My Grandmother’s Survival

Like so many German Jews, my Nana’s family was late to leave the country when Hitler came to power. They thought antisemitism was a relic of the past. 

Naomi Gordon-Loebl is a writer and educator from Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Harper...

 

My grandmother and I are in a small train car rattling towards the center of Brussels. It’s like something out of an Agatha Christie novel, but an unglamorous version set in the 1970s. Six booths line the walls, with an aisle just barely wide enough to pass in the middle. Everything in the car—the wallpaper, the ceiling, the worn upholstery on the seats—is yellow and brown. All but the door, which is silver, and marked with graffiti: “RIP N.”

We’re leaving the Brussels airport. The people in our carriage are carrying big suitcases, appearing at once paranoid and vulnerable. Nana and I sit across the aisle from each other, too tired to talk after our twelve-hour trip from New York. The thin man facing her in the booth has a grey goatee and a downturned mouth. He seems to be ignoring us. My first grumpy European, I think.

“How many stops until our station?” Nana asks me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I figure we’ll just get off when it comes.”

The guy with the goatee speaks up.

“He’s an easygoing fellow,” he says to my grandmother, gesturing at me. His accent is not European at all, but Midwestern.

I immediately turn to inspect the graffiti on the door, then the passing cityscape of Brussels—short, tightly packed row houses with misshapen antennae on their roofs, the entire scene tinged grey by the overcast morning. Turning away is a reflex I’ve spent years honing. When I was nineteen, I chose to put up with an hour of “magic tricks” from a “magician” seated next to me on a flight to Las Vegas rather than disabuse him of the notion that I was a twelve-year-old boy. Now, when people misread me I try to avoid further contact, hoping—usually in vain—to avoid the moment when they realize their mistake and I have to coddle them through their embarrassment.

“I’m so sorry, it’s just the short hair, and—”

“It’s okay.”

“You know, I normally wear glasses—”

“It’s really okay.”

I don’t think my grandmother notices the goatee man’s gender error. But she does seem to have picked up on something she doesn’t like, because she nods dismissively at him.

“Are you from here?” he asks. He has heard her accent.

“Yes,” she says.

I watch him closely now, as though a glare from the fourteen-year-old grandson character I’m playing would intimidate a Midwestern busybody like this guy. Still. I focus on his goatee. In my head, I dare him to keep going.

“So, do you think in English or in French?” he says.

My grandmother shakes her head. I see him begin to repeat the question, and I can tell he thinks she hasn’t heard, or doesn’t understand. Of course, I know she understands. She’s just shaking her head because it’s a polite way to avoid a question she doesn’t like.

“Do you think in English or in French?” he says again.

She laughs, only enough to be polite, and says:

“I don’t know. I guess it depends.”

He begins to prattle on about the train, his trip, what he’s heard about each of the stations. He doesn’t know that neither English nor French was her first language. That I’m a twenty-seven-year-old queer adult, not a fourteen-year-old boy.

I catch Nana staring out the window at Brussels as he talks. I wonder if she’s remembering how it looked when she left.

*

Ever since I was little, Nana has been my champion. When I was five years old and wanted to wear boys’ clothes, she bought me the coolest pair of BOSS black jeans that I had ever seen. When I was ten and battling the tandem loneliness of queerness and nerdiness, she whisked me off to her apartment every Wednesday afternoon. There, I made myself two-inch-thick peanut butter sandwiches and told her about the writer I wanted to be, and the world outside of her safe Brooklyn kitchen fell away. On the day I turned twenty-seven, I woke up to an email: “IT’S MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY.”

The official occasion for our trip to Belgium is an art exhibit; Nana is writing a book about the art looted by the Nazis, and there’s a show in Liège she wants to see. For me, though, the exhibit is just an excuse. What I really want is to visit the place where she spent her teenage years—with her by my side.

