Remembering a childhood on the run
Charles Rojer, a retired otolaryngololist and head and neck surgeon, has been talking about his experience as a hidden child for 40 years.
Speaking at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor on April 9, he mused about his own persistence. “When I look on-line, I note such a recurrence and resurgence of anti-Semitism that unfortunately my story is still pertinent,” he said.
Rojer spoke to about 30 attendees at Kosher Cafe East, a biweekly program of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County.
Rojer was born in 1934 in Belgium, where his parents had immigrated from Odessa and Warsaw to escape anti-Semitism and look for work. He had two older sisters.
His father’s leather-goods business was doing well and life was good, until May 10, 1940, when Rojer was abruptly awakened by the engines of Messerschmidts “periodically hitting one of our decrepit Belgian air force planes.” Ignoring Belgium’s neutrality, the Germans overran the country in 10 days.
Rojer’s parents tried to make their way to Free France, but their train to Paris was stopped, and people who ran away toward the woods were shot. They decided to return to Belgium.
“For the next year, life seemed to resume its normal pattern, until the Germans started passing new laws,” said Rojer. First they had to register at the mayor’s office, but eventually they were forbidden from working in government positions, teaching at the university, going to school, and using public transportation.
“At this point, when we had no place to go and no alternative but to stay home, the Germans started raiding different neighborhoods,” said Rojer. If Jews tried to hide, they were shot. Trucks took them to Mechelen, a large railroad center, where they were loaded onto cattle cars.
Rojer’s parents decided that if the family couldn’t hide together, first they would find a place for him. “I was most easily identified as a Jew,” he said. They placed him in a TB sanatorium. He last saw his parents when they visited him, bringing a basket filled with cookies and candy. In January 1943 his parents were captured by the Germans, probably turned in by a friend.
His sisters, who had been visiting friends, observed the raid but were warned by neighbors not to go home. The next day they were taken by members of the Belgian underground to a Catholic convent, where they stayed for the rest of the war.
That same night, the Germans came to look for Rojer, possibly tipped off by the same person who had turned in his parents. He was hidden in a closet and told, “Don’t move, don’t breathe; if they find you you’re dead.” The underground came for him that night and took him to a village outside Brussels. He was cared for by two women in a social services program responsible for potentially orphaned children.
When the war was over, the children under their care were waiting to see if their parents had survived, but no one came for Rojer, and he was sent to live in an orphanage in Brussels. He later found out his parents had died in Auschwitz, along with many other family members.
One day when he was visiting friends he had met at an orphanage, a woman came by and Rojer was introduced to her. Then the miraculous happened; as Rojer told the story: “The woman looked at me and said, ‘Do you have a sister?’ I said, ‘I had two, but I haven’t seen or heard from them for three years.’ Then the woman said, ‘A girl just moved into my friend’s house, and she looks just like you.’” They trooped over to the neighbor’s, and it was indeed the younger of his two sisters, with the older sister living nearby.
Rojer and his sisters moved to Philadelphia, sponsored by his mother’s brother. That summer he picked up street English while working with his uncle and family at a small sandwich shop. He was eventually enrolled in public school and then graduated from Temple University and Hahnemann Medical College. His first wife died of leukemia; he was remarried to Marsha Levin-Rojer. “My three children are all married, amazingly to Jews, and each one has three children,” he said. “I have eight granddaughters and one grandson, and that is my personal victory.”
Beth Englezos, program manager of Secure@Home at the JFCS — a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks — organizes the Kosher Cafes East and West (Kosher Cafe West is held once a month at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction). “It’s nice to see different people in the community come out, have a nice lunch, listen to a speaker, and socialize for an hour and a half,” she said.
Carolyn Sherbin of West Windsor regularly attends the Kosher Cafe. “We come because the programs are really, really interesting,” she said. “The federation just tries to do things for seniors, tries to present different things that get people out, interested, and active.”