The girl had an exotic name: Floris, pronounced Flor-eese. And photos of this teenager who was my mother's favorite teenage student in Bruxelles after World War II matched the name. Floris was unusually tall, with far-seeing eyes and torrents of curly black hair.
My mother mentioned Floris whenever she talked about her life in that city from 1945-1950 after surviving the Holocaust. That girl's striking name seemed to match the country, Belgium, which I discovered in our brown Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedia had three official languages, and it fit with the scant details of my mother's life there that she was willing to discuss.
What my jaunty but often-sarcastic mother did share made her sound as if she was recounting lovely moments from a dream; over time, Belgium was as colorful to me as Camelot. And in photos from those years, my mother was such a different-looking woman than the one I knew: slim, elegant in long floral dresses, with her hair piled high or loose around her shoulders, eyes wide with joy.
I knew that she and my father lived over a bakery and woke to the smell of fresh bread each morning—and the echo of a nearby tram rounding a corner. One of her neighbors was an actual streetwalker, which my mother at first found hard to believe given the woman's advanced age and stately elegance. But she did say, "Je fais les boulevards"—I walk the streets.
This was the woman who taught my mother how to cook a perfect omelet amongst other dishes, and who occasionally babysat my older brother when he was an infant. Bruxelles was a place of transformation in ways both large and small. For instance, the soot-covered mantelpiece in my parents’ first tiny apartment, became a gleaming black-veined white after much scrubbing. I couldn't imagine anything so dirty, and their "rescue" of it had the feel of a fairy tale.
Adding to the atmosphere of the unexpected, my very rational, straightforward mother who taught Yiddish literature and culture to Jewish children hidden during the Holocaust, actually wrote a romantic-sounding play about The Wind, a play that was performed by her students in Bruxelles and in London for Jewish audiences. No manuscript of the play survives—not even a program. But Floris played the part of Wind because she was so tall and striking.
I never thought I'd meet this woman whose family, along with many other Holocaust survivors, had eventually moved to Australia to be as far away from Europe as possible. But I did meet her, in Bruxelles, and she changed my life.
Floris and I rendezvoused for the first time in Bruxelles’ ornate fin-de-siècle Hotel Metropole, whose palatial lobby and reception areas were such a riot of gilt decoration, stained glass, mirrors, ornately carved mahogany panels, and chandeliers that I would feel under-dressed in anything less than a suit. A new suit. It was all beautiful but intimidating.
Floris herself was a soft-spoken, dark-eyed, slightly round-shouldered woman somewhere around sixty-five, with a shy warm smile who seemed both confident and careful in her choice of words. She punctuated her sentences with a reflective “yes?” that was part-observation, part-question. Nothing flighty there—she planted her feet and herself solidly. She wore a trench coat over her no-nonsense blue suit, white blouse and scarf. I felt instantly at ease with her foursquare unpretentiousness.
Floris told me later that she was expecting someone chubby, middle-aged and balding. At six feet and only 175 pounds, with shoulder-length reddish blond hair, I was clearly a bit of a surprise. "But give me time," I said. "I could end up like that."
While I wasn't an archeologist making the discovery of a lifetime at a recalcitrant dig, I felt a quiet sense of wonder penetrating my fatigue and jet lag. This is one of my mother’s students, I thought, from fifty years ago, as we headed into the hotel bar for coffee and a Croque Monsieur sandwich. I hadn't eaten since I got off the plane hours ago and my head felt light, light enough to rise to the carved ceiling several stories high. It was a setting for top hats, glistening evening gowns, and jewels. I felt slightly diminished by its magnificence and still not quite attuned to hearing French again—it’d been half a year since I was in Paris, but felt like much longer than that.
We chatted in a start-and-stop way, sheltered by a high-backed brown leather banquette. In some Australians I’ve met and in movie Australians, the broad accent feels not just exotic but mocking or even a put-on. But in Floris, the accent made her seem even more forthright.
It was remarkable that we met, having found each other fifty-plus years after she and my mother left Bruxelles for such different and distant countries, my mother to America and Floris to Australia. At the time of this surprising rendezvous, my mother had already been dead two years and the idea of writing something about her had been nagging at me. I'd published a prize-winning essay about her illness and decline, but I longed to write something more positive, less painful, and more substantial. It seemed like the right choice as I faced my fiftieth birthday.
