LAKEWOOD RANCH — A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting its dim glow over the cold, damp concrete floor.
Rows of tiny cots line nearly every square inch of the windowless walls. But there aren’t any toys strewn about, books hidden away under pillows or mountains of dirty clothes overflowing from hampers.
Instead, the room is eerily devoid of any activity.
For three years, Sarasota resident Al Bottner endured these conditions, along with 40 other boys, while living in isolation in the basement of a convent in Antwerp, Belgium, during World War II.
Last week, Bottner shared his story of surviving the Holocaust with students at Lakewood Ranch High School during the Ranch Remembers the Holocaust event. Throughout the week, students met 15 Holocaust survivors from the Sarasota/Manatee Jewish Federation and listened to their accounts of one of the most disheartening times in history.
Sophomore Jessica Zimmerman, who volunteers with the Sarasota/Manatee Jewish Federation, organized the event after participating in the organization’s Witness Theatre program.
“I thought it would be great to allow these kids to listen to these stories because we’re the last generation who is going to be able to hear these incredible experiences,” she said. “It was a dream that I had to have these survivors come in and tell their stories and inspire other kids to keep telling these stories.”
Born in Antwerp in April 1940, Bottner was just 3 years old when World War II erupted in Belgium. Concerned with keeping their son alive, Bottner’s parents placed him in a convent.
The isolation was particularly difficult for Bottner, who only spoke Yiddish — a combination of German, Polish, Russian, Romanian and Hebrew.
“I didn’t have a clue what was being said to me,” Bottner said. “So not only did I have the traumatic experience of being taken away from loving parents, but then I also had to deal with not being able to understand.”
Upon arrival, the children were shaved for fear of lice and illness and given a tin cup of water and stale bread — their only source of nutrition. Their wardrobe consisted of the clothes on their backs and any hand-me-downs that might come their way.
For three years, Bottner and the other boys who had also been sent to live in the convent were not allowed to speak for fear of being discovered.
The children were deprived of activity with the exception of prayer. But having come from a Jewish background, Bottner didn’t know what prayer was, so he simply mimicked the actions of the other children.
Within six months of arriving to the convent, Bottner’s frail body began to shut down — yet he showed no signs of being ill. Eventually, Bottner was sent home, where he was able to see and hug his parents and communicate with them in Yiddish. Within 24 hours Bottner was perfectly healthy again, and two days later his parents sent him back to the convent.
“To be loving to children isn’t something nuns do … it’s not inherent to them,” Bottner said. “What happened to me … I call it love deprivation syndrome. Your body shuts down.”
In June 1945, the war had come to an end in Belgium. The United States seized control, and the Nazis fled to Germany.
After hearing of the destruction on the radio, Bottner’s father went to the convent to search for his son. When he arrived at the convent, he immediately grabbed his son and hugged him, but initially Bottner didn’t recognize the man. It wasn’t until his father began communicating with him in Yiddish and he got a whiff of his scent that Bottner recognized his father.
Once the two were reunited, Bottner and his father began the 80-mile trek from Liege to Brussels. Shortly into their journey, a U.S. military vehicle stopped the two. Bottner was placed into the back of the vehicle, and it began to take off, leaving his father behind.
Bottner was quickly overcome by fear at the thought of being separated from his family once again. He began to scream in desperation; and as the vehicle came to a stop to wait for his father, a soldier began to speak to Bottner in Yiddish.
“That was the first contact I had with someone who spoke the same language as me,” Bottner said.
MOVE TO AMERICA
Eight years after reuniting with his parents and meeting his younger sister for the first time, Bottner and his family moved to Canada. There, he attended school, graduating in 1961 with an engineering degree, met his wife and saw the birth of his first child. Eventually Bottner, decided to settle in the United States and most recently in Sarasota.
“My (interaction) with the U.S. military is probably the reason I decided to reside in the U.S.,” Bottner said. “I’m forever grateful for that occurrence.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].