Nana wasn’t born in Belgium; she grew up in Hanover, Germany, the oldest child in a secular Jewish family. Like so many German Jews, they were late to leave the country when Hitler came to power. My great-grandfather and all of his brothers had served in World War I. They were German in every way, from the Christmas trees they decorated every December to their names, straight out of a German textbook: Otto, Ludwig, Hugo, Anton. They thought antisemitism was a relic of the past in their homeland; they thought they were safe.

When they were eventually forced to flee, my grandmother, thirteen, settled in Brussels with her sister and their parents. Then the Nazis invaded Belgium. My great-grandfather was arrested and sent to a camp in southern France. They would not see him again for six years. When my great-grandmother finally got a letter ordering her and her two daughters to report to a camp, they went into hiding—separately.

Nana’s story of hiding from the Nazis has always been a fact of my life; from the time I was little, I could recite it as easily as my family’s address, or my father’s middle name. Up until this point, though, the details have existed only in my imagination. The gymnasium where they took her father when he was arrested; the municipal building where she was given the yellow star to sew onto her clothes; the secret studio apartment where she visited her mother once a week—all were constructed in my mind based on a few blurry black and white photos and my best attempts at visualization.

This trip would change that: it was an opportunity to walk through Brussels with my grandmother as my guide, to ride the streetcar with her along the same route she once took home. Implicit in the preciousness of this experience was a plain truth: Nana had survived. She managed to stay alive under the nose of a regime that hunted her, and on her twenty-first birthday, she sailed away across the ocean to the shores of New York City, where she built an entirely new life with a man, my grandfather, who had staged his own escape. Seventy years later, we were making that journey in reverse, returning to the place where her life had been saved. I went to Brussels because I wanted to stand with Nana on the same sidewalk from which she’d watched the defeated Nazis retreat in 1944. I wanted her to show me, with her own pointed finger, the houses where she’d hid. I wanted us to look at them together, both of us free, standing outside.

*

Another train, days after the first one: this one from Brussels to Bruges. My grandmother and I are seated in first class by accident. We discover this when the conductor arrives, looks at my ticket, and frowns at me.

“——— ——— ———,” he declares.

I don’t know what he’s saying, but I can tell he wants something from me. In my fluster, I revert to English.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand…”

Recognition passes across the conductor’s face. Not in a nice way. He straightens his back and fixes me with an unequivocal scowl.

“Ah. I see,” he says in clear, loud English. “This is a first-class carriage. You have second-class seats. Either pay, or move.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry—”

“Pay. Or move.”

I’m already gathering my notebook, my pen, the things I had spread out across the little first-class table before I realized it was a first-class table.

“Well, how much is it?” my grandma asks.

I turn to the conductor. He’s still scowling.

“How much would it be to stay?”

He bows his head, complete with ridiculous conductor cap, punches some buttons on his hand-held ticket machine and announces the price—almost thirty euros.

Nana laughs.

“Let’s go.”

When we enter the second-class carriage, it looks identical to the first-class carriage—except it’s almost entirely full. I follow Nana as she slides into an empty seat next to a couple. I sit across from her. Our neighbors, also seated across from each other, look like they’re in their seventies. They’re Flemish, a fact that is immediately apparent to me even though I can’t figure out why. The woman is wearing a raincoat in a safe shade of pink; the man, a driving cap, with an umbrella across his lap. They don’t say a word to each other, but the way their faces flatten and the woman leans ever so slightly away from my grandmother make it very clear: they’re not happy to have company.

I shrink into my seat, stare at the farmland rushing by, try to send reassurances to the couple that I will sit in quiet contemplation for the rest of the trip.

My grandmother chats to me about poplar trees (they’re very rare in America), what we’ll eat for lunch (mussels might be nice), that funny conductor (thirty euros!). I respond only minimally, but then feel guilty—caught between the desire to be a good grandchild and the desire to escape the obvious disdain of the Flemish couple.

