Jean-Claude van Itallie
My image of that earliest time: an enchanted garden where Mami
and I live alone together and nothing bad can happen.
From the balcony of our living room, I fish for bright cardboard
Standing on the short steep cement driveway of our building, I smell
the delicious odor of gasoline while staring at a rectangle of red
In a gilt-edged baby book my mother, Mami (pronounced mah-MEE),
records the first time she takes me to the shore: 1938—I’m
two. She promised I’d see la mer, the sea—which
sounds like la mere, the mother. From Brussels where we
live we drive three hours to the shore. Standing on the beach facing
the waves of the North Sea, I’m bewildered. I ask, “Ou
est la mere?—Where’s the mother?” “Right
there in front of you.” Amazed, I exclaim, “La mere
est dans la mer!”—“The mother’s in
Mami—Marthe Mathilde Caroline Levy—is born in Brussels
on December 22, 1912. She grows up in a tall, thin, reddish, crenellated
house on Square Ambiorix. Her father, Fernand Levy, my Grandpapa,
is a non-practicing Jew, though he goes to temple once a year to
honor his mother. He runs Levy Freres, the glove factory
inherited from his father, Aaron.
In 1857 Aaron had moved to Brussels from Luxembourg, founded the
factory, and married his English niece, the stout and formidable
Caroline. Grandpapa was their seventh and youngest child. In 1901,
at sixteen, Grandpapa was an apprentice glove-maker in London. He
grew a mustache, learned to smoke, and climbed a lamp post to watch
the funeral of Queen Victoria. Later, working in his father’s
glove factory in Brussels, he often traveled to Paris to visit his
French cousins, especially the young Germaine Rottembourg.
In 1971, Germaine, my straightforward Grandmaman, is eighty-seven.
She sits in her worn, brown leather armchair in a small sunny Brussels
apartment with healthy ivy plants climbing across the ceiling. I
sit across from her in my late grandfather’s higher-backed
brown leather armchair. I’m thirty-five, in Brussels on my
way back from India.
Grandmaman puts a plate of chocolates and cookies on the low brass
table between us. I ask about her childhood. She recounts exuberantly,
“In Beauvais I saw my mother carried to a ball in a sedan
chair.” I ask, “How come the family moved to Paris?”
She says, “When I was ten my father’s clothing store
was failing. Our hundreds of cousins kept wanting clothes for free.
So we moved. Papa said, ‘At least in Paris they won’t
come.’ I actually kissed the stone walls of Beauvais good-bye.
In Paris Papa became a supervisor at La Belle Jardiniere,
the department store, and died of a heart attack. Mama opened a
gemstone business. I learned shorthand, became a legal secretary,
and was engaged to your grandfather in 1909. On the back of a photo
of us in the Tuileries I wrote, ‘Awful. We look as if we’d
each swallowed a cane.’”
Grandmaman likes to write. She made me a list of what she saw come
into being in Brussels: electricity, the horseless carriage, radio,
the telephone, and television. During the war she kept a journal.
In 1976, not long before her death, when Grandmaman was ninety-two,
Allen Ginsberg was in Brussels for a conference. I brought Allen
to visit Grandmaman. I told her, “He’s a famous poet.”
She showed Allen a poem she’d written and submitted to a chocolate
company to win chocolates.
In 1921 Grandpapa and Grandmaman’s household in Brussels was
strict, serious, and bourgeois—picture perfect. Quiet and
strong-willed, Marthe is “the beautiful one.” Her older
sister Nelly feels lesser. Good-natured Jacques, the youngest, obeys
his sisters. After dinner in the parlor everyone reads his or her
own book. At ten o’clock Grandpapa sends the children to bed.
Grandpapa’s unmarried brother, Uncle Emile, rotund with a
white handlebar mustache, occupies the top floor. Emile’s
mistress never appears at the house. He sometimes gives the children
money for candies but he terrorizes them. He relentlessly teases
brown-haired Marthe, comparing her to “la petite blonde
filasse,” an invisible little girl with wispy blond hair
whose behavior, unlike Marthe’s, is always perfect. Marthe
cries over it. Her parents reprove Emile only mildly.
Nelly studies Egyptology and Marthe is an avid reader of novels
but the girls don’t go to college. Jacques would like to become
a teacher but when his mother says, “Your father’s not
getting any younger. It would please me if you’d help him
at the glove factory,” Jacques complies.
