Miriam Gluzman rests the thick leather album on her lap and motions for me to move closer. Decorated with an image of a Spanish schooner, the album is bulging with photographs documenting her childhood in Nazi-occupied Belgium and Argentina, where she emigrated with her family after the war. Now aged 76 and living in New Jersey, Miriam acquired the album in the early 1950s in Buenos Aires – hence the nautical Hispanic theme – but she long ago ran out of pages and as she leafs through the album loose photographs slip from between the covers.
As she turns the page, I am expecting to see a photograph of her sister, Celia, who still lives in Buenos Aires, or her eldest sister Bella, who recently turned 87 and lives in Israel. Instead, I am astonished to see the sleeve contains a swatch of bright yellow fabric with a bold black star. At the center of the star, picked out in sharp italic, is the letter ‘J’. Although the fabric is a little frayed around the edges, there is no mistaking the Nazi artifact: the Star of David with the ‘J’ for Jew looks as fresh as the day it was minted. ‘How it came into my possession, I don’t know,’ Miriam tells me. ‘Bella insists we never wore it, but Celia says we did. Bella and I had an argument about it. How come I have one then, I asked?
That is a question that to this day neither Miriam nor Bella has been able to answer. Like Celia, the sisters survived the war by posing as Catholics and living under assumed names at convents, orphanages and safe houses in Belgium. Remarkably, their sister Sophie and their brothers, Israel and Akiva (known as Isy and Kiva), also survived the war, as did their parents, Moshe and Esther Lachman.
Few Jewish families living under Nazi occupation emerged from the experience unscathed. That eight members of a single family managed to avoid deportation to the gas chambers is remarkable, possibly unprecedented (I certainly haven’t heard of another case like it). So how did they do it? Two factors stand out: Moshe’s refusal to submit to the Nazi’s anti-Jewish measures and wear the hateful yellow patch; and the kindess shown to the Lachmans by a Belgium baron, about whom more in a moment. As Bella told me when I reached her by Skype one afternoon at her home near Jerusalem: ‘My father reasoned that if we wore the star it would be easy for the Germans to pick us up. Rather than go with the herd he decided to go the other way.’
Moshe’s instinct for survival led him to uproot the family from their home in Antwerp at the heart of the city’s 20,000-strong Jewish community and decamp to Brussels where no one knew them and, he reasoned, they would have a better chance of evading the Gestapo. So it was that in June 1942, shortly after Adolf Eichmann’s Reich Security Office issued a decree requiring Jews to wear the Star of David, that the Lachmans fled Antwerp. To keep one step ahead of the authorities they switched apartments every few months, keeping eight duffel bags packed and ready in the hallway. Then in the autumn of 1942, as the Nazis stepped up deportations to the east, Moshe made a momentous decision.
‘He called me, Isy and Kiva to one side and explained that he could no longer take responsibility for us and that if we split up we would have a better chance of surviving,’ explains Bella. ‘As I was a girl and there was less chance that I would be stopped in the street and exposed as a Jew, I was the first to go.’
Aged just 16, Bella boarded a train at the central station, riding it to the end of the line. She was alone and spoke no French but with the help of a sympathetic priest she found a position with a well-to-do Dutch family. However, the family had six children and the work was arduous and after three months Bella had had enough. It was at this point that Bella had a stroke of luck that would prove her family’s salvation. Through a childhood friend who was active in the Belgian resistance she was introduced to a partisan woman who in turn introduced her to a Belgian baron, Henri de Broqueville. Although de Broqueville had never met Bella he immediately offered her a position as a nanny to his two children. Later, the baron would go further, supplying false passports for Bella’s brothers, Isy and Kiva, so that they could escape to Switzerland, and, when it became too dangerous for Moshe and Esther to remain in Brussels, relocating them to a safe house near his country estate in Wezembeek.
The baron was not the only Belgian to come to the Lachman’s aid. Other ‘righteous’ gentiles included a Catholic priest and two teachers at an orphanage in Namur who sheltered Mina, Celia and 25 other Jewish girls for nearly two years. Then there was Betty Jackobwitz, an activist in the Belgian-Jewish resistance who helped Bella’s brothers flee across the border only to be captured and deported to Auschwitz near the war’s end. However there is little doubt that de Broqueville’s intervention was critical. ‘The baron was a kind man, a righteous man,’ Bella tells me. ‘If it wasn’t for him there is a very good chance none of my family would have survived the Holocaust.’
