Remember the Kindness"
Introduction (back to top)
Although there were many people willing to turn Jews over to the Gestapo, there were those who made the opposite decision and chose to hide Jews. Among these in rescuers were men and women ordained in the Catholic Church. During the Holocaust, Jews, primarily children, hid in convents and orphanages, living among other Catholics while concealing their true identities. Of the many who did so, Judy Meisel and Lili Schiff are two of these children. Although Judy and Lili both spent time in Catholic convents, their experiences affected them in different ways. These differences may be contributed to a number of factors, most notably their ages, the type of convent they were hidden at, their religious identity, and the length of their stay.
Born in Jasvene, Lithuania around 1929, Judy Meisel experienced life in a concentration camp and life in hiding. From 1941 until 1944, she lived in the Kovno Ghetto. In June 1944, Judy, along with her mother, sister, and brother, was transported to Stutthof Concentration Camp in Poland. As the war began to end, the Nazis liquidated the camps, moving those held within the camps westward towards Germany. During the winter of 1944, Judy, along with her sister Rachel, began a forced march westward, during which heavy bombardment caused those marching to disperse in chaos. Judy and Rachel reached a nearby home, which was occupied by two Polish women and a Russian POW. One of the two women gave the girls clothing and food. The next day the Russian POW led Judy and Rachel to the Visalia River. He then gave them directions to a convent across the water. With the river frozen solid, Judy and Rachel crossed and reached the convent where they stayed for approximately two weeks before leaving one night through their bedroom window. The girls continued westward, spending time in Danzig. They lived with a Polish woman and worked at the Weirmacht Station until the spring of 1945. As the Germans began retreating, Judy and Rachel fled to Denmark where they remained for the rest of the war.
After the war, a Danish couple in Copenhagen took in both girls. There they remained until Abe, Judy's brother, wrote to them say he was alive and living in Toronto. Judy left Denmark for Toronto while Rachel stayed behind. For a time Judy lived with her brother but soon moved to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia she became deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement and also earned her high school and college degree. After moving to California, Judy finally settled in Santa Barbara. She also has three children as well as many grandchildren. Much of her time is spent touring the world telling her story. In 1998, a film titled Tak for Alt was created retelling Judy's story based on her visit to Europe a few years back.
Lili Schiff, another Holocaust survivor hidden in a convent, was born in Brussels, Belgium on May 15, 1935. After the 1940 invasion of Belgium, Lili and her sister went into hiding in a Christian family's home. The Donnay family who hid Lili and her sister were relatives of a friend of Lili's father. There they remained until two years later when the Gestapo came to the house looking for the couple's son, Bernard. After this unsettling event, a Benedictine priest, Father Bruno Reynders, picked up the girls and brought them to a Catholic girl's school, Notre Dame de Namur. At the girl's school, Sister Bernadette, a sibling of Father Bruno, primarily cared for the girls. It was at this school where both girls remained until the end of the war posing as Catholics and living with other Catholic girls. Lili's parents spent the war working in the same school their children hid at. They were able to obtain false papers and spent the war under Christian identities. When the war ended, the parents left the convent/school, taking Lili and her sister with them. Lili graduated high school and soon after moved to New York to work for the United Nations. While in New York, she met her husband, then a student at Yale University. After they were married, the two moved to Los Angeles. While in New York, Lili attended New York University and when she moved to Los Angeles, she attended UCLA. At UCLA she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology, something she is very proud of to this day. Today Lili lives in Santa Barbara with her husband. Their four children all live relatively close to them. At the present time, Lili is just starting to tell her story in the local Santa Barbara area.
Historical Background (back to top)
Rescue during the Holocaust took shape in many different forms by those who felt a moral or political obligation to oppose Hitler. Of these different means, hiding Jews proved to be one of the most significant means with a great impact on both the rescued and the rescuer. Rescuers acted either individually or collectively and among the various parties involved is the Catholic Church. At the time of the Holocaust, there still existed a precarious relationship between Christians and Jews. It is the bitter relationship between the Nazis and the Church that surpassed the rancorous relationship of Christians and Jews. Religious orders hiding Jews were in a sense resisting Hitler on moral grounds and many men, women, and children benefited from this as both churches became significant factors in rescue across Europe. It is the children though who benefited the most for they were the ones who were mostly hidden in religious orders throughout Europe during the Holocaust.
Children's experiences of being hidden by religious orders varied widely from person to person. The Catholic Church operated on a collective effort because of the structure of the church itself. The hierarchal and disciplined structure ensured a possibility of more discretion and compliance. Because of this, Catholic priests and nuns were able to save hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish children. Father Bruno Reynders, a Belgian priest, saved about four hundred children during the Holocaust and "he was so successful in this undertaking that he was placed on the Gestapo 'wanted' list." Interestingly, Lili Schiff and her sister are two of these four hundred children rescued by Father Bruno. Other orders, such as the Sisters of the Family of Mary and the Hungarian Social Service Sisterhood, also contributed greatly to the Catholic Church's rescue effort. Margit Slatchta, a Hungarian nun, led the Sisterhood to save over two thousand Jewish children. For Slatchta, rescue became a moral issue and her fellow sisters and her beliefs were at stake. "What good…would their work and property have if in the end they had to hide their face 'shamefully before the eyes of God'?"
Jewish children hid in various religious institutions, including convents, monasteries, orphanages, and schools. For the most part, the children were well treated by the nuns who watched over them. There were instances of abuse, both physical, emotional, and sexual, occurring also but in preserving the memory of the righteous, these occurrences rarely are discussed. Children hidden by the Church express both positive and negative feelings toward their experiences. Eugenie Lee-Poretzky remembers "that convent episode was the worst for me." What made her experience negative is the issue of identity. Lee-Poretsky knew herself as a Jew yet attending a convent school forced her to change this identity to that of a Catholic and she never felt comfortable with this switch. On the other hand, Margaret Ascher-Frydman never expressed negative feelings of being hidden in Poland. Hidden at the Family of Mary convent, she recalled that "we came to the convent, the sisters were there and the Sister Superior said yes; she accepted us." Although she never clearly states it, one can identify feelings of gratitude lying within her statement.
Assisting the Catholic Church were various Jewish underground organizations as well. Zegoda and Caritas are two of these such organizations that provided money, food, and other provisions to those giving shelter to Jewish children. A Polish underground organization, Zegoda was the Council for Aid to Jews, or "Rada Pomocy Zydom" in Polish. Throughout Poland, the organization took children out of the ghettos and placed them in homes, convents, and orphanages. In Warsaw alone, Zegoda was able to relocate at least 2,500 children. Caritas, an organization based in Germany, acted in a similar manner to Zegoda. It also found hiding places for Jewish children but instead of hiding the children in secondary locations, Caritas placed them in various cells located throughout Germany. The organization also contributed to other's rescue efforts financially and provisionally when needed.
Although most rescue took place in Western Europe, efforts of various Catholic priests and nuns occurred throughout Europe. While they assumed a role that isolated them from others, Catholic rescuers were not alone. Many had the aid and support of outside institutions, sometimes Jewish underground or other non-Jewish organizations. "The righteous were the only non-Jews who tried to save" and it is because of them that thousands of children survived the Holocaust. The exact number of those rescued in Catholic convents, orphanages, and schools is unknown because records are either missing or do not exist. It is not the number that is important but the fact that thousands are alive today because someone took an unnecessary risk. Rescuers did not have to rescue but they chose to do so and for many, "the motivation for helping these young souls was combination of spiritual, humanitarian, and maternal considerations."
