JTA NEWS
21 September 2017 - 1 Tishri 5778 - א' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ח
JTA NEWS :
One to One Interview
Silvain Gilbert telling his story of survival as a Hidden Child - Part Two Print E-mail

I lived in Belgium most of my life and I was living in Brussels, only 30 minutes by car to Mont Saint Guibert where I was hidden as a child, but each time I felt like going back there, something stopped me!

Eight years ago, I went back to Belgium for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony was held ten kilometres from Mont Saint Guibert. Suddenly, I felt an impulsion to find the place where I was hidden during the war.


Two images remained in my mind. First, was the grotto, a replica of the original in Lourdes famous for the Bernadette Soubirous’s visions. We had these replicas of the grottos in the garden and as children we played there. Second, was the memory of a big garden connected with an upper street, a little bit hilly. That is all I had to go on.

I stopped a taxi in the street and asked about this grotto in the village but the taxi driver answered there are many grottos in the village. He suggested going to the main street where there is a café where many people gather on Sunday.

The café owner remembered a place with a grotto that belonged to the Marist Brotherhood. She came with me, leaving her busy café.

When we met the last surviving monk, he recounted the story of the castle which belonged to the Prince d’Arenberg family during the First World War. Later it became a monastery and today it is a school but Father Augustijns still remains.

He was cutting the lawn while sitting on a tractor and was covered in mud. I explained to him that I was a hid-den Jewish child during the war and Christian people like him saved my life. With that, we fell into each other’s arms. He then said something I will remember for the rest of my life, “It’s not unusual, Jesus was Jewish!” In the park, he showed me several small grottos representing the Stations of the Cross. But nothing looked like the grotto in my memory.

Returning to the wedding I met a friend who I had last seen when I was 16!

From that friend I learned about an organisation called The Hidden Child in Brussels, which keeps a record of all the Jewish children that were hidden during the war.

Back in Brussels:

The next day I went to The Hidden Child. All the related records were there with the address and the name of the villa called “Massabielle” (after the name of the grotto in Lourdes). They also gave me the telephone number of Annie, another child hidden with me, who was the same age as my sister.

Annie was living in Brussels, so I called her immediately. We met the next morning and after decades apart we fell into each others’ arms crying. Unfortunately her mother was deported but she still had her father after the war. I asked Annie, “Did you go back to Mont Saint Guibert?” and she answered, “I could not.” Today she is a grandmother, has her own company and has had a successful life in Brussels, but she could never face going back! I told her that I had the address and was determined to discover the villa “Massabielle.”


I went back to Mont Saint Guibert - nothing could stop me from finding the Villa. Once I reached number 19, I went into the garden, but the grotto was not there. The owner of the villa came over and invited me into the house. They had bought the house only a few years before. However, the previous owner of the villa was born in Mont Saint Guibert and knew everyone in the village. We called her straight away and she asked for my name, I said that I had changed my name, it was now Gilbert

She replied, “I am Jacqueline Pilloy: you are Sylvain, the brother of Marie-Antoinette...” (my sister was her age and they went to class together). “Yes, of course,” she said, “and Annie, the other girl.”

She explained that the town authorities had changed the numbers of the villas in the street - but everything else was more or less how it used to be. She told me to go a little further along the street and I will be able to find the villa Massabielle. I walked for two minutes and recognised the place immediately!

Again I ran up the stairs into the garden and there it  was: I had found the grotto.... there was no doubt. Still in the grotto, in the same place, was the Virgin Mary statue exactly as before, as the memory of a child of 5 years. The lady owner of this villa came out and again I explained that I was hidden in this villa during the war... as a child. She immediately invited me inside.

As soon as I entered I recognised the stone pavement and the beautiful art deco glass doors. Looking into the living room there was a piano. I remembered there was a piano (another one) exactly in the same place.

The lady asked her husband and children to come to hear the history of their villa. They were astonished to discover such a past. I explained to the children that one and a half million Jewish children were murdered for being Jewish.

I asked the name of the little girl: “Fanny!” she said. It was the same name as our foster mother “Tante (aunt) Fanny”. I don’t think those are just coincidences: I believe it must be my destiny.

