Looking for Strangers
The True Story of My Hidden Wartime Childhood
AS IF IT WERE YESTERDAY, 1982
It all started with watching a movie about my own life playing at noon in a movie theater in midtown Manhattan. Usually I love going to the movies midday by myself even when the sun is out; I enjoy the solitary escape into a cave of shadows that transports you to another half-world so that you come out afterward blinking in the daylight, disoriented as if you were coming back from a faraway place. But this time, I walked around the block three times before making up my mind to go inside the theater to see the documentary As If It Were Yesterday.
The box office was open and there was no one in line, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket; I kept walking around the block. I was reluctant to enter the theater, fearing perhaps that the film would touch a nerve and release a flood of painful memories. More likely, I was afraid of being disappointed, of learning nothing, of being irritated by another pointless, sugarcoated, sentimental treatment of the Holocaust. It was with this anxiety that I finally rushed into the theater two minutes before showtime.
There were only three other people in the auditorium. I thought the theater manager would decide it was not worthwhile to screen the film, but the theater curtains parted, and from the moment the Neige piano music started, I sat transfixed and would be for the next hour and a half. On the screen, two white-haired women appeared, talking in Flemish, about little Miriam, their neighbors’ daughter. It was 1942; Belgium had been occupied by the Germans for two years. The child was out on an errand, or perhaps she was at school, when the women heard the Gestapo come and arrest her family. Maybe the Gestapo men didn’t know there was also a little girl in the family. In any case, the parents said nothing about her as they were herded into the van waiting outside.
When little Miriam came back, the two women recounted, they “just couldn’t let her walk into that empty apartment all by herself; she was just a little girl.” They decided to take in the child until relatives would claim her, but no one ever came for her, so they kept her throughout the war. No one in the building said anything. When the war was over, Miriam’s parents did not return, and she continued to live with the women and became “their” daughter.
The film continued along those lines: A schoolteacher who was told that the parents of her two Jewish pupils had just been arrested took them home with her, then later found them a safe hiding place and went to see them every week to make sure they were all right. A nurse smuggled a child into a sickroom. A doctor hid a dozen children in his clinic for tuberculosis, and a radiologist helped him by faking X-rays, which were used to safeguard the children. A priest hid children in his cellar. A shoemaker saw a friend being arrested on the street and, feeling sorry for the man’s son, took him in. More and more people told their story in Flemish and in French, in a casual way, as though saving Jewish children from the Gestapo were a mundane, ordinary activity.
Some people were bystanders who felt compelled to react to what they had witnessed. “It was natural” was a phrase often heard in the documentary. “You just couldn’t let that little child be taken, or abandoned, or go into an empty house when you knew the parents had been arrested.”
Others joined clandestine organizations and sought out children to save and people who would hide them, or looked for safe convents, homes, or asylums—places into which children could “disappear.”
“Because,” the rescuers said, “it was a way of protesting what was happening in our country.” Rescuing these children made them feel less helpless in the face of the occupation, but mostly they did it because, as they insisted: “You don’t kill children. It isn’t right.”
A white-haired woman with tinted glasses, identified as Andrée Guelin, explained the networks that were set up to save the children. She told of the participation of various resistance and underground groups, the money that changed hands, the contacts, and the little notebooks with coded numbers standing for the children and the coded places they were hidden, so that no names would be revealed should these notebooks have fallen into the wrong hands. She also spoke of how painful it was to take the children from the parents, how sad everyone was, how frightened at the separation and of the uncertainty of the future. For many families, it would be the last time they saw one another.
I had also been hidden as a child, starting in 1943. Forgetting that I had not been interviewed for the film, my heart began to race when photographs of the children then and now started to appear: What if one of those photos was of me? Were any of these people speaking about me? Had they been the ones to save me? I don’t know if I wished for or dreaded the possibility.
This was the very first time I had seen any documentation about children with my Holocaust experience. The term “hidden child” hadn’t been coined yet, and there had been little written about the experiences of those young survivors.
I walked out of the theater very shaken, suddenly overwhelmed by the need to find the people who had hidden me. I wanted to reconnect with them, to embrace them, to thank them. I had been so young during the war that my memories were vague, yet some images of separation and loss had remained very sharp in my mind. The film brought validation for those hazy, buried memories. What I half remembered had really happened; I hadn’t simply imagined those terrible years.
Now I knew I wasn’t the only one who had experienced this “hiding.” I felt a sort of kinship with those other children, now grown-up, who had been saved from German extermination. I also felt awed, suddenly aware of all the work, the planning, and the risks taken by strangers just to save someone like me—a child of people who were not important, not rich, influential, or political. People like my father, a Czech shoe store owner, and my mother, his Polish wife, both of them living with their little daughter in Brussels—ordinary people sought out by strangers from a country they had never set foot in, to be killed for no other reason other than their being Jewish. I had to find the people who hid me; it would let me feel like I was saving something from loss, forty years after the event.
