Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Alfred Lessing - January 26, 1993

Memories of Staying with Other People

What was it like living with the family, do you remember?

Well, as an overall general comment, I should say that my memory of all of these years is very dim until I get to the last year of the war when I was with my father and brothers. It was better not to know, the less -- one of the rules of survival is that the less you know, the better -- and the way to not know is to push out of your awareness, and you can actually do this, you can learn to not know, and kids, of course, are very good at this. I think that kids, um, can push out of their awareness, can totally forget. My oldest brother describes this in his account that he actually got to a point where he could think of something and then walk over to the door and by the time he got to the door, it was gone. Totally gone. Couldn't even remember what he was thinking about. Um, in everything that I lived through during those years of wandering was false, and as I said, I knew that, I knew that the only thing that mattered, there was only one thing that mattered, and that was surviving. The people I was with, the schools I went with, the religions I was forced or that I became adapted into, the friends I played with, the stories I told or heard, it was all bull shit! It was all camouflage. It was all there for me to hide behind. I knew that. So, therefore, I don't remember much. I went to school in many of these places, I don't remember any schools, I don't remember any teachers, I don't even remember this Jewish school I was in. That is why it was such a shock to see this picture. It's as though, if you're trying to survive, you don't take a video camera along and video every place and all the names of everybody, you know.... you are focused only on, "I'm still alive..." And when you leave one place, it's gone. So, I remember very little. What I remember about that first family I stayed with is, a father, a mother, two daughters, one quite a bit older and engaged to somebody, one a teenager, and a guy named Uncle Pete or something like that, Uncle Yom, who was a real bastard or seemed to be, he must have been the mother's father or something, he was like some kind of tyrant, very unpleasant man and the thing that impressed me the most was that he wouldn't let you go to the bathroom until about twenty minutes after you had eaten, because he said you might as well as throw your food directly into the toilet if you did that. So this was an indication of this man's intellectual sophistication. Horrible guy. Um, that's about all I remember except that there was a cemetery across the street, and from time to time, you would hear shooting that is a German soldier would have been killed or died and they would give him the military funeral, you would hear a bunch of shots, and then the, some band would sing, would play, uh, [he says in German the name, I don't understand) which is the Dutch version of, I guess, my German is terrible, "Ich haben Waffenbruder, Comrade in Arms," and I still know this, the melody of the... [he sings the melody da, da, da, de, da.......] you know, real Nazi song. German song, they played that, I remember that.

Catchy tune?

Yeah, Germans are good at music, God. Um, I remember that ......

Is this the family that whose house you got sick?

Well, I got diphtheria there, yes.

Your mother just appeared on the street one day, is that what happened?

No, my mother appeared here and I don't know how I got the medical help I got, I remember getting six inoculations for the diphtheria, three in each buttock, I remember those very clearly -- it hurt. I remember waking up in the midst in a kind of feverish delirium with faces coming out of the mirror, there was a cabinet with a mirror, at me and being very frightened, running out of bed downstairs, and I think my mother was there then, and she, I think this may have been that she took me back up to bed and asked me is there anything you want? and that's when I said, I want a head on my bear. I was very, very sick, I almost died of diphtheria. Though I never had the tracheotomy that sometimes is involved with diphtheria. I recovered. And that's really all I remember from that family, oh no, there was other thing, it's not important, but uh, they apparently, knew or the oldest daughter had dated a guy named Chris Berger, who was a marathoner, runner, and we all went to the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam one time to see Chris Berger run. Big deal. You know, I mean I don't know who the hell Chris Berger is, or where he appears in the track records, but he was a hero with that family, and I got to see the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, I remember that. You know, I was a little kid and we didn't get out much, of course, so things like that I remembered. Um, but that is about it for that family, I have no knowledge how long I stayed there before I was moved to my next place.

Which is where?

Well, I don't know, there are lapses here, uh, in recent years I have begun to have flashes of memory of places that I might have been a day or two or a week that I don't remember at all. I had a flash of a memory of being in a small apartment, rather nicely furnished, with a girl my age, we were both little kids, and we got to playing with matches, and we started a fire [he laughs] in this apartment, uh, apparently, the parents were out or something or out of their room, and they had on the sort of mantle, a little rug with fringes and little do dads, and we set this little rug on fire, these fringes. So, that's a place, and that's all I remember, and then the parents came in and were very angry at us and that must have been the place where I was for a while, but I know nothing about it, I can not get any further details. Um, the next major place that I remember is Tilburg, which is in the Southern part of Holland, Brabant, uh, where I think that was my loneliest place, I felt as though I was totally removed from any, any city that I had ever heard of from anybody, I was in a boarding house, an old lady who ran a boarding house, and all kinds of freaky people lived there, there were some students, there were old retired people, there were strange ladies who were sort of witchy creatures, and I was one of them, and I lived in a tiny room in the attic. This lady was Catholic so at that point, I became Catholic.

You were by yourself now?

I was by myself.

Not with your brother?

Not with my brother, although my brother also showed up at this place for a while. And I cannot date that, I don't know how long, I think he came for a while and then left again. Um, that must have been how it was. Because by the time I got sick there, he was gone. I was there alone. Um, these people, all these weird people would gather for dinner in this tiny kitchen and they would sometimes play a board game together, and I played also, which in English is called Aggravation. Um, and in Dutch it is called Menzherneat, which means something like, hey, don't get aggravated. [he laughs] So, it's the same game. And we would spend time that way, but I remember going up to my bedroom in the attic, a tiny little room, I had a little cross, a little silver cross of Jesus, which she had given me and a little thing with holy water to cross myself with and I was into that and that's what you had to do to survive in this place. And I went to church with her, um, and, remember that, so that must have made an impression on me. Again the aesthetic of large buildings, and I liked my little, my little crucifix, it was like a possession, it was shiny, and I had nothing except my little bear.

Okay, we are gonna stop for a minute, and come back to the attic and the crucifix.


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