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Polishing Diamonds

David Damen, Antwerp

For close to 130 years, Antwerp’s legendary Yesodei HaTorah institution, with its thousands of alumni and its living testimony to the miracle of a post-Holocaust resurgence, has rallied to its challenges with confidence. And now, in the shadow of a government clampdown on education, Antwerp’s flagship institution still clings to its legacy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Antwerp, 12 Elul 5701 (September 4, 1941) There are no less than 500 students in theYesodeiHaTorah andBaisYaakov building onLangevan Ruusbroeck Straat in central Antwerp. The bell chimes. The maintenance man opens the gate and discovers a group of Gestapo soldiers. They haven’t come to say hello. They have come to take the Jewish students. The maintenance man summons the secular studies principal,Mr.JuliusSanctorum.Mr.Sanctorum, who is well aware of the visitors’ mission, hastily instructs all the students to hide in the school’s basement. Only then does he approach the entrance gate. From inside he can see the convoy of vehicles that is meant to transport the student body to an unknown location. Without another thought, he slams the door in their faces. The Gestapo men are stunned, but for some strange reason they turn around and leave. Meanwhile,JuliusSanctorum organizes the children into groups, removes the yellow star from their lapels, and sends them home with their teachers. Some of them already have nowhere to go home to.Mrs.Chana (Anna) Grunfeld-Landau, one of the survivors of that horrific time, retold the events of that harrowing day in a 1981 hearing to discuss grantingMr.Sanctorum the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations title. Ten years later, in 1991, the school celebrated its 90th birthday with a festive ceremony.Mrs.Grunfeld-Landau still lives in Antwerp, where she raised a proud Jewish family and continues to relate those deepest moments of despair the school experienced. The school has known ups and downs, good days and difficult ones, but never, except during the Holocaust years, did it close its doors in its 129 years of existence. And now, all of Antwerp’s religious families are holding their collective breath, waiting to see how they will be affected by a government ruling that threatens to invalidate chareidi educational standards.

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