There is no shortage of irony here. My grandmother and I have both been punished for difference in our lives. She is skilled at blending in, at adapting to her environment. She’s critical of America but she sees herself unequivocally as an American. And though she recognizes the challenges of assimilation, she is ultimately a proponent of it as a necessary strategy for survival.

I’m not. I don’t believe in the mandate of assimilation—in fact, I have a strong aversion to it. Most of my politics are built around this idea: that people shouldn’t have to compromise their identities in order to demand respect, agency, access. I can wax political for days about the dangers of asking people to erase themselves. But on the train, when a buttoned-up Flemish couple can’t hide their offense at our presence, I want to disappear.

And when I’m feeling embarrassed for daring to take up an unoccupied seat, when I want to be silent, when I want to be less visible, it is my grandmother who chooses to be unapologetic; to feel no shame; to sit comfortably and take up no more than the width of her seat, but no less, either.

It is always this way. For all of my radical politics, I am the one who is much more concerned about what people think.

I admire Nana. She has grit. I begin to chat with her in my full indoor voice, and at length. I see the Flemish woman in the pink raincoat squirming. When she and her husband stand and depart the train at Ghent, my grandmother leans across to me.

“Well, they weren’t very happy, were they?”

I laugh and shake my head. They probably heard her. But who cares.

*

On our last night in Brussels, we go to Yume.

Yume is a restaurant on the moneyed Avenue de Tervuren, Brussels’ equivalent of Park Avenue. Built in 1938, it was originally a house—an enormous, Bauhaus-style villa inhabited by a wealthy Belgian family named Grosfils.

One day in 1944, seeking shelter from the Nazis occupying Belgium, my seventeen-year-old grandmother had come to work for the Grosfils as a nanny. Her oldest charge had been a little boy, Jean-Pierre.

It is Jean-Pierre, now in his seventies, who drives us to Yume. He helps my grandmother out of his Mercedes and offers her his arm as we approach the restaurant. It is impossibly huge, a white modern behemoth rising at the corner of the block with smooth lines, wide curves, and endless terraces.

The staff at Yume seems simultaneously unsurprised and delighted when my grandmother tells them that she was hidden in this house seventy years ago. They encourage us to walk around the whole restaurant—“even the kitchen, wherever you like,” the maitre d’ urges—and to take our time.

The second floor of the restaurant is occupied by a dimly lit dining room, its walls lined from end to end with windows. Nana leads the way across the room and, pointing, draws an invisible rectangle on a portion of the floor.

“This was my room. I shared it with one of the children,” she says. “And—this was my window!”

I step next to her and find myself staring out at the enormous Parc de Woluwe. It’s an elegant mass of trees and lawns, almost entirely doused in darkness except for the glowing streetlamps. I try to commit the sight to memory. I’m twenty-seven years old, standing next to my eighty-nine-year-old grandmother, and looking out at the same park that she saw every night in 1944.

“I used to go across the street sometimes after the kids were asleep and ride my bike in the park,” she says. “It was wonderful.”

Just before they went into hiding, Nana’s mother spanked her for the last time. She had lost her false papers: the ones that identified her as a non-Jew, the ones that she was supposed to carry around at all times in case an S.S. officer boarded the streetcar and inspected everyone’s identification. At seventeen, she was too big to be laid across a knee, so her mother bent her over the umbrella stand and spanked her while her sister watched, laughing at the absurdity of the scene.

Nana had to have known she was in danger. Was that what she thought about as she looked out this window? Did she think about every birthday party that had been taken from her; about her father, who she hadn’t seen in years? Or did she simply count the streetlamps, trace the paths with her eyes, watch for two lovers in the shadow of a tree, plan her next bike ride?

Months later, I will ask her if she was scared.

“No,” she’ll tell me. “You can’t be scared for four years.”

For now, though, I am standing in front of the big window with Nana, staring out at the park. I reach out to touch her arm. We are both, I am sure, looking at those paths, imagining my seventeen-year-old grandmother riding in big, swooping figure-eights along the perfectly smooth pavement. Alone, outside, unafraid.

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