Charlie Hilsberg was five years old when his parents determined that it was no longer possible to keep their children safe, once the Nazis began rounding up and deporting Jews from Brussels in 1942. They decided to seek the help of the Jewish Defense Committee (Comité de defense des Juifs – CDJ), a clandestine Belgian Jewish rescue organization, in finding a place to hide him.
For the next three years, Charlie lived as a Christian with two different Belgian families, and in a convent. By the time the war was over, his parents, one of his sisters, and one of his brothers were dead — murdered at Auschwitz. Only Charlie, one brother and a sister survived.
To a large extent, Charlie — now Prof. Shaul Harel — owes his life to CDJ’s founders and 300 Jewish and non-Jewish activists, who risked their own lives to save between 3,000 and 4,000 Jewish children and aid more than 10,000 Jewish adults.
On Wednesday, 74 years after the end of World War II, Harel finally had the chance to thank the family of two CDJ founders, Hertz (Ghert) Jospa and his wife Hava (Yvonne) Jospa. In a Jerusalem hotel lobby, Harel met for the first time the Jospas’ son Paul, and Paul’s son Gilles, who had come to Israel from Brussels. They are in Israel to see the “Jewish Rescuers Citation” conferred on 11 leading members of the CDJ, including Hertz and Yvonne Jospa.
The citations were presented on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day at a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony organized by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF). The event, which took place at the B’nai B’rith Martyrs’ Forest in the Jerusalem mountains, is the only one dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust.
Since the establishment of the Jewish Rescuers Citation in 2011, nearly 270 heroes have been honored for rescue activities in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Holland and Belgium.
Wednesday’s meeting between Harel and the Jospas provided The Times of Israel with an exclusive opportunity to hear and share the men’s stories.
“It was a rare honor to bring together the son and grandson of Hertz and Hava Jospa — one of the heroes of this rescue effort — and one of 3,000 rescued children,” said B’nai B’rith World Center Director Alan Schneider.
“I am pleased to meet you and to learn about the Jospa family,” Harel, an emeritus professor of pediatric neurology at Tel Aviv University, said as he sat down for a conversation with Paul and Gilles Jospa.
There was no need for the Jospas to go into detail about the founding and operations of CDJ, as Harel, 81, had already dug deep into that history after deciding two and a half decades ago to finally research what happened to him during the war. He went on to write a book about it, titled, “A Boy Without A Shadow” (with Hebrew and French editions).
On the eve of the German invasion of Belgium on May 10, 1940, there were 66,000 Jews in the country — but more than 90% of them were not Belgian citizens, as many had come to escape persecution in other countries. Most of the Jews lived in four cities: Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and Charleroi.
The Nazis imposed increasingly harsh restrictions on the Jews of Belgium, and as of January 1942, Jews were forbidden from leaving the country. (Some Jews had managed to be among the 2 million Belgians who earlier fled the country upon the German invasion. Harel’s family reached France, but after being being rounded up and incarcerated on Vichy orders, they escaped and returned to Brussels.)
On Nazi orders, the Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB) — essentially the Belgian Judenrat — required all Jews to register their whereabouts. The Jewish underground group CDJ, which was established in the summer of 1942, encouraged resistance and warned Jews not to comply.
The CDJ was established by the Front de l’Indépendance (FI), one of the major movements of the Belgian Resistance. Hertz Jospa, who was active with the FI, convinced its leadership to establish a committee to defend Jews. Fortunately, the Belgian Resistance viewed the rescue of Jews as integral to resistance against the Nazis overall. The CDJ was also recognized by the Belgian Government-in-Exile in London.
Among the CDJ’s eight founding members, seven were Jewish and one, Emile Hambresin, was a left-wing Catholic. Almost all Jewish organizations along the ideological, political, and religious spectrums were represented in the CDJ. Bitter rivalries were put aside to focus on the rescue of Jews, especially children.
The CDJ created two main administrative departments — one for adults and one for children. Sub-departments dealt with administration, finance, false papers, food rations cards, and underground media. The organization was financially supported by Banque de Bruxelles, the Société Belge de Banque, and others. Many employers of CDJ members continued to pay their salaries. (Paul Jospa said the France-based pharmaceuticals company that Hertz Jospa, an engineer, worked for continued to pay his salary to his wife, even when he was imprisoned by the Gestapo and later interned at Buchenwald.)
