Sunday, 5 April 2009

Grand Old Man!

After following Laurie's stories of her grandparents, I have been thinking a great deal about mine. I've already written about my father's scary stepmother (post of Jan. 28th) but I know a great deal more about my mother's parents, who lived in Ghent, Belgium. This is my grandfather, Arthur. A quiet, decent, easygoing man, with a great love for his family, he died when I was two, but was spoken of so often and adoringly by my mother that I felt I knew him better than I did. My grandmother Rachel married him in defiance of the wishes of her own mother, who refused to come to the wedding or to even speak to her for some time afterwards, although it was a good match to a man who was well-respected and frequently sought out for advice and help.

Arthur said little and thought much, and when he made up his mind about something that he felt should be done, he remained quietly determined, and generally got his way. During the early days of the war, after the Nazis overran Holland and Belgium, he met a man in the street who, in great distress, told him that his house had just been commandeered by the German Army and that he, his wife and their son had been summarily kicked out. And as a Jew, this man knew enough to recognise that things would rapidly get worse. My grandfather simply said "Come with me", and took him to my grandmother, and that was how a Jewish family lived secretly in a back room of my grandparents' home for months, until they were able to be smuggled out to Switzerland. (And the smuggling out part of the saga belongs to my mother, who could tell a story like no one else, full of drama and excitement, yet devoid of true horror or fear until we were old enough to understand. And even then, she edited out so much that was unpleasant that we could only guess at the privations and dangers they all faced during those dreadful years.)

This picture, found in Tante Mimi's things, was taken well after the war, and I would guess dates from around 1948/9. The note on the back, in my mother's hand, reads (very roughly translated) as "Papa wants me to say that the old lady next to him isn't with him!" Tante Mimi would have had a good chuckle at that, and especially at the old lady's hat.

The desire to help others ran very strongly in my mother too, and combined with the strong will and refusal to bow down to unreasonable rules, that she inherited from her mother, makes me feel that had she found herself in a situation like Arthur's, the decision to risk extreme personal danger in order to help another human being would have come as simply and naturally to her as it did to him. I look back on their respective lives with wonder and admiration, and also with a suspicion that under similar pressure, I would not be able to match their standards and their moral certainty.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

What a lovely interesting story and such a cool photo. I called today but you weren't in. I'll pop over sometime this week though x x

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