Forums to focus on courageous tales

Belgian children pose with members of the Resistance during World War II. Photo courtesy of Sister Helene Baggen
By Anna Gustafson

From a talk about Belgian nuns who hid Jewish children during the Holocaust to a lecture on life for Jews in the post-World War II Soviet Union, the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills has a fall lineup that will delve into rarely told stories of heroism from everyday people.

Suzanne Vromen, a professor emeritus of sociology at Bard College, will speak Nov. 9 at 1:30 p.m. at the Y, which is at 67-09 108th St., about her book, “Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis.”

In the book, Vromen, who escaped with her family from the German-occupied Belgium in 1941 to the Congo, details the Belgian resistance movement, thousands of members of which were nuns and priests. Members of the movement saved at least 2,700 children during the Holocaust, often moving them to convents or homes in the countryside.

“About half the children of Belgium were saved, but it’s a story that’s not well-known,” Vromen said. “There has been a lot written about Holland and France, but that country in between has been neglected.”

Vromen felt herself compelled to write the book, which took her about five years and recently came out in paperback, because she always felt she could have been one of these hidden children. Instead, after taking refuge in the Congo, she and her family moved to Palestine and eventually Manhattan.

“I was haunted my whole life by my luck,” Vromen said. “Before I retired, I decided I really owed these women, the nuns, a book.”

The author said she hopes the book emphasizes that the resistance movement in Belgium was made up of a wildly varied group of people who worked in concert, including Jewish parents who trusted the nuns and priests who were often strangers to them to save their children while they were often shipped to places likes Auschwitz.

“Belgium is a good example of where the community really got together,” Vromen said. “They organized fast and they were very united. “This is an example of Jews being agents in their own survival.”

Gal Beckerman, a reporter at The Forward, spoke Tuesday about his book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone,” which was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt last month. The book, which he began in 2004, details the rescue of Jews living under the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, under which Jews were not allowed to practice their religion.

“It was a confluence of different things that brought me to this story,” said Beckerman, who lives in Brooklyn. “I have this personal connection to it. When I had my bar mitzvah, I was in a Soviet twin program. Jews living in the Soviet Union weren’t allowed to have this basic rite of passage that every 13-year-old has here, so they paired you up with someone there who couldn’t have a bar or bat mitzvah and you wrote to them. The guy I was paired with, his parents had been trying to get out of the Soviet Union for eight years. I was really touched by this movement that is one of the most successful human rights movements in the 20th century, and that’s been kind of forgotten, because they got most of the Jews to leave the Soviet Union.”

Beckerman spent months in Israel speaking fled with individuals who had the Soviet Union for the book, which has been met with critical acclaim.

“They would tell me their stories over tea and pickled mushrooms, and it was incredible the things I heard, about what it was like to try to leave the country, how it felt to have the KGB follow you,” Beckerman said.

There are a number of other upcoming events at the Y, including a talk by journalist Thanassis Cambanis, who will speak Oct. 26 at 1:30 p.m. about Hezbollah’s foot soldiers, which he details in his book, “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions & Their Endless War vs. Israel.” CBS reporter Jere Van Dyk on Nov. 2 at 1:30 p.m. will discuss his time spent as a prisoner of the Taliban on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2008.

Samuel Heilman on Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. will discuss Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who built the Lubavitcher movement from a small Hasidic community into a worldwide movement. On Nov. 30 at 1:30 p.m., Eric Metaxas will talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young pastor who became involved with a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was hung in a concentration camp.

All the events are open to the general public and individuals are asked to make a $5 donation. For more information, call 718-268-5011 or visit centralqueensy.org.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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