When Marthe’s eighteen, at a tea dance she meets the ambitious
Hugo van Itallie. She renames him “Hughes,” and they
quickly become engaged. Two years later Grandpapa allows them to
marry. On her wedding day Marthe leaves a loving farewell letter
on her parents’ bed. She writes, “I’m glad, Papa,
you had your way about the ceremony.” Sixty years later Hughes
is still mad at his father-in-law for forcing him to stamp on a
glass like any other Jewish groom.
Hughes, my father, is proud of being “a free-thinker.”
He was born the only child of Dutch parents in Brussels on March
6, 1908—and not circumcised. As the family story goes, in
the seventeenth century a Florentine Jewish librarian and his family
emmigrated to Holland. Later a family member was asked by a not
too bright Dutch official where he was from: “What’s
your ‘van’?” The answer, “from Italy”—“van
Itallie.” I’m fifty when I finally understand that Father
inherited his reluctance to reveal Jewishness from his father and
grandfather. In 1900 my great-grandfather, Samuel I. van Itallie,
who taught Jewish religion, lived in Maastricht, Holland, in a house
that was once a convent. He told his children, “You take care
of business, I’ll deal with being Jewish.”
Why? Northern European Jews were just emerging from the economic
ghetto. New possibilities were opening for Jews who didn’t
demonstrate their Jewishness. Samuel wanted his family to succeed.
His sons all married Jewish women. His daughters remained unmarried.
My Great-uncle Leo became dean of the University of Leyden. His
wife, Tante Mien, was the first woman senator in Holland. My grandfather
Ferdinand —who, coincidentally, like my grandfather Fernand
was the youngest of seven children—moved to Brussels and became
Ferdinand, whom I call Opa, married Tilly Jacobs, whom I called
Oma. (“Not only Jews are named Jacobs,” my father maintained.
“Many Christians have that name.”) Oma was a singer
until Opa insisted she stop her career. In my study there’s
an April 27, 1916, program of Madame Tilly van Itallie’s song
recital in Brussels, accompanied by viola and piano. In the three-story
house Opa built on Avenue Montjoie, Oma took in music students as
Grandmaman told me the story of how once in a train lavatory Oma
removed her jewelry to wash her hands. She placed her rings on the
rim of the wash basin. After washing, she overturned the basin to
empty the water on the track. The rings were gone. After that Oma
never wore any “real” jewelry. She wore long, beaded
necklaces over dark, loose dresses made of fabric from the Dutch
Standing by the piano in her living room, Oma offers me two
closed hands. I don’t know which to choose. She opens one
hand. It holds a tangerine. She opens the other hand. It holds a
tangerine, too, but smaller. “It’s marzipan,”
Oma explains. I’m confused. I don’t know the word ‘marzipan.’
Smiling, Oma exclaims, “It’s candy!”
Hugo, Oma’s only child, was the apple of her eye. Hugo’s
father, Opa, was choleric, a perfectionist, loud and strict. At
eighteen Hugo and a friend sign on as sailors on a ship to New York.
One night Hugo, on watch, sees a light. He reports it to an officer
who shouts, “It’s on this ship, you imbecile!”
Back home Hugo contrasts the vitality of New York with the sleepiness
of Brussels. He wants to become a diplomat but his mother cries
at the thought of her beloved son living far from home. So he studies
finance and joins his father on the stock exchange. He’s good
at trading although Opa berates and humiliates him in front of colleagues.
In 1936, for his fiftieth birthday, Opa’s rich friend “Uncle”
David Van Buuren has set up a bowling alley in the garden of his
art deco house (now the Van Buuren Museum) near Avenue Montjoie.
My father wants his first child born on Uncle David’s birthday,
so he encourages his pregnant, beautiful, twenty-three-year-old
wife to bowl. Then, after the party, to induce labor my father drives
my mother over the bumpiest cobblestoned streets of Brussels. A
day later, on May 25, I’m born at ten minutes to midnight.
Like my father, I’m not circumcised.
My mother likes the name Eric. My father doesn’t. He claims
he can’t find “Eric” on the Burgomaster’s
list of legally allowable names. So I’m Jean-Claude but nicknamed
“Bichon,” a small deer, the title of a then
popular play in Brussels about a baby. I’m the first infant
born in my parents’ group of friends who go on skiing trips
together, calling themselves “Les Barbapoux,”
I have a deep voice. Mami’s friends kootchy-koo over my baby
carriage in the parc de Bruxelles. They’re astonished
by my grave response: “Bonjour, Madame.” I
learn to speak at eleven months perhaps because my mother needs
a confidant. No longer dominated by her father or Uncle Emile, does
she find her husband too strong-willed too? When he’s away
on military maneuvers she feels isolated but relieved.
