| Family First Feature |

Of Miracles, Coal, and Kindness

The Herszaft family’s miraculous survival

As told to Riki Goldstein by Mrs. Esther Katz


was just six in May 1940 when we heard that Belgium had been invaded and the Germans were coming. We lived in Antwerp, where I was born and still live today, in a kleineh apartmentche on Wipstraat, one block away from the famous Kleinblatt bakery. My father sent me to check if Yesodei Hatorah, my school, was open. It wasn’t. He realized war had reached Belgium and that we needed to flee.

Relatives of my mother were in the coal business, and we piled onto their coal truck to get away. Actually, a lot of people were willing to pay to get a ride to safety on that truck, but my mother’s relatives said we would be among the lucky ones, even though we couldn’t pay. I think this was because of all the kindness my parents had done for the Jewish refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia fleeing Hitler, who had streamed into Belgium during the years before the war reached us.

These people had nowhere to be, and my parents took them in. As long as there was sleeping space — even on the floor —people were welcome, and whatever money my father made from his work as a photographer went to buy food for all these guests. My parents’ rule always was, “If we have food today, we share it today, without thinking about tomorrow.”

Sometimes there wasn’t enough money for food. If my mother didn’t have any fish to cook for Shabbos, she would put up a pot with just water and onions, so her mother-in-law wouldn’t realize there was no fish.

My mother was a special woman, self-made. She had come to Belgium from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s as a single girl, with the brachah of the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz. Orphaned of both parents by age nine, she asked the Rebbe if she could travel alone to Antwerp and work as a seamstress so she could send money back to her younger siblings. Her work would supply her sisters with a dowry, without which they would not be able to marry.

The Ahavas Yisrael gave Mama his blessing. She worked hard in Antwerp and sent the money back to her shtetl, enabling her sisters to marry. Our good-hearted Papa, meanwhile, decided she was the one for him, and married her with no dowry at all. In fact, he even paid for her wedding dress.

In May 1940, when it was time to run from Antwerp, my mother was expecting, in her seventh month. My older brother Shloime was seven, I was six, Leizer four, and Chaim just one year old. We were a bunch of little pitzkelach holding on to Mama’s skirts. So people felt sorry for her and said, “Let her go, let Sureh and the children go.” We took what we could along with us, a docheneh [quilt], and pillows, and so on, but not much, because war came to Belgium on Friday, and by Monday, we were on the road. You know the pictures you see in the papers today of refugees who ran from the war in Ukraine? That was what we looked like: refugees with bundles and blankets.

The journey was terrible; I was a bad traveler as a little girl, and as the truck  lurched, I threw up again and again. The townspeople we traveled with were kind to me, cleaning me up and holding me.

Our plan was to get to the safety of England, so we made for Dunkirk, which is in Northern France, near the Belgian border. Dunkirk was the port the British forces would evacuate from, just weeks later, when they gave up and retreated, conceding the European continent to the Germans.

When we came to the port, the authorities refused to allow us to board the ship because my father had Polish citizenship and my mother Czechoslovakian. The others who were on the truck did get across to England, but we were stuck on the European continent, with the Germans closing in. It was a big blow, and we only saw later in the newspapers that the ship we had wanted to cross on had sunk, with many casualties.

I was only young, but I could see the urgency and the fear as my parents debated what to do next. On the spot, my father made a decision to head for Paris. We ran to the station, but we missed the train. That train, which pulled out as we arrived on the platform, was hit later that day by a German bomb. It was terrifying. The Germans were gaining ground and bombing France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Very soon, they would overrun and capture these countries.

We didn’t know where to go. Where could Jews be safe if the Germans were on the way? We began to walk, schlepping helplessly through the streets. A big truck drew up, and French soldiers leaned down. Pitying us, they asked where we were going. Although we had no idea what to answer, they took us on to the truck, giving us chocolates and drinks, and drove us deep into France. At some point they let us off and we went back to walking. We walked until we came to a town in Southern France called Saint-Affrique, 900 kilometers (557 miles) from Dunkirk.

