Posts Tagged ‘Hidden Children’

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

March 27, 2018 2 comments

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


A gathering unlike any other took place the evening of September 24 at the home of Omaha Holocaust researcher Ben Nachman. Over the course of several hours a diverse group of guests heard three men discuss a shared legacy of survival — one that saw them persevere through the Shoah as hidden children in their native Belgium.

Two of the men, Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, are well known Omaha physicians. The third, Marcel Frydman, is professor emeritus at the University of Mons in Mons, Belgium, where he is a psychologist and the author of a book exploring the long-term traumatic effects of the hidden child experience. Kader and Jaeger, who already knew each other, were eager to meet Frydman and hear his findings since they shared a common past and homeland.

According to Kader, a pediatric neurologist, the hidden experience is one that unites men and women, even of different ages and nationalities, in a special fraternity. “Because of the nature of our experiences, whether in Holland or France or Belgium, you do form this kind of a bond with another hidden child. It’s a thing where we both survived, we both were hidden. The feelings we have just resonate back and forth. It’s a common understanding. It’s communication at a different level.”

Until recently, hidden children rarely spoke about their wartime experiences. For many, the events were simply too painful or too suppressed to tackle. But since a 1991 international hidden children’s conference attended by all three men, more and more long silent survivors have been seeking each other out to talk about their shared heritage in hiding.

Frydman, who came to Omaha at the invitation of Nachman and through the auspices of the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, hopes to have his French-language book published in English. Jaeger, a pediatric psychiatrist, has read the book and feels it offers valuable insights into the whole host of circumstances that determines how individuals cope with the emotional baggage of childhood trauma well into adulthood. He said the book provides a therapeutic framework for treating not only former hidden children but anyone suffering from post traumatic stress, which he added is a timely addition to research on the subject in light of the emotional toll the events of September 11 and after have taken on the damaged American psyche.

On hand that evening at Nachman’s were educators, lawyers and journalists, all of whom came to learn something about the ordeal the three men underwent. As the night unwound, it became clear from what was said that the hidden experience is one marked by profound separation anxiety, where youths taken from homes and families go into hiding among total strangers and try to conceal their Jewish identity in order to save their lives. As each survivor described the story of his survival, he revealed something of the psychological scars borne from these searing events so far outside the normal stream of human conduct. They explained how, even after escaping extermination and building successful adult lives now a half-century removed from their ordeal, they remain haunted by the specter of their hidden odyssey, an odyssey that has both driven them and frustrated them.

There was something nearly sacred in this solemn exchange between the survivors and their rapt audience. The men and women huddled around the Nachman living room listened intently to every word uttered and asked questions that begged for more detail. The evening was also meaningful for the survivors.

For Kader and Jaeger, meeting Frydman and learning of his work helped further validate their own hidden histories, which remained shrouded and inarticulated until they began piecing together their own backgrounds at that 1991 conference in New York. Kader said a book like Frydman’s “gives more credence to the feelings that survivors have. When hidden children get together they end up talking about the same kinds of things and what they talk about has often been well-repressed.”

Kader said the more hidden children he gets to know, the more he realizes “all of us, in our own way, have the same sort of common thread of experiences and we all go through the same kind of process of finding a way out of it (the trauma) to make something of ourselves.” He said Frydman’s work helps demonstrate survivors “can cope and manage. Even though you may have these recollections of traumatic experiences in the back of your mind you can get past that point and go on with your life. His research shows all sorts of common denominators. You realize what you’re going through is a natural evolution other survivors go through. It’s reassuring to know we’re all not crazy.”

For Frydman, whose work in this area was sparked by a group of survivors at the who asked him to lead their counseling sessions, the evening was a chance to share his findings with fellow countrymen who endured a similar fate during and after the war. In writing his 1999 book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions, Frydman found an outlet for his own survivor issues and a forum for examining the consequences of the hidden experience, many of which he found overlap from one survivor to another.

For his book he returned to the very site where he was sheltered after the war — a home for hidden and abandoned children of both Jewish and non-Jewish descent — and to the same group of individuals with whom he shared his early adolescence. To his astonishment he discovered that in spite of their war deprivation many of these individuals have achieved great professional success, with an unusually high percentage ending up in the healing arts, as evidenced by himself, Kader and Jaeger. As he studied this population he identified elements and conditions that explained the apparent anomaly of survivors reaching such heights from such depths.

“In my opinion, two factors were important,” Frydman said. “First, the quality of family life before the war. These children knew there was a possibility of recovering the family unit. They felt forsaken but they knew their parents didn’t abandon them. This was very important when they were confronted with the conditions of an institution where the affective life was very low. The second factor was the quality of the environment in which the child was placed during and after the war. If this environment was good and supportive, he could find again a normal life, mobilize his potentialities and perform very high. It’s no accident that hidden children have chosen social or therapeutic professions. If you have experienced something as hard as we did you may be more skilled to help others.”

Frydman finds survivors exhibit a remarkable resilience as a result of having endured what they did. Jaeger believes he and his peers managed compensating for the trials and deficits of their interrupted childhood because attaining success, coming as it did against all odds, became an act of defiance.

“Resiliency is an act of defiance in some ways,” Jaeger said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You were wrong,’ to those people who said, You can’t do this, or, You won’t ever reach a certain point. As Marcel (Frydman) points out, the thing that contributed to this resilience was the love and nurturance we were inculcated with despite everything going on around us.”

Recently, Jaeger found poignant evidence of the love he was endowed with via two formal family photographs his mother, who escaped the Shoah, commissioned at the time of the roundups and deportations. “I was struck by the fact that she felt it was important to have a memory to sustain our family even in the midst of what was going on. It reinforced what Marcel said about how important the home environment was. It probably provided a buffer that sustained us when we left home and went via this underground railroad into hiding.”

Another impetus for survivors to strive so hard, Jaeger said, was their strong desire “to get on with things and to accomplish anything and everything we could. Most of us wanted to find acceptance — to be included in the mainstream.”

