I met Betty Grumet at “Witness Theater,” an intensive, year-long drama therapy program. Students helped Holocaust survivors retell their stories of the war, and then portrayed the survivors in a play about the survivors’ lives. I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to speak directly with survivors, learn from their experiences, experience their ineffable resilience, and contribute to a lasting record of their lives. Equally important to me was the profound friendship I forged with Betty, the survivor I portrayed. Betty is not just a living legacy of a horrific chapter in history. She is a mosaic artist, beloved mother and grandmother, patient teacher, and loving friend.
What I always wanted was for the next generation to understand, so that this should never happen again. The tragedy and catastrophe. Talking to other survivors does not make me feel better. I feel very sad for those who had it worse than me. But when I hear of anything at all that has to do with the youth, or the future generation, I am always ready to help. And this is how I became enthusiastic when I heard about the Witness Theater. Because it involved the youth. And a mixed kind of youth. And that is my goal in life.
Betty was born in 1933 in Antwerp, Belgium. She had one brother, named Harry, who was ten years older, and two loving parents. Her parents owned a grocery store. She told me one story that perfectly illustrates her mother’s character. There was a poor woman, who had a little boy, who would come into the store and steal. When Betty’s father asked her mother if she saw, her mother would deny it, even though she clearly knew the woman was stealing. Betty described her hometown fondly: “we all knew each other…it was a community.”
When the war broke out, Betty’s family left everything and fled to France. After many stops they ended up in a small town called Nay, in the south of France at the house of a widow, named Therese Trebuquet. Betty, Harry, and their mother went into hiding. But her father fell ill, and believed that the Germans would not take sick people. When Betty was eight years old, she watched as French officers yanked her father out of bed, and forced him into a local holding cell. She followed the officers to the jail, and sat on the stoop outside. All day, officers grumbled at her to go home. But she refused to listen. Finally, after hours, one officer took pity and motioned to the door. He had unlocked it! Betty ran to her father, begging him to hide, but he believed that he had been correct—that the Germans wouldn’t take sick people. He was, as Betty, says, “an Idealist.” Later that day, the officers came back and they took him. They sent him to Auschwitz, where he later died.
That night, someone from the Maquis, (the French Underground) picked up Betty and sent her to live with Catholic nuns at a convent.
It was an orphanage, so most people were not in a happy mood. And, I found out, later on that we were four Jewish kids hidden among thirty or forty kids. I was immediately told to not tell anyone I was Jewish. I had a role to play, and I played it.
Betty lived with the nuns for two years. Often, the children were so hungry that they had to eat grass or suck the sugar from Acacia flowers. At the convent, Betty forged a close connection with one of the sisters. Because Betty was so beloved by the nuns, she earned special privileges. She was allowed to wash the dishes of the nuns, and eat the scraps of food left on their plates. Betty even sought permission to get communion, because she wanted a pretty white dress, and for the nuns to love her even more. But when the mother superior wrote to Betty’s brother, asking for permission, he responded firmly, “No. You were born a Jew and you will die a Jew.” This was a very dangerous letter if fallen in the wrong hands.
When I asked Betty if there was a comforting memory she relived when she was away from her parents, she said simply, “I always found comfort wherever I was. I was taken away at the age of 8. It was an instinct of survival.”
Following her time with the nuns, Betty moved to live with a Protestant pastor, named Daniel Sens, about an hour away. The pastor risked his life to harbor Jews of all ages, including children that he placed with peasants in the farms nearby. The pastor had a young daughter, named Monique, who adored Betty and followed her everywhere.
Betty was reunited with her brother and mother after the war. I asked Betty what it was like seeing her mother again.
I will never forget, there was a long garden leading to the back of the house. My mother stood at the end of the ally. She was so traumatized still from the war, that when she saw me, out of shock, she said, where is Harry? She was immediately under this terror that they took him. And this is something that I will never forget. Because I expected my mother to run towards me, and say, “oh Betty!” But once she really realized that I was there, of course, she could never spoil me enough.
I asked Betty about life after the war. She remained in France for two more years. Her brother worked tirelessly to find the hidden Jewish children. Upon their return to Antwerp in 1947, her brother founded various youth organizations. He was also a reporter for the local paper.
