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In Those Days, In This Place

David Damen, Brussels

After more than 70 years, 94-year-old Rabbi Yaakov Friedrich revisits the Brussels apartment where he and his family lived right under the nose of the Nazis

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

 Mishpacha image

NO CAVES, ATTICS, OR SEWER ESCAPES Yaakov Friedrich, back at the place he called home for three years, right under the nose of the Nazis down the street. “I pleaded with the officer not to register us. He refused. He didn’t want to put his life in danger. Finally, I said, ‘Imagine, if you were given a gun and asked to shoot a young couple and their baby — would you do it?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m not a murderer.’ ‘Well, if you register us, that’s exactly what you’re doing,’ I told him” (Photos: Daniel Benjamin)

W hen 94-year-old Rabbi Yaakov Friedrich of Belgium took a trip back in time with the Mishpacha team to revisit the Brussels apartment that provided his salvation during the Holocaust, there was no crawling through cellar chambers or attic hideouts. His story doesn’t feature concentration camps, gas chambers, firing squads, or barking dogs in freezing nights. In fact, during the war years, Reb Yaakov married, had a son, and led what looked like a normal life. He took public transportation to work each day and lived on a street teeming with German soldiers from a nearby army base, yet he sang Shabbos zemiros, blew shofar, and even made a little succah in the apartment he called home while so many fellow Jews were being deported to Auschwitz.

For Rabbi Friedrich, an elder, venerated Chabad chassid of Antwerp’s Jewish community, returning to those particular streets after so many years was not only about memories, but about acknowledging the miracles of those times — which took the form of “regular life.”

Although in truth, Reb Yaakov’s life up until that point was anything but regular. He was born in 1922 in the town of Dortmund, Germany, and when he was three, his parents and two sisters emigrated to Belgium, settling in the town of Liege. Mr. Friedrich was a secular Jew, and Yaakov remembers seeing a shul for the first time when they moved to Liege.

When Yaakov was about five, his mother fell ill and had to be hospitalized long-term. Yaakov’s father had neither the desire nor the wherewithal to care for his three small children — and so he deposited the two girls at a church orphanage in the coastal city of Knokke and left Yaakov with a non-Jewish family in the village of Sint-Mariaburg, just north of Antwerp.

But it soon became clear that in addition to abandoning his children, Mr. Friedrich had no intention of paying for their upkeep, and so the foster family found another alternative for the boy in their charge — the one Jewish family in the village.

“They were a ger and giyores named Tzarfati,” Reb Yaakov recalls of his first real Jewish living experience. “Mrs. Tzarfati was a kindhearted woman, a compassionate nurse who helped Jews and non-Jews for no charge. She sent me to the local school, but arranged for me to come 10 minutes late every day so that I wouldn’t have to participate in the daily Christian prayer.”

The Tzarfatis contacted the Centrale, the Jewish social welfare organization, for a more permanent solution for their young charge, and under the organization’s auspices, Yaakov was placed in the care of a warm Yid named Reb Alter Shochet. “He was an ardent Radziner chassid, who wore tzitzis with techeiles. They lived about eight miles away from the Jewish area, but he would walk to shul each Shabbos, two hours each way.”

By the time Yaakov was nine, the Shochets realized he needed to be close to a Jewish school, and he was then placed in the home of the Kornitzers (Reb Kornitzer’s brother was the esteemed rav of Krakow, Rav Yosef Nechemia Kornitzer ztz”l), where he remained until he gew up. A day after he arrived, Yaakov began attending the Yesodei HaTorah cheder. Reb Alter Shochet eventually moved to the Jewish area too, and he and Yaakov remained close.

“That was the first time I saw Hebrew letters,” Reb Yaakov says of his day-school beginnings. “Each evening though, the oldest Kornitzer son learned with me and I was able to quickly catch up.”

One day, when Yaakov was sitting in class, he was summoned to the principal’s office, where a guest awaited him: his father. “He tracked me down, and came to tell me that he was going to Eretz Yisrael and promised to come for me in the near future. That promise, of course, was just fluff. I never saw him again.”

