Stephen Weiner is the child of a Holocaust survivor and grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her experiences as a “hidden child”
By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
Stephen Weiner is the child of a Holocaust survivor and grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her experiences as a “hidden child” — a Jewish child who was handed off to live with sympathetic non-Jewish families.
Shortly before his mother died, Mr. Weiner found a shoebox full of letters written by her to family members. They were written in French and since he was the only one in the family who could read French, he translated them.
”When I saw what was in the shoebox, I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Weiner said.
Those letters were written while Bella Wach was in hiding in her native Belgium from 1942 to 1944, said Mr. Weiner. He recently spoke at the 7th annual Sacks-Wilner Holocaust Education Program at Adath Israel Congregation.
The architect of the family’s survival was his grandfather, David Wach, Mr. Weiner said. Mr. Wach was born in Warsaw, Poland. He raised his two brothers and sister after their parents died in 1918. He later settled in Belgium, Mr. Weiner said.
Belgium was a “made-up country” that was created in 1831 by France and England to serve as a buffer from Germany, Mr. Weiner said. The country consisted of two separate provinces, each with their own cultures — Flanders, which is Dutch-speaking, and Willonia, which is French-speaking.
Belgium’s population in the 1930s and 1940s was about 8 million. The majority of 50,000 Belgian Jews lived in Antwerp, although there were sizable Jewish populations in Brussels, Liege and Charleroi. The Jews were mostly diamond merchants, furriers or makers of leather goods, Mr. Weiner said.
The Belgians’ attitude toward the Germans in the 1930s was hostile, he said. In May 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France. The Belgians surrendered after 18 days of fighting. There were Nazi sympathizers in the country.
Sensing trouble and concerned about his family’s future, David Wach — who made leather wallets — reached out to his non-Jewish customers. There were increasing restrictions on the Jews. They could not own radios, they had to register with the authorities and the children were taken out of the schools.
In July 1942, Bella Wach and her sister, Jeanne Wach, were issued “work orders” by the Nazi Gestapo. Instead, Mr. Wach arranged for his daughters to go into hiding in Brussels with a non-Jewish family. They were betrayed, but escaped before they could be captured.
Mr. Wach approached another customer and friend, who took in the Wach family. Leonard Van Rillaer hid the family in Brussels, but it was getting “really dangerous,” Mr. Weiner said. Mr. Van Rillaer rented a villa in a resort village about 30 miles north of Brussels, and that’s where the Wach family went into hiding from October 1942.
Every morning, his mother would leave the villa around 5 a.m. to get milk and eggs from a nearby farm, Mr. Weiner said. A neighbor would visit twice a week and bring other supplies. He would stay for a short visit with the family.
”My mother was frightened all of the time. She knew that at any moment, there could be a knock at the door. One day, a German troop carrier stopped near the villa. My mother was afraid to come back. My grandfather was ready to kill his family if the Germans came for them,” Mr. Weiner said.
But the “defining moment” came in November 1943, he said. That’s when David Wach’s brother, Max Wach, was arrested with his wife and child after a secret trip to the villa. They were taken to Auschwitz and murdered.
Facing increasing danger, David Wach split up his family. Bella Wach left with Mr. Van Rillaer on Dec. 29, 1943, to the first of three hiding places. That is also the date of the first letter that she wrote to her family, which was delivered through the underground resistance movement, Mr. Weiner said.
Bella Wach rotated among three to four homes, all members of the underground resistance and Catholic families who knew each other, he said. The families knew when there would be periodic roundups of Jews, and they moved her from place to place.
There were a few close calls, Mr. Weiner said. One time, a Gestapo officer asked her for her identification papers. She had a forged identification card with a false name, but she was afraid. She told him that she was too young to have been issued identification papers, and he moved on.
”Sometimes, it was luck. It was just luck,” Mr. Weiner said.
One of the families that hid her was that of the local postmaster, Mr. Weiner said. He smuggled letters from Bella to family members in hiding at the villa. The ultimate goal, however, was to get Bella into a convent school or boarding school.
In April 1944, Bella Wach was placed in a Roman Catholic convent school. The reverend mother tried to convert her. Some of the sisters at the convent became suspicious of Bella and she was denounced by one of the sisters.
The reverend mother was aware that one of the sisters wanted to turn in Bella to the Germans. She told Bella to see the pharmacist, who was a member of the underground resistance. He took her to another safe house, Mr. Weiner said. When the Gestapo went to the convent school, Bella was not there.
The Wach family was finally reunited in September 1944 at the villa, after the fall of Brussels, he said. The family returned to Brussels — one of three intact families to return. Of the 50,000 Jews in Belgium, about half were murdered in Auschwitz.
Mr. Weiner said his mother was often asked — by survivors whose children had been killed — why she had survived and their children had not. There is no answer.
Later, Bella Wach met and married Sam Weiner, an American soldier who was a veteran of World War II and who had been a prisoner of war.
Turning back to the letters, Mr. Weiner said that after he saw them, “I knew I had to do something.”
He took his father on a trip to Europe, where they met the people who had hidden his mother. He spoke to them and recorded their conversations.
”Over the next year, I wrote ‘Dearest Ones, The Story of My Mother, A Hidden Child in Belgium During the Holocaust,’” he said of the privately printed book.
”The reason that I wrote it is because long after I am gone, I want the story of my mother to be told,” Mr. Weiner said. “I want (succeeding) generations of my family to be proud of her legacy. It is a testament that we survived.”