My mother and I are on holiday at Seroux-Mousty in the countryside
outside Brussels. Mami kneels by the wooden wheelbarrow. It’s
sunny. We’re picking red currants. She wears the black dress
with the orange goldfish bowls, la robe aux poissons. She
sings, “Et le coeur de Mami est petit, tout petit, petit
. . . Il n’a de place que pour moi . . .,” Mami’s
heart is small, very very small—and there’s room there
just for me. . . .She says, “Fais attention, mon cheri.
Pick the whole stem.” But I’m looking at her, mesmerized.
She’s so beautiful.
When I’m almost three, in May, 1939, my parents take me to
Uncle David’s birthday dinner. I’m scared by the
unsmiling waiters in white gloves. I cry. I’m carried into
the kitchen. A cook leads me by the hand into the garden. She shows
me a blue hyacinth. I lean down and smell it.
At my uncle Jacques’ wedding, I’m a page. Jacques’
bride, Elisabeth Dauge, is Christian. Their “mixed”
marriage takes place in the city hall of Ghent. Shyly entering
with the wedding party, wearing shorts held up by suspenders, clutching
my piece of the bride’s long white train, I spy Mami standing
in the front row of guests. She’s across a vast polished floor,
looking elegant in a long dress and green, medieval style hat and
veil. Excited, I call, “Mami!” She frowns, putting her
finger to her lips.
At home at dinner a fish bone gets stuck in my throat. I’m
choking. Mami and Papa argue loudly—should “he”—I,
sitting between them—drink water or eat bread?
In 1993 my father is a frail eighty-four. The two of us sit in the
comfortable living room of his twenty-sixth floor New York apartment
near the United Nations. It’s late afternoon. Father wears
an elegant suit and tie. I ask him about the war. He doesn’t
want me to record his answers.
“Why not?” I ask.
He looks at me as if I were a fool. “These are military matters.”
“But the war was fifty years ago,” I protest.
Father suffers from paranoia. “The walls have ears,”
he whispers glancing around us. It’s an expression he often
I agree not to take notes.
Father confides, “In 1940, I’m a noncommissioned officer
stationed in a small town in the Ardennes. I learn that enlisted
men will receive a five-day leave. From this I deduce that the Nazi
invasion is expected soon. I phone Mami in Brussels. I tell her
to be ready to drive you and my parents to the shore, to Saint Idesbald.
My father and I rented a villa there in case of invasion.”
May 10, 1940—the night is clear. At four-thirty in the morning
the Nazis bomb Brussels. I wake. It’s still dark. I’m
scared. All by myself, I lower the side of my bed and step down.
Anything in this room could turn into a wolf. I go into the living
room. Mami is urgently packing. “What’s the noise?”
“The garage next door. They’re fixing trucks.”
“We’re going for a ride,” she says evenly, “with
Oma and Opa.”
“I want to take my big teddy bear,” I whine.
“There’s no room in the car.” She’s irritated.
“Take Little Bear.”
I know there’s something wrong. I wail.
“Jeanne,” Mami calls to the maid. “Put his rust-colored
coat right over his pajamas—and don’t forget the matching
Mami drives me and Jeanne, and Opa and Oma out of Brussels. We stop
at a restaurant. In the basement, Mami and Jeanne pull off my
coat. I resist. What’s happening?
“You still have your pajamas on.”
They pull my pajamas off and dress me.
I cry angrily.
On Square Ambiorix Grandmaman starts her journal: “Several
young Jewish women whose husbands are in the army call for advice
as to whether to leave Belgium. I tell them, ‘Yes, leave.’”
My uncle Jacques, a sergeant in the army, left his wife and baby
daughter Nicole near Ghent with Elisabeth’s parents.
Like his mother, Jacques starts a journal: “May 10. At three
in the morning, we’re wakened by the alert siren. The entire
village of Heru Saint Hubert jumps to life. Quickly we distribute
cartridges and campaign rations. My task is to double the phone
lines from division headquarters to 11th Company. Working in the
dawn light, we believe this is just another test alert but suddenly
planes appear. Three big bombers fly so low we can see German insignias.