I went back to Brussels and asked Annie to join me on my next visit. As she was 3 years older than me she remembered many more details. It was a moment of great emotion to find the bedroom where we slept as four little children together in fear and without our parents. Winters were freezing cold and we didn’t have coal to heat the bedroom.

The trauma has remained with us all our lives. Finally, after a lifetime, I succeeded in finding the villa where we were hidden. That was a deliverance, a relief after so many years.

The birth of an idea:

I had an idea, a feeling, that I had to pay tribute to this Tante Fanny who saved us four children. She had passed away of course a long time ago, in the 1970s. I contacted Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and they made investigations and tried to find her surviving family. After two years, still no successors were found. Finally, Sabine, my wife, found a descendant. It was not easy because “Tante Fanny” was not married but did have a brother, who had also passed away, but we located his daughter-in-law, now a widow and her two children. Sabine decided to check the telephone book and started to call all the people with Degulne surname and she finally was successful.

On 4 June 2009, I was able to organise, in co-operation with Mont Saint Guibert City Hall and the mayor, and with Yad Vashem, a ceremony to recognise Tante Fanny as a Righteous Among the Nations (A recognition to a non-Jew who saved the life of a Jew during the Holocaust).

4 June 2009, Mont Saint Guibert:


It was a day full of surprises. First of all, upon arrival I saw on the City Hall the flag of Belgium, the flag of Wallonia, and also the flag of Israel.

After so many years, returning to a village which had barely changed and looking at the Israeli flag proudly flying above the city hall was very, very moving. My sister came from Paris, Annie was present and the Ambassador of Israel Mrs Tamar Shamash also attended.

The mayor had not been aware of this tragic episode that happened during WW2 in his village. For him and for many villagers it was a revelation that during this period the people of Mont Saint Guibert saved 21 Jewish children.

I took the opportunity to speak at City Hall and explained what had happened then. Everyone was crying. We also spoke to teenagers sharing the same message of tolerance and to accept each other, just as we are. This is the same message I am sharing with students in Hong Kong schools.

I learned this the hard way, because, after the war, we children had become Catholic, no longer Jewish. Abandoned, we had to be with strangers, with different names, speaking different languages, practicing different faiths.

When we found our parents again, they were strangers and again it was a shock. We had to leave our foster mother, who had become our mother. The person who we lived with everyday and who gave us love, food, education, in a word everything. We loved her very much because she was a good person and made important decisions for us.

The ceremony was beautiful. The mayor, Mr Breuer, had organised a buffet to celebrate the event. He then came up with another brilliant idea. He said November 11, Armistice Day, which commemorates the victims of WW1 was to become the tribute day to “Tante Fanny” and we will place a stone plaque on the villa. The new owners of the villa had agreed and were delighted with this suggestion. 11 November 2009, Mont Saint Guibert.

I went back to Belgium for another memorable day. All the veterans with their flags and town dignitaries were present with a military band, and the flag of Israel covering the stone plaque. The Ambassador of Israel came again.

Radio and television networks (RTL and TVI) were present. Later I was on the news in a long interview. The story aired twice that day on prime Belgium TV channels.

On that day I had an enormous surprise. Parking the car in front of a house on the main square, a lady came out, looked at me in a concentrated manner and said, “You are little Sylvain. I recognise you by the sparkle in your eyes.” Immediately she invited me inside her house where she explained that in 1943 (we arrived in the villa in 1942) there was an alert and Tante Fanny did not know where to go with us. Very afraid, she brought us during the night to this house which was the only grocery store in the village. It was quite dangerous don’t forget there was a curfew, nobody was allowed on the street after 10pm.

This lady Denise, now 83, was 17 years-old at that time. An orphan herself, she was helping the lady who managed a little store and was Tante Fanny’s very close friend. She remembered that we were hidden in this house for more than two weeks. She gave many details. She also told me something very moving. I used to say: “Why do we always have to hide?”

What was also quite incredible in the villa Massabielle was that, being a very large villa, the Germans occupied part of it during the entire war. They never even suspected that there were Jewish children hidden there. So during three years every day we were living among them.