My mother had had enough. “I can’t anymore. I’m stopping here,” she said. It was a pretty, rural town among the hills, and seemed out of the way enough, so we registered with the local Red Cross as refugees, and they gave us an apartment to live in.

We weren’t the only Jews there. Other Jewish families, refugees from who knows where, had found their way to the same village and registered with the Red Cross for apartments. Then there were those who couldn’t register, because they didn’t have legal papers. Of course, once we were settled, my father took care of them and obtained food for whomever he could.

But there was no mohel in Saint-Affrique. My mother didn’t want to stay there, because what would she do if she gave birth to a boy? So she went to await the birth in the nearby city of Toulouse, where she knew there were some Yidden, and there was a mohel. That left us four little children with my Papa, who couldn’t manage to look after us.

One fine day, one of us tried to light the gas stove, and it exploded. A very kind young French lady came to our rescue and became our “fraulein,” a young nanny. Our family never forgot her and made sure she was honored properly at Yad Vashem. This fraulein helped take care of us, which wasn’t simple. One day, my brother Shloime went to play in the stream and cut his foot on a large piece of glass. He was taken to the hospital, and when my mother came back to us, after two months away, with newly born Usher Anshel, she immediately counted heads and was frantic. “Where is he? What happened to Shloime?”

Southern France has high temperatures, and the townspeople weren’t very hardworking. Since my father was able to manufacture gas from coal, they were pleased to give him employment. He worked in Saint-Affrique in the coal business, and from his wage, he supported not only our family, but the other Jewish families who didn’t have a means of support, including the hidden ones who were not officially listed there at all. He bartered coal for shirts, then sold the shirts for money for food.

My brothers and I went to school there in Saint-Affrique, until the Germans came there, and things became much more dangerous. Saint-Affrique was in Vichy France, the area which was ruled by a French puppet government from 1940 to 1942. But in 1942, the Germans occupied Vichy France, and it came under direct German rule, like the rest of France and Belgium. Then the Jews who had fled to this area were in constant danger.

Somehow, we had three different apartments, so we used to move around to make it harder for the Gestapo to find us. The kind French fraulein used to warn us when there was going to be a “raffle,” a roundup of Jews, and then we would hide.

Every Shabbos, the Yidden gathered together in our house for a minyan. We had brought siddurim with us, and a Chumash, but there was only one set of machzorim, so when it was Yom Tov, someone davened aloud from the machzor, and everybody else repeated after him, line by line. I could also daven; I’d learned how to read in school.

Our apartment was actually opposite the local gendarmerie, or French police station. The police could see the Jews coming and going and could easily have called the Gestapo to arrest them on a Shabbos morning, but they never did.

However, one night, two years after we’d arrived in Saint-Affrique, the Gestapo finally came for us. Our turn had come.

None of the neighbors were at fault for our arrest. They hadn’t informed on us. Neither had the local police or townspeople of Saint-Affrique. We were found because the police of the province had access to the Red Cross records, and in 1942, they sent the Gestapo after the Jewish refugees.

As we were being pushed on to the waiting buses to be transported to the lager, our kind neighbors in Saint-Affrique came out of their houses with gifts of food. So it was that we arrived at Camp de Rivesaltes, an internment and transit camp, carrying bread, potatoes, jam, and eggs.

When we arrived, hungry people surrounded us, and my father gave out the food.

People thought he was meshugeh. “Monsieur Herszaft, bist normal? What are you doing? What will you give your own children to eat tomorrow?”

But my Papa didn’t care about tomorrow. His principle was that if you have the food today, you share it with others. Within half an hour, it was all gone. It didn’t matter if the people he gave it to were Antwerp Yidden whom he knew, or others whom he didn’t, he just gave out the food until it was finished.