Interview with Judy Meisel (back to top)
Judy: One a month I go for 10 days. I'll show you before you go, I mean I go to university. When I go to a city I usually speak at the university and then I speak several universities, mostly Catholic. I'm very…Got very involved. I went to a national Catholic Holocaust conference, "How to teach the Holocaust in Catholic schools and seminaries", because it wasn't taught. It was taught by a nun who went on a sabbatical to Israel in '74 and she never left. And she started this national, it's actually now an international, conference on teaching the Holocaust. and it's at Titen Heel University in Pennsylvania. And from there I have, I mean I could be every day someplace on the planet. So when I go to an area I usually go for 10 days. And I usually go for ten days and I go from place to place and I'm exhausted when I get back.
Heather: Well, what my paper is about…the experiences of you and Lili being hidden in a convent and I know you…
J: Well I wasn't hidden in a convent. Except I escaped under the heavy bombardment which you saw. And I went to the convent with my sister. And we came in there and we rang the doorbell. And we told them we were Lithuanians. We were Catholics and we are running from the bombs. And they saw how emaciated we were, they knew right away we were Jewish. And they were very kind. They, they…I had, you know my hair was torn out, completely full of sores, and they gave a new kerchief. And they were very, very kind but then they told us we had to convert, and we didn't want to do that because we had no idea. I mean my sister comes here in the wintertime from Toronto. She lives in Toronto. And we always talk about it, that we had the comfort there, so we would of converted and we could have been unconverted but we didn't know. We, you know, we were kids. We were brought up Jewish and it was so important to survive as Jews more in our lives. You know we were ready to give up our lives. We really wanted to be Jewish so that when we were told we're free we could say we're Jewish. It was so, so important that we felt this was something that we had a connection with the above. To be Jewish that was so important. So we didn't and we left. And they were really very adamant that we had to convert, that we couldn't stay there.
H: So did they say you…do you know why they would? Because they were afraid of…
J: Well, I befriended, I know quite a few nuns in Philadelphia because I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and I have a friend of mine who is, she's born Jewish and at the age of 16 in Antwerp, she lives in Santa Maria, she would be an incredible person to interview but she doesn't want to do that, she, uh, she's Jewish but she's a nun. Sister Regine. And I talk to her about it. See basically I, she doesn't know but I think what was happening is you don't know when the war was gonna be over. And if they had to bury us they probably could not bury you in a Catholic cemetery without a baptismal. I don't know there are different things. Why maybe they wanted our souls, they wanted to help us, you know, as human beings. Not as Jews. Who knows. They didn't give us the reasons, we didn't ask them, you know, 'Why do you want us to convert?' We didn't have that kind of discussion with them. But they were very kind and when I was doing Tak for Alt with them, with these filmmakers, I said the one thing I want to go is I want to go to the convent to tell the nuns that I survived. Maybe somebody still, of course most of them were fairly young, you know you, young, they were all in their 40s. So the…maybe they're still alive. It's gonna be sixty years since, in May, next years, it's gonna be sixty years since liberation. So I felt maybe I would like to tell them I'm alive and so forth. Well they weren't there. The convent that you see, it's there. But the nuns were moved to Holland. It was an order that was brought from Holland. But they moved after the war. They moved to Holland, the townspeople told us.
H: So you never got a chance…
J: No. No.
H: And do you remember how long you were at the convent?
J: Not very long. We were there maybe about 2 weeks very short.
H: And did they immediately upon your arrival want you to convert?
J: No, no, no, about the second week. They began to say that they want to teach us about the Catechism. They gave us, in the beginning…They didn't give us the rosary that they gave us. And they taught us what the different meanings and so forth about Catholicism and there was a particular nun…And her name really escapes me because we really wanted to…They would lock us up in the room. We couldn't get out of the room. In other words they would lock the door. And interesting, my sister and I say why did they lock the room, they really wanted us. Maybe if we didn't convert and they couldn't do anything they would turn us in. She was afraid that they would because there was a price on our heads when we escaped because a lot of people had typhus and typhus spreads. And I had I got very sick. I had typhus. And that's when I had…in the very beginning of typhus I was so weak and I was…I had dysentery when we left and that's when she put me in the hospital. She left me—my sister—at the hospital. And she said one night we're gonna leave the window open and we went out thru the window. We didn't go out thru the door so we didn't say goodbye or anything. And its bothered me at times because they were very kind. That was the first kindness I had you know. They bathed us, they gave us food, they would check on us and so forth.
H: And when you arrived at the convent you were wearing the striped uniform that was given to you?
J: No. No. No. The striped uniform was taken away from by the woman who gave us the clothing after the bombardment. And so we had…I had a skirt and I had a sweater on me and a jacket and it was winter and that. And so I, it really bothered me I never thanked them for their kindness and that we just went thru, my sister and I. We were just talking about it when she was here in February. And we just left thru the window. We were on the first floor so it was easy to get out…And we left.
H: And while you were there they left you in the clothes you arrived in, or did they give…
J: Well they locked the door every night. They would lock the door.
H: Well, did they give you…Did they give you different clothes that…
J: No, no.
H: The clothes you came in were the ones you wore.
J: The clothes that came…They gave us some underwear. Some a set of clean underwear and we had to wash everyday and hang it up.
H: And was the convent just the nuns, there were no others?
J: There were the nuns. I didn't know who was the hierarch, although there was an older woman. I think she was in charge. We were in such shock and in such pain. And we had to keep our barracks, have our place, real clean. They would, they would say that we had to scrub the floor and they would show us that. We on our knees and so forth and give us a pail to scrub the floors. And in fact my sister and I sat down…Well she said we weren't there long enough to really, you know, to get to know them. And we ate with, in one big room we ate. And I remember most of the time we ate porridge. I remember that and that was very soothing because I couldn't even swallow my stomach was so shrunken. And they were very conscious of what they fed us. So they, you know, they cared but how much they cared I never knew. And they were looking for us. They were looking for us because I'm sure of that. There was another woman that escaped with us. And when they would shot somebody who couldn't walk fast enough they would immediately write down the number so they kept tap on us. And during the bombardment…So I don't know how many other people escaped that way. Occasionally I meet people who at Stutthof, there very, very few…So you're writing on the convents, is that it?
H: Well, my focus started on the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. Then it shifted to the rescuers and when that didn't work out…
J: When I go out to speak, lately I have been speaking a lot, I…The way I saw it…It was always…It happened to me in a Catholic country. Lithuania, like Poland, are 95% Catholic, Eastern Europe. It was always the individual family, individual Catholic family who didn't have to do it. They risked their lives. They risked their children's lives to help. There was also the individual priest, the individual nun, the individual cloister who really did this you know out of the goodness of their heart. And they risked too because you know nuns and priests, they also died. So its…When I speak of it I speak of six million Jews, among them a million and a half children, but there was also five million other people who didn't have to do it but they did it to help, and risk their lives, and so forth…Political reasons. The Jews were picked for total annihilation. The other people were because they didn't fit in, and they didn't. They put pamphlets out and they risked politically in what they said and so forth. And the next door neighbors who didn't go and report, and they were also hungry. And they could get a hundred kilograms potatoes and a ham. That was for turning in a Jewish person. That was in Lithuania. So those are the lessons we have to learn. But the Church, the churches, the people of the Catholic church, I feel really missed doing things for a Jew…Failed. Big silence. That silence was communism in Eastern Europe. They praised the Germans because they felt they're be better than the communists. Because at first I lived under Stalin. So the Lithuanians, they thought Germany is gonna be a lot better. So they embraced them. And those are the kind of things. And the situation that's happening now in the world its very scary…Who we embrace.
H: While you were at the convent you said they had you scrub the floors. What other kind of chores did they have you do?
