Heroes of the Holocaust: Dom Bruno, monk and protector of 400 Jewish Children (part 1)
Slight and bespectacled, everyone knew Dom Bruno. He was the monk who would bicycle through the countryside whenever he was homesick. The book-smart priest who could rattle historical trivia off the top of his head like he was lecturing from a textbook. An unassuming and considerate man who always had time to listen to your problems, who could always offer a wise word of advice or a soothing consolation. What they didn’t know was underneath this seemingly sedate man’s chest beat the heart of a lion, courageous and fierce. The secret protector of hundreds of children, driven by purpose and faith.
Dom Burno, born Henri Reynders, enjoyed a completely unexceptional childhood. The fifth of nine children born into a comfortably upper middle-class family, nobody was surprised by when the quiet and reflective Henri decided to become a monk. He was considered by everyone who knew him as a devout and intellectual man, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in classical Greek and Latin studies, so it seemed like a natural fit. He took his vows in Rome at the age of 22 and led the monastic lifestyle of study and contemplation.
In 1928 he was ordained as a Priest and sent to Leuven where he took his new name and continued his studies. Dom Bruno spent the following years carving out a place for himself in the community and finishing a Doctorate in Theology. It was the quiet, ordinary life of a priest he always wanted. One that would never be the same after the German Invasion of Poland in 1939.
Dom Bruno was called to service as a chaplain in the mobilized Belgium military. But his service didn’t last long. In May of 1940, Belgium was invaded and the small nation was unable to meaningfully resist the Nazi war machine as it stampeded through its borders and cities. Dom Bruno suffered a leg injury in the fighting and was rolled up by occupying forces, spending six months in a PoW camp. But even here he stayed true to himself and his devotion to Christ, ministering to other prisoners and providing hope for the future and faith in Christ.
After Belgium’s surrender, many PoWs were allowed to return home and indeed Dom Bruno returned to his abbey. But everywhere he looked he saw signs of a growing and insidious evil. In 1938 he had visited Germany as part of a lecture series to young German Catholics and the brutality of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies shocked him to his core. He saw the propaganda posters, heard the political messages over the radio, all vilifying the Jewish people. He witnessed first-hand the bitter fruits of these efforts when he saw a group of German thugs accost and beat an elderly Jewish woman for no reason other than her ethnicity. He knew exactly what the Nazis were and what it meant to be under their occupation, and he began to plan.
It was a very delicate position for a man used to calm and serenity. Dom Bruno began to make forays within the Belgium Resistance, a dangerous game riddled with double agents reporting to the Gestapo and the ever present threat of being turned in by a collaborator. But still he got the word out and made contact with resistance members. He used his position in the Church to help conceal and shelter the vulnerable. Not just Jews either, one of his first acts as an active resistance member was to help ferry downed Allied airmen to safety, hopscotching from one Church to the next to get out of the country.
In 1942 as the Nazi’s extermination policies went into high gear, Dom Bruno also stepped up to respond to the crisis. He arranged to be transferred as a chaplain to a home for the blind in a small village. The manager of the home and the majority of its residents were secretly Jews. It was here that he began his rescue efforts in earnest.
Realizing that it was only a matter of time before the true nature of the blind home was discovered, Dom Bruno worked tirelessly to secure the safety of its residents. Some were quietly sent to other Abbeys and Churches, other were secreted away to rural homes, given new identities as members of other families. Chief among his concerns were the children, innocent, blameless, and terrifyingly vulnerable. He used every connection he had built from his time as a priest, a lecturer, and a monk to find places for the children to hide. Any friend he ever had, any sympathetic acquaintance he could think of, a fellow man of the cloth he could convince, wherever he thought the children would be safe. He even sent some to his own mother and brother’s house, placing his own family in direct danger to safeguard Jewish children.
This was the beginning of the network Dom Bruno established. One that would grow into one of the most successful Jewish rescue operations during the war. Find out more in part 2.