NEW YORK PERSPECTIVES (March 1992)
To Hide No More
The First Hidden Child Conference
By Lyle Deixler
“My name is Jon Trumpter. I was hidden in Heino, Holland 1943-1945 by the DeGroot family. If you know this family please contact me in room 1435.”
“I would like to meet anyone who was in the following children’s homes in France, 1939-1941: Helvetzia in Montmeronci, Chateau de Margelie in Cruez, Chateau de Morel. My name is Robert Dome, London, England.”
“My name was Gertrude Sanger, born in Krakow, Poland, 1935, lived in Nowy Tarq, hidden in Bronowice by Gotab family, if anyone knew my family please call Jane Songer Cohn. I was one of Lorna Zuchler’s children in Zakopane.”
These notes, just a few of many, covered five pin-up boards on the fifth floor of the Marriott Hotel last week. They were placed there by the participants of the first international “Hidden Child Conference,” a gathering of survivors who, as children, were hidden from the Nazis by families throughout Europe. Some hid in barns, others were put in orphanages or were taken in by sympathetic Christians. The notes were as haunting and agonizing as the memories and experiences these participants in the gathering had to endure.
“When I walked the streets of Warsaw I thought every living person was my potential enemy, the only friends I had were cats and dogs,” said Ben Meed, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, as he spoke at the opening session.
Over 1,600 hidden children came from Peru, Holland, Poland and Canada and a host of other countries to attend. Many hidden children harbored a terrible sense of guilt as they grew up, convinced that they had survived while millions of others perished during the Holocaust. Others – hidden by nuns in convents – had to become “good Christians” so as to fool the Nazis who periodically came by and searched for Jewish children in hiding.
At the end of the two-day conference most agreed that the meeting was tremendously successful and, as a result, a new organization was formed, The Hidden Child Committee. Forty-six years after the end of World War II the hidden children could, at last, come out of hiding. Many had suffered severe psychological traumas while hiding during and after the war. Thousands were separated from their parents, never to see them again.
Rene Lichtman was born in Paris in 1937. He spent much of his youth in a foster home, since both of his parents worked. When war broke out, his father joined the French Army and arranged for Rene to stay in the foster home.
“My guardians were very warm, loving people. The shock came after the war because you had to go back to your Jewish family and I didn’t know what that meant. Some of us were anti-Semitic because you picked up whatever was around.” He said he was Baptized, got used to seeing a cross hung in every room and wore a ring with the Virgin Mary on it. “But I was never told I was Christian.”
His mother sneaked into Paris to visit him a few times. “I remember one or two visits like that, I didn’t know who this woman was. It was very strange and the traumatic part came after the war. We (he and other hidden children) still have a tremendous identity crisis. I don’t feel French because of the anti-Semitism (in France), my parents were born in Poland and had thick Polish accents so they’re not French, and I don’t feel like a typical American, even though I live in Michigan. I don’t have an extended family and grandparents and all of that, it’s difficult to know who you are,” Lichtman said.
He went on to explain how the differences are felt at home. “Even with my wife and kids, there’s a difference there because my wife is American born and there’s always that feeling of difference, and I’ve heard that expressed this weekend as well.” He said the conference and its many workshops have definitely helped him with the identity crisis.
“You don’t feel so isolated, and most of us thought of ourselves as the lucky ones, we had it pretty good relative to the folks who never came back.” He also maintained the conference helps the hidden children realize how their past has affected their current relationships with their families.
“There’s a lot of unresolved baggage. What the conference is doing is bringing up all that stuff,” Lichtman said. “A lot of us put lids on those feelings, you think about it, you talk about it and you share it with other people and with that sense of sharing you don’t feel so alone.”
Cesia Ritter works as a travel agent in New York. Her slight frame and compassionate brown eyes belie the fact that for two years as a child she hid in the woods and in a small wardrobe closet at a neighbor’s house. She scammed on the streets to get food.
Shortly before the war she worked in a leather factory in Tarnow, Poland. When the Nazis invaded and forced the Jews to live in ghettos, soldiers would come around and select those who were to be deported to the camps. Ritter was in line behind her mother, waiting to get on a cart to take them away, when two boys who knew her pulled her out of the line at the last moment and stuck her in a nearby pigsty, saving her life. She never saw her mother again. Her father gave her a diamond ring and told her to find a hiding place. She approached two boys she knew at the factory, showed them the ring and they brought her to their father.
“It was supposed to be for one week only, and the father was actually anti-Semitic, which he admitted to me later on. But he never knew any Jews. He got to love me very much. He never had a daughter and he decided he would not let me go back to the ghetto and he would keep me. And that’s how it started, my hiding place.”
She could only go outside at night, when the neighbors were sleeping and wouldn’t see her. She said that once, a visitor came, and stayed for a few hours talking with the father and drinking heavily. She hid in the tiny wardrobe closet, passed out from a lack of air and flopped out into the small apartment, practically on the man’s feet.
“But he was so drunk they convinced him he was seeing things!” she said, laughing.
The town was devastated by bombs and the family was forced to move to another village. In the new town they told everybody she was his niece. Food was scarce and as she listened to the stories of the young peasant girls, who gossiped about who was going out with whom, Ritter got an idea.
“I would tell the girl I knew everything about her, ‘would you like me to read you your cards?’ So there I was, telling her all this gossip that I heard from the others. She thought I was amazing, I started to get chickens and bread, and from her I found out about the others and soon I became a famous gypsy.”
Ritter admitted at times it became too dangerous. During those periods she and the other hidden children would retreat into the forest. The Germans surrounded the woods, fired indiscriminately into the trees and called out, “We see you!”
Ritter said she believed them but stayed put.
I asked her what ran through her mind as she hid and struggled to get by. “I lived with the hope of finding my parents and relatives. I did not know they were sent to concentration camps.” Out of her 60 family members from Tarnow, Cesia was the only survivor. “When I found that nobody survived, it was a terrible time to really get rid of the guilt feeling of being alive. Somehow I felt that I let my parents down because I wasn’t with them.”
Cesia Ritter is a remarkable woman whose experiences have not left her bitter. “I only believe in good people or bad people, regardless of any race or religion. I have no prejudices except, as I said, people are bad or good.”
The luncheon during the second day honored 20 “rescuers,” people who risked their lives hiding Jews, who had come from Eastern Europe, Holland and Belgium to attend the conference and be reunited with some of the people they saved. This was one of the most powerful and emotionally stirring events of the conference.
Goetzi Voess, from Amsterdam, was hiding several Jewish children in her home when the Germans appeared on the street with dogs to sniff out people who were hiding. She put the children in a gap between one of the walls in her home. Voess then spread paprika on the wall, hoping to distract the dogs when they came. The children started to sneeze from the paprika but fortunately the Nazis passed her house without checking it.
After the “rescuers” told their stories they received a nearly ten minute standing ovation from the 1,600 hidden children and suddenly the applause, as if on cue, broke into a steady, rhythmic clap. It was a testament to the participant’s common bonds, and an affirmation of life.
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