Whenever I watch a prominent person interviewed on television, I’m amazed to see a display of bookcases in the background. It not only gives an insight into the tastes and knowledge of the speaker but it affirms the belief and hope that books are still vital to the human soul.
Being an avid reader, I bemoaned books being sacrificed to technology in the form of a cold and robotic item known as a Kindle. I am perhaps rebelling against the changes in a world racing toward constant innovation but seeing people in the subway with open books on their laps, fills my heart with gratification that I still belong to a caring world.
My love of books goes back to my childhood and where I was born in Brussels Belgium a year before Hitler invaded Poland. My father, a tailor, emigrated from Poland with his wife and three children in the early thirties. He unfortunately lost her to a car accident. After a time he wrote to the rabbi of his hometown to request an introduction to a woman willing to come to Belgium. And that is how my mother, a mail order bride came to Belgium to marry my father. I was born at the end of that year followed by a little sister in 1942.
It wasn’t meant to be for Jews living in Europe at that time. We became the victims of a world destroyed by the evil machinations of one man. My mother, sisters and brother died in a concentration camp. My father and I survived due to miraculous circumstances but for me the war began after the war. My father came back to Brussels with the woman who had shared the war years with him, hiding in an attic with her son. We lived in two rooms of a shabby cold-water flat in a neighborhood known for its poverty. The house always smelled of gas and coal fumes. The outhouse was in the back of a courtyard beside stacks of coal and a large slate sink where we went for water.
My liberation came when I started school. My teacher was aware of my background and paid special attention to me. By the time I was eight years old I was able to walk to school by myself. And that is how I discovered the library nestled in the recess of a street two blocks from our house. It soon became my home away from home. Melle Vroemans, the librarian had received a letter from my teacher informing her of my situation at home. She was to become one of the most influential persons in guiding me to feel the wonder of books and the power of the knowledge they bestowed. I loved the physicality of the library with its stacks of books and the smell they emanated. As soon as I stepped into the door, I felt wrapped in the warmth of silent beings coming to greet me as they descended from their covers stacked to perfection on the shelves. In the winter there was a fire burning in the small wooden stove in an open area away from the books but close enough so that Melle Vroemans didn’t have to wear her shawl. The room was divided into two areas, the one to the left for children and for adults to the right. I had my seat next to a large window where I enjoyed watching the play of light casting patterns on my reading. It was here that I discovered the adventures of that extraordinary little detective, Tintin and his faithful dog Milou.
I accompanied him and his entourage of unforgettable characters on his world travels and confrontation with danger. I dreamed about him and knew that someday I would get to meet those colorful characters living in places that evoked awe and wonder. My most prized possessions were the Tintin books I received from the library during the yearly Christmas party held for the children.
There was also a weekly magazine La Semaine de Suzette (Suzette’s Week) filled with fabulous stories, plays to be performed, knitting and sewing instructions, and weekly advice from a “tante Mad” helping little girls to resolve their problems. I became acquainted with Charles Dickens and all the tragic children in his novels. I often thought he was describing my world. But Melle. Vroemans steered me to happier topics with Little Women. She eventually allowed me into the adult section where I truly entered the magic of reading. It became my escape into other worlds and the rapture of knowing that I would never again be alone.
When I came to the States with my father when I was twelve years old, I brought the forty books my teacher and Melle Vroemans gave me as going away gifts. I still have the 1934 copy of La Semaine de Suzette and a 1947 copy of Tintin on my library shelves along with the writings of my mentor Michel de Montaigne and other notable minds such as Stefan Zweig, Primo Levi and my muse Patti Smith.