Well, the next day, we ate moldy bread, like everyone else. The place was sordid, disgusting. We slept on straw mats on the ground, and rats ran all around us. The camp was a place to hold Jews and others whom the Nazis hunted down, until their turn came for transportation to Auschwitz, via Drancy.

Before long, though, a secret was whispered to my mother. Somehow, the camp authorities had been pressured to release pregnant women. If she were expecting, she and her family would have a way out.

“Well, I’m not, so I won’t be able to go,” was Mama’s response to the lady who told her this piece of information. But “Ven der Eibeshter vill, sheest a baisem — When G-d wills it, a broom can shoot.” Two hours later, my mother noticed that she was bloated around her waist and swollen everywhere.

She went to the camp doctor, who took one look at her and remarked, “There is no need for an examination, she’s obviously pregnant.”

So it was that when roll call was taken the next day, the name Herszaft was not on the list, and my father realized our family was free to go. Buses were provided, and Papa called us to leave, quickly, before anyone changed their minds. It was Shabbos, and my mother cried, “I don’t want to, I can’t, how can I travel on Shabbos?” but it was pikuach nefesh. We had to leave. We had to get away from that place.

On the other side of the camp gates were the Yidden waiting for transportation to Auschwitz. They were French Jews; thousands of them were taken from there to Auschwitz in 1942. Before we left, we passed them, and I heard people crying out, “A boire! A boire!” [A drink, in French]. I brought water over and gave it to the poor women standing there parched and begging, and as I did, a Gestapo officer brought his stick down on my back for the crime. It was a merciless blow. I was nine then, and until today, my back is still kaput from that thwack he gave me.

Our whole family left Rivesaltes through that neis. We got off the bus as soon as possible, at the first village, because it was Shabbos. We made our way back to Saint-Affrique, but things had become a lot more dangerous. A committee approached my parents and explained that we were in such danger, it would be better if my parents would give a couple of the children away for safekeeping. It was very likely that the Gestapo would come Jew-hunting again, and how would they get out next time?

Mrs. Katz is second from the left.

My parents listened to this advice, and chose me and my brother Chaim, who was then four, to stay with strangers for our own safety. Mama didn’t want to give Shloime to non-Jews because he was already old enough to learn Chumash and was tutored by a Yid who lived with us. She’d hide him in the surrounding hillsides; she would hide him among the coals, but she wouldn’t send him away from his learning.

It wasn’t made clear to my parents where the safe haven these people were offering was, otherwise they would never have agreed. My brother went to live with a woman who took in an excessive amount of children. I was placed in a cloister — a Catholic convent.

I was in that convent for six months, and I cried bitterly every night. We had to act like good Catholic girls, because the Gestapo came snooping around the convents, searching for Jewish children. Every day meant going to chapel, going to Catholic funerals, kissing the feet of the huge “Yoizel” image. “Ich vill nisht zein kein Catholic!” I cried into my pillow. “I don’t want to be a Catholic! I don’t even want to live if my parents are taken away!” It was almost unbearable to me to be there.

There was one older Jewish girl, Blanche, who had a siddur, which I begged her to let me use. When Pesach came, the nuns allowed Blanche not to eat bread, but they couldn’t have other Jewish girls being conspicuous, and the rest of us had to eat it. All those six months, I never touched the meat there because I was afraid it was pig meat, and my fears were confirmed when the nuns taunted me, “Such a good piece of pork, and you don’t want to eat it?”

At the beginning of my stay, a doctor who lived nearby came to the convent every Sunday. He would gather the Jewish girls together, give out chocolate, remind the children they were Jewish and not Catholic, and sing “Hinei mah tov umah na’im…” with us. Until today I cannot bear to hear that song.

But the doctor was discovered by the Gestapo and shot.

Six difficult months passed. I suffered so much that I decided I would soon run away, although the convent was in Myon, a town quite far from Saint-Affrique.

