Ten brave Catholics, including two priests who were brothers, put their own lives on the line to save four Jewish children during the Holocaust.
There are many heroes in this story, and the first was Monsignor Louis-Joseph Kerkhofs, Bishop of Liege. The Bishop encouraged some of the priests in his diocese to rescue Jews, making it clear that they were not obliged to put their own lives at risk, but if they did, he would be enormously proud of them.
Father Hubert Celis, a parish priest in a small Belgian village, heard the Bishop’s message, and he soon got an opportunity to help. A Jewish woman, Tena Rotenberg, showed up at his door. She believed that she and her husband would be arrested soon, and the desperate, sobbing woman begged the priest – a total stranger to her – to take care of her four children, ranging in age from two to sixteen.
Fired up by his Bishop’s words, Father Hubert immediately agreed to help. He placed the two girls – Regine (16) and Sonia (2) with his elderly father Joseph, who lived with his two daughters. The two Rotenberg boys – Wolfgang (13) and Sigmund (9) – were placed with Father Hubert’s brother, Father Louis, also a priest, and his housekeeper Marie-Louise Tabruyn.
In order to blend into the community, the children had to attend church regularly, but the two brother priests made it a priority to maintain the children’s Jewish identity in the home. Father Louis began to deeply study Jewish beliefs and rituals so that he could help the children learn the traditions of their people. He made sure that Wolfgang – at 13, a Jewish man – wrapped tefillin every morning and prayed every day.
At the beginning, Father Hubert kept in touch with the children’s parents, Moszek and Tena Rotenberg, and took the kids to see them often. However, one month after the Celis’ took in the four children, the Rotenbergs were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.
After the Rotenbergs’ arrest, an informant told the Germans that Father Hubert Celis knew where the Rotenbergs’ missing children were. The priest was arrested and harshly interrogated, but he did not give up any information. He was finally released by a German Catholic who didn’t want to torture a priest.
Father Hubert knew that the Rotenberg kids were no longer safe with his family, so he found new new hiding-places for them. The boys were placed with Baron and Baroness de Tornaco, where they lived in a small room under the roof. Father Louis’ housekeeper Marie-Louise visited them regularly and brought them clothes and treats. The older girl, Regina, was temporarily placed with friends of the Celis’ family, and little Sonia found permanent shelter with farmers Alfons and Clementina Maris.
A few weeks later, Regina could no longer stay where she was and she returned to Joseph Celis’ house, thinking enough time had passed and she’d be safe. However, she was denounced by a neighbor and arrested by the same policeman who had deported her parents a year and a half earlier.
Regina was sent to Auschwitz, and upon arrival she learned her parents had been murdered there. Regina survived the camp, and after being liberated by the Russians, she went back to Belgium to get her three younger siblings. The four Rotenberg children immigrated to the United States, but they stayed in close touch with the Celis family and their friends, who had saved the orphans’ lives.
When Regina Rotenberg got married, Father Hubert Celis came all the way from Belgium to walk her down the aisle.
In 1980, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored the ten Belgians as Righteous Gentiles.
For bravely working together to save four Jewish orphans, we honor Joseph Celis, his daughters Bona and Lucy Celis, Joseph’s sons Father Hubert and Father Louis Celis, housekeeper Marie-Louise Tabruyn, and family friends Alfons & Clementina Maris and Baron Raymond and Baroness Marcelle de Tornaco as this week’s Thursday Heroes.
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Image: Father Louis Celis and Marie-Louise Tabruyn with the Rotenberg children after the war ended.