Now there’s no doubt. The Nazis have invaded. We greet them
with antiaircraft fire—insufficient and ineffective. Some
of my men seem stunned. Others, excited, want to shoot at the planes.
Far away we see Nazi bombers circle the valley of Bilzen. There’s
a huge cloud of black smoke. From Bilzen come women, children, and
old people carrying belongings assembled in haste—a sad sight.
They tell us Waltwilder, where we’re heading, is being bombed.
My men, who’ve learned to lie face down in ditches to protect
themselves, ask, “Must we really keep advancing?” I
phone Division. No counterorder. We reach Waltwilder. Our comrades
are the only people left, and they’ve suffered losses. The
German planes dive-bomb, making a siren sound which frightens us
more than the louder noises of falling and exploding bombs.
“We leave Waltwilder in a column, the two lieutenants on bicycles,
the rest of us walking fast. Many civilians and soldiers out of
formation pass us. The Nazis bombard and machine-gun us. A bomb
falls nearby but no one’s hit. Our trucks finally reach us.
I’m thinking mostly about my family. Suddenly Count De Graef,
the battalion commander, arrives like a whirlwind shouting, “Save
yourselves! The Germans are just meters behind!” In an instant
everyone’s in the trucks. We’re fleeing fast, still
in an endless column. Large bombs fall. Two soldiers are hit, one
badly. I have him put in the car of a lieutenant who can’t
refuse to take him. The soldier has both legs gone. I doubt he’ll
In Brussels Grandmaman writes, “Sirens all day. Nelly and
I go downtown to buy paper. We paste it on the windows, making the
house look sad and terrible. Nelly insists we turn the basement
into an air raid shelter with tools, chairs, water, rugs, and our
gas masks. The servants ask permission to set up beds down there.
Marthe phones, urging us to come to Saint Idesbald. At three in
the morning sirens wake us. At four we decide to leave. We pack,
alert and leave money for the servants, and tell Emile. At eleven,
Jacques writes, “I have a few hours of liberty so with three
comrades I’ve come home. The family is moved to see me whole
but they’re about to leave. Everyone’s agitated. In
Papa’s mind, he’s simply escorting my mother and Nelly
to safety, then he’s coming back to Brussels to settle his
affairs. My comrades and I bathe, eat ham omelettes, and drink coffee.
At noon I’m holding the car door open for my mother who, with
my father and sister, leaves for Saint Idesbald. Zenon, the chauffeur,
must return the car to Brussels before nightfall—it’s
“I rejoin my men. The idea of traveling toward the front frightens
them. They’re sullen. As we ride they take every opportunity
to climb out of the trucks. It’s work to get them to climb
back in. Some will bear me a grudge for not letting them act on
Grandmaman writes, “Saint Idesbald is mobbed with refugees,
many of whom we know. We’re lucky to have the hotel room Marthe
reserved for us. After dinner with the van Itallies, we shop for
food but the panic is on. Much is already unavailable. The morning
of May 16 we leave for France with the van Itallies.”
Mami is driving. I want to crawl into her lap. My aunt holds
me back. Mami looks pained. Looking straight ahead, she mutters,
“Pas maintenant, mon cheri—not now, my darling.”
Grandmaman: “We’ve bought a luggage cart but at what
a price! We’ve heard of cars waiting four hours at the border,
so Marthe takes back roads where the wait is shorter. In France,
we’re surrounded by a miserable procession of women, old people,
and children pushing everything from wheelbarrows to baby carriages.
Anything with wheels is on the roads. We’re lucky to be in
a car. On top of the cart, Jeanne sits waving to soldiers. Thanks
to a Farmer Leroy our first night in France is spent in his barn.
I’m proud that in my native country people are generous and
I’ve never been in a barn before. It’s a big barn.
Oma is sick. She’s in the big bed at the other end of the
barn. I’m in the little bed. The others sleep on the ground.
I wave at Oma. She waves back. I’m excited.
Fifty years later my father, sipping chamomile tea in his New York
living room, gains expansiveness as he answers my questions about
the war: “I pass through Brussels with my antiaircraft unit.
I offer my men a drink in a café while I run home to our
apartment. I take my wife’s pearl necklace and some papers.
Then with my men I continue west. The Germans are forcing the army
closer and closer to the sea. Near Bruges I glimpse King Leopold
walking with his generals. From the king’s posture, the way
he hunches his shoulders, I deduce that surrender is imminent.”
