The End of the Great Illusion
Even before the previous September, when the Germans marched into Poland and he moved his family from Luxembourg to Brussels, Hans Licht had been trying to repress a growing sense of danger. The move to Brussels had been their second in four years, the first from Germany to Luxembourg in 1935, then to Belgium in 1939—yet again a new country, a new business, a new language. Despite the warnings of his brothers, who had by then all emigrated to America, and in willful disregard of the shadows to the east, he was determined not to move again. And on this spring evening, as he wound his way home past the Belgian War Ministry, he was partly reassured: there was only a single lighted window in the building, not the unusually intense level of activity behind the building’s gray façade he would have expected if there was any real danger. It was only later that he recalled the date: May 9.
Everything was as silent as in peaceful times after the shops had closed for the night. For a few days now the chestnuts had been in bloom, and Licht, hands in his pockets, whistled as he walked through the streets on his somewhat crooked legs. No one seemed to notice his inner disquiet. He had brought the art of dissembling to such a point of perfection that he himself was sometimes unsure how he felt.
But now a disturbing memory troubled him. One evening a year or so before, when they were still in Luxembourg, he came home to hear the uninflected and almost inaudible voice of his mother-in-law, the elderly Mrs. Cohn,1
who had been a widow for nearly a decade, as she talked with her daughter. He had immediately sensed an odd tension and had come to a sudden stop, holding his breath while listening for her next words. Even now he could remember almost every one of those words.
“I tell you, Judith, a sunset like this means something. It means . . .” Here she took a little breath. “War. Today the sun was completely yellow, entirely yellow, as I’ve seen it only once before, in July 1914. You’re laughing, but you’ll see that I’m right. You all will leave, will have to leave, but I don’t know what will become of me.”
With the German invasion of Poland, war had in fact broken out not long after. Within days, Licht moved to Belgium with Judith and his eight-year-old son Peter. A few weeks later Mrs. Cohn followed.
Despite the declared war—what would soon be called the Phoney War—their life in Brussels continued on an almost normal course. Hitler and Stalin quickly carved up Poland, but Belgium was formally neutral, and France, with its British allies, and Germany, the neighboring belligerents, were sitting behind their fortified positions along the Rhine, firing hardly a shot. So Licht left every morning for the office from which he and his partners—again buying and processing malt for breweries—ran their business, and returned every evening to his large comfortable apartment on the Avenue des Scarabées. The war itself had scarcely made its presence known. And yet it seemed to be there all around them. For the people of Belgium it was a darkening shadow, a thing some could sense only vaguely, but which others had experienced firsthand twenty-five years before in all its blood and brutality. It loomed just over the horizon to the east, half-forgotten, like a ghost, something most people tried hard not to think about.
But in the homes of Jewish refugees like Licht it was no mere shadow. For them, it was not just war itself but something even more terrible. It
was the hard faces of men in uniforms: gray, brown, black. It was the hard sounds of hobnail boots on the paving stones and the aggressive banging on the door at night. It was the memory of Kristallnacht. It was the specter, and sometimes the personal memory, of the prison yards, the jail cells, and the concentration camps.2
Most knew little of the war’s actual dimensions; they knew only that they stood immediately face-to-face with an unappeasable enemy, and though that enemy might choose to spare the Belgians, the French, the English, or others in its path, it was certain to root out the Jews. For them the outcome was a matter of life and death.
Licht thought of the émigrés he knew. For many years now, they had truly believed themselves to belong here as much as anyone. The hardy generations of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who had spent their lives tramping from one place to another with their entire livelihoods in pushcarts or in sacks on their backs, lay buried in their graves. Their weathered gravestones stood silent in the many Jewish cemeteries of Europe.
The younger generations had taken over their shops, had become lawyers, doctors, professors, artists, officials, and businessmen. And those who had emigrated to new places hoped—desperately wanted to believe—they had found a permanent new home. They thought that if it came to the worst, they had earned the protection of their new country.
There was his friend Richard Ams, who, having been one of the leading furriers in Germany, had arrived with seventeen francs in his pocket and through hard work had again become a successful man. He was invited to the homes of Belgians, played bridge with them, and came to believe he was one of them. There were Lofe and Brust and Veilchenfeld and Spatz, all with similar stories.
There was Licht himself, who had taken over his family malt processing business in Germany and, after the Nazis seized and “Aryanized” it,
began again in Luxembourg and then again in Belgium. But were they made from the same sturdy timber as their fathers and forefathers? It was his generation that now faced the greatest savagery and unbridled ferocity that the Jews, long persecuted and oppressed, had ever confronted.
Licht walked slowly through the darkening streets. Was he wrong to stay here in Europe instead of leaving for America as his brothers had? Was he strong enough to build a new life again on another continent? There were a thousand ties binding him to Europe. He had a family to support. He had his successful malt business; his customers, who were among the best breweries of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland, respected him. So he tried to avert his eyes from all threats or danger. The many others who shared his situation were now having the same thoughts: Must I uproot myself again? Are we no longer hardy enough? Has the well of my family’s energies run dry?
No, no, that’s impossible, he said to himself. We’ve always managed to forge a new life, even under the most difficult conditions. We’ve started from scratch, two, even three times over; have we suddenly become weak? We cling to all the trifles that comprise one’s life here. I can sit for hours at a sidewalk table in front of this café, doing nothing more than watching people go by while I slowly sip my beer; I can duck into any number of tiny bars to discuss with friends, over a bottle of the finest Burgundy, books, art, the upcoming concerts in Brussels, and talk about our families. We have the public gardens, the parks, the fountains, and God knows what other splendid spaces—all of it. Our wives are making new friends; our children are assimilating in their new languages and new schools. Must we accustom ourselves once again to some other place and give up this place where we’re comfortable?