Sabine and I decided to come back to the village two days later and make a video of Denise and another older lady, Colettte Marchal. Colette already 80 years old told me that her father was the post office chief during the war. There were people who sent letters that would have incriminated certain villagers, but he destroyed those letters. In fact, there were a lot of partisans in the Resistance in the village. This man saved a lot of people. He was killed two days before the end of the war. Since she was his daughter she took over the post office. She was fifteen at the time and kept this position all her life. She told me that I was often playing with two other boys of my age at the back of the garden where they had their home. At this moment I realized why I remembered the garden so well.

The ceremony:

The ceremony was very special, particularly to have the veterans there. Many groups of children were present. It was a public holiday but instead of going elsewhere they choose to be part of that special day with us.

After the ceremony, a party was held in City Hall with food and drinks but also a question time for the young people. At least 200 children were present, and I explained our terrible experience during the war.

The children asked very good questions. Some other hidden children (our guests) told their own odyssey. All in all it was memorable. As for most of the people in the village this story was unknown. They realized how courageous and brave Tante Fanny was along with the other families who risked their lives to save 21 Jewish children.

Finally, I had been successful in having Tante Fanny’s name commemorated with all the other Righteous in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem. As a Catholic devoted to God, her name is there in Jerusalem, the same city where Jesus was crucified, and I think if she hears me today ( I am sure she does) she will see me, the little Sylvain who was 5 years old during the Shoah and grew up as a man of 72 years old today, who is grateful for ever because she saved my life.

I think I cannot give her a better tribute. Merci - thank you - Toda raba Tante Fanny.

Sylvain Gilbert (Hong Kong March 2010)
For more talks and life participations related to Holocaust events, Sylvain can be reached by email on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

Special thanks to:
• Yad Vashem
• Mr Breuer, Mayor of Mont Saint Guibert.
• The present owners of Villa Massabielle for allowing the stone plaque to be placed on the villa.
• Denise and Colette for their vibrant memory.
• Family Degulne who gave me pictures of Tante Fanny.
• And, to all the people of Mont Saint Guibert who directly or indirectly changed my life.

(Issue April 2010)

 
Silvain Gilbert telling his story of survival as a Hidden Child - Part One Print E-mail

Hong Kong resident Silvain Gilbert lives out on Clearwater Bay and enjoys a daily swim, though not when it’s below a certain temperature as the territory has experienced early 2010. He looks fine.

His appearance though belies a traumatic childhood as he fi gures among the multitude of Jewish people who lived or were born in the period of WWII and happened to be in Europe, under the heavy boot of the Nazi Germans.

Gilbert tells his story to Jewish Times Asia about his personal account and experiences as a child growing up in Belgium. (This is part one, his return to the village of his saviour will be told in the next issue).

Gilbert was born in 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium, then one of the biggest harbours in the world. In 1942 at the start of what the Germans called The “Final Solution,” which meant the deportation of all the Jews to concentration camps and the killing of them, Jewish families were confronted with something that had never happened before.

Here is Gilbert’s thoughts and recollections in his own words:


Behind the monstrosity of the holocaust and the statistics and the awful history telling that the Nazi Germans murdered six million Jews, nearly two thirds in Europe that were occupied, there is the further terrible number that among those killed one and a half million were children.

A child is born innocent and doesn’t know what life is about or what it means to be Jewish, or anything about life and death.

Along with their families, children were taken to the concentration camps and if a child was found to be under 16 that child was directly transferred to one of the gas chambers and burnt. This is something that no words can describe, not for me.

Suddenly, you were not a citizen in your own country, you had lost your identity and all your belongings. They came in the middle of the night, breaking your doors and windows, One-to-One Interview Silvain Gilbert telling his story of throwing you into a truck and sending you by coal wagon to a concentration camp.

I was born into a family with an elder sister, and my parents were in their early thirties. Suddenly I was sent into a clandestine life.

In Antwerp the Germans had the help of the local police, and even the mayor of Antwerp, with the Flemish police exporting the Jews, not the Germans, and that was a big difference.

