The Prisoners of Breendonk

Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp


Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2015. Available in hardcover and ebook.

Illustrated in color and black-and-white with over 225 photographs, drawings, and maps, including many photos taken exclusively for the book by award-winning Belgian photographer Leon Nolis. 

Prisoners: Israel Neumann

 

One of the first prisoners that a visitor to the Fort Breendonk National Memorial learns about is Israel Neumann. An immigrant from Nisko, Poland (by way of the United States and France), Neumann was incarcerated at Breendonk for some nine months.

His story as presented by the audioguide at the memorial is heartrending. The additional background information about him that I was able to provide in my book through my research is, I think, equally so. I was able to read his immigration documents to Belgium. I was able to read police reports concerning a few minor arrests in Antwerp. I was able to read the war crimes trial testimony of his wife, Eleonore Sabathova.

I am still trying to discover what became of Israel's New York family both before and after 1940.

If you have any information you would like to share, please contact me.

But what surprised me was the fact, buried in his Belgium immigration documents from 1927, that his family lived in Brooklyn, New York. I wondered: why was Israel in Belgium while his family was in New York? Ellis Island passenger manifests revealed that Israel had immigrated to New York with his family (his parents Simon and Anna/Chana; three sisters named Cipora, Schifra, and Sima; and two brothers named Shie and Meilich) in 1921; their last name was misspelled as Neumain. They arrived on the SS Roussillon on February 1, 1921. Another son (Jacob) had preceded the family to New York and was living in the Bronx at 2074 Mapes Avenue.

I was unable to locate any information on the family from 1921-1925. The first U.S. record of the Neumanns came in 1925 with the New York census of that year. Four years after their arrival, six members of the family (now spelled Newman) were residing at 570 Van Siclen Avenue in Brooklyn: parents Simon (a Hebrew teacher) and Anna with two daughters and two sons, all now with American first names. The daughters listed on the census were Sadie (most likely Schifra) and Sylvia (Sima); the sons were Sam (Israel) and Murry (Meilech; he later altered his name to Milton). Neither Ciporo nor Shie were living with the family by then.

Israel lived with his family in the U.S. for four years. For unknown reasons, he applied for a Polish Passport at the Polish Consulate in New York on July 31, 1925. Sometime after that, he returned to Europe (most likely to Le Havre). Did he have a falling out with his family? Did he miss Europe? Whatever the reason, he tried to return to the United States. He sailed from Le Havre to New York on the SS Caronia, arriving in New York on October 11, 1926. The ship’s manifest lists his occupation as waiter and his last permanent residence as Nisko, Poland. The manifest indicated that he spoke three languages: Polish, German, and English. However, he was detained on Ellis Island for almost four months before he was deported to France. The reasons for his detention remain unclear but may well have had to do with his perceived physical and/or intellectual challenges and the concern that he might not be able to support himself. Did he try to contact his family for help? There was no way to find out.

In February 1927, about a year after his return to France, he applied for residency in Belgium and moved there that May.

The rest of his tragic story involving his incarceration at Breendonk is told in a series of chapters in my book.

[As for his family in New York, here are the details I was able to piece together: According to the 1930 U.S. census, Anna was now a widow, living with Sadie, Sylvia, and Milton (changed from Murry). Sadie was an operator in a bra factory, Sylvia was a manicurist, and Milton made caps. Ten years later, according to the 1940 U.S. census, Schifra was gone, and Sylvia was named as the head of the household. She was a beautician, Anna was a housekeeper for another family, and Milton was a tie salesman. They now lived at 1617 President Street in Brooklyn. All three had become naturalized United States citizens by then, and Milton may have joined the Coast Guard in June 1942. What happened to them after that is not known.]

If you are as moved the Israel Neumann's story as I was, you may want to pay your final respects to him and visit his gravesite, shown below.

Israel Neumann's final resting place in the communal cemetery at Kraainem, Belgium

Memorial in Kraainem, Belgium, honoring some of the Jewish martyrs of Breendonk, including Israel Neumann

 

He and some other Jewish victims of the Breendonk SS are buried in the Jewish section of the communal cemetery of Kraainem (information in Dutch), a suburb of Brussels. It is near the intersection of the eastern Ring Road and the E40/A3, not far from the Brussels airport. An exit from the A3 will allow you to take side streets to the cemetery, as shown on the map below.