The pain of abandonment, Reb Yaakov admits, still hurts nearly nine decades later. He did see his mother again though. She eventually joined him in Antwerp, and just before the time of the Nazi invasion she traveled to France to serve as a nurse in a Jewish institution — where she and the children were taken captive and sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

In 1936, when Yaakov turned 14, he wanted to continue learning in yeshivah, but his guardians at the Centrale thought otherwise. “Do you want to grow up to be a schnorrer?” they asked him.

“That was the prevailing attitude in the Jewish community at the time,” says Reb Yaakov, “The only yeshivah was in Heide, and there weren’t too many bochurim learning there. I had no choice. I began to look for work.”

He still kept up his Torah learning as best he could, and even had a chavrusa with the yeshivah’s secretary, Lubavitcher chassid Reb Moshe Dzachover, a baal mesirus nefesh and talmid chacham who had come to Belgium from Kishinev, after rioters had gouged out his eye.

The first ray of hope he saw from that window was when he looked down and saw the Germans fleeing; the landing between the buildings, where Reb Yaakov make his succah down the street from Nazi headquarters

He soon found work apprenticing for a Jewish goldsmith named Leon Wolf, a sworn Communist. “He always tried to persuade me to become a Communist, and once when he threatened that if I didn’t take off my yarmulke, he would fire me on the spot, I took my things and left. He chased me into the street and pleaded with me to come back. He was embarrassed lest his Communist friends would see that he didn’t have any influence over a 14-year-old boy.”

Yaakov worked there for three years, and became an expert in his craft, which would remain his lifelong profession.

The Safer Choice

Belgians had heard the far-away rumblings of war for a year already, but the Nazi invasion in 1940 changed the game on the ground. The military government passed a series of anti-Jewish laws in October 1940, and began to seize Jewish-owned businesses and force Jews out of civil-service positions. On Chol Hamoed Pesach of 1941, Flemish collaborators pillaged two synagogues in Antwerp, burned the sifrei Torah in the city’s streets, and set fire to the house of the chief rabbi. The Germans then created a Judenrat, which all Jews were required to join. As part of the Final Solution from 1942 on, the persecution of Belgian Jews escalated. Jews were forced to wear yellow Star of David badges, and using the registers compiled by the Judenrat, the Germans began deporting Jews to concentration camps. Between August 1942 and July 1944, about 25,000 Jews were deported from Belgium, almost all of them murdered before the camps were liberated by the Allies.

Yaakov Friedrich was witness to the Torah burnings in what was called the “Antwerp Pogrom” of April 1941, but he also remembers how many of the city’s Jews tried to calm themselves and convince themselves that the riot was just an isolated incident. Reb Yaakov, though, believed otherwise, and joined other Jews as they attempted to flee.

“I reached the French border but was not allowed to cross because of my German citizenship,” he says. But in a nearby border town a non-Jewish family took him in for a few weeks. He left when the area came under bombardment, and with no other options, decided to return to Antwerp. On the way, he stumbled upon a German army camp, and, as a fluent German speaker, approached the camp in the hope they’d give him some water.

“The German soldiers assumed I was one of them, and so they proudly shared with me their gruesome experiences on the battlefield,” Reb Yaakov remembers. “We had no idea what was happening in Poland, certainly not about the aktions and the murders, but they were having a good time describing to me what they were doing to the Jews in Poland. They told me that in one place, they had gathered all the Jews of the town into the shul, doused it with benzene and then set it on fire — they thought that would cheer me up. The stories they told were so horrible I will never forget them, yet to this day I cannot repeat them.”

When Reb Yaakov returned to Antwerp, he let the Jews know everything he’d heard — after the destruction of the shuls, he realized that the worst possible scenario was drawing nearer. But, he says, few people believed him, and even told him he was delusional. After all, at that point the Germans were not yet disrupting the daily life of the Jews, and there were even Nazis who came to eat cholent on Friday morning at the Jewish restaurant in the diamond bourse.” After five months though, the Jews were instructed to register with the Judenrat Jewish council that the Nazi occupiers had established. Everyone complied, except Reb Yaakov. “People told me I was risking my life, but I knew where this registration was leading to.”

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