Frydman, Kader and Jaeger were hidden at several sites but their protective custody mainly came in institutions run by various good Samaritans, including Catholic nuns. They are glad to have ended up in such good, caring hands. Frydman said there long was an assumption children placed with foster families were more fortunate than those placed in institutions, “but now I can say that wasn’t true because the child placed in a family was alone in his stress — the family sheltered him but couldn’t share his loneliness and sense of forsakeness — whereas the child in an institution eventually discovered he was not alone and any stress experience is made more bearable when the stress is shared.”

In addition to drawing on his own experiences for the book, Frydman drew on his past work counseling “forsaken children” — orphaned or otherwise abandoned youths — which provided a field of reference from which to extrapolate. What Frydman found in comparing and contrasting hidden children with abandoned children is that “the trauma of the hidden group is more complex and is provoked not by one factor but by a succession of factors,” he said. For example, he points to the roundups of Jews that Nazi authorities began staging in the early part of the war that invariably sent detainees to death camps. The fear engendered by these roundups signaled to children that they, their families, their friends and their neighbors were in peril. He said, “Even if you were not deported you heard about what was happening from other Jews who witnessed these events and the anxiety of the adults was communicated to the children.”

As it became evident the only way to save children was to hide them, an underground network formed to shield them. Because it was easier and less conspicuous to hide a child alone as opposed to a family, children were usually separated from their parents.

“Little children couldn’t understand why they had to be hidden and without their parents,” Frydman said. “It was a safe thing to separate them, but for the children it wasn’t a healthy thing. They were lacking the presence of their parents. They were missing all the affective, emotional ties. And children understood there was a danger of being denounced. We were told not to reveal our real name and not to reveal our Jewish identity. The child understood this, but it increased his anxiety. He understood too that the parents were also in danger. Sometimes he knew one or both of the parents had been arrested and deported, and sometimes he hadn’t any news of there whereabouts. You don’t find these conditions when you study forsaken children.”

Prolonged exposure to such danger and distress left many former hidden children with deep-seated feelings of apprehension and insecurity, said Frydman. “Because they lived for years in an environment perceived as menacing they have some problems associated with anxiety. This has been fixed, at least on the unconscious level, and so they develop some defenses in order to adapt themselves. There’s often a lack of trust and a sense of guardedness toward others. Some of them think they must control every aspect of a relationship because during the war they had no control. For example, some of my subjects told me they resist forming new relationships because it means risking being forsaken another time.”

Even when in the same institution Frydman said hidden children demonstrated fewer issues of desertion than abandoned children because prior to being harbored hidden children presumably enjoyed a stable home life. “They had the chance to be in a normal family before,” he said, “so they were better prepared to confront the separation. They knew there might be a family to try and find after the war whereas the forsaken children knew there was no family to be found.” A striking difference he found in abandoned children versus hidden children is the slowed mental development of the former group compared with the latter group.

The author conducted his research for the book with the aid of one of his students. Interviews were completed with more than 50 adults who found sanctuary in Belgium or surrounding countries during the war. Frydman and his assistant used a non-invasive technique to draw subjects out, some of whom had never before verbalized their hidden past. “The interview was a non-directive one,” he said. “We didn’t ask questions. We just gave the subject the opportunity to evoke his experience and helped him to express what he had to say. For some of the subjects, recalling the past was an ordeal. Some cried. They couldn’t stop. The trauma came back. And, yes, for some it was the first time they’d spoken about it.”

The fact that so many hidden children remained resolutely silent about their past for so long is a phenomenon that Frydman has tried to explain in his book. He said it was a case of hidden children growing up in an atmosphere where the subject was viewed as too painful to revisit or misunderstood as something that could be easily dismissed.

“Just after the war hidden children didn’t feel they had the right to speak because speaking about the trauma implied reliving it,” he said. “They would have spoken if they could have found some help, but in post-war Europe we hadn’t any psychologists. And adults didn’t understand what to say, so if they spoke about the war at all, they said, ‘You were lucky.’ Of course, it’s true, we were lucky not to be deported, but we suffered. If every adult says to you, ‘You were lucky,’ you haven’t even the possibility to express your suffering.” Or, as Jaeger explains, “People were getting on with their lives and moving away from that ordeal and, in effect, really nobody was there who psychologically gave you permission to speak. That listening ear and that permission just weren’t there.”

As the trauma is denied or ignored, Jaeger said, it festers like an untreated wound, only buried out of view, yet never too far away to be reopened. “In psychology there’s a phenomenon where you either dissociate or you compartmentalize things that have been extremely bad. Children exposed to bad events can lose memory of those things. That’s a protective mechanism to enable you to go on, but those feelings are always there at the surface. Certain sounds can evoke fear and anxiety in former hidden children. The sound of a truck is one of the most feared sounds because trucks were used in the roundups. It was the sound of your future. Of being rounded up, deported to camps and confronting almost certain death. Vulnerability is always just below the surface for some of us.”

Jaeger said it was only recently, upon reading Frydman’s book, he recalled suffering panic attacks as a boy after the war. He remembers the episodes occurred while riding in cars and presumes his anxiety was triggered by dim memories of deportations. Because Kader and Jaeger were quite young when they went into hiding, their memories are somewhat tenuous. Those who were older when hidden, like Frydman, retain clearer memories of the events and the trauma.

Symbols can also summon the horror of a perilous childhood. For example, Jaeger said some survivors have “a problem trusting authority or trusting the system” because they associate those things with the uniformed soldiers or officials who menaced them and their families.

Jaeger admires Frydman’s book for its clear, thorough assessment of the hidden experience.

“It is an exquisite explanation of the dynamics of the experience and of its long term effects. It really has a kind of global description that applies to you no matter what your own hidden experiences were. He helps us understand how we arrived at where we are. Also, it’s really one of the best explanations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its long term ramifications.

“There’s been lots written about PTSD, but this sampling of a population from a psychological point of view is somewhat unique in that here we have a group of people still living 50-plus years after the fact. It often takes that long for hidden children or camp survivors or other trauma victims to share their experiences because they evoke an emotional vulnerability that is not that easy to deal with. Everybody has to do it in their own way. There are people who to this day still don’t say anything. They haven’t reached that point. This is so applicable to what happened at the World Trade Center because that trauma will be imprinted over generations in some cases.”

Ultimately, only fellow survivors can truly understand what their brothers or sisters of the Holocaust have gone through. Still, every time they share their story with others it gives added meaning to their witness bearing — allowing their testimony to live on in others. The need to testify grows more urgent as the number of survivors dwindles.

“Time is of the essence in that we’re the last generation of witnesses left,” Jaeger said, referring to hidden children like himself, Kader and Frydman. In an era when the nation’s moral fortitude is being tested by the threat of terrorism at home, he said, it is more vital than ever to stand up and speak out against evil.

Piecing together a lost past: The Fred Kader story

March 27, 2018 1 comment

Piecing together a lost past: The Fred Kader story

©By Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


For the first 52 years of his life Fred Kader lived everyday in the shadow of a lost past. An orphaned child of the Holocaust, Kader’s early years remained an unfathomable mystery that he hoped one day to solve so that he might finally come to know how he survived the Shoah as a small boy in his native Belgium.

That he had been one of an estimated 4,500 hidden children in his homeland during World War II he already knew. That he was the lone surviving member of his immediate family he was certain. That he ended up in an orphanage reserved for Jewish children he definitely recalled. That an uncle found him after the war and took him in to live with his family he also remembered. But precisely how he came to be hidden, where he was protected and by whom were details frustratingly outside his memory’s reach. After all, when the events that eventually, tragically separated Kader from his family first transpired he was about 4 years old — an age when distinct memories are rare in even the best of circumstances. Given the trauma he endured during the four years he was in hiding, he no doubt buried memories that he might otherwise have retained. Adding to his dilemma was the sad fact that the few members of his extended family who were left could provide only partial answers to the questions that dogged him all these years later.

For Kader, a pediatric neurologist with his own private practice in Omaha, the strain of not knowing his own life history left an ever-present void he could not fill and with the disturbing sense that pieces of this puzzling odyssey lay just beyond his grasp. Kader, a soft-spoken man with sensitive eyes, described what it is like to be burdened with such a gulf inside.

“It’s like a big box of unknown,” he said in his delicately-accented voice. “It’s a big box that’s empty, yet it isn’t empty. You know it’s full of things but there’s no way of getting into it. When you have a chance to talk about it, you remember so little that it takes just a few minutes to put in words what you can say about it because the rest of you just represses it all. The pieces you know fill just a small corner of the box and the rest of the box is empty and yet you know it isn’t. And you know whatever is in there certainly affected you and influenced you and has a direct relationship to who you are and what you do. It’s a strange kind of void. It’s part of you and yet it’s separate from you. You must keep going in spite of it and just try and accept it.”

Fragments and snatches of memories from war-torn Europe haunted him, but he could never make sense of them or be sure they were not fabrications of his imagination. Besides, the images in his head were obscured — like shadows filtered through a screen. For example, he recalled resting his head in someone’s lap and crying during a noisy, nighttime road trip, but could not remember who consoled him or why or where he was traveling. Then there was the image of him wandering the streets as a little boy lost and somehow being whisked away to safety by someone. Why he was alone and who rescued him he did not know.

“It was all bits and pieces. Some of it I knew was facts, some of may have come from something I remembered and other parts of it may have come from something I read and incorporated. After a while, things kind of merge and run together and it’s hard to tell what is factual, what’s a memory and what’s a nightmare.”

Striking an uneasy truce with his seemingly irretrievable and intractable past, Kader got to the point of never expecting to fully know what caused him to be spared amid the Holocaust. Then, at the urging of a fellow hidden child from Belgium who, amazingly enough, had also wound up as a pediatric specialist practicing in Omaha— child psychiatrist Tom Jaeger — Kader joined his friend at the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II in a shared search for clues to their missing stories. Heading into the 1991 conference in New York City, the then-52-year-old Kader adopted a decidedly guarded attitude about what he might find, so as not to be disappointed if his questions turned up no real answers. “Emotionally, I was trying to stay pretty calm, cool and collected because I didn’t want to build up any kind of false hopes of being able to find something out,” he said. “I mean, who was going to know anything about this one little Jewish boy in the middle of this immense devastation that went on in Europe?”



Much to his astonishment, however, he discovered a wealth of information that, for the first time, gave him a near complete picture of how his own hidden child story played out and revealed the identities of those individuals whose actions shielded him from almost certain death. These revelations came about as the result of Kader meeting people at the conference who knew his story either as researchers or as first-hand participants who aided his survival.

First, he met writer Sylvain Brachfeld, the author of a book chronicling the hidden children of Europe, including those in Belgium, and who upon hearing Kader’s original name — Jeruzalski — immediately placed him and his story. “It was really meeting Brachfeld that just sort of put the key in the lock and unlocked the door,” Kader said. “I mean, he just pinned me. He said, ‘I know who you are and I know exactly what page you’re on in my book. I know exactly what you looked like as a kid.’ And the door just swung open and from there I met all these people who knew me and knew what had happened to me. I didn’t know them, but they recognized me. They were actually able to corroborate some of the things I had in my memory. They dated it, they placed it, and a timeline started, so to speak, and my early years sort of got sorted out. It was like catching up with my life story. It was overwhelming.”

