My first lesson in faith and loyalty came
when I was almost three years old. Clearly I was too young to
comprehend the full significance of what was happening, but having lived
through it, and having heard the stories repeated, it was ingrained in my
Saved by an
I was born in April 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium. Most of my family lived
there, and we were all involved in the diamond and jewelry business.
Hitler, the megalomaniac, was steadily gaining power in Germany,They were out-manned, out-gunned, and out-tanked
starting in 1933-1934. In his quest for European, perhaps
even world, domination, he brought the full force of his ever-growing military
conquests against the nations of Europe.
We Belgians thought that our country and the Netherlands, both being
neutral, would be exempt from the onslaught of the Nazis. But of course, that
was not to be. During the first few months of 1940, the Belgian
army, with the help of the British, put up a furious fight to save Belgium from
the Nazis. But they were out-manned, out-gunned and out-tanked. The British
finally pulled out, and to save Belgium from total destruction, King Leopold
surrendered to the Germans on May 28, 1940.
A strategic port city, Antwerp was one of the first cities to be taken
by the Germans. On the Friday night before the invasion of Antwerp (it was more
of a German victory march), a car and driver came to our house to rescue us—my
parents, grandparents, my brother Joseph and me. The driver was supposed to
take us out of immediate harms’ way into France. But, amid the chaos,
my grandmother boldly stated, “We’re not going.”
There was a moment of silence, and then, “What do you mean, we’re not
going? The Germans are coming on Sunday, and who knows what will happen?!”
My righteous grandmother replied, “M’tur
nisht fuhren oif Shabbos. One doesn’t travel on Shabbat.”
“Yes, we all know,” everyone pleaded, “but we don’t know if we will even
survive. What we do know is what’s happening in Poland and Germany. This is a
matter of life and death!”
But one didn’t argue with my grandmother. So right or wrong, in this
terrifying moment, we turned away what was possibly our only salvation, and
resigned ourselves to praying and hoping for the best.
For the next 24 hours we tried to remain calm. We went to synagogue,
prayed, hugged each other and discussed the precarious future in
whispered tones with our family and friends. We knew that whatever happened, even if we
could make it out somehow, we would have to leave behind our belongings,
businesses, property and all sorts of valuables.
To our great astonishment and disbelief, the same driver returned after
Shabbat. We didn’t know who he was; he never told us who sent him. Was he an
angel sent by G‑d to to save us? Did my grandmother earn G‑d’s protection
because of her unflinching resolve? Was it her faith and loyalty?
Also, I'm convinced that G‑d looked down upon me and told His angel, “We
must save that child, because his bride will be born a year from now, and I
don't want to disappoint her.”
(Fast forward 22 years and 3 months … on Saturday night of the Labor Day
weekend, I stepped into my friend's car and saw his date, Ahuva [it was a
double date]. We locked eyes and souls, and I met my bride whom G‑d had
promised to me many years ago.)
The driver brought us across the border to France, to a small town
called “La Panne,” dropped us off at the train station, and we never saw him
again. We are forever grateful, and thank G‑d every day for sending one of His
angels to my family.
We began planning our escape to England. As it was almost impossible to
get transportation, my father bought a pushcart for
his very sick father, and we walked for hours until we reached Dunkirk. There,
the nuns of a convent gave us shelter.
The next morning, we were astonished to see a devastated town. We
realized we had slept through a huge bombardment. The fatigue from the previous
day’s journey, and the convent’s thick walls, had given us the respite we so
badly needed. Staying in the convent had saved our lives. Our angel was still
with us. But the nuns were told the Germans were coming to search the area, and
they could not provide for our safety any longer, so we had to leave Dunkirk.
With some friends and family we found in Dunkirk, we hired a fishing
boat with our collective, quickly-disappearing funds. However, while we were on
the English Channel, German planes strafed us with bombs and bullets. The
captain had no choice but to sail back to port. Sadly, my grandfather Jacob of
blessed memory, was too weak to take this punishment and didn’t make it.
The German propaganda machine issued proclamations saying that everyone
should go back home (there were hundreds of thousands of refugees on the
roads). “Everything will be like it was before, no one should worry, no one
will be hurt.”
The Germans, of course, wanted the roads open so that their army could
advance without interference. As my father’s mother had a son in the Belgian army, she decided to go
back to Antwerp, in the hope that he would come home. (Uncle Emil did come
home, and lived with his wife and three daughters until his untimely death from
cancer. Grandma Reizel also survived the war, and came to New York for my bar mitzvah
in 1950. Fearing the Korean War might develop into another world war, she
stayed with us for the rest of her years.)
