When she was a little girl, Suzanne Svartz learned firsthand what it meant to have a place where you felt safe and people who cared about you.
Born in Belgium, Suzanne was just three years old on May 10, 1940, when Germany attacked her country. The fighting lasted only 18 days. Belgium surrendered, and the Nazis were in charge for the next 4-1/2 years.
But Suzanne and her family weren’t just Belgian, they were also Jewish, and by 1942, the Nazis had begun sending Belgian Jews to the camps, the ones that no one ever came back from.
“I was one of the lucky ones, I didn’t go to the camps,” Svartz, now 78 and a two-year resident of The Conservatory at Wells Branch in Austin, TX, says. “If you know the story of Anne Frank, that’s the life we knew. We had to live in attics for 26 months. We had very good people who helped us and gave us false names and false papers.” As a holocaust survivor, Suzanne owes her freedom in part to a remarkable group of nuns that assisted her and her family during this difficult time.
Svartz went to a Catholic school by day and her family stayed in the attics of friends by night, frequently moving lest they put anyone else in more danger than was absolutely necessary. The family kept its apartment in Belgium throughout the war, and their landlady would escort Nazi soldiers into its empty attic when they came looking for the missing Jewish family.
Every day before she left for school, her parents and the people they were staying with would quiz Svartz on what her false name was, what her parents’ false names were, and what their invented occupations were. Her parents, like all Belgian adults, were routinely stopped in the streets, and always had to present papers and answer a litany of questions about who they were.
By the time the Nazis were defeated and Belgium liberated, the Germans had murdered or executed nearly 41,000 Belgians, more than half of them Jews.
Fast-forward nearly 70 years, and Svartz again found herself in a situation where she was craving the feeling of a safe place to call home and people to help her get through a difficult time.
In 2013, Svartz’s husband of 53 years passed away, leaving her alone in their home in New Jersey. Svartz’s son, an Austin resident, asked his mother to come live closer to he and his family.
“I had visited my son for about a week in Texas after he moved from California,” Svartz says. “He lives about 10 minutes away and I see him about once a week, but I know there’s somebody there to count on. He does everything he can for me.”
Proximity to family and things to do is one of the biggest draws about living at The Conservatory at Wells Branch. Centrally located in the Lone Star State, it’s just 7 miles from Round Rock, 21 miles from Austin, and an hour from New Braunfels and 1-1/2 hours from San Antonio.
Svartz is open about the sadness she feels daily for the loss of her husband. She came to America in the late 1950s for a vacation, and wound up staying for the rest of her life because of him.
“I came to the US when I was 20 years old. I was a young girl and wanted to have an adventure,” she recalls. “My mother had two sisters here, so I was going to stay with them, then go back to Belgium after two years. I was out with friends at a restaurant and they introduced me to my husband. We got married and lived in Brooklyn until our kids were born, then we moved to New Jersey.”
Svartz now has four grandchildren to dote on, and a new crop of friends to spend time with enjoying the Conservatory’s numerous activities and recreational events.
“I miss my husband, it’s hard having nobody here when I come home, but most of the people here are in the same boat,” Svartz says. “I like going to dinner with my friends here, and the Conservatory schedules games and events, and there’s always something going on. We have concerts, we play games, and just yesterday, we had Discover History, which comes once a month with a professor who give talks.”
History is one of Svartz’s favorite subjects. Not surprising, considering how much of it she’s lived.