An extraordinary emotional reunion between two Jewish orphan survivors was held after nearly eight decades apart.
Jacques Weisser, a Radlett resident, and Bill Frankenstein, from Los Angeles were reunited for the first time in 78 years after escaping the Nazis, at a reunion in Brussels, Belgium recently. They lived side by side for a few years before being separated and adopted thousands of miles apart.
The last time Jacques and Bill saw each other was in 1944, at the peak of the Second World War.
In 1942, when Jacques was just a few months old, his mother left him with a neighbour to go out. She was picked up by the Nazis and sent to Malines from where she was subsequently deported and perished in Auschwitz. Although Jacques and Bill do not remember each other from that period, they were both hidden for eighteen months in the Sint Erasmus Hospital in Antwerp and then sent to the Baron de Castro orphanage in Brussels until finally both being hidden in the Belgian Ardennes for the rest of the war. It was in that institution, now a private residence, that the reunion was held.
The owner of the house found more photos and records of the children from the years they spent there. The two boys were among only 13 of 39 Jewish children from the Meisjeshuis orphanage in Antwerp, Belgium to escape the Holocaust and survive the atrocities of the war.
Jacques described himself as one of the fortunate ones.
He said: “My father came back from Auschwitz, he was lucky, and I was even luckier, but a lot of my family did not. It’s all a question good fortune but most especially, good people who helped.”
The story of the reunion began with a determined Dutch law student, Reinier Heinsman, who searched for, interviewed, and reunited the Jewish children from Belgium. He found images and files of the children from the orphanages and organised a Zoom meeting with 11 child survivors of the Holocaust.
Not knowing whether any of the other orphans were still alive, Jacques described the first Zoom call as “extremely emotional”.
One of the remarkable things is Jacques and Bill’s lives were separate but very similar in many ways. To their surprise, they discovered that both Jacques and Bill had one daughter and two grandsons, and when they reunited for the first time after many years, they dressed the same.
The young Jewish children were unaware of the tragedy they narrowly avoided as between 1943 and August 1944, almost all Jewish children in Belgium under the age of five who did not have any parent, escaped the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Jacques and Bill were two of the 13 Jewish children that were saved both by being hidden and by being sent to the orphanage. The Nazis changed this ruling and again began rounding up children under five. The Resistance got word of this and hid as many children as they could, including Jacques and Bill.
Speaking on seeing Bill for the first time at the reunion, Jacques said: “We finally had a get-together reunion with 11 of the children in Brussels.
“It’s quite amazing, and it was an emotional reunion. I was absolutely flabbergasted first of all, we have zoomed each other over the years, but it’s different in person.
“We keep in touch, and we are discovering more about each other and the pasts that we never knew about over all these years.”