Zenon Fajertag was a Jew born in 1940 in Brussels, Belgium, during the Nazi occupation. In 1941, when Zenon was only one year old, his father died from an incurable illness. His mother was left to raise him alone.
By mid 1942, the Nazis intensified their persecution of the Jewish population in Belgium, beginning an era of massive deportations.
Zenon’s mother began looking for a safe place to hide her little son. This proved extremely difficult, as the Nazis applied harsh consequences against any gentiles who were caught hiding Jews. Eventually, she managed to find a family that was willing to take the risk of hiding Zenon. While this family originally agreed to do so without accepting any form of compensation, she managed to persuade the couple to accept one egg per day, to feed little Zenon.
The courageous couple who took-up Zenon were Louise and Jospeh Materne. Joseph was working at the Belgian railways, and the family was living in a modest quarter of Brussels. They had no children of their own, but since they were fervent anti-Fascists, they had also given shelter to a Spanish boy named Juanito, whose parents were victims of the Spanish Civil War.
The Maternes put only one precondition to accepting Zenon: they had to get the consent of Juanito, who at that time was roughly 7 years old. Juanito approved, and by so doing, he saved Zenon’s life.
Zenon lived quite peacefully with the Materne’s and Juanito until the liberation of Belgium in 1944. Zenon’s mother, went into hiding in a nearby location.
In 1949, Zenon and his mother emigrated to Israel, where Zenon changed his name to Zalman Shiffer. Eventually, Zenon (now known as Zalman,) became a prominent economist and is known today as Dr. Zalman Shiffer.
During their first few years in Israel, Zalman and his mother corresponded with the Maternes. Eventually, however, the two families lost contact. When Zenon returned to Brussels in 1965, he was unable to trace neither the Maternes nor Juanito – who had been like a brother to Zalman.
All of his attempts to reestablish contact with his rescuers and Juanito, were fruitless.
In October 2009, Dr. Zalman Shiffer was interviewed by the famous journalist and TV reporter Henrique Cymerman, of La Vanguardia and Antenna 3. In this interview, Zalman made a public appeal to trace his beloved Juanito.
The IRWF was informed about this case and immediately mobilized volunteers in several countries, in search for Juanito.
Eventually, this worldwide campaign succeeded. Unfortunately, Juan Manrubia Sanchez (Juanito) had passed away in 2003. He was adopted by Louise and Joseph Materne, and became Juan Materne. Materne remained in Belgium, and married there. His three surviving children, Daniel, Patricia and Jean-Claude are back in touch with their ”uncle” Zenon.
This important mission was accomplished, but for the IRWF, the work is far from over.
Our team of researchers and volunteers are now collecting evidence to build-up a file that will be conveyed to Yad Vashem, with the recommendation to posthumously declare Louise and Joseph Materne, Righteous among the Nations.
Concurrently, the IRWF is investigating the circumstances of the rescue of Dr. Shiffer’s mother, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 101. Based on preliminary reports, she too was helped by two brave families during WWII.
Louise, Joseph and Juanito are no longer with us, but thanks to the passionate work of the IRWF’s volunteers, their stories will reverberate forever, and their descendents will have the opportunity to share their memories with Zenon.
DR. SHIFFER’S ORIGINAL APPEAL OF OCTOBER 2009
HELP ME FIND JUAN
I am looking for a Spanish-born man by the name of Juan, with whom I was hidden as a child in Belgium during World War II.
I was born as Zenon Fajertag in Brussels, Belgium, in May 1940 during the Nazi occupation of that country. In 1941 my father died from a sickness and my mother was left alone with me.
By mid 1942, as the Nazi repercussions against the Jews in Belgium intensified and deportations started, my mother began looking for a place to hide me, so that I may hopefully be able to survive. This was very difficult, since the hiding of Jews was punishable by death penalty. Finally, she found a family that was willing to take the risk of hiding me.
The courageous people who took care of me were Joseph and Louise Materne. Joseph was working in the Belgian railways and the family was living in the Forest quarter (Commune) of Brussels. As far as I know they had no children of their own.
As highly motivated anti-Fascists, they were not only active in the Resistance, but they had also given shelter to a Spanish boy- a refugee from the Spanish civil war.
This Spanish boy was called Juanito, a diminutive name for Juan. He was probably about six to seven years old in 1942, implying that he was born around 1935-6. His parents had fought for the Republicans during the Spanish war and his father was put in jail by the Franco regime. Since the Spanish war has ended by 1939 and some 200,000 Republican refugees fled over the French border in the last stages of that war, I assume that this was about the time that little Juan had been taken by the Belgian Materne family.
I stayed at the Maternes with Juanito, who was like a brother to me, from 1942 to 1944. As far as I have been able to find out their address was 132 rue de Paepsem (or Paapsemlaan; it could also be Paepsen). I remember that it was in the Commune of Forest, but have found in some map that it is in Anderlecht.
At the beginning of 1944 we all moved to a small village called Folx-les-Caves to avoid the heavy Allies bombing of Brussels; my mother, who had been hiding elsewhere in Brussels also joined us there. It was in this village that we were liberated by the British Army sometime between August and October 1944.
As WWII ended I returned with my mother to Brussels. We used to meet the Maternes and Juanito, who continued to live with them, quite often; we also spent some vacation with them at the beach.
In 1949 my mother and I immigrated to Israel where I changed my name from Zenon Fajertag to Zalman Shiffer. We corresponded with the Maternes for a while, but the correspondence faded away gradually. When I came back for a first visit to Belgium in 1965, my Belgian relatives told me that they had lost contact with the Maternes and thatb they may have passed away (I recently found out that this was wrong and that the Maternes have moved out of Brussels in 1955 and lived in their small family village until the late 1970s). My relatives may also have told me that Juan had moved back to his family in Spain, but I am not sure about it.
Many years have passed since then. I have often remembered with love the Maternes and Juan, but somehow assumed that there was no way to locate him since I had no idea where he could be and did not even know what his family name was.
With the worldwide improved access to information, I feel now that I may have a better chance of finding Juan. It is very important to me to learn what happened to him during all those years and to meet him again. I believe that the time he spent with me at the Maternes was very meaningful to him also and hope that he will want to meet me again.
I am enclosing a few pictures which may be of some help. The first two pictures show me and Juanito, one at the beach after the war, and one in front of the Materne house during the war. The third picture shows the two of us again with Louise Materne and the fourth one is a photograph of Joseph Materne and me. Finally, the fifth picture was also taken in front of the Materne house: my mother is on the left, the Maternes on the right and my aunt and uncle with me at the middle.
I would appreciate very much any help that you can extend to me to find Juan.
Dr. Zalman ShifferÇ
(formerly Zenon Fajertag)
Article in La Vanguardia about this story