The moment I knew: ‘She reached out and squeezed my hand. Happiness washed over me’ | Relationships

It was a relief to finally be safe in Brussels with my old friend Mumek after being liberated from Auschwitz in 1945. We spent a lot of time at the headquarters of the Bund – a Jewish socialist political organisation founded in Lithuania with a strong presence in Poland – where we found many familiar faces and people we knew who had been smuggled across the border from Germany.

One day a pair of pretty young women walked into the club. I was glad I’d decided to put on a clean white shirt that morning, even if the sleeves were rolled up for my game of ping-pong with Mumek. As the women walked past I was so distracted by the smaller one with dark curls that I let Mumek’s ball fly straight past me.

“My point!” Mumek cried.

I didn’t care. The only thing on my mind was finding put who this cute girl was. I put down my paddle.

“Hello,” I said, approaching their table. “I’m Abram. Have you just arrived in Belgium?”

“Yes,” the older one said, smiling at me. “I’m Hela and this is my younger sister, Cesia.”

Cesia – now I knew her name – stayed quiet as Hela and I chatted.

Astonishingly they too were from Łódz, my Polish hometown, which the Germans had turned into a ghetto at the start of the war. Over the following days Hela and Cesia spent time at the Bund premises, becoming part of our group of friends. Cesia and I gradually began sharing more of our personal experiences from the past six years. I was glad to hear that, unlike me, she only had to endure a couple of days at Auschwitz before she and her sister were chosen for work duty.

Abram and Cesia at home in Australia in the 1950s
Abram and Cesia at home in Australia in the 1950s

But in other ways our experiences were similar. We both lost parents in the gas chambers, lost many friends and relatives in the ghetto and at the death camps, and we had both starved in the ghetto and been exposed to horrific events that we were far too young to see.

Also, we had both grown up feeling small compared with everyone around us. Cesia was just four foot eight (1.42m), two inches shorter than me. I found myself falling head-over-heels in love with the small girl with the dark curls.

We started going out together with our group. We all had a thirst for fun, music and laughter, and Brussels was our playground. Every night we went out dancing, eating and drinking in cafes and restaurants, seeing theatre and cabaret shows and walking the streets of our beautiful new city until the early hours. Cesia and I drank it all in, enjoying every moment, as we took our time getting to know each other.

She was so quiet that I sometimes had to lean over to hear what she was saying. But I was prepared to wait. I knew this girl was worth it. I knew she was probably suffering post-traumatic stress from everything she had been through and was understandably wary. I needed to be patient. I could already see that beneath that shy exterior, this beautiful woman possessed a zest for life, which suited me very well.

Eventually Cesia began to open up and, a few weeks after we met, I convinced her to come with me to the cinema. Alone.

Abram and Cesia on their 75th wedding anniversary
Abram and Cesia celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary this year

The cinema went dark as we took our seats. I studied her in the half-light; she was wearing pink lipstick with a hint of blush on her pale cheeks and her freshly washed curls sat on the shoulders of her blue dress. She was so beautiful. I felt as though my heart was about to burst.

An urge came over me. I leaned over and, in Yiddish, whispered in her ear, “Cesia, I love you.”

Strength of Hope cover

She glanced at me, eyes wide, startled by this declaration. But she stayed silent. I thought I’d blown it. Then, as the film began, she reached out and squeezed my hand. Happiness washed over me. There in that crowded Brussels cinema that squeeze told me all I needed to know.

From that night on it was official. Cesia and Abram were a couple. A few days later she let me kiss her for the first time.

I was 21 and had never kissed a girl before. But, after kissing Cesia, I knew I never wanted to kiss another.

To this day I never have.

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