Members of the Kohn family pose outside in a field.
Photograph | Photograph Number: 48629
Circa 1935 - 1939
- Variant Locale
- Photo Designation
LIFE BEFORE THE HOLOCAUST -- Belgium
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hena Evyatar
Members of the Kohn family pose outside in a field.
Pictured from left to right are Hena, Herschel, Ita Rivka and Pola Kohn.
- Hena Evyatar (born Hena Kohn) is the daughter of Herschel and Ita Rivka (Charlupska) Kohn. She was born February 1, 1929 in Lodz, where her father made purses and other leather goods. In 1930 the family moved to Brusssels, where one year later, her sister Pola was born. In Brussels, Hena's father continued to manufacture leather goods in an attic workshop and he sold them in a retail shop below their apartment. Hena grew up in a moderately observant Jewish home in the quartier du Midi where many Polish Jewish immigrants lived. Her parents were anti-Zionist with sympathies for the Communist movement. Hena's first language was Yiddish, but she learned French at her locale public school, the école maternelle, and taught it to her parents. In 1939 with the outbreak of World War II, Hena's Jewishness became an issue for the first time, and she was advised by her parents to make herself as inconspicuous as possible in school.
After the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940, the Kohn family joined a wave of Belgian refugees who fled to France. While en route, however, they were overtaken by German troops who told them that the fighting was now over, and they returned home to Brussels. Hena's Christian classmates were not happy to have her back, but she coped as best she could. In 1942 the political situation rapidly deteriorated and there was great fear within the Jewish community about incarceration in labor camps and deportations to Poland. During the summer the girls were sent to a Red Cross summer camp to get them out of harm's way. The camp was located in a castle in the Bois d'Arlon in the Ardennes. A solicitous Red Cross worker name Mme Van der Stiekelen made arrangements for the children to attend the camp even though they did not technically qualify. Recognizing the imminent danger they were in, Mme Van der Stiekelen offered to pick them up a week before the camp opened and shelter them at her villa on the outskirts of Brussels. A few days after their departure, their parents came to the villa to say goodbye. Little did the girls know that it would be the last time they would see them. Five days later, while the girls were still on their way to the camp, Herschel and Ita Rywka were picked up by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz, where they perished in September 1942. Hena and Pola were not to learn of their fate until after the war. Though the girls were distraught at being separated from their parents, they were treated with great kindness at the castle and had an enjoyable summer. When the camp season ended in August, however, it became clear that Hena and Pola had no home to return to. Mme Van der Stiekelen then got in touch with a resistance network which sent a young Catholic priest, Edouard Robert, to find shelter for the girls.
When Robert came to pick them up, it was the first time either of them had ever spoken to a priest. He placed Pola with a family named Berguet in a small village, while Hena was taken to the home of two spinster sisters on an old farm. It was a harsh, rural life spent doing chores, but weekly visits from the priest, who was so attentive to her needs made Hena's life more pleasant. Understanding the child's need to get away from the farm now and again, Robert began taking her on weekends to visit his mother, sister and brother in Bastogne. Soon twelve-year-old Hena sensed that the priest, who was known as Eddy, was developing an abiding interest in her. After living with the spinsters for several months, Hena discovered that they were secretly reading her diary. Some of what she wrote about their customs offended the sisters, and it became clear she would have to leave. Eddy then found her shelter at a convent school near the college where he taught. There, Hena became friendly with another Jewish girl named Judith who subsequently underwent baptism. Though she understood Judith's attraction to Jesus, the liturgy and the ritual of the Church, Hena never considered converting herself. Her innate skepticism and bonds of loyalty to her heritage made this unthinkable. When Hena later became bored and restless at the convent, Eddy moved her to the home of the Jacquemart family in a nearby town. She remained there for several months before going to live with Eddy's mother at her new home in Neufchateau. There, Eddy taught Hena Latin, music and painting and arranged for his colleagues to give her other lessons. She was a gifted student and avid reader, and Eddy brought home all the books he could find for her. Unable to refuse her entreaties, Eddy agreed to allow Hena to take part in some of his resistance activity, including (for a brief time) the delivery of ration coupons to families hiding Jewish children. In 1943 after Eddy learned that Hena's uncle Francois Shumiliver had escaped from a truck during a round-up of Jews in Brussels, Eddy acceded to Hena's request that they go to the capital to find him. They were successful and brought him back to the Roberts along with his son, Marcel, who was retrieved from his hiding place with a Belgian family. Marcel was invited to stay at the Roberts with Hena, who cared for him like a mother. Eddy found Francois a position as a gardener in the nearby chateau of a countess. In the summer of 1944 Eddy was instructed by the underground to go into hiding because of his known involvement with parachute drops in the area. He took Hena with him to a convent in a distant village where they spent nearly two weeks in isolation. The experience cemented the increasingly romantic nature of their relationship.
After the liberation, Hena returned to Brussels with Francois and Marcel and hoped against hope for the return of her parents. Unused to living under parental authority, she soon found it impossible to remain in her uncle's home. Eddy tried to explain to Francois that Hena had to be free to complete her education and live her own life, but she departed on bad terms. Hena then enrolled at the Soeurs de Notre Dames Catholic boarding school in the old city of Brussels. At this time, her sister, Pola, left her French family and came to live with her. Hena graduated high school at the age of 17 and began work as a secretary in a shipping company. In this way she was able to support herself and her sister. She also became involved in the Gordonia Zionist youth movement, which provided her with a new community of friends and a wealth of social activities. While Hena was coming to terms with the loss of her parents and trying to reconnect to the Jewish community, Eddy, who had left the priesthood soon after the liberation, was pressing ever more desperately for Hena to marry him. Though immensely grateful to him for all he had done for her, Mona felt it was a mistake to accede to his request. Tormented by her dilemma, she sought help from two male friends from the Zionist movement, who convinced her to stop seeing Eddy and let him recover slowly on his own. After breaking off with her rescuer, Hena immigrated to Israel and married one of her friends from Gordonia, Azriel Gutwirth (later Evyatar). She did not renew contact with Eddy until 1996. Edouard Robert was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in August 1999.
- Photo Source
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumProvenance: Hena Evyatar
Record last modified: 2006-04-19 00:00:00
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