The day I met Martin Schapiro, I stayed at his house for over three hours. I did not recognize for how long I was sitting there, just listening to his stories, until I noticed it was getting dark outside. Martin was quite a special man in my eyes. He was 90 year old, with white hair, a mustache, and an almost boyish smile that lit up his whole face. The thing I remember best about Martin though, is probably his voice and the way he used to speak. It was the kind of voice you could listen to for hours, warm and steady.
Martin’s story begins in Berlin 1938. Germany was rueled by the Nazis at this time and after the “Reichspogromnacht” on the 9th of November the family Schapiro, among many other Jewish families, has no doubt left that they don’t have any future in Germany.
Martin’s parents decide that they have no choice but to leave the country as soon as possible. At the same time they know their chances to cross the border all together are very low. This is why the seven year old Matin is the first one to take a train to Belgium all alone. When he finally arrived in Brussels, ‘lost’ is probably the best word to describe his situation. He was in a strange city where he neither knew a soul nor spoke the language. Looking around at the station he found nobody, who could help or take care of him, till his eyes met the ones of a stranger. Martin did not know why, but his intuition told him that this strange man might be a Jew as well. So even though his parents forbid him to speak to strangers, so nobody could identify him as a refugee, Martin saw no other choice than to go and talk to him. His feeling did not deceive him and the man was actually a fellow Jew who was able to help Martin and took the young boy with him to Antwerp, where he stayed with a Jewish host family.
Only weeks later his parents, together with his younger brother, managed to follow him and meet their son in Antwerp.
Unfortunately, the happiness of the freshly reunited family does not last for too long.
In 1940, while Martin’s family still tries to make Antwerp their new home, the Germans occupy Belgium. Family Schapiro, still traumatized by the horrors they experienced in Germany, try to flee to France, the nearest country with stronger military forces. They do not know that their way there will turn out as a hellride. The train they are in with many other refugees gets bombarded by the Germans. Fortunately, the Schapiros survive and try to make their way to the border by foot. With horror in his eyes, Martin describes to me the pictures he saw on the way there, people running, streets stuffed with refugees, a woman with a child, walking through blood. Soon they see the German trucks that come with the order to bring back all the refugees. Their escape fails and Martin and his family are forced to stay in Antwerp.
In 1941 they find out that the Germans want to bring all the Jews in Antwerp to Limburg. Their plan is to concentrate them in little villages and deport them from there. This is why the Schapiro family decides to move to Brussels instead. The mayor of Brussels is not willing to cooperate with the Germans, so that there are no deportations from the city.
Lost in thoughts Martin tells me how much help they received from the Belgians. In 1942, when the Germans start to arrest Jews in Belgium, they find a host, in a small village in the outskirts, that is part of the Belgian Resistance and agrees to not make them register. But not only this, he cares deeply for the Shapiro family and uses his contacts in the commune to arrange food stamps for them. But even though they got help from many neighbors, the hiding was very difficult for Martin and his family. Their first priority became to make sure nobody can identify them as Jewish. This is the reason why Martin’s parents do not leave their flat anymore, the chances that somebody would find out that they do not speak a word Flemish and are refugees from Germany are too big. Therefore, the young Martin, who had learned Flemish in school before he was not allowed to go there any longer, was the only one who could get food.
The burden on Martin’s shoulders becomes even heavier when his four year old brother gets sent off to a catholic orphanage in Leuven, where he is hidden under a false identity. Even though it beakes their parents hearts to be separated from their son, they believe that he will be safer in the orphanage. Martin, who is 11 years old at this time, is too old to be taken into the orphanage. But he comes and visits his brother every month, till one day his father turns on the radio and Martin’s whole world stops for a moment. The American air force attacked the city of Leuven and the orphanage gets destroyed by the bombs. Immediately, Martin makes his way to Leuven. The whole city is still in flames when he arrives there and he finds out that the children that survived the attack are evacuated and spread out around town. Martin searches the whole day till he finally finds his brother alive and well with one of the sisters. Full of relief he takes him home to their parents. There he finds out, however, that his brother no longer recognizes them. ‘My parents could no longer hold their own son in their arms’, Martin tells me with sadness in his voice. Nevertheless, the four are reunited and manage to stay hidden until they are freed in 1944 by the British. Martin’s family achieves the unbelievable, they survive the war together.
I am not only amazed about Martin’s story itself, but also that he is telling it to me in fluent German. A language, he says, he, after the horrors he experienced, never wanted to speak again. The memories he connected to his childhood in Germany were too painful for him. So even though Martin and his wife loved nothing more than to travel, there was one county they always avoided – the country he was born in. “It was the only country in the world I did not want to visit again. I thought I could not hear the language ever again.”
The only time Martin enters the country again is for a visit in Berlin organized by the German government. This is the time he really was able make peace with the country he was born in, Martin tells me.
The story I am telling here is only one of countless that Martin has shared with me. Despite everything that happened to him, I find Martin Schapiro to be an incredibly hopeful person. Who himself built a beautiful family with his wife and loved her and his two daughters with all his heart.
I do not want to give the impression that all the times he told me about his life were all about his time in the war, because that was definitely not the case. His experiences as a hidden child in Belgium definitely shaped Martin, but by no means made him bitter or sad. Martin was an incredibly adventurous, lively man. Most of his stories were about the time with his wife, how much he loved seeing his daughters growing up and his adventures all around the world.
This is the way I will always remember Martin, as a man that inspired me everytime, full of hope, who loved deeply and was deeply loved.
By Linn Lämmle in loving memory of Martin Schapiro