Back in Hartford, Connecticut, teaching my classes at Trinity College, I could not get As If It Were Yesterday out of my mind. I spent the next few weeks trying to contact the two filmmakers. I had learned from the New York Times review that they were in the city to publicize their documentary. After a few false leads and many phone calls, I reached them and we talked for a long time. They seemed eager to meet me, especially after I sent them some of my poetry dealing with my childhood. We chose a date, and I took a bus from Hartford to meet them in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan.
The filmmakers were younger than I expected; I had assumed that they must have lived through the war themselves in order to make such a film. But that was not the case: they were born after the war. But both were children of survivors. Myriam, whose parents had been in hiding during the war, was of Belgian origin, like me, while Esther was born in Germany to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.
I told them my story.
“For you, it was nothing; you were only a child. You didn’t suffer. You don’t even remember.” Those were the words, I told them, that I heard all the time from my mother when she referred to our experience in Belgium during the war. She would talk about her difficult times after my father was arrested by the Gestapo, alluding to all the things she had to do in order to survive. She told me how hard it had been for her to put me in the hands of strangers she had never seen before who were going to place me with a Belgian Catholic family for my own safety. For a long time, she did not know where I was.
She had needed much strength and forbearance to go on after her beloved brother and his family were deported and as all her friends and relatives disappeared, one by one. But she wouldn’t let me speak to her about what it had been like for me, separated from her and my father, living with strangers. She kept telling me that because I had been so young, what happened had not affected me and therefore could not be important.
In truth, I did not recall having suffered, although I remembered more than my mother would admit. But my memories were so vague and fragmented that they were easily dismissed as childish inventions; I myself did not trust them. And that they were inconsequential was easy to accept since compared to my mother’s friends’ stories, they seemed rather benign.
In Belgium after the war and, later, in Los Angeles, where my mother and I wound up in 1952, her friends were all European Jews— therefore “survivors,” a term coined by Terrence Des Pres in his seminal book, The Survivors, and quickly adopted by those who had lived through the Holocaust and experienced the horrors of concentration camp life. I certainly didn’t identify myself as one of them; my own story paled in comparison to the hardships they had endured. I had not been starved, beaten, tortured, experimented on, or suffered other such horrors. It would have seemed strangely presumptuous for me to claim kinship.
After the war, I remember yearning for my father as a child. Since my mother and I never knew how or when he died in Auschwitz, I used to have fantasies of him turning up, unexpectedly, and recognizing us. We would be a complete family again, like those of my childhood friends in Belgium in the 1940s. For a long time I had little thought of the family who had hidden me for a year and a half, from 1943 to mid-1944. Even though I remembered my first meeting with them, which entailed separating from my mother, I had no recollection of my last days in their home or of leaving them. My mother, who met them when she came to take me back, refused to talk about that meeting and would always answer any of my questions with “What do you want to know for?”
The filmmakers Esther and Myriam asked if I’d ever seen the Belgian family again after the war, despite my mother’s feelings. I hadn’t, I told them, but I thought about them a great deal throughout the years. Perhaps not at first, not right after leaving them, when for some reason I didn’t live with my mother for two years but was placed in an institution for homeless children in La Hulpe, Belgium. I remember being with my mother for a short time, perhaps a few months or so after leaving the Catholic family in the summer of 1944. It was so cold that December, we walked with socks over our shoes to avoid falling on the slippery sidewalks. But in January 1945, I wound up in the orphanage for almost two years. I never knew why.
After leaving La Hulpe at age seven and a half, I was so happy when my mother and I were finally reunited in Brussels that I don’t remember thinking of that Belgian family. I had to adjust to a French school while my primary language was Flemish. I was placed in the third grade, where I was academically behind the other students. I had a lot of catching up to do, but I made friends among my classmates and started a new life. Five years later, my mother and I came to America, and there was yet another language to learn, a new school to blend into, and a new life to adopt.
Years later, when I was pretty well Americanized and in college, I started thinking about the family that hid me; I drew a blank. What was their surname? What village were they from? All I remembered were a few names like Mama Gine, which was what I called the middle-aged woman who replaced my mother; Papa Franz, her husband; and Jeanne, their teenage daughter.
I went on to tell Myriam and Esther that my mother claimed she didn’t remember their names either; she was also vague about the village they had lived in. Pronouncing it differently each time, she would pull out the name of a place but had no idea of how to spell it. I had tried various spellings myself and looked them up on a map of Belgium—but no luck.
