The Rescue of Jewish Children in Belgium
by Dr. Mordecai Paldiel
On 20 May 1943, just before 10:00 p.m., the doorbell of the Très- Saint-Sauveur convent in Brussels, Belgium rang. Two armed men forced their way in, shouting "Hands up!" They were followed by several other armed men and one woman who stormed the convent, cut the phone lines, and ordered all the nuns to assemble in the Mother Superior's office. The nuns were forced to prepare 15 of their wards—Jewish girls who had been hidden under the guise of Catholic children in need—for a journey. In under an hour, the abductors had taken the children, locked up the nuns in the office, and Sister Marie Amélie (Leloup Eugénie)—the Mother Superior—in an upstairs room. On the way out, to reassure the children, one of the men whispered a few words in Yiddish. Who were these unusual abductors? In September 1942, Cardinal Van Roey, head of the Belgian Catholic church in Malines/ Mechelen, and the Comité de Défense des Juifs (CDJ), a Jewish clandestine rescue organization, encouraged the Mother Superior of the Trés-Saint-Sauveur convent to take 15 Jewish girls into hiding.
For nine months, the girls lived comfortably in the convent, adapting to their new surroundings and attending Christian religious lessons. On 20 May 1943, having received information of the Jewish children, the Gestapo raided the premises. Discovering that three girls were absent, they decided to return the next morning to collect all the children at once. "It is not to kill them," the head Gestapo agent told the Mother Superior sarcastically, "but to unite them with their families." Frantic, Sister Marie Amélie contacted Miss Jeanne (the wartime pseudonym of Ida Sterno, a Jewish activist with the CDJ) for help. She also appealed to Cardinal Van Roey who contacted Elisabeth, the Queen Mother of Belgium, through one of his aides. Elisabeth intervened but failed to persuade the German authorities to alter their plans. Throughout that day, Sister Marie Amélie and her nuns prayed for divine intervention, while simultaneously preparing the children's belongings for the following day's "departure." That night just before 10:00 p.m. their prayers were answered in the form of an unusual abduction. The leader of the raiding party was 23-year-old Paul Halter, a Jewish commander in the Belgian armed resistance.
Earlier that day, he had visited his friend, Toby Cymberknopf. "I found him very upset," Halter recalls. "He informed me that our friend, Bernard Fenerberg, had learned about the Gestapo's visit to the convent and their intent to return to collect the children. We realized that we only had a few hours at our disposal and thus decided to take it upon ourselves to rescue the children."
Halter, Cymberknopf, and Fenerberg, were joined by fellow-Jew, Jankiel Parancevitch, as well as Andrée Ermel and Floris Desmedt from the Belgian resistance. The six waited for dark, knowing the operation had to take place before the 10:00 p.m. curfew.
"We then forced our way in at gunpoint. We locked up the Mother Superior, ripped out the phone line, and tied the nuns to chairs in the convent's office," says Halter.Half an hour after the "kidnapping" one of the nuns managed to reach the window and alert a passer-by who called the Belgian police. The nuns told the police of the kidnapping and the police carried out their investigation until the next morning, before alerting the Gestapo (giving the kidnappers time to escape with the children). When the Gestapo appeared at the convent the next morning at 11:00 a.m. the children were long gone. From the convent, some had been handed over to their parents, four were brought to Halter's home, and others were taken to Cymberknopf's house. That morning, they had all been transferred to safe locations with help from the CDJ. The Gestapo interrogated the Mother Superior, who said she was certain the men had been sent by the Gestapo.
"Did they have a Jewish appearance?"
"No, not at all."
"Were they all armed?"
"Why didn't you scream?"
"Scream? We didn't dare; they said they would shoot if we shouted."
Unable to disprove the nuns' story, the Gestapo left and the children were saved. Halter was later arrested and in September 1943 was deported to Auschwitz. Only after the war did he discover that all 15 girls had survived. Years later in 1991, as a participant in the first Hidden Children reunion in New York, he was reunited with several of the girls he saved. Sister Marie Amélie, Mother Superior of Très-Saint-Sauveur, was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2001, as were Andrée Ermel and her parents, Marcel and Céline Ermel (with whom one of the children, Myriam Frydland, was placed). Yad Vashem equally pays tribute to the CDJ, and the four Jews who participated in this rescue operation—a unique episode in the annals of the Holocaust in Belgium.