When the Catholic Church and much of Belgium’s population became bystanders as Jews were deported during the Holocaust, Jewish members of the underground and Belgian nuns conspired to save Jewish children by hiding them in convents.
Theirs is not just a story of rescue by righteous gentiles, but an example of “Jews saving Jews,” said Suzanne Vromen, author of Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis.
“In order for the children to be hidden in the convents, someone had to get them there,” Vromen said, addressing a crowd of 500 gathered May 4 at Monroe Township Middle School for the annual Yom Hashoa program of the Henry Ricklis Holocaust Memorial Committee.
The program included a menora-lighting ceremony with survivors, their children, and grandchildren in memory of family and others murdered during the Shoa.
Urvashi Sarkar, one of 11 winners of the annual essay competition sponsored by the Ricklis committee at Monroe Township High School, told the gathering, “In my mere 15 years I’ve been on this Earth, the most remarkable words I have heard, I heard here today.”
Ricklis chair Amy Antelis, a member of the Monroe Township Board of Education, said the committee brings speakers to schools, donates funds to libraries and schools to purchase Holocaust materials, and sponsors exhibits “so that this never happens again, not only to Jews, but to anyone else.”
Vromen, who was herself hidden in a convent in the Belgian Congo, is a professor emeritus of sociology at Bard College. She said several fateful decisions on both sides led to the joint rescue in Belgium, a Catholic country where all the orphanages were run by nuns. Its leaders made an informal agreement with the Nazis that they would not interfere with the church if the church stayed out of Nazi affairs.
“This in effect created the perfect bystander,” said Vromen.
The mothers superior of the convents “functioned like CEOs,” and some of them made the decision to shelter Jewish children, she said.
Meanwhile, with only 6 percent of the country’s Jews holding Belgium citizenship — the rest had fled Germany and other nearby countries — the majority of the community did not feel “entitled” to government protection and took matters into their own hands by forming the Committee for the Defense of Jews.
That decision to form a united resistance early in the war, unlike in most of Europe, allowed an organized network to quickly spring into action.
Because of Belgium’s regional language split between French and Flemish and the large number of identifiable foreign accents, Vromen said, a decision was made to focus on rescuing children, placing them with Christian families and in convents.
“Children learn language very easily,” she explained.
The Jewish committee paid “escorts” to take the children to their hiding places. Information on every child, who were given false names, was meticulously entered in ledgers, including the names of their parents and where they were being hidden. Vromen said the ledgers were well hidden and were never discovered by the Nazis. As a result, it was possible to reunite children with surviving relatives after the war.
For her book, Vromen interviewed escorts, hidden children, and nuns. Some children remembered their experiences fondly; others less so. Some nuns displayed great heroism in protecting their Jewish charges.
A former hidden child recalled a nun who learned to say, “Sleep well, my child,” in Yiddish and repeated it at night as she tucked in each Jewish child and slipped them a piece of candy. That nun is now listed as “Righteous among the Nations” at Yad Vashem. Another child, however, recalled being beaten regularly “because the sisters saw us as Christ killers.”
In another instance, when 15 hidden Jewish girls were renounced and the Gestapo came to the convent, the mother superior convinced the Nazis to return the next day to give the nuns time to prepare the girls and pack their things. Meanwhile, she contacted a priest with ties to the Jewish resistance, and the girls were moved to other hiding places.
“The sister told the partisans to shoot her in the leg,” said Vromen, so it would look like she had put up a fight. Instead, they bound and gagged the nuns and cut the phone lines to protect them.
In some instances, the children were baptized and converted.
“Some children after the war remained Catholic, especially if their parents did not return,” said Vromen, adding that some abandoned their assumed religion, “and many came back to their Jewish identity.”