It took me a while to find the Ministry of Public Health. I had expected shiny bright government offices; instead, here, in a circle of what appeared to be warehouses, was a gray building that reminded me of an old fashioned, abandoned bank: heavy revolving doors, stone floors, counters with glass sliding panes but no one behind them. The place seemed empty. I went back outdoors to double-check the number. Could I be in the wrong place? No, it was "31." I went back inside and yelled "hello," and soon a white haired woman wearing a navy blue sweater approached. Although it was a typical hot July day, indoors, it was quite cool.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"I would like the section of the civil victims of the war." (That, I guessed, was the euphemism for "Jews.")
"Do you have an appointment?"
"Yes, Madame Aubry is expecting me." She wasn't, but that was what Esther and Myriam, the two filmmakers who had told me about the archives advised me to say.
"Just a moment, I'll see if she's in," said the woman. I wondered what Madame Aubry would say on the phone since she had never heard of me, but apparently she said to send me up because the woman said, after hanging up, "I'll take you there."
I followed her through a maze of corridors to wind up outdoors again, in a dark, covered courtyard. Pigeons flew about and their droppings littered the ground. In the middle of the courtyard stood an old-fashioned elevator shaft. Its door opened.
"Just press the ninth floor button. Madame Aubry will be waiting," the woman said.
I did as I was told, and when the elevator stopped its door opened to an attractive, smiling woman.
"You wanted to see me?" she asked.
"Yes, Myriam and Esther gave me your name. I have come to find out about my family during the war; we used to live in Brussels. We are Jewish," I added redundantly.
"Yes, the files you are looking for should be here. Come with me," she said. A change had come over Madame Aubry; she gave off a kind of personal sympathy, an expression of support that I immediately sensed and was grateful for. The rooms we went through reminded me of old stacks in university libraries, the kind no one consults anymore—full of books yellowing on half empty shelves. We stopped in a room that held a long wooden table. Two bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling. Madame Aubry turned them on, and then went to some old green metal file cabinets.
"What is your family's name?" she asked.
When I told her, she said, as she pulled out the K drawer. "Katz—Katz what?"
I told her that my father's name had been Moishe Chaim and my mother was Golda. She pulled out two files; one very thin and the other very thick. The thick one was my father's. "Here you are," she said.
Just like that! After all these years of not knowing what had happened, of wondering, of fantasizing, two sleeping files had been right here waiting.
"Would you like to see your own file?" Madame Aubry asked.
Since I had been only a year old when the Germans invaded Belgium, I didn't think there would be a file for me. "Even if you were only one week old," went on Madame Aubry, "there would be a file for you. What is your name?"
"Dori Katz," I started to say, then caught myself and replied, "Astrid Katz."
She pulled out another file. Overwhelmed, I sat down at the long table with the three folders. My mother's had only a couple of forms and cards with her name, her parents' name, her husband's name, her address, and her profession: seamstress. Her religion was written as "none," but her race said "Jewish." Judaism was not considered a religion but a race, which meant that all Jews were Atheists. Her identity card was more or less like her registration card except it had the word JUDE stamped on it.
It was all cut and dry. Except that the file was in some ways misleading. My mother was "hiding." She did not live at the address on the form but somewhere else. She did not carry the identity card stamped "JUDE," but a false one with a different name, other parents, a Belgian birthplace, a Catholic religion, and her race was stated as white. Thousands of such false papers had been forged by underground resistance groups; some Jewish, some not. I suppose these counterfeit papers worked because the German or Belgian personnel who examined them were not always conscientious. It was mostly a matter of luck. My mother was young, pretty and spoke Flemish without an accent. She was very careful, of course, but mostly she was very lucky.
My own file said, in German, that I was a three-year-old atheist. If the Germans had come to the address registered, 74 rue d'Aerschot in Brussels, they would not have found me since I was hiding with the Walschots, a Catholic farm family in Berseel. For the first time, I think I really understood the kind of danger I had been in and what "hiding" meant.
