Hiding the truth to stay alive

Writer: 
August 11, 2017

Early in my days as a freelance journalist, I was on the lookout for a book subject themed to some sort of big human drama. I found that theme one morning on a path along a rosemary-scented Jerusalem hillside—the site of Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. The path was flanked by orderly rows of carob trees, their branches hung with the long brown pods, the very kind, probably, that had sustained John the Baptist in the wilderness. At the gnarly base of each tree was a small plaque inscribed with the name of Christians who had rescued Jews from their hunters in Nazi-occupied Europe. After careful vetting, nominees whose motive was found to be pure were given the formal title of Righteous Among the Nations. Here would be my subject, I thought: Each of those trees represented a life-or-death human drama waiting to be told.

Seven years passed before a publisher signed up that book. Researching in half a dozen European countries, I met aging rescuers who once risked their lives to spoil the deadly hunt. I also met the rescued and sometimes their children, on whom the shadow of what once befell their parents could be disturbingly strong. Circumstances and personalities of the heroes varied widely. But there was one constant in all their rescue efforts: The hiding places they provided to the hunted had to be kept secret, come what may. If the secret was revealed, whether on purpose or by accident, the game was up. Next stop: Auschwitz.

In Ghent, Belgium’s second-largest city, I met a Polish-born couple, Abram and Tanya Lipski. Under German occupation in autumn 1942, they were just trying to stay alive and protect their three-year-old son, Raphael. As the Gestapo took away other Jewish families, the Lipskis made the decision to go into hiding. But who would take them in? The couple had many non-Jewish friends, but all backed away from providing more than short-term shelter.

Then Tanya had an idea: Might the family of their cleaning lady, Hermine Van Assche, be willing to shelter the couple until the Germans were gone? Before dawn one October morning, Abram bicycled to the poor neighborhood where Van Assche and her husband shared a small house with his sister and her husband, Pieter Henry, who was the decision-maker. Pieter did not hesitate. “It will be an honor to have you with us for as long as you need,” he said.

That night, upon Pieter's insistence, the fugitive couple slept in the master bedroom. In the morning, Abram set about to create a long-term hiding place in the unused attic. He blacked out two large windows and set up a bell system that could be rung by the families below: One bell meant come downstairs for a meal. Two bells meant come down, but only if you feel like it. Three bells meant danger.

The Lipskis were now hidden. But what about Raffi, as everyone called this strikingly beautiful child with a head full of blond curls? Friends were temporarily caring for him. But joining his parents in the attic would be foolhardy. A three-year-old could not be expected to keep silent if three bells rung. What to do with a rambunctious little boy? Once again, Tanya proposed an unlikely potential rescuer: a single woman named Henriette Chaumat, mistress of a local doctor.  Severe in manner, resolutely unmarried, she seemed to have no maternal instincts. Yet she unhesitatingly agreed to take charge of Raffi.

Madame Chaumat trained her charge to self-identify by a new name: Nicholas Loubet. The boy resisted at first, but “Tati” (as he had to call her), kept drilling it in to him: “Nick, Nick, Nick....”

Finally, the boy answered to his new name. Madame Chaumat was confident that he had forgotten his original identity. Then one December night, she heard the boy talking in bed to his teddy bear: “I’m going to tell you a secret just for us, Teddy. Everybody thinks my name is Nicholas Loubet. Well, it’s not. My name is the same as my Papa’s. But if anyone finds out, we will both be punished. And do you know how? Like this!”  Peeking in, Madame Chaumat watched a light spanking being administered to Teddy. And the boy said, “Remember, Teddy, you are the only one who knows the secret and you must never, never, tell anyone else.”

The boy spent the winter always cooped up in the apartment, lest he be recognized on the street. Spring came, and they moved to Astene, a village on the outskirts of Ghent. There, the boy could at last play in a park. By unlucky chance, two sisters from the old neighborhood, walking in the park, recognized the boy. “Raffi,” they called out, “what are you doing here?

“You are mistaken,” Madame Chaumat told the woman. “This boy is Nicholas Loubet.”

“No, this is Raffi Lipski from Ghent, son of the engineer. Who would not know him?”

Madame Chaumat hustled the boy away, wondering if the women would inform the Gestapo of the child they knew to be Jewish.  They could be rewarded for doing that.

Madame Chaumat and the child returned at once from Astene to her apartment in Ghent. That night, the Lipskis, carrying fake identity cards, slipped in. The boy was presumably asleep. But as the adults pondered how to handle this new threat, he suddenly appeared, carrying Teddy. It had been almost a year since the couple had seen their son.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Theophile and Madame Elza,” he said. Those were the names of the couple that Tati had told him they were returning to Ghent to meet.

“Come here, Nick,” said Tati. “Give your hand to Madame Elza.” The boy extended his hand.

“Now tell me the truth, Nick. Do you think Madame Elza looks like your mother?

“She is not so beautiful as my mother.”

“What about Monsieur Theophile?

“My father, he was much more handsome than Monsieur Theophile. And much bigger!”

“Can you tell them what happened to your parents?”

“My mommy and daddy are dead. They were killed in the war. Now they are buried in the ground. But their souls have gone to heaven.”

The Lipskis sat as if frozen. Madame Chaumat, satisfied with how well she had trained her charge, sent him back to bed. It was decided that the two women could be trusted not to inform on Raffi. In the morning, Madame Chaumat took him back to Astene.

Ghent was liberated in September 1944. The parents raced off on a tandem bike to the village. They found the boy amidst a gaggle of other children playing on a British tank. Now five, he had been away from his parents for more than a third of his life. Yet, as he ran toward them, he shouted, “Papa. Maman.” And he hugged and kissed them as before.

Thirty-two years later, I asked Abram whether, when their son claimed not to know his parents that night in Ghent, he knew the truth or not. “We didn’t know the answer then, and we don’t know now,” Abram said. “I can only say that il a joué le jeu.  He played the game.”

By then, Raffi, a married father of three sons, no longer remembered what transpired in his head in those years with “Tati.” All that mattered was that a secret—perhaps even one secret locked in another—saved his life.

Hellman ’64 is an author and freelance writer in New York. His writing career began when, as a junior, he won the Anne Flexner Memorial Award for creative writing. His latest book is In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire.