“It’s a maniac who started this hatred and he just fueled what was already there. And that’s not God. That’s man.”
- Jeannine Burk
Jeannine Burk (Rasalowicz) was born in Brussels, Belgium, on September 15, 1939. This was two weeks after Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began. Jewish people had a long history in Belgium. Sixty thousand lived there, mostly in Brussels and Antwerp. Many were deeply assimilated into Belgian culture and national life. Half were foreign-born. During the war the country’s geography (no mountains, no large forests) and its dense population made Jewish rescue particularly difficult.
Jeannine Burk and her father circa 1942
Jeannine’s parents Isaac and Sarah emigrated from Poland to Belgium in 1927, along with the post-World War I wave of Jews who fled violent anti-Semitism in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. These Jews were hoping to find security and opportunity in Western Europe, and their arrival in great numbers led to a surge of anti-Semitism, which was rampant after WWI.
Isaac Rasalowicz was a machinist and had connections in the labor movement. These connections proved important during the war when rescue became the order of the day. Jeannine’s older siblings were Max and Augusta. The family was working-class and poor, similar to many other immigrant families from “the east.”
After conquering Poland in the autumn of 1939, Hitler turned his attention to France and Great Britain. Beginning in April 1940 the German armies swept across Western Europe, smashing to oblivion one picturesque town after another. The Belgian army was overwhelmed and capitulated on May 28, 1940. King Leopold III decided that the best path to the nation’s survival was collaboration with the Germans. The local Nazis (Rexists) were eager accomplices in plunder and mass-murder.
There was much less public violence in Western Europe and no disease ridden ghettos in the middle of cities and towns as in Nazi-occupied Poland. The sadism wasn’t in the open. The machinery of destruction proceeded with a surprising concern for public opinion. The “final solution” was supposed to be secret, certainly in the West. The usual steps towards annihilation followed. The Nazis issued a definition of “Jew” and ordered Jews to register and have their passports stamped with ‘Jude’. Jewish property was ‘Aryanized’ (that is, purchased at reduced prices - or simply expropriated). Many non-Jewish Belgians profited off the “resettlement” of Jews. Greed played a big role. Apartments and businesses were suddenly available – not to mention art collections. In August 1941, Jews were concentrated in four cities: Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi, and Liege. Three months later the Nazis ordered the formation of a Jewish Council (Association des Juifs de Belgique). The Belgian-Jewish resistance fighter Jacob Gutfreind would later describe the Judenrat as “a tool in the hands of the Gestapo to facilitate the deportation of the Jews.” In May 1942, Jews were ordered to wear a patch on their chests with a yellow “Star of David” and the word “Jude” in black letters.
In May 1942, the Jews were ordered to wear the yellow Star of David patch. The Nazis invariably employed deceit and deception. They said that the Jews would be “resettled” to the East to work in factories and on farms. People didn’t know that a death camp awaited them. That was impossible to imagine. There was no precedent for mass-murder using gas chambers. This was a German invention.
Isaac Rasalowicz didn’t wait until the last minute. He was in touch with the resistance movement. He hoped to find hiding places for the four members of his family and himself. He would be successful on all accounts except his own.
The Belgian resistance movement included many groups (Catholics, communists, etc.) under the name “National Front of Belgian Independence.” Jewish resistance groups joined this organization and took the name “National Committee for the Defense of the Jews.” Before the deportations began, this organization prepared a network of Christian hiding places for Jewish children. It was well known that Christians caught harboring Jews were packed off to a concentration camp – or executed. That was the Nazi penalty. In the documentary Jeannine tells us that her father arranged for a Christian family (a mother and two daughters) to hide her. She describes her father taking her by tram to the woman’s apartment in a working-class Brussels suburb: “My father took me inside, and I remember he had a suitcase but I hadn’t paid much attention to it, and that was the last time I saw my father.”
The woman was paid for her efforts but nonetheless took a big risk. That she was compensated didn’t explain her courage. Jeannine spent the next two years as a “hidden child” in this woman’s care: “She saved my life. She saved my life. I know it, as sure as I’m sitting here telling you this. She saved my life.”
Jeannine didn’t know her rescuer’s name until many years later. Her name was Kudrna, and she lived at 137 Rue de L’Obus in the Anderlecht district of Brussels. Jeannine didn’t have stereotypical Jewish features but nonetheless but she was kept out of sight. It would do no good to have the neighbors asking questions, but we can take it for granted that not all the neighbors were ignorant of what was going on.
Jeannine didn’t feel human warmth or affection during her stay. She was lonely: “I used to have imaginary friends. I had no friends. For two years, I never played with anyone.” She left the apartment only to play in the backyard. When the Germans paraded down the street, she hid in the “outhouse.” “I was so scared. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but I knew that I was scared,” she remembers. “And I remember going to furthest, littlest corner of this ‘outhouse,’ absolutely petrified.”
On one memorable occasion a “pussy cat” appeared. Jeannine brought the cat to her chest: “It was something to hold. I had nobody to make me feel better. I had no one to reassure me that it was gonna be okay. So it was, I think, I held that pussy cat for dear life. Because it was so frightening.”
