These were the few brief weeks when I had both my babies with me. I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want to miss a moment of this precious time. I wanted to cherish every second of having both my children home. Especially Bobby. I had missed that little boy more than words can express. I stared at him as he slept, memorizing his beautiful face. I even hired a photographer to take a family picture so I would have that as a memento. I tried to live in the moment, to ignore the warning bells going off in my head about how dangerous it was to keep these babies with me and Genek.
There wasn’t enough money to feed us all. Even Irene was hungry; my milk supply was running out again. Genek’s furs weren’t selling. It was spring; nobody wanted fur coats. And anyway, people didn’t have the money to buy even necessities anymore, never mind luxury items like fur coats. The Jews had disappeared, and the goyim were broke. Even the Germans were finally struggling; the war was dragging on, and the Germans were feeling the pinch too. Even Nazi officers were no longer buying fur coats.
The only way I was able to make ends meet was through illegal activity. I told you I took great risks. The black market was flourishing. People were desperate for food, and there were opportunities for those who were willing to risk their lives by smuggling contraband into Brussels. Remember, I was passing as a German Aryan. The Resistance had supplied me with forged documents. It was still insane to risk carrying illegal food supplies. Anyone who was caught by the Nazis could expect to be shot. We heard plenty of stories. But I didn’t know what else to do. Genek couldn’t do it, he couldn’t pass as a goy. It was up to me.
So I started smuggling sugar. Every week I boarded the train out of the city and went to a rendezvous with a black market purveyor. No names. My job was to carry a few pounds of sugar in my bag and to deliver it to an address in Brussels. Every time I went I was given a new address: I never dropped the sugar off at the same place twice. I made sure to walk back to the apartment via a different route each time as well. I took the train back to the city. I went to the address and delivered the smuggled sugar, liquid gold in those days of rationing and hunger. I got paid when I made the delivery. I went home. I had money to buy my family food, also on the black market.
One day the worst happened. When I stepped off the train in Brussels a German officer approached me. My knees went weak. But I flashed him what I hoped was a friendly smile and said, Schönen Tag! He took my elbow and walked a few paces with me, chatting in high-class German. Then he asked me for my papers. I showed him the forged documents, my heart pounding. What if he realized I was a Jew!
I looked at his uniform. Wehrmacht. At least he wasn’t the dreaded Gestapo. But still. I was carrying illegal sugar, and the punishment for this offense was death. And if he suspected I was Jewish I would be in the camp at Malines before the day was through. The officer handed me back my papers after a moment. He sighed. Miss, I need to see what’s in your bag.
I stared at him. What to do? What to do?
Maybe it was that sigh before he asked to see what I was carrying, maybe it was some sixth sense, I don’t know. But I had the feeling that this German might have a shred of humanity in him.
I was very young, only twenty-one, and he couldn’t have been much older than me. I smiled, tossed my hair, batted my eyes. You know, sir, what young women carry in their bags, I said, feminine items. It would be very embarrassing for me to show them to you.
The officer stared at me. Well, miss, if it’s too embarrassing to open your bag here on the street, perhaps you will feel more comfortable inside headquarters. He took my elbow again and started walking. He brought me to the German headquarters in Rue de la Loi. I was terrified. If only I could get rid of the bag I held, the incriminating bag full of sugar. I comforted myself by thinking that at least I wasn’t being taken to Gestapo headquarters in Rue Louise. That was the most sinister address in Brussels. Nobody returned from that chamber of horrors.
Once inside the building the officer escorted me into his office. He asked me to take a seat. He looked at me quietly for a moment. Well, miss, let’s take a look in your bag.
I was desperate. Whatever happened next, I had to make sure it only happened to me. I had to concentrate on not divulging that I had children, or where they were right at this very minute. Why did this have to happen when the children were not in hiding? Why, oh why, had I taken this risk? I took a deep breath.
Sir, I said, I’m going to tell you the truth. I am carrying sugar. I know it’s illegal. I’m very sorry. I have never done anything like this before. But I was very hungry and … well, I was just very hungry.
I expected, I don’t know, a blow, a kick, maybe to be thrown to the ground. But the German just looked at me silently. I saw his eyes roam up and down my body. I had given birth just a couple of months earlier. My stomach was still swollen, my breasts full.
You’re a German woman, yes? He said.
Yes. I was born in Chemnitz. I lived there until I was eleven, then my family moved here.
Ah, yes. I thought you were from Saxony. I am from Dresden.
We made small talk for a few minutes.
You’re very beautiful, he said. I have not seen a beautiful German woman in quite some time. It is lovely to look at you. A pleasure to speak to you. Your accent reminds me of home.
You’re with child?
I gulped. What was the right answer? Yes, I finally said.
So you are doing your duty, bringing a child into the world to serve the Reich.
And you are hungry because you are pregnant, is that right?
And because you are pregnant and hungry you smuggled sugar.
Well. I think that the Reich would be best served by you carrying that child to term, do you not?
Yes. Yes, I do.
Then here is what we are going to do. You are going to leave that package on my desk. And then you are going to walk out of this office and down the hall and back out of that door we came in. Do you think you can do that?
Yes. Yes, of course. Yes. Thank you.
And you are obviously never going to do this kind of illegal activity again, am I right? Because if you do it again, my dear, you will get no mercy. Am I clear?
Yes, sir, you are. Absolutely.
Was this Nazi really letting me go? Or was it some kind of sick sadistic prank? I had heard stories like this. But I sprang up, removed the bag of sugar from my purse, dropped it on his desk, and practically ran out of that office, down the hall and out the door, onto the Rue de la Loi.
Once on the street my whole body started shaking. I had to duck into a cafe and lock myself in the bathroom until my trembling came under control. Had I really been picked up by a Nazi officer and then allowed to walk away? The closeness of this call was devastating. If I had been interrogated, tortured, what would I have said? How much would I have given away? Would I have divulged that I was Jewish, that my husband and children were right now in an apartment in Rue Rogier. That my sister and brother were in Rue Chazal? This was exactly why we weren’t allowed to know where the little ones were hidden. It was too dangerous. And if that Nazi had known he’d let a Jew walk out of his door … oh my God. I was afraid to leave the cafe, afraid of the street, afraid that I would be picked up again.
Eventually I made my way home to Genek and the children.
I told Genek the story. He was incredulous.
What? he kept saying. What? You were picked up and let go? How can this be? Neither of us had ever heard of such a thing. Melly, Melly, it’s a miracle. A miracle.
And then we looked at each other and we both came to the same realization. The children were not safe with us. We would have to send Irene into hiding as planned. And Bobby had to go back too.