My thumb brushes over the buttons of the remote control, pausing above the one that might connect me to a church service back home. Easter Sunday, alone, with no cooking duties to bring our family together, and no reason for an extra phone call to my mother, I’m not sure what I should be doing on this blue April morning, even as millions of others are waking to a familiar script and clear instructions. Christmas is simple, with its modest insistence on good cheer and homecoming, everyone back to the nest and the secular rituals around a kitchen table, while Easter mixes death and celebration, a resurrection as terrifying as crucifixion, a story barely a hundred generations old, so that even the non-believer has to pause before its proximity and mystery, and on this particular morning some part of me wants to be overwhelmed by the myth, take part in the ceremony, join the hymn, and maybe receive a little guidance, but I leave the TV switched off, and then the doorbell rings.
Jean-François Kieslowski is my photographer, I call him JFK, which he appreciates. He grew up here in Saint Gilles, one of Brussels’ 19 communes and the place I’ve called home for the last 20 years. I’ve seen your Shoreditches, Williamsburgs and Friedrichshains, but we pack 140 nationalities into a couple of square miles, our main square houses a hostel for the homeless, our coffee can hold its own, and we all get along pretty well. Today, JFK and I are working on the next piece for our Saturday column, ‘The Outsiders’, where I sit down with a local, ask them ‘why Brussels’ and whether they call the city home, and how long they plan to stay. When I first pitched the idea to my editor, I saw it as a series of chance encounters in the city’s bars – no photographer, no names, just a live recording of the city’s nocturnal chatter – but he thought that, as a woman drinking alone, I might struggle to get a meaningful conversation about humanity’s sense of nostalgia. I disagreed on behalf of my future bar mates but relented when the paper’s lawyers stepped in, and, since then, JFK and I have never looked back.
We head for coffee and the centre of Saint Gilles. Our usual place sits in its own tiny square under a sprawling tree, it’s run by students, and, like most other places in our neighbourhood, it assembles pensioners with newspapers, start-ups with laptops, young parents with snoozing toddlers, and workers between shifts, all catching their breath before they’re back on stage.
We sit at our usual table at the back of the room, under the old map of Belgium which covers most of the wall, and wait for the server to come over. Here is our ritual. I run through the themes I want to explore in the interview, describe what I know about the person we’re going to meet, while JFK asks questions, testing my approach, but also imagining the scene in his own mind, thinking about the shots he’ll want to take. We’ve met all sorts of people but this is my favourite part of the job, where we block the stage for a short play before we’ve even met the main actor. Not everyone likes the result – some of my colleagues think it resembles a comic strip – but I keep going because the readers seem to enjoy it, and I’ve always been drawn not only to the words that people choose but to their movements and gestures. We’re all actors in the end.
Hannah Cohen is turning one hundred next month, I explain to JFK, but that’s not the reason I want to meet her. With the help of the local council and the city’s Jewish Museum, now reopened after the 2014 shooting, I’m guessing that Hannah Cohen might be the oldest Jewish person still living in Saint Gilles. But what really caught my attention was the fact she was still living in her family home, a maison de maître on rue Berckmans, at the eastern edge of the neighbourhood where it borders the more upmarket Ixelles. I’d seen the brass cobblestones on the pavement outside the Cohen home, noted that both parents and a daughter had been murdered in 1943 in Auschwitz, and then, turning to walk away, I’d seen Hannah’s name on the door.
‘What I want to find out,’ I say to JFK as our coffees arrive, ‘is how Hannah Cohen was able to survive.’
‘Have you spoken to her already?’ he asks. ‘Does she know what you want to talk about?’
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to press her on it. I think it will come out naturally in the conversation, and I’ll give her all the time she needs. It is intriguing though, don’t you think?’
‘Sometimes it’s best to leave things in peace. What’s that phrase in English? Let sleeping dogs…’
‘Exactly. Look, I know it’s difficult for you to turn away. It’s your job, and mine too, but she’s not a public figure. She doesn’t have to answer to anyone.’
