Austin Holocaust Survivor Shares Childhood Memories of Life in Nazi-Occupied Belgium
By Rebecca S. Cohen
A little hazel-eyed girl walks down a street in Liege, Belgium, toward the convent school she attends. The nuns there know her secret, and she feels safe with them, yet her lively 5-year old gait belies a lingering unease.
The year is 1942 and the youngster’s name is Susanne. Susanne LaCroix. As she walks she repeats the instructions her parents review with her each morning. Their names are Pierre and Yvonne LaCroix, not Leo and Paula Lazar and they are Catholic not Jewish.
This is all a lie, but a lie that she has been taught to embrace and repeat if a German soldier stops her on the street. I try to imagine my granddaughter Lily, a giggly elementary school girl with even features and light brown hair having to tell such stories to fool the Gestapo. How would she manage if she had to play this life and death game and return each night to an attic where she lives with her parents? What if her family’s daily lives depended on the kindness of non-Jewish friends who could provide false identity papers or keep silent about their whereabouts?
Today Svartz, 79, lives alone in a small Austin apartment. She moved here from New Jersey to be near her sons Claude and Gerard after her husband Robert died. Her French accent and occasional French words flavor her speech as she recounts the story of her childhood in a barely audible tone of voice. She has been reluctant, these past 70 years, to talk about her life during the war, declining invitations to speak to school groups about the Holocaust. Her own grandchildren know little about her early years. But recently the congregate living facility where she resides produced a brief newsletter article about her experiences during World War II, and now I am asking to hear the story again, straining to listen over the low whir of the small oxygen tank tethered to her walker—she broke her hip several months ago.
Gerard doubts she can remember the war because she was so young, but in fact many stories and feelings linger. She describes how she huddled in a shelter as bombs were dropped on the city. Little Susanne cowered in one corner praying to Jesus while her mother stood across the room reciting Jewish prayers in Hebrew. “I was a good Catholic in the war,” she says. Later, however, when Susanne was nine and the nuns attempted to formally convert her, her parents moved her to a public school.
Svartz also remembers how her family would venture out to shop for food, hoping that the Germans would not board the tram they were riding in and ask to inspect their forged documents. “We were lucky,” she says, “really lucky.” Indeed the Lazar family was, on balance, fortunate to have made their way from Germany in the early 1930s to join family in Luxemburg where Susanne was born in 1937 and on to Belgium, a country that proved more hospitable than many others during the war. “They were the only country that let the Jewish people come in,” she says. The Germans invaded neutral Belgium on May 10, 1940 and King Leopold III surrendered by month’s end, but Belgian resistance to German occupation continued throughout the war. Although the official inclination was to protect the country’s assimilated Jewish citizens over “foreign” Jews, attempts were even made to help Jews escape the death camp transports. But despite the efforts of the Comite de defense des Juifs and other groups, 25,631 Jews were deported, primarily to Auschwitz, and of that number only 1,244 survived.
“My parents were friendly with the local police chief,” recalls Svartz. “He promised that if something happens to them, he would take care of me, even though I’m Jewish. People are good. Of course there were those who were not.” One of the not good ones, an attendant at the apartment house in Brussels where her aunt and uncle were living, informed on them to the Germans and her aunt was taken away on the last transport to leave Belgium. Her husband, who was at work at the time, survived the war as did Svartz’s parents. “I cannot tell you very much about my parents because they were very, very private,” Svartz says. “ They had a baby in 1934. She died and they never told me that they had a child before me.” She learned about this from a cousin and pieced together other details from family members. Svartz has no idea how her father provided food for them during the war—they were never without—or managed to maintain ownership of the pre-war apartment they returned to following the German defeat.
After the war, the family resumed their lives in Liege, the third largest city in Belgium, and raised Susanne with a firm hand. Her parents were strict, she says, whether because they had already lost one child or because of their experiences during the war, and Susanne was happy to escape to the United States when she was 20 for what was intended to be a two-year visit with an aunt in Brooklyn. Instead she met and married Robert Svartz whose history, like her own, had been shaped by the Holocaust. His parents left Paris for America where he was born in the early 1930s, but made the fateful decision to return to France before the war began. His father and brother died, but he and his mother returned to the United States.
As she speaks, Svartz pulls an old photograph of her parents and her young sons out of her wallet. They are standing outside in front of a small house, all four of them ramrod straight. Gerard was only eight years old when he last saw his grandparents, too young to ask the questions they would likely not have answered. is tradition, it seems, of keeping silent has been passed down though generations. Grandparents, parents and children care for each other while taking care not to pry. I ask Svartz whether it is good to finally speak about the war years, whether there is relief in discussing the past. “I don’t like to talk about it,” she says.
I then ask her to smile for my camera. She responds that even when she was a little girl, she didn’t smile. Her mother would take the corners of her mouth and pull them upwards into a grin—she demonstrates— but she would never willingly comply.
Will you begin sharing these stories with your grandchildren, I ask as I prepare to leave. “Perhaps they’ll read your story,” she says.
I hope so.