Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"The Gift of Life"

Emotions flowed earlier this week during a heartfelt ceremony at Yad Vashem.  Participants travelled near and far to attend a special ceremony posthumously honoring Joseph and Marie Andries from Belgium as Righteous Among the Nations. Aside from the importance of recognizing and giving thanks to these individuals who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, the research process yielded the discovery of long-lost relatives of Benno Gerson and Anni Goldberg, Jewish children who were saved by Joseph and Marie Andries. Extended family members from Israel and the US were both excited and proud to take part in this ceremony honoring the couple who saved their cousins.

Marie Andries with Benno Gerson and Anni Goldberg
The story began right after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, when Luser-Ludwig and Pepi Gershonowitz decided to leave Germany. They first sent their daughter Anni to the Netherlands, and then followed with their younger son, Benno. Eventually the family settled in Brussels, Belgium.

When the deportations from Belgium began in 1942, the Gershonowitz family decided to separate from their children in order to save them. Seven-year-old Anni and five-year-old Benno were brought to the home of Joseph and Marie Andries in Anderlecht. On 24 September 1942, Ludwig and Pepi were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Several months later, the Andries family and the children moved to Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, where they remained until the end of the war. Joseph and Marie Andries were childless, and at some point separated; the two children remained with Marie, who continued to care for them lovingly. Life was simple, and Marie sometimes received help from her relatives, the Rampelbergs, who provided her with some additional food.

Dr. Francoise Rampelberg
accepting the medal and certificate
of honor
After the war, contact was established with a relative of the Gershonowitz family in the United States, and in 1947 Anni and Benno left Marie Andries’ home and sailed to New York. In 1983, shortly before Marie Andries passed away, Benno travelled to Belgium and visited his rescuer one last time.
Accepting the certificate and medal on behalf of the late Joseph and Marie Andries was Dr. Francoise Rampelberg, who travelled especially from Switzerland to attend the ceremony. Dr. Rampelberg recounted fond childhood memories of Marie, who lived in a typical Brussels apartment with her dog. She explained that Marie and her grandparents got along very well, but that she only recently discovered what an extraordinary and courageous woman Marie was: Marie never spoke of how she hid two Jewish children. "The medal and certificate are proof that brave people with a conscience did exist during those dark times. They attest to the fact that friendship can triumph under even the most dangerous circumstances… they represent symbols of hope for the future."


Dr. Francoise Rampelberg with Holocaust survivor
Benno Gerson and Stefan Goldberg unveiling Righteous Marie
and Joseph Andries's names of the Wall of Honor.
Holocaust survivor Benno Gerson, and Serge and Stefan Goldberg, sons of Anni Goldberg z"l, traveled from the United States to participate in this rare event. While Benno admitted he did not remember much from the war period, he described his memories of Marie with love and affection. He called her "mamak," Flemish for mother, and recalled how Marie had saved his sister's life twice - once when she summoned a doctor to take out Anni's tonsils, and another time when she had to cut out an infection from Anni's finger. Benno described how his mamak made special arrangements for them to be homeschooled in order to ensure that they received an education. "The risk she took to protect us are beyond my understanding. No one deserves this honor more… I've had a wonderful  life because of Marie and Joseph Andries. They gave me the gift of life."
Benno also described his delight to be united    with all of his newly extended family. "We never knew that we had relatives in Israel. My sister and I believed we were the only survivors and that was it. So it was a shock… a happy shock."

Dr. Rampleberg, Serge and Stefan Goldberg
with extended family members and the American
Ambassador to Israel, Ron Dermer and Belgium Ambassador
to Israel Olivier Belle
Serge Goldberg thanked Yad Vashem for honoring Marie and Andries and for all of their hard work to bring together this "unimaginable and unlikely family reunion." Serge recalled fond memories of his loving and loyal mother, Anni. He related that strong family loyalty was of the utmost importance to her, and that she had always hoped that her children and grandchildren would grow up without fear. "This was a wonderful event for our family. We are so happy to be here despite all the trauma that occurred 70 years ago. I never would have imagined that one day I would be standing here at Yad Vashem for an event like this."  

