Life After Birkenau
The Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium is unique in that it is the most predominantly Orthodox, Hasidic and Yiddish-speaking community in Europe. It is also unique in that its Jewish life centers on the diamond industry.
Jewish life in Antwerp is very concentrated, intense and convenient — located in about one square kilometer stretching south from the diamond district. The main offices and exchanges of the diamond industry are located on a short, narrow and very busy street.
Twenty-five years ago, I was living in Antwerp and working out of an office on this street. I was fascinated by life in this heavily Jewish (and Indian) microcosm of competing interests, dynasties and allies in business. They seemed to be constantly scheming, often working against each other as much as together. You never knew which old family friend from “back home” would swindle or blackmail you, or who would kindly take in a new arrival and help set him up in the business.
One of the characters who frequented the Hoveniersstraat district almost every day was a beggar everyone knew as Hopla. He was a small, rotund elderly man dressed in a raincoat no matter what the season, with a small shabby hat on his head. He always carried a black bag and a walking stick, which he used liberally to prod or whack anyone that he felt slighted him, made fun of him, or did not give him a big enough donation. He often shouted at people and was particularly aggressive with kids. It seems he got his nickname because every time he succeeded in giving some kid who provoked him a whack with his stick, he would shout out, “Hopla!”
On my first day there, I ignored him as he shouted at me. The second day, he blocked my way, glared at me and waved his stick. I was repelled by his aggression and yet drawn to him. I asked around. I heard from someone that he had been a musician. I also heard someone say that he was really very rich, and that begging was only a way of life, not a necessity.
So the next day, as I took out some money to give him, I mischievously started humming the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which had been the signature tune of the BBC to occupied Europe during the war. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. He hummed the opening of the 6th. From that day on, we became sort of friends. I would hum a tune, and he would hum one back by whichever composer I chose. This became a daily routine. But he would never respond to any question I might ask about his life. A few years later, I left Antwerp and forgot about him. Until a friend from Antwerp sent me an obituary.
His name was Saul Milevsky. He was born in Lodz, Poland. Between the wars he had performed as a violinist in various orchestras. He had been forced into the ghetto by the Nazis and finally ended up in Birkenau, where his skill as a violinist had saved him. But his parents had been murdered there. After the war, he joined a Zionist youth organization and headed to Palestine in defiance of the British. He was caught by British Mandate patrols and interned in Cyprus. When he arrived in Palestine, he joined the Irgun and participated in military action against the occupying forces. After the War of Independence, he earned a living as a musician, playing in the Kol Israel Orchestra.
Some time in the 1950s, he made his way to Brussels. He joined the Jewish community and was well known to the local rabbis. In Belgium, too, he played in several orchestras and was still playing in 1978. But an injury to his hand ended his career. He had a nervous breakdown and ended up on the streets begging. He found Antwerp much more lucrative than Brussels and traveled there every day of the week.
He had a regular beat, from the diamond area to the Jewish stores and places of worship. One of his stops was at the butcher shop and delicatessen run by Anshel Fruchter. There he picked up whatever food they spared him, put it into the black bag he carried around, and went on his way. If he saw someone who looked needy, he would offer them some food from his black bag. He would always go to Reb Itzikel’s in Mercatorstraat for the afternoon prayers. It seems he was known to several prominent Hasidic rebbes. There are photos of him with some of them. Few in Antwerp had any idea about his musical expertise or intellectual past, or indeed of his heroic involvement in Israel’s independence. All they saw was a sad, broken little man who had survived the Holocaust.
After he died, the local community circular asked readers to send in anything they knew or remembered about him. Some readers wrote in to say that he was not poor. He owned several properties in Brussels. Some said that his money went to distant relatives in Israel. Others say he had a son in Brussels, and he inherited his father’s money. Some said the state confiscated it all because he paid no taxes.
One contributor said that if anyone ever challenged him about his bad temper or behavior, he would say, “I was in Auschwitz. You don’t know what I suffered. You have no right to question me.” Another quoted him as saying of his life, “I may breathe, but I do not live.”
We who were so fortunate not to have to experienced what the survivors did, can have no idea what people like Hopla went through. We cannot judge the way people reacted to the horrors they experienced. Some just could not deal with it, and could not adjust to normal life. Some were mentally destroyed, if not physically. There were also survivors who became caring human beings, determined to repay evil with goodness. Others just pursued selfish pleasure as if to make up for what they had lost. Some even became crooks. We at least should keep the memory alive of what humans are capable of towards other humans for no other reason than the pathology of prejudice. Hopla survived. But he did not live.
I am often reminded of the story in which the camp prisoners put God on trial for allowing the atrocities to happen. After much debate, they find God guilty. Then one of those present gets up and says, “Gentlemen, it’s time for the afternoon prayers.”