With the connivance of the administrators, Max was sheltered in “a Christian home for boys.” His physical appearance and perfect French served him well. He didn’t hide but lived openly while “passing” as a Catholic. His situation remained precarious. A Jewish male was particularly vulnerable because he was circumcised - unlike non-Jewish men. Jeannine’s sister Augusta suffered from Osteomyelitis, a disease which left her in a cast and bedridden. In the summer of 1942, as the deportations drew near, she waited for an opening in a hospital. Her parents remained with her at home. Otherwise they would have already gone into hiding.
The Germans began with the deportation of foreign-born Jews from Belgium, knowing that this would make for less protest from the native-born Jews and the non-Jewish population. This was an effective tactic that the Germans employed across Europe.
In the early summer of 1942 the Jews were ordered to assemble at various points for “resettlement” for “work” in “the east.” The Belgian queen protested. Jewish resistance fighters raided the Judenrat office in Brussels and burned lists of Jewish names and addresses that the Germans needed to facilitate the deportations. Between June 1942 and July 1944, the Nazis and their collaborators deported 25,437 Jewish people from Belgium to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland. Twenty-four thousand didn’t return, including Jeannine’s father. Roughly half of the Jewish population survived the Nazi-occupation in Belgium; only 12% of Jews in neighboring Holland survived.
Jeannine believes that a neighbor betrayed her parents and sister. The neighbor let it be known to the Gestapo that Jews were living in the house. In every country of Nazi-occupied Europe, local people collaborated with the Nazis who, as in Germany, relied on informers. Rewards were offered, and greed triumphed. Jeannine gives a graphic description of her father’s arrest, based on what she learned after the war.
The Gestapo arrived at 5:00 o’clock in the morning and kicked in the back door. Jeannine’s father was arrested and taken away in a truck. Jeannine’s mother refused to leave her daughter Augusta who lay in bed entombed in a body cast. “And my mother said, ‘You can shoot me here. But I’m not leaving my daughter.’” The Germans vowed to return but meanwhile the nuns at the Catholic hospital made available a bed for Augusta in the isolation ward, knowing that the Germans would be reluctant to stick their noses in there. She spent the remainder of the war immobile – but out of harm’s way. Jeannine’s mother found safety at a “prearranged nursing home” working as a practical nurse. She survived the rest of the war “passing” as a Christian (her physical appearance raised no eyebrows). Jeannine’s father was put on a transport to Nazi-occupied Poland. Nobody knew what happened to him.
When the Allies liberated Brussels in September 1944, Sarah retrieved Jeannine from Madame Kurdna’s apartment and together the two went to the hospital and collected Augusta (and thanked the nuns). Max returned from the “Christian home for boys.” In Belgium, twenty-thousand Jewish people managed to survive four years of German occupation. Some were hidden by Christians while others “passed” as Christians (with forged identity papers). Three thousand Jewish children were saved through the efforts of the Belgian resistance movement. The occasional miracles were necessary: nineteen Jewish children were hidden in a church in the center of Brussels – and narrowly eluded a Gestapo search.
The end of the war brought scant happiness. Jeannine remembers waiting for her father to return after the war, “and I guess it was three months after we were home we found out that my father had been exterminated at Auschwitz.” Jeannine makes it very clear that she lost her faith in God: “I never denied the fact that I was Jewish. I just didn’t believe.” And she didn’t forgive the perpetrators. “I can’t forgive. I have no way. It’s not in me. I know it’s not right, maybe, intellectually at some level, I understand that. There is no way that I can forgive. I can’t.”
Jeannine’s mother died of cancer in 1950. Both Max and Augusta married and started their families. It was deemed best for Jeannine to live with relatives in a suburb of New York City, and thus began another unhappy chapter of her life. She arrived in the United States in 1951 on her twelfth birthday. Her relatives treated her unkindly. Eager to get away, she married early, and unwisely. When the marriage collapsed, she found herself a single mother raising two boys.
Jeannine married Maurice Burk, a widower, in 1971 and moved to New Orleans. “He was God’s gift to me,” she says. The two raised six children: two of hers, four of his. They had fourteen grandchildren. For many years Jeannine “had these fantasies that my father was alive.” Then, in 1986, Jeannine attended a convention of Holocaust survivors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was the memorable occasion when she was shown a German document and finally came to terms with her father’s death: “You see, the Germans, the bastards, were so meticulous in record keeping, they had actually handwritten the name of every Jew they had deported.”
Jeannine travelled to Brussels with Maurice in 2003. She located the house where she had been a “hidden child” and learned her rescuer’s surname (Kudrna).
Jeannine and Maurice flew to Cracow, Poland, and took the short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is today a museum. They walked the grounds and the next day flew to Israel.
Jeannine Burk after presentation on her experiences
For many years Jeannine has visited schools and shared her experiences with young people: “Because I think that’s why I survived. Survivors have to go through a guilt process, I guess. I used to ask myself: why did I live? Why wasn’t I taken with my father? And this is why: because this can never be forgotten.”Maurice died on June 10, 2013. Jeannine made her Bat Mitzvah on September 19, 2015, four days after her 76th birthday. In honor of Maurice, she wore his prayer shawl (tallis). She recently said, “I believe in God now more than I did before – because of Maurice. He was God’s gift to me. God said, ‘Alright, you’ve had enough.’ But I’m not gung ho.”