Willy Halpert remembers the last day he saw his father with crystal clarity: the sunshine, the chatter of an Antwerp café, music playing, then silence as Nazi SS and Belgian Brownshirts closed off the street. But for decades after the war, he shut away memories of what came after, until finally, prompted by his wife and sons, he began to research his past.
I was born Akiba Halpert in France, in a place called Metz. My parents after a few years moved to Belgium, because my father and his brothers were in imports and they had to have someone in Antwerp at the port, and that’s where the war caught us.
In August 1942 I was with my father in the street, one of these boulevard cafes in Antwerp, a nice sunny day, a lot of chatter, music coming and all kind of things. My father was talking to another person, and all of a sudden there was dead silence and people rushing in all directions. The German SS and the Brownshirts that were the Belgian collaborators were approaching from two directions and had closed off the street. When they were within earshot my father pushed me to the other man and said in a loud voice, “Go to your father, I have to go.” Only later in my research and my reconstruction of everything, did I learn the other person was part of the underground that my father belonged to, and his brothers. He came to tell my father that he’d been betrayed, and it was too late. So my father pushed me to the other man and he said, “Don’t turn around, everything will be OK.” Then my memory got completely confused. The next thing I remember, I was sitting in the back of a truck, at night, driving through a forest, being bounced up and down on the wooden bench. To me, it seemed like we were there for hours. We stopped on a bridge which had four dragons on the corners and that scared me a lot because I was an avid reader and I had read “The Count of Monte Cristo” and I thought, “My God, what’s this?” Then they took me out, through creaking huge gates, and I came in front of a castle, which made my story even worse, my imagination. In backlit yellowish light, a huge door opened and there stood a monk, and the monk said to me, “Don’t be afraid, everything will be all right,” and he took over from the person who brought me. I was 9 years old.
It turned out to be the castle of a Belgian prince who, before the war, would have poor children coming on summer vacation, and during the war he had it running year-round for orphans, mostly from the army. I was taken to a dormitory with curtains between the beds like you have in the hospital. There were cupboards and I was given some kind of pajamas and they said, these are your clothes in there, and I was put to bed. Of course I wasn’t sleeping; I was crying and having nightmares. In the morning I was taken to the Father Superior’s office, and he said your name is Willy van Hamme and you don’t remember anything else if anybody asks. You were in a bombardment and you became an orphan, that’s how you came here.
I spent almost a year in that place. I had to go to the chapel two or three times a day. I became a choir boy — I was a soprano. About a year later we were all packed up at night because a mother had found out where her child was and came to visit. That endangered the whole organization and the underground and the prince. We were transferred — I didn’t know there were so many of us, but there were about a dozen — and put into a Catholic boarding school. Only after the war when I did my research, I found it was a school for princes and very rich people. So in one way, I was lucky, I had a good education. I was there till the end of the war.
Later I would learn that in 1975, Yad Vashem honored Prince Eugène de Ligne of the Château de Beloeil — my castle — and his wife as Righteous Among the Nations. In 2014, I went back to Belgium and visited the château.
When we were liberated, I had nobody. I didn’t know where my sisters were, my parents. I was taken to France because I was French, and I was in a kind of villa where they kept the children … all of a sudden my three sisters appeared, and I thought I only had two because one was born after I was gone. Two sisters were hidden in Switzerland and one in a convent in Belgium. Then the Red Cross found an uncle in Melbourne, Australia, and we were shipped off there. And that’s where I grew up.
I became an engineer and worked for RCA for a few years. In Australia, I became also a scuba diver. Then I decided I have to do something for my people and went to Israel. I started off in the kibbutz, and because I speak five languages (French, German, Dutch, Hebrew, and English) I was always in charge of the foreign students that came to volunteer. For about three months’ work, they would get three weeks of touring around the country. I took them around and when we got to Eilat I taught them how to snorkel. I left the kibbutz because I didn’t find enough outlet for my energies.
When I left the kibbutz, I was 27 or 28, I went to Eilat, which is off the Red Sea. I started a diving business with a tent on the beach, four tanks, a compressor and a toolbox, which eventually in the late ’70s became a huge building for diving and two branches after the Six-Day War in Egypt.
In Israel, I did my stint in the Navy, in special operations, and unfortunately, that’s something I cannot enlarge upon.
In 1997, I sold everything and moved with my Canadian wife, Marilyn, whom I met in Israel, to Canada for our children. She is a musician and was with the Israel Philharmonic for over 20 years. We didn’t have any real family in Israel and she had a huge family in Canada, three siblings, cousins and uncles, grandmother, grandfather. In Canada, I couldn’t find something in my field that appealed to me and did odd jobs. When our boys grew up, we sold our house, bought a condo in Toronto and the house in Arizona, which was 11, 12 years ago. There I took up oil painting. That’s what I do mainly now. A few people asked me to do their portraits, but I prefer to do my own thing.
Despite everything, I’m still an optimist. If you ask me if I hate anyone, I can’t think of anyone I hate. I’ve been to Germany and I’ve got very good friends there. Although I don’t have any [extended] family, I’ve got very close friends just about everywhere I’ve lived. My sisters are all passed away, one by accident, one by sickness, and the other one during childbirth. Their children are all over the place, Los Angeles, Europe.
I have two boys, Lorin and Daniel — they’re not boys anymore; I’m 86. One is 25, one is 35. They know everything. After the war, I had shut my mind to the past, because I had horrible nightmares until the age of 16. When you’re a survivor, you feel guilty, why did I survive? After I shut it off, I could study properly and I succeeded in what I did. When the boys started to grow up, they kept asking questions, and with the prompting of my better half, I started doing research.
Now I lecture all over the world about my hidden child story. I told it about four times in the Tucson area. I speak in schools in Sweden, Toronto, wherever the occasion arises. I find it my duty to share my story, despite every time I do it, I relive it.
— As told to Phyllis Braun, AJP executive editor. A recording of Willy Halpert telling his story in SaddleBrooke in 2015, with additional detail about his research, is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive, https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn180725.