A new modus vivendi
As a hidden child of the Holocaust, Albert Hepner ’79 was forced into silence. Now, in a memoir about those dark days, it’s his turn to speak out.
Avrumele “Albert” Hepner’s first memory of World War II was in 1940 when he was just 5 years old. Sirens wailed outside his home in Brussels, Belgium, as his father quickly turned off lights and ran to close the curtains. “It begins,” his father says. “I think the Germans are now attacking Brussels.”
Within the year, Albert would become one of the thousands of hidden children of the Holocaust — children who, in order to stay safe from the Nazis, were pulled from their families, shuffled from place to place, and concealed from the outside world. What follow are excerpts from his memoir, Avrumele: Recollections of a Hidden Child, where he recounts his childhood years living in the shadows.
My cousin Motl rushed into the apartment and told my mother he had found a place to hide me. She shrieked with horror — or was it despair — no doubt because the worst was about to happen: The only son she had left was about to be taken away. Her husband, my father, had died from cancer a few months before and her older son, Max, had already run away to Switzerland, and we had no idea if he had been successful in his escape.
Motl instructed us that we had to leave right away, “before curfew and the German patrols,” for the priest who would be hiding me didn’t want anyone to notice that a child was being brought to church so late in the evening.
At the rectory door, Motl kissed my cheek goodbye and told me to listen to the father. I was totally paralyzed. I felt so drained and abandoned that I couldn’t decide whether to cry or scream, so I listened to Father Jan Bruylandts who had taken my hand as soon as I was inside the door. He pushed on a wall that turned out to be a door to a hidden basement. Even at the age of nearly seven I felt empty and cold with fear.
I think I trembled without stopping until I finally fell asleep. Sometime later, a warm wet feeling on my stomach and on the top on my leg woke me. It took me a while to realize that I had wet the bed. I don’t think I had ever done that before. The other children seemed to be staring at me. This basement dungeon was barely large enough to contain its seven cots, and there was hardly any room to move about, which determined what we could, or rather, couldn’t do. For the most part, we could either stand in place or walk around quietly and sit on each other’s cots. I made sure no one sat on mine as I didn’t want anyone to discover that my sheet was wet.
Unfortunately, the first night was the precursor to every night that I slept in the church basement; I wet the bed every night that I spent there. I remember Father Jan, in exasperation, exclaimed, “You must stop wetting the bed because I can’t explain to the laundress why I need so many bed sheets washed.” But no matter how hard I tried, and how ashamed I felt, I couldn’t stop. So finally, I tried to do something about the problem.
I got up, removed the wet sheet from the bed and bundled it up under my arm. I quietly left the room, walked up the hidden stairwell and left the church along the same corridor I had entered through with the priest. I continued, reversing that terrible night when Motl took me from my secure home, and walked to where we lived and stood across the street from the apartment where my mother was on the second floor.
Trembling and crying in the cold, I began calling my mother. She never turned on her light, no doubt to avoid attracting the attention of informants who roamed the city looking for opportunities to notify the Germans of anyone not obeying the curfew. My mother did finally open her curtain in the dark, but upon seeing that it was me, she made vehement gestures clearly instructing me to return to the church.
I have experienced the feeling of defeat many times in life, but never was the feeling as overwhelming and profound as it was that night. With the still-damp sheet clasped under my arm, I made my way back to my dungeon.
Often, elaborate plans were made to move children from one place to the next to keep the Nazis from finding them. Albert had been living in the church basement for months when, suddenly, Motl appeared at the church doors and whisked Albert away just moments before the Gestapo arrived. Albert’s new home was to be with an older couple who made their living as weavers and were willing to help keep Albert safe.
Quiet — the quiet of hiding — had been my new modus vivendi ever since leaving my mother.
Without ever speaking a word, the couple taught me how to weave with wicker. Working hard at a craft all day long infused our lives with peacefulness and calm. I would only miss talking during those moments when I meandered over to the large window facing the Rue des Fiennes and the world that I used to inhabit. They seemed worried when I’d wander over to it but never gestured for me to move away.
My brief “excursions” to the edge of the window were my only contact with the outside world. In fact, that big window became my only porthole to humanity and was the place I most wanted to be every weekday, as the children would emerge from the church school across the street in the afternoons. They would hang around after school, talking boisterously, shoving each other or kneeling on the cobbled sidewalk where they had chalked off a square for shooting marbles. Every time I looked at the children I was overwhelmed with envy. It seemed totally incredible to me that some children were actually free: to go to school, to play, to be in the streets.
Unfortunately, this idyll ended, with my departure as quiet and terrifying as my arrival. Motl suddenly appeared to take me away from the old couple and deliver me to another couple. I cried all the way to my new prison.
All these new places seemed inhabited by people who were just doing Motl a favor without really paying attention to me. So, this time, Motl took me to the only place that would have me, I guess: his apartment.
