Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Brussels 1978-79

This is the apartment building I lived in during my year as a graduate student in Brussels, the capital of  Belgium. Geographically, Belgium is located and operated as a buffer zone between France and Holland.  It was part of Duchy of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries.  When the Dukes of Burgundy died out, Belgium was batted back and forth between the Austrian Hapsburgs (remember the Holy Roman Emperor who was neither Holy nor Roman?), the Spanish Hapsburgs, and the French, finally ending up as part of the Netherlands in 1815.  In 1830  Belgium took control of its own destiny and became a constitutional monarchy.  Initially French was the official language of the country, despite the fact that the northern half of the country spoke mainly Dutch or Flemish.  In 1968, the movement to make Flemish an official language of Belgium took off and in 1970, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was split from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, originally founded in 1834.  "Vrije" or "Libre" denoted that the University was not tied to the Church or to the state, and instead was dedicated to academic freedom.  I attended the Flemish half of the University of Brussels, which meant that most of my classes were in English.  And, as Brussels was the center of the European Economic Union, many of my professors were diplomats or high level bureaucrats with the EEU.

But when I first showed up in Brussels, early in the fall of 1978, I was unaware of the linguistic dichotomy and the existence of two separate Universities. So it took me the greater part of the morning at the Universite Libre (the French University) trying to understand the administrators there, who only spoke french, who were telling me that I needed to go about a mile east to find the Flemish university and the graduate program in international law that I was looking for.  The two campuses could not have been more disparate.  The French University, given its longstanding existence, had buildings that looked very much like the apartment building where I lived, pictured above.  The Flemish University was only 8 years old and its grounds looked like this:

Once I located the Program on International Legal Cooperation in the building above, I met the Secretary of the graduate program, Annie Lodens Crombe.  She was a middle aged woman with an open face and curly brown hair.  Her kind manner could fool you at first into thinking she was just a secretary, when in fact she was the brains and energy behind the program.   I presented myself and told her that I was interested in learning more about the program and would like to apply to enter it next fall.  "Next fall?" she responded in English with a twinkle, "We have an unexpected opening right now.  Would you like to apply for this year?"

Was she serious?  Turns out she was.  It was the biggest gamble I had taken in my life (not to mention their gamble on me).  But I really had nothing to lose, so why not?  Annie brought me the application to fill out, which I did.  I was able to use the name of an attorney in Kentucky who had done the program several years previous, and was well regarded by Annie, as a reference.  Once the application was completed, Annie took it to the Dean and the admissions committee, who reviewed it on very short notice.  Before the end of the day, Annie informed me that my qualifications were more than sufficient (assuming, of course that what I had written down checked out with due diligence from my American college and university), and I could start classes next week!  I remember walking from the Universiteit back to my youth hostel rather than taking the bus because I was so excited, I could not sit on public transport for that long.  It was like walking on air to think that I could live in Europe for a year.

I called my parents long distance (this was a big deal in those days to use the phone from Europe to the states) and told them  surprise   I had been accepted to graduate school in Brussels, and would use my retirement money from my recent job with the Commonwealth, to pay for the first semester and part of the second semester at VUB.  Would they (big gasp) be willing to loan me the money for the rest?  To their credit, they did not blink and agreed to help me out financially.

Staying at the student hostel, sharing a large room with 10 or 20 other women, was not the best living situation for the school year, so I needed to find a place to live. Quick.  Next day, I set out back to the area, around the universities, thinking that I could read and respond to ads that I had seen placed in the windows of businesses.  Several problems immediately presented themselves after I started reading the ads:  1) if I took an apartment I would have to furnish it myself or pay quite a bit extra for a furnished apartment, 2) most of the good places had already been taken, and 3) I really needed a refresher course in French just to comprehend the substance of the advertisements, because, of course, I was gravitating to the more picturesque part, i.e. the French University area.  As I was trying to focus on the "to-let" signs behind the shop windows, a short, nicely dressed, elderly gentleman came out of the store carrying a package.  He addressed me in french and from what I could understand, he was asking if I was looking for a place to rent.   I replied, in broken French, that yes, I was.  He said he and his wife had a room in their apartment to let, would I like the address?  I said "mais oui, Monsieur," so he recited it to me, 29 Avenue Antoine Depage, and told me his wife was home, so I could go and see it, then he went on with his shopping.  He had the most amazing eyes, blue with gold flecks in them.