This is a conversation we’ve been having since we started working together, and he’s right. As it says on our website, we have no business but to sketch simple portraits of the people living in Europe’s capital; to ask them whether they found a home in this city of outsiders. We’re a Saturday feature: gentle, curious, and, if we do our job, a small lift to the spirits. After my decade of covering EU summits, it’s kept me alive.
Maybe it goes a little deeper. When I first thought about ‘The Outsiders’, my world was falling apart. I had divorced, my husband returned to Scotland – no kids, a small solace – and then the bombshell of 2016, even if I and all the other veterans of the press corps had seen it coming. The day after the vote, when I was groggy and struggling to make it into work, never mind write the first line of my next article, that was when all the questions pitched their tents in my head. Did I still belong here, and, even with all my memories and friendships intact, could I still call it home? If my country had left the room, what did I still have to offer, and was I credible? When I went to see the editor with my idea, my own sanity was at stake: I needed to hear whether other people had found a home in the city, if only to help settle my own mind, and banish the 4 a.m. demons who whispered that I had never lived a true life but merely skirted around the edge of things, avoiding the elemental forces of life, like having a child; the voices taunting me that I was running out of time to do anything about it, I had reached halfway and still didn’t understand what the game was about. On my 40th I had dinner with a couple of friends, and was grateful.
I finish my coffee. We never argue but there’s a small frown above JFK’s nose. We’ve avoided eye contact while he checks the battery on his camera.
‘I’ll just let her talk,’ I say. ‘Like we usually do. See where it takes us.’
He nods but still won’t look at me.
‘Is it the Jewish aspect? I ask.
‘No, of course not,’ he says. ‘I just think you need to be careful. This woman is almost a hundred years old. We have no idea what happened back then, but it’s bound to be something painful.’
‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘I’ll be gentle.’
As we leave the café, JFK lights a cigarette, offers one to a man lying on a bench under the tree. I listen to them as they speak in Polish, the soothing flow of ‘sh’ and ‘ch’. I watch JFK’s shoulders rise and fall in a series of apologies. This is his mission, when we come for our coffee: to understand how a 50-year-old man has ended up in Brussels, unemployed and drunk, a thousand miles from home. JFK’s grandfather was a Polish soldier who fought with the Americans in the forests of the Ardennes, met his Belgian wife at the end of the war, and finished his working days in the factories of Charleroi. I’m not sure how JFK feels about these distant cousins that have arrived half a century later.
‘He says he worked on building sites for ten years,’ JFK tells me, ‘and then the company went bust, and he had no reason to go back to Poland. He has a few friends still, they’ll join him later, mostly to drink together.’
‘Does he live on his own?’ I ask.
‘He lives on the street,’ says JFK.
When he’s finished his cigarette, JFK hands a couple more to the man on the bench, who replies with a soldier’s salute, and we head for rue Berckmans.
The first brass cobblestones – Stolpersteine in German – were laid outside the old houses of deported Jews at the end of the 1990s, soon after Germany and a few other European countries had done the same. Belgium has about 300 of them today. I approve of the word assassiné: each member of a family carefully selected for death; no blind killing but one that was choreographed in every detail.
I bend down with JFK to read the names on the pavement outside number 67: Michel Cohen, Ruth Cohen, and Sarah Cohen, all assassinated in Auschwitz in 1943. The three stones have been worn by thousands of shoes on their way to the shops, but the names are still legible. JFK takes his first photo.
The woman who opens the door is the one I spoke to on the phone earlier in the week, but I’m surprised to see a south-east Asian face, Vietnamese, I think. She introduces herself as Julie, waves us inside, takes our coats with one hand, and gently guides us down the hallway with the other, offering us coffee. We wait in a small room at the end of the hall, where bookcases line three of the walls, like the waiting room of a well-to-do family doctor. I hunt for a theme among the rows of books but it’s a mish-mash of classic fiction, travel guides and oversized art books, not so different from my own, only more frayed. I see a couple of Vietnam guides and a history of the ‘American War’, make a rough guess of how old Julie might have been at the end of the 1970s.
