BRUSSELS - Last month, it's raining. Facing the ground, people are scurrying past the windows of the Hotel Vendome, on Brussel's Avenue Adolphe Max. Avi Lavi, 73, slowly traverses the lobby, lost in his thoughts. He is about to complete a search that lasted many years.
More than 60 years ago he was separated from his sister Eva. In just a couple of hours they will finally meet again. Following intensive research, the International Tracing Service, a part of the International Red Cross, located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, arranged the meeting in cooperation with Magen David Adom.
On this February morning Lavi is moving as though stuck in another time. Memories come to life. He hardly slept the night before, got up at about 3 A.M., showered, and went back to bed; during the short spells of exhausted sleep, had "surreal dreams."
He recalls a dream he had when he was hiding from the Nazis in the northern Slovakian town of Liptovsky Kriz in 1944/45.
At the time, he dreamed that he would die in the snow-covered countryside, in absolute, white silence.
"It's best to die in the snow. You fall asleep, everything is quiet," Lavi says.
Back then, his life was empty: He was 9 years old when his parents Josef and Elisabeth were abducted from their hiding place in the autumn of 1944.
They had found refuge with farmers, family friends, but were taken to the concentration camps Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.
Lavi and Eva were not discovered, but shortly after the war Eva disappeared from an orphanage in Bratislava where she was sheltered during the tumultuous post-war period. The odyssey began.
Eva Muhlstein, 71, also looked for Avi "in many places," as she puts it only hours before their reunion. First in Prague, then in Bratislava. Her search was compounded by difficult circumstances. Already in March 2007, three days before she wanted to travel to Bratislava with her husband Victor, she got a call from the Belgian Red Cross, asking whether she wanted to be in touch with an Avraham Lavi.
Her affirmative reply got lost somewhere along the way. "We lost an additional year," said Muhlstein, whose family was almost entirely wiped out by the Nazis. "I have no picture of my family from that time."
Before the war one of her grandfather's lived in Belgium.
When Lavi called her last December, it was "like a dream," she says. "I felt like an angel."
Now, shortly before their reunion, however, Eva says she feels "scared - no, nervous."
The meeting "is very important for me because he is the reality," she says. She wants Avi to guide her through the past - her past, that seems to be so unreal, whenever she is struggling to bring back any memories.
Even now, she can't stand watching TV documentaries about the war and the Nazi terror.
"It's beyond bearing to think that my parents had to suffer through all that," she says in a low voice.
In the afternoon, a taxi pulls up in front of the Muhlstein house in the eastern Brussels suburb of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. An old man, well dressed in a gray suit, gets out, looks around, slowly walks toward the front door. Eva's husband, Victor Israel, opens the door.
Now only a dozen stairs, leading up to the first floor, separate these two people, who last saw each other some 64 years ago.
Their embrace is almost fleeting. But after such a long separation everything must seem that way.
"Evitchka, Evitchka", Lavi says. "I have been searching for you for such a long time."
They are close to tears. Their search is over, but in a way it is just beginning: Looking for common memories, the lives they were robbed of, themselves.
They sit in the living room, keeping a distance on separate sofas. "We've made it", Avi breaks into a smile. Time stands still.
For years, Lavi lived in a different reality, but his quest to find Eva led him deep into his own personal history.
"During my search for Eva, I confronted my past, which I denied and feared," Lavi wrote in his home in Givat Shmuel, before leaving for Belgium. The past, which he could not talk about with his sons before he embarked on his search for her, was like a "black hole," he says. "But every discovery, like a puzzle, revealed a wider picture, which eased me from the pain of the past."
He learned how to talk about his experiences at the Amcha center in Tel Aviv and by videotaping his search. Filming became the language that enabled him to talk about the horror. When he was 9 years old, he was "forced to be an adult", he said. He survived the Holocaust in a peasant's village together with 6-year-old Eva.
Eva had joined the Lavi family a few months earlier. Her parents had initially hidden her with a Christian family; together with other Jews, she was supposed to have been taken to safety in Hungary.
But Hungary was occupied by the Germans in March 1944. The Lavi family, instrumental in aiding this planned escape, was forced to change their plans. The Lavis adopted six-year-old Eva shortly before the Germans robbed and occupied their Slovakian home. Together they fled to the agricultural settlement in the Liptov region, near their hometown.
Eva's parents had been deported to a concentration camp from the Warsaw Ghetto. The two kids were forced to fend for themselves for almost half a year, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again.
"I shared the worst time of my life with Eva," Lavi recalls. Back then, he only wanted to die.
"But she gave me life again," he says, when she insisted that he not give up.
Almost miraculously, both children survived, as did their parents.
Shortly after the war ended, Eva was picked up from the orphanage in Bratislava by a man who identified himself as her biological father, Simon Muhlstein. The ITS in Bad Arolsen, with 50 million index cards detailing the fates of 17.5 million people - one of the world's largest archives for Nazi victims, has other documents detailing what else happened to the family.
After a stint at a transit camp in Stuttgart, they moved west. But soon all traces of them disappear after that. In 1949, shortly after immigrating to Israel, the Lavis began their inquiry, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The fact that in the end the search was successful - 60 years after Lavi's parents first began looking - is just like a surreal dream that continues on. For Passover they are planning to meet in Tel Aviv.