Every year on the 27th of January, the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Of the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah (Holocaust) – one and a half million were children!
By David E. Kaplan
Entering the Children’s Memorial at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – World Holocaust Remembrance Center – one is engulfed by darkness until one turns a corner and then suddenly overwhelmed by tiny flames from candles – a Jewish tradition to remember the dead – that appear to reach out into eternity. Apparently, it might be one candle and through skillful mirror positioning, a single flame becomes many emerging endless. This is the point of the Memorial – that if the murder of ONE child is unbearable to bear then the innumerable flames help try apply the mind to the UNTHINKABLE – one and a half million children snuffed out in cold blood!
The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be solemnly heard in the background – a roll call of the dead.
Visitors are left speechless; their only response – tears running down cheeks!
One child that survived that horror – though not her parents – was Roni Wolf from the city of Ra’anana in Israel. Her story of survival was revealed this month in an emotionally-charged global Zoom meeting together with her fellow survivors who had found themselves at an orphanage outside Brussels in Belgium during World War II. They had not seen each other since they were all young children together – in that fateful orphanage where death stalked them!
The Zoom reunion on January 17, 2021, came about because of the research of a Jewish Dutch 24-year-old law student, Reinier Heinsman. While studying, Heinsman opted to volunteer at the Kazerne Dossin – a Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights established within the former Mechelen transit camp from which in German-occupied Belgium, arrested Jews and Roma and sent them to concentration camps.
There, Heinsman became fascinated with the amazing rescue of some 60 orphaned Jewish children having been captured by the Nazis to be transported to Auschwitz on October 30th,1942. From photographs of the children he found at the Museum, he set about in tracing any surviving orphans. Over a period of eight months starting his research in May 2020, the intrepid investigator reveals “I located five children in the photo who are still alive. The other six who participated in the Zoom reunion were from this orphanage but do not appear in the photo.”
All had been snatched at the eleventh hour from certain death.
The last ‘child’ he found was Reizel Warman, today Roni Wolf from Ra’anana, the only one living in Israel.
On Sunday night, the 17th of January, the young law student welcomed the eleven Holocaust survivors on Zoom who last saw each other over seven decades earlier. Most of them today are living in the USA. Each of the former ‘children’ re-introduced themselves as ‘adults’ and told their life’s story. Each were truly indebted to Reinier who reveals he is unsure what drove him to tackle with such passion such a deep study of this magnitude that will soon appear in his soon to be published book, Jewish Orphans from Belgium in the Holocaust-Testimonies. Born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, Heinsman has never even visited Israel.
When Roni’s parents were herded onto the train for Auschwitz, they departed not from Antwerp but Brussels, where they had been in hiding on Rue des Fleuristes. They had shortly before moved to the Belgium capital, “because it had a smaller Jewish population and they thought they could blend in and escape attention,” explains Roni. This proved to be true only temporary. Soon the roundups began in Brussels, and only days before the German’s came, Roni’s parents Zalman and Malka, took their two baby daughters to their non-Jewish neighbours. Roni would later learn that her mother was murdered on the first day she arrived in Auschwitz; her father would succumb later from illness. “We only spent a few days with this family, who were terrified of the danger we placed them in. They then took us to Wezembeek, an orphanage for abandoned children outside Brussels.”
For a while, the children were safe.
“The orphanage was protected property as part of an understanding reached when Belgium capitulated in 1940, that the Nation’s children would not be harmed. This was insisted upon by the Queen. The Nazis adhered to this policy until one day in 1942, the trains bound for Auschwitz fell short of their quota. Precise by nature, the Germans would not countenance empty coaches. And if they could not meet their quota with adults, they knew where to find last minute substitutes – the children at Wezembeek.”
Roni, who was 2-years-old at the time and her older sister Regina were amongst those herded onto the trucks and driven to the station. Luckily, the orphanage was run by a cool head in Madame Marie Blum!
Marie had been assigned the post of manager of the Wezembeek Home when she was only 26 years old. On Friday afternoon the 30th of October 1942 – less than two months after Roni and Regina arrived at the home – the SS raided Wezembeek. As related by Marie later, the SS headed by a Dr. Holm, burst in with their firearms in their hands screaming and shouting orders. “Their aim was to frighten all into immediate obedience.” The men rushed into Madame Marie office and started ripping up the wires to the phone, breaking all telephonic contact with the outside world. Two staff members, Julia and Livine Kumps, were washing the corridor at the time.
Dr Holm barked at Marie, “Are these two women Jewish?”
“No,” replied Madame Marie, “they are outsiders employed on an hourly basis.”
“Pay and get rid of them,” ordered an impatient Holm.