Hopeful for future generations, Benno added, "It's so important that we continue to educate and remember what happened, so that such a tragedy can never occur again. We need more tolerance and for people to get along better. That’s my hope - that people will never have to experience what my sister and I did with the loss of our parents."

 Yad Vashem has currently recognized 1,707 Righteous from Belgium. To date, more than 26,000 individuals have received the honor. More information about the Righteous Among the Nations, including background details, stories and the Database of Righteous, can be found online here.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Journey of the Doomed Revisited

Passengers aboard the SS St. Louis ocean liner (Yad Vashem Archives)
Last week, Yad Vashem had the honor of welcoming six survivors who were passengers on the SS St. Louis, the ocean liner that departed Hamburg in May 1939 carrying hundreds of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  To the passengers' dismay the over 900 passengers, many of them Jewish, were denied entry twice, first by the Cuban authorities and subsequently by the American government who, despite intensive lobbying efforts by the local Jewish community, refused to allow the passengers to disembark at Havana, Cuba and Miami Beach, Florida. Captain Gustav Schroder tried to persuade Cuban and American authorities to allow the passengers to enter; however, he was eventually left with no choice but to turn back to Germany. Nonetheless, thanks to his courageous efforts and determination, the passengers were able to enter Belgium, France, Holland and the UK.  
Passengers aboard the SS St. Louis (Courtesy
of Yad Vashem Archives)
Almost 77 years later, a group of six survivors and family members traveled to Israel to meet and participate in ceremonies commemorating this pivotal event. This momentous visit was the first time a group of survivors of the St. Louis had visited Yad Vashem together. The group, including survivors and family members, toured the Holocaust History Museum, where they saw the exhibition dedicated to the story of the St. Louis. Additionally, they visited the Visual Center where Robert Krakow, head of the SS St. Legacy Project that initiated the mission, donated the documentary film Complicit , which tells the story of the St. Louis and features eyewitness testimonies of several survivors from that faithful voyage. The tour concluded with a ceremony in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, where they paid their respects to Captain Schroder, who was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in March 1993 and is inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden.   

Survivors of the SS St. Louis viewing the exhibit of the
St. Louis in the Yad Vashem Holocaust
History Musuem
Sonja Geismar was a young girl on the passenger ship along with her parents, paternal grandparents and three great-aunts. She remembers waving goodbye to cousins when the ship reached the port of Havana; she sadly also remembers that she never saw those family members again. After the ship was refused entry into both Havana and Miami, she eventually disembarked in England. Later, she immigrated to New York. Sonja remarked that her visit to Yad Vashem was very meaningful and different from her previous visits because she had the opportunity to meet with fellow survivors. "Seeing the exhibition in the museum on the St. Louis is a reminder of how fortunate my family and I are," she explained.

Survivors of the SS St. Louis at the Garden of the Righteous
Among the Nations at Yad Vashem
Sisters Gisela Feldman and Sonja Sternberg, 93 and 90 years old respectively from Manchester, UK, were both young girls when they boarded the SS St. Louis with their mother. Sonja will never forget the moment the ship was forced to turn around and head back to Germany, and how difficult this was for her mother. They remember parting from several of their family members in Berlin who they never saw again. "We were very lucky to have gotten out," recalled Sonja, now 90. "We lost our father and 31 other close family members."

Survivors of the SS St. Louis with their family members in the
Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem
Today the surviving passengers of the SS St. Louis dedicate themselves to ensuring that the world knows the story of the doomed voyage, and of the horrors of the Holocaust. With this in mind, they organized and produced a documentary film, which has been entered into several international film festivals.
For more information about the SS St. Louis please visit the Yad Vashem website.