The often unrecognized heroism of Belgian nuns

Just two weeks before our Holy Father, Pope Francis, traveled to Poland for World Youth Day 2016, where he visited both Auschwitz and Berkenau Nazi death camps, I received a rather touching letter from Ruth Kurschner, a Holocaust survivor and educator. She wrote about the often forgotten courage of various religious sisters in Europe in the saving of Jewish children during the Shoah. She wrote, “I was a war refugee from Vienna (arriving at age 4 in May 1939 with only my mother — my father arrived one year later due to quota restrictions). I have been a Holocaust speaker in public schools for over 20 years, both on my own and through the Cherry Hill Holocaust Center and also the Philadelphia Holocaust Center.”

She shared with me that she has been concerned all these years that a particular group of what Jews call “The Righteous Among The Nations” — non-Jews who helped to rescue Jews that would have been rounded up by the Nazis — were not often recognized. These “Righteous” were the heroic nuns who helped save many lives during the Second World War.

Ruth wrote, “There is one group that I feel has been neglected over the years in Holocaust education: The Belgian nuns who saved the lives of so many Jewish children.” She added, “I have taught about these brave women whenever I have spoken to school children, and the children have always been very impressed that these religious women dared to defy the Nazis. I personally know a high school friend who lost her entire family but who was saved by the Belgian nuns. I cannot provide her name because it is too traumatic (even now) for her to discuss it at length. She has told her story to someone else who does speak to school children on her behalf.”

Ruth spoke of the anguish of her friend but also of her memory of these good women. She wrote, “I do not know where my high school friend was hidden and which order of nuns saved her. She only said that they moved the children around from time to time ‘when it got bad.’ Again, I cannot ask her for more information nor can I provide her name because it brings her anguish. She came to America after the war and was raised by an aunt in Philadelphia.”

In conclusion Ruth wrote, “I would very much like to see the story about the nuns (and of course others in the Catholic community, both religious and lay) who saved Jewish children publicized to give credit to these brave women because their bravery and compassion are not widely known. It is long overdue to make it known.”

And because of your letter Ruth, these good nuns and their courageous contributions are not forgotten. In that terrible summer of 1942 in Belgium, some 66,000 Jews were trapped under Nazi occupation. When the Nazis began their brutal roundup of Jewish families, Jewish parents searched desperately for a safe place to hide their beloved children. Many of these frightened and vulnerable children found sanctuary in Roman Catholic convents and orphanages. About 3,000 Jews were hidden in Belgian convents during the Nazi occupation of Belgium.

Some 48 Belgian nuns have been honored and recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Many Belgian convents hid Jewish children, presenting them as Catholic. Among them are the Franciscan Sisters in Bruges, the Sisters of Don Bosco in Courtrai, the Sisters of Saint Mary near Brussels, the Dominican Sisters at Lubbeek, the Sisters of Charity and many others.

When one of these elderly sisters was asked why the sisters took the chance that could have ended their own earthly life she mused, “As a Sister of Charity, it was necessary to live up to the name.” And now because of the memory of Ruth Kurschner and her high school friend, the memory of these women of courage will be known to scores of young people in our area, who we pray will remember and tell their children one day of the sisters’ valor.

When Pope Francis entered the gate at Auschwitz, which bears the ignominious words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (Work sets you free), he spoke no words, just stood in silent mourning for the innocents that were slaughtered there. He wrote in Spanish in the guest book, “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!” signing it simply Franciscus. When he finally spoke he said, “How much pain! How much cruelty! Is it possible that we humans created in God’s image are capable of doing these things?”

Unfortunately, yes, but thank God for the good and righteous who stand up to such evil, such as the brave Sisters of Belgium.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.