Jacques writes: “A bomber flies low and drops his “prunes,”
his bomblets. One explodes on top of a car a meter from me. I pick
up bomb fragments. They’re made of a light metal. Aluminum?
We’re billeted in a hideous castle in a pretty park. Counard
fishes in the pond. That seems a bit much for wartime. At seven
in the morning we leave for Westrem. We’ve camped there before.
These returns are demoralizing. The men realize we’re yielding
territory. The Nazis rain written tracts down on us, inviting us
to lay down arms. What kind of warfare is that? It’s disgusting.
So is the defeatism of my comrades who want us beaten soon so they
can go home.”
Traveling, Grandmaman writes, “Argenteau. Small village, small
hotel—big homesickness. We leave by small roads. Marthe, a
driver beyond praise, manages marvelously. Then, near the river
Charente, our cart overturns and flies into a ditch! Our poor parcels
are all over the road —our clothes everywhere covered with
honey and jam. We worried this would happen so, fortunately, we
left Jeanne, our Madonna of the Cart, in Rouen. Again heaven protects
us. A car stops and the driver, Jean Pairy, insists on helping.
He puts our parcels into his car, making several trips. Finally
he drives us to Fouras where he finds us excellent rooms.”
On the hotel balcony Grandmaman tells me, “Always remember
you spent your fourth birthday in France.”
Grandmaman writes, “May 26. We move to a villa rented from
Jean Pairy. It’s dirty but we clean it, with Jeanne, who’s
The Germans push the Belgian army toward the sea. Jacques writes,
“May 28. We reach Mariakerke at dawn. We look for a place
to sleep. The townspeople turn a deaf ear; houses are already full
of refugees. Finally I show my rifle at a door. I order that I and
my two comrades be let in. We get four hours’ sleep on the
bare floor. The householder gives us breakfast but lets us know
we’re a burden. We leave with dignity. On the street there’s
a commotion. Soldiers are shouting. A nurse comes over to us: ‘You’re
sergeants. Tell these men it’s not true Belgium has surrendered!’
Indignant, we ask the soldiers, ‘Who told you that?’
They say, ‘The police in Ostende.’ Certain the news
is false, we march straight to Count de Graef to report this defeatist
treachery. He says sighing, ‘Alas, it’s true. Belgium
has surrendered. The Nazis have already passed Bruges—they’ll
be here within the hour. We have to give up arms.’ I can’t
say what I feel. For my country to disappear, to fall into the hands
of the Nazis . . . seems impossible. I ask the Count, ‘Do
you think the Belgian army can go to England or France?’ He
says, ‘No. The English and French don’t have enough
ships to get home themselves. They’ve been pushed to the sea
In New York my octogenarian father gesticulates excitedly: “We’re
told to stop firing but we fire anyway—so the Germans won’t
capture our bullets. I decide not to surrender but to leave. ‘Mon
capitaine, I’m going,’ I say to the captain. He
replies, ‘I formally order you to stay—and good luck,
old man.’ He himself can’t leave, of course. If I’d
been captain, I couldn’t have left either. Besides, what could
happen to him? He could just return home. I wanted to join my family.
Some of the men ask to come with me. So several of us in two trucks
head toward Dunkirk. German planes are still overhead. When they
come close, I shout to the men, ‘Get under the truck with
me.’ They grumble, ‘the war is over,’ but they
do it. Later more German planes fly toward us. Again I tell the
men,‘Get under the truck.’ This time they refuse, shouting,
‘You’re an asshole, van Itallie.’ We lose seven
men and one is badly wounded.
“Near Dunkirk thousands of French and British soldiers are
embarking. Falling pieces of shrapnel form amazing patterns in the
sand. Somehow I’m not scared anymore. On the beach my friend
Andre and I speak to the French admiral. He’s friendly but
says, ‘I can’t take any Belgian soldiers. There’s
no room. Can I do anything else for you?’ I ask, ‘Will
you mail this to my wife?’ I had the letter in my pocket,
addressed to Pornichet where friends and I had rented a villa just
in case. The admiral says, ‘Your letter will be there in two
days.’” Sitting in his big beige armchair nibbling a
thin Belgian almond cookie, Father says, “Mami drove by the
villa in Pornichet and got the letter. That’s how she found
out I’d reached Dunkirk.”
