Saving Jewish children

Three new books are an important contribution to Holocaust literature.

jewish children 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jewish children 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish Enemy: The Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust By Jeffrey Herf Belknap Press 390 pages; $18.95 A Gift of Life: The Deportation and the Rescue of Jews in Occupied Belgium (1940-1944) By Sylvain Brachfeld Institute for the Research on Belgian Judaism 316 pages Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis By Suzanne Vromen Oxford University Press 178 pages; $24.95. These three new, well-illustrated books are important contributions to the already extensive Holocaust library. Saving some 2,000 Jewish children from the jaws of murderers, despite the Nazi terror and their vicious propaganda, always makes good reading. And murderers they were. Jeff Herf, professor of history at the University of Maryland and the author of The Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and Third Reich, presents us with an all-embracing indictment of Nazi propaganda, unfortunately still cultivated by our enemies today. Nazi propaganda was based on Hitler's demonic obsession with the "Jewish threat." He firmly believed that Jews were responsible for the German defeat in World War I, and for the outbreak of World War II. Therefore Germany had no choice but to defend itself from the Jewish danger that sought its destruction. Jews led Britain and the US into the bloody world war, despite Hitler's sincere search for peace. For Nazis The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was an authentic document, proving that Jews sought world domination. The directives of the Periodical Service of the Office of Active Propaganda in the Ministry of Propaganda, under Goebbels's control, which were published on May 30 and June 6, 1941, contained the following instructions: "England is ultimately ruled by Jews: same is true of the US: accordingly English-North American plans for conquering the world serve Judas's plan to use, deracinate and in this way generally exterminate all non-Jews of all peoples." The order stated that "the aim of Jews in the US is at any price to destroy and exterminate Germany, which grasped the Jewish danger in time." The Nazis held the Jews responsible for America's entry into both world wars. Franklin D. Roosevelt was said to have been tainted by "Jewish blood," traceable to his Dutch ancestors. A long list of prominent Americans, Britons and Frenchmen were either Jews or under Jewish influence. It didn't matter that it was all utter nonsense. The poster of the Reich's Propaganda Directorate of the Nazi Party: "Das Jüdische Komplott" (The Jewish Conspiracy) from December 10, 1941, preserved by the Landeshauptarchiv Koblenz, No. 1709, shows us clearly how Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, under two Star of David symbols, cooperate with Bernard Baruch and an imaginary "Son of Moses" for the purpose of Germany's ultimate enslavement and complete destruction. Nazi propaganda exploited the motive of discovering and fighting the "Jewish conspiracy" as an apt justification for aggression and subsequent crimes. Hitler, it said, had sought peace, but was opposed by international Jewry. While Nazi terror and the Gestapo suppressed all opposition, the entire German press, radio and film industry was at the service of the all-powerful Ministry of Propaganda, which published numerous handbills, circulars, posters and placards, full of distortions, but aptly illustrated by the most persuasive artists. The author lists most of the numerous tricks, lies and perverse fantasies of Nazi propaganda. It leaves us in no doubt that those creators of "the Jewish enemy" were in fact the true enemies of the entire civilized world. SYLVAIN BRACHFELD'S memorial book about the deportation and the rescue of Belgian Jews contains Dr. Diana Brown's book, translated from French, They Have Survived, the author's own book Thank You For Saving Us, and added general information chapters, personal stories, lists of survivors, personal testimonies and an index. The Nazi occupiers were more careful in Belgium than in Poland, but their well-concealed goal was the same: to get the country Judenrein without unduly upsetting the Belgian gentile population. According to the German census of 1941-1942, there were 56,178 Jews in Belgium, and 35,398 of them survived the occupation. In November 1941, the Nazis established "The Association of Jews in Belgium," a sort of Judenrat, which in beginning took care of children and the elderly, and later became a loyal instrument for deportations. The fact that more than half of the Belgian Jewish population was saved was due to the activities of the Committee for the Defense of Jews, established on March 15, 1941, as a part of the Belgian underground movement which helped Jews to hide and saved numerous lives. Helping the Jews became a form of resistance and patriotism, an act of charity and respect for humanity. Many Belgians felt sorry for the humiliated and persecuted Jews, and most of them sincerely hated the Germans, especially after they were mobilized for work in Germany. CDJ had even stopped a train carrying deportees to Auschwitz, and helped a number of them to escape. This was the only such attack in Holocaust history. The book contains 28 original and dramatic stories of 28 saved Jewish "hidden children." Some 500 Belgians were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles. However, there were many who helped "because this had to be done." The author regrets that while the Belgian Nazis never paid for their crimes, the survivors, even in the second and third generation, still carry the scars of the persecution. SUSAN VROMEN'S story of the daring rescue of young Jewish children by Belgian nuns is certainly the most sober and a moving addition to our knowledge about the Nazi occupation. Fifty-five Belgian women lost their lives and many more endured life in concentration camps out of those hundreds who risked their lives by saving Jewish children and hiding 770 shot-down Allied airmen. Vromen, professor of sociology emeritus at Bard College, shows us, step by step, how the children were saved. The Jewish Committee for the Defense of Jews and the Belgian underground provided the children with new identities, French or Flemish names and surnames. The women escorts transported the children to their new homes or convents, feeding and clothing them and, above all, taught them how to behave so as to hide their origins and live their secret lives. Nuns in convents had to take special care of the newcomers who faced a totally new milieu, different from anything they had ever known before. Children were expected to adapt on the spot, to conform, learn by heart various prayers, show themselves to be no different from others. Belgium was a Catholic country and the Church was almost untouched by the Nazis. Convents offered the greatest safety, however the instructions to accept Jewish children came not from the top of the Catholic hierarchy but from the nuns, and each convent acted according to its own understanding. The prioresses had to decide and most of them were both courageous and willing to face the danger. There were some 50,000 nuns in Belgium and more than 50 of them won the Yad Vashem title of Righteous Gentile. In general the children adapted quickly, but there was little doubt that many of them suffered, even after the war was over. Vromen deals with great sensitivity and understanding with the problem of the influence of the strict Catholic upbringing upon Jewish wards, the influence of convent rules and customs, the enforced convent discipline. Belgium suffered from hunger and general shortages, nuns were generally poor and many had to beg for food. Many children became deeply bound to Christianity and wished to convert. A number were persuaded to convert, but many convents refused baptism for children without their parents' permission. It is generally assumed that more than 1,200 children were saved in Belgian convents, and many of them live in Israel today. Vromen's well-written and often fascinating research presents us with a very detailed portrait of a unique World War II and Holocaust experience.