Miriam, or Mina as she is known in Yiddish, was just four when the war broke out and she is the first to admit there are many elisions in her memory. ‘Our first apartment in Brussels was on the third floor of an old house near the Gard du Nord,’ she tells me at one point. ‘The windows were painted white. In my mind I thought it was so that from the street no one would be able to see in but my sister Bella told me no, it was so the sun would not fade the wallpaper. What a difference!’
Flicking through the album, it becomes clear that the photographs are an an important aide memoire and it is no accident that of all the Lachman children she should have been the one to keep them. ‘I’m a hoarder,’ she tells me when we meet in the spring of 2012 at her home in Wayne, New Jersey, not far from where Hurricane Sandy will make landfall the following October. ‘Stamps, coins, flowers – it doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll collect it.’
She turns the page, alighting on a picture of her and Celia, aged about six and nine respectively, standing in the corner of a room with distinctive patterned wallpaper. In the photograph the sisters are holding hands and smiling. If you didn’t know better you would think they hadn’t a care in the world. In fact, the picture was taken in 1942 at the apartment of a Yugoslav woman named Olga who took them in when it became too dangerous for them to remain with their parents and provokes a sudden surge of anger: ‘My sister and I were very unhappy there. Olga didn’t have any feelings for children. She kept us only to benefit herself! I remember that one day Bella brought us a bottle of milk. Olga emptied half the bottle into a bowl for her cat and filled the remainder of the bottle with water. My sister was very sad. She couldn’t do anything.’
Like other Polish Jews, Miriam’s parents had emigrated to Belgium in search of a better life, arriving in 1927 with their three eldest children, Isy, Bella and Kiva. Settling in Antwerp, Moshe opened an upholstery shop and enrolled his sons in orthodox Jewish schools. Meanwhile, Bella attended the local municipal girls’ school where she studied Flemish. In 1929, Bella’s mother Esther gave birth to a second daughter, Sophie, and in 1933 Celia (Zelda in Yiddish) was born, followed three years later by Miriam (Mina). When the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940, the Lachmans fled Antwerp, joining the main body of refugees making for France. The situation was chaotic and when the Germans began bombing the refugee convoy Moshe decided it would be safer to leave the main road and walk along the beach. To evade the German bombers the Lachmans hid beneath trains and bedded down in fishing containers at night. Eventually, after a grueling six-week journey, they reached Boulogne but the port was overrun and only refugees with British passports were being allowed onto ferries and cattle boats. The Lachmans had no choice but to retrace their steps.
At first life back in Antwerp continued as before. Unlike Holland, Belgium was placed under a military governorship headed by General Alexander von Falkenhausen, a career officer who would later be implicated in the failed July 1944 plot to depose Hitler. Under Falkenhausen, the day to day running of the country was left in the hands of the Belgium civil service and King Léopold III remained on the throne. At first Falkenhausen considered antisemitic measures secondary to Belgium’s economic and military security. However, with the establishment of a local office of Adolf Eichmann’s ‘Jewish Department’ in Brussels in the spring of 1941 the situation for Belgian Jewry deteriorated. The previous October the Germans had forbidden the ritual slaughter of meat. Now the Nazis began marking Jewish shops and businesses with the star of David and imposed curfews, restricting Jewish movements. Then, on 29 May 1942, came the order for Jews to wear the yellow patches. Two months later, the Nazis began the first round-ups, followed, on 4 August, 1942, by the departure of the first train for Auschwitz. It carried 998 people, 140 of whom were children under 16. Only seven Jews from this first deportation survived.
Miriam was too young to remember the atmosphere in Belgium at this time but Bella, who changed her name to Margalit after emigrating to Israel, recalls it vividly. ‘There was this gathering sense of dread,’ she tells me. ‘It was rumored that people were being taken to labor camps but no one wrote and no one came back.’ In retrospect, it can be seen that the critical turning point was the Nazi directive requiring Jews to wear the Star of David. The bright yellow patch not only made it easier for the Gestapo to identify Jews, it presented Jews with a dilemma: should they adopt the star and wear it as a source of ethnic and religious pride, or should they reject it as a symbol of submission? The German-appointed Association Juif en Belgique (AJB) recommended the first course, reasoning that if they abided by the regulations the Nazis would leave Jews in peace. Moshe, however, thought otherwise. ‘He was adamant that we would not wear that yellow patch,’ says Bella. ‘He said, “If we wear it, the Nazis will get us. If we don’t, our neighbors will denounce us.’” Instead, Moshe hatched a plan: to avoid suspicion, he would go to the Reich registration office and pick up sufficient stars for each member of his family, but as soon as the chance presented itself they would move to Brussels where no one knew them and, Moshe reasoned, they would have a chance of passing themselves off as gentiles.