My mother had had no earlier relationship with the people who hid me and had met them only that one time when she came to fetch me; she had never wanted to see them again afterward. Even now I don’t really know why, but I can only guess that those were such difficult and painful times for her that she hated anything connected with them. She refused to acknowledge our debt to that family. She insisted on seeing their role as a commercial one because they did take money. Yes, they were paid a monthly sum for my upkeep by the White Brigade, the resistance group that had organized my hiding. But she would not recognize the enormous risk that the family had run.
Perhaps she was never comfortable with the fact that she had given up her daughter, even though it was to save me. Maybe that’s why she had never been able to accept the notion that I had also suff ered during the war years and that she had been unable to do anything to prevent it. She always repeated her standard remark about my experience: “You were only three then; you can’t remember.”
For many years, I thought so too, but after seeing As If It Were Yesterday, I knew it wasn’t true. My father’s sudden disappearance, the separation first from my mother, then from the Flemish family I had become attached to, my misery in the La Hulpe institute—you don’t forget such loss and upheavals, even if you only half remember them. I told Esther and Myriam that their film had opened the floodgates of yearning for me.
Now I realized that the more I knew about those years, the easier it would be to escape the feeling of being haunted by them. I wanted to bring everything into the open, to dispel the shadows, to have a grasp on that foggy childhood so that I could stop looking for it. But I didn’t know where or how to start.
Myriam and Esther were surprised that I didn’t know about the archives in Brussels. After the war, the Red Cross had turned over to the Belgian authorities all the documents pertaining to Jews living in their country during those years. There was a file for every person who had been there—there would be one for my father, one for my mother, and even one for me, just a year old when the Germans invaded Belgium.
To complete these holdings, the various resistance and underground groups that helped hide or smuggle Jews out of danger had turned over their files. A certain Madame Aubrey was in charge of the archives at the Ministry of Public Health in Brussels; she could put various materials together for me. My file would have the name of the people who hid me, their address at the time, and other pertinent information. I might also find out what had happened to my father after he was arrested; all I knew was that he had died in Auschwitz.
Esther was going to Brussels in a few days and would look at the archives for me. I didn’t put much stock in her confi dence that she would find information on my family; it couldn’t be that easy. I tried to forget her promise. But a few weeks later, I received a letter from her saying that the information I sought was indeed in the Ministry of Public Health. I had been hidden by Franz and Régine Walschot, 170 chaussée d’Uccle, in the village of Beersel. My “war” name had been Astrid Von der Laar. Later I was sent to an institution called L’Oeuvre Royale du Grand Air pour les Petits à la Hulpe.
There was also a whole file on my father: He had been deported from Malines on Convoy No. 9 on September 12, 1942, two days after his arrest; his Auschwitz camp number was 177679. Esther added that there was much more information but that I should come to Brussels and read the files myself.
I was stunned. All those years of my questioning fragmentary memories, and the answers were in files in an office in Brussels all this time. At first, I couldn’t believe what Esther was telling me and thought she was playing a cruel joke on me; I felt hurt by her macabre sense of humor. But then I realized that could not the case because some of her revelations were not new to me. I had been registered as Astrid at my birth in Antwerp, and it was what I had been called in Belgium by everyone except my mother. It had been my first name until I legally reclaimed Dori when I became a naturalized American citizen at the age of eighteen in California.
I called my mother in Los Angeles and told her about the information in Esther’s letter. Initially, she was noncommittal. “Perhaps,” she said, and then added that it was indeed my father’s camp number but that she didn’t remember how she knew this.
Then she asked why I was bothering with all this, why after so many years did I want to find out what was no longer important? Why did I want to revisit those years? There was no need for it.
I couldn’t explain to her why it was so important to me. All I knew was my excitement at the idea of contacting the people who had hidden me. For once, my mother’s attitude did not dampen my enthusiasm. Though I was still not convinced I would find the Walschots, I began thinking that I would try. I let my mother change the subject.
After our call ended, I took out the photographs I had of the Belgian family and me that had been taken during the war. One photograph in particular interested me. It showed a rather heavy woman in her fifties, Mama Gine; a man, also in his fifties, with white hair and a dashing mustache, Papa Franz; a child holding on to his arm (me); and a young girl of about fourteen, Jeanne, in a pretty white dress. We were standing in front of a stone house. It was a picture I knew by heart since I had looked at it many times trying to jog my memory, yet I had never noticed the number of the house above the front door although it was clearly legible: 170, the same number that Esther had told me was the Walschots’ address. I decided then to go back to Belgium.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 4-12 of Looking for Strangers: The True Story of My Hidden Wartime Childhood by Dori Katz, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2013 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)