Lillian Gaffne was only 15 when the Gestapo began seeking out all of the Jews in her Belgian neighborhood for imprisonment. Faced with sitting idly by as her friends and neighbors were herded like cattle to slaughter, or risking her own life to intercede, the brave teenager chose the latter, hiding 30 Jews in her family’s small home, saving each from an uncertain future.
Gaffne’s heroic act—along with that of another Christian rescuer from Nazi Europe, Tina Strobos—was honored last Thursday at a ceremony in Forest Hills by the Queens Jewish Historical Society and the Queens Jewish Community Council.
“I am humbled to be in the presence of these two women,” said Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills), who served as master of ceremonies for the event. “We know that the number of individuals who risked their lives…to move Jews during the Holocaust was few and far between. Not too many people did what these women did.”
Manny Behar, president of the Queens Jewish Community Council, compared the women’s efforts to the American soldiers who liberated the concentration camps.
“We’re here to pay tribute to those who shined in our darkest hours,” Behar said. “These people risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, an act which carried the death penalty.”
Strobos, 83, who grew up in Holland, was only 19 at the start of the war, studying to become a psychiatrist. Within the first days of the invasion, she and her mother arranged for a prominent socialist to be sheltered in the home of her elderly grandmother.
In time, as the underground movement took force, Strobos became more deeply involved, placing people in hiding and making phony passports.
She said her home eventually became a “transit station” for as many as 100 Jews, although most could not stay long. Throughout the war, the Gestapo raided her family’s home frequently, arresting Strobos nine times.
Looking back, Strobos credits her grandmother—who also sheltered refugees during World War I—for instilling in her a sense of morals and bravery.
“My grandmother would scare the Gestapo,” said Strobos, who maintains a psychiatric practice in Rye, New York. “Once, she took one (officer) by the arm and told him that he had stolen a Persian rug. He immediately stopped the interrogation.”
More than half a century later, Strobos still gets deeply emotional while discussing her experiences. And, while the war still evokes horrific memories in her mind, she realizes that talking about them helps put the unimaginable events into perspective for future generations.
“When I was first interviewed, I couldn’t speak about it,” she said. “Over the years, though, it’s become a cathartic experience.”
Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Queens Jewish Historical Society, said that Strobos and Gaffne have set an example of bravery that few can match.
“One false move and Mrs. Gaffne would not be here today,” he said. “She faced instant death. Saving people under that pressure takes courage.”
However, Gaffne—who was arrested several times by the Nazis under the suspicion of housing Jews—modestly assessed her decision more than 60 years ago as a humane act that more people should have made.
“I am deeply honored to receive this award,” said Gaffne, 77, now a professor of linguistics at Fairleigh Dickinson college in New Jersey. “But, I feel sad, because I keep wondering what is human nature that so many stood by and didn’t do anything. It’s very saddening.”