It started with anti-Semitism all over Europe and in Antwerp. What was one to do and how to save yourself if you had no home, no money and on your ID card they put a big J meaning Jew. This was done in whatever language to identify you. In reality you were not different from anyone else, in my case, I was only a fi ve year old child. How was I to understand this?

How does a small child understand life and death? You are just a little kid and suddenly there is a death penalty imposed. Death penalty anyway is for murderers, for monsters and all, but for a child of that age? Just because this particular child is born Jewish, there is the death penalty.

This is something the world should try to understand, how parents can give comfort to myself and my sister who was only ten years old. What was happening and why?

Then we were suddenly abandoned, nowhere to hide, no ID cards, which you need for ration coupons to get food. We were not citizens of the country anymore we could not get food coupons.

A Jewish mother could not give birth in a maternity hospital, nor any hospital, you are nobody and that is very diffi cult to understand for a child. As a citizen in a country the Jews were not allowed to exist.

Going underground takes some organisation. There were 70,000 to 75,000 Jews in Belgium, in Antwerp and its suburb alone about 35,000.

In the month of September, 17,000 Jews of Antwerp were deported to Auschwitz. (The main place where 25,000 Jews perished during the Shoah).

In Gilbert’s case he was a little more fortunate. His father had a business partner, George Smeyer and they were in the diamond industry and Antwerp was then a centre of the diamond trade. His partner was Flemish not Jewish. Gilbert recalls: when we fi rst had to go into hiding, I was hidden with George Smeyer and my sister was hidden with his sister.

My mother succeeded in escaping when the local police arrived looking for Jewish families by taking the garden way out. She went to George Smeyer.

My father was already in a camp, not a concentration camp but a hard labour camp in the north of France near Boulogne.

In the summer of 1942, two months before, they took all young Jewish men there were several thousand and sent them to a camp in Dannes-Camier to build bunkers. My father succeeded in escaping but that is another story.

However, this left my mother alone so we had to fi nd a place to hide. At that time there were Jewish partisans in an organisation for children (O.N.E) that helped the Jews in various ways, for example helping young mothers to get milk, things like that.

Also the Christian churches, Belgium being 99 per cent Catholic were asked to volunteer to save Jewish children. Fortunately some did, everything had to be organised in very little time.

There were some convents, some monasteries, also other Christian institutions that opened places and there were families willing to take the considerable risk to hide a child orb children.

In my case there was a lady who was 65 years of age, single, never having married and she was living in a tiny little village of 1,200 people in the south part of the country called Walloon.

The village name was Mont St Guibert and this village saved 21 Jewish children. Many families in that one village openly volunteered and risked their lives saving those children.

If the Germans had caught them they would have been deported or killed. And proof of that is the priest who came to bring us to a meeting point, to take us to the village of Mont St Guibert, which is about 60km south of Brussels. With no papers, nothing, bringing people from the north of the country to the south was really very risky and when the Germans caught that priest he was killed.

What is interesting now is, on asking those people after the war about their motivation, why, they simply said, “How can we accept that innocent children should be killed?” They didn’t think about their actions. It was spontaneous.

The lady that saved me and my sister was a devout Catholic. So we arrived in September 1942, and we were separated from our parents.

My mother visited us a few times but it was very risky for her. My reaction at the time was to deeply question why I cannot stay with my parents, my mummy and daddy, what’s wrong? Did I do something wrong, am I guilty? They could not explain and there is so much left unexplained still today.

Every hidden child all 3,500 Jews in Belgium were saved like this. Everyone has the same traumatic experience, the separation they had, no one can replace your parents.

It was a shock that we were suddenly in a new place that looked very peaceful, very serene. You see the countryside and not the city, with horses, so different and so far away from the big city. In fact it was also a shock to be suddenly with a lady 65 years old.

When you are only fi ve, a woman of 65 years looks very old. In those days people’s life, their longevity was not like today, people really looked old. My parents were young and that was what I was used to.

But, we had to adapt. Not only to the physical situation, which was one thing but to adapt to the language as we were speaking Flemish or Dutch you can say, and Yiddish, and suddenly we had to speak French with a local dialect Walloon, which was a sort of French but quite different. On top of that we had to fi t in like any other child in the village, we could not be different. Physically we were not different.