I had absolutely no idea where 29 Avenue Antoine Depage was but I pulled out the small map in my purse and stepped towards what I thought was the right direction.  Forty five minutes later I was back to the street I had originally started on, with no idea whatsoever where I was supposed to go.  "Oh well," I thought, "let's get back to finding something else."  I walked to a cross street and began moving west down the cobblestone sidewalk when who should appear but the man with the amazing eyes, again!  "Did you already talk to my wife?" he asked me.  "No," I blurted out, embarassed, "I got lost."  "Come,"  he said, "I will show you."  So he walked with me to 29 Avenue Antoine Depage and there I met his wife, Mme Uzchia Ingber.  He was Leon Ingber*.  And I took the room that they offered:

I don't remember the monthly rent, but I do remember that it was 30 Belgian francs extra to take a bath.  Each time.  As a result I made do with the bidet and cat baths, taking at most, one or two full baths each week.  The energy to heat the water was quite expensive.  But I didn't have to buy furniture, or dishes, or silverware.  I could use the Ingber's, and they reserved space for me in their refrigerator.  Another student rented the third bedroom in their apartment, but she never socialized with us.

Student life was far different in Brussels than it had been in the US.  I was considered a foreign student, and the Belgians were disinclined to go out of their way to make friends with non-natives.  Also, there were not the varieties of extracurricular activities that one normally associated with American student life, to break the ice.  The Ingbers, were quite concerned about how I was faring socially, and were constantly commiserating with me about how hard it was for me to meet and make friends.  In their concern, they became my second set of parents,  including me in their evening gatherings with their friends, to make up for my lack of a social life.

That fall the tv series, The Holocaust was broadcast on  Brussels television.  I watched one episode with them.  After it concluded, they talked with me about their experiences during World War II.  Now the Ingbers spoke French, Russian, Polish, German and a bit of Flemish.  But they did not speak English.  So my understanding, again, is limited by my limited French comprehension here.  But this is what I recall of our discussion that evening and others that we had during the year I lived with them:

Leon and Uzchia Ingber were from Poland.  They married and came to Brussels in the late 1920's where Leon was a student at the Universite.  He eventually was awarded a PhD degree in Chemistry.  Rather than return to Poland, he took a job with a Swiss pharmaceutical company in Brussels and they began their family here.  Then the Germans, and Kristallnacht came to Brussels.  The Ingbers were Jewish, as were most of their friends.  A friend of theirs had hidden in a wardrobe during Kristallnacht, and when she emerged, her hair had turned completely white, according to Uzchia.  So the Ingbers gave their young son up to gentile friends in the Belgian countryside, left everything else that was in their apartment except some clothes,  and went to live in the Swiss pharmaceutical factory where Leon worked.  They hoped that with the Swiss having the guise of neutrality, they would escape detection. 

And they did.  No one working at the pharmaceutical factory ratted them out during the entire time of the war.  Uzchia told of how their friends tried to hide throughout the city, and how she helped distribute food to those in hiding.  She talked about one Jewish fellow who became an informant for the Nazis.  The Germans would put him in one of their SS limousines and drive him around the streets of Brussels where he would point out Jews he would see on the street, who would be swept up, arrested, and deported to parts unknown.  One day, the turncoat pointed out a young man to the SS, who was Jewish, but whose parents had never had him circumcised, thinking (quite radically for the period) that it was a barbaric practice.  When the SS  jumped out of the car to arrest him, he protested that he was not Jewish because he was not circumcised.  The Germans had him drop his trousers in the middle of the street to prove it, and such was their prejudice, they refused to believe that a Jew could be uncircumcised, and they let the young man go.

The Ingbers had many friends in their apartment building, many of whom were also Jewish.  One morning, one of their neighbors was visiting from several floors up.  I had a blue and white narrow striped caftan on, and their friend told me that the fabric reminded her of the prison uniform she had to wear in the concentration camp.  I stopped wearing it after that.  All of the members of Leon's and Uzchia's families who were back in Poland, died during World War II, save for a couple of distant cousins, one of whom went to Israel and another who went to South America.  When the war ended, the Ingbers were joyfully reunited with their son.  They adopted the daughter of friends of theirs who had died.  Their son became a law professor and eventually Dean of the Law School at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, but that was a number of years after I lived there.

One would think that the Ingbers' experiences during World War II would have made them very conservative and very unquestioningly pro-Israel.  But they  actually criticized many of the actions taken by Israel during the time that I lived with them.  What sticks in my mind was how Dr. Ingber would call Menachem Begin, "that old terrorist," harkening back to the Irgun and the bombing of the King David Hotel.  I also remember that they had a subscription to "Le Drapeau Rouge," the communist newspaper, and read it avidly.

The Ingbers were truly my second set of parents and I was blessed to live with them while in Brussels.

* Leon is the name of the Ingber's son.  I am not certain that it was M./Dr. Ingber's first name, but I am using it as a placeholder until I verify it via snail mail.

1 comment:

Laura said...

What a wonderful story, Gina. Thanks for sharing.