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Jeannine Burk’s Survivor Story

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.

Jeannine Burk

BelgiumBelgium: declared itself neutral and secured German guarantees of its neutral status in 1937. On May 10, 1040, German forces invaded and on May 28, on the orders of King Leopold III, the Belgian army surrendered.

The king remained in Belgium and cooperated to some extent with the Germans, even meeting with Hitler at one point. As Belgium was put under German military administration, a government-in-exile for a free Belgium was established at the same time in London.

There was an indigenous Belgian fascist party, the Rexists, which collaborated openly with the Germans. However, the majority of the population had no Nazi sympathies and displayed solidarity with the Jews. In September 1944, Brussels and Antwerp were liberated by the Allies. In December 1944, the Germans counterattacked and penetrated into Belgium. After a series of counterattacks (the Battle of the Bulge) the Allies routed the Germans on January 16, 1945.

When the wearing of the yellow star was introduced in May 1942, there were protests among the Belgian people, and the city council of Brussels refused to distribute the badges. Additionally, a number of people showed sympathy for the Jews and expressed their solidarity by wearing similar badges. It is estimated that 70,000 people belonged to the resistance out of a population of 8,000,000. The Belgian resistance movement aided many Jews to go into hiding. At the time of the German invasion the Jewish population of Belgium was 65,696. Of these some 44 percent perished, most deported to Auschwitz. With help, some 25,000 Belgian Jews hid from the Germans. Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny; Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945.
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.

Jeannine Burk at Age 7

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.

Adolf Hitler at Rally

The Nazi PartyNazi Party: (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; NSDAP) National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the party led by Adolf Hitler and the only legal party in Germany from 1934 to 1945. The party was based on the so called leadership principle (Fuhrerprinzip). At its head stood the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. The party’s structure was authoritarian and centralist.

Its political power grew steadily during the 1930’s when the catastrophe of hyper-inflation wrecked the German economy. However, it never achieved an absolute majority in a free election, achieving 43.9 percent of the vote in the elections of March 5, 1933. The Nazi party was extinguished for all practical purposes with the suicide of Adolf Hitler on April 30, 1945.

Two basic elements of its ideology were antisemitism and pan-German nationalism. Only a person of German blood could be a citizen of the state. This excluded Jews and foreigners. The Germans were considered to be a master race entitled by right to conquer areas in the east. The humiliating defeat of Germany in World War I was blamed on Jewish leftists through invoking the stab-in-the-back myth. For Adolf Hitler, the war he unleashed with the invasion of Poland in September 1939 was a means of realizing the Nazi dream of a German master race’s empire in eastern Europe. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
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.

In Belgium After the War

Some neighbors snitched on us. One morning at 5:00 o’clock the GestapoGestapo: (Geheime Staatspolizei; Secret State Police), a police force, often members of the SS, who were responsible for state security and the consignment of people to concentration camps.

The Gestapo’s main tool was the protective custody procedure which allowed it to take actions against “enemies of the Reich.” With Jews and Gypsies the Gestapo simply rounded them up; it was not necessary to give even the appearance of legality to their actions.

By 1934, Heinrich Himmler became head of the Gestapo throughout Germany. Under Himmler’s leadership the Gestapo grew enormously. The Gestapo was a bureaucratic organization with many sections and branches. In 1939 the Gestapo was consolidated with other police forces to form the RSHA (Reich Security Main Office). The RSHA, including the Gestapo and the SS, assumed the task of enslaving the “inferior races” and carried out a major role in the “Final Solution”.

Besides Himmler, other notables in the organization were Reinhard Heydrich the architect of the Final Solution until his assassination by Czech and British agents, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was tried and hung at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of Jewish deportations to the death camps and later tried in Israel, and Heinrich Muller.Source: USHMM, Historical Atlas of the Holocaust.
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.

Perimeter, Birkenau Camp

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.

Crematoria II, West View

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.

Jeannine Burk’s Mother

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’ UnionILGWU: the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

The Union was formed in 1909 in response to a strike in New York when 20,000 women shirtwaist makers protested sweatshop conditions. In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 workers, many of them young girls. An inquiry revealed that the fire exits had been locked to prevent the girls from taking long work breaks. The tragedy gave an impetus to the movement for laws to protect workers.

In 1931, because of the Great Depression Union membership fell. David Dubinsky, who was elected president in 1932, boosted Union membership from a low of 24,000 to 217,000 in just three years.

Just before America’s entry into World War II the ILGWU and its president, David Dubinsky,was instrumental in creating the Jewish Labor Committee(JLC). The JLC publicized the plight of European Jewry, raised emergency funds for partisan forces and ghetto fighters, rescued over a thousand political and cultural leaders.

After the war, the Jewish Labor Committee was actively involved in relief and rehabilitation work for the survivors. A special program entailed so-called adoptions, wherein American groups such as the ILGWU, other unions, and branches of the Workmen’s Circle, a social democratic Jewish fraternal organization, sponsored the cost of sustaining child survivors in the aftermath of the war. Sources: ILGWU web site, JLC web site.
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.

Labor Leader meets Jeannine Burk

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.

