Mission Accomplished A Life Saved, A Debt Repaid

May 31, 1992|By HELEN B. JONES

August 1942: Fifteen-year-old Rachel Rozenfeld and her 5-year-old sister, Isabelle, enter a Roman Catholic convent in Louvain, Belgium. They are Jewish and have been sent there by their parents -- to hide out from the Nazis.

March 1992: Sixty-four-year-old, silver-haired Rachel Rozenfeld Bodner arrives at the Holocaust museum in Israel to attend a ceremony honoring a group of Righteous Gentiles, among them the late Mere Liguori. The ceremony is the realization of Rachel Bodner's long-held desire to honor Mere Liguori, who, as the mother superior at the Louvain convent, risked her life to conceal Rachel, Isabelle and eventually 15 other Jewish girls during World War II. It was Ms. Bodner's testimony, submitted with the help of Women's American ORT, a Jewish service organization, that led to the recognition for Mere Liguori.

Ms. Bodner, who spent 21 months in the convent, left Europe in 1947 with her husband, John, a German refugee. The couple settled in New York, where they reared two sons and where Ms. Bodner worked in an office. Now a widow, she moved to Northwest Baltimore seven months ago to be near one of her sons.

Q: Why was it so important for you to see that Mere Liguori was honored after all these years?

A: It's been my lifelong dream to honor Mere Liguori and all the Sisters of Charity. They were true Christians. I never knew how to honor them. To just send a plaque, I didn't feel was right. [Then] I heard of the Righteous Gentiles being honored in Israel and I felt Mere Liguori belonged among them.

Q: What is your lasting impression of Mere Liguori?

A: She was an exceptionally bright woman. We admired her because she was such a [good] teacher. She -- and all the nuns -- were extremely devoted to us. I also admired her because she did not believe in baptizing us, whereas most of the convents baptized the Jewish children right away. She did not want to baptize us when we were under duress. For this, too, I felt she ought to be honored.

Q: Why did your parents send you and your sister from your home in Antwerp to the convent?

A: My older sister, Ida, and I received a letter from the Germans telling us to report to work. She went but my mother didn't want me to go. A few days later the Germans came and forced people out of the buildings. My mother knew then that it wasn't for work. We found out later that my sister was killed in Auschwitz -- three days after she left home. The Germans tricked a lot of youngsters.

Q: Your mother obviously was desperate after your sister disappeared. What did she do next?

A: She asked a gentile woman that she knew for help. The woman suggested she send us to the convent at Louvain. The nuns there were told we were Protestant orphans and they took us in.

Q: What was your first night in the convent like?

A: I became violently ill, from the emotion. I had a fever and was very afraid I would become delirious and call out "I'm Jewish! I'm Jewish!"

Q: So how did the nuns find out you were Jewish?

A: Isabelle accidentally told Mere Liguori not long after we arrived. Mere Liguori immediately checked with the bishop and he told her to do what she wanted. It was a great risk but she decided not to send us away. Eventually, other Jewish girls arrived at the convent.

Q: Were you ever in danger of discovery?

A: Just one time. One night the Germans came and banged on the door. The nuns woke us very quietly, took us to their quarters and dressed the older girls in habits. They told the younger ones to hide under their [the nuns'] skirts. The Germans didn't come in, though. They had seen a light shining in the convent and ordered it put out.

Q: What was it like living in the convent?

A: It was actually very peaceful. We were very insulated from what was happening outside. We had lessons [with the students who attended the convent's day school], attended prayers and did chores.

Q: What happened to your parents?

A: They went into hiding in Brussels. They were still there when, in 1943, my father was persuaded to attend the burial of a good friend's son. Ten men were needed for the burial ritual. They were short one man so my father became the 10th. The Germans arrested them all as they left the cemetery. The records show that my father was killed three months later at Auschwitz, in January 1944. My mother survived the war.

Q: When did you leave the convent?

A: In May 1944 the Americans bombed Louvain. After a bomb fell near the convent, the nuns decided to abandon it temporarily. They could not take us with them. A Christian friend from the convent school took me into her home. My sister was sent into hiding in the Ardennes [region of Belgium]. After the war we were reunited with our mother.

Q: Had you thought, over the years, about returning to Louvain to see Mere Liguori and the other nuns?

A: No. I exchanged letters with Mere Liguori until she died in 1983 and I still write to the other nuns. But when I left Europe I said my feet will never set there again. Why would anybody want to go back where one is not wanted?

Q: Did any of the nuns attend the ceremony in Israel?

A: Yes. Sister Bonaventure, who was at the convent when I was there, and Sister Gabrielle, who came later. We all cried; it was very emotional. It was a wonderful experience to be with them for eight days, talking about everything. I even got back into my Flemish, which I hadn't used for 40 years.

Q: After all you've been through, how have you kept your faith?

A: I'm not a religious person but my belief in God remains strong. I always believed that God helped me. And I believe that evil will be punished, somehow or other.

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