The voice on the answering machine was unfamiliar and thick with a Belgian French accent.
"Hello Michael, my name is Leon Schipper, and I'm the one who saved your life," the caller said.
He told of how, on the morning of Oct. 30, 1942, he hid and protected a 4-year-old boy named Max from the Nazis, minutes before the child was to be put on a train to Auschwitz.
Max, now a 65-year-old Falls Church man named Michael Hartogs, didn't recognize the name Leon Schipper or remember the events of that day.
But he considered the full life he has led since. He thought of his wife and four boys, the lazy summers at Rehoboth Beach, his art-filled house, years of happiness.
"How do you say, 'thank you' for a life?" Hartogs asked.
He has begun by doing it in person. Nearly 60 years after they last saw each other and two months after that phone call, Hartogs arrived here Tuesday for an emotional re-acquaintance with Schipper, 75, a retired rocket scientist who spent the past 15 months trying to find out what happened to little Max.
Schipper beamed when Hartogs walked through the glass doors at American Airlines baggage claim at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday morning.
"Leon, I presume," Hartogs said. The two men searched each other's tearing eyes as their wives introduced themselves.
"I'm glad to see that he does exist," Schipper said. "We're going home and talk and talk and talk."
The two orphans were reunited through an international sleuthing effort by the Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center in Baltimore. With four staff members and hundreds of volunteers, the center has handled more than 35,000 requests since 1990 and has found more than 1,000 loved ones alive. Tuesday's reunion was the center's latest success.
The October day on which the lives of Hartogs and Schipper intersected was one of horror and heartbreak as the Nazis rounded up Belgian Jews, including Schipper and 50 or so other children at the Wezembeek orphanage outside Brussels. They were sent to a barbed-wire transfer camp to await trains to concentration camps.
Meanwhile, orphanage director Marie Blum-Albert appealed successfully to the Belgian royal family to help spare the orphans. As they waited for a truck to return them to safety, one of the orphans, Leon Schipper, then 14, passed a room where six youngsters had been separated from their parents, who were bound for the camps. Seeing no German guards, Schipper made a split-second decision.
"Let's grab those kids and take them with us," he told the older boys with him. Each took a child and continued to the truck that would return them to the orphanage and safety. Schipper grabbed a round-faced boy named Max Kohn.
"It was just a reaction," Schipper said 60 years later. "They were in danger, so you save a child."
Schipper, who lost his parents to the Nazis, said taking the children was a way to get back. "Anything you [could] do against the Germans you did, small or big."
Among the thousands who left in the trains that day -- never to return -- were young Max's parents and sister.
As for the orphanage director, "She didn't question anything. She was happy that there were six more children," Schipper said.
For the next month or so, Schipper was the only parent Max knew, even though they spoke different languages and couldn't communicate well.
"He would wake me up in the middle of the night, saying 'I have to go,' so I went with him. A 14-year-old kid doesn't want to do things like that, but you felt a little responsible for him."
Early in 1943, as the danger grew for teenage Jews such as Schipper, he shuttled through a succession of orphanages.
He returned to Wezembeek after the liberation of Belgium to see old friends. Max was there but didn't remember him. That was the last time they saw each other until Tuesday.
Schipper eventually made it to America and a career as an aerospace engineer in California. He and his wife, Elise, live in the San Fernando Valley, where they raised a family.
Max Kohn was adopted by the Hartogses, who changed his name to Michael. He eventually moved to Fairfax County, where he and his wife, Joan, run a documentary film distribution company.
Today, Hartogs recalls only snatches from his days in Belgium -- a night spent in an open field as bombers rumbled overhead, vague memories of playing marbles.
"The body has a defense mechanism," Hartogs said. "That's how I survived to live a normal life."
After he listened to his phone message this fall, Hartogs wrote to Schipper, and that letter set in motion arrangements that culminated in Tuesday's reunion.
Schipper's determination to find Max is something that Linda Klein, who heads the Red Cross tracing center in Baltimore, has seen before.
"Many times, these are people who didn't talk about it for years and years," she said. "And now that they are aging, resolving the losses of the past is very important for them."
But Schipper had few leads on Max. All he could provide the Red Cross was a name, a rough age, a dim photo and a vague recollection of a Canadian adoption.
Caseworkers combed through records and databases, including Nazi documents released by the former Soviet Union. The first breakthrough was the Belgian Red Cross coming up with a date of birth. That was used to trace Max to Canada through immigration records.
After a year of searching, Canadian investigators found adoption records revealing that Max Kohn had become Michael Hartogs and that he should be in the United States.
Caseworkers in Baltimore raced to a computer and searched for a Michael Hartogs who was born in 1938. A Falls Church address popped up.
When a Red Cross caseworker called one evening in September, the Hartogses nearly hung up on him, thinking he was soliciting money. When the caller mentioned Belgium and an orphanage and the name Max Kohn, Joan Hartogs handed the phone to her husband.
Later, Michael Hartogs and Schipper began e-mailing, then talking on the phone. But while they might share an unshakeable bond, they are essentially strangers.
Each has struggled in different ways with the loss of his parents to the death camps and with a form of guilt that often haunts Holocaust survivors.
For Schipper, finding Max has brought an answer to a question he has faced through the years.
"As you get older, you start thinking about your life and the importance of things," Schipper said.
"And it was just a quick reaction. At least I saved the life of one . . . victim. I fooled the system and saved one."
For Hartogs, being "found" has forced him to deal with subjects and feelings he said he ignored or suppressed for decades. It also will provide answers for his children and grandchildren.
"It's going to take a while to absorb," Hartogs said at the airport Tuesday. "My hands are shaking. I am shaken up.
"But we're alive," he said.