She was on her way to work in the hospital when she saw the Nazi infantry. The soldiers were in the shadows—visible in the gaps between the cabbage leaves only—as they advanced toward Hedy’s refuge. She rushed to the nun in charge of the hospital and asked what she should do. She was a Jew, and they were coming for her. She needed to hide right away. Dressing her in a nun’s habit and placing a veil over her face, the nuns took her to their quarters and told her to pretend to pray. Meanwhile, the Nazis had already begun to search the hospital for any enemies of the Third Reich: Jews, Belgian officers, or even stranded Allied parachutist troopers. All the time that they swept through the TB-infected rooms, Hedy sat still in the nuns’ sanctuary, in robes that were not hers, in a country that was not her own, pretending to be someone she wasn’t.
Hedy’s life did not start in the perpetual terror she would have to live through, and it did not even begin in Belgium. She was born Hedwig Springer on May 29, 1921, in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of an organic chemistry professor. Her early life generally was the opposite of what it would later become. During summers, she would often go swimming in the Danube River or hiking with her family in the Austrian forests. Her parents raised her to have a healthy appreciation of the outdoors. When she developed the whooping cough, she was even able to spend time on a farm in the Austrian countryside and live with kind people there. However, she did not live outside of the shadow of anti-Semitism.
While there was no intense violence against the Jews during her childhood, Hedy still strongly sensed anti-Semitism. In one case, while she was still a child, Hedy’s family had gone to the market, where Hedy was tasked with buying a lemon. After she made her purchase, she dropped the lemon. As she picked up the lemon, she overheard a woman sneer, “What kind of child drops a lemon? It must be Jew.” Hedy ran crying to her mother. As time passed, Hedy’s Austrian neighbors became increasingly hostile to the Jews in their
community. People across from her school began to complain that the “Jewish kids were being too noisy.” As time passed, these anti-Semitic sentiments became more apparent. It became clear that the Jewish students were no longer welcome. Still, Hedy and her family were not prepared for the annexation
Until 1934, Austria was governed by the Social Democratic Party. Austria was well run, with plenty of jobs and healthcare benefits for the average worker, as well as integrated community housing projects for low-income families. Throughout their rule, the Social Democratic Party had been in competition with the Christian Socialist Party. However, in February 1934, fighting broke out. Gun and artillery fire resounded through the streets. It lasted for a week. The danger intensified after the assassination of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. It was dangerous even to walk the streets, since bombs were hidden on them or in phone booths. After the annexation of Austria on March 12, 1934, the Nazis were quick to demonstrate their brutality. Alongside the Christian Socialists, they set up artillery on one side of a river—opposite a community living space built by the Social Democrats. After making all the necessary calculations, the soldiers received their orders and shot across the river, obliterating the community house. As she surveyed the damage with her father, Hedy witnessed first-hand exactly how brutal the Nazis could be.
The annexation of Austria revealed to Hedy and her parents that it was no longer safe to remain in Vienna. During this time, however, getting a legal visa to leave the country was almost impossible. After a terrifying nine months of waiting, they were able, in 1938, to move to Brussels, leaving behind more than 50 relatives in Austria. Of those 50, five would live through the war.
In Belgium, Hedy was able to temporarily resume a more normal life. She continued the education that had been interrupted by the Nazis. After high school, she went to nursing school. Not long after she started, however, the Nazis occupied Belgium. That occurred on May 10, 1940. Once again, Hedy’s life and schooling were tumultuously interrupted. The Nazis quickly forced Belgian Jews to give up many things: their jobs, bicycles, radios, and jewelry, for instance. Soon, Hedy had to walk through the streets with a yellow star on her clothes. Within a few days, deportations began. Jews were arrested on the street, taken from their homes. It soon became clear that Hedy was no longer safe. In a gesture of kindness, a surgeon tried to provide her with shelter by admitting her into the hospital for evaluation. After the evaluation period, he claimed that she ran the risk of appendicitis and that he needed to operate, buying her two more weeks of safety at the hospital. Time was running out, however, so Hedy’s parents quickly took action.
Hedy’s mother contacted Elisabeth of Bavaria, the mother of Leopold III, who was the king of Belgium. Elisabeth was anti-German and used her influence to help Jewish refugees throughout Brussels. Hedy’s mother met Madame Denyse Ponteville de Launois, also of the Belgian royal family. She listened to the plight of the Springers and found a place for Hedy to stay. With this newfound connection, Hedy was also able to get a job as a nurse’s assistant at the Hospital Des Dames Du Sacre Coeur in 1942.
In exchange for being hidden at the hospital, Hedy was required to abandon her external identity as an Austrian Jew. She removed all yellow stars from
her clothing. With the help of her mother and the Jewish underground, she received forged Belgian identification papers. Overnight, she became
Life at the hospital was only marginally safer than in the street. At the time, the entire hospital was filled primarily with TB patients of varying ages. On multiple occasions, the Germans asked to search the area, but those searches were often cancelled after they realized that there where TB patients inside. Food was generally scarce. The whole hospital generally lived on potatoes and anything else that could be grown in its garden. Every so often, however, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium used her connections to bring higher quality food to the patients.
There is one day Hedy will never forget. She was given the day off by the Mother Superior. Upon learning that Brussels had been liberated, she began to walk toward the main town. When she got to the center of town, she saw a huge tank, with people cheering around it. The Allies had driven the Nazi forces out of Brussels. Walking around, Hedy finally was able to speak to a soldier, who, coincidentally, was a Jew—from Czechoslavakia. It was then that Hedy realized that she was free. After years of pain, humiliation, and suffering, World War II had come to a close for Hedy.
Many years after the war, Hedy is still able to look back and express her love to all those who helped her survive one of the darkest times of world history. While she experienced incredible fear in the face of the Nazi war machine, she can look beyond that fear and maintain her humanity and keep her faith in the humanity of others. Hedy only traveled back to Vienna once: to drop off a photograph of her father at the school he had founded before the war. The image remains there today: a testament to Hedy’s childhood and her life before the war.
“Austria First Republic Overview of Political Camps.” Library of Congress. March 23, 2011.
“Jewish Resistance in Belgium.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. March 15, 2011.
Baudhiun, Fernand et al. Belgium under Occupation. New York:
The Moretus Press.
Krasnobrod, Hedy. Personal Interview. March 4, 11, 18, 2011.