Family Gets First Award for Saving Other Jews in Shoah

Yehoshua and Hennie Birenbaum ran a children home for Jewish children; now their children will receive the Citation of Jewish Rescue, the first award of its kind, on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Old black-and-white footage on YouTube shows children celebrating at a Purim party in post-World War II Amsterdam. In the silent, four-minute clip posted by Yad Vashem, the kids are dressed up as kings, queens, princesses and Arab sheikhs, marching in pairs and laughing. Nothing about them indicates they are orphans who survived the Holocaust, which had ended only a year earlier.

The video was recorded in 1946 at the Children’s Home of Yehoshua and Hennie Birenbaum, whose children will receive the Citation of Jewish Rescue, the first award of its kind, on Holocaust Memorial Day. The ceremony will be held Monday in the Forest of the Martyrs outside Jerusalem.

Holocaust memorial day

The newly created citation, recognizing the heroism of Jews who rescued Jews, is being awarded by the B’nai B’rith organization and the Jewish National Fund.

The ceremony marks the culmination of a decade-long effort to raise awareness about Jews who saved other Jews.

“In terms of research, [study of] Jewish heroism pales in comparison to the Jews’ suffering and the Nazis murderousness,” says Alan Schneider, director of the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem.

Jews cannot be named Righteous Gentiles, he adds.

“Gentiles risked their lives and the Jews were all in danger. But some of them took risks beyond the call of duty and we thought it was necessary to honor them,” Schneider says.

The Birenbaums saved not only themselves and their six children, but dozens of orphans.

Before the war, Yehoshua and Hennie Birenbaum, who married in 1927, lived in Berlin. After Kristallnacht in 1938, they fled to the Netherlands. When the Nazis occupied Holland, they were sent to the Westerbork concentration camp.

The couple set up an orphanage there that was recognized by the camp authorities and by Jewish aid organizations. Some 300 children lived in the orphanage, where the Birenbaums did everything they could to keep them from being transported to the death camps.

“My parents used to sneak up to the camp headquarters, see which children were listed on the next transport and try to stop them from being taken,” says Sonja Birenbaum, the couple’s daughter.

In a report submitted to the Dutch government after the war, Yehoshua Birenbaum wrote: “We’d already succeeded, more than once, to put off childrens’ transports, even when it seemed like a lost cause. We knew how to find ... people who could help us. Once it was a notary who designed a rescue plan, once it was a doctor who forbade sending the children due to a contagious disease in our hut...”

In one case, Hennie Birenbaum persuaded the camp commander that 50 of the children were actually Christians, born to German soldiers and Jewish women. Equipped with forged documents, she managed to save all of them but one.

The orphanage operated until February 1944, when the Birenbaums and the remaining children were sent to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

The Birenbaums set up an orphanage there for 40 children, almost all of whom survived. They reestablished their Children’s Home in Amsterdam after the war and in 1950 immigrated to Israel with 15 orphans.

“It was a heartwarming sight, after I returned to Amsterdam, when a child strolling with his mother recognized me and hugged me, beaming with happiness,” Birenbaum wrote.