Motl had been involved with the underground. Since he worked at the hospital where he had to help Belgians as well as Germans, he had a special identity card, which gave him much more freedom to move around Brussels than did others.
I was already seven years old and would sometimes walk around the busy neighborhood by myself. German soldiers walking along the wide avenues would pass by me, pat me on the head and greet me in German. I was blonder than all their children and my eyes were certainly bluer than theirs, or even than Hitler’s for that matter.
The first time a soldier placed his hand on my shoulder and then patted my head, telling me what a good little German I was, I nearly peed in my pants with fright. Thankfully, I knew enough to smile and say “danke,” like a good little “Nazi.”
After that, Motl began burying envelopes under my clothes which I would then deliver to a man living several blocks away. I didn’t exactly know what I was doing for Motl, but I knew enough to feel proud.
As the war waged on, Albert seemed to be placed deeper and deeper into hiding. At one point, he was brought to a farm near Waterloo, Belgium, and shown to his new home in an attic.
The farmer pulled me up to a third floor that had only one door. He went into the one room and came right out holding a ladder. He set the ladder against the wall and told me to follow him up. Then, as if by magic, he pushed open a hidden door in the ceiling.
There was no way to guess that there was a trap door there. You just had to know. I was as frightened as I was enchanted by this secret entry. The man pointed to all the things that had been put there for me: a mattress, a chamber pot, toilet paper, food in open cans, water, bread and jam, and comic books. The comic books were a nice touch.
He told me that every day someone would come up to empty the pot and replenish whatever I had used up. He told me not to talk to whoever came to my hiding place. He told me not to open the trap door under any circumstances. He told me that if anyone called out from downstairs as if they knew I was there, to ignore it and not say anything. He told me to answer only to him when he opened the trap door and I could see that it was him. He told me not to talk to him through the trap door even if I knew that he was there on the other side. He told me not to make any noise no matter how I felt. What he didn’t tell me — what he didn’t have to tell me — was that I was a non-person again.
In late 1942, Albert traveled by train to Namur, Belgium, where he would hide in a convent. The nuns there taught him to pray, gave him a new, Christian-sounding last name, and told him to not reveal to anyone that he was Jewish. He lived that way for more than two years.
There was a ruckus in the yard because of some guns firing. Everyone ran toward the front gate, the gate through which I had entered two years earlier and had never approached again, because no one was supposed to know that the nuns had children staying in the convent.
I slithered among the others until I reached the gate where the most incredible action was taking place. The Belgian Maquis, World War II resistance fighters, in their majestic all-white garb, including their white hoods, with machine guns in hand, were pushing back the German soldiers right there in the streets of Namur outside our convent.
One would have sworn we were at a soccer game with a hundred thousand Namur fans rooting for the local team. The Maquis were indeed winning. We were hoarse from screaming encouragement and jumping up and down. I knew, but didn’t fully understand, what was going on. The calls of freedom and liberty were sufficient for even this naive nine-year-old to understand that things were about to change dramatically.
A few days later, the Mother Superior called me in. What could she want with me? I had always behaved, I hadn’t caused any problems, and I was one of the most dependable altar boys. As soon as I entered her office, she told me not to worry, but to get my clothes together because someone was coming the next morning to take me to my mother.
I was certain that there was something terribly wrong with me. Surely, I should be happy that I was going to see my mother, but I couldn’t figure out who that person was. Mother was just a word to me; I couldn’t even conjure up an image of what that person looked like. It had been so long since I had allowed myself to think about her, or anyone else I had been connected to before my terrible journey had begun.
Abraham Vinnik, a dear friend of Albert’s father, arranged to take Albert back to his mother, who had her own survival story of moving from place to place in the nearly five years she and Albert were apart. Their reunification was a surprise to Albert’s mom.
Vinnik and the rest of his family could not have been a more eager audience. All stood nearly breathless while this still-strange woman and I just looked at each other. Their great anticipation was no doubt disappointed as this woman and I unexpectedly and absurdly just kept looking at each other, with no reaction. After what seemed like an eternity of standing frozen and gazing blankly, Vinnik broke the silent but echoing vacuum and loudly asked her, “You don’t recognize him?” She said, “What! What!” Again, he nearly shouted, “You don’t recognize him?” with the emphasis on him.
She had no reason to look at me closely until then, nor did I have any reason to think she was the woman who was supposed to be my mother since she hadn’t jumped up to greet me. Impatiently, Vinnik yelled at her, “C’est Albert!” This alien yet somewhat recognizable woman jumped up out of the chair shrieking, “Albert?” Rather than hugging me, as I had somehow expected, she gently but firmly grabbed both my shoulders and started to cry uncontrollably.
I’m not sure if it was her wailing that helped me begin to recognize her, but in the course of that afternoon, through the shrieks, the lamentations, the admonitions, the incessant tears and condemnations of the Germans who had destroyed her Albert, my cautious sense of denial melted into a warm feeling of belonging and total recognition.
Picture: Bill Cardoni
Posted on October 8, 2021