Of course, I have no memories of living in Berlin, having been only two years old when we left, although years later when I visited Germany, it felt amazingly comfortable, somewhat like putting on a well-loved pair of slippers. But the only thing I really remember about the city was being driven around in my father’s cab and being allowed to use the directionals, red circles on sticks which had to be stuck out the side windows. I think I was responsible for right turns. That is all I remember of Berlin.
Brussels, however, was a different story. As mentioned earlier, for a while, at the beginning of the war, we lived over Kornberg’s butcher store, and I think I really liked it, not only because of all the cats, but particularly because on the top floor lived a wonderful lady named Frau Shtoy. I have no idea of how old she was or anything else about her. What I remember is that she had well-coiffed grey hair, her make-up always on just so, and was always well dressed , usually in grey business suits, but that could have been the result of having only one suit. She was a friend of the family, gossiped with my mother, and was generally kind to me, an important consideration when I was usually just ignored.
As mentioned, she lived upstairs, and I went up to visit her as often as possible because I liked her and because she always had a piece of candy for me. What really amazed me was that she always knew when I was about to knock at her door, and before I could do so, the door would magically open, she’d invite me in, and give me my piece of candy. To this day, I have no idea of how she knew that I was at her door. For a while I suspected a window or some kind of mirror, but there was no mirror and no door.
Eventually I stopped thinking about it, and just accepted the candy, as food had become really scarce and I was always looking for something to eat. I got so hungry that I began tasting things which were really not edible because I didn’t quite believe that they really were inedible. I tried tree bark and grass, not in large quantities, but just enough to get a taste, and found out that the adults were right and that the things people didn’t eat really were inedible.
But this was only the beginning of the great hunger, and worse was to come, and after a while, I got quite used to being hungry, but not yet.
First I also had to be introduced to cold, and that happened soon after we moved out of the apartment over Kornberg’s store, and moved across the street, to the attic of a building that also belonged to Kornberg. The place did have a small, coal-burning stove; the problem was getting coal for it, and that cost money, money which was in scarce supply, as the Nazis didn’t allow Jews to work.
You can check the facts, but the winters of 1940-41 were the coldest on record in Europe up to that time. To this day that winter of 1940 was memorable for me not only because of the cold, but also because of the lovely ice designs on the frosted windows to which I woke up each morning. I was always somewhat sad when they melted in the course of the day after our stove began to heat our attic.
Later, I also became sick, I don’t know with what, although I always blamed gorging myself on a huge bowl of chocolate pudding. But sick I was, and that meant bed, the taking of temperature up the butt (loathsome practice!), and vile-tasting medicine. And my mother and my Aunt Paula read to me, mostly from that character-forming classic of German children’s literature, Struwelpeter, lovely little verse stories involving a thumb-sucking boy getting his fingers amputated by a man with great garden shears and a little girl who played with matches who accidentally set herself ablaze. They read these to me so often that I was able to memorize great gobs of it, some of which I remember to this day. Eventually I got better, but by the time I did, Frau Shtoy and Herr Kornberg had both been arrested, shipped to Maline, a town in Belgium serving as a transfer point, from where they were shipped east, never to be seen again. And we, my mother and I, had to move out and find a new place to live.