My Story

A Dutchman in hiding in Belgium

This international congress in Brussels seems to me a good opportunity to render homage to the brave resistance heroes, of whom many paid for it with their life. And also to the many civilians for their aid. But above all to the entire Belgian population for its loyal attitude towards their Jewish fellow-citizens. I should like to render thanks on behalf of all the Dutch persons who were hidden in Belgium.

Thousands of Dutchmen, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have illegally escaped over the border to Belgium during the occupation. The exact number is unknown but both Dr. J. Presser and Dr. L. de Jong mentioned this fact in their books.

It was not their intention to stay in Belgium but to find freedom in Switzerland or England, through Spain and Portugal. After July 1942 this became an extremely risky business. Once in Belgium many Jewish refugees, often families with old people and small children, no longer dared to make this difficult trip and went into hiding in Belgium.

I was one of them. My parents, my eight-year-old sister, Hanneke, and I crossed the border at Baerle Nassau early July 1942, being helped by a "passeur". We arrived safely in Belgium.

My parents knew somebody in Brussels who was able to help us. He was a Jew originated from the Hague who had lived in Brussels for years and run a business there. His name was Maunts Bolle and, as it turned out afterwards, one of the big men of the Jewish resistance in Belgium. Mau Bolle had organised an escape route from the Netherlands through Belgium and France to Switzerland  right at the beginning of the German occupation. As years passed by more and more people made use of this route, not only Jewish Dutchmen, but also students, "England-goers", allied airmen and also Belgians. All these people had to be provided with faked papers and sheltered for days, sometimes for weeks at several addresses before they went on. When we arrived at Mau Bolle's, approximately twenty people stayed at his place.

We also stayed at his place for some days on Avenue Louis Lepoutre. But, as it was holiday season, it was possible to move into one of the hotels in the woody neighbourhood of Brussels without attracting attention. Thus we made-room for others and, in the meantime, we had a sort of holiday.

I realize we have been very lucky. My father knew Mau Bolle, he knew Brussels to a certain extent, spoke French and was not without financial means. Moreover, he had planned the escape for some time. All this was an advantage, especially during the first period.

Very few were that privileged. People had often left helter-skelter, without any Belgian money, arriving in a country which was strange to them, nerve-ridden. Therefore it was of vital importance to know someone one could turn to. Without relations it was virtually impossible to get away.

We knew Mau Bolle and a better connection was unthinkable. He gave us faked papers straight away and we anxiously waited at our hotel in the village Gistoux for the day we could leave for Switzerland. Unfortunately the trip did not go through. The connection over the French/Swiss frontier had fallen out. It was only possible to enter Switzerland on one's own. My parents decided to stay in Belgium then.

Others have tried, however. A number of friends has managed to enter Switzerland. Some had been expelled from Switzerland after having got there and returned to Belgium. This happened to my mother's sister with her husband and two sons. They also went hiding in Belgium and we kept in touch with them on a regular basis.

Summer was drawing to an end and so was holiday season. This meant that staying at the hotel became too risky. Moreover, it would be conspicuous when the children didn't go to school.

There was another family in our hotel, husband, wife and two children. One day the lady approached my mother and said that they were circumstanced as we were. She knew a boarding school in the Ardennes which their children were going to in September and advised my parents to send us to the same school. This is how my sister and I got at a French-speaking boarding school, in the Ardennes.

Mau Bolle arranged a hiding address for my parents in quite a large villa in Uccle, a suburb of Brussels, owned by a divorced lady with two children. She provided board and lodging and was reliable. She was informed which was necessary as my parents didn't have any ration coupons. However, food was bought on the black market, which was no problem as she had relations in the countryside.

People in hiding in Holland usually stayed in a room and did not go outside. This was not the case in Belgium. The least risk was run by behaving as anyone else did.