Before we have time to sit, Julie returns with our coffees, and takes us through the four-metre-high doors into a large room that feels like a conservatory, there’s so much light streaming in from the garden. A faded, stringy rug covers the centre of the parquet floor, heavy velvet curtains are pulled back and held by loops of golden rope, and outside a single cherry tree stands in a small circular bed of soil.
Hannah Cohen is sitting in a cracked leather armchair by the window. She reaches out her hand, offers no words but a broadening smile. She wears a hint of pale lipstick and eyeshadow, Julie’s tender work, and I detect a dab of perfume.
‘Thank you for your time,’ I say, as JFK and I sit on a couple of dining chairs just a few feet from Hannah, while Julie silently leaves the room.
‘It’s all I have left,’ says Hannah, her glistening eyes moving slowly from me to JFK. ‘Would you like to take a photograph?
‘I’ll wait until you’ve started talking,’ says JFK. ‘If you don’t mind, I might move around you, to find some different angles.’
‘You’re at home, young man, do whatever you need to do,’ says Hannah.
Half an hour in, we’ve covered a lot of ground. The house we’re sitting in has belonged to the Cohens for 150 years, the prize of a successful diamond business in Antwerp, which the family sold when it moved to Brussels and immersed itself in the politics of Saint-Gilles. Hannah’s father, Michel, helped to grow the local branch of the Socialist party, then put his own money into the commune’s first library.
Hannah barely moves in her seat, hands resting on the sides of the chair, paying no attention to JFK as he circles around her to take a first set of photos from the window. I like how she talks: she carves out each sentence, pauses to find the right word, shares her gaze between JFK and me. It’s hard to believe she’s been alive for a century, and I wonder if she hasn’t done this sort of thing before, and if she has, then I should have done my research better.
The story arrives at Hannah’s childhood, which she spent in the shadow of her elder sister, Sarah, who, in Hannah’s words, was a diligent and competitive student, anxious to become an adult, who joined the family business as a secretary the day she left school. While Hannah spent the summers dirtying her knees with the other children in the street, Sarah stayed inside to help her father with the paperwork.
‘And then the war,’ I say, clasping my hands together on my lap.
‘Yes, the war,’ says Hannah, ‘always the war. Of course, for our family and many others, the trouble started long before that. The looks, the whispers, the jokes that were never told to our faces, never, but then we always heard them in the end, and sometimes we had to laugh because they were just so stupid. But what could we do?’
‘Did your parents ever think of leaving the country?’ I ask. ‘To England or America?’
‘No, never. This was our home. All my parents’ friends were here, and they were old friends, close. I remember playing in their houses after school. I used to help my friend’s mothers when they were cooking. Sometimes you would stay for dinner.’
‘Can you remember the day when your parents and your sister were taken away?’ I ask.
‘I wasn’t here that day,’ says Hannah. ‘I was somewhere else.’
She smiles faintly as she turns to JFK and then back to me, her arms now dangling down the sides of the chair. We are her grandchildren, come to report on our progress at school. Julie reappears at the door, offers to refill our cups, then quietly disappears again.
‘The summer when it all happened,’ says Hannah, “I had just turned twenty-one. We had been living under occupation for a couple of years already, and the Germans were not the only ones making life hard for us – it was the local people, our neighbours. We were luckier than most, we had good friends, who stood by us, but other people, in the shops, in the street, they looked at us differently. I was working in the local department store – we didn’t need the money, but my father wanted me to work – and one day they told me that they had to let me go, sales were down. The truth was, I had never worked harder, the shop was full every Saturday, even after the war started. The other girls looked at me as I walked out the door that morning. I remember, one of them smiled and waved at me.
