As told to Mrs. Chaya Feigy Grossman
I was born in Antwerp, Belgium. My older sister was born in Czechoslovakia. The rest of my siblings were born in Charleroi, not far from Antwerp, and my youngest sister was born in France during the war.
Charleroi had 500 Jewish families. There were two shuls, one above the other; the Ashkenazi shul was upstairs and the Sephard shul, where my father was the chazzan, was downstairs. The members of both shuls got along nicely. My father had been born in Satmar and was very close to the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel, zy”a. In Europe, my father wore a shtreimel.
We were a family of nine children, five boys and four girls. I was the second child. My father owned a grocery store. My mother took care of the family. We were quite comfortable.
I attended a public school. In the evenings the Rav of the community learned with us.
Did you feel a lot of anti-Semitism in Charleroi prior to the war?
We didn’t feel any anti-Semitism until 1939. We knew what was happening in other parts of Europe thanks to the refugees who were escaping from Poland. Many of them fled to Antwerp. My father would bring home those people whom he found on the streets or in shul who had nowhere to eat or stay.
In 1939, we started feeling the troubles. Our gentile classmates in public school began pulling at our peyos and the teachers began making fun of us. Laws were enacted against the Jews.
When did the war start for you?
On a Friday morning — May 10, 1940. Without any warning, bombs began falling on Belgium. I was 12 years old.
It was chaos. Together with another Jewish family, my father organized a truck and a driver to take us to France. Friday night, the truck broke down not far from the French border. A gentile family allowed us to stay with them overnight and at day break we continued our journey to France.
When we arrived at the border town of Erquelinnes we were met by the same chaos. Bombs were falling and there were bodies everywhere. We continued until we reached a very small town called Sainte Claire on the French side of the border. My mother asked a French woman on the street, “Are there any Jews living here?”
The woman answered, “There are only honest people.”
In August 1940, my sister was born in the Catholic hospital in Mount Blanc. My father wrote to my maternal grandparents, who were living in America, to ask my grandfather to give her a name in shul. My grandfather named her Nechama.
At the time we were living in a barn on a farm. The farm was owned by a gentile farmer named Felix and we worked for him. We were the only Jews in town. We lived in extremely primitive conditions: we had no electricity, running water or bathrooms.
Then we were arrested by the French police. The French police were even worse than the Germans. Jews from all over were on this transport. We were taken to a camp called Clermont-Ferrand, where we were guarded by French policemen. The women and children were on one side of the camp and the men on the other. I was considered a child and was sent to the women’s side. We were there only a short time before being transferred to the next concentration camp, Agde. Each time we were transported to a different camp, we were stuffed into cattle cars. On one of these transports, we traveled for eight days without food or bathrooms. It was a miracle that we survived.
In those two camps we didn’t work. We did nothing. Once or twice a day we were given dark water that they called soup and half a roll. We were very hungry.
After a few months we were taken to a really terrible camp called Rivesaltes. The conditions there were horrendous. It was winter time, with heavy snow falling. We lived in barracks without any heat; we were freezing. However, for one hour a day we were allowed to see my father. My father was very careful not to eat any treife meat. And even in the camps, we always knew when it was Shabbos and Yom Tov.
To Be Continued.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.