Perhaps the most powerful corroboration came from Marcel Chojnacki, who informed Kader that it was his lap the then-4 year-old Kader rested on during that mysterious and road trip at night. It turned out Chojnacki actually discovered Kader and some other orphaned children waiting to be transported to Auschwitz. He put them in the hands of a rescuer, Madam Marie Albert Blum, a nurse who arranged for the waifs to be transported by truck back to safekeeping. At the time, Chojnacki was a fellow hidden child, although older than Kader, in the charge of Blum, who operated the Home of Wezembeek, a former sanatorium-turned shelter for Jewish children that was part of an underground network of safe houses throughout Belgium. The child-saving network that Blum participated in was known and somewhat tolerated by the Nazis and was sanctioned and partially protected by high levels of the Belgium ruling class, including Queen Elizabeth of Belgium.

Before Marcel Chojnacki and Madam Blum intervened on his behalf, Kader had already been rescued twice. His story of loss and survival began in September, 1942. The mass deportation of Jews in Belgium was already well under way. His father had been rounded up with other Jewish men and sent to a forced labor camp in France. His older brothers were already on their way to death camps. One day, Kader found himself with his mother at the Antwerp rail station, where trains were transporting Jews to various way stations en route to Auschwitz. A surviving aunt, who was also at the station that day, later told him that his mother made the heart wrenching decision to try and save her lone remaining son by ordering him to walk away from her. His mother knew he stood a chance because of his Aryan-like features — namely, blond hair and blue eyes. Like a good little boy, Kader obeyed his mother and wandered away, never to see her again. He does not remember his mother’s face or voice or smell or manner. No photographs of her or any member of his family exist. Of that fateful day, he recalls only aimlessly walking the streets of Antwerp and being swept up and carried away by some unknown good angel.

In recent years Kader has learned his rescuer that day was a nun who escorted him to a house near Antwerp set-up for hiding Jewish children. Called the Home of the Good Angels, Kader was there with five other children only a short while before the house was raided. Kader and the other children were sent to Malines, a major train terminal and deportation site for Auschwitz. Meanwhile, the Wezembeek orphanage was also shut down by the Nazis, who forced Madam Blum and the dozens of children in her protection to move to Malines. It was in Malines where the paths of Kader, Blum and Chojnacki intersected. After being thrown out of their hiding place, Kader and his fellow young vagabonds, suffering from lack of food and sleep, were holed up in one corner of a former army barracks in Malines. Soon, Blum and her caravan of orphans arrived, too — unaware of the presence of Kader’s group. All of the children were slated for transport to Auschwitz. A convoy of trains carrying Jews from France were to be their passage. Civilian trains were being employed at this time in the transport of Jews. That day, the trains were late arriving, Kader has learned, because some captives kept jumping off, causing repeated delays as the guards recaptured the fleeing prisoners or shot them on sight. In an ironic and tragic twist, it turns out Kader’s father and uncle were on one of the trains en route to Malines. Neither Kader nor his father could have known the other was so near. And, as fate would have it, Kader’s uncle — his father’s brother — escaped into the countryside during one of the train convoy’s unscheduled stops, but his father did not.



During the better part of a day and night, the enterprising Blum took advantage of the delayed trains to negotiate with German army officials, some of whom could be bought with bribes, for the release of the children to her care and for a guarantee of their safe transit back to Wezembeek. As the day drew on, some of the older children with Blum, including Chojnacki, wandered off to investigate the barracks compound around Malines. And it was while nosing around one barracks that Chojnacki and his mates came upon the huddled, ragtag forms of Kader and the others, who were brought to Blum’s attention and added to her protective custody. Malines proved to be a crossroads of hearts and fates. While Kader, his uncle, Madam Blum and her wards were spared the horror of Auschwitz, the brutally efficient Gestapo were so intent on meeting their deportation quota that they dragged patients out of hospitals and onto the trains to take the place of the children. It is presumed Kader’s father went to his death in Auschwitz too.

When, in 1991, Kader met up again with Marcel Chojnacki and learned how he came to be with him under Blum’s protection, it was like coming face to face with his long “lost brother” and finding the once closed door to his unknown past opened wide. Kader said, “He knew how I came to be saved. How I survived. Meeting Marcel, the door didn’t just swing open, it came off the hinges. It was just a flood of information. It couldn’t come fast enough. It grew exponentially. I was trying to keep my feet on the ground to make sense of all this.” He and Chojnacki have become close friends in the ensuing years. As part of his attempt to reclaim his past, Kader has traveled to Belgium to visit many of the sites he spent his hidden childhood in and to thank Chojnacki, Blum and other individuals who played a role in his survival. For Kader, the term hero only begins to describe how he feels about Blum, a Jewish woman who risked her life over and over to aid helpless children like himself. Blum has been recognized in her own country and around the world for her rescue efforts.

Kader’s immediate post-war life, like that of many hidden children, was an unsettled affair. He stayed at a convent for a time and for two years he and other children fended for themselves at the by-then vacated Wezembeek facility and grounds. He developed street smarts during this time. “You had to mature fast if you were going to survive,” he said. His uncle found him — purely by accident — and brought him to live with his family. Kader said his uncle rarely spoke about the war or the personal losses endured. “It was too painful to talk about it. He survived and my father didn’t. He was the sole survivor of the family. And here I was reminding him of the family that he lost.” He said his uncle’s family treated him well, but his orphan’s sense of abandonment and wariness made him resist their kindness. “As a kid, you realize there’s nobody there for you. You’re it. You’re on your own. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Whether you’re safe or not. You lived through the war. You ended up in an orphanage. Then, you’re at your uncle’s place. They tried very hard to make a family life for me, but I don’t think I let them because everywhere you go, you wonder, How long am I going to be here?” Kader’s mistrust and alienation only intensified when, at age 11, he was sent to live with a great aunt and her family in Montreal, Canada. “And then all of a sudden you’re transported to a different place. To a different country. With a different family. So, again, you’re left wondering How long” How come? and What’s going to happen next? I looked at it as the next step in being alone and traveling on an ongoing basis. It took me years and years to make sense of my existence.”

