June 6, 2012
Survivor: Gitta Seidner Ginsberg
Gitta Seidner—known at the time by the Christian name Jannine Spinette—was abruptly awakened around 4:30 a.m. by a large commotion outside her farmhouse bedroom in Waterloo, Belgium. “No, no, no. What do you want with my goddaughter?” she heard her godmother, Alice Spinette, say. SS soldiers then kicked open the door and pulled the crying girl from her bed. “She’s not Jewish,” Alice insisted. The soldiers didn’t listen. They ordered Alice to get Gitta dressed and drove them to SS headquarters in Brussels.
There, despite her godmother’s protests, Gitta was led down a staircase to a pitch-black cellar and was locked in a cell. Gitta grabbed the cell bars, shaking them, and screamed, “Pourquoi je suis ici?” “Why am I here?” Gitta heard a man’s voice coming from another cell. “Meidele, veine nicht, meidele,” he said in Yiddish. “Little girl, don’t cry, little girl.” But the words only made her cry harder, until finally she fell asleep. She was 6½ years old. It was the fall of 1943.
Gitta was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 28, 1937, the only child of Regina and Shloime Seidner. Her father worked in a factory that recycled old clothes. The family was poor.
In May 1938, two months after the Anschluss, in which Germany annexed Austria, and the same month in which the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in that country, Gitta’s father and uncle fled for Belgium. Gitta and her mother followed a month later, along with Gitta’s grandmother, aunt, two teenage cousins and another uncle.
In Brussels, Gitta and her parents lived in a small apartment. At age 3, she began nursery school, and her grandmother picked her up every afternoon, always bringing a cookie. Many Friday evenings, Gitta walked with her grandmother to synagogue. “It was nice in Brussels,” Gitta remembers.
Things changed in May 1940, when Germany invaded Belgium and began instituting anti-Jewish laws. Gitta’s aunt and uncle, their two teenage sons and another uncle accepted the Germans’ offer to work in the east. Gitta, her parents and grandmother watched as they and other Jews climbed into trucks parked in one of Brussels’ large squares. “Come with us,” one uncle said. “No, we’re staying here,” Gitta’s father answered. Her grandmother was crying.
In fall 1941, as the situation worsened, Gitta’s parents sent her to live with a well-to-do Christian woman who wanted to save a Jewish child. Gitta’s father explained to her that this was “make-believe,” like in the storybooks she loved.
Gitta liked Alice Spinette, a single woman in her 50s. She was also impressed by the apartment—it had marble and mirrors and the first bathroom Gitta had ever seen.
Gitta called the woman “Marraine,” godmother, and selected the name Jannine for herself. She went to church and to a Catholic nursery school and saw her parents every few weeks. “I had a very nice life,” she recalled.
One day, Spinette took Gitta to her parents’ apartment to tell them Gitta needed to be baptized. Gitta’s father refused. But Gitta’s grandmother, sitting in her usual chair by the window reading her prayer book, said, “Yes, she should be baptized.”
Alice had friends living on a farm in Waterloo, whom she and Gitta sometimes visited overnight. One time, when the friends had other guests, they stayed with acquaintances. It was the daughter of those acquaintances who revealed Gitta’s Jewish identity to her SS boyfriend.
Eventually, the SS released Gitta, although she does not know how long she spent in jail, only that she cried and screamed the entire time. She was placed in an orphanage in Linkebeek, outside Brussels, one of several orphanages operated by the Association of Jews in Belgium, but established by the Germans and used to perpetuate the myth that older family members were being relocated in work camps in the east. Later, Gitta was moved to an orphanage in Wezembeek, also outside Brussels.
In August 1944, learning that the Nazis planned to liquidate the orphanages, the Belgian resistance woke the children in the middle of the night, put them on trucks and delivered them to various convents. Gitta was taken to a convent boarding school near Bastogne, in the south of Belgium.
One day the Mother Superior marched all the children into town, giving them little Union Jacks and sitting them on the sidewalk. They waved their flags, chanting “Vive la liberté” as British soldiers, who had helped liberate Belgium in September 1944, rode by in jeeps and tanks.
A few days later, the Mother Superior returned with the children. This time they were given American flags to welcome the American soldiers.
Gitta’s parents, meanwhile, traveled from convent to convent searching for her. Finally, they found her and brought her with them to the orphanage in Aische-en-Refail where they were working. It was late 1944; Gitta remembers celebrating Chanukah with some Jewish GIs.
She returned with her parents to Brussels around March 1945. Several times they went to the square when truckloads of Jews returned from the camps, looking for their relatives. Gitta believes they were killed in Auschwitz.
Gitta’s parents immigrated to Israel in April 1949, but the adjustment was difficult, and a year later they returned to Brussels. The family immigrated to the United States in July 1952.
Gitta met Sidney Ginsberg at New York’s 92nd Street Y in 1955, and they married on October 16, 1957. Their son Michael was born on July 24, 1961. They moved to Los Angeles a year later, and a second son, Stewart, was born on Sept. 12, 1965. Gitta and Sidney subsequently divorced. She has two granddaughters.
Gitta later did administrative work both for Jewish Family Service’s Valley Storefront and for the Los Angeles Unified School District, retiring in 2009.
Today she volunteers one morning a week at Adat Ari El. She is also president of the California Association of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, founded in 1995.
In 2011, at the invitation of Vienna’s Jewish community, and accompanied by her sons, Gitta visited Vienna. There they attended Shabbat services at City Temple.
“Never did I think I’d be sitting in synagogue in Vienna, looking down [from the women’s balcony] and seeing my two sons praying. And I started crying,” Gitta said.