Audio Files

  • I Cannot Forgive

    • Duration: 48 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: I have a very difficult time, and I have to admit it: I cannot…I cannot forgive. I cannot forgive, and I do blame…I blame the German people a great deal because I felt that they were passive, they turned away, they have the audacity still today to say that they didn’t know. I’m sorry. That’s unacceptable…that’s unacceptable…it can’t possibly…how can you not smell. They had to. They have to. And until they own up to it, I’m sorry, I can’t.
  • Not Just One Man

    • Duration: 84 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: Look at all the people that it took to run the camps…to run the trains. To make men, women, children…I mean, my father you know. I picture my father having to go into the showers. Do you know difficult that is? Do you know how…I can’t describe it to you. I cannot describe to you. And I wasn’t there. You know this is my imagining, hearing the New Americans where we are…that’s my extended family because I, I don’t have anybody. My sister, you know, is in New York; my brother is still in Belgium, but I don’t have anybody else, so they have become my family. But it is through them that I am able to do this. But I imagine from what they’ve told me…of what they’ve told you…what my father had to have gone through. And look at all the people that it took. Look at all the Germans, all the Poles, all the Ukrainians…so it is not just one man, and it is not just Milosovic either.
  • She Didn‘t fit the Picture

    • Duration: 104 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: This was told to me afterwards. When one morning at five o’clock the Gestapo woke our neighbors next door, jumped over the wall and broke into our house and took my father and threw him into the truck. They wanted to take my mother, but she wouldn’t go because she told the Gestapo officer, “You can kill me here, but I can’t leave my daughter.”

      And they pulled the blanket off and saw that my sister was in a cast from here all the way down, and they told my mother that they would be back for her. You know that they came back, and by some miracle my mother had made one last phone call to a Catholic hospital, and they took my sister. And that’s how my sister was saved.

      My brother went to a Christian home for boys, and he stayed there. And once my sister was gone, my mother went to hide in a pre-arranged location, which was a nursing home.

      And the reason that my mother was okay, as John said, there was a stereotype. Jews had dark hair, hook noses--that was what they said we looked like. My mother was blonde, blue-eyed. She didn’t fit the picture, so she was okay, you see. She was just a person working in the nursing home. No one knew that she was Jewish because she didn’t fit the quote-unquote stereotype of what a Jew looks like.
  • Simply Because We Were Jews

    • Duration: 125 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: Belgium was supposed to be neutral during the war, but Adolph Hitler ignored that and invaded Belgium. There was a movement where you could inquire about hiding Jews…hiding children, and my father did that. He had a place for my brother to go; he had a place for my sister to go, and he found this place for me, and he took me on the streetcar to a woman’s house, and the reason that I keep saying “this woman” is I don’t know her name.

      The only people that knew her name were my parents. I was a little girl then. They took me to the house--my father actually--he brought me into the house, and that was the last time I ever saw my father.

      I was hidden for two years. I never went outside. I was not allowed to go outside because I didn’t belong to the family, and the woman who hid me sacrificed a lot to take me. Because had the Nazis discovered she was hiding a Jew, whether it was a little girl or an adult it didn’t matter, they would have killed her on the spot. Of course, as well as me. I was allowed sometimes to go out in the backyard, but for the most part that was my home for two years.

      I was never mistreated--ever! But I also was never loved, and I really lost a great part of my childhood--simply because we were Jews.
  • The Same as Hitler

    • Duration: 33 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: When I see news photos and news reports on television today, and I see Milosovic, and then I hear our own citizens question us doing something about it?! How can anybody question?! He is the same a Hitler. Listen to him. He's the same. He is exactly the same, and we cannot allow this to go on. We really can't.
  • To This Day I Cringe

    • Duration: 56 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: When I was hidden, the Gestapo, the Germans, the Nazis used to parade down the street. You have seen movies…you have seen pictures of how they march. They really do.

      This is truly how they march. Because I had to hide in the outhouse when they used to parade, because I couldn’t be seen. And everybody on the street where I was hidden, everybody had to keep their doors open. It was almost like mandatory for the neighborhood to watch them parade. And I couldn’t be seen, so they made me hide in the outhouse. And I remember I was petrified. I wasn’t quite sure of what it was, but I was petrified. And as long as I live I will never forget how they marched and the noise they make. To this day I cringe.
  • Why am I Alive

    • Duration: 50 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: I didn’t observe anything…for the longest time I did not believe in God. So for me it was really not a problem until I became older and I realized that…you see, I think a lot of survivors feel very guilty about surviving. For the longest time I kept asking myself, “Why am I alive? Why is my father dead? Why did 6,000,000 die and I am alive?” And when I got older, I began to realize that maybe God chose me because whatever little I have to contribute to telling of this, I am able to do that now.
  • Without a Father

    • Duration: 50 seconds
    • Copyright: ©1999, John Menszer
    • Transcript: I guess we were all back about three months when we learned that my father had been exterminated in Auschwitz. And, you see, I was never allowed to have a father. I don't have a picture except for one little picture of me and my father. I have no idea of what the five of us looked like together. None. I have no memory of anything before. I don't. I just don't have. And all because he was a Jew. I mean, he never killed anyone, he never robbed anyone, but yet they murdered him. They exterminated him simply because he was a Jew.
Shep Zitler Jeannine Burk Joseph Sher Isak Borenstein Solomon Radasky Eva Galler