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In memoriam Norbert Vos-Obstfeld


It is with great sadness that we write to inform you of the passing of Norbert Vos-Obstfeld on May 13.

Norbert was born on 19 July 1941 in Pau (France). His parents, Albert Obstfeld and Lea Zwaaf, fled Antwerp when the Germans invaded in May 1940 to move south. Concern about the safety of Lea’s parents, Marcus and Sara Zwaaf-Vos, resulted in the family moving back to Belgium in April 1942. However, during a raid in the night of 28th to 29th August 1942 Lea’s parents were arrested at their home in Marsstraat in Antwerp. Lea, who was present there on that day, managed to escape and free her sister Emilie and cousin Jacqueline. Marcus and Sara Zwaaf-Vos were deported on transport VII to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 1 September 1942, where they were murdered. Tragedy struck again on 3 September 1942 when Norbert’s father Albert was arrested on a train and transferred to prison in Sint-Gilles. He was registered at Kazerne Dossin one month later and deported on transport XIII to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 10 October 1942. He also did not survive the deportation. The last messages Albert sent to his family are contained in letters that he wrote from Kazerne Dossin.

Lea then fled with her son Norbert, sister Emilie and cousin Jacqueline to West Flanders, where they were eventually taken in by Raymond and Julia Verhage-Leenknecht and their daughter Mona. It was due to the Verhage family that Lea, Norbert, Emilie and Jacqueline all survived the war. Both families continued to consider each other as family even after the liberation. Norbert always spoke with love about his wartime father and mother, Raymond and Julia. No words can describe the bond that was created between Norbert and Mona. Mona suddenly gained “a little brother” and immediately tried to console him by giving him her teddy bear. She became his protector. The bear became a symbol of their bond and unconditional love for one another. They became brother and sister in unimaginable and extremely dangerous circumstances during the war and always remained so.

After the war Lea and Norbert returned to Antwerp where they both, to no avail, awaited the return of Albert. Norbert later wrote a particularly moving poem about it. Albert would not return; their hope was in vain. The little boy, who would never have the chance to build up real memories of his father, would nevertheless make every effort to keep his memory alive, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2022 Norbert donated his father’s wedding suits to Kazerne Dossin. In 1951 Lea Zwaaf married her cousin and camp survivor Emiel Vos, whose wife and three small sons had been murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Emiel adopted Norbert and the latter proudly bore the name of both his fathers, Vos-Obstfeld. He and his wartime sister for life and for all seasons, Mona, maintained a close bond throughout their lives. The post-war separation had profoundly affected them both but their bond conquered all. Together they donated their “teddy bear” to the museum, where he illustrates their narrative on the second floor.

Norbert Vos-Obstfeld was a particularly endearing character. Proud and modest at the same time, exceptionally sensitive and committed to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust and the many loved ones he lost as a result. He was committed to the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance, Kazerne Dossin and the museum’s friendship activities, and actively involved in Jewish life in Antwerp. Despite his personal loss and trauma, Norbert courageously testified about his wartime past as a child in hiding and the fate of his family. Many will probably remember Norbert’s testimony in the series entitled “Children of the Holocaust”. Others will have attended Mona and Norbert’s morning talk in Kazerne Dossin on 19 March 2017, flanked by the teddy bear as the third “guest speaker”. On 8 May 2019 Mona and Norbert testified together in the Belgian Senate for the commemoration of the end of the Second World War.

In addition to the teddy bear, Kazerne Dossin is safeguarding several family items of the Vos-Obstfeld family (the handbag of Norbert’s deported grandma Sara Zwaaf-Vos, family albums, documents, etc.) as well as a donation from Mona Verhage: the button box that Norbert used to play with during the war. This object is currently on display in the last section of the memorial, which also shows the testimony of Norbert’s adoptive father Emiel Vos.

Kazerne Dossin send their sincere condolences to Norbert’s “sister” Mona Landuyt-Verhage and family, Maurice Gielen and to all those who hold Norbert dear.

Useful links:

Collection description
EHRI Podcast A Girl and A Teddy Bear
Inauguration display bear
Senate testimony 8 May 2019 (also see photoshoot)