Finally, with time, he came to feel he did have a home and a family, after all. “It took a while to accept that there was no more wondering about whether I belonged somewhere. As you get a little older you stop wondering what’s going to happen and you realize this is not just another temporary stopping place, but that this is it. This is the end of the line. This is where you’re going to become part of a new family and this is where you’re going to plant roots.”



Gradually, Kader began to flourish in his new life. He did well in school, especially upon discovering that education was an opportunity to make something of himself and, in a way, to make up for some of what he had lost. From the time he arrived in Montreal he felt compelled to serve others. “I knew I wanted to do something to help people.” He couldn’t fully understand it then but he has since come to believe his wartime experiences are what drove him to be a physician focusing on children. “It’s no accident I found myself working in medicine with kids. My past was a means to an end. Obviously, knowing what happened to me the first seven years of my life does give you a basis to realize how you got to this point and how you got be who you are. It makes you more whole when you can understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

After training in Canada and the United States, Kader settled in Omaha in 1974, where he worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center before entering private practice. He and his wife of 36 years, Sarah, are parents to three grown children (two of whom are professionals working with children) and are grandparents to three.

Since discovering his past, Kader, now 62, has spoken publicly about his experience as well as about the horrors and the lessons of the Holocaust. He feels it is the obligation of all survivors to do so. “We have to tell our story because it’s the only way we can teach people what happened. You hope people will listen and you hope people will learn. If you know about it, then when you see bigotry in front of your eyes you’ll recognize it and then maybe you’ll try to put a stop to it.”

Meanwhile, Kader’s search for more details about his family’s exact fate may never fully be completed. For example, his investigations have not been able to determine what happened to his only sister. “There’s still little pieces missing,” he said. “Things that I’ll probably never know. You never quite get to the end. So there’s still a sense of not totally putting closure to it.”

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

May 1, 2010 3 comments

I have had the privilege of telling the stories of several Holocaust survivors.  All of their stories are compelling. Perhaps the most memorable of these stories, just in terms of sheer drama, belongs to Lou Leviticus.  His many narrow escapes have a visceral, cinematic quality to them that leaves you with the image of him always on the run or in hiding or eluding capture.

The story more or less appeared as it is here in The Reader almost a decade ago.  It was later reprinted in The Jewish Press.  I have always hoped to share the story with a wider audience.

NOTE:  Leviticus has subsequently told his own story in a book he wrote.




The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader ( and then reprinted in The Jewish Press


“I’ve been an escape artist all my life.”

The apt words belong to Lincoln, Neb. resident Lou Leviticus, a square-headed terrier of a man who as a youth in his native Holland survived the Holocaust partly due to his talents as an artful dodger. He escaped the Nazis more than once, even when those closest to him were caught and put to death. As an orphan on the run he became one of scores of hidden children in The Netherlands, his survival dependent on a cadre of strangers that cared for him as one of their own.

Today, when telling his saga to young Hebrew students at Temple Israel Synagogue in Omaha, the spoken truth sounds less like glib bravado than it does a solemn proverb. And, like an answered prayer, members of the Dutch underground rescued him. Families working with the underground risked their very lives taking him into their home and shielding him from danger. He regards those that helped him, especially Karel and Rita Brouwer, as his “heroes” and “protectors.”

During his time in hiding Leviticus endured and did some unspeakable things. An archly unsentimental sort, he sheds no tears over what happened. Despite it all, he emerged a life-affirming dynamo. The retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural engineering professor first came to America in the mid-1950s (by way of Israel, where he resided after the war) to obtain his Ph.D. He married, raised a family, got divorced. He wed his present wife, Rose, a native of Great Britain, in 1982. He became a U.S. citizen four years ago. While at UNL he also headed the Nebraska Power Lab and Tractor Testing Laboratory. Today, he is an agricultural engineering consultant.

Until quite recently he kept his story to himself. That changed when the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation requested he tell it for the sake of posterity. The Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg formed after completing Schindler’s List, is dedicated to recording and preserving the largest repository of Holocaust survivor stories in the world. Since 1996 the organization has been conducting videotaped interviews with survivors from every corner of the globe. To date, some 50,000 interviews have been cataloged for use by scholars and for dissemination in schools and libraries.

In 1996 Leviticus shared his story with Omahan Ben Nachman, a Holocaust researcher and Shoah-trained interviewer who’s collected dozens of testimonies. Since then, Leviticus has written his memoirs and related his tale to youths at schools and synagogues. Why, after all this time, is he bearing witness now?

“The only reason I do it,” Leviticus said, “is to maybe make somebody think about it and realize how fortunate they are. That they should not take their lives so easily for granted. That they have a little more gratitude for what they have…because what happened then can happen again. It is happening again. Look at Chechnya. Look at Kosovo. Look at the skinheads in this country. There is hatred. People are cruel. And I do now feel it as an obligation, not necessarily to this generation, but to my school buddies, my parents, my grandmother, and to all those people. If I don’t tell their story, what else is left of them except their names in a register?”



Lou Leviticus, professor emeritus and volunteer curator at the Larsen Tractor Museum on East Campus, holds a copy of his...
Lou Leviticus, professor emeritus and volunteer curator at the Larsen Tractor Museum on East Campus, holds a copy of his recently published memoirs detailing his childhood in the German-occupied Netherlands. His parents were killed at Auschwitz in 1942. Photo by Brett Hampton.

Because ethnic cleansing seems far removed from the modern American experience, it is easy to distance oneself from such evil. But the truth is no one thinks it can happen to them, ever. That’s exactly how most Dutch Jews felt when Nazi Germany overran their nation in May of 1940. That’s why the only way to understand what happened is to recall the insidious events that systematically isolated Jews from mainstream Dutch life, all because they were deemed “different” and ultimately expendable. How else can one explain a child having to flee and hide to save his own life? Unthinkable, yet it occurred.