J: Well, we did the dishes. We helped with the dishes but they really didn't…Minimal. They did a lot of…First of all, they spoke German but we spoke Yiddish so we could understand them. And we didn't speak Polish, which was the area where I was. It was Danzig a Dansk. But at that time it was all Germany. So we really, most of the time…They really…We really…We had to, I remember, have to bring in, the there were no water—indoor water. You had to bring water in downstairs, in the bathroom. We had to use…We didn't use the bath. There was no bathroom in the cloister at that time. There was but it was broken. And they said it wasn't fixed. There was an outhouse that we had to use, but we were so used to those kind of things. In Lithuania still today, it's like 45% don't have indoor plumbing in the rural areas, and this was rural. So things like that I remember. But I remember the kindness of them and probably if they hadn't said that we had to convert, we probably would have stayed there and trust them…But as soon as they began the first two days, the two days they didn't lock the door. They left…They left the door open. They started locking the door. My sister looked over and said we're leaving. What gonna happen, one of two things: we're gonna convert to Catholicism and become Catholics, and if the war goes on and on, we cannot survive as Jews. We'll survive as Catholics. Or they're gonna call the Gestapo and they'll take up. So we better make our way. Our…So she opened up the window and we left thru the window. I haven't talked about it in a long time.
H: This is really interesting and really helpful…
J: I can't really, when he told me about the convent I says, you know Harold I have been, I wasn't there, like hidden for years, just a couple weeks. But I have contacts. I have other contacts. I have to tell you something. I was at Tinten Heel University last year. That had about 550 theologians from all over the Catholic universities. And it was just an incredible conference. They treated me so royally. They had special foods because I keep the Jewish dietary laws. And it was just wonderful. It was just elegant, they couldn't do enough. And they showed Tak for Alt and then I spoke. And so…I was supposed to speak twice but they had me speak at the mass. And it was Kristalnauct and they have a special commemoration of Kristalnaut. And the church was…And I have terrible feel to go in a Catholic church for two reasons…Are you Catholic?
H: Baptized Anglican.
J: Oh ok. I don't want to say anything bad about them. There were two things: first, I was born in Lithuania. And every Sunday depending on what the priest preached. If he preached that the Jews were Christ killers, then it gave them venue to…You know what a pogrom is? Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof? So it gave them venue to hurt the Jews. In the little town and we feared them a lot. During the war, when I was hiding at the Weirmact station, Mrs. Anstant was a devout Catholic. And she would go…She would go every Sunday. She would go to mass and all week long she was so cruel. She would beat us. She would tie our hands behind our back. And we had to, on our knees, she had nine children. And to amuse them we would eat with our hands behind our back on a big big metal basin, like where you'd put all the leftovers. And it was just amazing to think up of things like that. And then on Sunday she would give us clothes and dress us up and go to church and sit in the church. And who were in the church, the Catholic church…We would come in…She would say to the priest this is my [word in German], this is my, my prisoner of war, the two girls they're like my slaves. And he would greet her with Heil Hitler. They would greet each other and there were men with their wives and women in uniform with their husbands with their children. And there were SS. You could see it, the uniform. And every Sunday that…I went there. That's what I had of the church. You know and it became synonymous of that. And when they ask and I have not been…I have been in St. Patrick's Church in New York because it's so beautiful, and you know I'd like that but I've never…But this church reminded me…It was so white, so beautiful. And they had a mass. And I had not been to any mass since that time. I was…it's almost sixty years. And the mass….Have you been to a mass? It's very spiritual. People go and they worship. And here I am and I'm supposed to be speaking. And that's what I spoke about—that it was healing for me to be in there to a point that here I'm Jewish, they know I'm Jewish, and I'm speaking to all of them who are Catholic and they're not gonna to do anything to me. They'll respect me…It was the most unbelievable thing. I can only think of that. And I don't know if they do that but when I finish speaking, they all got up and applauded for about ten minutes. And I started crying. It was such a…You know when we talk about thanks, you know how to give thanks.
H: When you had gone to the convent and they talked about converting, you know conversion. And you had said your goal was to survive the war as Jews. If you had…In the movie you had said that you and your sister thought you were the only two Jews left in the world.
J: Yeah, we didn't know.
H: If you knew that there were others Jews that still remained, would that have influenced you?
J: I don't think so. I think…First we promised ourselves that we would survive because I had one prayer, one prayer that I had for the above, for God. If I ever survived don't let me survive like, like the Nazis. That I could survive a person who could still feel for another human being and that I could survive as a human being that was my everything. And I wanted to survive as a Jew. That's all I knew—to be Jewish that's all I know. [She then goes on to discuss Denmark and liberation]
H: Did being in a convent serve as comparable to when you saw that boat come back from Sweden?
J: No. I haven't really talked about it. It was part of my journey. That was a fragment of that. You know, and then to me it was more outstanding, the woman. My sister can't believe I keep talking about that…Because that woman wanted us to be killed, told the soldier to take us to the Unshtaplatz where they killed all the people. The rest of the people, they took them and they killed them. From fifteen hundred people there are only about one hundred who survive. And here I always say to her that she saved her life. She did. Because we had the striped dress on…In that they would have picked us up immediately. The fact that she gave us the clothes and the warm clothes and put us on the way. And the Russian soldier said he wasn't gonna take us, that she told him to take us to the Unshtaplatz. He worked for her. He was captured at the very end in that area. A lot of Russians worked there, who they captured, but was liberated by the Russians, worked the farms because the men were away from the women. And they were in the army so they were quick to find a prisoner of war…
[We continued talking about the woman and the Russian at the house]
J: Well he said there was a convent we should go to just across the Vistula River. I was just there now and the Vistula River runs all thru Poland. And I must have gone by eight times there and some of it is not as wide…
[We talked about her family's arrival at Stutthof and the separation from her brother]
[Judy talked about the death of her father in 1938 and how it was because of his death that she survived]
H: When you were growing up what were your interactions with other Catholics?
J: With non-Jews? The non-Jewish population? Minimal. Minimal. It was not a lot. We lived separately and they lived separately. Businesswise my father dealed with the non-Jewish community because he was a businessman. He was in lumber and cattle. So it was as children we played in a little town. In the big town I lived in an apt and there were Jews and non-Jews living in the apt…But soon after that then the Russians came in. So everybody was, you know, the schools…There were no Jewish schools separately. They were all public schools…
[We talked about interviewing Lili and Judy]
H: While you were at the convent, what was your daily routine?
J: My daily routine. We got up very early. They would ring the bell. They would go around with the bell, ring the bell. And their habit I remember was brown, brown clothing. And they were very very kind. And most of them were rather young. There were a few older women but most of them were very young. And they had services in the morning with lessons…But they would say it in German and told us to bow our heads. They, they really gave us…They really wanted us to convert. I mean it was quite obvious that that was their plan. They said they couldn't keep us if we didn't convert. They didn't say you have to, you know forced us.
H: You said when you left you each took a rosary.
J: I don't have that rosary.
H: Did someone give that to you or just…
J: They gave it to us. And I don't remember very much about the convent because I wasn't there that long to take an impression. It was…We were more concerned how we were gonna get out of here. We had no idea. We had no idea. The whole place could be liberated and we're not aware of it because we're not in communication with anything. And we were just the two of us. And then when they started locking the door and lock us in and we couldn't get out. And for the bathroom they gave us a pot. If you had to go to the bathroom, you had to go in the pot.
H: And the room they locked…
J: It wasn't a pot, it was a pail. And we decided if that's the case maybe they're gonna, they're gonna take us away. And we were not far from Stutthof. So if we're already here, we're already out in the freedom. And we don't know. So we decided we're gonna have to do something about it. So then we got out and walked. And it was so, so, the blizzard was the worst. I mean the river was frozen. When I went back to do the film in '92 at the same time the day after Christmas [talks about a Disney film she participated in] and it was not frozen. So that was the coldest winter. And we went out and it was howling. [Talks about her journey to Danzig]
H: So you were at the convent at Christmastime?
J: No, no. It was after Christmas. I was there in…We were there but I didn't see a Christmas tree there. We saw Christmas trees when we were marching and there may have been a Christmas tree, but I don't remember seeing. I have no vision but I remember seeing a trees thru the windows of the houses when we were marching from Stutthof. But I think that was way after New Years and way after Christmas. Maybe a day or two or three they may have taken.
