Holocaust orphans reminisce about the Birnbaum family

The German Jewish couple helped more than 350 children get through the war.

Holocaust survivors 311 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Holocaust survivors 311
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Twenty Holocaust survivors gathered at Yad Vashem on Monday to share testimony about the rescue efforts of the Birnbaum family, a German Jewish family which cared for over 350 children during the Holocaust and in the chaotic aftermath immediately following the war.
While Yad Vashem regularly records testimony from Holocaust survivors in their homes, Monday’s event allowed the museum to simultaneously gather testimony from many sides of the inspiring Birnbaum rescue story. The museum has only had the opportunity to gather group testimonies eight times in the past few years, since it is rare for an entire group of survivors to all be in Israel at the same time.
A deeply religious household, the Birnbaums fled from Berlin to Amsterdam following Kristallnacht, during which attacks were carried out against Jews in Germany and Austria, on November 9-10, 1938. In 1939, the family was moved with other German refugees to the Westerbork transit camp in Holland, where they tried to maintain a normal observant lifestyle as much as permitted.
Authorities put Yehoshua and Hani Birnbaum in charge of the orphans, who continued to arrive at the transit camp in large groups.
Deportations from Westerbork to concentration camps started in 1942. The family fought “like lions” to prevent each child’s deportation, at one point saving 50 children from deportation by falsifying documents to state that the children were illegitimate offspring of Christian German soldiers and Jewish mothers.
In 1944, the family was deported, along with more than 200 orphans they cared for, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They tried to keep the orphaned children together despite terrible conditions in the camp.
“For most of the war, I was with my family, but they died towards the end in Bergen- Belsen so then I was taken in by the Birnbaum family,” recalled Esther Debora Reirs-Mossel, who was six years old at the time. “I remember they made a Seder for us on March 29, 1945.
I remember Ya’acov and Tzvi (two of the six biological Birnbaum children) baked matzot that night; they took some flour and water and made these matzas. And we had a real seder and we told the story about the holiday of liberation and getting out of Egypt. The next week, they put us on a train. A death train. They put 2,500 people on there from Bergen- Belsen, and 10 percent died on the way.”
The Birnbaum family returned to Holland just a few months after the war ended.
They settled into a monastery with around 40 children who had also survived, and continued to care for a growing number of orphans who found their way into the family’s care. In 1946, groups of the Birnbaums’ charges started coming to Israel through Youth Aliyah frameworks.
Today, all six of the Birnbaum children are living in Israel, as well as dozens of survivors whom the parents shepherded through the tumultuous and dangerous years.
The six Birnbaum children were at the testimony on Monday to hear the experiences of the dozens of children their parents helped to save.
“It’s so exciting to be here,” said Soni (Birnbaum) Shai.
“There’s Nehamia and there’s Opie, there’s people here I haven’t seen in years. We don’t have the opportunity to get together. It’s just so exciting. I remember almost everyone.”
“They were angels in hell, rescuing hundreds of children,” said Reirs-Mossel. “Otto, his name is Yehoshua in Hebrew, he would wait for the trains to arrive at night and he would gather up all of the children that arrived.”
The survivors shared their stories of how they came to be under the care of the Birnbaums and what it meant to be part of the community in fragmented Europe. The youngest child rescued, Yehudit Boldeheimer, came to the Birnbaums as a sixweek- old infant with her twin.
Their father had been killed and their mother was unable to care for them.
“I remember taking care of you!” exclaimed Shai when she saw Boldeheimer.
“Testimonies are such a massive part of what we do,” said Estee Yaair, a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem. But the Birnbaum story stands out for the selflessness of the family in the face of such difficult conditions.
“In almost every story of survival, there’s an example of Jews helping other Jews survive,” said Yaair.
The room was filled with family members of the survivors.
The idea for group testimony about the Birnbaum story surfaced during an event on Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, when Reirs-Mossel lit a candle and the museum screened a movie that showed dozens of the Birnbaum children.
The International School for Holocaust Studies decided to try and identify all of the children in the video, by bringing them together and hearing their stories. The testimony was organized in cooperation with the office of the Minister for Pensioners Affairs.
“I’m a member of a committee that researches Jews who rescued Jews,” explained Reirs- Mossel. “People usually try to correct me, saying, you mean Righteous Gentiles who rescued Jews. But until now, people haven’t told the story enough of what Jews did to help the nation of Israel, and it’s very important.”