‘Then came Albert. We had been at school together. He wrote poems for me, dropped them into our letterbox, here in this house. My father found one of them, and told me he needed to speak to me, in his study, on the top floor. I can see myself now, climbing those stairs. He said it would be better, for me, if I stopped seeing Albert. Now was not the time. He only wanted to protect me, he said. My father had liked all my friends, boys and girls the same, he had welcomed them into our house when we were all at school, he had tested them on their schoolwork, asked them what profession they planned to take up, and he was happy when they found their first job. Yes, he was proud to be Jewish, of course he was, but it wasn’t everything for him, our family had always mixed with the neighbours, and his sister had married a Belgian politician. ‘Don’t let people put you in a box,’ he always said to Sarah and me. ‘If people are not sure who you are, then you are doing the right thing.’
‘I couldn’t understand why he objected to Albert. My mother tried to explain: it wasn’t Albert, it was the situation, the occupation complicated everything, no one knew what was going to happen from one day to the next, and we were better to stay within the family. She was right, of course. I see that now.
‘But I thought I was old enough to decide. I had found work again, in a pharmacy run by a friend of the family, and Albert had left home and moved into a small apartment. He had finished his training as a doctor, and was working at Saint Pierre hospital. He wanted to marry me, I knew that, but he thought it was pointless to approach my father. ‘Nothing is complicated,’ Albert would say to me. ‘We love each other, and that’s all that matters.’ I thought he was so reliable, so safe, but he’d seen nothing of the world. He’d been too young to join the army, and then the occupation had confined him to Brussels, and I was his first love.
‘My parents were becoming more anxious each month. They had seen some of their friends disappear, often without warning, deported to the camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia. My mother kept her friends’ jewellery in a box in the attic. My father kept copies of the deeds of his colleague’s houses. We thought they would all come home, at the end of the war.
‘One weekend, Albert took me away, to the coast – a surprise. I was saying goodbye to my colleagues at the pharmacy, on the Friday afternoon, and there he was, parked outside in his father’s car, smiling at me through the window. His family had a small house only a mile from the beach at Le Coq. He told me that his doctor’s licence allowed him to travel for emergencies, he had signed a paper saying that he needed to treat a sick relative, and we would be safe. He was allowed to travel with one assistant, he told me.
‘You know, I could not possibly tell you what I did last week, but I remember everything from that weekend. We didn’t leave that tiny house, not once. We heated tins of soup on the stove, we made coffee, there were packets of stale biscuits, and that was enough. Albert went into the garden to fetch wood for the fire, and he taught me to smoke there, under the tree. We opened bottles of wine that were covered in dust, I cut flowers, and put them in the empty bottles. At night, we turned all the lights off, lay on the sofa, watching the searchlights moving over the clouds. There must have been a few hundred German soldiers in the town but we heard nothing, we were alone and safe. We had made a home.’
Hannah is tired now, her voice a whisper, and she leans her white flossy head against the side of the chair, her eyes searching the rug on the floor.
‘I could have stayed there for weeks,’ she says, ‘but Albert had to return to work. The travel papers expired the next day, he couldn’t take the risk of being stopped. We drove home on the Sunday evening, and I slept most of the way. Albert was quiet. I asked him if we could go back to the house in the summer, but he shook his head.
‘When we arrived back here, we sat in the car in the dark. I didn’t want to come indoors. I sat there with my head against his shoulder. You know, it’s strange, as I try to remember that night now, I have the feeling that I had already understood. But that’s not possible, is it? How could I have known? And how could I remember now, today, what I was feeling then? All I know is that we stayed there for a long time, in the car, before I climbed out, rang the doorbell, and understood that the house was empty.’
Julie has appeared at the door. She waits, silent, protective. Hannah raises her eyes to her, nods, then offers a tired smile to JFK and me. She needs to sleep.
‘I hope you don’t mind if we stop here,’ says Hannah. ‘Perhaps we can continue tomorrow if you have the time?’
Hannah stays in her chair – I imagine her falling asleep the moment we leave the room – and from there she offers both hands so that I hold them for a second, my fingers curling behind hers, my thumbs resting on her swollen knuckles.