I’m struck by how Father was provident. He saw the war coming
and took all steps necessary for us to escape death. My mother was
strong too. With little driving experience, she drove us safely
through the bombing in France. It seems if a Belgian Jewish family
was smart, brave, and had means—they had a chance of escaping
I ask Father, “So how did you manage to board a British ship?”
“I noticed an abandoned French helmet on the beach. I put
it on. Andre and I swam out to an empty rowboat. We rowed to a British
ship packed with French soldiers. Because the British were looking
down at us from the deck, they saw my French helmet and pulled us
on board. Then many of us stood around on deck soaking wet. A British
officer asks, ‘Does someone speak English?’ I raise
my hand. ‘I’m Belgian,’ I tell him, though obviously
he can see that from the markings on my sopping uniform. He says,
‘Come.’ He puts me in the boiler room where it’s
hot. They tell me to strip—Ils me mettent a poil.
I lay my uniform out to dry. The ship sails. They order me to record
the names of all the foreign soldiers on board.
“When we land near Folkestone, I’m put in jail.”
I wince. “Don’t worry,” my father smiles. “It
wasn’t so bad—just the barracks jail. I’m fed
and I sleep. A British intelligence officer interviews me. ‘How
was it at Dunkirk? Describe what you saw. Tell me all about yourself.’
I tell him years ago I apprenticed at a brokerage house in London,
the head of which was an MP. The British are marvelously trained.
I can’t tell from his face if he believes me. Two hours later
an orderly brings me a new uniform, a toothbrush, and shaving things—everything
I need to look presentable. Then I’m led to the officers’
mess. They treat me with respect. The English either hate you or
love you. There’s no middle ground. Of course there’s
a difference between how they treat officers and how they treat
Jacques returns to Brussels. He runs Levy Freres for a
year before he’s forced to hand it over to a German “steward.”
Though Semitic-looking enough, until 1944 Jacques walks fearlessly
in Brussels, holding a real identity card with a fake name. Several
Nazi officers are billeted on the second floor of his house. One
night when they make too much noise, Jacques marches upstairs and
remonstrates with them. They apologize politely. Elisabeth is terrified
Jacques will finally be deported but he remains cheerful. In the
last months of the war he hides out in a friend’s attic.
My father arranges to be shipped to France with the only Belgian
battalion to return to the continent. He joins us in Fouras.
I’m shelling peas in the garden with Jeanne. Grandmaman
calls me in, “Papa has arrived!”
In his Manhattan apartment, Father continues, “I go to Paris
to get travel permits from my friend Conrad at the Belgian Embassy.
In Paris at the station people are swarming like ants. There’s
a notice on the Embassy gate: ‘closed.’ I remember seeing
from the train many cars with diplomatic plates in Tours. So I go
back to the station. With my military uniform I can go where I like.
I find a locomotive that looks ready to leave. I ask the engineer
if he’s going to Tours. ‘Yes.’ I climb aboard.
Tours is in chaos but I was right—the Embassy is here now.
Conrad says, ‘I saw a motorcade with big¬wigs including
Churchill. France is to be occupied.’ Conrad gives me a car
and assigns me to the Embassy in Portugal. He also gives me exit
visas so we can go to England if need be.”
Opa writes to a friend in England, “I’m coming to join
you. I refuse to spend another war in a Belgium occupied by Germans.”
On June 18th at five in the morning the van Itallies and Levys leave
Fouras by car for the port of Bordeaux. My two grandmothers fight
over whose chamber pot will be taken on the trip.
Grandmaman writes, “In Bordeaux, Tilly and I wait in the car
for Ferdinand to return from the Dutch Shipping Line. When he does,
he tells us he’s booked passage to England that very evening
for himself and Tilly. My husband and I want to get back to Villeneuve
before dark. The farewells are terribly emotional. Ferdinand and
Tilly hug us, crying. Hughes wants to take Marthe and Bichon to
England too. Will we see them tonight in Villeneuve or will they
have gone, too?”
The ship will board only Dutch nationals.
On the dock, I hold Mami’s and Papa’s hands. We
watch the boat leave. Oma and Opa wave to us from the deck high
up. I’m amazed a metal boat, big as a mountain and high as
a cliff, can move on water. Later in life I often dream of a huge
ship departing. “Wave to Oma and Opa,” Mami says. I wave.
