Like Anne Frank, Beatrice Muchman kept a diary when she was a young girl hiding from the Nazis. Along with family letters and documents uncovered many years later, her diary became the inspiration for her moving memoir, Never to Be Forgotten.
Mrs. Muchman’s remarks were delivered at Hillsdale’s Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar, “Faith and Freedom Around the World,” on campus last fall.
In 1939, my family fled Germany and landed in Belgium. Some members were able to emigrate to the United States, but my mother and father, Meta and Julius Westheimer, and I were hopelessly caught up in bureaucratic red tape that prevented our escape.
The daily fight for survival in Nazi-occupied Belgium was beyond a young child’s comprehension. For this reason, some of the stories I related in my wartime memoir, Never to Be Forgotten, I learned only after a cache of family letters, documents, and photographs was discovered a few years ago. Others, however, are based on my youthful recollections and on my diary, which I kept between 1939 and 1946. I would like to share just a few of those stories here.
Hiding in the Countryside
The first time I saw my father cry was the second-to-last time I saw him. I was nine years old. That was more than 50 years ago in the summer of 1942.
We were in the Belgian countryside, in the village of Ottignies, about 25 kilometers from Brussels. My father had brought my cousin Henri and me there by train that morning. We were at the home of two middle-aged sisters named Marraine and Adele. They were French Catholics who had agreed to take us in—“just for the summer,” we were told.
My father began weeping when he kissed me goodbye. Marraine and Adele looked on awkwardly. Or maybe I was the one who felt awkward, wanting so much to look grown-up and embarrassed to see my father, of all people, acting like a child.
I understood a lot of things by the time I was nine years old. After fleeing our home in Berlin and moving to Brussels three years earlier, after learning to speak French and, more important, not to speak German, after being forced to quit school and hide in our cramped apartment for fear of discovery by the authorities, I understood things that a child that age should not have to know—things that too many children, caught up in the war, knew all too well.
But on that beautiful summer day I did not, or perhaps would not, understand why my father was crying.
My parents had prepared me for the trip, telling me that I would enjoy life away from the city—the fresh air, the sunshine, the flowers, the trees. But with the way my father was behaving, spending the summer in the country seemed like anything but a good thing. He was spoiling what was supposed to be a wonderful moment in my life.
It wasn’t until much later that I came to realize why he was crying. He knew that this might be the last time he would ever see me.
He was gone in what seemed like an instant, rushing out the door, starting on the long journey down the steep hill leading back to the train station. I tried hard to put him out of my mind, as Marraine and Adele attempted to make Henri and me feel at home in our new surroundings. But when I went to bed that night, I was still thinking about my father. I felt frightened and alone.
Despite all the things I understood back then, despite all my efforts to see things as a mature young lady, I only saw them through a child’s eyes. When I was told a year later that my father had been murdered by German soldiers, there was a part of me that didn’t believe it, a part of me that didn’t yet understand the finality of death. When I learned at the same time that my mother had been captured and taken away, I didn’t believe that she was gone forever. I was sure I would see her again. I was wrong, but having that belief to cling to made it possible for me to cope during a time of great personal anguish.
Memories and Secrets
I have carried the memories of my youth for more than half a century now, and at many times they have been an oppressive burden. But they have also been a great blessing, for they remind me of people whom I came to cherish, people who were willing to risk their lives to save mine.
Marraine was one of them. A Parisian, she came to live with her sister Adele in Ottignies after her husband died. She had been a nurse during World War I, and the pain and suffering she had witnessed were her reason for providing refuge for Jewish children when World War II began.
Henri and I owed our lives to Marraine and Adele, but we also owed our lives to the whole village. Almost everyone in Ottignies knew our secret and the secrets of the other Jewish children hidden there, but no one reported us to the German soldiers who patrolled the area. (Out of 4,000 Jewish children hiding in Belgium, 3,000 were saved precisely because of this kind of quiet, unsung heroism.)
My parents, of course, made the ultimate sacrifice— giving up their only child. But, being a child, I had no idea what an agonizing decision it was for them. I thought they were abandoning me when in reality they were saving me.
Like so many others who lost loved ones during the Holocaust, I learned very little about what happened to my parents. Most of what I knew came from my grandmother and my aunt immediately after the war. Some 40 years later, their accounts were validated in Belgian historian Maxime Steinberg’s La Traque des Juifs. My parents were among a group of deportees en route to Auschwitz. They attempted a unique and daring escape. Despite the dispassionate rendering, in which my mother and father were mere numbers on a transport, reading about them on a printed page somehow made their lives—and their deaths—more real for me.
Through the good fortune of discovering their letters and reading about how I had filled them with joy, I was finally able to discover, in a deep and fundamental way, that my parents had loved me more than life itself. Translating their letters and writing about those years became my chance to forgive them, embrace them, and thank them.
It also became my chance to acknowledge those valiant rescuers whose unyielding sense of individual responsibility saved my life. In a time of unimaginable crisis, they chose to defy their conquerors and to do the right thing. They didn’t wait for orders or seek anyone’s approval. They didn’t wring their hands and say, “Our problems are too overwhelming, we can’t do anything about them!” They knew what they had to do, and they did it, without fuss, without regret.
We who live in the modern age would do well to remember the old adage, “Character is what we are in the dark, when no one is there to see us.” The good people that saved me had character—the kind of character that lights up the darkness and shines eternally.