Belgian community hid Jewish children

Linda Gheysen
Sembach Middle School teacher

***image1***More than 60 years after the Jewish Holocaust, survivor Simon Steil shared his story with seventh-graders at Sembach Middle School. Mr. Steil was four years old when his parents and older brother were taken from Belgium to Auschwitz where they were killed. He is in the Kaiserslautern area visiting his son, Dr. Evan Steil, medical director at Kleber Health Clinic. Mr. Steil’s granddaughter Rebeccah, a SMS student, asked if her grandfather could speak to the World Geography class, which had just studied the Holocaust.

Mr. Steil’s Jewish parents left from L’vov, Poland and went to Belgium where Mr. Steil was born in 1938. The Belgian King’s mother was from a noble house in Germany, and the Germans listened to Belgians in dealing with the Jewish population. The Germans agreed not to take children under the age of 14 and, at first, to only deport non-Belgian citizens.

Mr. Steil ended up in a Catholic orphanage north of Namur near the small town of Perwez in a castle called Aishen-en-Refail.

“I have a memory during that time of a flashlight being shined in my face during the night,” he said. “I was later told that it was the Germans looking for children over 14 to move out of the orphanage.”

In 1944, rumors circulated that the orphanage was closing. The local people took in the older children to help on their farms and to hide them. And, the mayor directed the townspeople to take in the younger children and also hide them. Mr. Steil was taken in by an older couple. Life was good, except he was never allowed to go outside.

Once, he was peeking from behind some curtains and saw a Gestapo truck stop, load up people and haul them away. When he told his host family, they were very upset. They feared he could have been caught and then the whole family would have been taken away.

The American Army liberated the village on Sept. 9, 1944. Later in 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the village returned everyone to hiding, as the Germans were trying to cut off the allied supply lines near Antwerp. In 1948, his stay with the family ended and he was sent to another orphanage in Brussels until 1950. An aunt and uncle in the U.S. brought him to the States. He went to school during the week and worked weekends and evenings flipping burgers at Coney Island. He became a U.S. citizen at age 18.

Since then, he earned a master’s degree in engineering and worked with government weapons systems. He married an American Jewish woman and had four sons, three work for government related contractors in the Washington, D.C. area.

In 1980, he made a visit to Belgium and the small village of Perwez where he was hidden.  The couple that took care of him died before he could see them, but he visited their son.

“Small children do not always remember the names of people from their childhood, but on this visit, many people stopped by to see me and remembered when I stayed there,” Mr. Steil said.    

To say “thank you,” the children who were taken in and survived the Holocaust have  given back to the small town that helped them. For example, they paid for a children’s playground in the town.
 Mr. Steil said he misses his family.

“I miss them because of what I have now,” he said. “They haven’t seen what I have now.  They haven’t seen my family or my successes.”

Mr. Steil continues to research the Holocaust and its history. He encouraged students to look at Web sites and investigate history on their own.