Circle of Faith
The incredible journey of a one-year-old Holocaust survivor.
When the Holocaust started, Danielle Schonbrunn, then just one year old, had her family torn apart and scattered to the four corners of the earth – her father, mother, brothers, sister, and she herself, all took separate journeys. After the war, they scrambled to find each other again and managed to reunite -- all but Schonbrunn’s father Yosef, whose fate still remains a mystery. Even though she doesn’t remember him, his influence has played a central role in Danielle’s life. It is his faith and strength that inspired her to take her final journey -- to Israel.
Danielle Schonbrunn, 68, wasn’t born yet when her parents Yosef and Sarah felt the pangs of Jewish persecution and fled their native Czechoslovakia for Belgium, with Danielle’s 10-year-old sister, Juliette. By the time her two brothers Eliyahu and Avraham were four and three respectively, the Jewish situation was so bad that in 1942 the couple decided to send Juliette, then 12, on a Quaker ship for Jewish children, bound for the United Sates. Juliette would never see her father again, and she wouldn’t meet her sister Danielle again until her ninth birthday.
After the family parted with Juliette in Belgium, they moved to a small village on the border between France and Italy, called Entracque. En route, Danielle was born in a small town in France called Adge, on the coast near Marseilles. Less than a year after her birth, the German army entered Entracque and began rounding up Jews.
Danielle, who now lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh in a flourishing fold between the Jerusalem hills, has been told the story so many times by her mother, she tells it as though she remembers it herself.
"Let me go." The soldier didn’t blink. "I have a baby to feed."
“My mother heard the automobiles of the Nazis, and begged my father to make a run for it. But it was too late. Before they knew it, they were surrounded. The two of them were enclosed, along with many others, by a circle of Nazi soldiers. My father reached into his pocket and handed my mother $500, and told her that with God’s help, we would all reunite in the U.S. after the war. My mother began walking backwards until she was at the edge of the circle. She turned and found herself face-to-face with a young, pink-cheeked soldier and said to him, ‘Let me go.’ He didn’t blink. ‘I have a baby to feed,' she said. 'Let me go.’ He turned and let her go.”
“This,” says Danielle “was the first of many miracles.”
Her mother bolted to the apartment, gathered up Danielle, her brothers, and a 17-year-old cousin, Margit, who was staying with them, and made a run for it. Just as she was leaving, she was stopped by a group of Italian soldiers. They were about to arrest her when a loud bang went off, an explosion of some sort, and the soldiers scattered. She ran into the hills with the children and disappeared.
A flood of tears comes over Danielle when she says it was the last time any of them would see her father. He was taken to Drancy, a detention camp in France from which all prisoners were sent to Auschwitz.
Danielle’s mother made her way to Drancy and tried to help her husband escape. She paid a young non-Jewish boy to deliver a note to him, with instructions. He wrote back, "I’m sorry, I can’t do it. For every Jew who escapes they kill 100."
"I’m sorry, I can’t do it. For every Jew who escapes they kill 100."
“That was the kind of man my father was,” says Danielle. “He was raised on Jewish law and believed that you can’t save your own neck at the expense of the lives of 100 Jews, or even one.”
With no alternative, her mother continued to run across the French countryside with the children. “We hid wherever we could – in the mountains, in the forests, submerged underwater,” says Danielle. “But we were starving and kept crying, and this put us all at risk being found and killed.”
Saving the Children
A fellow escapee in the underground told Sarah that he would take the children and make sure they made it to a safe place, and that she would be able to claim us after the war. “So,” says Danielle, “in 1943, my mother gave us up.”
Eliyahu and Avraham were taken in by a French Catholic family, the Dupains, who owned a farm in Cordelle. The boys were given new names, new clothes, they went to church on Sunday and ate Sunday dinners, and were treated like sons.
Danielle was given to a Jewish couple who needed a child in order to get admittance into Switzerland. They tried to enter via Italy. As the story goes, there were something wrong with their papers and the guard who was checking them was giving them a hard time. The husband wrapped up Danielle and threw her onto the Switzerland side of the border, and while the authorities’ attention was diverted by the crying baby, the couple ran across the border.
Danielle ended up in an orphanage in Geneva, Switzerland. One of the nurses took a shine to Danielle and tried to adopt her. Although the headmistress wouldn’t allow it, knowing that Danielle’s mother would hopefully come one day to claim her, the nurse loved Danielle and doted on her. Says Danielle, “I never went back to Switzerland. But I often think about that time and wonder where that woman is who cared for me.”
Meantime, her mother continued to hide in the forest along with cousin Margit. At one point, their starvation became so acute that Sarah descended to a little village and asked an innkeeper for a job. The innkeeper, who knew she was a Jew, let her stay on as a cleaning lady.
“One day, my mother again heard the sound of the German jeeps approaching,” retells Danielle. Sarah hid in the bathroom while the soldiers took their meal in the main dining room. Deciding it was too dangerous to stay there, she grabbed a pail of water and a rag and began washing the main staircase, stair by stair, from top to bottom. When she reached the last step and the lobby, she left through the open main entrance doorway and ran off, never to be seen by the innkeeper again.
When the war finally ended in 1945, Sarah found herself in Gennevillier, a suburb of Paris. Both her and Yosef’s entire families’ (save for one of Yosef’s brothers) had been wiped out. After much searching, Sarah finally found her sons and daughter, via two of the many Jewish-run search agencies that was established after the war.
The clerk told her there was no one listed by the names of Avraham and Eliyahu. But Sarah refused to leave.
At one particular office, the clerk told her there was no one listed by the names of Avraham and Eliyahu. But Sarah refused to leave until she could look at the roster. She knew immediately when she saw the list. Eliyahu had been changed to ‘Emile’ and Avraham had been changed to ‘Armand’. The office made arrangements to bring them to Gennevillier.
In the 1970s, long after the war ended, Avraham returned to Cordelle to thank the Dupain family. “Avraham knocked on the door and Mme. Dupain opened the door and she just stood there and didn’t move, and then she finally said, ‘Armand?’” Danielle retells the story of their reunion. “Then she hugged him and she didn’t let go for a very long time. She still lived with the memory of these two little boys who she took care of for three years. She saved their lives.”
Danielle was four when she first saw her mother after the war. “I said to her in French, ‘You’re not my mother’,” says Danielle. “She said, ‘Yes, I am your mother. And you are my little Jewish girl.’”
The family stayed in Gennevillier while Sarah continued to search for Yosef, to no avail. Then one day while she was walking down the street, she was stopped by a man who told her that he had been in Auschwitz with Yosef and that he was alive at the liberation.
Afterwards, she ran into another man who told her a similar story. He also told her how Yosef had behaved in the bunker. “He told her he would walk around praying and humming songs to himself,” relays Danielle. “He had such strong faith, such belief in God.”
The stories filled Sarah with hope, but after five years of searching, she still couldn’t find him. She decided it was time to move on. Her Uncle Sam, in New York, offered to sponsor the family, and on April 2, 1951 the family arrived at Ellis Island.
“I will never forget the reunion with Juliette,” says Danielle, who was then nine years old. “Juliette was 21. She came down the ramp and I pulled my mother’s blouse and I said, ‘Mama, Mama, it’s Juliette.’ She just stood there in disbelief. When my sister saw mother, she grabbed her and hugged her and they embraced for quite awhile.”
America and Israel
They were welcomed both by Uncle Sam and his family and the family of Yosef’s Uncle Menachem, who had looked after Juliette at their home in Cleveland, Ohio, since she arrived from Europe. “It was a big, wonderful thing to arrive to America,” says Danielle. “None of us knew the language, but it was a golden land and we felt free and wonderful there.”
The reunited family lived in Newark, New Jersey for five years and in 1956 ended up settling in California. Juliette married and had three children. Eliyahu married and had two children. Avraham also married and had two kids. And so did Danielle, who had two sons – Yossi and Moshe.
Years later, she received a copy of a list from Auschwitz bearing her father's name among those who were killed there.
After Moshe moved to Israel, Danielle decided she would move, too. On December 30, 2004, at the age of 64, she made aliyah. On her arrival, Danielle contacted Magen David Adom and asked them to look into her father’s case. A few years later, they sent her a copy of a list from Auschwitz bearing his name among those who were killed there.
“It had been my lifelong dream to come and be in Israel. I used to dream as a young girl that my father was alive, and maybe he came to Palestine. Maybe he had amnesia. I used to dream up all these wonderful fairytales that would make me feel better because I so much wanted to know my father,” she says with a tear.
For Danielle, coming to Israel was not just about joining her son. It was about continuing in the tradition of her father’s faith. Although her father was not a Zionist, his faith in his destiny inspired Danielle to embrace her own. “If he could have such strong faith during those dark days, how could I not?
A few years ago, Danielle received a sort of mystical affirmation of her new life path. “I had a dream that I was in bed and the phone rang. When I picked it up, there was static and a man with a European accent said my Yiddish name, ‘Faygela’. I asked who it was. He said it again, ‘Faygela’, with such warmth and love. And then something happened and the connection was severed. I woke up. But I knew it was my father, connecting to me from beyond.”
“In Israel, my soul is awake and I feel so connected to this place. I feel as though after what my family went through, it’s a miracle that I am here.”