They were four years old. In 1942, the Germans raided the Antwerp orphanage where they had been placed. They were among a group of Jewish orphans who were taken and sent to a transit area in Belgium, where they were soon to be dispatched by train to Auschwitz and, more than likely, to death in the concentration camp’s gas chambers, which had claimed the lives of pretty much all their family members.
But fate intervened. Mere hours before they were to board the train, Michael Hartogs and Fred Kader were saved by older Jewish boys from an orphanage near Brussels and were spirited back there.
Kader and Hartogs remained undiscovered at the orphanage until after the war, and were both taken in by Montreal families in 1949.
Observed on Wednesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day has special significance for Hartogs and Kader. Hartogs’s parents and sister were killed at Auschwitz, while Kader was the sole Holocaust survivor among his five siblings and his parents.
“The museum was looking for photos of these missing children to add to its Wall of Remembrance,” Heinsman recalls in a Zoom call with Hartogs and Kader. “That’s when my research into this topic started. My approach was to trace the surviving orphans of that orphanage, as well as the nearest family members of the murdered orphans, and to get all their testimonies.”
Heinsman is well on his way to completing this mission. His book Jewish Orphans From Belgium in the Holocaust is slated for release soon. Heinsman’s motivation in this project is quite clear: it relates to his late Jewish grandmother.
“She was born in Antwerp and survived the war by hiding at various places across Belgium. Her grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins had all perished.”
Hartogs and Kader credit Heinsman for bringing them up to speed on their early years, of which they had few memories.
“The boy who saved me, Leon Schipper, was just 14,” says Hartogs, 82, a retired documentary distributor now living in San Diego. “He and one of his buddies found (Kader) and I in cribs by ourselves in a room at this transit area. When they saw there were no Germans around, they quickly grabbed us and put us on a truck going to their orphanage (near Brussels). What bravery!”
Hartogs was 10 when he was adopted by a European couple, a psychiatrist and social worker who had moved to Montreal. “The happiest times in my life were in Montreal and St-Donat,” says Hartogs, who, like Kader, is still fluent in French.
Kader later learned that the boy who saved him from Auschwitz was Marcel Chojnacki and was just 10 at the time. Chojnacki, who lost almost all his family during the Holocaust, moved to Montreal in 1947 with two surviving brothers and had a distinguished career with the National Ballet of Canada and the Feux-Follets troupe as a dancer and choreographer. He died in 2019.
“Before coming to Montreal, I lived with an uncle in Belgium for two years. But I couldn’t adjust, because I had been on my own for too damn long and had too many suppressed memories,” says Kader, 82, who lives in Omaha and recently retired after a long career as a pediatric neurologist.
In 1949, a great-aunt living in Montreal sent for Kader, and it was here that he felt his life turned around. “I had been an impossible kid. But eventually I realized I had to do something with my life, because people had gone out of their way to save me and help me.
“So I decided to go into medicine, neurology, to deal with kids, some of whom couldn’t walk or talk and had multiple other difficulties. If they don’t get help, they’ll never make it,” says Kader, who studied medicine at McGill, the University of British Columbia and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins.
Like Kader, Hartogs spends much of his time speaking to youth groups about the Holocaust and his experiences.
“I try to instil in them what life was like for us during the Holocaust — something I wasn’t really aware of myself until I was 65,” Hartogs says. “But I also tell them that it was a young boy/man of 14 who had saved my life. And that they’re never too young to do something good in the world.”
Adds Kader: “It’s one thing for people to learn the facts about the Holocaust. But they also have to feel it in their hearts, and to feel for all those who suffer.”
There were 39 Jewish children at Hartogs and Kader’s Antwerp orphanage, of whom 13 survived the Second World War. Along with Hartogs and Kader, a third orphan, Werner Szydlow, also made it to Montreal after being reunited with his mother in Antwerp. Like Hartogs (who changed his name from Max Kohn) and Kader (who changed his from Frans Jeruzalski), Szydlow later settled in the U.S.
The three of them, along with four of the other surviving Jewish children from that Antwerp orphanage, were reconnected through a Zoom conference on Jan. 17. Hartogs and Kader had managed to get in touch with one another by phone a few years earlier, but none of the others had encountered each other since the mid-1940s.
This reunion would never have occurred without the fastidious research and input of Reinier Heinsman, a 24-year-old student from the Netherlands. He was doing volunteer research at a Belgium museum, where he was told about a group of Jewish orphans of whom nothing was known.