Marion Winsor: Child Holocaust survivor tells her story

April 29, 2003November 7, 2007 

PATTON TOWNSHIP -- They spoke of betrayal, of murder, and the little girl listened. She heard the adults argue about the man hiding them from the Nazis, whether he would carry out his threat to kill them and save himself. They talked about where he would put the bodies.

The girl heard all this, and she turned to the window and the trees beyond.

"I was looking and wondering where I would be buried," Marion Winsor said.

For a Jewish child fleeing the concentration camps, one of the thousands of so-called "hidden children" during World War II, life never promised a tomorrow. Winsor, now 71 and living in Toftrees, knew it all along. She, her older brother and mother lived on the run for two years with but one guarantee -- exposure meant the end.

"I would think in the evening, very often, maybe this is the last time I will see the sky," Winsor said. "I mean, we were used to the idea that death could come at any time."

Today, she is a retired French teacher, a grandmother who belongs to a generation of children forced to conceal their identities. The New York-based Hidden Child Foundation, part of the Anti-Defamation League, estimates at least 10,000 former hidden children exist worldwide, though foundation president Ann Shore said exact numbers are hard to come by.

Overall, about 10 percent of Jewish children survived the Holocaust, Shore said, with more than a million perishing. About 85 percent of the survivors were orphaned. For decades, until the first international Hidden Child Foundation conference in 1991, the stories of many hidden children went untold out of shame, guilt, alienation or a desire to forget, Shore said. Some, given away as infants, had no memories at all.

"These children never fit any kind of mold," said Shore, herself a hidden child in Poland. "They didn't think of themselves as Holocaust survivors."

Only recently has Winsor begun to revisit her past. She hesitated to join the foundation's international conferences until her husband, Philip, persuaded her to attend in 2000. Since then, she has gone to other conferences, and has publicly talked about her experiences, including at the Pennsylvania Military Museum last month.

But even as she begins to piece together details for her family, the old reluctance crops up now and then.

"It's partly, I think, when you get on with your life, you don't want to be a victim. You don't want the pity," she said. "It was bad enough to wear the Jewish star without being labeled the rest of your life."

`I just loved him'

Her father wouldn't change his mind.

It was 1936, four years after Winsor was born in Antwerp, Belgium. Willem Steyn, a jeweler, decided to sell some property in Germany -- a dangerous idea, given the restrictive laws already in place for Jews. His wife, Georgina, begged him to stay. So did his 8-year-old son, Rolf.

"And my father said, `Well, it's not so much the money. It belongs to me,' " Winsor said.

He never returned, dying in prison two years later. The notice to the family called it a suicide, but Winsor said evidence pointed to murder.

Soon after, the family moved to Rotterdam in Holland. It was a happy time for Winsor. Across the street lived her uncle Alex, aunt Paula and cousin Hendrik, and their dog, Flokky. Alex, the manager of a textile factory, adored his niece, giving her samples for doll clothing, building little shelves for her books and taking her side in any dispute.

"He had such a wonderful sense of humor and love for life, and I just loved him," Winsor said.

`We're not going'

Her world vanished on May 10, 1940.

Winsor was sick at home, a neighbor caring for her while her mother and brother ran errands, when German bombers flattened the city. As she cowered, houses around her fell. The business district was leveled.

"You couldn't recognize anything," Winsor said.

They left the ruins for a town near The Hague where her grandmother, Henrietta, lived. There wasn't any transportation, so they walked the 30 or so miles.

At her new home, Winsor found a soulmate in Julia, whose parents owned a souvenir shop. Classmates and inseparable pals, they shared a scooter and stories of school and family. Both had lost fathers -- Julia's executed for breaking the rules governing Jews, the Germans summoning her mother the next day to pick up his clothes.

By then, Jews in Holland had to register with the authorities and wear the yellow Star of David in public. Identity cards were stamped with a "J." Soldiers came to Winsor's house and took careful inventory of every possession.

Uncles in America urged the family to join them; Georgina had the paperwork ready. But Henrietta talked her out of it.

"So my mother dropped everything and stayed," Winsor said.

Then the deportation orders arrived.