Then the idea of writing a book about my mother and the school she taught at came to me in the spring of 2001. That very April evening, I began searching the web for information about Belgian Jewish organizations, and within days had fired off emails and letters explaining in well-polished French who my mother was and what little I knew of the school.
I had help from a bilingual colleague, but I owed the facility I had in French to my mother, who had helped me at home with my homework from 4th grade on and assiduously worked on my accent. She showed me the French “l” with tongue curled back behind one’s teeth over and over again—as opposed to the flat-tongued American “l.” She was that focused, that diligent. It paid off.
The thrill of winning my high school’s French award and getting a ribbon festooned certificate at a ceremony where I shook the French ambassador’s hand had worn off long ago, but whenever I was in France and someone commented with surprise, “Mais vous parlez bien, monsieur,” ("Your French is good,") and asked where I learned French, invariably I felt connected to my mother through this unexpected legacy.
Replies to my email and mailed queries started showing up within a few weeks, with offers to help by forwarding my letters elsewhere. As it turned out, many and perhaps most of them went to the same place, the Musée Juive de Belgique, and the crabby head archivist there was rather peeved that people kept turning to him for information. He asked me not to send out so many queries (“Merci de ne plus envoyer des lettres à tout le monde car elles arrivent pour finir toutes chez moi.”)
His own email to me was a tremendous disappointment. He claimed to have extensive archives related to my mother’s school, but as we emailed back and forth it became clear that the school my mother taught at was not covered by material in his collections—or so it had seemed at the time. The problem was that I didn’t know the school’s name or address, only that its curriculum was in Yiddish and it was probably connected with the Jewish socialist organization The Workman’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring in Yiddish).
The director of the Institut D’Études du Judaïsme eventually sent me copies of pages from a French Jewish yearbook listing all the Jewish organizations in Belgium in 1950. That was when I thought I’d identified the school. The school was listed as the I.L. Peretz School, named after the famous Yiddish writer, so that piece of information made sense, and it had an address in the Anderlecht neighborhood, where I knew my parents had lived. My father couldn’t remember the name or address but said my mother had walked to school, so that had to be it. “If you put me down in Bruxelles, I’ll find it,” he promised, but that didn’t seem as helpful as he thought it was.
If I knew the school, wouldn’t that make it easy to locate information about it? Not at all.
The correspondence with Belgian Jewish organizations was very amicable and even quite friendly for the most part, and each letter, fax, and email was both exciting and depressing. As days slid into weeks, it was clear that I was not really getting anywhere and it began to feel like a detective story as group after group was unable to help me, even a group of children hidden from the Nazis during WWII by nuns and priests (“L’enfant Caché.”), which struck me as very strange.
I couldn’t understand it. Wouldn’t there have been some record of this school? Was it so unimportant? Its Jewish students had been survivors and hidden children—wasn’t there some trace of them? Had it all been swallowed up in the vortex of time?
An American contact at YIVO, the Jewish research center in New York City that had once been based in Poland, suggested I get in touch via the Web with someone at an international organization of child survivors of the Holocausts. I dutifully posted a query to their online bulletin board one evening, and the very next morning found this in my Inbox:
I was a pupil at the I.L. Peretz School in Bruxelles after the war. I was very moved and excited to read your Email. Both the Lererke [Teacher] Katz and your mother Lererke Klaczko were my teachers. I enjoyed my years at the Peretz School and I have good memories of both of them. I left Bruxelles in 1949 and though I saw the Lererke Katz in later years, I always wondered what had happened to your mother. By coincidence I am going to Bruxelles at the end of this month. I'll be back at the end of June. I'd be delighted to answer your questions as best I can. This is a real "blast from the past" for me.
Best regards, Floris Kalman
I shouted, I whooped, I cried. I couldn’t believe it. Though it had only been about two months since I started my research, I had already spent countless hours searching on the web, churned out so much correspondence that didn’t seem to get me anywhere, and struggled with forgotten nuances of French—that I had begun to despair of finding anyone. Now I was surely wrong. There was a future for this book. There were living links to the past I was only beginning to understand.