In a recent interview with The Reader, Leviticus recalled those years. Speaking from the deck of his comfortable tree-shaded home in Lincoln, the scene could not have been more incongruous with what he described. Despite what eventually transpired, his homeland was a tranquil place before the invasion. Pre-war Holland, after all, was a civilized society. Its large Jewish population enjoyed complete freedom, if not full acceptance. Leviticus and his parents led a privileged life in Amsterdam. As foreign correspondent for a large recycling company, his father, Max, handled relations with foreign clients. An outdoorsman, Max enjoyed long bicycle rides and walks in the countryside. Lou’s mother, Sera, was a socialite and spiritualist who gave bridge parties and hosted seances at the family’s large home.

“My mother was pretty deeply into spiritualism — mediums and seances and astrology — which was very fashionable in those days. I can still see her working with these charts on a table, trying to figure out what the hell was going on in the world. I’ve always wondered about that — if she could see what was going to happen to us or not,” Leviticus said.

As a boy he often joined his mother at Heck’s Cafe, a swank gathering spot for the smart set, where he listened to live band music while she hobnobbed with friends.
Music, especially opera, held young Lou enthralled. He had his own radio and spent endless hours listening to favorite tenors and to detective programs. An avid reader, he fancied the adventure tales of German author Karl May. Despite being undersized, he was athletically adept and belonged to swimming and soccer clubs. A cinema lover, he skipped Hebrew school to catch the latest movies.

His family lived quite close to Anne Frank’s family. A cousin of hers, Paul Frank, was a friend and playmate of Lou’s. Because she was two years older than Lou, he only knew her casually, but recalls her as a “nice girl. She was more mature than me.”

Admittedly “a spoiled brat” doted on by his maternal grandmother, Leviticus lived a carefree life. His parents, who employed a servant, had their every need met.

The family’s idyll ended May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded Holland. The Dutch, who remained neutral during World War I, had felt protected from the brewing storm in Europe despite Germany’s increasingly ugly rhetoric and military incursions. Caught unprepared, Holland’s meager defenses were quickly overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg. The Netherlands capitulated five days after the attack began. Even though he was not quite 9-years-old, Leviticus recalls it all.

“I remember all five days. For us kids it was the greatest adventure in the world. We didn’t see the sickness. We heard people were being killed, but we didn’t see it. We did see German planes in the air and men shooting at them. It was exciting.”

Perhaps his most vivid memory then is the sight of a city under siege at night, its lights darkened and streets emptied owing to the mandated curfew and blackout. As a child, the horror of the invasion was finally brought home when he saw adults around him shattered by the events. His father, a WWI vet, had been called up to serve in the civil defense corps. On May 15, the day the Dutch surrendered, Lou was shocked to find his father sobbing at home. “I can still see him sitting in the side room crying. It was the first time I saw my dad cry. I remember asking him, ‘What’s the matter?’ But he couldn’t talk.”

According to Leviticus, who has researched events leading up to the German conquest and the ensuing terror campaign, much of the Dutch ruling class held pro-Nazi sympathies and as such these Fifth Columnists aided Germany in subduing The Netherlands. Beyond politics or prejudice, he said, the compliant nature of the Dutch people, combined with a meticulous citizen registration system, made it easier for the Nazi regime to exert its will there.

“My feeling is that the Dutch have always been very obedient to authority — any authority. The Germans had the authority and when they installed a Dutch puppet government, that was the government, and therefore they were obeyed. The Dutch also had a population registration system in place unparalleled in its accuracy in Europe. In fact, (Adolph) Eichmann liked it so much he copied it in other countries under Nazi rule. That system should have been destroyed when the Germans occupied The Netherlands, but the people who ran it were so proud of their work and so pro-Nazi they handed it over in full to the Germans, who used it to curtail the activities of Jews and other undesirables.”

He said people were so accustomed to registration few saw danger in its application by occupying forces. “Nobody thought much of it, and so they re-registered.” He added the Germans were “very cunning” in passing decrees that, step by step, cut-off Jews from the general populace. “It started with very little things. In June, Jews were forbidden from being part of the civil defense. In July, they were excluded from the labor draft. Then there was a ban on ritual slaughter. In September, Jews were banned from selling in the regular markets. The Germans never targeted the whole population. Otherwise, that would have probably created unrest. Instead, they targeted sections, making each segment register and abide by restrictive laws. First, it was physicians, then pharmacists, then lawyers. Each week there was a different order affecting some group, and the others said, ‘Well, it’s only them,’ and in the end it was everybody. The noose was tightening, but most people didn’t realize it, and by the time they did it was too late.”

The first anti-Jewish regulation affecting him was a 1941 law banning Jews from all movie theaters except the single Jewish-owned cinema in Amsterdam. “I was an avid moviegoer and the only theater left I could go to soon became too dangerous because there were always Nazi youths waiting outside to cause mischief. We were yelled at, spit on, and so forth. It became impossible to go there unless you were with grown-ups and even then it sometimes got a little bit hairy.” He next felt the sting of anti-Semitism when Jews were forbidden from entering parks and from holding membership in sports clubs. In a cruel display of public humiliation, he was drummed off his soccer team by the coach in front of jeering teammates.

At the same time, the Nazi propaganda machine worked overtime inflaming anti-Semitic fervor. He recalls placards affixed everywhere with slogans like “The Eternal Jew,” “The Dirty Jew” and “Watch Out for the Jew” emblazoned on them. The posters typically depicted grotesque, deformed, horned figures with the Star of David displayed on their chest or forehead. Soon, all Jews — their businesses and residences too — were required to bear the yellow star. “When you got the star you were a marked person,” he said. “Now you couldn’t hide behind your looks. There were always groups of Hitler youths running around terrorizing people. They started making life very difficult. We, as kids, were beaten up — quite severely at times. Grown-ups didn’t interfere. They were afraid. The police seldom intervened.” Schoolmates he counted as friends turned on him, yelling epithets. “I went to school with great trepidation. I took a terrible beating one day and adults stood by laughing. Things got worse and worse, until every aspect of my life was affected. You felt you were an unworthy person. That you didn’t have the right to walk the same streets as other people. It made me feel terrible, awful, angry.”