That's why my sister and I went to that boarding-school. In Belgium it is quite common to send the children to a boarding-school; there are hundreds of them, mostly Catholic. Many schools boarded Jewish children. From official sources it is reported that there were 165 schools that accommodated Jewish children, sometimes a lot of them. A well known example is Home Reine Elisabeth, "Chateau du Faing" a Jamoigne, a school for sons of the military, where 83 Jewish boys were staying.

At our boarding-school boys and girls from 5 to 18 years old attended elementary and secondary school. In total there were approximately 60 people: students, teachers and other personnel. The school was built in a kind of little palace, after renaissance style, and was called "Chateau de Bassines". It was situated near the village of Mean in the district of "Condroz".

The school's principal was called Eugene Cougnet. Since the beginning of the war the school had offered a hospitable home to the persecuted. There were forty Jewish people in hiding. Some of the other twenty persons also needed to hide; they were in the resistance movement or they had to go to Germany to work. People who had money paid, others didn't. The adults made themselves useful by working , they became a teacher, a cook, a baker or they worked in the vegetable garden. The baker e.g. was an economist from Austria, By the way, he baked delicious bread. There was plenty of food for the school was situated in an agrarian area near a big farm. The atmosphere was good, education fine and the surroundings beautiful. I have pleasant memories of those days.

My sister didn't like it so much, she didn't speak French at the time and she felt lonely. My parents happened to meet the Dutch Meddens family, who lived in Brussels for a long time and who had become good friends. They suggested to take my sister in and to send her to the Dutch school "Prinses Juliana". Their children attended that school too. This happened in December 1942 and my sister was hospitably taken in by the Meddens family.

Apart from taking care of more and more dutch refugees Mau Bolle also occupied himself with other resistance activities. His youngest daughter Helene, who was a medical student at the free University of Brussels, brought him into contact with Ghert Jospa and Roger van Praag. He was asked to join their organisation, the Jewish Defence Committee (C.D.J.). The meetings were held at C. Perelman's and other participants were E. goldschmidt and Maurice Heiber, all well-known names within the Jewish resistance in Belgium. Roger van Praag, also a Jewish man originated from the Hague, was on the committee of the Belgian "Help in Winter", a German foundation for those in need (Winterhilfe ) and he managed to use their funds for Jewish children in hiding. In the resistance movement his main concern was to save as many Jewish children as possible. For that he co-operated with Mau Bolle.

Mau Bolle's principal task was helping Dutch refugees. In view of this work the name of the Dutch minister of the Evangelic Church in Brussels, rev. Ten Kate, ought to be mentioned as well. He was also called on by Dutch Jewish refugees and started working together with Mau Bolle. However, financing their assistance became a big problem. People in hiding often had no money themselves.

At this point another interesting resistance fighter emerges, his name is J.B. Nijkerk, a Dutch industrial. He was also concerned al the fate of the Jewish children and tried to do something about it. He made contacts with the Dutch diplomatic representation in Bern, Switzerland. At the time embassy regularly sent couriers to Brussels, who were received by Rev. Ten Kate. These couriers delivered treasuries which were cashed by Rev. Ten Kate. The money had been made available for the sake of the Dutch victims of war by the Dutch government. It is reported that the Jewish international organisation, the Joint, has given money too through the Dutch embassy. Anyhow, the victims were being helped and the financial problems were solved.

Earlier I mentioned the Jewish Defence Committee, a Jewish resistance movement. Which Mau Bolle was closely involved with. This movement decided to stop a train taking deportees to Auschwitz by force of arms as to set the captives free. Bolle, being a smart organizer, was in charge of the operation. However, the plan was rejected by the armed partisans as being too risky, but was nevertheless carried out by three young men without arms. They were Youra Livschitz, Jean Franklemon and Robert Maistreau, it was their first operation. Another young man withdrew but he gave a light revolver to Youra. They put a red light on the rails at about 30 km. after the departure point of the train. When the train stopped they opened the doors with pincers and freed 17 people, then the Germans started shooting. During the ride to the East another 225 people were able to escape through the opened doors.

