After a temporal chasm of over seven decades, a group of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Belgian orphanages, had an emotional reunion recently on Zoom.
“That was amazing,” said 80-year-old Ra’anana resident Roni Wolf about the international event. “75 years later we can share our stories.”
Wolf’s testimony from that time and subsequent years in England, South Africa and Israel features in a forthcoming book, Jewish Orphans from Belgium in the Holocaust – Testimonies, written by Reinier Heinsman, a 24- year-old Dutch law student.
Heinsman took time out from his studies to volunteer with the Kazerne Dossin Memorial, Museum and Documentation Centre on Holocaust and Human Rights. The center is located within the former Mechelen transit camp in northern Belgium, from which around 26,000 Jews and Roma were sent to concentration camps, particularly to Auschwitz.
All told there are around 40 highly personal accounts in the book, which is primarily about survivors who lived at the orphanages of Wezembeek on the outskirts of Brussels, and Meisjeshuis in Antwerp.
Wolf spent about four years at Wezembeek, along with her older sister Regina. Then called Reizel Warman, she was sent there on September 5, 1942 from the place where her family had been hiding on Rue des Fleuristes in Brussels. That was one day after her parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle were taken to the Dossin barracks from where they were deported to Auschwitz on September 8, 1942. They all perished.
That sounds horrific but, as she was only a tiny tot at the time, Wolf says she does not have any conscious bad memories of the life-changing event. “I remember that I was very happy in Wezembeek, because I was the youngest and everybody made a fuss of me,” the bubbly Wolf notes in her contribution to the book, adding an intriguing observation.
“And it doesn’t really matter who the mother is or who isn’t, as long as you have people loving you.” She does, however, recall going into hiding during bombing raids, German soldiers creeping along the orphanage garden wall, and confesses to painful recollecions whenever she smells cooked cabbage. Presumably that was a staple of the institution diet.
There have been a number of important older figures in Wolf’s life, some remembered more dearly than others. She wasn’t even two-years-old when she and Regina were transferred to Wezembeek and, fortunately, she immediately came under the wing of a kind and protective character. “I really felt loved there. First of all by the head woman in charge, Madame Blum. I felt like I was her child. Wherever she went she carried this little two-year-old thing with her and when she was busy, she put me on to one of the associate helpers.”
Interestingly, the latter also included staff with no seeming vested interest. “There were a lot of people looking after us there who were Belgian, not Jewish, or maybe some of them were Jewish and some weren’t,” says Wolf. “Madame Blum was Jewish. And eventually we got to about a hundred and something children there. And I didn’t know any better. It felt like home with all these kids running around and noise and fun.”
It is not entirely clear, but it seems the home for Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Belgium survived thanks to a clandestine arrangement between the Germans and the Belgian Queen Elizabeth who did much to secure the safety and rescue of Jewish children throughout World War Two.
In fact, Wolf felt so comfortable at the orphanage that when an aunt came from England to claim her, a year after the end of the war, she didn’t want to leave with her. “In 1946, I didn’t go to school one day, because a woman, my aunt Rachel, was coming from England to visit me. I didn’t even know that she was my aunt. I remember that Madame Blum took me out of bed. She took me and said come meet this lady. I met her and I thought that was it. Hello, goodbye, gone. Six months later she came back to take me and I screamed and I held onto Madame Blum. I wouldn’t let Madame Blum go. I cried and the next thing we are on a boat going to England – my sister, myself and my aunt.” Wolf recalls a difficult relationship with her adoptive mother, and a warm one with her adoptive father.
By the time she was 18 she finally realized her ambition of getting away from her English home and came to Israel, initially to volunteer on a kibbutz, and then to join the IDF. It was there she encountered Ivor, her South African-born husband of 59 years and counting. “Sixty years later we still have fun,” she chuckles. “Ivor tells everyone that he was 6 foot 4 when I met him, and that I’ve made him 4 foot 6. In life, you have to find somebody compatible, not only in what you do, but also in your laughter and your happiness.”
The Wolfs married when Roni was 22 and lived in South Africa for 13 years before making aliyah together with their four children.
Last year Wolf told her life story, for the first time, to a bunch of students from around the world. She was initially hesitant about revealing her past but was encouraged to do so by a Holocaust survivor neighbor who had been doing the rounds of schools, with her own story, for some time and was very ill.
“I felt shy, and sort of inconsequential,” Wolf says, “but my neighbor said her time was over and that it was my responsibility to take it on. I enjoyed it.”
Wolf says she is looking forward to meeting more youngsters, to relate some of the important events in her life but with the accent very much on the upside. “We had so much fun (with the students). I told the organizers I’d be happy to do it more with groups like that. I don’t want it to be a sad thing. I want to laugh and have hope for the future.”
For more information about the Kazerne Dossin center: https://www.kazernedossin.eu/EN/