page 2 of 12
Antisemitism in Germany
Please report errors to: email@example.com.
Describe what you felt like as a child in Germany before going back to Belgium?
As I said I was never very comfortable. We spoke French at home and Germans were the servants. We had good servants, they were very clean and very applied and they do things very thoroughly. But you know, thoroughness is not that important. They didn't know how to adapt to other situations, other peoples' manners. They had their own very strict upbringings and we were not part of that.
And your parents, what type of work did they do?
My Parents? My parents were very kind and good people and have never harmed anybody. They didn't want to expose us to any further discrimination so therefore we went back to Belgium.
When you say discrimination are you referring to antisemitism?
Partly anti-Semitic. I was six years old in my class and during intermission, one boy that sat next to me took an orange and took some juice, put it in this peel and put six pits and said, "These are the six Jews of my class that I am drowning." Now, a six year old boy should have that kinds of feelings towards their neighbor? We hadn't done him any harm. I beat him up, and I was punished, and my mother approved of me. She said, "You did the right thing." But the principal was not in agreement. As a matter of fact we were in an oula—the oula was a recreation room—and Hitler had taken over the government the day before and everybody was shouting and singing the Nazi songs. I was seated opposite in a loge—opposite in my class, opposite of the school—the whole school saw me sit down and not sing, and not make a "Heil Hitler" and any of that. They wanted to pummel me on the way out and some of my classmates said, "Stay away, he's Belgian." Otherwise they would have thrown me down the stairway.
Because you were Belgian, they didn't bother you-they didn't harass you.
At that time they still were afraid to do something to a foreigner. That changed quickly. That was the first time that suddenly all your friends from yesterday turned against you. It was not a pleasant feeling. If you want to put yourself in the position of a young six year old, what could you have done? You felt guilty without having done anything because everybody said that you were guilty but you didn't know why. It's a very unpleasant situation in which they put anybody who was not German.
Are you Jewish?
Did your family go to synagogue or temple in Germany or Belgium?
Yes, I think under the normal circumstances holidays were being kept. In Belgium it was a little different than in Germany. In Germany, we were guests really, we were foreigners. In Belgium, first of all we were home.
The Belgians were Flemish. I don't know if you know what Belgium is even. Belgium is a small country that was made in 1832 at the Congress of Vienna. Queen Victoria had an uncle that she liked very much who had no job. They created Belgium and they put this uncle of Victoria as a King of Belgium. He was married to a French princess and then he became King of Belgium. There were Valoons which were tribes that go back to Caesar's times. Any of you who ever read Caesar De Bello Gallico would know that there were different tribes that created the Netherlands—Holland and Belgium were together. Then in 1832 they split the southern five provinces, put four French provinces and gave this to King Leopold. There were two languages spoken there. Germany being five minutes away we all spoke German and we spoke French, Flemish and Dutch. Before we were ten years old we spoke four languages. Then added English, and I speak Italian, so we had covered it all.
Can you name all the languages you speak?
I just told you. French, German, Dutch, Flemish, English, Italian. You know for instance a Romanian is "Ro-manian." That shows you these were people that were left in the Balkans, spoke almost French because it was based on Latin and the same words are in Italian, and Spanish, and in Romanian too. It is not a Slavic language. It's connected to the German Saxon. All these were tribes during the Roman times. Belgians, as such, didn't really exist. The Jews were the top society in Belgium, and they didn't belong to the Flemish and they didn't belong to the French, but they were the burghers, they were the dealers, they were the diamond specialists. That's what Belgium was known for.
What did the Jews identify themselves as?
We were Belgian. The fact that we were Jewish didn't really matter there. There were Protestants but it was a Catholic country, Belgium is a Catholic country. Those were the five provinces that were Catholic, they went away from Holland. Holland was Protestant. So religions were very well known everywhere, I never heard anyone in Belgium speak against Jews.
We were completely astonished. As a matter of fact, when I came here I was astonished that black people were not considered as we all were. In Belgium we owned the Congo, that was only black people, but we were not discriminating against anybody. In our young years we didn't know the difference. As a matter of fact it was interesting to know, I was in a camp as a told you, in a camp in Maryland and there was one black man whose name was William Warfield.