Then, one bright morning, as we were coming back from singing hymns at a Catholic child’s funeral in the chapel, I suddenly saw a familiar figure. My Papa! I ran to him, but Papa didn’t recognize me right away. The nuns had combed my hair into a tight middle part, and with the convent’s uniform and bonnet, I looked nothing like his Esther. When Papa realized it was me, he was in shock. He hadn’t known I was there at all; he had just come to Myon to bring a chicken to a shochet there. He went home and prepared my mother for the news: “Sit down, and don’t cry. I found Esther, but she is in a convent.”

For two weeks, my parents fought with the church to let me come home. The nuns were stubborn. “You have other children, why do you need this one? Let us keep her, she is safe and will be a good Catholic.” But my parents were more stubborn. They insisted that despite the danger, they would not be leaving me there.

I came back to my parents’ arms with indescribable relief and joy. My mother prepared a meal for my arrival: a plate of soup with lokshen, a pulkele, and a latkele. Starving, I threw myself on the food, none of us thinking of what good food could do after months of deprivation. Almost immediately, I felt ill. My face swelled up, so only my eyes could be seen, and I ran a fever of 42°C (107.6°F). The doctor who came warned my mother that she could cover me with sheets — there was nothing to do.

My mother’s bitachon did not allow her to give up. “Ribbono shel Olam, did you give her back to me just to take her away again? It can’t be!” She worked for two weeks, giving me alternate hot baths and cold baths to get the fever down. She ground camomile leaves to help cleanse my body. After two weeks of davening and hard work, I recovered.

Next, Papa and Mama fought to get my brother Chaim back. He returned home a traumatized child. He had been placed with an awful woman who badly mistreated the ten children she took in. “Mama,” he sobbed, “the lady told me they cut off your feet, and that’s why I was given away. Mama, I am never leaving you again. Never. I am only staying with you.”

Now we were back together, there was no question of separating the family again. We experienced many more miracles, especially my father, who continued to work and narrowly escaped deportation a few times. He once crossed the street, on impulse, for no apparent reason, just before a Gestapo vehicle stopped and officers rounded up passersby on the side of the street on which he had been walking. We hid in the hillsides, we slept in different apartments each night, we children were sometimes hidden in heaps of coal up to our necks. One time the Gestapo came knocking, and the kind French fraulein claimed my younger brother was her own son, not a Jewish child. The horrors of those five years replay in my dreams often.

In May 1945, news came that the war was over. At last we were safe, no longer hunted down by those animals. Soon, the Belgian government paid for us to be repatriated to Belgium.

So many Yiddishe families had lived in Antwerp before the war, but they were gone. In 1945, only ten families from the entire community came back complete. And our family was one of them. I don’t know for sure why we were miraculously spared, but I believe it was because of my parents’ kindness to the refugees. When you do things for other people, you think you’re giving to them, but no, you’re actually giving yourself more — “Tomer men helft yenem, vert men alein geholfen.” I have seen this so many times in my life. The first time was as a young child, when people insisted that we could have the ride on the coal truck, because they appreciated how my parents had helped others.

My dear Mama a”h lost 300 relatives during the war. She tried to search for her sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, uncles, aunts, and cousins, but she never found a single living soul. A special woman, a tzadeikes, my mother grieved until her final day that she had been forced to desecrate Shabbos by traveling when we left Rivesaltes.

In 1946, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim, passed through Antwerp. The Rebbe came with nothing, and my parents came forward to bring necessities for him. They gave their own docheneh and pillows. It was a docheneh that witnessed miracles — the very same blanket we took along with us when we ran away, took along to the Nazi camp, and took when we were released — and they now had the zechus to give it to the Rebbe.

I married my husband, Moshe Isaac Katz, in 1954. Moshe Isaac came from Seret, and survived four years in a labor camp in the Ukraine alongside the Rebbe of Seret-Vizhnitz. Baruch Hashem, we raised a Yiddishe family. My brother Chaim and I are the only ones of our siblings still alive today. I think that the fact that my brothers and I, and the others of our generation, were able to raise beautiful Yiddishe families after the trauma we endured is a miracle, just like our survival itself.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 837)

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