Hidden Child in Brussels
“And my mother said, ‘Shoot me here but I am not leaving my daughter.'”
– Jeannine Burk
Jeannine Burk (Rasalowicz) was born in Brussels, Belgium, on September 15, 1939. This was two weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, starting World War II. By the time Warsaw surrendered on September 27th, Jeannine was 12 days old.
Jewish people have a long history in Belgium. Before the war, 60,000 lived in the country, mostly in Brussels and Antwerp. Many were assimilated. Half were foreign-born, including Jeannine’s parents and brother.
Life Before the War
Jeannine’s parents were Isaac and Sarah Rasalowicz. They emigrated from Poland to Belgium in 1927, with the post-World War I wave of Jews who fled violence and no future in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. They hoped to find opportunity in Western Europe. But the arrival of “Eastern Jews” in large numbers led to a surge in anti-Semitism, which, in any event, was rampant after World War I. Isaac and Sarah arrived in Brussels with one child, their only son Max. He was a year old. Their daughter Augusta, who suffered all her life from Osteomyelitis, the bone disease, was born in 1931. Jeannine followed eight years later.
Isaac Rasalowicz was a machinist. The family was working-class and poor, typical of first generation families from “the east.” They lived in a rented apartment that lacked running water. Baths came in a tub of hot water, and not everyday. They were religious but not orthodox. They dressed in the modern style and spoke French fluently. They were noticeably Jewish only on Saturdays, when they walked to the synagogue for services. Politically speaking, Jeannine believes her father was “a socialist.” He was probably well-connected in the labor movement. We suspect these connections were invaluable during the war, when he was in search of hiding places for himself and the family.
When the Nazis and Soviets overran Poland in September 1939, Isaac and Sarah feared for safety of their countless relatives. Were their parents still alive? Brothers, sisters, and cousins? Uncles and aunts? Grandparents? What happened to them? Where did they end up? Jeannine has no idea. They didn’t survive. That’s all she knows.
Blitzkrieg in the West
After conquering Poland in September 1939 and partitioning it between himself and Stalin, Hitler unleashed his armed forces on Western Europe. Beginning on April 9, 1940, the Germans seized Denmark and, after a tough fight and the loss of several destroyers, Norway. On May 10th, they opened the offensive against Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium, and France, smashing into oblivion one ancient town after another. The center of Rotterdam was obliterated on May 14th, while surrender negotiations were underway. The Dutch surrendered the next day. The example of the Belgians was even less inspiring. They held a position alongside the British on a line between Antwerp and Namur. On May 28th, King Leopold III, rejecting pleas from his cabinet and with little warning to his allies, capitulated. The unexpected development was nearly disastrous for the British. They were forced to withdraw to the port of Dunkirk, in search of a miracle. France signed an armistice with Germany on June 22, 1941. Jeannine was 9 months old.
As in every occupied country, the Nazis found plenty of collaborators in Belgium. The local Nazis (Rexists) were eager accomplices when it came to plunder and mass-murder. Ordinary people weren’t left empty handed. They got their share of the stolen Jewish property. Apartments and businesses were suddenly available, along with furniture, carpets, etc. Bank accounts and art collections, of course, went to the Germans.
In comparison to their ruthless behavior in “the east,” the Nazis were almost discreet in Western Europe. For the most part their sadism wasn’t out in the open, as it was, for example, in Nazi occupied Poland. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Nazis had some regard for public opinion, if only public opinion in the Reich and (much less) in the occupied countries of Western Europe.
The machinery of destruction kicked in. The Nazis introduced the race laws. Jews were ordered to register. Their passports were stamped with Jude. Their property was ‘Aryanized’ (purchased at reduced price, if any). In August 1941, Jews were concentrated in four cities: Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi, and Liege. Three months later the Nazis ordered the formation of a Jewish Council (Association des Juifs de Belgique). Among its staff were German-Jewish refugees whose cooperation with the Nazis was exemplary. The Belgian-Jewish resistance fighter Jacob Gutfreind described the Jewish Council as “a tool in the hands of the Gestapo to facilitate the deportation of the Jews.” In May 1942, the Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David patch, invariably the prelude to deportation.
Isaac Rasalowicz didn’t wait until the last minute. Whatever was coming, it wasn’t good. Unlike so many others, he didn’t cling to false hopes. His contacts in the factory put him in touch with the Belgian resistance movement. He wanted to find hiding places (and forged papers) for his three children, his wife, and himself. Most difficult was finding a place for 11 year old Augusta. Disabled by Osteomyelitis, she lay on her bed, entombed in a body cast. The nuns at the Catholic Hospital agreed to admit Augusta, knowing she was Jewish, but all the beds in the hospital were occupied. Augusta had to wait for one to become available. Isaac and Sarah remained at her side. Otherwise they would have already gone into hiding. The clock was ticking. How tense those last days must have been. Which would come first? The call from the hospital? Or the Gestapo kicking in the back door?
