Seventy years later, Charlotte Gillman can still hear the boots of the soldiers marching past her family’s apartment in Antwerp, Belgium. She can still hear the shattering glass as they smashed the storefronts below. She can still see the faces of those taken and murdered that day.
“I’m on the second floor and I’m looking out,” Gillman tells me as we enter Gallery Two of the Center—a walking timeline of hatred and intolerance punctuated with dates, life-size photographs, facts, maps and donated artifacts. “They dragged the poor man out by the beard,” she says of a Jewish shopkeeper across the street. “They pulled him down the street and they stomped him to death.” Her eyes well up with tears.
Gillman was only 7 when she watched the Nazis tear through her childhood street in 1940. It would not be the last time she would witness such atrocities, nor the last time her religion would make her a target. It was actually just the beginning. Soon afterward, Gillman tells me, she, her family and all Jewish residents, were ordered to city hall to register as Jews. They were each given and forced to wear a Star of David identifying them as such. Gillman kneels down, opens a bag and shares hers with me.
“In the beginning, you were allowed to go to school,” she says. “But, then the decree [came] out that no Jewish child may go to school. Which, in the beginning, the children used to [taunt], ‘Dirty Jew!’ So I used to take my books to cover it up.”
We’re standing in front of a wall-sized, black-and-white photo of Nazi troop formations. Adolf Hitler is signaling with his right arm outstretched. An adjacent photograph shows two Jewish men spread up against a brick wall. This gallery is a fitting backdrop to Gillman’s horrific stories. Its winding-hallway design transports visitors through events and dates documenting Germany’s simmering undercurrent of anti-Semitism years before its boiling over into the rise of Nazism and World War II, through the Holocaust, and into modern times.
The photos speak for themselves. Old men are led through the streets, each bearing a massive Star of David, flanked by Nazi troops in military regalia. A Jewish man and woman stand amid a circle of Nazi soldiers, wearing signs declaring them subhumans. Above, a television screen shows stills of German firefighters protecting “Aryan” homes from flames while Jewish properties are permitted to burn on Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” An adjacent photograph depicts the collapsing skeletal remains of Jewish religious sites destroyed by sanctioned incineration. Another photo shows a soldier pointing his rifle at a woman clutching her child in her arms, seconds before firing. Below it are details about the Einsatzgruppen—mobile killing squads responsible for mass murdering more than 1 million men, women and children.
Gillman, whose father had left for America years before, survived the genocide by being hidden with her two sisters, Flora and Betty, in a series of apartments, orphanages, schools and three convents throughout Belgium. A cast of selfless characters kept the girls safe—ranging from George Ranson, a member of the Belgian Resistance, to Father Bruno Reynders, a Benedictine monk, to a handful of Catholic priests and nuns—risking their own lives to save theirs. Some were subsequently recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem for their heroics. Reynders is credited with saving the lives of 400 Jews. Gillman’s mother also survived—a supersized photo of her and her three children taken in 1943 hangs in the first gallery of the Center. The majority of Gillman’s extended family did not.
Gillman’s 3-and-a-half-year-old cousin Nathan was killed in Auschwitz, she tells me, choking up with emotion.
“The apartment was raided, they took my aunt and my uncle and their little baby, the Nazis,” she says.
Life at the convents wasn’t easy. Besides the omnipresent fear of being discovered and executed by the Nazis were the bombings and day-to-day hardships of life in German-occupied, war-torn Belgium.
“Convent number two, very harsh treatment,” she says. “We got just a little bowl of soup and a moldy piece of bread… In that convent, any infraction of the rule, you were put in the basement with a wooden panel. You had to kill rats and you couldn’t come up unless you had one rat. They’d leave you down there.”
To treat rampant lice, children’s heads were tarred, she adds.
Gillman has been a Long Islander since 1955 and shares her story with schoolchildren and visitors to the Center, where she has been a speaker and docent for the past six years. She has traveled the country sharing her story with various audiences for the past 35 years. Gillman carries photographs of her family and those that helped save their lives, many of whom she stayed in touch with after the war. Her goal is to spread the word of tolerance so that no one will ever have to endure what she and so many others had to. She credits her survival to “the goodness of people” and appreciates ever single day of life.
“I appreciate everything, very much,” Gillman says. “Every day I’m thankful the way I live, the way I eat—I can eat anything I want. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Gillman’s diet, she tells me, includes multiple cups of hot cocoa a day—a luxury of which she was deprived while in hiding. Despite all that she endured, Gillman, now a grandmother of four, still holds an optimistic perspective about mankind.
“People are wonderful,” she adds. “Many are bad, but that’s how many are wonderful.”