Survivor Stories
Jeannine Burk
I was a hidden child. I hid in this woman's house from ages three to five. I am grateful to her, but I do not know her name. I will never be able to thank her in a public way.

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Belgium was supposed to be neutral during the war but Hitler paid no attention to treaties. Unfortunately, the King of Belgium helped him. Rumors began to circulate in Brussels that things were going to get very uncomfortable for the Jews. There must have been a network of underground resources where you could inquire about hiding Jews. My father had found a place for my brother to go. He had a place for my sister to go. He found this place for me to go.

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My father took me on a streetcar. This memory is etched in my mind because it is the last time I ever saw my father. We rode to the end of the line. I remember getting off with him. I remember walking what appeared to me to be a long distance. He knocked on a door and a woman answered. I went inside. That was the last time I ever saw my father.

I lived inside this house for two years. Occasionally, I was allowed to go out in the back yard. I was never allowed to go out front. I was never mistreated. Ever! But I was never loved. I lost a great part of my childhood simply because I was a Jew.

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The Nazis used to love to parade. When they used to parade, everybody on the street had to open their doors to watch. The lady I was staying with had to open her door and watch too. She would hide me in the outhouse. I was petrified. I did not know exactly what I was afraid of, but I remember being absolutely petrified. An outhouse is small, and I would retreat to the farthest little corner. There was a crack in the front of the outhouse. I thought that if I could see them parading outside they would be able to see me.

I remember one time pushing open the outhouse door and crawling on my hands and knees after this pussy cat. I grabbed the kitty and pulled it inside with me. I wanted partly to protect it and partly to hold onto something because I was so alone and so scared.

My life as a hidden child was...how can I say it...I had no toys. The only fresh air I got was when I was allowed to go in the backyard. I made up imaginary friends because I had no one to play with. I do not remember being hugged and kissed. That was my life for two years.

The rest of the story was told to me afterwards by my sister. My brother was twelve years older than I was. He had already been hidden in a Christian home for boys. My older sister was eight years older than I was. She could not be easily moved because she had a bone disease, osteomyelitis.

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Some neighbors snitched on us. One morning at 5:00 o'clock the Gestapo went through the neighbor's house, jumped over the brick wall and pounded on the room where my parents were sleeping. They broke down the door. The Gestapo took my father and threw him in the truck. They wanted to take my mother, but she wouldn't go. My mother told them, "You can shoot me here, but I will not leave my daughter." The Gestapo pulled the blankets off my sister and saw that she was in a body cast. The officer said that they would be back later for them. And that is what they did.

By some miracle my mother made one last phone call to a Catholic hospital, and they agreed to take my sister. An ambulance came to get her. The Germans used to take over hospitals for their own use. However, the one place they would not go was the isolation ward. The nuns felt that it would be better for my sister to risk contracting a disease rather than to risk letting the Germans find a Jewish child. My sister lay in bed in the isolation ward for two years.

Once my sister was hidden, my mother went to hide in a pre-arranged location. It was a nursing home out in the country. There was a stereotype about Jews, that they had dark hair and hooked noses. My mother was blonde and blue-eyed. She did not fit the picture that they were looking for, so she was safe working as a practical nurse in the country.

In the fall of 1944 I remember my mother coming to get me. Then we went to get my sister. She had to learn to walk all over again. My brother found his way back to the house where we had lived. One day we saw soldiers on the street. Every family took in a couple of soldiers. I remember them giving me chocolate, and I also remember starting school.

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We were waiting for my father to come back. Periodically there were groups of survivors and prisoners of war who would march home. They must have been reunited in one particular place. I remember standing outside with my mother, sister and brother and waiting and waiting for my father to come home. We kept waiting and waiting. Later we found out from an agency that my father had been exterminated. He had been gassed in Auschwitz. If I had been home when they took my father, I would be dead too. They would have gassed me instantly. That is what they did to little children.

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I was never allowed to have a father. I don't have a picture of my family except for one little picture of me and my father. I have no idea of what the five of us looked like together. None. And all because he was a Jew. He never killed anyone. He never robbed anyone, yet they murdered him. They exterminated him simply because he was a Jew.

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After the war my mother struggled to take care of us. We had nothing. We were poor. My mother contracted breast cancer. They removed a breast, but it was too late. The cancer had spread all over her. She knew she was going to die because the night before she had all of us come to the hospital room. She said to me, "You gotta be a good girl." My sister-in-law took me back to her house while my brother and sister stayed overnight at the hospital. The next day they came back to get me. She had died during the night. My mother was only forty-five when she died. God gave her too little time. I still cry for her.