H: So you were at the convent…
J: It was right after Christmas. It was right after New Years. 1945 January.
H: You were saying it was really cold.
J: Very cold very cold.
[Talked about approaching the house]
J: I spoke to a large group of nuns, teachers and a nun came to me and gave me an envelope. And she said when you get home read. This so I forgot about it, a couple days later I read it. It said I was born in Krakow, Poland. When I was sixteen my parents, my sister, and my three brothers moved and I went into hiding. Then I took my vows as a nun and after the war my father and my two brothers, three brothers, came to pick me up and I wouldn't go with them. They went to Israel to a commune, like a farming community, and lived together. And she…They disowned her because she converted you know. And she made amends with them. And she's in Santa Maria. She teaches at Santa Maria Medical Center. She teaches French. She works with unwed mothers, with young girls. She's an incredible incredible lady but she doesn't talk about it. [Talks about Sister Regine's refusal to be interviewed]
H: At the convent was there a collective effort by the nuns, or were there certain ones who helped you primarily?
J: I have no idea. I wouldn't know that. I mean when we were in the convent there were like two nuns who spoke. There were others but those were silent. It wasn't loud, we weren't fooling around or laughing not much. It was very…They told us what time they're gonna eat, what we had to clean the room, what we had to do. We had to take the pale out, scrub it out, you know clean it out. But there was no bathroom in there. But we had to you know, and we were very, very weak. But they were kind. They were kind. The fact that they gave us shelter. [Talked about other Holocaust survivors in the Santa Barbara area]
J: You can't measure suffering. Each one…For a each child to be deprived of the mother and father of the family and be hidden in a convent is pretty traumatic for that child. Not knowing what's happening, and what's gonna happen, if they're gonna come out of it, they're gonna find their families. And a lot of them who came back, who wanted their child, to take the child out of the convent, a lot of children didn't want to go because they didn't remember the parents. So its…Holocaust takes us…To me a Holocaust survivor is anyone that has, was told to flee because they were Jewish. [Talked about today's current events and Tak for Alt]…This is something that we never really…We almost…Deprived of because after it was a very difficult time. Here we had escaped and now we were hiding. And we could hear on the radio that they were looking. They were looking for Jews and there was a price on our head. And here we are hiding again. And they know we are Jewish and they are beginning to lock us in the room. It was a very scary time. We didn't know what they were gonna do.
H: When you heard on the radio…
J: They didn't give names. But they were looking for people who escaped from the Unshtaplatz and to be aware of it that those people have typhus. And typhus is a very dangerous thing. And we heard it. In fact I remember we were listening and in the kitchen…And a nun came in and she immediately took her out, the other nun, and took her out. So we didn't know after that. I was very sickly. Very sickly.
H: But generally you were treated well at the convent?
J: Oh well, they didn't beat us but they fed us. We didn't communicate much. But they did tell us that we had to convert. But we didn't know what this means. They didn't tell us either. And we were in a condition…The condition we were in…We didn't ask too many questions. And we didn't verbalize much. The language barrier and everything else. We had to kneel.
H: So you went to mass?
J: Was taken into chapel and we had to kneel. And they showed us how to cross ourselves. And we were doing this and after a couple of days we started doing that they told us we had to do…That they would take our hand and do it. And that became very difficult for us.
H: Difficult because…
J: Well difficult because we realized we are taking on something we are not. We were in such traumatic shock at this point. We were in such a stupor that we didn't know what this means. And everything to me, they didn't talk to me. They talked to my sister. I asked my sister what did they say and she say the older woman who was in charge evidently said that we would have to become Catholics. Supposed that they couldn't keep us it was dangerous if we weren't Catholics.
H: So how much older was she than you?
J: Four years at that time. I was fifteen and she was nineteen. But when a person is nineteen that part of the world…And a fifteen year old. Is like you're an old woman. Different.
[Judy then goes on to talk about her children and grandchildren]
Interview with Lili Schiff (back to top)
Thursday, May 13, 2004
Heather: My project is about, well, what I wanted to learn about was your story and I read the panel on the website, on the internet. I learned a few things. I learned the basic details…
Lili: Such as…
H: Just like it said where you were born and when you were born. And it just basically went into. It was very, it wasn't very long so it didn't really get into…It just said this is what happened. And what my focus on my paper was about was your experience being hidden in a convent and I wanted to talk to you about that. So you were born in Brussels?
L: I was born and raised in Brussels and I was six years old when the Germans invaded Belgium. Took them ten minutes because Belgium is a very, very small country. And we didn't know what was going on, talking about the Jews. We had never heard about concentration camps. And my parents were born in Poland. My father was at the University of Berlin studying anthropology during World War I. And his parents told him not to come back because when Jews were enlisted in the army they never got out. My father had nine brothers and sisters. I never met them. I never met my grandparents. They all died in the Holocaust. They all were killed. I, I'm gonna go chronologically. When we heard that Jews were gonna wear yellow stars, we thought uh oh it's time for us to do something about it. So we went. We walked. My sister was three years younger than me, my father, who was wearing my mothers fur coat. It was one of the hottest summers may in the history of Belgium, and the reason I remember that was that he was pushing a carriage that had only 3 wheels. And I was resting on one side and my father was perspiring, perspiring. And we got to Marseille. When we on the road, we had to hide at times when the Germans would come over. Fly over. And I remember that we were hiding in a, a barn. And my parents hid us under the straw and lied on us so that if the Germans got there they wouldn't find us. And I couldn't understand. I was too young. Is this some kind of a game? What is this, and in those days parents didn't tell serous things to their children. So I didn't know what was going on. We got to Marseille and the last ship destined to go to England or America had left, so we came all the way back to Brussels. I, I remember the planes. I remember seeing people lying in the gutters to try and escape the bullets. And I don't remember any feeling about it. I remember oh what's going on? Maybe, maybe that's what the world is made of, you know? Six years old maybe that's real life, that's the way it goes. We came back home and my parents couldn't work. I had an older brother, he was about eight or nine years older than I was. And in between I suppose my mother had abortions because in Belgium it was legal and that was their method of controlling parenthood. And my parents worked very, very hard. So my brother was…He was my brother, he was my mother, he was my father. He took care of me and my sister. I have a younger sister, who was three at the time. And one day, wearing his yellow star, my brother, who was very sociable, went to visit one of his friends and he was picked up by the Gestapo. And, and we never saw him after. He died in Auschwitz. My sister, who remained in Belgium, did some research. And the Germans had exquisite statistics etc. So we found out that he died four days before his birthday. He was gassed. And I remember after the war looking at my mother and wondering how can she breathe, how can she love, how can she talk having lost a child? We were not safe. And we had friends, my parents had a grocery store…No, around the street there was a grocery store. It had been where we had been shopping for food. And my father asked whether they knew someone who lived in the country and could hid us. Could they tell us? And yes indeed, Madame Donnay had a brother and a sister-in-law. And we were transported there in Liege, which is a city east of Brussels. We didn't know why we were going. We had never met those people. We didn't know them. We didn't know their names, and contrary to Judy with all the pain she went through, we were cherished by those people. They had just lost a daughter, died of tuberculosis. And my sister and I were greeted and received by them. And we spent two years there. We went to Catholic school and people were becoming suspicious because we would go to school, Catholic school, to the catholic school and then to church, but we never took communion or went to confession. And people started talking, 'How come? How come? What sin did they commit?' Well that sin was that we were not Catholic, that we were Jewish. So they converted us to Catholicism. My sis and I were converted to Catholicism. I remember those two years as good years. They would buy food on the black market so that we ate well. I remember they gave us beer and raw egg in the morning saying, "Its good for you, its good for you," and Diseur and Madame Donnay, the people who took care of us, were an elderly, I would say elderly then but now I don't know how elderly they were. They must have been in their fifties or sixties, and they were… Misure Donnay was a coal miner, a retired coal miner, and he and his wife were illiterate. But they knew exactly how to take care of two little girls. And I rarely thought about my parents, and I never, I never bonded with them. After two years, the Gestapo came in, in the middle of the night at the Donnay's house. They were looking for the son. His son was a train engineer and he was in the army in the underground. And he would give information about troop movements, train movements to the allies. And someone denounced him. And they came in the middle of the night and neither my sister nor I looked particularly Jewish. So they Gestapo, I remember the flashlights on our faces. "Who are those who are those children," "They are our godchildren. They're here because they live in Brussels and the air is better here and they're better off here." And they let it go. They were more interested in Bernard, their son. So don't remember. I cannot imagine the time span, but the same night maybe five minutes later, two hours later, five hours later, three minutes later, a truck came to pick us up, driven by a Benedictine priest. His name was Father Bruno and he was coming to pick us up. And we were hidden under coal and wooden logs. It was night. Nobody told us anything. We were…what was going on? And I think, I think that fortunately my sister and I were together. I was not alone and that must have given us courage or we are together, it is an adventure once again. We drove to Namur, which is a town south of Brussels. And it was a convent, Notre Dame de Namur, and it was summertime and there was no school. There was not other children there. And the nuns greeted us, took us in their arms, cherished us. They were absolute, absolutely incredible. They taught us good manners and they knew I was Jewish, we were Jewish, but nobody else knew. Two nuns knew that we were Jewish and I suppose the director and mother superior knew too. There was never any rumors about it. Nobody ever talked about it. They treated us very, very nicely. Of course we went to church and catechism etc. And we stayed there for two years. Father Bruno had a sister who was a nun at Notre Dame and her name was Sister Bernadette.
