I visited a touring Anne Frank exhibit while we were living in Hong Kong and heard a Holocaust survivor tell his story. Silvain Gilbert was born into a Jewish family in Antwerp in 1937. His parents were in their early thirties at the time and worked in the diamond industry. He had an older sister. In 1940 the Germans occupied Belgium and the lives of the 30,000 Jews who lived there changed dramatically. They had an 8 pm. curfew, couldn’t use the hospitals, couldn’t get food ration cards and Jewish children couldn’t go to school. Jews had to be registered and counted. In 1941 all the diamonds owned by the Jews were confiscated and in 1942 deportation to concentration camps, primarily Auschwitz began.
Silvain’s father had a business partner who was Flemish, not Jewish and he hid Silvain, his mother and sister in his home after their father had been sent to a labour camp in northern France. Catholic families in Belgium were taking in Jewish children in an attempt to save them and a priest arranged for Silvain and his sister to find sanctuary in a village in the south of Belgium called Mont-Saint-Guibert. They lived there for three years with a 65-year-old unmarried woman whom he called Tante Fanny. She also took in two other Jewish girls besides Silvain and his sister.
Silvain’s last name was changed from Silber to Gilbert. They spoke French in southern Belgium so Silvain who knew only Flemish and Yiddish had to learn a new language. In order to deceive the authorities, he had to attend the local Catholic Church and even served as an altar boy. Tante Fanny taught him to read and play the piano. He said at the end of the war when his mother came to pick him up he was confused. Tante Fanny was the mother he knew and his own mother was like a stranger.
In the village of Mont-Saint-Guibert, 21 Jewish children were sheltered and saved during World War II.
In 1960 Silvain got a job in the diamond business and his work led him to Hong Kong in 1996 where he continues to live. In 2005 he returned to Mont-Saint-Guibert and found the house where he had stayed with Tante Fanny.
In 2009 he was able to have Tante Fanny recognized as Righteous Among Nations ( an honour given to a non-Jew who saved the life of a Jewish person) by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.