I was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1938, which was neither the right time nor the right place to be born a Jew.
Germany invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. The same day, his parents escaped to France and made their way south to Marseilles in Vichy-controlled France. During this trip, German planes would bomb and strafe the refugees clogging the roads. His dad would put him in the ditch, along the roads, then his mother would lie on top, and lastly his dad would cover his mother.
Between July and October of 1940, the Vichy government passed anti-Semitic legislation, the “Lois sur le Statut des Juifs” (Laws regulating the situation of the Jews) and at the end of 1942, the Vichy militias with the help of the GESTAPO, arrested Robert's family and sent them to Rivesaltes, the largest French concentration camp. There the family was separated.
Robert and his pregnant mother were sent to a “résidence forcée” (forced domicile), a kind of house arrest in a small village. As a result, Robert’s brother was born in a German military hospital. Later, his father escaped from Rivesaltes, and was reunited with his family with help from the French resistance. Over several nights in September 1943, the family crossed the Alps by foot and found refuge in Switzerland until the end of the war.
Robert and his immediate family was fortunate. Deportation of foreign Jews to Nazi death camps began in March of 1942, and many Jews at Rivesaltes were deported to the French transit camp of Drancy, and then on to Auschwitz. That is what happened to Robert’s uncle who refused to escape with his father. The Nazis murdered more than 77,000 Jews from France in these camps.
After the war, Robert received his BS in Marine and Mechanical Engineering in Belgium and served in the Belgian Navy as an officer. Later he was detached to the navy of Zaire in Africa. He was recruited overseas by Boeing and came to Seattle in 1967. He received an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington and a MA in Naval History and International Relations from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Robert has written numerous magazine articles and papers on naval armament, military history and naval operations. He has also served in the US Naval Reserve for 24 years and retired as a Commander. He worked for 40 years at Boeing as a Structural Service Engineer, advising operators how to maintain and repair their planes. Bob is now a docent and guide at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
For more than 25 years, he has also been teaching Jewish history at several Jewish schools. For the last 20 years he has been a volunteer as a crime analyst for the Bellevue Police Department. Bob is a member of the Holocaust Center's Board of Directors and a member of the Center's Speakers Bureau.
My aunt, Rosa Schnabel, stayed in Belgium but survived thanks to a Belgian named Pauline Joris-Brouwers. Mrs. Joris Brouwers, who was our family’s cleaning lady, hid Mrs. Schnabel in her house, behind the stove in a cavity. The husband of Pauline was killed by a V1, one of the numerous German flying bombs which ravaged Antwerpen after September 1944. As a result, our families adopted Pauline and her four children.
In 1997 Mr. Herschkowitz successfully petitioned for her to be declared “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. Her Yad Vashem gold medal was given to her children by the Royal Princess of Belgium.
“As a child, I spent numerous summer days at her [Pauline Joris-Brouwers] place in Wommelgem, Flanders playing with her children. We treated her as part of our family."
Learn more about Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem.