Jewish survivors hidden in castle during WWII thank Belgian royals

"They gave us food, clothes. They let us walk in the Prince's large park, swim in the lake and, in winter, ice-skate," said Ephraim Oelkuchen, 80, who was seven when hidden by Prince Eugene II of Ligne in his castle in southern Belgium during World War II.

"During that time of hell, we were in a place that was like a real heaven," he said.

On Wednesday, the descendants of the Belgian prince, who saved dozens of Jewish children by hiding them in Chateau de Beloeil, held an emotional gathering in Jerusalem with Jewish survivors rescued by their grandfather.

The girls were kept inside the palace itself, while the boys were housed in a building, known as the Orangerie, on the palace grounds. There were about 43 Jewish children, hidden among some 1,000 non-Jewish children, including sons or daughters of prisoners of war, given a haven in the palace.

The Jewish children kept their identity secret - even from each other - and did not know there were others like them. Oelkuchen went by the name of Francois Demien so as not to give away his roots.

"Three people only knew about the presence of Jewish children," said Prince Michel de Ligne, Eugene II's heir, hosted by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. "Their silence was a guarantee of survival."

The Nazis more than once searched the palace grounds, he told dpa, meaning the royal couple were risking their lives. In 1975, they were recognized as so-called Righteous Amongst the Nations, a term used by the Israeli state to refer to non-Jews who saved Jews at their own risk during the war.

Oelkuchen recalled how the Prince "himself would come down from the palace to our dining room to check whether we were getting good food. I remember him sitting down next to us and tasting the soup."

Asked how he felt to meet the grandchildren of the man who saved his life, he said: "I can't stop myself from kissing them."

"We blended in like chameleons," said Abraham Kapotka, 83, who was eight when sent to the palace. "We were in a safe and quiet place, while around us war raged."

He added he was also moved to meet other survivors, including a boy his age he had not seen since the Americans liberated the area in late 1944.

Kapotka said his mother sent him to the chateau after a brief period of hiding, shortly after the Nazis rounded up almost all Jews in his neighbourhood of Brussels.

"Almost all were caught. They moved from house to house," he told dpa. "I heard shouting and screaming."

Kapotka, who now lives near Tel Aviv, remembered how the Jewish children hid in the basement near their dwelling "all night" when the Nazis searched the castle grounds. "You could cut the tension with a knife."

Oelkuchen's 16-year-old sister was sent to Auschwitz and did not survive, while his other sister, then 10, was also hidden at Beloeil and now lives in the United States. Kapotka lost his brother, sister and father in the war.

Prince Antoine Lamoral of Ligne, one of 10 direct grandchildren of Eugene II who attended the meeting, and who still lives at the same castle on the weekend, told dpa:

"We did not quite realize until today what my grandfather did."

Last update: Wed, 13/07/2016 - 15:06

View the discussion thread.

More from Europe

EU starts "new era" of NATO cooperation amid uncertainty over Trump

NATO foreign ministers signed a deal on closer collaboration with the European Union on Tuesday, with the bloc's top...

Merkel re-elected party leader after toughening tone on refugees

Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have edged to the right with plans for a tougher...

Greek court extradites some Turkish officers, others to stay

A court in Athens has agreed to a request from Turkey to extradite three military officers accused of plotting to...

Despite defeat, Austrian far-right aims for big vote take in 2017

This weekend's loss in the Austrian presidential election will not deter Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe)...

Malta becomes first country to ban gay conversion therapy

Malta's human rights commission on Tuesday hailed parliament's decision to ban gay conversion therapy, the first...