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Innocence Lost

Our thanks to The Town Talk for permission to publish this article written by Melinda Martinez, who also supplied photos.

INNOCENCE LOST: Child Holocaust survivor asks young people to remember atrocities

By Melinda Martinez
Alexandria Town Talk

"When I do this and speak to people — young people like yourselves, it's up to you. It's up to you to carry on after I'm gone," child Holocaust survivor Jeannine Burk told Louisiana College students.

Burk, 80, of New Orleans, was the guest speaker for "Lost Innocence: Children of the Holocaust," a remembrance event presented by the LC Departments of History and Music on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

"She is so inspiring and shared so truthfully," said Jackson Sleet, one of the members of the public who attended the program. "A heartwarming life through such dangerous times."

The Website, The Holocaust Explained, states that around six million Jews were killed by the German Nazi regime and their collaborators during World War II.

"Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis sought to eliminate the entire Jewish community of Europe. Jews were murdered by death squads called Einsatzgruppen or transported to extermination camps. Six million of the eleven million European Jews perished."

Others deemed inferior by the Nazis such as Romani people, disabled people, Soviet Prisoners of War and civilians, Polish civilians, homosexuals, socialists, communists and trades unionists, Freemasons and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also killed during the Nazi regimen.

The total death toll for all is estimated to be around 11 million. The History Channel Website states that of those 11 million, more than a million killed in the Holocaust were children.

"The sole crime of 6 million," said Burk raising her voice. "Is that we were Jews. Out of those 6 million, one and a half were children." 

"One and a half!" Burk emphasized. "You take a child and throw him in an oven? How can anybody do that? How can you be so evil?"

"How can you be so evil to march children — march them towards the ovens? How can you do that?" Burk exclaimed.

"What happened to the humanity of this person?" she asked. "They don't have any more. They never had any." 

"He was such an evil man," said Burk of Nazi leader Adolph Hitler who ordered the extermination of 11 million people. "And he managed to make thousands and thousands and thousands of people as evil as he was."

"And I beg of you, to please remember this and remember that the Holocaust happened," she told audience.

"You can't allow anybody to tell you, 'No, it didn't happen.' or 'It was exaggerated.' And there are people who do that.," she said. "And people of prominence who do that. And it can't be allowed. You have to stop it. You have to stop it. Because look what's happening with anti-Semitism here in America."

Now that she is getting older and other survivors of the Holocaust are passing on, she wants the younger generation to remember their stories.

Her story begins in Brussels, Belgium, where she was born on Sept. 15, 1939. 

At the beginning of the 1940s, rumors were circulating in Brussels that Jews were disappearing. 

"Most Jewish families ignored that particular thing," she told the audience. "My father did not. So in his wisdom, he got the help of the Resistance — the Underground."

The Underground gave her father information about places where he could hide his family.

"Now you have to understand that he did not want us to be together," she said.

Her father reasoned that if one member of the family was taken while they were all together, then all of them would be taken. The best chance for each member's survival was to split the family up.

Through the Resistance, Burk's father found a woman who could take her in. Burk at the time was a small child.

"And that was the last time I saw my father," said Burk, becoming emotional. 

"Between the ages of 3, 4 and 5, I was alone with this woman," she said. She referred to the woman as "This Lady" because she never knew her name. It wasn't until Burk turned 65 that she found out who she was.

"You have to understand, here I am 3, 4 and 5. This woman never mistreated me," said Burk. "I have to say that. She never mistreated me, but she also never loved me. I wasn't hers."

"And you know, it leaves such scars. Scars that will never leave. I'm 80 now and it still hurts. It will never go away."

For the two years of her life that she spent hiding in the woman's house, she was never allowed to play outside for fear that the Nazis would find her.

"The reason I couldn't be seen was, all the neighbors knew she didn't have a little girl," explained Burk. "So if someone had seen me, it would have been the death of her and me. Because someone would have snitched."

"Now picture yourselves 3, 4 and 5 and not being able to go outside and play. What do you think that would feel like?" she asked. "I had no friends. I had no toys."  

Burk said she was a very obedient child and did as she was instructed without question.

She recalled once being told by the woman to run and hide in the outhouse and she did as she was told.

"And the reason she did that was, the Nazis were parading down the street," explained Burk. It was prerequisite that everyone had to open their doors to watch the parade.

"Now, she didn't want anyone to see me. That's why she had me hide in the outhouse," she said.

Even though she was a small child, Burk said she knew the Nazis were bad because her father told her.

She crawled to the furthest corner of the outhouse because a piece of wood was missing and she could see the soldiers marching. In her child's mind, she thought if she could see them, they could see her so she stayed huddled in that corner of the outhouse until she was told she to come out. 

Her brother was sent away to live in a Christian home for boys.

That left Burk's sister who had osteomyelitis — "Which is an infection of the bones," Burk explained. She had on a body cast which made it difficult to move her. 

Burk's parents were waiting on an ambulance to take her sister to a hospital where she could safely stay.

But unfortunately, Burk said someone "snitched" to the Gestapo that the family was Jewish.

"So one morning at 5 o'clock, they broke down our door and they came in and took my father and put him in the truck," she said.

"If I had been home when they did that, I wouldn't be here today. Because as soon as you got to the concentration camp, and I was that young, I would have been exterminated right away."

