By Sr. Kay McMullen, SND
Annemarie Yellin was nine years old when her comfortable life with her family in Chemnitz, Germany, exploded in fire and broken glass. Recently, 75 years later almost to the day, she came to tell her survival story to Professor Miriam Zimmerman’s NDNU Holocaust Class, friends, and Sisters of Notre Dame, and to join in honoring the Sisters for their courage in sheltering Jewish children during the Holocaust.
November 9-10, 1938, was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. “It was a terrible night,” she remembers, “as paramilitary troopers and German citizens stormed through towns in Germany and Austria setting fire and breaking down Jewish businesses. My father had a textile store and they destroyed it. At 5:00 am, black-uniformed SS officers trooped into our home and took my father away. He was sent to Buchenwald. This was a terrible thing for a child to experience.”
Up until that night, the family had felt secure despite rising Nazi rhetoric. “I’m a German citizen,” she remembers her father saying, “I fought for Germany in the war.” But now, he was in Buchenwald and the family, along with all Jews, lost their business, every bit of security, even their German citizenship. In her audience’s stunned silence, she held up her yellow star, the condemning insignia she and every Jew was forced to wear.
Her mother knew they would have to leave Germany and, unlike many, she had some money. It was enough to purchase false identity papers and, armed with them, she got her husband released from the camp. Annemarie’s sister, much older, was already working as a domestic in England. With England and the false papers held as hope, the family travelled a circuitous route through Cologne to be smuggled across the border into Belgium and onto a truck to Brussels. In Brussels, they were given food stamps, a single room as their home, and her father a factory job. She went to school, but not speaking French, “I sat like a dummy, and they made fun of me.” The Germans were already there and watching and by May, 1940 had taken Belgium. At one time, they tried to get to Dunkirk, a terrible journey surrounded by warring armies. The Germans sent them back to Brussels.
By 1941 there was little hope for Jews in Belgium but for a few university students who went to the Archdiocese of Brussels saying, “We need to do something to help the children.” These few students and the superiors at religious boarding schools risked their own lives to save many, many Jewish children. Annemarie was sent to Saint Antoine de Padoue in Brussels. There were sixty Jewish girls among the students, ages six through high school, all secreted in Catholic school uniforms and known only by the Sister Superior. No one could trust who might be a sympathizer or speak, innocently, to a sympathizer. For safety, the children stayed at their schools over weekends. One of her friends, taking a chance, left to go home to see her parents and was taken. Another girl, walking with her parents was taken from them. In bed, at night, she would cry for her parents. During this time, Annemarie’s mother had a stroke. Jews were not allowed to go to hospitals and, although a brave doctor came to care for her, he was not able to give her the treatment she needed, and she died.
“Holocaust” means to be surrounded by fire, and there were many ways of being surrounded by fire – the camps, yes, but also deaths because care was not allowed, hunger and cold, separations of children from parents for their safety, and non-stop fear. At liberation, she went to London, and then, in 1948 to San Francisco where she was welcomed by her aunt, but greeted by terrible words, “It’s over. Now you are an American. No one cares. Forget it all.” And, so, perhaps the most alienating effect was the loss of identity and loss of history. Who could anybody be, living with false identity, keeping oneself a secret, hiding, for so long, then not being able to tell one’s own story? It is only in the last few years and, especially, with a conference, “The Hidden Child,” held in 2005 for survivors that the hidden children have met others like themselves. Their stories are now being told and the lucky ones reunited with childhood friends from home or from their boarding school.
Have we learned? “My generation is almost gone,” Mrs. Yellin said. “Your generation is the last to hear our story directly and you must make sure this won’t happen again. It was a 19-year old rescuer who saved me. What motivated her? When asked, the young Belgian girl replied, ‘I couldn’t see to hurt children and that is why I decided to go to the Archbishop. Somebody’s got to speak up.’ Now when you see something that isn’t right, when you sense something going wrong, speak up, speak up!”
During the Holocaust, 99% of Christians did nothing, said nothing. Thousands, but that was only 1%, were rescuers who saved thousands. How many could have been saved if most Christians had said something, done something? Could Holocaust have even been prevented? What about now?
Editor’s Note: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Belgium were among those Christians who took in Jewish children during WWII.