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
L: I don't know how lucky. Probably my innocent look on my face. I looked surprised. I suppose I didn't look frightened. I didn't know what this was all about. I found it unusual, of course. So we went to, in the middle of the night, in a truck, and I still wonder to these days, to this day once in a while, how did we see the Gestapo leave and how long did it take for the, for Father Bruno, to come and get us? It seemed to me like 10 minutes. Amazing. And everybody was excited, nervous. Misure and Madame Donnay risked their lives taking care of us.
H: And Father Bruno took you to a…
L: A convent, Notre Dame de Namur, which is the southern part. It's in the south of Brussels…and dropped us off at the convent, and his sister was a nun there and she was marvelous. After all those miseries, my sister and I have been very lucky. We have always met just such caring gentiles, and religious people, at the same time. We got to the convent and I don't remember how we get out of the coal and the wood logs and whether we took a shower. I'm sure we were looking black and dirty. And we went to sleep in one of their dorms. There were drapes over every bed like in a hospital. Where, where am I? In a hospital? Am I sick? I don't feel sick, I feel strange. And then everything been vague. We got up in the morning. We waked up to take a shower, change our clothes our clothes. They probably had clothes from the other students in the convent at the time. And the day started normally. We had breakfast. We talked. I don't know what we talked, about I don't remember. They didn't mention anything about you are here because you are Jewish and because you had to hide from the Nazis. And I don't know probably unconsciously, or consciencely now, I don't remember. We were afraid to ask questions. We did not want to hear what was going on, of course. Everything was very, very magical, like something that happens in a cartoon. And the sister of Father Bruno, Sister Bernadette, and she took us around the grounds. And she talked to us, explained to us where we were, how it…that its quiet here, it's not Brussels, and we'll be ok. And she reassured us nicely. And we learned a lot. We learned manners, ladylike manners, little bits like that, and we were…My sister was disturbed by it. 'Where's my mommy? Where's my mamma? Ou e mama? Ou e mama? Ou e mama? Why am I here? Why am I here?' She was five then. It had be two years since we had got to the Donnays and the family was very kind to us. And my sister cried for them too. And I remember being very…don't make any noise, it might be trouble. So I played the role of the good little girl, not making problems or having people answer my questions. So we had private instruction: catechism, the catholic history, the church and Jesus Christ. They did not try to convert us. They were not prophetising, not that I'm aware of. And we learned to play the piano. Sister Bernadette taught us to play the piano. My parents were poor and having a piano was like a film in Hollywood. Only the very rich had a piano and took lessons. And it was peaceful. The other children…The other little girls were on vacation. I suppose it must have been during that time, I don't remember the, the month when it happened. It didn't matter at that point. And we did not go to school, but we had some lessons in French and the piano and some Catholic history. And I remember being a little bit regimented. Everything had to be like this. And we had a sense that we had to obey, not that we'd be punished, but that they would be displease with us and we wanted to please them of course. So two years went by, and Notre Dame de Namur had the promentary when Napoleon had been fighting the war the Revolution. And we went up there and played games. I am Napoleon, you are Josephine. And it was quite historical. Sometimes I'm sorry that I couldn't talk to the nuns anymore because after the war when we went to visit them and the school was closed and it had…They had gone to different convents later on. And my parents were not very encouraging for us to go and thank them and ask questions. They were not very pedagogical. They didn't know what children understand or don't understand. So I had regrets after that. I felt very guilty that we never, that time passed without making a big effort to find where they were, especially Sister Bernadette. We eventually found her. She had retired and she was in a home. And we started corresponding. When we went to Belgium, my sister and I went to visit her. And it felt like a made up story, somebody else's life. It didn't feel like my life. So I'm I don't know if I told you, I didn't want to go home to my parents. I never bonded with my parents and and I, I suppose…Because we were treated differently at home. My parents worked worked worked worked worked worked worked and the nuns paid attention to us. They answered our questions, they told us things, and it was gentle and serene. And then one day, almost two years, I don't know if it was two years or one year and a half or two year and a half, I was practicing the piano and a shell came thru the window about this [make an approximation with her right hand of about four inches]! Five centimeters to my face! The Germans were retreating and they had shot in the convent. Once again I survived. Lucky you know, and the Americans came. The Americans liberated us and some silly things I remember… I remember they came. They say, 'Hello, how are you? How are you?' They took their casts off…what do you call it?
H: A cap, a hat
L: Yes, their uniform and introduced themselves. We didn't understand English. And they gave us white bread, which I had never seen in my life. I've never seen white bread, and chewing gum, it was years later…It was after years later. I thought it was quite funny, quite ironic like a cartoon. And they arrived in a Jeep. I didn't know what a Jeep was…A funny looking little car, I think dark brown or green. And they asked questions, not of us, but of the nuns. And the nuns told them that we were Jewish children hiding. And then I don't remember what happened. We went back to our parents. I don't know how long after the Americans came. We, we went back to our parents, but I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay there. And my sister was crying constantly, 'What is going on? Why am I going now? Where am I going? What is going to happen to us?' And she has been effected by the war much more than I have. I have been able to…First, I have been able to pretend it didn't happen to me and then I understood, became older, what had been going on and realized how lucky we were to have survived. But at the same time I felt guilty. Why did I survive? Why didn't my brother survive? Why was he gassed in Auschwitz and my entire family was gone, gone? So we called my parent's friends, they made friends, they had had neighbors. Some of them came back. Some had been hidden. Some had came back from the concentration camps. And I remember calling them uncle and aunt and cousin. We made ourselves a family again. We went back to school, public school, in Belgium. And I didn't know how to study. And the teacher was talking and I thought I had to take notes on everything she said. And it was a school for girls, a lycee. And the teacher asked me, 'What are you doing Lillian?' I, I'm trying to write what you're saying but I can't write fast enough. And the whole class and the teacher started laughing. And I was incredibly humiliated. Can you imagine? And that's when I changed. I became shy, timid…And I stayed away from other children. And I didn't want to be asked questions: 'Where have you been? What happened to you?' I didn't know. I didn't want anyone to know about it because it was shameful to be Jewish, quote unquote, although I only had vague idea what it was. We must have been terrible criminals to be chased the way we were chased. And my mother was a very strong woman. My father was a defeated man because his son never came back. And he started to say, 'How come I couldn't do anything for him?' My mother was the strong one in the family. My father was a quiet person. He was at the University of Berlin during the First World War and he had to leave. He was eighteen. He had to leave and his parents told him not to come back to Warsaw.