Now William Warfield was an actor in Showboat. If you have ever seen Showboat there is a very great voice in it that sings "Old Man River" and shows a boat on the Mississippi. That was William Warfield. Every night he, under the big oak tree, sang for us and I personally had a very good relationship with him. Because he was black, he couldn't live in the white barracks, he had his own room in a little building that had upstairs the jail. William Warfield was a great musician and he told me that he liked Bach. I said, "You know Bach isn't my favorite composer." He says, "I'll show you," and he started to play up and down the piano. And the message came from the prisoners, "It's bad enough that we are in jail, please stop playing Bach!" So that I thought always was a very sweet story that the freedom of a prisoner to say what you can and can not do.
I saw William Warfield often again after the war. He had married a great singer, a great opera singer, and together they played Porgy and Bess. Porgy and Bess was one where he was Porgy and she was Bess. Afterwards she became a great diva.
Why did your family move to Germany?
We didn't move to Germany, the schools were very good in Germany. Better than in Belgium, especially primary schools. To be sent to a German school was more exclusive. It's like today that people are sent to New York or to America in college. My parents thought that that was a very good education and it was.
At what point did you move to Romania?
I didn't move to Romania, I happened to travel there. The king of Romania was a friend of my family, and invited me for Easter. Now there is the Roman Catholic and then there are the Orthodox Catholic. The king was Orthodox Catholic. So the Easter was late in April, I went by train in the middle of the war, the train was going very nicely. And I went to Bucharest and on the tenth of may in 1940, the invasion of Belgium prevented me of going back home.
So I stayed there for six months, waited for my papers and then I traveled through the Mediterranean in the middle of the war, I went to Lisbon. And from Lisbon I came to the United States. On the boat I had some excellent company. And I don't know if you know who Alma Mahler was, she was the wife of Gustav Mahler. Was a great composer, my favorite composer. And he had died and she had remarried Franz Werfel who wrote The Song of Bernadette, that was a famous film that won many prizes. And the book that went with it, and the book was also Golo Mann, he was the son of Thomas Mann. Thomas Mann was the greatest writer that Germany ever had. In the twentieth century, especially I would say he was famous all over the world. He wrote wonderful books that you can still find in translation here; In second hand book shops because they are our of print for many years.
And Thomas Mann had written a letter to Hitler right at the beginning. Saying you scoundrel, I don't want to stay in a country where you are. And he's one of few, first Germans who left and came to America and lived in Los Angeles until the end of the war and then he went back to Switzerland, never returned to Germany. He wrote the Buddenbrooks, which is a famous book. The Magic Mountain, which is even more famous and the most wonderful book is Joseph and his Brethren. He took the bible and made it into a wonderful story. So at the age of fifteen and sixteen, when you read a book like that, you really get to understand the Bible. I guess none of you ever hear of Thomas Mann. Anybody heard of ? No.
In the camp that I was in, in Camp Ritchie, in Klaus Mann, his son, his oldest son, was also a writer, befriended me very much. I was very happy to meet Thomas Mann, personally in New York. His son wanted absolutely that I know his father and I had a wonderful relationship and correspondence with him for many years. He had a also married in Munich. He came from Lubech, which was in the north of Germany. but he established himself in Munich and he was really somebody that everybody should read and if you cannot get a hold of the book in New York there is a second hand bookstore called the strand at university place and 12th street, they have many books that I have mentioned. and you can write there over the web and you get the book and I advise ever one of you to read that book, particularly Joseph and his brethren.
You have a lot of wonderful friends and you are their friend as well because you kept the correspondence, it must be based on your values, what type of values did your family teach you?
You learn them by yourself actually we were allowed to read any book we anted to we went to the movies and saw theatre and opera and learned music a lot and that was the style. its not rock and roll. it was symphonic music that is not that popular. However with age you get to like it more.
Would you go with your family to the concerts?
Yes, absolutely since the age of six we went to the pianists, violinists, in fact Belgium we received them in the house. We had a great figmentation with singers, my mother was a singer herself so we had access to it. my mother was a singer my father was a merchant.