For Moshe, who spoke only Polish and Yiddish, and Isy and Kiva, then aged 18 and 16 respectively, it was a fearful time. By now, rumors were circulating about the ‘labor camps’ in the east and a favorite Gestapo ruse was to stop semitic-looking men in the street and ask them to drop their pants to see if they were circumcised. Because Bella was a girl and was less likely to be questioned Moshe relied on her to be the family’s eyes and ears. The result was that when it came time to find a hiding place in Brussels it was Bella who helped Moshe locate the apartment with the whited-out windows near the Gare Du Nord. Remarkably, the landlord agreed to rent the apartment to Moshe knowing that he was Jewish. In so doing, he took a considerable risk. Sheltering Jews was strictly forbidden and Belgians who aided Jews risked imprisonment or worse. Yet especially in French-speaking Wallonia, where Belgians still smarted from the experience of German occupation during the First World War, people were eager to demonstrate their opposition to the Nazis. Indeed, the patriotic underground newspaper La Libre Belgique encouraged Belgians to go out of their way to offer Jews seats on trams, explaining: ‘That’ll make the “Boches” furious!’
Although in 1976 Bella submitted testimony of the baron’s righteous deeds to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, this is the first time she has spoken publically. According to Bella, it was a Jewish woman who went by the partisan name ‘Jeanne’ who introduced them, taking Bella to the huge estate in Uccle in a suburb of Brussels where de Broqueville lived with his wife, Inès, and their two children, Eric and Cynthia. ‘It was the first time I had seen such wealth,’ says Bella. ‘There were red carpets on the stairs. All the comforts you can imagine.’ The nephew of Belgian’s former First World War prime minister, Charles de Broqueville, the baron was from a well-connected aristocratic family with an ethos of public service. Unknown to Bella, shortly after German troops had marched into Belgium in May 1940, he had been recruited by his uncle to front a Jewish-owned pharmaceutical company to prevent the asset being seized by the Nazis. The result was that when ‘Jeanne’ asked whether he was prepared to shelter Bella he agreed immediately.
Bella found de Broqueville’s house very comfortable, ‘as if there was no war’. The baroness was a keen horsewoman and in return for looking after her children, Bella was given the run of the house, a wage and regular meals. To disguise her identity the baron also arranged provided her with false papers and a new French name, ‘Bertha Blackman’.
Miriam has a photograph of her sister from this time. Taken on one of the balconies of the baron’s house, it shows Bella in an apron and freshly starched white shirt, looking the picture of health. However for all that Bella remembers this as a happy time it was also fraught with danger. The regional military headquarters of the Ortskomandatur were next door and German soldiers were always walking past the property. Sometimes they tried to engage Bella in conversation and though she did her best to ignore them when the baron’s maid began dating one of the soldiers Bella was forced to pretend she could not understand their antisemitic jokes.
Whenever she had a day off, Bella would visit Miriam and Celia at Olga’s, bringing them food from the baron’s kitchen. The trips were risky: twice Bella was stopped and questioned by SS patrols, but on each occasion she managed to allay their suspicions by showing them her forged papers. By now Moshe and Esther were living at a different apartment in the Avenue Dolez and Isy had found a job at a bakery where he slept on the floor at night. Whenever she could, Bella would also bring her parents food, but one day some money went missing from the baron’s household and the cook accused Bella of the crime. The baron ordered a search of Bella’s room and though he did not find any money he discovered she had been storing food to bring to her parents. Concerned that she was exposing herself and him to unnecessary danger, he sent two emissaries to speak to her parents. Soon after, Moshe and Esther moved from the Avenue Dolez to a convent. But the convent was not safe either and when the baron learned the Gestapo were planning to raid it, he arranged for Bella’s parents to be transferred to a sympathetic family near to his country retreat, the Château Burbure, in Wezembeek.
