Tante Nonica–Martha Johnson


  “Sag deinen Namen!”

In a small voice, the trembling eight year old girl standing next to my strong, stoic Tante, whispered, “Berthe.”

Tante was the Mother Superior of the orphanage in Ghent operated by the Franciscan order of Nuns. Four nights before the Jewish girl stood outside the Convent doors delivered there under cover of night with a group of other children secured by the Father Henry Reynders Rescue Network during the Occupation. In a gesture of the most exquisite sacrificial love, their parents had surrendered them to the rescue group when the Gestapo was rounding up the Belgian Jews for extermination.

Mother Superior met each child in secret. To minimize potential for exposure that could compromise the mission, and the safety of the children, only she and a few priests knew of the plan to hide the children within the orphanage.

Wat is je naam, liefje?”  Mother Superior asked.


“Good. Keep your name. It sounds Flemish.” The plan was in play.

Eventually the Gestapo caught on that Christian institutions were hiding Jewish children. They arrived at the Convent door and barged in seeking the Jüdische Kinder hidden among the Christian orphans. “Sag deinen Namen!”  Those with Hebrew names would be lost, most forever. This time Berthe was passed over.

Everyone in the family called her Tante Nonica, an endearing Flemish diminutive. She was our dear Auntie nun. When she was only twenty she chose to surrender all of her future to her Beloved. As a novitiate she focused only on His service until she ascended, at age fifty-eight, to Mother Superior of the orphanage. Her life had been all planned out. She flourished within the quiet predictability and daily routine of the nun’s life. She expressed maternal love to the babies of others.

I have two photos of her. One she is standing next to the children all lined up by height in descending order. She is protective and pleased with how the structured life she had built for them afforded a safe harbor where they could pass seamlessly through childhood. They would not be alone nor hungry nor cold again.

This was her life. This was her way of marking time until she could unite with her Beloved in Eternity. He would be pleased at how she had delivered His message of love to the least of His.

She knew about Evil. She was not a fool. Her prayers had kept it at bay every day.

One day in May of 1940 the Beast incarnate tore into her peaceful life and everything was transformed. It was coming for her babies. Coming to lay waste to her peaceful world.

The hidden girls were less of a challenge. The Jewish boys presented a unique issue that the Diabolical could exploit with demonic glee as it raced headlong, oblivious, into the fate that awaits all Evil from the day He crushed it under His heel. Reveling in the mayhem it so dearly loved, it was unaware its chosen path led to the destruction it intended to heap upon the Innocent juicy morsels it stole to feed its Gluttony and Wrath.

Tante fought the war in the moment, in earthy reality, without the corporal power to overwhelm and destroy. From her studies she knew  evil in the abstract but now it was standing before her and a small terrified little boy, her son, brought to her in the night, seeking shelter. She would change his Hebrew name if required, but she knew the better safety lie in a ruse to deceive the Deceiver. With all confidence she convinced the Brute the non-Germanic appearing boy was of Spanish extraction, an unfortunate Catholic boy whose parents had perished. He was not Jewish.

And then those nights passed, one by one, with her children by her side. Though she could not save all, she saved many. There was more for her to do but the family lost contact with her before we knew.

The Belgian underground participated in hiding Jewish families, securing nightfall passage for them through Denmark where they would be ferried to Sweden and safety until the end when the Beast would be forced to return to the cold, dark, filthy cave, a befitting home, from which it had emerged when it foolishly thought it could conquer all.

No one in our family ever knew what became of Tante. Her story had ended. Though she had never met her, my mom longed for her. She wanted Tante to stay within our family not missing forever. Mom passed on in 1997.

Twenty years later, by chance, I found a distant cousin in Ghent. She directed me to an archive of historical church documents. And there she was. Tante. Elise Marie. Perished in 1942. Interred in Denmark. Returned home at long last.


Martha Johnson is living on the Oregon coast for over fifty years. Loving it. Transplant from Chicago. Old hippie. MFA from Portland State. She writes to process her wild life.