium with the blessing of England, to be a buffer between France and Germany.
During the three years that followed, much of my life centered on the Ecole Primaire Charles Buls, but I must confess that I was a mediocre pupil. I had no idea that one had to strive for high grades. I really thought that the aim was just to pass from one grade to another, and that I did effortlessly. By then I had contracted a terrible habit which interfered with my studies, and indeed with everything else from then on. I had become an addicted reader and considered everything else an interference with my primary interest in life, namely what happened next to the fictional characters in my books.
About the medieval rebellion: the episode was called the “Mâtines Brugeoises”. The people of Flanders were rising against the king of France. East and West Flanders were part of the kingdom of France at that time, the rest of modern-day Belgium was part of the Holy German Empire. The “password” was “Schild en Vriend” (Shield and Friend). Those who couldn’t repeat those words with the adequate accent were slaughtered. The French soldiers were as poor at foreign languages as their 21st century counterparts, so the streets of Bruges were soon filled with the bodies of unilingual oppressors…
Thank you for sending me the copies of “Herakles.” They have just arrived, and I’m looking forward to reading them.
The “Matines Brugeoises” (I’d forgotten its name) episode was taught to our class by one of the Normaliens. The reason I remembered it at all was that the young man teaching the lesson wanted to demonstrate how difficult, nay, impossible, it was for a French speaker to say “Schild en Vriend,” and picked me as his exemplar. Although very young, I spoke French better than most of my classmate, and was regularly selected to give speeches, read poems orally, and even to be in a small movie, and so I was a natural choice. However, I also spoke fluent German. It caused considerable laughter among the observing Normaliens when I pronounced the password perfectly.
Thanks for reminding me of the episode.