Henri Reynders, born in 1903 to an upper middle class Catholic family in Brussels, became a monk at the young age of seventeen. After taking his vows in Rome in 1925, he led a monastic life. Three years later, he was ordained a priest, joining the Benedictine order in the Belgian town of Louvain. His secular name, Henri Reynders, was changed to the religious name Dom Bruno. Though deeply devout, he was a maverick thinker in regards to some of Church doctrine and would have fit the description “outside the box.” When he became a mentor to the young son of Duc de Guise, claimant to the throne of France, he said it was ironic. “Me, an anarchist, teaching a prince!” he exclaimed.
After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Belgium mobilized its army and Dom Bruno became a chaplain with its 41st Artillery Regiment. When the Germans invaded Belgium, the small country was quickly overrun and King Leopold surrendered his army during the battle of Dunkirk. Suffering a leg injury, Dom Bruno spent the next six months in prisoner-of-war camps at Wolfsburg and Doessel, Germany, providing religious and moral support to his fellow prisoners.
After King Leopold met with Hitler, the Germans released many Belgian prisoners of war, including Dom Bruno, who returned to the abbey and resumed teaching. His anti-Nazi beliefs led him to contact the Resistance then organizing in Belgium. At first, they worked to save downed Allied flyers and help them return to Britain.
With the completion of the Nazi death camps in Poland in 1942, the Nazis began rounding up Jews and deporting them. Dom Bruno received permission from the abbot to work as a chaplain at a home for the blind in the village of Hodbomont. While there, he discovered that the manager of the home and many of the residents were actually Jews in hiding – adults and children. They had found refuge there, thanks to a group led by Albert van den Berg, a prominent lawyer who worked with Christian aid organizations. The situation was incredibly dangerous as the Nazis were actively hunting Jews and there were many Belgian informers in the area.
When Van den Berg and Dom Bruno realized the home was not safe, they closed it down and dispersed the Jews to rural areas. Dom Bruno then undertook the risky task of organizing hiding places for the children, using his influence with friends and acquaintances. He sent children to private houses, including his own mother’s home and the home of his brother, Jean Reynders. He traveled to various Catholic institutions, such as boarding schools, requesting that they take in the Jewish children. He would accompany the children personally and return to visit them, bringing news of their parents if they were also in hiding. He also provided them with false identity cards with non-Jewish names and ration cards.
Traveling from place to place on his bicycle, Dom Bruno solved problems and dealt with even the small details of the plans for which he was responsible. At first he worked alone, receiving only financial support from the Van den Berg operation. He was also assisted with funds by the Belgian banker and economist Jules Dubois-Pelerin. As he expanded his contacts with other resistance groups, Dom Bruno was forced to flee from place to place to avoid being caught by the Gestapo.
Growing suspicious of Father Bruno’s activities, the Gestapo raided the Mont César Abbey. Fortunately, Dom Bruno was not there at the time, but had to go into hiding himself, switching his monk’s habit for civilian clothes and wearing a beret to hide his shaved head. A fellow monk provided him with a false identification card.
Despite the grave risk, he still continued to help Jews even while on the run himself. Dom Bruno was clearly a courageous man, risking his own life to save four hundred Jewish lives, most of them children. His personal notebooks contained many names and information with important details of his rescue work. After the war, Dom Bruno added additional comments in these notebooks, which he published as a book entitled En Feuilletant mon cahier de Notes, describing the hiding places of the Jews he helped through his work in the underground and how he forged identity documents, baptism certificates and food coupons.
Those saved by Dom Bruno expressed their deepest appreciation to him. One such testimony came from a man named Gilles Rozberg who recalled: “It was one night in 1943. I had just turned 13 years old. I met Father Bruno on the street. He didn’t know me but I recognized him by the way he walked, the cloak he wore, and his tall, elegant hat. I really threw myself at him and asked for his help. After a few seconds of suspicion and concern, he said he was ready to help me. Two weeks later, my younger brother and I were taken to a hiding place.”
Flora Singer-Mendalavitz explained, “I don’t know exactly how I first made contact with Dom Bruno. In any case, this angel came and saved our lives. Dom Bruno found a new hiding place for us and gave my mother instructions on how to get to the northern train station with three children. There we would meet a woman dressed in a special way who was waiting for us. According to the notes, we had to follow this woman onto her carriage on the train without kissing our mother goodbye or saying farewell. We did this and after the train pulled out of the station, the woman turned to us, kissed us, and told us we were being taken to a safe place. After the liberation, we went to live in Brussels and Dom Bruno visited us regularly. He helped us and brought us food. He always asked my mother if she needed anything. Once, Dom Bruno registered me in a Catholic school and also in courses for typing, painting, and piano, which were taught to me by one of the sisters of the convent. Dom Bruno paid for everything. Even today when I sit and type, like now as I write this, I see Dom Bruno’s face in front of me and I say ‘Thank you.’ When he registered me for the Catholic school, he gave firm orders to exempt me from Christian ritual lessons and other religious instruction classes.”
Dom Bruno was not the only Belgian who succeeded in saving Jewish lives. Thanks to the actions of the Catholic Church and the brave resistance movement, three-quarters of Belgium’s 100,000 Jews survived the war, despite there being large-scale collaboration. Following the liberation of Belgium in September 1944, Dom Bruno assisted in reuniting children with their parents or other members of their immediate family. Problems arose when representatives of the Jewish community opposed attempts by some Christian families to adopt orphaned Jewish children. Tragically, many of the younger children did not remember their Jewish origins and wished to remain with the families who had given them a home. During the Nazi occupation, Dom Bruno opposed active conversion of his charges, but afterwards took the position that each case should be evaluated individually with the best interest of the child being the deciding factor.
When the war ended, he briefly returned to the abbey but was reassigned to other locations in Belgium, France and Rome. His final active assignment was as vicar in the town of Ottignies near Louvain where he ministered to the aged, sick, and handicapped population.
In 1964, the state of Israel recognized Dom Bruno as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. He was invited to Jerusalem to witness the planting of a tree in his honor at Yad Vashem. Gradually worsening Parkinson’s disease forced Dom Bruno to retire to a nursing home in 1975. Six years later, he sustained a severe bone fracture and did not survive the surgery. He was buried at his beloved Abbey of Chevetogne. Ten years after his death, a square in the city of Ottignies was named in his honor and a plaque states: Dom Bruno, Benedictine (1903-1981). Hero of the resistance. At the risk of his life he saved some 400 Jews from Nazi barbarism.