Schools were finally segregated, which Leviticus viewed as a welcome relief.  “We were a pretty intelligent and rowdy bunch and we had a lot of fun in fact. We were all in the same boat. We were all together. That was the best part of it.”

By 1942, people started disappearing. Rumors spread the missing persons were hauled away to camps to be gassed or shot. “Nobody talked about it,” Leviticus said. “Not the teachers, not the parents. They didn’t know how to talk about it. They didn’t want to believe what was happening.” The fear turned personal when his girlfriend, Anita, was arrested along with her mother and sister. “I was very, very heartbroken for a long time because she was really my pal. We did homework together” He later learned she and her family died at Sobidor concentration camp.

As early as 1942 Jewish men were rounded up and taken away. It happened to Leviticus’ father, who ended up in the work camp, Ommen, where men worked clearing forests for agriculture, but in truth awaited transit to concentration camps and certain death. When the elder Leviticus learned of his group’s impending transport, he concealed himself in one of the deep trenches the men dug and escaped at night. Lou has since documented his father was the only prisoner from his work detail to escape alive. While in hiding, Max got word of his escape to Sera, who fled to a prearranged safe house in the country. Lou, in school at the time, was unaware of the unfolding intrigue. His first inkling of it came when an unfamiliar man came there one day with a note from his mother.

“My mother’s note said for me to go with him. The man told me, ‘Your mother’s waiting for you. Don’t worry.” Of course I was worried. I didn’t know what was happening. I had never seen him before, but I knew my mother’s handwriting, so I went. He took me into a hallway, took my coat off, gave me another coat without a star on it, grabbed my hand and we walked away. We went on a train. The train trip was frightening for me. We had to pass German police controls at various stations. By then I had been brainwashed so that I was sure I looked like any of those pictures of the Eternal Jew. I was afraid of anyone who had a uniform or boots or a dark coat on because those things represented Nazis. By then, I didn’t trust anyone any more. I’d lost my trust in the grown-up world.”

The pair passed through police checkpoints without a hitch. They got off at Amersfoort, a town 40 kilometers southeast of Amsterdam, where, it turned out the boy’s mysterious escort, a Mr. Van Der Kieft, was a plain clothes detective. Secretly, he was also a top operative in the Dutch underground movement that provided false identity papers, ration cards and safe havens to fugitives. As Leviticus soon found out, the underground network would be his lifeline. Van Der Kieft took Leviticus by bike to the farmhouse his mother had gone to. His father joined them days later. After two months in hiding, the family had to find refuge elsewhere when the farmer sheltering them demanded more money than they could pay. Leviticus said there were any number of people ready to help then, whether “out of good will or for good money.”

Thanks again to the efforts of the underground, the family was put up at a house in Amersfoort belonging to a coachman, who lived on the ground floor. Lou’s family shared a pair of small rooms on the third floor. Between the two rooms were sliding doors. The back room opened on a veranda with a railing. The family had to be on guard at all times. “We had to keep very quiet during the day and not show ourselves in front of the windows,” he said. “We couldn’t close the curtains then, as that would arouse suspicion in Holland, where there’s little light. When the bell rang at the main door below we would freeze. We could hear the bell, but we couldn’t see who was calling. At night we could become a little more active because then we could close the doors and curtains. But if there were guests we had to sit still. We couldn’t use the toilet then, so we used a chamber pot.”

Father, mother and son passed the time reading and playing board games. “I don’t remember that as being terrible because there was so much to read,” he said.

Then, one October afternoon in 1942, the bell rang and the word “police” was spoken at the bottom of the stairs. Raised voices barked, “Stay where you are. Don’t move.” Leviticus recalls his mother “started crying.” They knew the authorities had come for them. With police bounding up the stairs to the family’s third-floor hideaway, young Lou made a fateful split-second decision and, without  a word, clambered to the veranda opening, hopped atop the railing, and jumped. That moment of fear and flight was the last he saw his parents alive.

“Before I jumped the last thing I remember is seeing my dad close the doors behind me. That gave me enough time to get away. My dad didn’t hesitate. It happened so fast. Below me on the ground floor, luckily, was a large awning jutting out. I hit the awning, slid over it, landed on my feet and whew, I was gone. I didn’t look back. I didn’t run either — a good thing, too, because police were out searching the grounds. One policeman probably saw me, but lost me when I climbed over a bunch of fences. I came to a house and climbed up on a rain pipe. I got to another porch, climbed over the railing there and found a big wash tub. I pulled the wash tub over me — it made a helluva racket — but nobody was home.”

He credits his quick actions to “pure self-preservation,” adding, “It was just pure instinct. I don’t know where it came from, except maybe the Karl May stories inspired me not to be caught. I knew what I had to do. I had seen other people being picked up by the police on the street and they never came back, and that wasn’t going to happen to me.” He does not second-guess his fleeing. He only wishes his folks escaped too or at least knew he was safe. “I knew I’d done the right thing because, number one, I’m alive. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye and hug my mother and father. That is my only regret. That, and the fact they suffered and I couldn’t do anything.” His parents, like most of his family, were soon killed.

After eluding the police, he waited until dark, then fumbled his way to the home of a man who was active in the underground. When he arrived there the man’s frightened family explained the head of the house was in hiding. Earlier that day police had cracked down on the local underground cell and come looking for the man, who’d escaped. The family feared the police’s return. Leviticus felt safe for the moment but as he lay in bed that night he overheard the family discussing turning him over to authorities. “When I heard that I decided that wasn’t going to happen. Early the next morning I stole some clothes and food, opened the door, and went on my own to the east.” Fending for himself in a world intent on his destruction, he learned to live by his wits’ end, foraging for food and shelter at local farms. But as a child on his own, he stood little chance for long. After days on the road, he came to the same farm he and his family began their hidden life at.

