Heroes of the Holocaust: Dom Bruno, monk and protector of 400 Jewish Children (part 2)
Dom Bruno was no stranger to hard work. He was a man of study and contemplation, used to spending long nights pouring over Latin manuscripts and theological thesis. But now, during the occupation of Belgium from the Nazis and their sick policies of Jewish oppression and extermination, his long nights were occupied with a very different sort of work – resistance.
Dom Bruno’s efforts were meticulous. No detail was left to chance, he planned around every contingency he could, anticipated every need. And he did it personally, assuming every responsibility, from networking with other resistance members, to physically transporting children, to supplying for their financial needs out of his own meager pocket. He rode from safehouse to safehouse on his bicycle, with false papers and ration cards hidden in his clothes for children he had stashed away across the countryside. The scope of this effort cannot be understated. Many days he worked without sleep, having to keep up appearances of normality while he lived a secret second life as a resistance savior. These were long days too. In retracing all his bicycle excursions, it is estimated he pedaled more than forty times the equivalent of the Tour de Belgique. His own personal marathon of salvation.
Eventually he was able to secure financial aid from some likeminded compatriots in the Church and a Belgian banker named Jules Debois-Pelerin. With the added financial clout, Dom Bruno stepped up his activities in the resistance, sheltering more and more Jewish families and children.
The operations were planned down to a ‘T’. Jewish mothers received detailed instructions on where to bring their children and who to look for, how to act to avoid suspicion, even through the heartbreaking scenario of possibly seeing their children for the last time. Dom Bruno or one of his close confederates would meet the families at a train station or a café. The children would arrive as Jews and leave as something else, taken to a new home or Church to be cared for under Dom Bruno’s watchful and kind eye.
The quiet unassuming monk turned out to have a gift for spycraft. More than once he and children he was with were questioned by German occupiers, and each time the monk with the silver tongue would simply talk his way out of the situation. His calm reserve and intellectual bearing dissuading suspicion and soothing nerves.
As talented and intelligent as Dom Bruno was, it was only the grace of God that kept him and his children safe. He managed to sneak children through German roadblocks, covering them with a blanket in his backseat. He convinced troops at train stations to let him leave with children that lacked identification cards, all chalked up to some innocent mistake or forgetfulness. Again and again he and the children he protected escaped suspicion and all but certain arrest and detainment, it’s not hard to see the hand of God at work.
Dom Bruno’s dedication to his children didn’t end at securing them homes. He saw to their emotional and developmental needs as well. He forbade the churches and orphanages he placed Jewish children with from attempting to convert the children, excusing them from mandatory church attendance and study, allowing them to find their own path. This might seem strange from a Catholic monk, but it was part of Dom Bruno’s respect and commitment to the Jewish families that trusted him. He didn’t want to change who they were, he wasn’t saving them to be a good Catholic, he was saving them because it was the human and right thing to do.
He kept in contact with parents, risking his life to bring notes and small trinkets like dolls to children who lost all sense of their place in the world. These small gestures might seem foolish to risk your life over, but to the children separated from their family, these keepsakes were precious beyond words. Dom Bruno understood this intuitively and worked hard to maintain these small connections between family members. Glittering beacons of light in a dark and scary world.
Eventually Dom Bruno’s luck ran out and the Gestapo finally identified him as a resistance member. His abbey was raided, but again God protected him and he was coincidentally out at the time of the raid. This forced him into hiding, the monk trading out his habit for slacks and a gentlemen’s coat. A stylish beret was used to obscure his distinctive shaved head.
Still, even while in hiding himself with the Gestapo actively searching for him and questioning every acquaintance and friend he had, Dom Bruno thought of others first. He continued to orchestrate rescues and coordinate communication between groups. He was a tireless and fearless fighter for righteousness, a true hero.
In the end, Dom Bruno is said to have personally saved over 400 Jewish children. Their lives would be his enduring and most profound legacy. Many were reunited with their parents. Others stayed with their adoptive families. Some destinies were even stranger, with two rescued children meeting years later, getting married, and only realizing later they both owed their lives to the same man. Mysterious ways indeed.
For his part, Dom Bruno continued his good works in the Church. He was characteristically modest about his wartime experiences, deflecting credit and praise. Years later, when one of the children he saved, grown into an adult, asked him why he put himself through so much danger and sacrifice Dom Bruno just shrugged "why do you keep asking? I only did what I'm supposed to do." A beautiful sentiment – he didn’t need reward or praise, his only motivation was righteousness and justice.
Dom Bruno lived to the age of 78 before succumbing to a neurological disease. Well loved and admired, he was buried in his abbey with honors. Today, the city of Ottignies honors his work with a plaque in the down square.
Dom Bruno, Benedictine (1903-1981). Hero of the resistance. At the risk of his life he saved 400 Jews from Nazi barbarism.