Meanwhile, back in France, we redoubled our efforts to leave theWe redoubled our efforts to leave the madness of Europe
madness of Europe. Our immediate destination was
Marseilles, then the largest French port city on the Riviera. We boarded a
train traveling south. About an hour into the ride, a German plane roared
overhead and began to strafe the train. The train stopped, and the conductor
ordered everyone to get off and run. While most of the people were terrified, screaming or
praying loudly, my brother and I were having a grand time, innocently unafraid, lying on the
ground, giggling and following the bombs with our outstretched arms, as they
whistled their way down.
There were some injuries, but only a little damage, and after a few minutes,
the pilot either ran out of ammo or gas, or got bored and left the area. We all
hustled back on the train, and the rest of the trip to Marseilles was
uneventful. Was the same angel protecting us from the Luftwaffe, or was this a
As you can imagine, six Jews arriving at Marseilles with nothing but a
small suitcase and some money tucked away was a daunting experience. Luckily,
my mother spoke French, which somewhat eased the constant confrontations with
the haughty French bureaucrats. We first contacted the local synagogue, where
assistance was gladly given.
We all settled into a small apartment, and made inquiries about the next
boat to the U.S. At that time, there were a few countries accepting refugees
from Europe (this too was to change in the following years): Cuba, Venezuela,
China, Japan, Canada and America. Some of our family members chose Cuba (but
that’s another story). My mother’s three brothers were
clever enough to foresee the future, and had made their way to New York in
1939. Clearly, they would vouch for us, which would ensure our entry to the
My parents had already decided that America was to be our only
destination, and waiting for news of a boat with passage for our family was
Meanwhile, the French were becoming more aggressive in their eagerness
to please the inevitable invaders from Germany. They began a “stop and search”
routine to ferret out the Jews, which resulted in the capture of my father.
We were stopped by the French police, and my father was taken into
custody, stripped of his Belgian passport and put in jail.
By some extraordinary planning, my parents had worked out a scenario
that if either one was detained, the other would wait for contact at a specific
café, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. My mom and my grandma took turns
vigilantly. They couldn’t take the risk of Papa Chiel (Grandpa) being caught
and thrown in jail as well.
How they survived the anguish and anxiety of not knowing what had become
of my father is a testament to the human spirit.
One day, a few weeks on, a stranger approached my mom at the café, and
asked her if her name was Guis? At once, my mother knew that
this was a message from my father. “Yes,” the stranger said, “he’s fine. I’m on
a weekend pass. The French police don’t want to spend every day of the week in
their jail, so they are giving some of us a pass, in order to allow just a
skeleton crew to be on duty on the weekend. Of course, they hold our passports
as collateral. Your husband asked me to find you and tell you that you don’t
have to wait here every day. The only way he’ll ever get out is if they give
him a weekend pass. So you need to be here only on Saturday and Sunday.” And, abruptly,
the man left.
And so the vigil continued—that awful state of mind of not knowing what
the next minute would bring, the stress of trying to create a normal atmosphere
for the children while in the midst of uncertainty, and yes, mental terror.
Unless you walk a mile in those shoes, you cannot fathom the emotional drain. One day after another, one week after another.
And then, on a late Friday afternoon, when hope was becoming a thing of
the past, Mom (who decided she would add Friday to her vigilance), looked up
from her coffee cup, and there was my dad walking towards her. The reunion was
exhilarating, the relief beyond description. They actually gave Dad a weekend
pass, but with the warning that he must return Monday morning or he would
forfeit his passport. Ha! Let’s see, forfeit my passport or forfeit my life?
The waiting for a boat continued, the tension ever-mounting.
Dad had become a target for the Marseilles police, who were now activelyAfter an agonizing moment, the cop blinked a few times, and turned away
searching for him. On one of the necessary bus trips back home from the docks,
Dad noticed a man staring at him. Yes, it was the same cop who had taken him
away many weeks ago.
It was approaching evening. Father held his breath. The policeman must have been on his way home. He looked straight at Dad,
while Dad lowered his eyes to the floor. Then suddenly after an agonizing
moment, the cop blinked a few times, and turned away.
Did he not recognize my dad? Did he not want to spend the next few hours
with an arrest, going back to the jail, with all the paperwork involved? Did he
just want to go home and spend a nice quiet evening? Or did our angel once
again intervene on our behalf?
This episode brought home to my parents that it was no longer safe to
wait in Marseilles. Drastic measures had to be taken. Some of the fleeing Jews were
traveling to Portugal, for several reasons:
To get as far away from
Germany as possible, and because Portugal was neutral and not anti-Semitic.