[Lili talks about her family in Poland. They were all murdered during the Holocaust.]
H: So you were at the convent for about two years correct?
H: And it was an orphanage
L: The convent?
H: Yes, were you…
L: It was a school for girls.
H: Oh ok, and you lived with other girls, other Catholic girls side by side?
L: Uh hm. People started asking questions. I don't remember when, when it was. 'How come those girls don't go to communion? They don't go to confession.' So we had to convert to Catholicism. I knew my catechism very, very well.
H: And your daily routine was very, very regimented?
L: Yes, yes. We had to…I remember we had sit on our seats with our hand in the back. And we had to. Actually I liked the discipline because my parents never had time to teach us anything. They gave us orders. I think its awful to talk about one's parents like that but I can only tell the truth. And I remember always feeling sorry for my father because he was a defeated man. He felt like a failure. He wanted to be an anthropologist and he had to leave. And then he learned a trade. He became a silversmith. And he was very much of a loner. I don't remember having any conversation with my father. He was turning to himself…
L: Yes, yes. And my mother was completely different. She was, she was, my mother was a very bright woman but ignorant. She didn't know how…She told me that when she got married, when she was pregnant, she didn't know where the baby was gonna come from. Can you imagine? In the twentieth century. And I don't remember any warm or affection. I felt like a stranger at home, at my parent's home.
H: At the convent your daily routine was your…You had your meals and you had your, did you do chores?
L: I did my bed. I cleaned my bedroom. And I worked in the garden with the gardener, actually in fact to this day I love to do gardening. And I always felt guilty because my mother was tactless, very tactless. And she would ask me once in a while to pick something up. To go and get something. And I remember her made remark saying, 'You should be a boy. Why aren't you a boy?' And it was atrocious. And it came to my mind more than once. I still think about it, that…Have you seen Sophie's Choice?
L: My mother would have preferred that I be deported rather than my brother. And I poo pooed that, that would be on the side…making up stories. But, and then I went to college. My husband was very encouraging….
H: So you were at the convent. You gardened and that was your primary chore. And what clothes did you wear? Did they have a uniform that the girls had to wear?
L: Yes. I was wearing uniform. I remember I had a plaid skirt, a pleated skirt, and a white blouse.
H: Just like what they wear today
H: At a girls school.
L: Closed up to here [she motioned to the place of a top button on a blouse].
H: I'm doing a lot of research about children being hidden in convents and the girls who where there, who were Catholic, their parents paid for tuition and everything?
L: Um hmm.
H: And then the convent basically…
L: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if my parents paid for us to be there, although I doubt it because everything had been taken away from them. But there were some underground Jewish organizations who probably helped…Or maybe it was the Donnays, Misure and Madame Donnay, who paid for us. I really don't know. I don't remember talking about money at all. And the girls were normal girls. They didn't ask inquisitive questions. I was little girl just like they. I didn't look particularly Jewish and the subject never came up.
H: What did you eat? You ate meals in the dining hall with the…
L: Yes yes. Long tables. And we were, I don't remember what we ate but I don't remember ever having been hungry. Once in a while I would have loved to have a piece of chocolate or cake or something sweet to eat but I had learned. I had joined the flock that I had learned I don't do that. And sometimes we had treats on Sundays after church.
H: Did you keep yourself separate from the other girls or did you make friends with them?
L: No I made friends with them. My sister kept apart. She really…She tells me to this day that I was her mother. She feels I was her mother. And she was always near by and I remember being irritated because of it…Like I remember my brother being irritated because I always wanted to go with him and his friends. He'd say, 'Lili, don't follow us. Don't come with us.' And it made me remember, made me remember, it's so easy to hurt people's feelings. I came to the United States.
[Lili talks about meeting her husband and their relationship before they were married.]
H: Sister Bernadette was basically the one who took care of you the most correct?
L: Bernadette, yes.
H: So would you say she was more of a mother figure to you than your real mother?
L: No, no. I couldn't image that she was my mother. She was wearing the old fashion nuns clothes. You know with the big drapes and the heavy skirts etc. But she was, she was very kind. She was very kind. I remember they tried to prophetise me, make me believe in Catholicism. I don't know what I believed. They were stories. Catholicism was stories to me. And we had some holidays, special holidays where we would sing and dance. And I remember wearing a nun's outfit in a choir and singing Ave Maria. And it was all wrong. It was…I was offbeat. And I realized this. But I continued. I was so nervous. Nobody criticized me for it.
H: And you were converted while you stayed at the convent, at the school? how long, do you do you know when that was?
L: We had been at the convent a few months…yeah. And I sang in the choir in church. It was beautiful. To this day I love liturgical music. Its absolutely beautiful. And I didn't know. There were religious ceremonies and my ear heard lovely…We sang in Latin. I didn't know what we sang but it was strange, to say it was a peaceful time. And then later on as I grew up and I, I saw a psychiatrist, a psychologist, once in a while. And I realized why my reactions were such. My reactions…I didn't understand my reactions. But I'm ok. I'm ok. Except when it comes to my brother. He's the one. He's the only one I miss. I never told you that my sister did some research on my brother.
[Lili talks about her brother and his disappearance and fate.]
H: When you had converted was it, it was a gradual process and did they really, did they just say now you're gonna convert or…
L: No we, we took classes. We studied. Is it the Catechism? That is not taught by the Catholics?
H: No, yes
H: So you did the whole Catechism. And after the war when you went back to your parents, did you immediately switched back to being…I remember you saying your parents, weren't they…were assimilated Belgians, not Jews?
H: And that religion wasn't really that big of a deal.
L: No, I had never gone to a synagogue before that. And my parents were not religious at all. And I said I want to go to church and 'No way you're Jewish child. You're not going to church.' And they also tried to keep us away from Sister Bernadette and Father Bruno because I think they were somewhat…not jealous but envious that we seemed to love them. And my parents being envious and jealous would be angry at us and show it in different way. And then emphasize the difference between the two atmosphere at home and away from home. And my mother enrolled us in a Zionist organization where we learned to about Judaism and we went to outings and sang Jewish songs and learned to dance the Hora. You know the Hora? The Jewish, the Israeli, dance. And I don't remember ever thinking, 'that's interesting. I'd like to know more about it.' And on the other hand, I don't remember in Catholicism wanting to know more about it. It was interesting but it was above my head until I became a teenager and became older and read…And went to conferences and heard people talk about it. But it I'm areligious, unreligious. I don't believe in God. I believe that goodness comes from inside your entrails, your body. Because Catholics have committed horrible sins also. Killing people. And Jews too. They're all the same. I remember last year, yes it was last year or two years ago, I went to synagogue. And a professor from UCSB, a Professor of Religion, was going to talk about Islam and there…a few people who came with him. And I became friends with one young woman. And she had a lovely little boy, Michael. And I listened to the professor, who starts his lecture and he said here in Islam we believe in goodness, not lying, help your neighbor, be kind, pray to God. And I thought, 'Wait a minute. He talking about Judaism. It's exactly the same and there is not much difference between Islam and Judaism. The commandments are the same.' It was amazing. It was amazing.
[Lili finishes by talking about graduating from UCLA.]