But did they truly belong? That question had never been answered. Not one person among them had a thing to complain about. Belgium was one of the richest, most welcoming, most cosmopolitan countries on earth. Everyone could live as he chose. There was no risk of being bothered by the police; people were tolerant and ready to help.
But Licht also knew that there had been no official government decision about the ultimate status of its Jewish émigrés—would the Belgians ever allow them to become secure permanent residents? He had bought five thousand dollars in American currency just in case. But I must close my eyes to this as well, he thought. I must live here and work here. I have
my family, and I don’t want to have to start our lives over from nothing once again.
The illusion ended at dawn. Judith was standing before him, saying not once, but twice or maybe dozen times as he tried to rouse himself: “Listen, there’s shooting.”
As he woke, he heard the sirens and the staccato thundering of antiaircraft fire, he saw the light of a strange dawn through the window, and tried to cling to the thought that this wasn’t happening, that there was nothing so terrifyingly out of the ordinary in what he was hearing, that it wasn’t the outbreak of the hell that everyone had been fearing and maybe expecting for so long.
“It’s the war,” said Judith. “Say what you want, it’s the war.”
Licht turned on the radio. For a few minutes there was nothing but military marches, then a voice: “All Belgian military personnel are to report to their units immediately. Instructions concerning those on agricultural leave will follow.” That was it. The music resumed. Licht had never imagined that such a stiffly bureaucratic formulation, read by some minor functionary at five on this sunny Friday morning of the tenth of May, could have such tragic resonance.
Licht and Judith began to dress. In the meantime he began slowly to grasp that something terrible had happened that night. He tried to believe that maybe this attack could be the great mistake that the entire world had been waiting for. Perhaps this time Moloch would choke on his bloody mouthful.
Then the voice on the radio was back. “Early this morning,” it said, “German troops marched across the Dutch, Belgian, and Luxembourg frontiers.”
Licht called on his friend, Van Molenbeck,3
at the earliest possible moment. He had known Van Molenbeck even before they had moved to Brussels. They were closely attached by bonds of both business and friendship, and Van Molenbeck, a highly educated man, immediately grasped Licht’s situation. But Van Molenbeck’s unexpectedly cool behavior also gave Licht reason to suspect that here, too, men weren’t always reliable. He found it telling that precisely this man, who had such an abundance of reserve and refined manners, who was always so attuned to the difficult questions of form and context, and from whose lips Licht first heard the word Boches
, was now so distant.
The front page of the Paris newspaper Le Matin of May 11, 1940.
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The front page of the Brussels newspaper Le Soir of May 11, 1940.
“I’ve been thinking over your case,” he said. “I know that you seek my advice. I believe that our army and our defensive lines are sufficiently strong to hold out for some time. If you’re asking me, I say don’t do anything rash, stay calm and remain where you are, keep me up to speed on everything. If you should be arrested, I’ll help so far as I am able.”
Licht thanked him, but without heart., “Have courage, my friend,” Van Molenbeck said as they parted. “This time we’ll get them.” They were his last words. Licht would long remember them and his friend’s accompanying handshake. It was the last that he was to receive from a Belgian.
Licht now realized that this war would become a terrible reality. The half-dazed, half-giddy state he had found himself in since early that morning gave way to frenzied activity. On the outside he remained calm, but inside a wall had just been breached. He couldn’t just stand there listening and slowly processing what the external world was telling him. Somehow he had to act. This was his war, his fate and that of his family. He imagined that similar thoughts dawned on many other émigrés in Brussels. Phones rang and rumors spread, unconfirmed suspicions and vague fears inextricably tied to the few known facts. “We’ll be arrested,” he imagined them saying. “They’re already beginning to lock us up.”
At the same time, many, like Licht, must have asked themselves how it was possible. “This is where we belong. We’re on their side. We fled to them precisely to get their promised protection from the Nazis. So why us?”
“Look,” he heard others say. “They’ll just want to keep tabs on everything. They’ve already started releasing some people, for in reality we all have the same enemy.”
“But shouldn’t we at least have our things prepared?” asked the women. “We may have to flee.”
And so, in apartments scattered through the city of Brussels, and in Antwerp and in Liège and Namur, the émigrés began to pack their bags. “Like in Vienna in 1938,” some thought. “Like in Prague.” Like in Frankfurt, in Berlin, in Cologne.
Later in the day they got the clarity they most feared. A voice on the radio interrupted the military marches. “All German and Austrian citizens between the ages of seventeen and sixty are to report to their nearest police station within the next two hours. Anyone failing to report is subject to two years in prison.”
For a moment there was a deep silence in the Licht apartment. It was now exactly 1:15 PM.
“What do you want to do?” Judith asked.
For a moment Licht’s thoughts drifted to the forged Dutch passport he’d bought and stashed away for such a moment. But then his good German upbringing took over, raising his instinctive fear of doing anything illegal. “I’ll report to the police as soon as possible,” he said. “They’ll look over our papers and then let people like me go. In any case I’ll let Van Molenbeck know. He’ll intervene on our behalf.”
Licht’s friend Lofe, who had come by, tried to say the same thing.4
Mrs. Cohn didn’t voice an opinion; long expe...