When remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, one can’t avoid thinking about the kids. Jewish children who lived in Europe during the Third Reich were forced into a grown-up perspective on life and skipped the innocence of the childhood. They did not laugh, they did not play, they did not see colors or enjoyed nature. Their youthfulness became in handy when needing to hide from the Nazis. While many did not understand the seriousness of their every action, they found themselves spending months and even years in basements, tunnels, sewages, and sometimes while living in plain sight but under false identity.
By hiding, some of them managed to escape the increasing persecution and, most importantly, the deportations. The most famous story of a "hidden child" is the story of Anne Frank, but every child in hiding carries a special story with him or her.
A couple of days before Israel’s national Holocaust Day (mentioned this upcoming Monday,) I bring you the story of Tsvi Nadav-Rosler, a 76 year old Holocaust survivor, who told me his tale of survival as a "hidden child." “I haven’t told my story of survival for many years. I, as other “hidden children,” felt uncomfortable in comparison to those who’ve been through much worse experience or those who didn’t survive at all. But now I tell it, because there are not many left who can tell the stories of that dark time,” he says to me before he begins his journey back in time. “When I tell my story, there is a double message I want to get through: first, is the monstrosity and the almost unbelievable evilness of the Nazis. The second is the nobility of those who helped us hide. They were the proof that not all is lost in humanity. They knew the dangers of helping us and still saved us from death.”
Tsvi was hidden in a small village called Arbre in Belgium between the years 1942-1945, with his mother and sister. A series of paintings he made of his childhood memories was recently presented in Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, and in Arbre, where he bravely returned last year.
“We were a middle-class Jewish and Zionist family and we lived in a city named Antwerp, my father, my mother, my sister and me. My father was a coal merchant, who lived in Israel for a while as part of a group of Zionists, and returned to Belgium in 1929 because of financial difficulties. When the war broke out and the Germans were approaching Belgium in 1940, we packed our things and escaped to France. As it turned out, the Germans have already beaten us there. They caught us, alongside hundreds of other Jewish refugees from Belgium, and told us to return home. We did as we were told and continued living our life.
Soon, the Germans took over Belgium and slowly started initiating more and more strange rules upon the Jewish community. First was the yellow badge, then a prohibition on owning businesses, then prohibition on owning a radio, curfew, and more. Those rules began to bring us down, but my father was an optimist and did not worry. Afterward, they started requiring people to “work camps.” My father had a saying “working does not kill you,” and he was preparing to go, even volunteer.
My mother warned him from Hitler and his plans, she had a sense for danger, but he answered that Hitler’s statements are simply part of his propaganda and that he does not really mean to wipe out all the Jews. My mother did not listen to him and took the threat very seriously. She went to a Belgian doctor, who was not allowed to treat Jews at the time, and managed to set up a certificate that says that my sister and I are ill with a contagious disease. Then, she went to a prostitute who lived by the port and asked her to take care of us if and when a necessity would arise.
One night, on August 24th, 1942, Belgian officers came knocking on our door in the middle of the night, telling us we have ten minutes to pack our things and come with them. My father started packing, but my mother started this dramatic act, telling them that my sister and I were sick and can’t come and that she must stay and take care of us. The chief officer was touched by her act, and whispered in her ear that we must run immediately, because in about 15 minutes more officers will come. My father went with them, because they couldn’t return empty handed. My mother brought us to the prostitute by the port and went hiding in the house of non-Jewish Belgium teacher who was a part of the underground resistance.
Right by the port was the tram what took all the “workers.” That was the last time I saw my father, my friends and my neighbors. I was five years old and asked my mother why I can’t join them. She said that I’m sick and I have a certificate that shows is, so I can’t be with them.
My 12 years old sister and I were groomed and well fed, and suddenly our lifestyle changed. The prostitute fed us with really bad food. German officers surrounded us, but our Belgium appearance and false identity of the prostitute’s niece and nephew cleared us from suspicion. One day, the prostitute’s husband, who worked in Germany, returned home and told her that hiding us is insane. She let us go and with the help of the resistance, we joined our mother at the teacher’s house. The problem was that there was no room for three there. My mother’s sister was hiding with her family in a small village in southern Belgium. My mother managed to connect her and, with the help of the resistance, sent us there. The journey there involved a train ride, where we could have been exposed, but no one checked us. After we got there, my mother, who had a more “Jewish” appearance, joined us.
The resistance told my mother that staying with her sister’s family looks too suspicious and can be dangerous for all of us, so they found a new place for us in a small town called Dinant. We stayed with a nice family with a dog and really enjoyed our life there, but one day a woman approached my mother on the street and told her “I know who you are – just you wait.” My mother returned home and in an hour we were gone. Sent to a new place – Arbre.
In Arbre, a small village, we stayed with the head of the council’s sister and her family. The head of the council was a member of the underground Belgium resistance and so were the local priest and the village’s teacher. Those three were the ones who saved us. It was very risky, letting us stay, because people talked and there was gossiping. If we were exposed, we, together with those who helped us, would have been killed or sent to a concentration camp. The plan was for my sister and me to blend in – go to school, volunteer at church. My mother stayed in the house most of the time, because of her Jewish appearance.
15 kilometers from the village there was a SS headquarter, but they never entered the village. However, as I said, people talked and we were always at risk of exposure. One family there were collaborators with the Nazis, but the resistance threatened them before they got an opportunity to open their mouth. They kept quiet and we stayed safe.
I lived a beautiful life there. The food was good, I enjoyed nature, but my mother was always afraid because we were standing on the edge of a volcano about to explode. I was very young and did not realize the danger, but I played the game – a Christian boy that goes to church. We received false identities of an actual family that died in a car accident a while back, and told that our father volunteers in Germany. From time to time, the Germans arrived for a “scan.” The resistance warned us and we ran to the forest and hide. Now and again, when my mother thought she heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, she would take us to the attic to hide there.
In 1945, the village was liberated by the Americans. One day, a line of fancy cars marched inside, and it looked like a Hollywood film. I ran to the attic and found a Belgian flag, that was illegal to wave under the domination of the Nazis. I climbed on one of the vehicles and waved it with pride. After the liberation, my mother and I passed by a statue of the Virgin Mary. I told my mother “look, they believe in statues.” In spite of my young age, I realized that I was playing a role, and that I am not a real Christian, but a Jew.
After the war, some Jewish American soldiers threw a Hanukkah party at a large city called Namur. That was the first expression of my Jewish identity since the war erupted. We then returned to Antwerp, my mother, my sister and I, and started adjusting to life without my father and with virtually no money. I later moved to Amsterdam where I met my wife, a survivor of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. We married in 1959 and that very same day moved to Israel. My mother and sister joined us years later.
We were very lucky. Lucky that many Belgians hated the Germans and saved 20,000 Jews from the 60,000 that lived in Belgium before the war began. Out of those 20,000, 3,000 were children. They took a huge risk in order to save us. We were lucky to have a mother that fought like a tiger and was smart enough to understand the danger and get us the sickness certificates. We were lucky that the doctor agreed to help her, that the prostitute’s husband did not expose us, that the officer did not take my mother and us, that we were not exposed while riding the train. There were tenths of times where we could get caught. Any moment someone could have exposed us, but it never happened. We were lucky to survive."
Artwork by: Tsvi Nadav- Rosler.