When I wasn’t in kindergarten or at home, I was at my Aunt Paula’s, who with her husband, my Uncle Nuhim, and their daughter, Lily, lived in an apartment over Emil and Nora’s coal store. The apartment consisted of three rooms, only one of which had electricity. Central heating might have come to the rest of the world, but in our part of the world, each apartment still had its own stove and needed coal for heating and cooking. Besides being the landlord, Nora and Emil sold coal. No one was quite sure whether they were Nazi sympathizers or not, and they probably weren’t, but still there was that whiff of suspicion. The store was on the first floor, and the apartment was on the second, and was accessible only from a usually locked front door and a flight of stairs. Only the main room, fronting the street had electricity. It also had
The Jewish kindergarten my cousins and I attended (before they were all closed by “the authorities”) was within walking distance of my Aunt Paula’s house, and I loved the walk from her house to school, although I must confess to considerable dithering along the way. I have a photograph, taken at the time, of the school’s children and their mothers (as well as some of the school staff), but I have no recollections of exactly what it was I did there. Probably I did the same kind of things that children have always done in kindergarten such as singing, lots of running around and lots of character improving arts and crafts. I just don’t remember.
Whatever it was we, the other children and I, must have enjoyed it because when our nap time came, we hated taking the naps. Possibly children have always hated naps. However, my attitude to naps was somewhat different. I thought that if the adults wanted
Life in the new apartment became normal, to the extent that life under the Nazis was ever normal. However, as I had really known no other way of living because earlier I had been too young to be conscious of it, this was normal for me. The adults disappeared from the apartment for much of the day and reappeared in the evening. I had no idea what they were doing, whether they were working, looking for work, or just spending the day playing cards in some café, which some of them probably did, as card playing was one of the ways of making money, and my mother was particularly talented at rummy. Actually, I didn’t care, as long as
Moving was made necessary by Kornberg’s deportation. He no longer owned anything, and the new owners, whoever they were (either the government or the Nazis, which was more or less the same thing), didn’t want us. So, my mother, clutching a suitcase, with me in tow, began searching the city, looking for a place to live.
It seems it was a common problem for Jews at that time, as we were soon joined by several other families in need of a home. We made a small group of about eight to ten people as we went from apartment to apartment large enough to provide shelter for us all, as money was also a problem.
It was illegal to rent to Jews, and we were easily identifiable as such by the yellow stars the adults wore on their coats. Because it was illegal to rent to Jews, most people were afraid to rent to us. There was also the problem of the group being so large
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 fathers 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 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
I never knew either of my maternal grandparents. My grandmother, Helene Polajawer died in 1919 of the Spanish Flu, nine years after giving birth to my mother, whose name, incidentally, was Gerda. I have a nice photo of my grandmother at her dry goods stand at a Berlin market, probably on Alexander Platz. My grandfather died on March 6th, 1935, in Berlin, of natural causes. He lived to be 85 years old, and my grandmother was the last of his three wives. The reason I remember the date of his death so easily is that he died exactly a year and a day before I was born. Hitler had already been in power two year when he died, and it may have been a good thing that he died when he did. He wouldn’t have survived under Hitler in any case. In 1941, 10% of Berlin’s Jews committed suicide in order to avoid deportation, and they may have been wise to do so.
After my grandmother had died, my mother was raised by one of her sisters, a not uncommon happening in those days. My grandfather’s name was Abraham Schocken. I believe he had eight children, but I only knew three of them. I have no idea
My family was somewhat of an anomaly. I’ve already mentioned the fact that my parents didn’t get along, and that is putting it mildly. In Brussels my mother had fallen in love and was living with a man named Ferdi (once upon a time I knew his last name). He was a pleasant enough man, but I remember very little about him. I still have a photograph of him walking between my Aunt Trudi and my mother. Somewhat later, both he and my aunt were murdered by the Nazis, but that was still to come. In any case, my mother didn’t want my father to know anything about Ferdi, so that whenever I went off to visit my father my instructions from my mother
My father escaped Berlin on Kristallnacht — November 9, 1938. He was two years old and carried over the border into Belgium on foot by his mother. They stayed in Brussels for the next 11 years, before eventually emigrating to the United States in 1949.
In 1938, my grandmother was 28 years old. She and my grandfather had already divorced, or at least separated. (My father describes it as one of a string of failed relationships in her life. Who’s to say whether the events of her life made her a difficult person, or whether being a difficult person made her particularly well-suited to surviving in difficult circumstances?)
In any case, my grandfather, who was a taxi driver, was making a living smuggling Jews out of Germany, and despite my grandmother’s vitriol towards him, he, of course, found a way to get her — and their son — out of Berlin on the night that happened to be Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazis famously ransacked,