Bonjour Papa and Other Memories
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur, 2015
I want to begin by thanking the rabbis for this opportunity to speak and thanking Myriam Abramowicz for her help during this process. I also want to acknowledge my mom, who left the comfort and familiarity of her own synagogue to be here today as I share her past with you.
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Growing up, we didn’t know much about my mother’s childhood. In fact, we knew almost nothing. Yes, we realized she had an accent, but so did our father and our aunts and uncles. My father, Ralph Silberthau, was born in Nuremberg in 1928 and came to this country in 1939, but that’s a story for another day. Our parents spoke German to each other when they didn’t want us to understand. We knew that we didn’t buy any German products and we couldn’t visit Germany. When we were older, we heard bits and pieces but never enough to weave a story.
It wasn’t until we were young adults and we would ask questions that we learned more of my mother’s past. And more recently, we’ve been asking questions and getting answers. Last year, I had the opportunity to travel with my mother to Belgium and Paris. Retracing the past, especially a painful one, is extremely emotional, and I am fortunate to have been included in this journey. Since then, I have continued to ask many questions and read related articles to be able to stand here today and tell my mother’s story. In fact, the first time my mother talked about her past was to a group of teens here at BJ. To her surprise, three of her seven grandchildren were there to hear it firsthand as well. And this past month, my mother and my brother traveled to Whitwell, Tennessee, to see the Paper Clips Project, and my mother spoke to the students at the school where the project was initiated.
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My mother was born Inge Fanny Hausmann, the youngest of the four children of Pauline and Hugo Hausmann, who were married on May 23, 1923. Her brother Werner, the oldest, was born in 1924; her sister Marta in 1927; sister Ruth in 1929, and my mother in 1931. Her father, like her grandfather and uncle, was a horse broker.
The family originally lived in the small town of Markt-Erlbach, about 20 miles west of Nuremberg. They were one of two Jewish families in the town and left in 1937 when life became untenable. The family moved to Ansbach, 25 miles southwest of Nuremberg, into the upper two floors of her paternal grandparents’ house.
To this day, my mother remembers the street address and the proximity to the train station, the dormers in some of the upper rooms, and the cellar where they stored food. She recalls going to shul on Shabbat morning and taking walks in the afternoon, although they were not Shomer Shabbat and presumably did not keep a kosher home. Their neighbors were not Jewish. She describes the joy of walking with her mother and getting the occasional ice cream cone from a vendor. What a treat!
The children went to public school and to religious school for a while. At one point, her brother went to Jewish Day School in Nuremberg, but that ended when the train ride became too dangerous. My mother remembers her brother becoming a Bar Mitzvah in 1937 (when she was 6); her sister secretly being given candy by her teacher at a time when Jewish children were forbidden to participate in school celebrations; and the doctor who risked his life to take her brother to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Even then, there were individual acts of kindness in what was already becoming a dark world to a little girl.
On the night of November 9, 1938, with the entire family home and the children already sleeping, soldiers came into the house, ransacked it, and broke everything. They were awakened by the sounds of loud voices and shattering glass. Her father, along with most of the Jewish men in that region, was taken to prison. He returned within a few days. This was a defining moment. Life would never be the same.
In January 1939, the family moved to Munich. Unable to obtain the necessary affidavit from their one relative in the United States who could afford to sponsor them, my mother’s parents made the heart-wrenching decision to put their four children on a Kindertransport train bound for Brussels to live with Jewish families. My mother was not yet 8 years old.
Once in Brussels, the children were separated. My mother was sent to a family in one suburb, one sister was sent to a different suburb, and one stayed with a family in the city. Her brother was sent to a Catholic orphanage and then a different boarding school. Although my mother’s host family included a young girl, she was in a new country where she didn’t speak the language, and she was all alone.
In August that year, her parents arrived and the family was reunited in Brussels. They rented a basement apartment at 13 Rue d’Espagne. What resonates with her to this day about the reunion with her parents is that she greeted her father with “Bonjour, Papa” because she had forgotten German and only spoke French. She could not communicate with her parents.
On May 10, 1940, the Belgians announced that all Jewish men and boys 16 years and older were being arrested and sent to France. The men of their neighborhood, along with their families, went to the nearby town hall, Hotel de Ville de Saint Gilles, also known as the Maison Communale. They were sent to Saint Cyprien and later moved to Camp Gurs, an internment camp in France. It was the last time she saw her father.
After the men were deported, conditions in Brussels worsened. The Jews were forced to wear the yellow star. Eventually, the three girls could no longer attend school. In 1941, my mother and her sister, Ruth, were sent to The Sacred Heart of Mary Convent in La Hulpe, about 18 miles from Brussels, where the nuns ran a boarding school. She was baptized and given the name Marie Ange. Her sister was named Vivianne. They attended Mass every morning and prayers in the evening and had their own Rosary beads and Catholic Bibles.
Initially, she was terrified when she made the sign of the Cross, fearing that she might make a mistake and the other girls would notice. [It was] difficult at first, but then that too became routine. Within the walls of the Convent, she and her sister were known as sisters and didn’t have to pretend to be strangers. My mother was 10 years old. Meanwhile, with no other choices and at great risk, my mother’s mother and eldest sister had stayed in Brussels and endured increasingly harsh conditions.
In 1943, it was no longer safe in the Convent as the Germans were searching for Jewish children. My mother and her sister were sent to the Villers Sur Lesse, a small, bucolic village 70 miles southeast of Brussels in the Wallonne region. My mother was placed with an older couple while her sister stayed with the Nennen family, a busy household with parents and five children. A volunteer network was able to place their eldest sister, Marta, in the neighboring town of Jambline, where she was the nanny for a little girl named Isabelle. My mother’s mother was the maid for a countess who lived nearby in a very large house requiring hard work. They would all see each other on Sunday mornings at church and have to look the other way. To this day, my mother says that was one of the most difficult feelings, and I’m sure the difficulty was shared by the rest of the family.
September 8, 1944 was Liberation Day, but it brought a new tragedy to the family. Even as word came that the Americans had arrived in the neighboring town, they learned that the army trucks were involved in an accident and Marta had been killed. My mother remembers being outside with other children and being visibly upset. Until that point, the local children didn’t know that Marta was her sister. With the help of the townspeople, Marta was buried in the small cemetery on the edge of town.
The following month, my mother endured an emergency appendectomy performed at home. The townspeople convinced my mother’s mother to stay while my mother healed and regained her strength. But, on December 24, 1944, the Germans were advancing as part of the Battle of the Bulge, and the three of them had to leave. They had to walk to Dinant to catch a train to Brussels. My mother remembers walking all day to cover the 14 miles to reach their destination, even though she had not yet fully recuperated. They returned to their basement apartment, which, miraculously, the landlord had kept as it was.
In the Spring of 1945, there was a knock on the door, and there stood my mother’s brother and a friend of his. Since being sent to France, he had spent time in the camp, then at an orphanage, received training in cabinetry at an ORT trade school, joined the French Underground, and was absorbed as a civilian in the United States Army. Army Intelligence helped him locate his family; he returned to his last known home—and there he found his mother and two younger sisters. A jubilant moment—although from this point forward, they would be four and not six. My mother’s father was deported to Auschwitz in Convoy Number 17 from Drancy on August 10, 1942, where he ultimately perished.
My mother and her remaining family sailed to America in April 1947. Once here, they were separated again, each staying with different relatives in Queens. But, this time they were free and didn’t have to pretend to be strangers. But, ironically, the youngsters couldn’t communicate with their relatives who had emigrated before the war: Those relatives still spoke German while my mother and her siblings only spoke French. She soon re-learned German and also learned English as she acclimated to her new country.
Soon the four of them moved to Washington Heights and started anew. My mother ultimately met my father at the youth group at the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, the local reform synagogue. They married in 1956, and I was born in 1958 followed by my brother and sister. When I was 6 months old, we moved to New Jersey as my parents wanted us to grow up with grass in the backyard. Along with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, we all lived within a mile of each other, enabling us to spend every holiday together, including the secular ones.
My grandmother passed away in 1983 and was buried with a double tombstone. Shortly thereafter, my aunt’s body was exhumed from the small Catholic cemetery where she had been laid to rest and placed beside her mother in a Jewish cemetery, where we could continue to pay respect to her memory. My father passed away at the age of 80 in 2008.
When I traveled with my mother to Europe last year, I saw the house where her family lived in Brussels at 13 Rue D’Espagne, and we visited the town of Villers Sur Lesse. There we met Isabelle, the girl my aunt had cared for during the war, now a grown woman. We sat with two of my mother’s classmates, who have lived in the same small village their entire lives. The one-room schoolhouse where my mother and her sister went to school is still there, as are the homes where they all lived. We met the only Jewish boy among the 10 children who were hidden in Villers Sur Lesse. He hadn’t been circumcised because he was born during the war and his mother knew it would keep him safer.
We also spent time with two of the Nennen children, the family that housed my aunt. We had been in touch with them and have seen them occasionally over the years. We are especially close to one member of our generation and their children. We consider them to be “our other family” and realize that without them, we wouldn’t be here.
I know that the people who helped my mother and her family were performing Tikkun Olam, without even realizing it—and at a time when the world seemed to be falling apart.
While we knew nothing of my mother’s past when we were young, her experiences influenced her in ways I’m sure even she didn’t realize—in terms of values, the choices she made, the way she approached life, and the things she taught us. And now, I understand. But I still can’t comprehend the horrors she faced, and her resiliency—the fortitude of a young girl who had to pretend without understanding any of the circumstances.
I want to thank my mother for entrusting her story to me. I promise to remember, always.