But my parents were traditional Jewish and suddenly I had to pray as a Catholic, before meals, and in the evening before sleeping. We had to pray all the time because our foster mother was very devoted to her faith. We had to go to mass on Sunday, not once but three times, and we had to learn the Catholic catechism.

We were with nuns when we went to school and I even had to help the priest as an alter boy. Something which is quite funny is a picture of me parading through the village with the Virgin Mary statue. I became completely Catholic and still now today I can recite the prayers and know all the details about the Catholic faith.

Our protector lady was amazing because she had no children but managed to adapt. Afterwards, two little girls came, she saved four children in total.

One of the girls was from Brussels she was eight years old her mother was already deported. Her father survived while her brother was hidden with another family which also saved four children.

The other girl who we called Suzanne, we were not sure if it was her real name, for example my sister’s name was Toni and it looked a little bit German so we changed it to Marie-Antoinette.

Our lady protector was living with an old lady cousin who was sick, she could not do anything and in fact she passed away in 1946, just after the war ended. This lady we called “Tante Fanny” (Aunt).

Today it looks strange but we also changed our family name, Silber became Gilbert. Being Jewish we had to change our identity. And that is something very hard to accept, changing your identity. When people call your name, you have to react.

Thus we survived the war, my father succeeded in escaping from the camp in France and got back to Belgium to find my mother in Brussels.

They located a place to hide where they stayed during the war but towards the end my father went once onto the street and was captured by the Gestapo. He was tortured because he had fake ID papers.

He admitted he was a Jew, and again he was put on a train but somehow he succeeded to jump from the wagon, at night. In fact, it was April 1943, on the eve of the Passover, that he jumped and came back home where he remained during the war.

We were lucky as we survived and that was number one and we found our parents after the war. Most children did not find their parents. The trauma was there all my life and the best proof of this is that it took me a lifetime to go back to the village of Mont St Guibert.


Interviewed by Tony Henderson

(Issue March 2010)

 

 
Amikam Levy, Israel's Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau - 'getting the job done'. Print E-mail

Amikam Levy arrived in Hong Kong to take up the post of Consul General of Israel in HKSAR and Macau SAR in September 2008. From 2003 to 2008 he was Head of Regional Administration office for Asia and Africa, titled Ambassador at the Ministry and from 2001 to 2003 he was Ambassador of Israel to Vietnam and Laos. He has spent 35 years in the Foreign Ministry - after leaving the IDF where he reached the rank of Deputy Commander.

He now commands a consulate in this important gateway to mainland China, with a staff of 119, in this tiny place. Amikam Levy speaks highly of Hong Kong, telling that as a place to effect his duties life is just a lot lighter than he has experienced elsewhere.


You wake up in the morning as the head of office in Hong Kong and you want to do something, well you can, you can do it easily, because the environment, because of the facilities, because of the energy here and because of the concept [one country two systems] and mainly because this model works.

The citizens respect the government a lot and the government respects the citizens. At the end of the day the result is a very efficient machine, because it's an international hub and a unique place.

You can really go ahead over a wide range of issues of economy, trade, culture - not politics because this place behaves like an independent country except for two issues, security and foreign relations.

In the Foreign Ministry we work to a yearly plan, together with the head office with timetables, noting all the potential obstacles, the barriers such as human resources limitations, we consider the timing and the possibilities.

Looking back and starting from this November: in the middle of November the secretary of environment Mr Edward Yau Tang-wah will pay an official visit to the State of Israel. He will participate in the WATEC exhibition dealing the environmental technologies, alternative energies, and we have finalised his programme. He will visit the Deputy Foreign Minister, he will visit leaders from the economic sector in Israel, also four leading companies concerned with environmental technologies and he will participate in a very professional panel at the Trade Ministry.

He will meet the electric car and charging station system founder Shai Agassi, who is mounting an effort to make electric cars part of ordinary life in Israel over the next decade. Mr Agassi's organisation is called Project Better Place, and this inventor will try to build 500,000 electric charging stations in the country where attendants will swap out depleted batteries and put in fully charged ones.

