- Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis
Suzanne Vromen’s book forms a critical element in the mosaic of Holocaust scholarship in the underexamined area of hidden children. After the Nazi invasion on May 10, 1940, with persecution of the Jews increased, reaching a high point by 1942–43, Jewish parents reached out to those they might somehow trust to save their children. Many of the parents were later deported to death camps and murdered. This moment in their family life was an unexpected, unwanted, and devastating one. Her interpretation of findings from unstructured interviews with surviving hidden children, rescuers, and Resistance workers deepens our knowledge of the difficulties and victories in the long-term bonds they formed. Although Belgium had been known as a base of Resistance operations during World War II, little had been done to explore factually the questions it raised or the multifaceted nature of the process of keeping the Jewish children safely hidden in Roman Catholic convents and orphanages. Vromen with sophistication and elegance interprets the emotional minefields in the data.
Successful, long-term hiding of the Jewish children would have been difficult in Belgium without the help of Roman Catholic nuns and parish priests. [End Page 603] Hiding Jewish children of various ages meant configuring the identities of the children so that they appeared as their legitimate wards under occupation laws. To do this convincingly at convents meant that the Jewish children would have to join in the daily life of the religious community. Vromen details the variations in how the children dealt with this. The decisions concerning whether to help Jews and how to do it came “from the bottom, not from the top” (p. 87), yet Vromen, like Yad Vashem, is meticulous in recounting the Catholic archbishops, monsignors, and cardinals who helped the Jews in Belgium.
If the analysis of the rescuers and the hidden children is superlative, the chapter detailing the work of the Escorts and Resistance workers is unsurpassed. The Resistance agencies (e.g., Committee for the Defense of Jews [CDJ], Aide aux Israelites Victimes de Guerre [AIVG], the Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance [ONE], and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee [the JOINT]), as a key element in the organization of rescue, are briefly described. Using in-depth interviews, the main focus is on two women Resistance workers, Andrée Geulen and Paule Renard. With them, Vromen brings to life the rescue process and the successful hiding of large numbers of Jewish children who were smoothly ushered to safety under the withering surveillance of the occupation authorities. They formed the interface between the organizational level and institutions or households doing the hiding. Situationally, they were left to their own intuition—to “pluck and luck”—to survive tight situations. The social contexts of their success were the thousands of “faces in the crowd” who, without realizing it, helped them in myriad ways. The heroism of these women Resistance workers and nuns was utterly brilliant in its simplicity and represents collective (rather than a form of idealized individual) rescue..
The fourth chapter is on memory and commemoration, looking at the hidden children fifty years after the close of World War II. Inasmuch as collective memory represented by parent survivors might have been quite different from their children’s, the role played by formal processes of commemoration was of central importance in giving the hidden children their own voice and allotting them their own place within the hierarchy of Holocaust survivors. In the final pages of her monograph, Vromen sifts through her findings, assessing them in terms of theories of rescue based on social research. This work is a welcome contribution to general reading on the Holocaust and can easily be integrated into courses from sociology to philosophy at both undergraduate and graduate levels. [End Page 604]