No reason but hate: a Portland survivor details horror of Gestapo

Charles Rotmil is pictured at age 14.

Charles Rotmil was 5 years old when the Gestapo thugs burst into his family’s apartment in Vienna, Austria, in Nov. 1938 and assaulted his father, Adolphe. They took him away to the screaming of his mother, Dora. Outside synagogues burned to the ground, and Germans arrested thousands of Jews in what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.

Rotmil, now 79 and living in Portland, was reminded in a strange way of his experience as a Holocaust survivor recently when Gov. Paul LePage referred in a radio address to the Internal Revenue Service as “the new Gestapo.” Rotmil said the comment surprised him and that it speaks to a larger problem of people simply not understanding the history of the term. He doesn’t want us to forget.

“As much as we don’t like the IRS, it’s not the Gestapo,” he said. “I think a lot of people use the word ‘Gestapo’ … I don’t think they realize what they’re saying.”

He worries that fewer and fewer people understand the awful impact that World War II had on individual Jews. So he shares his story.

“It puts a face to the war … when you read about one child or one story,” he said. “It is an eternal problem, how people view or don’t view history. As long as you have witnesses, talk to them.”

After Charles’ father was released from jail in Vienna, the French-born child and his family traveled to a refugee site in Marneffe, Belgium. But they had to flee again when Germany invaded Belgium in 1940. They walked west for four days, eating food provided by farmers, while planes directed their gunfire at them. They ran to the side of the road to escape the bullets, watching as those who stayed on the road fell down dead.

In the madness, the family lost track of Adolphe but decided to board a train in Arras, France. It was sabotage. The Germans crashed the train near Rouen, knocking Charles unconscious. When he awoke he was under a pile of wood. He remembers the rows of stretchers, the death of his 15-year-old sister Henriette. His mother died later of her injuries. The hospital where he was taken was bombed.

With no parents, he and his older brother Bernard traveled with other children to a small island in Brittany where they stayed until the fall of France in Sept. 1940. The Red Cross then helped him and his brother reunite with their father in Brussels, where they lived under German occupation.

Charles said: Imagine living in a place with a murderer on the loose. Now imagine that instead of one, there is a regiment of murderers and no one to stop them. He lived in terror. The Gestapo roaming the streets beat up people randomly. He saw Jews piled into trucks to be taken away to concentration camps.

Then, one morning in 1943 he awoke to a gun to his head. The Gestapo told him and the others in the apartment building to go to the basement. There was a table set up, with a lamp. The men screamed at him, “Are you a Jew?”

He said he was lucky. He was too little for them to care. They made the others get into a truck and drove them away.

Later that year his father did not come home, and a neighbor told him he had been arrested. Many years later Charles would find the records showing that his father was number 779 on the 21st train from Malines prison to Auschwitz. There were 1,200 people on the train, and 800 of them were gassed upon arrival.

“I imagine my father was among them,” he said. “People don’t realize the severity of what happened sometimes. It’s outrageous. Absolutely outrageous. I look at it to this day.”

With only he and his brother left in Brussels, they didn’t know what to do. “Nobody wanted to help you. You were dirt,” he said.

Some people, though, were willing to risk their lives for them. When Bernard went to a local church, the priest pointed him to a Catholic monastery in Louvain called the Abbé Mont César where the two met the now-famous Father Bruno Reynders. The Benedictine monk found them a number of separate homes in which they hid for the remainder of the war, changing their names and assuming Catholic identities. They learned later that the monk saved the lives of nearly 400 children.

LePage’s comments about the Gestapo, when talking about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to mostly uphold the Affordable Care Act, have been ridiculous. Though he apologized privately to the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine for comparing the IRS to the Gestapo, a few days later he reiterated the reference, saying, “Maybe the IRS is not quite as bad — yet” as the Gestapo, but “they’re headed in that direction.”

He is scheduled to apologize publicly this weekend. But if he truly understood what people went through with the Gestapo, he would not have talked the way he has.

Charles and his brother moved to New York in 1946 to live with their mother’s sister. He hadn’t attended school in a while (the Germans had ordered that no Jews could go to public school), but he was placed in 10th grade. Though he spoke no English when he started school in the winter, he learned quickly and passed all his classes by June.

He recalled his English class that year, when his teacher asked the students to write a paper describing the most memorable day of their life. Charles wrote a piece in rudimentary English called “The Day the Tanks Came,” describing when the Americans arrived to liberate Belgium. The teacher read it aloud in class, tears streaming down her face.

Charles Rotmil, a survivor of the Holocaust, now lives in Portland.


Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.