A future Israeli hero learns survival hiding from Nazis
By Harry Stern
Daily news broadcasts confront us with the heart-wrenching plight of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, most seeking refuge in European countries. Responses to the epic migration of asylum seekers, not witnessed since World War II, have been decidedly mixed, ranging from xenophobic to warm welcomes.
For many Jews, this is an all-too-familiar scenario, eliciting memories of so many of our families fleeing the Nazi scourge and the Holocaust that affected many millions. My family, like so many of those in our community, lost many beloved members in the Holocaust. This article focuses on the remarkable story of a dear family member who, through guile, cunning and bravery, escaped the Nazi genocide and lived to serve Israel in a critical capacity.
One of the central objectives of Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Museum of the History of the Holocaust, was to honor gentiles who risked their lives to save their Jewish brethren from the Nazis. Thus recognized, these heroes are considered “the righteous among the nations.”
Ari Livne’s riveting account of his means of escape, aided by a righteous gentile, comes alive before us in his psychologically and dramatically complex diary. Yad Vashem has released this extraordinary saga in English: “Tin Soldier in a Cardboard Box: A Young Boy in Hiding: Austria-Belgium-France,” translated from its original Hebrew.
Ari’s family’s odyssey began in earnest in 1938 with Germany’s annexation of Austria in what was known as the Anschluss. His parents left their home in Vienna when Ari was a young boy. An increasing flow of Jews sought refuge in Belgium. The migration to the northwest was the preferred route of Jews seeking safety in Belgium.
Ari’s family managed to find a small apartment in Antwerp, where they lived in continual fear that Belgium would fall to the German forces.
The family moved to Brussels and ultimately concluded that the wandering from one rented room to another would soon end in detection and disaster. Belgian forces surrendered to Germany in May 1940.
Not long thereafter, when Ari was 8 years old, his parents made an excruciating decision. It appears that they had abandoned hope, that escape was impossible, because the borders were sealed and the Gestapo was relentless in its hunt for Jews. Their main goal became the safety of their son.
They had contacted a woman living in a Brussels suburb. The woman, a gentile, was living alone because her husband was stuck in England. Referred to as Aunt Angele in the diary, she welcomed Ari as a boarder at great peril to her life.
Stories were fabricated by Ari and Angele to explain the sudden appearance in her home of an 8-year old boy. She maintained her calm disposition through unannounced midnight interrogations by Gestapo agents. She and Ari had rehearsed numerous scenarios and their responses to these surprise visits.
They had prepared a 5-foot-deep burrow in her back yard with branch coverings serving as camouflage. Their two-minute drill in response to unannounced meetings required him to arrange his bedding perfectly, climb out the rear window and take refuge in the burrow, sometimes for many hours.
Ari’s introspective accounting of his ability to survive is remarkable. He attended school as a Christian child and sang in the church choir. He eventually mastered French with no detectable Germanic influence on his accent.
As an 8-, 9- and 10-year-old, he understood that he might never see his parents again and grasped the fate that may have befallen them. What is so riveting about Ari’s journey is his ability to assess dangerous encounters and evade those situations while remaining hopeful about the future.
Ari maintained his false identity as a Belgian boy orphaned when his parents perished in an American bombing raid. He somehow kept his composure through numerous situations that threatened to crack his mask.
Ari continually relived his final conversation with his father. “Remember that you are always a Jew, hiding as a gentile,” his father had repeated to him. Ari’s struggle with his double identity was eased by that paternal reminder.
Ari’s secret existence as a proud Jew participating in an all-encompassing array of church activities carried him from Belgium to France and ultimately to Israel.
His successful navigation of the dangerous shoals of war-torn Europe perhaps prepared him for a position of service to Israel.
A reviewer of the book in Israel noted that Ari carried out delicate assignments. The review said that given the skills and sensitivities he employed to stay alive during the war, it was little wonder that he succeeded in contributing to Israel’s security.
“Tin Soldier in a Cardboard Box” stands apart from the many books written by survivors of the Holocaust. The author’s insights and fluid style are unique as we are thrust with clarity into his daily life as a Jew in hiding. The story is written with great sensitivity and refrains from sentimentalism.
Despite the inevitable moments of grief, the book conveys a powerful message of optimism. This is a saga that will grip readers and compel them to read it in its entirety in one sitting.