Bolle participated himself as well in the armed resistance. He manufactured explosives together with Jean Gulissen and took care of the transport. Once it went wrong, taking a letter-bomb to the post-office. On his way he was being detained by an acquaintance. When he arrived at the post-office he saw that because of that delay the time had to be adjusted. Something went wrong and the packet flashed fire. As a panic broke out, he could escape.

Bolle's faked papers became more and more perfect. In June 1943 he succeeded in having false names registered officially, which had the advantage of getting distributions-coupons. The principle was simple. He had a file made in a small village were civil servants co- operated with him. Subsequently he had the people moved on paper, e.g. to Brussels and there they were registered.

My parents got such papers as well. They decided to leave Uccle and to rent a house in their own name on rue du Lac in Ixelles. They had become real Belgians now. There was plenty of room in their rented house and so my sister moved in with her parents again. And I left the boarding-school too in the beginning of October 1943, just in time as we will soon see.

On October 25, 1943 the Feldgendarmerie raided the school and took everybody along with them. The principal Mr. E. Cougnet was deported and did not survive. A plaquette in Mean recalls his great courage that saved forty children.

The rescue of the children was due to the fact that children younger than 15 and without their parents were not being transported to concentration camps but put into children's homes.

This was done by the Germans as to make people believe that the deportees were really set to work and not murdered. Once when the Germans tried to evacuate a home Queen Elisabeth personally intervened and has managed to prevent the deportation of the children. Right before the liberation (September 3 1944) SS-men who had come specially for that purpose wanted to evacuate children homes. The resistance managed to prevent this from happening in the nick of time by sheltering all the children with citizens, when the SS-men arrived the homes were empty.

The gloomy event of the Holocaust at this point seems to be a thrilling adventure, but of course it wasn't. Also in Belgium it's the history of a mass-murder.

In the Netherlands it is often said that the persecution of the Jews in Belgium was less serious than in Holland. This is explained by pointing out that Belgium had a military German government and the Netherlands a civil government. In my opinion this difference did not play any part. In both countries the same German persecuted the Jews fanatically. The orders came directly from Berlin for both Holland and Belgium, The anti-Jewish measures ran parallel, from the discharge of the officials to the introduction of the star and finally the deportation.

No, to my thinking the mentality of the Belgian people, who were less influenced by the German propaganda than the Dutch, accounts for the difference. Of course, there was also betrayal and anti-Semitism, but less. Much more important were the general feeling of solidarity towards the Jewish civilians and the will to do something. Furthermore, the liberation that came nine months earlier than in Holland played an important part of course. Also the royal interference and particularly the application of Queen Elisabeth went a long way.

I have tried to illustrate in a nutshell some experiences of Dutch people hidden in Belgium. This is done with the help of my own experiences combined with what I have been able to find in official reports.

For the sake of completeness I like to mention that both Mau Bolle and R. van Praag were arrested and deported to Buchenwald. Shortly afterwards van Praag was transferred to another camp. He barely survived. After dreadful trials he has been liberated by the American troops. Mau Bolle managed to escape the camp after an aerial bombardment by the Americans on Buchenwald.

After the liberation they both returned to Brussels.

Nico Hamme, March 1995

Two Pictures sent to me by Denise Brachet-Blum, the granddaughter of Mau van Bolle

This lovely site reminds me of my grandfather, who with great tenderness tried to teach me rigour and who was for everybody an example of sincerety and good citizenship.

Foto: Mau van Bolle

My grandpa and I end 1941 before his deportation in july 1943.

Foto: Mau van Bolle

In the castle Stuyvenberg with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium.

Picture of Roger van Praag

Foto: Roger van Praag

Thanks to Mr. Hamme for his website. I am of course very proud of my father. His illegal activities in the war are described in the book "Dictionnaire biographique des Juifs de Belgique" of Jean Philippe Schreiber (edited De Boek, 2002, p.349).
Paul van Praag