"What do you call someone who can speak three languages?" I said I didn't know. "Trilingual," he quipped. "What do you call someone who can speak two languages?" "Bilingual." He said, "Yes." "What do you call someone who can speak one language?" "Mono- or unilingual?" I guessed. "American!" he blurted with eyes open wide, a full rounded smile overtaking his face.
We laughed a lot those three days I spent with him along the waterfront and through the streets and parks of his beautiful sun-drenched Antwerp that summer of 2002. As we walked around the old synagogue near his cozy apartment, along the world diamond trade district, the wide ancient plaza and medieval castle that magically transported me back to a time long past, we began to get to know each other.
* * * * *
On a snowy February morning, while in my university office organizing materials for that day's classes, I received an email message that would poignantly and profoundly change my life. The message was sent by Charles Mahler from his home in Antwerp, Belgium. He stated that he was undertaking a genealogical study, and that his research had led him to discover that I was his cousin on my mother's side. He had been looking for descendants of the Mahlers of Krosno, Poland, and he had come across an essay I had written focusing on Wolf and Bascha Mahler of Krosno, my great-grandparents. While Bascha had died in 1934, the later invading Nazi force tortured and murdered Wolf and most other family members not long after they occupied Poland in 1939.
Charles informed me that he had survived the German Holocaust along with his sister, parents, and maternal grandparents and uncle, but that his father's parents (Jacques and Anja Mahler), sister and her two children and husband, and a great many other relatives had perished following Hitler's invasion and occupation of Belgium. Charles wrote that now as a retired physician and university professor, he desired to connect with family (mishpocheh), with the descendants of family members who had survived and others who had escaped prior to the terrors of those evil times.
I took a few moments to grasp the full weight of what I had just read. Reflections of a time long past whirled within me, images of when I was a small child as I sat upon my grandfather Simon (Szymon) Mahler's knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, "Varn," he said through his distinctive Polish accent, "You are named after my father, Wolf Mahler, who was killed by the Nazis along with most of my thirteen brothers and sisters." When I asked why these people killed them, he responded, "Because they were Jews." Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.
Now Charles had suddenly entered my life as if a long-missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle had miraculously surfaced. After a few months of excited and, for me, tear-filled email exchanges, I took the opportunity to travel to Antwerp to meet Charles, his sister Nanette, his ninety-year-old mother Selma, and Charles's wife, daughter, son-in-law, grandson, and granddaughter. Unfortunately his father, Georges, had died in 1996.
Sitting around a table in Selma's comfortable apartment filled with family pictures and tsatskes (objects, knickknacks) reflecting this warm and vital woman's life, she, Nanette, Charles, and I talked well into the late afternoon. They recounted their story in hiding from August 1942 until the final armistice ending the War in Europe. They detailed the tale of how they had changed their identities from Jewish to Christian, and had abandoned Antwerp for what they considered the relative safety of the Belgium countryside. During their plight, members of the Belgium resistance and by other righteous Christians sheltered them in three separate locations as the German Gestapo followed closely at their heels. On a number of occasions, they successfully "passed" as Christian directly under the watchful gaze of unsuspecting Nazis.
Beginning in 1941, the Germans instituted and enforced the first of a series of anti-Jewish laws in Belgium. Jews had to register in each town with local officials. They were forbidden to own businesses or practice their professions. The Nazis compelled all Jews beginning at the age of six to affix to their outer clothing a yellow Star of David with the word "Juif" (Jew) that was easily recognizable at a distance.
On the 24th day of August 1942, young Charles ("Karli") Mahler, who would turn six years old in only two weeks, along with his two-year-old sister, Nanette, left their home in Antwerp with their parents, Georges and Selma.
Previously, Georges contacted a trusted official from the Antwerp suburb of Deurne, and paid him 10,000 Belgium francs for new identity cards bearing the names, "Georges Marlier" and "Céline Leytons Marlier," with their residence as 29 St. Rochusstraat in Deurne to replace their current cards with "Jood - Juif" stamped in red.
The German Gestapo referred to Jews like my cousins as "U-Boats": a term denoting Jews who attempted to survive by hiding from the Third Reich. Charles's parents very carefully explained to him that for a while, his name would now be "Karel Marlier," and that they were no longer Jewish, but were now Christians. Georges, Selma, and Charles ripped the yellow Star of David patches from their jackets, and under the watchful gaze of armed German soldiers at the central Antwerp rail station, set out to the outskirts of Begijnendijk to a small isolated farmhouse. As it turned out, during the next two and one-half years, underground resistance fighters sheltered the family at three separate residences -- two farmhouses and a villa.
Then, on June 6, 1945, the Allies invaded the Normandy coast in France, and swept onto the continent of Europe. By the beginning of September, the Germans began their retreat from Belgium, and on September 4, the first British troops entered the area.
The Mahlers and Lichtmans surfaced from this sea of horror, and traveled back to Antwerp to rebuild their lives. Isi Lichtman, Selma's younger brother who was 25, joined the American army, and being fluent in four languages -- French, Flemish, English, and German -- obtained the position of military interpreter. At the end of the war, Isi served as a translator at the Nuremberg trials in 1947, and one year later, he too returned to Antwerp.
Charles became a renowned physician and university professor in Antwerp. During our conversation together in the summer of 2002, Charles (then age 65) talked about the guilt that he and other survivors often feel, a guilt that has propelled them to achieve (or overachieve) to justify their escape and survival.
"It was very funny to feel guilty that you were alive. I had that very strongly, and I wouldn't know from where this bizarre kind of feelings [came]. And I told you this afternoon, that I had to prove something because I survived..."
The light that I saw shining in the eyes of my cousins Selma, Nanette, and Charles on that bright sunlit day as we sat together in Antwerp was the beaming light of pride in the next generation that they brought into this world, a pride they take in their children and their children's children. It is the true light of hope that their kin will contribute to a world in which the full meaning of "never again" will ultimately and completely be realized.
My cousin Abby Mahler Myers informed me this week that Charles has left us at the age of 76 to join our family members who were taken from us too soon. Only four months earlier, my mother, Blanche Mahler Blumenfeld also left us. While she was alive, I had hoped that some day she and Charles would meet. Now I know they have.