The Gestapo was going to take her mother as well but her mother told them, "You can shoot me right here but I can't leave my daughter and she cannot be moved."

The blankets were pulled off her sister to reveal the body cast and the Gestapo told her mother that they would be back for her at a later time.

By some miracle, said Burk, a Catholic hospital sent an ambulance to collect her sister. She was taken to the hospital and placed in the isolation ward for her own safety. 

"The Nazis never went into the isolation ward. They were afraid of contracting a disease," she explained.

Her mother was able to hide out in another location where she worked and passed as a Christian woman.

"Let me clarify this," said Burk. "In Europe, the Nazis had decided that they were going to tell everybody what a Jew looked like. So they had these tremendous posters everywhere — everywhere. And it showed all frizzy hairs hanging down, very sallow skin, and a tremendous nose."

Most people don't look like that, she said, but that's how Nazis pictured Jews.

Since her mother was "very pretty and very fair," she passed as a Christian woman and worked in a nursing home as a nurse's aide out in the country.

"In the two years that I was gone from her, she only visited me one time. It was very dangerous because in the country, there was a group of men called the Brown Shirts. And the Brown Shirts were the snitchers."

If they heard a Jew was being hidden or if a family was hiding in the forest, they would tell the Gestapo. 

"So for my mother, even though my mother passed as a Christian woman, she didn't take any more chances. She only went once and that was it."

She never saw her sister or brother in those two years she lived with the woman.

"And of course, my father," she added, who was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers.

"I'm convinced to this day that my father would have had a place to go, but for him it was too late," she said. 

In 1944, Belgium was liberated by the British and her mother come to collect her.

"The happiest day of my life," said Burk.

The following day they picked up her sister. Her brother, who was 12 years older than her, was able to find his way home to them. 

"Then we were all waiting for my father," she said. Her mother made inquires about him. "And we kept waiting for my father."

"And the one inquiry we didn't want to get," said Burk breaking into tears. "One of the inquires that we didn't want to get was, that my father was not coming home. He had been exterminated in Auschwitz. And all because we were Jews."

"My father had done nothing to anyone," she said. "He was a machinist. Had hurt no one. Had committed no crime. The sole crime that he committed was being a Jew."

Though poorer than they were before World War II, the family was able to return to their house.

Then, when Burk was 10, her mother died of cancer. Her sister took care of her for two years before Burk was sent to live with relatives in New York City.

They had received a letter after a relative saw a photo and Burk's maiden name "Jeannine Rafalowicz" in a Jewish newspaper called The Forward.

Her father had three sisters who emigrated to America before WWII. One of them wanted to sponsor Burk and her sister to come to America. Her sister was engaged but decided that it was probably in Burk's best interest to live in the U.S. where she would have a better life.

"I did not want to come," said Burk. "I did not want to come because that would mean I would leave my family again. I had left my family the first time and now they are asking me to leave my family again?"

She left Belgium on her 12th birthday, flying on a plane for 18 hours.

"I knew no English and I didn't know who I was coming to," said Burk. She only thought of where she could hide on the plane that way when it returned to Brussels, she'd be on it.

The family she lived with were named the Savages. But her time with them was not a happy one.

"They had a daughter who was about a year and a half older than I was and eventually I became Cinderella," she said. Burk was tasked with doing all the chores around the house.

To get out of that house, Burk married young and had two sons. She eventually divorced and raised her sons on her own for six years until she met her late husband, Maurice Burk, who was from New Orleans.

"And January of '71, we were married in New Orleans," she said. "And that was when God said, 'Okay, now it's your turn.' He sent me this wonderful, wonderful man."

Maurice brought Jeannine and her two sons to live with him and his family in New Orleans.

"He was a widower and had four children and I had two so we became instantly 'The Brady Bunch,'" she quipped. "That's what everybody called us — The Brady Bunch."

She became emotional talking about Maurice. "This man — I know that God sent him to me. There's no question in my mind. Because I think that God saw that it was enough already."

"That became the happy time of my life," she said. "But the scars, ladies and gentlemen, will always be there."

The Burks were married for 42 years until Maurice's death 7 and a half years ago.

"When I first came to New Orleans, I belonged to a club called the New American Social Club. And it was made up of all survivors," said Burk. In total, the club had 50 members who were Holocaust survivors.

"There's three of us left. And the three of us are child survivors."

Burk wants to make sure that hate and anti-Semitism don't spread and is looking to younger people to make sure that it doesn't.

"I can't do it by myself anymore. I'm kind of old," she said. "And I won't be around forever. It's up to you guys."

She never expected Jews praying in a synagogue in the U.S. to be gunned down.  

"Never in a million years would I have expected that to happen here," said Burk. "And it did twice."

A mass shooting happened Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation, in Pittsburgh, Penn., where 11 people died and two others injured along with four police officers. Another took place April 27, 2019 at Chabad of Poway in California where one person was killed and three others injured.

"Just because someone is Jewish doesn't make them a bad person," she said. "Just because you're Baptist, does that make you a bad person? I mean, it's ridiculous that you judge somebody by a religion."

She told the crowd that it's what's on the inside that makes a person.

"You can't judge by outward things. You have to judge what's inside. And everybody possesses good. And you just have to let it come out."