The Belgian underground resistance movement, named the National Front of Belgian Independence, consisted of several groups, including Catholics and communists. Jewish resistance groups, under the name National Committee for the Defense of the Jews, joined the National Front of Belgian Independence. Before the deportations began, the National Front prepared a network of Christian hiding places for Jewish children. No one had to be reminded that the Nazi penalty for helping Jews was torture and then a concentration camp. Or a bullet in the head.
Max, 15 years old, was sheltered in “a Christian home for boys.” His physical appearance attracted no unwanted attention. He lived openly, “passing” as a Catholic. But his situation was always precarious. A Jewish male was always vulnerable to inspection. He was circumcised, unlike non-Jewish males.
With the help of the Belgian resistance, Isaac arranged for a Christian woman to hide Jeannine, who was almost 3 years old. She remembers the day her father took her by tram to the woman’s apartment: “My father took me inside, and I remember he had a suitcase but I hadn’t paid much attention to it, and that was the last time I saw my father.”
Jeannine would learn her rescuer’s name only seventy after the war, and then only her surname: Kudrna. Madame Kudrna lived at 137 Rue de L’Obus in the Anderlecht suburb of Brussels. Jeannine spent two years as a “hidden child” in this woman’s care.
What motivated Madam Kudrna? She was paid for her efforts and certainly needed the money. There was no husband to help out. Aside from two daughters who lived elsewhere and visited occasionally, Madame Kudrna was alone. Is money the reason she risked her life? Or did her religious faith dictate her actions? Or was it hatred of the Germans? Jeannine knows only one thing: “She saved my life. She saved my life. I know it, as sure as I’m sitting here telling you this. She saved my life.”
Jeannine didn’t have the stereotypical Jewish features, but Madame Kudrna took no chances. She kept Jeannine inside and (mostly) out of sight. Sometimes Jeannine was allowed to play in the backyard. Did any of the neighbors see her? Did they suspect what was going on? It’s hard to believe they didn’t. The apartments on this block were side by side. Only a thin wall separated them. Any number of windows offered a view of the backyard. If the neighbors knew about Jeannine, they kept quiet. This was a factor in her survival.
“Resettlement” in the East
The deportations began in June 1942, disguised as “resettlement” for “work” in “the east.””Resettlement” was a euphemism for murder. The Gestapo demanded a certain number of deportees. The Jewish Council selected the deportees, provided a list of their names, and issued summons to the deportees to report for “evacuation.” The Jews in Belgium didn’t know about gas chambers. That was beyond their imagination. There was no precedent for using gas chambers to annihilate an entire people. This was a German contribution.
The first transports consisted of foreign-born Jews. In all the occupied countries, the foreign-born Jews were the first deported. No one protested their departure, not the non-Jewish population and not the native born Jews. Thus did the Nazis divide and conquer. In Brussels, Jewish resistance fighters raided the Jewish Council’s office and burned the lists of Jewish names and addresses. It didn’t seem to matter. Between June 1942 and July 1944, the Nazis and their helpers in Belgium deported 25,437 Jewish people to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Fewer than two thousand returned after the war.
Visit by the Gestapo
Jeannine’s mother and father remained at home with Augusta. They were anxiously waiting for a call from the Catholic Hospital.
The Gestapo struck at 5:00 o’clock in the morning. They went through a neighbor’s apartment, climbed over the fence, and kicked in the back door. They grabbed Isaac and tossed him into a waiting van. Based on what she learned after the war, Jeannine believes a neighbor betrayed her parents and sister to the Gestapo. She says her mother refused to leave Augusta, who was lying in bed, entombed in a body cast: “And my mother said, ‘You can shoot me here. But I’m not leaving my daughter.’” The Germans vowed to return. Off they went with Isaac. Sarah contacted the nuns at the Catholic Hospital. They promptly dispatched an ambulance to pick up Augusta. She was placed in the isolation ward. The Germans, wary of contagious diseases, wouldn’t dare step foot in there. Augusta spent the next two years in the isolation ward. She was immobile the entire time. This caused great physical pain that lasted the rest of her life.
Sarah found a safe haven at a “prearranged nursing home.” She worked as a practical nurse, and survived the rest of the war “passing” as a Christian. Her physical appearance raised no eyebrows. As Jeannine points out, the Nazis were duped by their own stereotypes of Jews.
For a while, Isaac was imprisoned in the transit camp at Malines, Belgium. He was then loaded on a transport that left for an unknown destination in the east. It turned out to be Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sarah never heard from him again.