We watch for a long time as the ship moving toward the horizon gets
smaller and smaller. Oma and Opa are just dots now.
I never see Oma and Opa again. Next day the boat hits a mine. My
father is notified weeks later by the Red Cross that Oma and Opa
apparently drowned in their cabin. Now in his living room in New
York, I say to Father, “It’s lucky we weren’t
all on board. You and I wouldn’t be here.” Father is
acerbic. “We certainly would. If I’d been on that boat
I’d never have let my family go below deck.”
Grandmaman writes, “That night we wait at Villeneuve, terrified
we won’t see Marthe, Hughes, and Bichon return. We’re
scared too because we’re being seriously bombarded. At midnight
our dear ones are here. I’m so relieved. Hughes tells us,
‘I couldn’t book passage so I went to the Portuguese
Consulate. I managed to get entrance visas into Portugal by agreeing
to bring along a thirteen-year-old boy. His name is Jerry Brunell.’”
(Years later in New York Brunell becomes editor of Aufbau,
the Jewish German-language newspaper.) “That same night we
start out with Marthe, Hughes, Nelly, Bichon, and Jerry Brunell.
The road is dark but we don’t dare turn on the headlights.
We tremble each time we hear a plane. After two hours we give up
and stop the cars by a field. For the first time we spend the night
outdoors. We don’t even think of sleeping.”
The day after our hurried departure, Grandpapa’s sister Irma
and her daughter Luce arrive in Fouras, hoping to join us. They’ve
had a grueling six-day journey from Paris, partly in a cattle car.
In Fouras they’re devastated to find only two letters—one
to Grandmaman from her sisters, and one to Jeanne from my mother.
Irma and Luce have missed us. Low on funds, they return to Paris
where they receive a little money from Uncle Emile in Nice. Ultimately
Irma and Luce are deported. They don’t survive the concentration
Grandmaman writes in her diary, “June 20th at dawn we arrive
in Agen, an ugly dirty town. We rent a room just to wash up, then
drive to Toulouse where Hughes tries unsuccessfully to get visas
from the Spanish Consulate. Later we drive to Foix where we stay
at the Hotel du Grand Soleil, et de la grande salete .
. . (Hotel of Great Sunshine, and of great filth . . .).”
My father says, “In Foix on the street I run into my friend
Hubert, in the army like me. I complain to Hubert, ‘I can’t
get visas to drive through Spain.’ Hubert informs me, ‘The
Spanish Consulate in Perpignan hasn’t yet received orders
from Madrid to stop issuing visas.’
“At seven in the morning we leave for Perpignan where we stay
at the Hotel de l’Univers,” Grandmaman writes.
My father, excited, says, “Thanks to Hubert’s tip, I
manage to get Spanish transit visas. And French exit visas. At the
frontier near Perpignan a zealous Spanish customs officer accuses
me of transporting an ‘enemy alien’—Jerry Brunell.
But then he looks more closely at my name on my passport. He asks,
‘Do you know anyone in Leyden?’ I say, ‘My uncle
is dean of the university there.’ Then everything changes.
The officer studied at Leyden.”
Not knowing the reason, Grandmaman notes with surprise, “The
customs officials are so polite. They don’t even look at all
our parcels. Our first night in Spain in Figueroas we’re amazed
to see so many lights on the Grande Plaza. The young people
look like they’re in Carmen, walking gravely round
and round the plaza always in the same direction. We stay at the
Hotel du Commerce. I admit Spanish hotels are cleaner than
those in my native France. But there’s less to eat in Spain.
Everywhere we see ruins, sadness, and hungry children. On June 28th
we reach Madrid. I’m amazed how much the city has been devastated
by bombs. We see some flags with swastikas. At four in the afternoon
we leave Madrid to arrive late in Mérida at the Parador
del Turismo, hotel de reve . . . a dream hotel. .
. .At dawn we leave for Lisbon. Hughes is making us dash across
two countries au triple galop, at breakneck speed, so he
can meet with David Van Buuren. When we arrive at midnight, Hughes
finds his precious Uncle David and Aunt Alice have left for America
in the last clipper plane from Lisbon. We can’t find hotel
rooms so we end up in a sixth-rate private home in an eccentric
part of town—but the people are nice.”
July through September we stay on the Portugese shore in Estoril
at the Pension Royale. Grandpapa writes his glove manufacturing
colleague in New York, Newton J. Rice, owner of Wear Right Gloves,
for help in getting visas to the United States.
