Suzanne Vromen, Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010. $17.95, ISBN 978-0-19-973905-9 (paperback), pp. xiii + 178
Reviewed by: Paul Moore, Birkbeck College, University of London, April 2011
1.5 million Jewish children were killed during the Holocaust, while 100,000 or so ‘hidden children’ survived. It is estimated that some 200 institutions run by Belgian nuns sheltered children during the war (30). Suzanne Vromen’s study addresses those hidden children who were sheltered in Belgian convents, and the nuns who saved them. Such a topic is valuable on many levels, not least that Belgium remains under-researched as a nation with regards to the Holocaust, as Vromen herself notes (7). Furthermore, the Catholic Church enjoyed huge influence in Belgian life, and was therefore, Vromen argues, ‘the only institution to remain untouched by the occupation’ (2). When the round-ups of summer 1942 prompted half of the 60,000 Jews in Belgium to escape deportation and death by going into hiding, many sought its protection as a result. A key role was played by the Committee for the Defence of Jews, a network established in August 1942 by the communist Independence Front movement within the Belgian resistance, which escorted children from their parents to the convents. The CDJ is estimated to have saved roughly 2,500 children, about half of the Jews in Belgium who managed to elude the Nazi deportations.
Vromen’s study is almost exclusively based upon interviews with former hidden children and nuns who hid them, and is organized into four chapters. The first half of the book deals with the experiences of the children and of the nuns, respectively. The third chapter is devoted to the Belgian Resistance itself, and in particular to the escorts who, working for the CDJ, conveyed the children to their hiding places. Chapter four discusses memory and commemoration of hidden children and their rescuers. Only in the last twenty years have hidden children gained recognition as ‘a distinct category of victims’ (120). Rescuers were frequently met with ingratitude, and the parents of rescued children often suspected that financial motivations had been paramount in the actions of convents in hiding Jewish children (122). Vromen also shows the major role of gender in the recognition – or lack thereof – of priests and nuns who had rescued children; the gendered nature of memory is, she argues, in large measure responsible for the lack of acknowledgment of the ‘quieter enabling acts’ of the nuns (142).
Vromen presents a differentiated account, in which ‘convents and orphanages differed markedly from each other’, resulting in a great diversity in the experiences of the hidden children (4). This ‘clearly dispels the one-dimensional notion of convents and nuns often held by outsiders’. Vromen also sets up a wider important distinction within the Belgian Church, with ‘Belgium’s higher clergy’ overwhelmingly standing aloof from this humanitarian project – ‘it was the lower clergy – parish priests and nuns – who spontaneously extended their help’ (2) She notes the divergences of memory between the nuns and the children, which she attributes in part to ‘the tensions of convent life’. Few nuns spoke of discipline problems, but harsh punishments did, in contrast, figure in the recollections of some of the children: ‘By asserting repeatedly that the hidden children were treated like all others, the nuns justify their behaviour in their own eyes.’ (4) Vromen is unafraid of confronting the more controversial aspects of the topic, noting for example the unacknowledged sexual tension between younger nuns and their older male charges (70), and the recollection of one woman, hidden as a girl, of a ‘perverse’ chaplain given to ‘caressing’ girls in the infirmary, although Vromen scrupulously notes that this was the only remark of its kind during her interviews. Some nuns also voiced anti-Semitic sentiments, attributable in part to the orthodox views of the nuns, following the Vatican line, of the Jews as the killers of Christ, and the conflict this presented with their rescue mission (22).
Throughout, Vromen attempts to restore agency to the nuns, dismissing as ‘mindless generalizations’ the immediate post-war historiography that tended to view the women as docile, servile cogs in the church machine. On the contrary, Vromen argues, the fact of occupation and resistance saw convents cooperate of necessity with outside institutions and individuals in a context in which ‘former rules had broken down’; ‘intelligent participation’ saw the nuns exercise initiative, ‘and in the process they revealed the complexity of their universe’ (76). Indeed, those German nuns within Belgian institutions came to be highly valued as negotiators with the occupiers (54-5). Vromen notes that while the German authorities ‘tended to avoid violent confrontations with Catholic institutions’, the nuns nevertheless feared reprisals for discovery of their acts of rescue (61). In general, nuns exaggerated the risk of reprisals, but the unpredictability of German punishment made the threat seem very real (56-7).
The key role of the mother superior is a central focus of the study. She was ‘not unlike a CEO’ (78), a ‘monarchic’ figure’ (77). Having been contacted in the first instance by the Resistance, local priests, or parents, they alone made the decision, without prior consultation with the rest of the convent, and usually without discussion with the Church hierarchy either, to admit a Jewish child to their institution (48). The practicalities left to them, the nuns were then forced to improvise; this in spite of the fact that frequently the nuns were themselves ‘kept in the dark as much as possible’, often acquiring knowledge of the Jewish children in their care via gossip or being let in on the secret on a need-to-know basis (49). The closed nature of the convent as an institution aided the maintenance of secrecy so essential to the rescue project (144).
Some minor points of criticism may be made. It is questionable whether the reader needs to have explained to him or her that ‘what became the state of Israel was called Palestine in 1945’ (2). The book is relatively brief, at less than 150 pages, and could have been expanded by a comparative perspective: Vromen herself notes that the book was originally intended as a study of Belgium, France and Poland (xi), and that comparisons with the Dutch experience could also have been illuminating (144). Potentially interesting aspects that could have received more sustained attention are mentioned in passing, such as ‘pro-German’ nuns and refusals by convents to take children in (144). Vromen raises the tendency of the nuns in contemporary interviews to evade or gloss over issues such as baptism and conversion, ‘arguing that the children had to conform to rituals for security reasons but were not pressured into doing anything they did not want to’, a claim not corroborated by all of the rescued children she interviewed (4). Elsewhere, however, more critique of the problems of oral history might have been made; lengthy paraphrases and/or quotes from the interviewees are reproduced at the expense of more analysis. The book is written with great empathy throughout, and occasional wry humour. The tendency towards the commemorative is evidenced by an appendix listing those Belgian nuns honoured as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ (149-51), and is perhaps in part attributable to Vromen’s declared personal identification with the stories she tells.
This is nevertheless an important contribution to the historiography of a still-neglected aspect of the Holocaust, as well as to that of women in religious institutions, and succeeds admirably in reinstating the voices and agency of the individuals described.