By 1943 Bella was becoming increasingly concerned for her sisters’ safety as she had discovered that Olga had begun entertaining German soldiers. Once again she approached her contacts in the Belgian independence movement and this time they put her in touch with a Catholic priest, Father Joseph André of Namur. Unlike other Catholic samaritans, Father André never tried to convert or baptise Jewish children in his care and though the Gestapo interrogated him several times his network was never compromised. With the help of André and another partisan sympathiser named Hubert Miriam and Celia were taken to Sorinne La Longue, a boarding school in a wooded estate 20 kilometres south of Namur, where they were taught the rudiments of reading and writing by two French-speaking sisters, Anne-Marie Buchet-Bodard and Marie-Madeleine Mission. In all, the school contained 150 girls, 27 of whom were Jewish. To keep their identities secret, the girls were given false French names: Miriam was ‘Maria Brocat’ and Celia was ‘Suzanne Brocat’. The only time Miriam can remember being scared is when the school got wind of a Gestapo raid and they had to hide in the basement or the nearby woods. Miriam, a collector even then, used these impromptu excursions to gather flowers for her scrapbook. ‘If I saw a bright flower by the road I would stop and pick it. I like to keep anything that brings back memories.’
Miriam and Celia spent two years at Sorinne la Longe. Then, suddenly, the war was over and parents came to collect their children. One of the mothers recognized Miriam but Miriam, still fearful of exposure, refused to answer. It was only when she was told that the war was over and she was going home that Miriam embraced her birth identity again. ‘It was such a relief not to have to live with the anguish of not knowing what the next day would bring. All through the war it had been drilled into me that there were people ready to endanger the lives of Jewish families by denouncing them. The arms of the Gestapo were so long!’
One of the last photographs in the album shows Miriam, Celia and Sophie sitting on the steps of the school. Miriam had not seen Sophie for over two years and in the picture all three sisters are smiling. It was soon after this that they were reunited with their parents at their old apartment in Rue Belgrade. ‘It was a miraculous moment for all of us but especially for my parents’, she says. ‘All those years they had lived in fear and anguish, not knowing what was happening to us. Now the war was over and we could be a family again.’
The more time I spend with Miriam and the better I get to know her, the more I am struck by how many of her childhood memories are really Bella’s. Although Miriam does not speak Hebrew and has not read her sister’s memoir, Bella has related the key episodes many times. Thus, one suspects, that in her mind Olga was an ogre because that is what Bella told her. There is one subject, however, on which Miriam finds herself in conflict with Bella and that is the Star of David. Bella has always insisted that none of the Lachmans wore the yellow patches. However, during a recent trip to Argentina Celia showed Miriam a picture taken during the war in which Celia is wearing the star. During the same trip Isy’s son Claudio also showed Miriam a photograph of Isy dressed in a white bomber jacket with a yellow patch clearly visible on the breast.
The biggest mystery of all, however, is how the Nazi artefact found its way into Miriam’s album. ‘Perhaps, I already had it when we left for South America,’ she says. However, this is contradicted by the fact that beneath the star Miriam has written ‘Never Again’ followed by an upside down exclamation mark, indicating that she added the Star of David to the album after she became a Spanish speaker and was old enough to understand its significance. I suggest that perhaps, like the brightly coloured flowers she used to pick in the woods near Sorinne La Longue, she discovered the yellow patch hidden in her father’s possessions and had been unable to resist the temptation to take it. She rejects my suggestion forefully. ‘No, my father was adamant, he would not wear that yellow patch,’ she insists.
What about De Broqueville, I ask? Was he an ambivalent figure like Oskar Schindler, the German war profiteer who, motivated partly by self-interest, saved 1600 Polish Jews from the gas chambers? Or was he an instinctive humanitarian? And what made him willing to run such risks to help the Lachmans? Once again, Miriam refers me to Bella.
After settling in Israel, Bella tells me, she wrote to de Broqueville to thank him for all he had done for her family, initiating a correspondence that lasted until his death in 1992. According to Bella, the baron’s experience of Nazism had made him a lifelong friend of Israel and when in June 1967 Israel’s Arab neighbors began mobilizing in the Sinai desert, precipitating the Six Day War, he wrote to Bella to say that he had visited a blood bank in Brussels to donate blood to Israel’s soldiers. In the early 1970s, Bella returned the favour by approaching the Yad Vashem. It was as a result of her testimony that in 1977 de Broqueville was presented with Yad Vashem’s ‘medal of honor’. However, the baron never spoke about his righteous deeds and appears to have shared few of the details with his children either, dying without leaving a memoir. The result is that the best and perhaps only person who can account for his motivations today is Bella. Why does she think he helped her family?
Bella pauses, considering her answer. ‘It was his education,’ she says eventually. ‘He had a high regard for human life and he had a good heart. He was what the French call un bon type, a man of charity. He made me feel like I could ask for anything and my wish would be granted.’