The ShareGood Blog: Belgium – ‘Like a Mother to Us’ by David Weiss

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The ShareGood Blog by David Weiss

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My grandfather’s scariest moment wasn’t when Nazi guards were randomly shooting Jews in the Miechow Ghetto. It wasn’t being a few feet away from falling concrete in a concentration camp tunnel. It wasn’t during one of his daring escapes. It wasn’t even at Kielce where Polish neighbors killed over forty Survivors in a senseless murder spree. His most nervous moment, the scariest of his life, took place after the Holocaust in 1946 on a train to Belgium.

Survivors at Displaced Persons Camps were suffering illnesses and there were further attacks and hostility from the non-Jewish local population. Grandpa Jack decided that it was time to take his forged, illegal papers and head to Belgium. He didn’t have many good options at this point in his life. Grandpa Jack had gotten married just months earlier and as his new wife, her sister and his new brother-in-law waited in Nuerenberg as Grandpa Jack followed a job lead to Brussels. He was terrified because his papers didn’t look even close to being legal and if a guard looked closely he’d certainly notice that they were indeed forged/fake.

At each stop he broke out into a cold sweat just hoping that his papers wouldn’t be inspected. He recalled to me, sixty-five years later, that if he were to be caught, he would have to spend a very, very long time in jail. He was a citizen of no country and had nobody who could have provided even the least bit of help if he was jailed.

Thankfully a young lady noticed him on the train and they began to talk to one another. She assumed that he was “illegal” and told him how bad it would be if he was caught. The two began to like each other quite a bit and she asked him if he would come to Paris with her instead of going to Belgium. He had mentioned nothing about being married and promised her that if she gave him her address, he’d re-board after a brief stop in Belgium and he’d come to Paris to be with her. The French lady paid the ticket-checkers to allow Grandpa Jack to make it to Belgium without having to show his papers. Once he arrived in Belgium, however, he stayed there and never went to Paris.

Once in Belgium, Grandpa Jack met the owner of the tailor shop. Despite the owner’s initial hesitation due to his youthful appearance and the fact that he was still emaciated from the Holocaust, he hired Grandpa Jack. He had to live in the tailor shop, never going into the outside world. As an “illegal” he could not be discovered. Grandpa Jack slept on his tailoring table, constantly fearing that he would be found and thrown in a Belgian prison. This extremely stressful situation lasted for seven weeks until he semi-legally obtained a Green Card and sent for his new family to come join him. He sent them enough money to get “legal” papers. It was at this point that the initial (and long) process of gaining citizenship to Belgium began.

Grandpa Jack always said that “Belgium was like a mother to us”. While this was true, at first the country did all it could to keep him out and leave him without a country and without a home. With his Green Card and then (later on) his citizenship papers in-hand, Belgium truly became like a mother to this young family. There was the Belgian-Survivor who he formed a business partnership with grandpa despite his lack of money. There were his Hungarian neighbors who fought the Nazis in the war and the fellow Holocaust Survivors who they could speak Yiddish with and share stories of “The Old Country”. There were so many others in Belgium who did much more than they had to for the Grinbaums.  The Headmaster of the nearby private school was probably the best example. The Grinbaum home was several bus lines away from the nearest public school. This private school was attended by the sons and daughters of diplomats and the top business executives in Brussels. Upon hearing the Grinbaum’s story, the Headmaster told Jack and Genia that she would be honored if they sent their daughter, Esther, to the school for whatever price they could afford to pay.

Eastern European Jews were universally unwanted before and after WWII. Sure, these were primarily refugees and hard-working, honest people, but they were “different”. The myriad of excuses that are always used to exclude “the others” were used in Belgium. The incorrect accusation that immigrants will hurt the economy is always repeated by people who want to slam the door on others.  It’s easier to falsely claim that the economy will suffer rather than admit the reality that change can be a scary concept to some. Some parts of the population will claim that they are “losing their culture” when in reality, the culture always gets stronger as we learn from one another and grow together. Holocaust Survivors, like all immigrants, improved both the economy and the culture of their new homeland.

Did my grandfather break the law by entering Belgium with forged papers? Yes, he did. And while nobody nowadays would blame HIM for skirting the law, the comment that “they broke the law” is still used to senselessly punish people. If someone thinks that they would have offered my grandfather an opportunity and mercy in 1946 but won’t offer a refugee the same mercy and opportunity here in 2017, they are being extremely disingenuous. Then again, there is a beautiful link between people who helped refugees now and those who helped with the same intensity and love after WWII.

When we look at history, some of the worst acts of all-time were “legal”. Anti-Jewish laws were LAWS in Germany, so much of the Holocaust was “legal”. Slavery was “legal” as was segregation. Beheading people or cutting off people’s hands is “legal” in many countries still today. While these things are legal, they are also undisputedly immoral. Escaping a Death Cap was “illegal”. So was breaking segregation rules, racial-intermarrying and most of the acts of the Underground Railroad. They were all “illegal” but they were very, very moral and we correctly celebrate them as acts of bravery and honor.

Reinforcing this moral/immoral/legal/illegal concept is the example of Alonso Guillen. Guillen was brought to this country from Mexico illegally. He was brought up as an American and was a role model in the community. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, he drove over one-hundred miles to help rescue others from the storm. Guillen died when his rescue boat slammed into a bridge. Was Alonso Guillen ever really “illegal”? Was Grandpa Jack ever really “illegal”? I suppose they were. While both of these “illegals” are no longer with us, others who share their journey are. Maybe it’s our rules, not their choices that we need to examine.

If we care about our personal legacy and about our legacy as a community, don’t we want people to say “They were like a mother/father to us”? I would love for someone to say that about me, or better yet, to say that about my nation.

David Weiss was born, raised and still lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Being the grandson of four Holocaust Survivors has always been an integral part of his identity and life.  David earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from Cardinal Stritch University and a Masters of Arts in Education from Viterbo University.  He spent eleven years as a second and third grade teacher before starting his own promotions business.  David is also an author and teaches at the college level.  David and his wife are the proud parents of a six year old daughter.

More from David Weiss HERE.

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