The Germans wanted little interference with what they were doing. After all, they were reneging on the deal with the Belgian royalty not to harm the country’s children!
All this was going through the mind of Dame Marie, who while drawing the money from a drawer in her desk, also managed to write something down on the two pieces of paper in which she wrapped the wages. The clock was ticking, and all she had time to quickly scribble was one word “PREVENT” and a phone number. She hoped at least one of the messages would find its way to the Queen of Belgium and be understood.
It was not only a long shot but the only shot!
For the plan to have any chance of success, Dame Marie also needed to buy time – to cause as much delay as she could.
This would prove tricky and dangerous.
She guided Holm to the infirmary room where she said there were two boys with “contagious diphtheria” germs. Unfortunately when 13-year old Michel Goldberg and 7-year-old Jacob Gebotzreiber were asked by Holm if they were indeed ill, they truthfully answered:
“No, we are not sick.”
An irritated, impatient and much angered Holm then proceeded to move all of the children out towards the large canvas covered truck. Holm was meticulous in going through the entire home so as to be certain that everyone was accounted for.
Seven of the staff members were forced to board the truck together with the children. At that moment, a staff member – a Mrs. Gold – fainted which gave Marie time to run back for water, clothing and medical supplies for the journey.
Valuable time was bought.
Marie sat in front with the driver and Roni on her lap. She struck a conversation with the driver who looked at Roni and said:
“I have a daughter of the same age.”
Tedious conversation passed the time away and helped eased the tension.
The truck arrived in the Mechelen town centre where the children were offloaded into a large courtyard in front of the Dossin military barracks where many other deportees were gathered awaiting deportation to Auschwitz.
Again, Marie needed to play for more time and pulled the same stunt she had failed earlier with Holm. She convince the Commander of the Barracks, an officer Steckman, that there were two children that were taken from an infirmary having contagious diseases. Steckman ordered the boys to be separated from the rest of the children and began phoning awaiting further instructions.
Finally after all the delays, Steckman was ordered by his superiors to release the children, which he did that included Dame Marie and the orphanage staff.
The drive back to the orphanage was harrowing, afraid that they would be stopped at any moment and sent back to the deportations.
They returned safely back to the orphanage and survived the Shoah!
Marie would later discover that Julia Dehaes, the cleaner, had taken her scribbled note and had run to the hardware store in the village, where a telephone was available and called the number that Marie had written on her paper. One thing led to another and a message got through quickly to Queen Elizabeth of Belgium who contacted the military governor of Belgium, General Alexander Von Falkenhausen. He complied with her pleading and ordered the return of the children to Wezembeek. That order came through while the children were disembarking from the trucks and being marched towards the train.
A short while later the train left for Auschwitz with a few empty carriages, while the truck returned to the orphanage full – with the children!
In 1992 Madame Marie Blum was honoured by the US Senate for being “a true heroine”.
When the war ended, only Roni and Regina of the Warman family in Belgium had survived but so had her aunt Rachel, who was living in London.
When Rachel was given the names in 1945 of all the deportees in Belgium she noticed that her brother’s children Regina and Rosa (Roni) were not listed. “It meant they had survived,” thought Rachel. She had lost in the Shoah her parents, two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins, “but I had two nieces and we were going to find them.”
“After months of investigation, we learnt that one was living with a devout Catholic family and the other in a Jewish children’s home.” Rachel travelled to Brussels, brought them back to England where she and her husband Jack adopted them.
At the age of eighteen, Roni left for Israel on a year’s educational programme. Instead of returning to the UK after the year, she joined the army where she met her future husband, South African Ivor Wolf.
On Yom Hashoah in 2009, Yediot Achronot ran an article on the Holocaust with an appeal from a woman working at Yad Vashem to identify any of the children in the six photographs she had randomly selected from some 130,000. The caption read:
Shortly before midnight, one young reader of the Hebrew paper was about to retire to bed when she glanced at one of the photos. The next thing she did was call her parents in Ra’anana and said:
“Don’t go to bed, I’m coming over right now.”
A short while later, Yaella arrived, finding her parents, Ivor and Roni Wolf anxiously drinking coffee. She dropped the newspaper on the kitchen table and pointed to a photo of a little girl clutching her teddy bear.
“Mommy, it’s you, it’s you,” she tearfully repeated.
The following day Roni contacted Yad Vashem. The photo was taken when Roni had been staying at Wezembeek, the orphanage outside Brussels.
Now twelve years later, Roni has again reunited with the past, meeting on Zoom all those fellow children who narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis.
“Living in our Jewish state with my husband, children, grandchildren and great grandchild instills in me hope for a brighter future” says Roni.
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