Three days later another contact bore more fruit: Reaching out to YIVO in New York yielded what would turn out to be a major lead. A very helpful archivist there who explained that Workman’s Circle archives were housed at YIVO also gave me names of people to contact in Bruxelles and Switzerland, people who might be helpful.
Nathan Weinstock, a lawyer who knew the director of a Yiddish school once allied with the Bund and the Arbeiter Ring, gave me the name and phone number of a psychiatrist who he believed was the director’s daughter: Ida Lounsky. I looked her up on the web and wrote immediately to explain—in rapidly more fluent French—that I was an American writer and journalist, that I believed my mother had taught with her mother in a school linked to the Bund in Anderlecht until 1950, and that I would like to interview her and any students of the school if they were still alive. Her gracious reply reached me by fax on my birthday a couple of weeks later. My letter had connected her, she told me, with a distant past that was very much alive, and she had already contacted a number of people who were former students of the school in Bruxelles—all of whom were still living in Bruxelles and ready to assist me.
So, there I was in Bruxelles ready to meet gray-haired, elderly students who had known my mother when she was relatively young and even glamorous. I couldn't fathom it.
When I spent time with them over one long lunch during which I could hardly eat because I was so overwhelmed, they all commented that I had my mother’s smile. How surprising and wonderful this felt to me: I had never before been told I looked like her in any way. It brought me to tears.
The week was a blur of erratic sight-seeing and dining many times on that classic Belgian meal of mussels and French fries (moules et frites), and Belgian waffles of course. I interviewed Floris numerous times at various sidewalk cafes, steeped in the aroma of coffee and the comforting sound of French, along with the occasional Flemish drifting my way.
Floris was a hidden child during the war years. She shared with me her childhood fears of being discovered or never seeing her parents again while in hiding with various Gentile families, having to go to church every Sunday and pretend to be Catholic while living with one family, or work in another family's restaurant even though she was barely in her teens. It was a Holocaust story I was unfamiliar with and struggled to fit into the book I hoped I would write.
But did writing a book really matter? Wasn't being there in Bruxelles enough?
Thanks to Floris, I laughed harder than I had in a very long time, maybe since my mother had died two years before, because Floris wanted me to meet an old family friend of hers, Irène, who picked us both up at the hotel for a ride to the Palais de Justice, home of Bruxelles's courts. It's a mammoth, neoclassical, copper-domed, columned edifice that seems to have been put together in the dark. It bristled with scaffolding. Irène, who was as well-coiffed and chic as a CEO, kept telling jokes about the rather monstrous building, considered the world’s largest courthouse, that major symbol of Justice in Belgium—and bigger than St. Peter's in Rome. It was by then almost a hundred and fifty years old and falling apart, beset by leaks, sagging floors and mold. Scaffolding had covered it for decades and made it the subject of many jokes like these:
"What is the Palace of Justice guilty of? Why is it behind bars?"
"Bruxelles has the only Palace of Scaffolding in the world."
But it wasn't until we were driving off for dinner that I had a series of revelations. We had stopped at a red light with a park on one side of the street and elegant 19th century townhouses on the other that reminded me of exclusive streets on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Irène was in the middle of a wildly colorful anecdote and I understood her French in a kind of time delay: words kicked in a few seconds after she spoke them. But I knew exactly what she meant when Floris noted that the light had changed and people were honking at us.
With panache, Irène announced, "J'ai quarante ans des klaxons derrière moi!"
Loosely, it meant that she had forty years of people honking at her. Subtext: She had survived the Holocaust and slowing down traffic on a sunny afternoon didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. Her quip was bold, hilarious, and triumphant. And it rhymed.
I could imagine my witty, demanding mother saying the exact same thing. In that moment, I felt my mother's presence in the car as strong as the scent of the Nuits de Paris perfume she adored, and I knew that whatever I discovered (or possibly missed) on this trip, I had a moment of joyous communion that I would never forget.
As for Floris and Irène, they were like some dynamic comedy team as we drove onward that evening: Floris the sober-minded "straight man," Irène the voluble, easy-going jokester. Being entertained was the last thing I had expected on this trip, and it was a relief to feel so relaxed, so much at home—and so close to the spirit of my late mother.
Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and has seen his work appear in 15 languages. He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and has been invited to teach at Leipzig University as a Picador professor.