Analysis (back to top)
In looking at Lili and Judy's stories, one must compare them in a number of different categories including age, type of convent, past war experiences, and religious identity. As children during the Holocaust, their past experiences proved to be influencing factors in their experiences at the convent. One of the most notable differences between these two women is the duration of their stay at the convent and the types of convents they hid in. Judy arrived at the convent in Poland after escaping a death march from Stutthof in 1944. She remained at the convent for the next two weeks living only with other nuns. In those two weeks, Judy lived in a single room with her sister, Rachel. Each day they were responsible for keeping their room clean and washing their laundry. They also had to help in the kitchen by doing dishes after their daily meals. Each night the nuns locked their bedroom door and a bucket remained in the room to be used as a toilet during the night. In describing her living conditions, Judy at first referred to her room as a barracks but quickly changed this to bedroom. Whether this was a Freudian slip is unknown but her descriptions of a locked room and single bucket recall images of a transport to a concentration camp, something Judy had previously experienced. Also, the locking of the room conotates a trapped feeling, similar to the living conditions at a concentration camp like Stutthof. Despite these memory-triggering images, there appears to be no superficial signs of trauma. Judy recalls her brief experience in a generally positive tone. Consequently, she does not recall any incidents of abuse or mistreatment by the nuns or others present on the grounds.
Lili, on the other hand, spent two years at a Belgian convent as a student of the girl's school ran by the nuns. She did not attend school with the other girls but was given private instruction in French and Catholic Church history. Like Judy, she had to keep her room clean and do her own laundry. The room Lili lived in while at the convent was a small partitioned area, part of many others like it in a large room. She shared this larger room with other girls attending the school. None of the other girls knew of Lili's Jewish ancestry because it never emerged as an issue to discuss. Other than the daily lessons given to Lili and her sister, Sister Bernadette taught Lili how to play the piano. When she was not studying or playing the piano, Lili would be playing with the other school girls or doing her daily chores which consisted of gardening outside with an elderly man employed by the school. In other survivors' stories similar to Lili's, parents paid for their children to be hidden at the convent. For Lili, this does not appear to be the case because as she said "My parents did not have anything." She speculates that perhaps it could have been the Donnays who paid the convent or an unknown underground organization. Ultimately, Lili does not know who, if anyone, paid for them to be there.
Religion also played a different role in the lives of Lili and Judy. Judy remains to this day an orthodox Jew. She observes the dietary laws and attends services at the synagogue. Lili, in contrast, is not religious. Lili had never entered a synagogue before the Holocaust because her parents were "assimilated Belgians," identifying themselves by their nationality rather than their religion. For both Lili and Judy, the nuns do not suggest conversion immediately. There occurs a grace period where the girls are allowed to stay as Jews. Eventually though the nuns begin discussing conversion, requesting rather than asking. When this issue arose, the notion of converting to Catholicism affected each woman differently. This is partly because of the differences of the centrality of religion to each woman's identity but also because of their ages and past war experiences. Judy arrived as an escaped concentration camp inmate, having witnessed the atrocities of the Nazis. Her sister and she believed they were the last remaining Jews in the world, believing Hitler had successfully annihilated the Jews. After staying at the convent for a few days, the nuns discussed conversion with Rachel, Judy's sister. At the time, Judy was fifteen years old and Rachel nineteen. Before this conversation, both girls were taught how to kneel in church and to cross themselves. These lessons were to segway into a conversion from Judaism to Catholicism but since it was "so important for [them] to survive as Jews," conversion was the last thing either girl desired. Judy and Rachel were in their teens, capable of making well thought out decisions. They were also at the age where survival on their own was a possibility. Growing up all they knew was Judaism and they were willing to give up their lives but not their religion. If forced to make the choice between comfort and religion, Judy would choose religion. Soon after the nuns requested the girls convert, Judy and her sister left in the middle of the night.
After hiding at the Donnay's home for two years, Lili arrived at Notre Dame at the age of eight. She and her sister, who was five years old at the time, were converted within a couple of months of their arrival at the convent. They were too young to really understand the meaning behind their conversion and because of this, too young to object. Because Lili's parents raised their children without religion, Lili's encounter with Catholicism did not feel like an encounter with religion. Encountering religion for the first time did not cause her to actively learn about her own Jewish roots and she saw Catholicism as a collection of stories with no deeper meaning. This is important because later it is this same idea that characterizes Lili's areligious identity as a Jew. It was the first time Lili experienced religion and after the Holocaust, part of her identity appeared to be that of a Catholic. After she went back to her parents, Lili would express a desire to go to church receiving the response, "No, you are a Jewish child." In the days after the war, she did not identify herself as a Jew or as a Catholic but as a Belgian, much like her parents. Whether this is blatantly stated or not, the fact remaining that she found the Church more familiar than a Synagogue. Her knowledge of Catholicism shows a presence of religion in her life, non-existent prior to the Holocaust. It is because of this that Lili's mother sent both girls to Hebrew School and perhaps it is because of this experience that Lili identifies herself today as a Jew instead of a Catholic.
Despite these differences, there are some similarities between the two women's stories. First and foremost, both continuously recall that they remember the kindness of their rescuers. They share a sense of gratitude but also a sense of regret held by both Lili and Judy. Both women never had the chance to thank the women who hid them from the Nazis. Judy and her sister left in the middle of the night through their bedroom window. Out of fear of what the nuns would do since the girls refused to convert, Judy and her sister left without any goodbyes or thank yous. Judy returned in the 1990s to the same convent to try and say thank you and also to tell someone that she had survived. What she found was that the nuns who had helped them were gone, relocated back to the Netherlands right after the war. For Lili, being unable to express gratitude was not a result of a sudden departure but rather the result of her parent's wishes. Lili's parents took her sister and her with them when the war ended. Her parents had worked at the convent throughout the war so it was quite easy for them to reclaim their children. Her parents did not encourage any further contact with the sisters, particularly Sister Bernadette, after the war and because of this, Lili was unable to thank the nuns for what they did. Years later, when she returned to Belgium, Lili was able to find Sister Bernadette and thank her. Lili remembers this reunion as a surreal experience: "It didn't feel like my life." In doing this though, there is no sense of closure for either woman because the fact remains that these two women still express this regret.
For Judy, what I found very interesting was the fact that in the beginning she made it clear that she was not hidden in a convent. She also would repeat several times that she did not remember much of her experience at the convent, yet she remembered some of the most minute details, such as what she ate for meals. Judy expresses the traumatic state she was in when she arrived at the convent. The kindness shown by the nuns was first kindness Judy had seen in two years. It is perhaps because of the combination of her state of shock and the nun's kindness that Judy claims to not remember much. Perhaps, just like Lili, these two weeks were a surreal experience for Judy. In the beginning she wanted me to know that she was not hidden, but eventually Judy did refer to her time at the convent as a time where she was hidden. Whether she was aware of this or not, I do not know. What makes this change interesting is in questioning how she remembers this experience and how it fits into her story of survival. Judy was a Holocaust survivor, first held in a concentration camp before entering a life in hiding. Most people in hiding did not know the extent of Nazi brutality whereas Judy did due to the fact that she already had experienced this. This also is an interesting fact because for most people hiding came before their time in a concentration camp. Very few escaped from the camps and the Nazis went to great lengths to find those who did escape.
Judy consciously does not designate her convent experience as being in hiding. She continuously apologies for not remembering enough and in doing this, she assigns a lesser value to her convent experience than to later experiences to come because she remembers other experiences very clearly. One could say that she just does not remember as much but this point is challenged because when asked specific questions about the convent, Judy answers many of them. There is another explanation to this lack of memory though. The concept of trauma is also a very viable possibility. Judy herself said she arrived at the convent in great shock and in a very weak and sickly position. Combining her physical condition with one of the first experiences of freedom could be something of a traumatic experience. Locking the door of their bedroom at night with a bucket to be used as a toilet probably did not help in separating the past from the present. At no time does Judy say that she saw the nuns as captors yet she does say that she did not trust them. Today, however, Judy counts many nuns as personal friends of hers, with one particular nun in Santa Maria being among her closest friendships with nuns.
