The people who returned, in most cases, were not people I had known, but now that they were back, they reconstituted a small world. Among them were a couple of young men who had survived various camps and were now making their living as small-time smugglers, something they might also have done before the war. Their story wasn’t entirely clear, and at the time they might have been working for Jack, now Hella’s husband. They too were integrated into the family and were part of our various family celebrations after the war. One of their favorite pastimes at parties, was to get me drunk while giving me riddles and problems to solve until I passed out. In those days the division between adults and children wasn’t quite as strict as what it is in the United States today, and no one thought very much wrong with getting a nine, ten or eleven year-old drunk. I must also confess that these parties, which mostly took place at Hella and Jack’s apartment, were fun.
By this time, Jack and Hella were back on their feet financially. Along with a Christian partner, they had opened a wonderful delicatessen store, full of cheeses and delicious, individually-wrapped, little chocolates, smoked meats and all kinds of other delicious foods. Their apartment was on one of the upper floors of the same building as the store and was the most beautiful and comfortable I had seen up to that time, in marked contrast to the one my mother and I were living in, or that of my Aunt Paula, over Emile’s coal store. I became a regular visitor at Hella and Jack’s.
I was a pupil in elementary school at the time, within walking distance of Hella’s. It was the custom at the time to go to school from 8 AM to 12 noon, take two hours for lunch, and be back in school at 2 PM to 4, and if you wanted help with homework, or your parents just weren’t home, you could stay until 5 PM. The twelve-to-two lunch was somewhat of a problem, as there was no one home, and so I went to Hella’s house, who arranged her schedule to be available to make me lunch, and provide me with a place to nap should I want it. Hella was wonderful to me. She did whatever she could to make me comfortable and happy. She even talked to me; something no one else in the family had bothered doing. In those days, in my family, children were meant to be seen and not heard.
Much has been made of the fact that many of the people who had gone through the Nazi camps or who had lived in hiding during the war years never talked about the experience afterwards. This is true. However, I do not believe it was because of any special reticence to discuss the subject. It was because it was the shared, the common experience of these survivors, and there simply didn’t seem to be a need to discuss it. The word “Holocaust” (or the word “Shoah”) had not yet been coined to encompass the experience.
Hella and Jack sound like a fun couple to have hung out with. It must have been fun to to linger at the deli in those days.
I am curious how Belgians reacted to refugees in Brussels in those days, especially Jewish ones. I would imagine that Belgian society had their fair share of people sympathetic to the plight of refugee Jews and those who shared Nazi ideology.
Did you stay in touch with Jack and Hella once you and your mother went to New York ?
Finally even though I am one generation younger than you I still remember the admonition from my great-grandmother that children are to be seen and not heard. It wasn’t so hurtful as stupidly insulting. I always regarded what passed for conservation on the part of my material great-grandmother to be utter drivel and nonsense.
Now that I think back on it from the viewpoint of a middle-aged guy calling it drivel and nonsense is a compliment.
I have delicious memories of Hella as well. I wonder if she has the Internet and can read this blog. Though I would hate to run her through the paces of these memories.
I am another one who found your blog through Jennie, and I read it regularly. Thank you for sharing your memories.
I love reading about food. Can you describe a favorite food from the delicatessen in more detail?
Thank you for your interest in my memories. However, what you ask for is really tough, because all of this was so long ago. But there are a couple of things which I do remember, one of which may not appeal to you. I was particularly fond of headcheese, great, big round slices of it. Jellied pigs feet, was also among my favorites, although I’m somewhat embarrassed at that preference. And there were many kinds of salads, of which my favorite was the prosaic potato salad. Among the chocolates, the small, multicolored, tinfoil wrapped chocolate bottles filled with Grand Marnier or Armagnac were my favorites. I wish I could be more detailed and more specific, but this was all a very long time ago.
Alex, I again thank you for sharing your family history with us. You have such an engaging voice and spirit.
I’m curious about the photos that you have posted in the blog. Was your mother able to save those for you despite all that she went through or did you have another source?
Dear Mary Beth,
Those photos of some of the people who were part of my childhood were saved by my mother, and after she died I just inherited her album. I’m made happy by the fact that you enjoy my writing. As I don’t recognize your name, may I ask how you came to read my blog?