Updated: October 11, 2012 6:06AM
I was born in Berlin as Beatrix Westheimer in 1933, the year Adolph Hitler came to power. Realizing the dangers, my parents fled to Brussels when I was 5.
To protect me, their only child, my parents gave me up to two Catholic rescuers, women in a nearby village. I will always remember my father crying as he said goodbye. I felt abandoned.
I became a visibly hidden child, a “visiting niece.” I was converted to Catholicism along with my cousin, Henri, who joined me. I felt devoted to my parish priest and my new godmother, Marraine. As Christian children, we mostly lived a typical village life, cared for and loved. When the war ended, I was 12, and I wanted to become a nun and remain with my new family. My parish priest encouraged me to return to my grandmother, who had survived in Brussels, and return to my Jewish roots. I did.
My parents had no such choice. My father was killed in a daring attempt to escape from a transport to Auschwitz, while my mother, recaptured, perished on the way. Both were 40 years old.
An aunt and uncle adopted me in Chicago in 1947 and I’ve lived here ever since. When my adopted father died in 1991, a treasure trove of hundreds of pictures and letters were discovered in a closet revealing the history of my family’s tragedy in Europe during the Holocaust and their desperate and unsuccessful attempt to obtain visas to America. Few survived. I was stunned by the memories hidden so close for so long.
While translating the papers, I was overwhelmed by the day-to-day suffering of my loved ones. Now I understood my parents’ ultimate sacrifice. I knew instantly what needed to be done.
I started writing. My book, “Never to Be Forgotten: A Young Girl’s Holocaust Memoir,” was published in 1997. My life as a hidden child did not belong to me alone. This was witness to the horrendous history of the times.
I have donated many pictures and documents to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These items needed to be brought to light. Who better to fill this task than our National Museum, an institution backed by our government, with so many Chicagoans essential to its very existence?
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the museum, and the launch of a yearlong observance begins at a luncheon for 2,000 donors on Sept. 12 at the Sheraton Chicago. I am honored to have been asked to speak at the event, which will include more than 100 Holocaust survivors. I plan to announce that I’m donating my remaining collection of letters and photographs along with personal treasures I have kept through all these years.
My life has come full circle from feeling left behind in a small Belgian village to finding the remnants of my life unearthed in a Chicago closet. My witnessed memories of the Holocaust will now be permanently housed at the United States Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where the many visitors have the opportunity to share and remember what I have never forgotten.
Beatrice “Trixie” Westheimer donated her fee for writing this column to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.