Visitors to the Museum are often quite happy to see the lobby full of school children, but what they may not know is that we spend a lot of time with educators as well. Every year we welcome public and private school teachers for conferences and workshops. This week, we are offering a course for elementary and middle school teachers at Catholic schools during which we will explore how to teach about the Holocaust and Jewish heritage. One of the featured speakers will be Dr. Suzanne Vromen, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Bard College. Dr. Vromen is the author of Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis (Oxford University Press, 2008). In advance of her remarks, we asked her to tell us about her groundbreaking research.
MJH: What interested you in the hidden children of Belgium in particular?
SV: I was living in Belgium when the Germans invaded in May 1940 and suffered under the occupation until spring 1941. With my parents and brother I was then lucky to escape all the way to the Belgian Congo, a Belgian colony at the time, where I went to school in a convent because all education was in the hands of missionaries and there were no secular options.
After the war, I was haunted by my luck. I could have been a hidden child, or I could so easily have been deported and exterminated. In part to justify that I had been spared and survived, I taught courses on the Holocaust for many years, as a way of giving back. When I wanted to give my students material on the Holocaust in Belgium I found that not much existed in English and I decided before my retirement that I would try to partially fill the gap. I wanted to find out how the ex-hidden children felt today about their experiences in religious institutions and what they remembered of their daily lives. I also wanted to hear the voices of the nuns who had sheltered them. Nuns are not usually interviewed, and because of my experience during the war I felt comfortable going to convents. My book gives a voice to the nuns, a rare and valuable occurrence. I wrote my book as both a mission and an acknowledgment: a mission to inform and enlighten, and an acknowledgment of the role of nuns both in Belgium and in my own life.
MJH: Can you tell us a little about civil resistance activities in Belgium?
SV: The civil resistance had the goal of ensuring survival. It was organized in Belgium by Jews for Jews relatively early and efficiently. It asked for the help of non-Jews and received it. One of the results is that half the Jewish population of Belgium survived, while in neighboring Holland 80% of the Jewish population was exterminated. It is important to stress the Jewish initiative because, after the war, some said that Jews went to slaughter like sheep. As more and more archives are opened and studies done, this alleged passivity is shown to be patently false.
MJH: You call parents “the first rescuers.” What do you mean by that?
SV: The parents had to be willing to hand over their children to people they did not know. Their children would be taken to unspecified hiding places. Parents were not allowed to know where their children would be hidden because if the parents were rounded up by the Germans and tortured they might reveal the hiding addresses. Parents were the first rescuers because it is only through their willingness to separate themselves from their children and to trust their children to complete strangers that the rescue was made possible.
MJH: How was it possible to keep children’s Jewish identity a secret? How were the Jewish children integrated into convents and orphanages?
SV: Mothers superior often just shared the secret with a small circle of nuns. There were exceptions when all the sisters were informed and asked to keep silent. Some nuns were openly anti-Semitic. However, it is important to remember that nuns owe obedience to their mother superior. Some convents insisted on baptism and conversion, others did not. There was no uniform policy for all convents. As for the children, the non-Jewish ones did not seem to find the newcomers strange. Some Jewish children wanted to be baptized and become like all others, some resisted. The hidden children reported that they were treated like all others, except in cases where they were seen as Christ killers and beaten. The most interesting issue is how the Jewish children kept their identity secret. The nuns were very astonished in retrospect about how carefully the children flipped their identity and kept their past secret. When there was a denunciation, it was mostly due to a disgruntled outside employee of the convent. As I report in my book, there were many different experiences and policies, it is impossible to generalize.
MJH: What did you learn about the roles mothers superior played?
SV: Their role was pivotal. They took the responsibility to admit or refuse to admit hidden children. Their important role has often been forgotten in narratives of resistance. They were skilled CEOs who had to manage with scarce resources, make room in cramped lodgings, and find sufficient food in a starving country whose resources were diverted to Germany.
MJH: What do you think their motivations were in helping Jewish children? Did the higher ups in the Catholic Church know of their efforts?
SV: Their motivations were both humanitarian and religious. They were saving lives and souls. These motivations cannot be disentangled though, when interviewed in recent times, the nuns emphasize the humanitarian aspect.
The higher clergy were bystanders. One bishop told his parish priests to help, all others remained silent. They did not want confrontations with the Germans. They did not oppose the rescue. In some cases, especially at the end of the war, they facilitated somewhat. In general, there was a big difference between the lower clergy moved by humanitarian feelings and the higher clergy interested in the regular running of Church institutions.
MJH: In your estimation, how many Jewish children were saved in Belgium by the nuns?
SV: There are no exact numbers, only estimates of between 2,500 and 3,000.
MJH: The last chapter of your book very fittingly explores issues of Holocaust commemoration. It is a fascinating look at how the former hidden children have come to terms with their experiences and started talking about them, and the recognition of the role of the nuns in rescuing Jews.
SV: I am glad that my book restores them to their rightful place in history. As of 2008 there were 48 nuns recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations. Since 2008 there may have been one or two additions.
MJH: Thank you to Dr. Vromen for taking the time to talk to us. For the full picture of this little-known chapter of history, we highly recommend reading her book in its entirety.