The CDJ focused on rescue rather than violent or armed resistance. There were several exceptions, such as one case when some Jewish activists cooperated with the Belgian Resistance, targeting the AJB office in an effort to obtain its card index. In another, an operation masterminded by Hertz Jospa involved attacking a deportation train bound from the Mechelen camp for Auschwitz (Transport no. 20) on the night of April 19-20, 1942. In the attack, 231 Jews escaped, while 23 were shot by guards. This was the only recorded Jewish attack on a train transporting Jews to their death during the Holocaust.
Harel’s parents were on Transport no. 20. However, when given the chance to escape, Harel’s father refused to flee, choosing to stay with his sick wife.
Harel learned a great deal about CDJ by interviewing Andrée Geulen, who was a young teacher when she decided to join the rescue organization in 1942, after her Jewish students were forced to wear yellow stars. Geulen was among several non-Jewish women who were tasked with circumspectly approaching Jewish families to suggest they hand over their children for hiding, and also to transfer children between various hiding places.
Geulen, now in her late 90s, was the CDJ member who devised and safeguarded the coded system by which the thousands of rescued Jewish children could be identified and tracked.
“She showed me the secret carnet [notebook] with my name, my home address, and my secret code number — 01423. It was through that code that my eldest brother, who had served in the French and British armies during the war, was able to track me down and find me in 1945,” Harel said.
According to Gilles Jospa, 48, it was his grandmother who was in charge of finding places of refuge for the children, using her contacts with various Catholic and non-sectarian organizations. Yvonne had made many of these contacts earlier while working to help child refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
Both Hertz (born in 1905) and Yvonne (born in 1910) were from Bessarabia (then part of Russia and today Moldova) and immigrated to Belgium in their youth with their families in search of better education and opportunities. The couple met in Liège and married in 1933. Together, they became leftist activists in the Communist party, the Belgian Anti-Fascist Committee, and the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.
“My parents came from liberal, open families, and they were extremely well integrated into Belgian society by the time the war started,” said Paul Jospa, a retired physicist.
Like Harel, Paul Jospa, now 80, was a hidden child during the war. At first he lived with his aunt, who was married to a non-Jewish man.
“But then when my father was arrested [on June 21, 1943] by chance while meeting a confederate to hand her a package of false identification documents, it was decided that I had to be moved from one hiding place to another every day for two weeks. After that I was given to another family until the end of the war,” Jospa said.
Hertz Jospa was brutally beaten at the Gestapo headquarters while refusing to divulge information during interrogation. After eight days he was transferred to the Breendonck camp for political prisoners. From there he was sent to Buchenwald, where he was treated as a political prisoner — rather than as a Jewish one — and admitted to the political section of the camp’s underground. He was liberated from Buchenwald in April 1945 and reunited with his wife (who was arrested twice but evaded deportation) and son.
Paul Jospa said that despite the grave risks, it was a given for his parents that they would not only take part in the resistance, but also assume a leading role.
“My parents knew what Nazism was capable of doing. They saw the refugees from Germany. They saw what fascism did in Spain. It was evident to them to organize to save the Jews. It was a matter of vital essence,” he said.
The Jospas continued to be active in the Jewish community and Belgian and European society and politics after the war. Hertz died in 1966, and Yvonne in 2000.
Their legacies and the impact of the rescue efforts of all the CDJ activists live on. Harel said he chose to pursue pediatric neurology and child development as his specialty because of his experiences in the Holocaust.
“I wanted to work with an optimistic approach, far away from death. I learned how important it is for children to be able to smile, laugh, and do creative and artistic work,” Harel said.
Accordingly, he always keeps a selection of creative toys in his bag and insists on examining children by playing with them — even if it means getting down on the floor with them.
“For three years during the war we couldn’t play outside or laugh. We were children of silence. We couldn’t even cry with tears, because all around there were Germans and collaborators looking for Jewish children,” Harel said.
For Gilles Jospa, the Holocaust doesn’t have the same connotations as it does for other second and third generation survivors.
“The Holocaust isn’t something that causes me only pain because my grandparents did nothing — on the contrary, they resisted. They have left me a legacy of resistance and resilience,” he said.