Additionally, word was that more boats were available out of Lisbon.
Flight to Lisbon
We heard of a guide, who for an exorbitant amount of money, would take
you out of France, across the border to Spain, over and down the Pyrenees and into
the nearest big city.
With no other option, we found and hired him, but he was only willing to
take my older brother, Joseph, who could make the walk, and not me, who would
have to be carried most of the way. So I stayed behind with my grandparents,
who had somehow gotten documents that would allow them to travel to Lisbon,
where we all planned to meet.
Did I have feelings of abandonment? Did I think I might never see my
parents again? Or was I too young to comprehend what was happening? And imagine
my mother having to leave one of her sons and her parents, not knowing if she
would ever see us again.
My parents gathered whatever they could carry, with the understanding
that my five-year-old brother might also have to be carried. The guide took
most of what was left of our money (we were now almost penniless, and one adult
didn’t have papers), and they took off at dusk.
The “savior” drove them close to the border of Spain and stashed the car
in the woods, and that’s when the hiking began. To avoid the checkpoints on the
border, they walked mainly in the woods. Not at all easy for my mother, who was
for the most part a stay-at-home mother. My dad was a fervent Maccabi soccer
player, so it was easier on him.
I’m not sure how many hours it took them to get to where they were
going, but the guide said, “We’re not stopping. Either we keep walking, or I
leave you here.” So on they trudged.
The later it got, the crankier my brother became. Then he started
whining and crying. He was exhausted, and wanted only to lie down and sleep.
Finally the guide told them that it was too risky for him to take them any
farther. “If the child’s cries were to be heard, we would all be thrown in a
Spanish jail.” He made an about-face (naturally keeping all the money), and left them
in the middle of the night, atop the Pyrenees Mountains, with no food, little
money and dwindling hope.
They rested for quite some time, and in the end, on their own, my parents
chose the correct and safe path down the mountain into Spanish civilization. My parents and brother made their way to Madrid, only to find all the
hotels and inns guarded by German police and soldiers. To get a room, you had
to hand in your passport, which my father didn’t have, or face arrest. Food and
board became an interesting game.
Here’s where the story becomes hazy. I don’t remember if my brother and
I were ever told how we all managed to get to Portugal intact, or perhaps it
was too painful to store in my memory, having been separated from Mom and Dad.
But, indeed, eventually we were all reunited in Lisbon, to my parents’ great
relief, and everlasting thanks to G‑d.
There was a community of Jewish refugees gathered in Lisbon, all helping
each other with lodging, food, and most importantly, information. We needed to
know when a boat was leaving, what its destination was, was there space
available, and how to book passage with a minimum of funds. The Portuguese
government was very sympathetic to the plight of Jewish refugees, so they
helped in every way possible.
Unfortunately, my brother contracted scarlet fever during the wait for
passage. Try as they may, my parents could not avoid the inevitable, and I
caught it as well. Clearly, they could not risk the health of their children,
or the safety of the other passengers on board. So Lisbon was to be our home
for a further six weeks, until we were both disease free.
Dad somehow managed to acquire identity papers, and booked passage on
the “Serpa Pinto,” which
was bound for Canada. The journey was not smooth sailing either. During oneThe journey was not smooth sailing
particularly heavy storm, a chandelier crashed down, just missing my father.
There were also U-boat scares and other weather-related perils.
Finally, in January 1941 we landed in the safe haven of North America.
We made our way south through “Rouses Point” (on the Canadian/U.S. border) to
New York, where my uncles were thrilled to see their parents, sister and
brother-in-law, plus two thin but healthy nephews.
My father became established as a diamond sawyer and cleaver on 47th Street.
Mom sent us to a school called “Children’s Colony,” which was geared toward
easing us into learning English, as we spoke only French. So, teachers with
heavy German accents taught us English with a touch of French and German
The eight-month ordeal had been difficult and terrifying, but with faith
and loyalty on our side, and the indomitable spirit of loving parents and
grandparents, we pulled through with flying colors.
We pay tribute to the many who suffered far greater and longer than we,
and bless the memory of those who joined G‑d before their time.
I personally thank G‑d for 54 years of blissful marriage, and all the
blessings and dividends that He has bestowed on us: good health, children and
grandchildren. And I pray for us and all of Israel,
that G‑d continues to look upon us all with favor, kindness, sweetness and
peace. May He grant us the music of laughter, the ease of friendship, the
warmth of love—with the knowledge that we will repay Him in kind.