Emotions flowed earlier this week during a heartfelt ceremony at Yad Vashem. Participants travelled near and far to attend a special ceremony posthumously honoring Joseph and Marie Andries from Belgium as Righteous Among the Nations. Aside from the importance of recognizing and giving thanks to these individuals who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, the research process yielded the discovery of long-lost relatives of Benno Gerson and Anni Goldberg, Jewish children who were saved by Joseph and Marie Andries. Extended family members from Israel and the US were both excited and proud to take part in this ceremony honoring the couple who saved their cousins.
The story began right after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, when Luser-Ludwig and Pepi Gershonowitz decided to leave Germany. They first sent their daughter Anni to the Netherlands, and then followed with their younger son, Benno. Eventually the family settled in Brussels, Belgium.
When the deportations from Belgium began in 1942, the Gershonowitz family decided to separate from their children in order to save them. Seven-year-old Anni and five-year-old Benno were brought to the home of Joseph and Marie Andries in Anderlecht. On 24 September 1942, Ludwig and Pepi were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Several months later, the Andries family and the children moved to Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, where they remained until the end of the war. Joseph and Marie Andries were childless, and at some point separated; the two children remained with Marie, who continued to care for them lovingly. Life was simple, and Marie sometimes received help from her relatives, the Rampelbergs, who provided her with some additional food.
After the war, contact was established with a relative of the Gershonowitz family in the United States, and in 1947 Anni and Benno left Marie Andries’ home and sailed to New York. In 1983, shortly before Marie Andries passed away, Benno travelled to Belgium and visited his rescuer one last time.
Accepting the certificate and medal on behalf of the late Joseph and Marie Andries was Dr. Francoise Rampelberg, who travelled especially from Switzerland to attend the ceremony. Dr. Rampelberg recounted fond childhood memories of Marie, who lived in a typical Brussels apartment with her dog. She explained that Marie and her grandparents got along very well, but that she only recently discovered what an extraordinary and courageous woman Marie was: Marie never spoke of how she hid two Jewish children. "The medal and certificate are proof that brave people with a conscience did exist during those dark times. They attest to the fact that friendship can triumph under even the most dangerous circumstances… they represent symbols of hope for the future."
Holocaust survivor Benno Gerson, and Serge and Stefan Goldberg, sons of Anni Goldberg z"l, traveled from the United States to participate in this rare event. While Benno admitted he did not remember much from the war period, he described his memories of Marie with love and affection. He called her "mamak," Flemish for mother, and recalled how Marie had saved his sister's life twice - once when she summoned a doctor to take out Anni's tonsils, and another time when she had to cut out an infection from Anni's finger. Benno described how his mamak made special arrangements for them to be homeschooled in order to ensure that they received an education. "The risk she took to protect us are beyond my understanding. No one deserves this honor more… I've had a wonderful life because of Marie and Joseph Andries. They gave me the gift of life."
Benno also described his delight to be united with all of his newly extended family. "We never knew that we had relatives in Israel. My sister and I believed we were the only survivors and that was it. So it was a shock… a happy shock."
Serge Goldberg thanked Yad Vashem for honoring Marie and Andries and for all of their hard work to bring together this "unimaginable and unlikely family reunion." Serge recalled fond memories of his loving and loyal mother, Anni. He related that strong family loyalty was of the utmost importance to her, and that she had always hoped that her children and grandchildren would grow up without fear. "This was a wonderful event for our family. We are so happy to be here despite all the trauma that occurred 70 years ago. I never would have imagined that one day I would be standing here at Yad Vashem for an event like this."
Hopeful for future generations, Benno added, "It's so important that we continue to educate and remember what happened, so that such a tragedy can never occur again. We need more tolerance and for people to get along better. That’s my hope - that people will never have to experience what my sister and I did with the loss of our parents."
Yad Vashem has currently recognized 1,707 Righteous from Belgium. To date, more than 26,000 individuals have received the honor. More information about the Righteous Among the Nations, including background details, stories and the Database of Righteous, can be found online here.