They were for Westerbork, a staging ground for concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Some thought Jews were simply being relocated, but Georgina had read "Mein Kampf," Hitler's manifesto, and had no illusions about the future.

"My mother said to us, `We're not going,' " Winsor said.

It was early 1942, and Winsor was 10. As they prepared to flee, neighbors came by and asked about their belongings.

"One wanted my book bags, my school things, for her son," Winsor said. "She didn't feel I would need them in the camps."

`We couldn't go outside'

They traveled without stars, a crime punishable by death. Her mother smudged the identity card stamps with peroxide.

Friends up north took them in for weeks, then with the help of the Dutch Resistance, they made arrangements to hide in a rented house. With them were a woman and the Oppenheimers -- a professor, who taught the children lessons, and his wife.

It would be a year before Winsor left.

"We did have a room, and my brother and I slept in the attic," she said. "But we could not go near the windows. We couldn't go outside."

Danger lay inside as well. Not satisfied with his payments, their landlord extorted more from Georgina by poisoning her. Soon, his nerves frayed from the risk, he threatened to kill everyone.

The Oppenheimers left for Switzerland via the underground. Georgina waited in vain for news of their safe arrival. Then her family's turn came.

"We were afraid, and then it was very strange to walk outside after a year indoors," Winsor said. "I remember saying to my brother, `Isn't it funny to feel the ground under your feet?' "

`Crying in the streets'

They caught a train, but only after hiding in the station bathroom from Gestapo agents. On a freezing night, they walked the last miles to the Belgian border.

"My brother was carrying a little suitcase, my mother was carrying a bag, and I had my doll," Winsor said. "Suddenly behind us came the smuggler on a bicycle, and he said, `I'll take the little one on my bike to Belgium and I'll come back for you and the boy.' "

He brought Winsor to a farmhouse and returned as promised. She was given a new name, Jeannine. The next morning, another train ride brought them to a small border village called Gimnee. All the while, Winsor's cheek was so swollen from a toothache, passengers kept suggesting to an anxious Georgina that her daughter see a dentist.

At a parish, where a frazzled priest hid them with refugees and escaped prisoners-of-war, they ran into old friends. The Oppenheimers had tried to cross into France, only to return frightened by bystanders shouting "Dirty Jew" at a railroad station.

"That was the end," Winsor said. "There was no way to get to Switzerland."

Local Catholic clergy found them shelter for the rest of the occupation. A year later, the priest who first greeted them was arrested and killed at the Buchenwald camp.

For a while, Winsor delivered milk in the village, a small dog in tow, then wound up in a convent with other Jewish children. She studied under the sisters, attended Mass and converted. A priest took in Rolf, and Georgina worked on a farm. Each had no idea where the others lived, though they could send letters through a bishop.

In 1944, Belgium was liberated, the family reunited. But Holland wasn't free yet, and the Battle of the Bulge further delayed them. At home, old neighbors were dismayed at their return, refusing to hand over belongings left for safekeeping.

"I said, `Mammie, why don't they seem happy to see us?' " Winsor said. "She just shrugged her shoulders."

Nobody remained. Julia had died. Alex had refused to hide for fear of placing anyone in jeopardy, and he, Paula and Henrick were killed on the same day in the Polish camp of Sobibor. Henrietta perished en route. Even Flokky the dog was gone.

"We were crying in the streets, and it was horrible," Winsor said. "My mother was sobbing."

There was nothing but a crowded refugee shelter left for them. In 1946, they shipped out to New York, where the children adjusted to high school, learning English and yet another strange, new life.

Winsor went on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, earn advanced degrees from Columbia and St. John's universities and become a teacher. No longer religious, she retired six years ago. With her husband of 34 years, she raised a daughter, Marina Sutton, who gave her two granddaughters.

Unlike her brother, who to his dying day nine years ago refused to talk about the war, Winsor is willing to peer back in time. What she sees, more out of sorrow than anger, is a girl "robbed of a childhood." Yet, she mourns not for herself, but for a jolly uncle, a fastidious aunt, a sweet cousin, a beloved grandmother and, most painfully, a best friend.

"Writing my memoirs, I sort of stopped when I thought of Julia because that was the most difficult part," she said. "You just don't understand why you survived." Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

Centre Daily Times is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service