My mother died in February 1950, when I was ten. In March 1950 the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was having a 50th anniversary celebration in Atlantic City. The Union had sent money to help the children. They invited two kids from France, two kids from Italy and one from Belgium. The director of my school knew us and asked my sister. The first little girl had either gotten sick or chickened out. Having had nothing for most of my life, I thought the trip was like heaven. We were treated like royalty.

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We landed in New York and visited the Union headquarters. They were so good to us. They gave me a new watch and one for my sister. There was this wonderful man, Mr. Rubin. Also, this journalist and his wife really took a liking to me. They took me to Klein's Department Store, to the Toy Department. They said, "You can pick out any doll you want and anything to go with her." I guess I have always been a certain way. I picked out just one doll and nothing else. Oh, I loved that doll. She really was beautiful. The trip was the most incredible six weeks.

A month after I got back to Belgium, we got a letter from the Savage family. In America there had been a news article about our trip in the Forward Yiddish Newspaper. Some of my father's sisters had gone to America before the war. The Savages were related to them. My brother had gotten married and had two kids. My sister was engaged to be married. The Savages offered to bring me to America. My sister thought I had a chance to be adopted and to have a better life.

Leaving Belgium was the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me. I was close to my brother and my sister. To me it looked as if they did not want me anymore now that they were married.

The Savages had gone to a lot of trouble. They had obtained special permission from the governor of New York to get me a visa outside of the immigration quotas. The Sabena flight took eighteen hours. I had never been on an airplane before. At the stopover in Greenland I ate an ice cream cone. I got sick on the plane. When we landed in New York my only thought was where can I hide so I can go back with the plane.

The day I landed was my twelfth birthday. I did not speak any English. I did not know what the people looked like who would be coming to get me. When they saw me, the Savages were mortified because I was so skinny. I weighed 62 pounds. When they gave me a bath they said my skin was grey. It would have been better if they had not adopted me. I guess they did the best they could.

I was young when I got married. I had two boys, and later I got divorced. I was alone for a long time. Then I met Maurice. In 1970 my ex-husband's family introduced us. Maurice was a widower with four children. When we met he was singing in a barbershop quartet in Atlantic City. Maurice is the most wonderful person in the whole world. It is like God finally said, "OK, you deserve him." We have six wonderful children and nine grandchildren.

I did not start to speak about the Holocaust until after I joined the New Americans Social Club. I think it was partly from denial and partly from guilt. Can you imagine? I was a grown mother with six kids and I would be driving in City Park and I would imagine that my father would show up.

In 1985 I went to the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors held in Philadelphia. It was an incredible experience. Several of us from the New Americans went together. Elie Wiesel spoke. I was with a lot of people who had experienced harder things than I had. But we were all survivors.

At the Gathering there was a book of German records. The Germans were meticulous record keepers. This book contained the names of people who had been deported to the concentration camps. This was the first time that I saw my father's name as being deported. For years I really had the fantasy that he would find us, but in Philadelphia I saw his name. They had added the dates when the person came back from the camps. Next to his name there was nothing. This was the first time it sank in. He was not coming back. I was glad my sister and brother-in-law were there.

At the Philadelphia gathering there was a stage. Survivors would get up on the stage and say, "Is anybody here from this town" or "I survived this camp." They were hoping to meet someone. It was heartbreaking to see that after so many years people were still searching. People were still hopeful.

I think that my parents may have paid the woman I was hidden with. If it were not for her, I would not be here. I don't know where she lived. My sister doesn't know, and my brother doesn't know. My father was killed, and my mother died when I was ten. My parents were the only two people who knew where I had been hidden. I would like so much to do something for that woman. I am sure she is not alive, but maybe her daughters are. I would like to thank her, and I can't because I don't know who she was. I don't have a clue. What seemed a far distance to a three-year-old may not be so far away to an adult, but I don't know. I have no idea.

I did not observe anything for the longest time. I did not believe in God. I think a lot of survivors feel guilty about surviving: "Why am I alive and why is my father dead? Maybe God chose me because I am able to make a little contribution by telling this now."

People ask me, can I forgive? I can't. I cannot forgive. I blame the German people a great deal because I feel they were passive. They turned away. They may have the audacity to say they did not know. That is unacceptable. Until they can own up to it, I can't forgive.


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