The people who hid me did not know my real name. When the Gestapo came to the Walschots, they did not find a Jewish child, but Astrid Von Der Laar, the daughter of their Catholic Belgian niece who had volunteered for work camp in Germany, and the Walschots had the papers to prove it.
I had left the most difficult file, that of my father, for last. There wasn't much information about what had happened to him, but the little there was, was very specific. He had been arrested by the security police, on September 10, 1942 on the street, deported to Germany, and then to Poland to various concentration camps—one of the "lucky" ones chosen for slave labor rather than death, first to a synthetic gasoline plant, and then to a commando—besides the main camps, there were thousand of branches, called "commandos." I wondered where did the Germans get the personnel—the guards, clerks, drivers, etc...to man these?
"Oh, they had plenty of help," Madame Aubry explained. "There were thousands of collaborators, and then the prisoners who had been jailed before the war...
I went on reading. It was late in the afternoon when I came upon the Auschwitz document. Here it was, a form filled out to admit my father on April 1, 1944—a photocopy of the most terrible document I have ever seen in my life. It went on routinely: birthplace, date, address, parents. I learned that my father had been short; only two inches taller than my 5'2", with red hair, blue eyes, and sixteen missing teeth. I wondered if they had made him open his mouth to count them.
There were a few small photographs. They show a high forehead, a bony, angular face cut through by a mustache, and beautiful, big, dreamy eyes. He was still in his twenties. I asked Madame Aubry if I could have them, but she said that nothing could be removed from those files. However, she just remembered that she had an urgent phone call to make in her office, so if I would excuse her for a few minutes...
While she was gone I detached them and put the photographs in my wallet. I was to lose them the next day when my purse was robbed at the Gare du Nord in Paris. But now, as I left the Ministry of Public Health, I was in a daze. I took a cab to the apartment Myriam and Esther had lent me. I sat on an art-deco white leather sofa, facing a big picture window on the fifth floor of a modern building, and stared at the sky for hours. I had been in Belgium for only three days, and in three days had crossed forty years.
I had gone into a tall, dark building and I had disturbed my father's grave, had found no proof of his death, only the emptiness of his absence. What had I learned from all this? I felt burned out, as though I had walked through a curtain of fire. I thought of As If It Were Yesterday, Miryam and Esther's film that had started my quest. I remembered seeing in it Andrée Guelin, the woman who had organized the network of hiding places for Jewish children. "The most difficult thing," she had said, "was taking the child from its parents. They were so frightened. You couldn't tell them where you were taking their son or daughter, what your name was, how they could reach you."
A list of names and phone numbers had been left for me in the kitchen of the apartment; names of people who might help. I looked for Andrée Guelin's number and when I found it, dialed it. Perhaps she could tell me something more.
A pleasant cheerful voice answered the rings. "Was I the one who took you into hiding?" she asked. I told her I didn't know. She asked me my name.
"Astrid Katz," I told her, "but I was hidden under "Astrid Von Der Laar."
"Just a minute," she said, "I'll check in my book." She was back on the phone in a few seconds. Did she keep that book by the telephone, within reach, like an address book? Perhaps people called her all the time.
When I confirmed that I was born in Antwerp, on July 13, 1939, she said, "Yes, I was the one. You might be interested to know that, afterwards, I wrote down by your name, 'a darling little girl.' "
I hung up the telephone, went back to the white art-deco couch and cried for a long time.
Dori Katz was born in Belgium in 1939 and emigrated with her mother to the US in 1952. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa. She has just retired as a professor of Modern Languages and Literature from Trinity College in Hartford. She has published many poems in journals and anthologies such as The North American Review, Shenandoah, has published a chapbook of poetry entitled Hiding in Other People's Houses. She has also published several translations of books from the French of Marguerite Yourcenare, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Henri Raczymow published by Holmes & Meier.