Fearing the farm was not a secure hideout, Leviticus was relieved when the underground placed him with Karel Brouwer, then a 24-year-old civil servant with a new wife and young child. Neither the first nor the last person Brouwer rescued, Leviticus stayed with him and his family for much of the remainder of the war. “He’s a remarkable man. He took me to his home in Hamersveld. He practically adopted me. He never intended to be a hero, but somehow it was thrust upon him, and he risked everything to feed, shelter and keep me and others out of harm’s way.” Lou still keeps in touch with his “second family.” In a fateful twist, the first refugees Brouwer helped were Lou’s aunt, uncle and maternal grandparents. Through his position in local government, Brouwer’s covert network used the registration system to provide hunted Jews and non-Jews alike with false names and documents. Thus, Lou took on the identity of Rudi Van Der Roest, a Christian boy his own age from Amsterdam. Researcher Ben Nachman said such actions underscore how Holland was rife with contradictions. For example, while a high percentage of its native Jews were murdered, the country’s active underground movement shielded a great number in hiding.

As Rudi, Lou lived the unencumbered life of a non-Jewish child — attending school, playing in parks, traveling freely. Whenever detained, his cover story was that he was away from home due to hardships caused by the war. The deception worked. “Each of us in hiding were stopped and interrogated by the Germans at least once or twice, so we knew how to lie with a straight face. You got very adept at that. Every time you did something to thwart the Nazis it made you feel good.” He enjoyed freedom but guarded what he said and did so as not to compromise his true identity and therefore risk endangering himself, the Brouwers and the underground. “I had to be careful. I couldn’t afford any slips of the tongue, so I couldn’t get close to a lot of people. Whatever I wasn’t told, I didn’t ask. You learned that very quick. I knew the less I knew, the better it was.”

Life with the Brouwers was sweet. “A lot of beautiful things happened during the war,” Leviticus said. “There were times when I forgot the misery. I was extremely lucky to get through that experience, not unscathed exactly, but well-looked after.” He adds that not all hidden children were as lucky as himself. “The Brouwers loved me. They were good to me. In many cases, though, kids were shuttled from place to place and mistreated by their host families.”

As a base for the underground the Brouwer home witnessed many comings and goings. All the activity must have raised suspicions because, in February 1945, the police raided it. The whole family, including Lou, then 14, was home that day. The police found mounds of incriminating evidence — from papers to ration cards to guns. Everyone was interrogated on-site. Crying after being roughed up, Lou regained enough composure to hatch another escape. He explains: “I asked if I could use the toilet, and the police said I could if I left the door open. The toilet was situated behind a stairway, and when the bathroom door was opened it hid another door which led to a side room, which led outside. As soon as I entered the bathroom, I went through the side door and ran.”

He ran all the way to the city hall building, where he knew underground contacts operated. There, he found that Brouwer, who’d also escaped, had arranged for his  transport to a new safe house — a farm belonging to Peel Van Den Hengel. It was there he worked and stayed until war’s end. When the Van Den Hengels insisted he be baptized Catholic, he complied. In April 1945, events unfolded at the farm that gave Leviticus a taste of Old Testament revenge. Blood was spilled, lives taken, eye-for-an-eye revenge extracted. It began when two German soldiers arrived to plunderthe farm at gunpoint, ordering Leviticus and his fellow farmhands to load-up food and other supplies. Earlier, one of the soldiers molested a young maiden. Then they went too far, pushing Lou and another farmhand past the breaking point.

“I was cutting silage with a very sharp spade but I wasn’t working fast enough for one of the soldiers. He poked me in the kidneys with his gun, and that hurt. I turned around with that spade and I hit him straight in the throat and opened him up all the way. He sank to his knees. He didn’t utter anything. He bled to death on the spot. The other soldier came running, but didn’t see behind him one of the other boys, who struck him with a pitchfork. There was so much anger in us that we just went bezerk and cut them up into pieces. It’s something you wouldn’t do to a dog. I’m not very proud of it, but I’m not sorry about it. I wanted my revenge.”

After Germany’s unconditional surrender, he returned to live with the Brouwers. Then, much to his dismay, a humanitarian organization enforced a separation by placing him in a Jewish orphanage. “I hated it.” Always the escape artist, he hightailed it out of there and went back to the Brouwers. Upon completing high school, he toured Europe with a jazz band. When a rift caused the group to split-up in Marseilles, Leviticus stayed on. He later took to sea as a merchant seaman, applying his mechanical aptitude to the ship’s engines. In 1951 he made his way to Israel, not out of idealism, but rather the lure of a pretty blonde, whom he followed to a kibbutz in Haifa. Finding communal life too restrictive, he left to study at the Israel Institute of Technology, where he earned an engineering degree.

After obtaining his Ph.D. in the states (at Purdue University) he returned to Israel. He served in two wars against Egypt — in 1957 and in 1973 (The October War). In the latter conflict he was a liaison between the U.S. and Israeli armies, working with the armored division and corps of engineers on the mobility of military vehicles and their off-road conditions. He helped engineer a bridge crossing the Suez Canal. He came to live in the states for good in 1974, joining the UNL faculty in 1975.

Although he downplays it, his wartime experience has haunted him. How could it not? All during the war, and even long after it, he did not know his parents’ fate. “I never was sure, really. I think I really didn’t want to know. I was always hoping they were still alive somewhere,” he said. Only much later did he confirm they were gassed to death at Auschwitz just a few months after their capture. He remains as unforgiving about what was done to his family as he is unrepentant about what he did to prevail. “I’m not very, shall we say, humanitarian in my beliefs. I still adhere to the principle that your best enemy is a dead enemy, which I know is not a very Judeo-Christian thought, but I don’t give a damn — that’s the only way I survived.”

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