For Lili, age appears to be a significant factor in influencing her experiences during the war. Unlike Judy, Lili spent the entire time in hiding, never witnessing the violence against Jews committed by the Nazis. As she said, "We did not know. We did not want to know." Whereas Judy knew that the persecution of the Jews was an unwarranted event, this does not immediately appear to be known by Lili as well. She makes the statement: "We must have been really bad criminals for us to be chased the way we were chased." There never comes a time when Lili reconciles the fact that the persecution of the Jews never held any true validity partially because of the fact that she does not identify with those abused by the Nazis. The only time where she can identify is when she discusses her brother, who disappeared one day only to be gassed at Auschwitz. Her brother's murder is the closest Lili ever came to experiencing Nazi brutality. Lili's understanding of the Jews as "really bad criminals" separates her from other Holocaust survivors. Because of this understanding, Lili does not seem to truly understand the motives behind the persecution occurring. If she does understand this though, she does not make an effort to show her understanding of what had happened or why it happened.
Because she experienced a life in hiding rather than in camps, Lili sees the war in a different light than many others. She did lose family but it was family she never met and when mentioning them, Lili does not show any emotional attachment to their memories. Her parents and sister survived but her brother did not. It is this last fact that makes the effects of the Holocaust real for Lili. When discussing him, she becomes emotional and has to take several pauses during the course of the interview. Hiding in the convent protected her from deportation and death but it also kept her a sheltered child, hidden not only from the Nazis but also the realities of the world that surrounded her. Her brother's death holds such a great impact because this is the event that breaks through her sheltered childhood. Without his death, Lili would have never known what the Holocaust meant for the majority of persecuted Jews. Although a positive event, the experiences at the convent left Lili disadvantaged because it did not give her the information necessary to be able to completely accept the different aspects of the Holocaust. This is apparent in the fact that she questions whether Anne Frank truly existed in a lecture given by Alvin Rosenfeld at UCSB Hillel on May 11, 2004.
As an eight year old in hiding, Lili conversion to Catholicism did not undermine her identity as a Jew. Because Lili's parents never stressed religion, Judaism was not something central to how Lili identified herself. This concept of identity partially separates Lili's story from Judy's story. To this day, Lili does not believe in God but she does identify herself as a Jew. This identity though is something that emerged after the war as a counteractive measure by her mother. As she was raised by Christians, first by the Donnays, then by the nuns, Lili encountered Christianity before Judaism. It was because of her "identity" as a Catholic that Lili began attending Hebrew school. Without her time at the convent, there may have never arisen a need for Hebrew school. Hebrew school was the means to reinforce Lili's Jewishness. Her mother enrolled the girls because she feared they were losing touch with their Judaism. Hiding in a convent gave Lili the concept of religion because prior to 1943 religion was not something Lili readily practiced. She recalls a desire to attend mass after the war had ended and the fact that she had the desire to go to any religious service shows the emergence of something absent prior to 1943.
Lili remembers her time at the convent as "serene" and "peaceful" but also regimented. She remembers her experiences with great affection and there never comes a time when she has anything negative to say about the nuns or her living conditions. From Lili's testimony there exists a suggestion that she had a better relationship with the nuns than her parents despite the fact that there really was no relationship between Lili and the nuns who hid her. As a side note, Lili stated that she did not want to return to her parents after the war ended. Furthermore, she preferred the nuns because they paid attention to her, something her parents did not do. Because of her young age, Lili does not recall feelings of distrust or unhappiness. She was too young at the time to really know what was going on around her and this is apparent by her lightheartedness in recalling being liberated. As she recalls the arrival of the Americans, Lili smiles and laughs, telling of her first encounters with chewing gum and white bread.
Conclusions (back to top)
In interviewing both women, I realized that while they experienced the war on very different terms they both emerged incredibly strong young women. What struck me most significantly was the fact that whether they were religious or not, their experiences in hiding served as a reinforcement of their identity as Jews. While the experience impacted Judy's religious identity more, for Lili, the experience introduced her to religion. In learning about Judaism, Lili could begin to identify with people who the convent experience alienated her from. Hiding in a convent separated Lili from other Jews, such as Judy. Judy knew who she was spiritually and because of that, understood the realities behind the Holocaust. Lili is still coming to terms with this as she still remembers her experience as something of a magically, surreal experience.
Today, both women live in the Santa Barbara area where they continue to retell their story of survival to anyone who wishes to know. For Judy, this interview was nothing new. Tak for Alt, a film produced in 1998, features Judy retelling the story of her life. She has toured the world speaking to thousands of people of many different cultures and religions. In Lili's case, this interview did not come as easy. She has rarely told her story and is currently in the process of writing her memoirs. Whether this affects how they remember their experiences I do not know but it does not diminish how they feel about their rescuers and the dangerous decisions these people made to hide Jews like Lili and Judy. In the end though, there remains the fact that Lili and Judy are not alone as Judy thought in 1945. They are a part of millions of survivors who continue to tell their story in hopes that the words "Never Again" are not just two simple words.
Personal Reflections (back to top)
Before I began my interviews, I spent a lot of time reading books on my topic. The information I found became the basis of the questions I later asked Lili and Judy. Other than secondary sources, I tried to get as much biographical information about Lili and Judy as I could. After I wrote the questions, I felt I had a pretty good handle on what I wanted to talk about and learn from these two women. As it became closer in time for me to do the interviews, I found myself really nervous and anxious about talking with these women. I knew what I wanted to ask them but at the same time, I had never done an interview like this before. I already held a great respect for both Lili and Judy, although I had never met them, and this also added to my uneasiness. When I arrived at Judy's house in the morning, my nervousness disappeared and slowly I became more comfortable talking with her. By the time I met with Lili later that day, all my fears had disappeared.
Transcribing the interviews proved to be difficult in the beginning but once I got the idea it became easier. Listening to them, I noticed little things I had not realized at the time of the interview. The last thing to do was compare the two testimonies to one another. Before I started this last part, I thought that I would be able to do it in at most ten pages. Now that I have finished it, I've found that there was so much more to these stories than I had thought of in the beginning. Comparing them with each other gave me the chance to see how one event affects two people differently.
Now that I have completed my oral history project, I am very proud of what I did. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world. By actually being able to create my sources, I was able to learn another aspect of studying and researching history. I would say that an oral history project is much more work than a research project because you not only have to do live interviews but you still need to research the topic as well. Despite this I really am glad that I did this because it gave me the opportunity to speak with two incredible women. I have spent a lot of time studying the Holocaust and it was a great opportunity to meet people who actually experienced the Holocaust rather than read a book about it. If I could give a bit of advice though I would say that anyone doing an oral history project should be prepared to probably work the hardest they've ever worked on any assignment before. It does take up a lot of your time but in the end, it really is worth it and for myself, doing this project has been one of the most memorable experiences of my college career.
| Works Cited
(back to top)
Bachrach, Susan D. Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust.
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994.
Boehm, Eric H. We Survived. Santa Barbara: Clio Press, 1966.
Dwork, Deborah. Children With A Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic
Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Lewy, Guenter. The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
Meisel, Judy. Tak for Alt: Suvival of the Human Spirit. Produced
and directed by Lauren Bialis. 61 min. Sirena Films, 1998. Videocassette.
Paldiel, Mordecai. Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Phayer, Michael. The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965.
Bloomington: Indiania University Press, 2000.
Notes (back to top)
Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 39.
 Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 119.
 Deborah Dwork, Children With A Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 81.
 Deborah Dwork, Children With A Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 33.
 Deborah Dwork, Children With A Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 39.
 Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 10.
 Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 40.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Judy Meisel, interview by author, tape recoding, Goleta, Ca., 13 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.
 Lili Schiff, interview by author, tape recording, Santa Barbara, Ca., 25 May 2004.