Father Hubert Celis' testimony
As priest in the diocese of Liege, I was, during the Second World War, the parson of the small parish of Halmaal, near St Trond in the Limbourg province.
In September 1942 Monsignor Kerkhofs, bishop of Liege, convened several priests at the place of the Dean of Hasselt who was in charge of the province, in order to talk about the persecution of the Jewish people and to ask for volunteers to help the Jews…I was one of the priests that were invited. The Bishop didn't want to obligate anyone, because of the danger one was exposed to, but he wished that his priests would know how proud he was of those who would risk their lives to save the life of others. The lawyer Van den Berg, a great resistance member from Liege, who was arrested and shot by the Germans before the end of the war, regularly informed us of all German decisions regarding the Jews. It's due to him that I knew that thee was no explicit German law forbidding helping the Jews, a most important argument for my defense, when I was later arrested.
The very same day in September 1942, as I was returning to my community from this meeting in Hasselet, for the first time in my life a Jewish woman came to see me, accompanied by one of our parishioners. She was the mother of the Rotenberg children. They had arrived in our community from Brussels, where life had become more and more difficult.
Mrs. Rotenberg wept profusely, as she explained she was expecting to be arrested at any moment, and that she wanted so much to be reunited with her children after the war, if she were to survive. It was then that I gave my word of honor to Mrs. Rotenberg and promised to save her children and, if necessary, to sacrifice my own. Thanks to God I was able to keep my promise, and as I now see the happiness of the Rotenberg children and their families, I thank God for having given me the necessary strength.
Following this promise I placed the two girls, Regine, 16 years old, and Sonia, 2 years old, with my brother at Grande Place in St. Trond, and the two boys, Wolfgang, 13 years old, and Sigmund, 9 years old, with my brother, the priest of Gotem, some 12 Km. from Halmaal.
On 29 October 1942 the Rotenberg parents, denounced by an unknown informer, were arrested by the Feldgendarmerie (German police) – the father in my presbytery, and the mother in another parish home. During the months of September and October 1942 I had many talks with the parents Rotenberg. We discussed religion….The father Rotenberg was a holy man who had only one concern – to follow God's wish. The mother Rotenberg was a very caring mother, the embodiment of goodness and honesty, and very pious as well. I am sure that these two good people who had no evil in them whatsoever, went straight to heaven.
The very same 29 October 1942, I was arrested for the first time and accused of being in the resistance, helping Allied pilots, having said that we had to help the Jews persecuted by the enemy, and finally, having placed the Rotenberg children.
While I was being accused, I said to myself: they will search for the children in my family, and they will find them…I have to confess to the last charge, so that I will be able to deny the other charges with some sincerity. I therefore calmly admitted having placed the children, and denied the other accusations. When they told me they had witnesses, I demanded to be confronted with them, being certain that no member of the community would accuse me to my face….
….But when they wanted me to disclose the whereabouts of the children, I refused. They insulted me; they threatened to shoot me; they screamed at me for one and a half hours. I always responded calmly: "I am in your hands. I know that I will be shot, but I will never talk. A priest is not a traitor." And then I had the bright idea of asking the commander of the Feldgendarmerie: "What are you? Catholic or Protestant?". He answered: "I am Catholic". From that moment on he had said too much. I began to preach to him as a Catholic: "You are a Catholic and you have forgotten that the Virgin was Jewish, that Christ was Jewish, that he commanded us to love and to help one another"….
The Commander remained very polite and excused himself by saying that he had been given an order to do the interrogation, and if he didn't, he would be punished. I responded that I have respect for people who fulfill their duty, and he must do his duty, but that it was useless to insist, because I would not talk. He said: "I understand. I also understand that you will not divulge what is said in confession.
…After three hours of interrogation he told me: "You may go. You are free until the decision by Headquarters.". I was never as happy as when I returned from the police. I returned in order to disperse the Rotenberg children, who were placed elsewhere – the girls with one friend, and the boys with another priest. When everything became calm again and the Germans left me in peace, little Sonia, 2 years old, who one could not keep closed in a house, was placed in Zonhoven, in a rural area about 25 Km. from St. Trond. Regine returned to Dad's place and the two boys to my bother in Gotem.
On 3 May 1944 Regine was denounced by an unknown informer. Although she had always stayed inside, she was seen through a window, and arrested at my father's home. The old man, about 80 years old, defended her like a lion, but was helpless against the forces that made the arrest. The same day I was arrested a second time…
Regine was sent to Auschwitz extermination camp, from where, thank God, she returned to us in 1945. I believe that I did my duty. We are all children of God, whatever our religion or our religious or political convictions may be, and hence we are brothers who should love each other. This is what Christ was telling us when he told us to love fellow men!
I never tried to convert the Rotenberg children to the Catholic faith. I always respected their religious belief. 1) because I didn't want to take advantage of the sad circumstances in order to influence them, 2) because Mrs. Rotenberg had confidence in me and I had given her my word as priest. I had no right to abuse her trust in me and I had the duty to remain faithful to my word to return the children to their parents or their family as they had been entrusted in my hands. It was therefore that I wished them to remain faithful to their religion and to what their religion required, 3) because I foresaw that after the war the children would be returned to their family and placed in a Jewish environment, so I preferred a good Jew to a bad Christian.
I also believe that this selfless help is at the basis of the gratitude and loyal love that the Rotenberg children demonstrate towards me. What I did for the Rotenberg children I did for many of my fellow citizens wanted by the enemy. I always had 4 or 5 hidden in my home; I placed many with generous families who were willing to sacrifice their lives to save others! Never did I encounter so much appreciation as shown by these children, who all four of them have continuously proven how much they deserved to have been helped!