We didn’t talk war. It was like girl scouts and boy scouts. We went camping, we danced, we sung. Those years in Antwerp after the war, they were my happiest. So when I hear teenagers here, the difficult years, they have to find themselves, they don’t know what they’re doing! I knew just what I was doing. I was as happy as can be.
And when people told my mother, “you know, I think you spoil her.” Because we had no money, we were very poor. I didn’t have a father. My brother worked mostly without pay. And I got a bicycle! Who had bicycles? People that were wealthy! So friends of my mother said, “You spoil her! Why did she get a bicycle? You can’t afford that.” And I remember, she said, “Listen. I don’t know what life has in store for her. But I want her to always remember how happy she is now.” And that was her.
Betty also lovingly recalls coming to the United States and meeting her husband, Sidney. Betty was living with her aunt at the time in New York. One day, Sidney rang up when Betty was visiting some family friends. Betty ran into the bedroom because she “did not even have lipstick on,” and did not feel ready to meet anyone. Her friend called her out into the living room anyway as soon as he walked in.
And there he is, handsome as can be. Typical American look. He had a zip-up jacket with a cap on. This is to me, so American. And a good looking guy. And I said, “Hi,” and he said, “Hello,” and the rest is history! I came to New York in February and we got married in October.
Betty said that when she compared her experience to the experiences of those who were sent to concentration camps, she felt as if she did not really suffer. She explained feeling lucky that she still had one parent after the war ended. Betty did not talk about the Holocaust much after the war. She married an American man, and only spoke to her children about her experience once or twice.
What I do regret however, is of course, growing up without a father. Which I truly realized when I had children. And also the fact that I was not able to further my education. Because I was a very good student. I really was at the top of my class, and that is something I instilled in my kids. Even though we could not afford it, they got the best education that anyone can get.
Although Betty described leaving the catastrophe of World War II in her past, and moving forward in the United States, in the last few decades, she became deeply passionate about recognizing the people who had saved her and her family.
The thing that was an obsession with me, because I understood it was a miracle that I was alive, was that so many people put their lives in danger for me. That is what came to me when I heard about Yad Vashem. It gives credit to the righteous Gentile. And that’s when I became interested in my own experience. And that wasn’t until the 80s!
Betty dedicated so much of her adult life to finding and acknowledging the people who had saved her. Her quest to express gratitude is an inspiring one. Instead of harboring bitterness towards those who committed atrocities during the Holocaust, Betty refocused her energy and attention towards those who did good. There were three people Betty wanted to honor. First, the widow, Madame Trebuquet, who “absolutely saved [her] mother.” It was difficult at first to find her, because she did not have children. But Betty, and her son Mark, traveled to Nay to find Madame Trebuquet’s grave. Eventually, they found witnesses and were able to honor her through Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Second, Betty sought to recognize the nuns who took her in. This was easy, because there were 3 other witnesses. Lastly, Betty wanted to honor the pastor. The search for him took Betty twenty years, but she never gave up.
So what happened was that it fell upon me, the only survivor, to recognize this man, who must have saved at least a hundred Jewish souls. We knew his name was Daniel Sens. Mark my son, came upon the idea to search through phone calls. He found out there were 268 people with that name in France. He said : get to work, start making phone calls! It was a Monday morning. I made phone calls all day. Some people hung up on me, some said “sorry.” At 4 o’clock, about 10 p.m. there, I said, “please don’t hang up on me.” And I said, “do you know anyone by the name of Daniel Sens?” There was a big silence. And then he said, “Je suis son fils.” I am his son. And that’s how I found him.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Betty’s story is the way people from the past resurfaced many years later. Following the end of this last search, she went to France last summer to be present at Yad Vashem’s official Medal Ceremony for the pastor’s children. Monique had of course aged and changed, but she did more than just remember the time the girls had spent together in her childhood home. Monique now had children of her own, including a daughter. She named her Betty.
Another character from Betty’s past who reappeared many years later, was the woman who stole from Betty’s parents’ grocery store in Antwerp. That same woman became wealthy after the war and moved to the United States. It was this woman’s husband who taught Betty how to cut diamonds. Betty ultimately became a diamond buyer, which was her career in the States for many years. When Betty speaks of this woman, she says, in awe, “It really shows you, what goes around comes around.”
When I asked Betty what her advice to the younger generation would be, she didn’t even hesitate: “the main thing is love and respect. If you respect one another, you’re not going to have any wars. You need to respect. That’s the only thing that’s going to bring peace.”