Father works at the Belgian Embassy in Lisbon. He asks permission
to rejoin his regiment in England. A military doctor turns him down,
declaring he’s jaundiced and suffers from liver problems.
To the waiter at the Pension, I speak my first English
words. “No fish, no soup.” I make friends with a family
of older boys who each evening cross the hall to say goodnight to
me. I sleep in a small bed with wooden slats next to the wall in
the corner of my parents’ bedroom. One evening Tati (as I
call my aunt Nelly), hearing me call the boys to come say good-night,
storms up the stairs from the dining room, furious. She wears a
black tie and white blouse. Once in Estoril I enter Tati’s
room to show her a stocking on my head. She’s on her bed laughing,
surrounded by young men. Years later she denies this happened.
Every night in bed I reach through the slats of the bed to scratch
at and peel the flowered wallpaper. Every morning Papa is mad at
me. Every night I get up to pour myself drinking water but it spills.
Papa’s angry at me about that too. So one night to pour the
water I hold the jug out the window. The jug is heavy. I let it
go. I go back to bed.
The next morning the hotel maid arrives at our room with a new
jug. “Where’s your mother?” she asks. I know what
she wants. Hoping she’ll go away, I tell her, “My mother’s
taking a bath.” The maid waits at attention by the bathroom
door like a tight-lipped sentinel. Beside her is an accusatory new
green jug. Mami finally emerges. In broken French the maid spits
out, “Madame, your child, he is criminal, evil.” Mami
looks at me, then back at the relentless maid who says, “Every
night the old lady and gentleman sit in wicker chairs on the balcony
under this window— every night. Last night a jug—like
this jug—hits the old lady’s wicker chair. The chair
is destroyed. Someone . . .” She gives me a hard stare. “Someone
deliberately drops the jug. By miracle yesterday is Friday the thirteenth
so the old lady and gentleman go for a walk, or the old lady would
be killed, murdered.” Mami thanks the maid. The maid leaves.
Mami asks, “Did you do it?” “No. I mean yes, but—”
In a tight even voice Mami says, “I need to talk to your grandfather.”
Locked in the bedroom, from the window, I watch my mother, a lightweight
camel-hair coat draped over her shoulders, stroll past the tennis
courts with Grandpapa. They’re going for a walk on the beach.
A prisoner awaiting sentence, later I watch them return. My mother
hangs her coat in the closet. Her tenseness and silence are strange.
I’m scared, frozen in place. Is this how things will be from
now on? Suddenly she says, “I don’t know if I’ll
tell your father. He might get too angry.” Grandpapa’s
mustached face is a deadpan mask. Smoking a cigarette, he announces,
“You might go to jail.”
Though I never see a Nazi, fear is stamped into my nervous system,
as if by osmosis, through my family. Since the Holocaust there’s
been a small current of anxiety that underlies everything.
The Belgian Baroness Lambert is staying at the Pension Royale,
too, with her twelve-year-old son Leon. The baroness has two
large dogs on leashes. I’m scared of the brown dog. The black
dog is so terrifying I hardly even see him.
In the late fifties when I’m an undergraduate at Harvard and
the film Casablanca becomes popular in Cambridge, I realize
I was in Portugal when Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart needed
to come there.
I throw apricot pits into the garden of the Pension.
Grandmaman says, “Plant them in the potted palms. Then many
years from now they’ll be trees. You can come see them.”
Thanks to Grandpapa’s friend in New York, a telegram arrives
at the American Embassy in Lisbon. “Give visas to Mr. Fernand
Levy and all his family.” It’s signed, “Cordell
Hull, Secretary of State.” Our lives are saved.
On September 25th we board a Japanese ship to America. The boat
has a funny name—the Aku Saki Maru. The baroness and her
dogs are here, too. My parents’ friends, the Maurices, have
a room on the deck above ours. I go to my parents’ room. I
open the door. It’s the Maurices! They’re naked. She’s
kneeling on top of him. I carefully close the door. The Maurices
think my seeing them is funny. They’re not angry but they
mention it to Mami and Papa. Mami and Papa don’t think it’s
funny. Papa tells Mami, “Don’t go say goodnight to him.”
She comes anyway. Sitting on the edge of my berth, she tells me,
“Mami loves you very much. But if you don’t learn to
be a good boy, she will have to love you less.” I’m
scared. I don’t even know how to be a good boy. . . .
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