Madame Kudrna took good care of Jeannine. She fed, bathed, and dressed her. But Jeannine never felt any affection or human warmth from her. Did Madame Kudrna want to avoid attaching herself emotionally to a child she would have to give up? Was she unable to love a Jewish child?
Jeannine’s mother visited her only once. The danger was too great.
For two years Jeannine was a lonely child: “I used to have imaginary friends. I had no friends. For two years, I never played with anyone.”
When the Germans paraded down the street, Jeannine ran to the backyard and hid in the “outhouse” (toilet): “I was so scared. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but I knew that I was scared. And I remember going to furthest, littlest corner of this ‘outhouse,’ absolutely petrified.”
When Jeannine was hiding in the “outhouse,” a “pussy cat” meandered by. She took the cat into her arms and embraced it: “It was something to hold. I had nobody to make me feel better. I had no one to reassure me that it was gonna be okay. So it was, I think, I held that pussy cat for dear life. Because it was so frightening.”
End of the War
When the Allies liberated Brussels on September 3, 1944, Sarah retrieved Jeannine from Madame Kurdna. They went straight to the Catholic Hospital and collected Augusta. Max returned from the “Christian home for boys.” Twelve days after liberation, Jeannine celebrated her 5th birthday. She was one of 3,000 Jewish children rescued through the efforts of the Belgian resistance movement. In sum, 20,000 Jewish people survived the German occupation of Belgium. Some were hidden by Christians; others “passed” as Christians, with the help of Christians.
The end of the war, eight months after Belgium was liberated, brought relief but no happiness. Jeannine remembers waiting for her father to return from the camps, “and I guess it was three months after we were home we found out that my father had been exterminated at Auschwitz.”
Jeannine makes it very clear that because of the Holocaust she lost her faith in God: “I never denied the fact that I was Jewish. I just didn’t believe.”
Forgiveness of the perpetrators is the furthest thing from her mind: “I can’t forgive. I have no way. It’s not in me. I know it’s not right, maybe, intellectually at some level, I understand that. There is no way that I can forgive. I can’t.”
Jeannine’s mother died of cancer in 1950. By that time Max and Augusta had already married and started their families. Conditions in post-war Belgium were very hard, and it was thought best for Jeannine to immigrate to the United States and live with relatives in New York. Not for the first time, Jeannine felt abandoned. She arrived in New York on September 15, 1951, her 12th birthday. Her relatives turned out to be cruel. They treated her like a servant, and took advantage of her in all the known ways. Desperate to get away, Jeannine married early and unwisely. When the marriage collapsed six years later, she became a single mother raising two boys.
“Therapy made me realize I’m important,” she told a friend. “Then I bought a rose pink dress. No more brown, black, and Navy.”
Moving to New Orleans
Jeannine met Maurice Burk in 1971.He was singing in a barbershop quartet. A widower with four children, he didn’t run the other way when Jeannine said she had two children. “He was God’s gift to me,” Jeannine tells us. She moved to New Orleans and married him. They raised six children who brought fourteen grandchildren into the fold.
For many years, Jeannine “had these fantasies that my father was alive.” In 1986, she attended a convention of Holocaust survivors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and read her father’s name on a list the Germans kept at Auschwitz: “You see, the Germans, the bastards, were so meticulous in record keeping, they had actually handwritten the name of every Jew they had deported.”
Jeannine and Maurice travelled to Brussels in 2003. On this visit she located the house where she had been a “hidden child,” and learned the name of her rescuer. From Brussels Jeannine and Maurice flew to Cracow, Poland. The next day they accompanied a guide on the short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jeannine’s father Isaac was murdered. The site of the death camp is now a memorial, with a museum, a gift shop, and a hotel. Jeannine and Maurice got the tour. They walked the grounds, cursed the past, recited a prayer, and flew to Israel the next day.
For many years, Jeannine has participated in the Southern Institute’s Holocaust education workshops and accompanied us to schools for speaking engagements. At 7:00 o’clock one bright Saturday morning, when Anne Levy took sick at the last moment and wasn’t able to attend a workshop in Mobile, Alabama, Jeannine agreed to go at a moment’s notice. “Can you give me forty-five minutes to get ready?” she asked. “I can only give you thirty minutes,” came the reply. We drove three hours to Mobile and arrived in the nick of time. Jeannine is determined to share her experiences with as many people as she can: “Because I think that’s why I survived. Survivors have to go through a guilt process, I guess. I used to ask myself: why did I live? Why wasn’t I taken with my father? And this is why: because this can never be forgotten.”
Maurice died on June 10, 2013. Jeannine made her Bat Mitzvah on September 19, 2015, four days after her 76th birthday. To honor Maurice, she wore his prayer shawl (tallis). “I believe in God now more than I did before – because of Maurice. He was God’s gift to me. God said, ‘Alright, you’ve had enough.’ But I’m not gung ho.”