Agassi is an Israeli and the bulk of the company's US$200 million in funds comes from investors in Israel. The idea is that the scheme will come to Hong Kong before anywhere else. Edward Yau will meet people from the academic world. He will meet three ministers: of the environment, the Foreign Minister for Justice, also the Deputy Foreign Minister - who is also the president of the biggest company in Israel dealing with environmental technology.

The framework of the visit is to cover the environmental issues connected with water, energy, and clean technologies.

Parallel to that visit we will have the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) visiting Israel. A very senior government official will lead that delegation as fits such a professional trade body and they will participate in WATEC as well.

In between all this, Ambassador Reuven Merhav, former Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and first Israeli Consul General to Hong Kong, will come here. He will give a talk to the community and the Israeli Chamber of Commerce. In the Chamber he will speak of the economy and at the Jewish Community Centre.

On 18 October this year we succeeded in sending to Israel Paul Chan the chief editor of the Ming Pao, the first time in ten years that a journalist of his rank will visit from Hong Kong.

Ming Pao was selected as the most credible Chinese language newspaper as it aims at providing comprehensive and accurate reports on political and economic issues in Hong Kong and mainland China. The Ming Pao is read in China so for us this is an important newspaper.

Paul Chan visited Israel for a week and we provided all the expenses. He met leaders from the Foreign Ministry, from the media at the same level. He saw for himself the south and the north and the Dead Sea area where he could relax. He participated in a presidential conference at the 22 October. He now knows about the situation in Israel on the ground.

Other activities lately completed include a promotion of Dead Sea products - the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth 427 metres below sea level, it is a most interesting place and I want to let the Chinese know about it. Five companies provided the contents of that exhibition and over 80 local companies and individuals took part. There was a lecture on the Dead Sea and it was clear that a lot of business was being discussed.

Before that we had a special event in co-operation with the Israeli Chamber of Commerce where we managed to create a Jewish Food Festival. This was a first of its kind for us. The Under Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, was our guest of honour and cut the ribbon.

This proved to be a great platform for Israeli foods where our Chabad, our Chamber, and our consulate co-operated.

There are six communities in all across this territory, four on the Island and two on the Kowloon side. We have a local Jewish population of about 2,500 in Hong Kong.

The festival aimed to introduce Israeli food and culture to the local Chinese and the international community and for the benefit of the Jewish community.

Another activity that is important and that we are working hard to finalise is a cultural Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Hong Kong and Israel where we declare together our will to co-operate government to government on cultural events. I consider cultural activities high priority as well as the economic and political activities. You cannot say this is the first and this is the second because all these are important.

This is about communication with the government, with the Jewish community.

The reason for our being here is to communicate about economic, political, and cultural matters. It is a privilege to see these matters progress in all these areas. We are agreed in principle, it's just the legal advice and checking drafts now. Soon there will be an official signing ceremony.

In another sphere in the relations between the Israeli and Hong Kong governments we have an agreement on IT and high technology. We have yet to finalise the agreement details on customs and on double taxation.

This November the Chief Information Officer, government of Hong Kong, will go to Israel on behalf of Invest Hong Kong which is a powerful firm headed by Simon Galpin which has a branch in Israel as one of 27 branches across the world. This marks another milestone in the relations between Hong Kong and Israel.

On my trips to and around Macau two aspects of potential business struck me following my observations of certain lacks which lie in the areas of education and medicine.

Now that a calm has come into Israel life I have initiated activities with El Al to promote tourism to Israel. We have held two lunches and briefings and we are informing the travel industry of this new calm - it has not been like this for years. After the Gaza operation the south is quiet. Lebanon is quiet. There is a new government in charge.

(Issue November 2009)

 
<< Start < Prev 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Next > End >>


Warning: Parameter 1 to modMainMenuHelper::buildXML() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/joomla789/domains/jewishtimesasia.org/public_html/libraries/joomla/cache/handler/callback.php on line 99
Jewish Times Asia is published by Jewish Times Asia Ltd. © Copyright 2017.
Material in the newspaper or on this site may not be used or reproduced in any form or in any way without permission from the editor.
While every effort has been made to ensure the content is true and accurate, the publisher is not responsible for any errors or omissions in the printed text.