Sophie Rozen Nessim was born on October 18, 1936 in Brussels, Belgium, the only child of Anna and Elia Joel Rozen. They were an Orthodox Jewish family and lived adjacent to a furniture factory and store that they owned. Her mother had moved from Russia to Belgium with her parents Sophie and Jankiel (Jacob) Polinski and an older brother Isaac when she was a baby. Two other brothers, Morris and David, were already living in Brussels by the time they arrived. Sophie’s father was born in Poland and moved to Belgium in his 20s to avoid joining the Polish army. His parents stayed in Poland with his four sisters, none of whom Sophie ever met.
The Nazis invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. Just 18 days later, the Belgian army surrendered and Germany occupied the country. The Nazis gradually instituted anti-Jewish laws, placing a variety of restrictions on the civil rights of Jews and, in May 1942, required Jews to wear yellow stars of David. When notices were issued for Jews to report for resettlement, Sophie’s father was skeptical and decided that the family would flee. He encouraged his brother in law Isaac Polonski to do the same but he and his family were among the approximately 25,000 Jews from Belgium who followed the order or were rounded up in the summer of 1942. They were never heard from again, likely taken to the Mechelen detention camp, in the former Dossin Barracks located halfway between Antwerp and Brussels, before deportation to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
Sophie and her parents survived by paying an older Christian couple to hide them at their farm in Waterloo, approximately 10 miles south of Brussels. They packed as many possessions as they could into their suitcases and made their way on foot to the farm. For nearly three years, Sophie lived openly with the couple, who told people they were taking care of her because her parents were sick. During the day, she helped milk the cows and bake bread. Her parents lived in the basement which they entered through a hidden trap door in the floor. At night, they walked outside but stayed close to the house.
The arrival of American and British soldiers in September 1945 signaled the end of the war and the family’s freedom. They returned to Brussels to find that the Germans had destroyed the factory, the store and their home. Elia resumed his furniture business but became sick and died approximately one and a half years later. In 1955, when Sophie was almost 19 years old, she and her mother left Belgium for the United States, sponsored by her uncles Morris and David, who had emigrated to New York as teenagers before the Germans invaded Belgium. Sophie and her mother sailed from Rotterdam, Belgium on October 4th aboard the D.D. Ryndamas as passengers 9012024153965 and 9012024557318, respectively. The ship, carrying 14,935 passengers, arrived at Ellis Island on October 14th.
They lived with Sophie’s uncle Morris in Brooklyn for a couple of months before renting their own apartment in Brooklyn. Neither Sophie nor her mother spoke any English but found jobs in a factory glueing fabric swatches on sample sheets. They did this for approximately one year and then Sophie began attending night school to learn English. She saw a Help Wanted ad for a bookkeeper at a clothing factory and managed to get hired despite having no bookkeeping experience. Soon after, she found a new bookkeeping position at Leslie Fay, the leading women’s clothing manufacturer, where she stayed for many years.
During this time, her cousin introduced her to Abraham Salim Nessim and they married on September 14, 1957. Years after arriving in New York, Abraham passed away in 1977 and Sophie in 2018, leaving behind three children, Joel, Daniel and Michael, and eight grandchildren, including Heschel students Bella, Ethan and Tyler Nessim.