Nelly Sasserath, a student at the Ecole Moyenne Professionnelle in Liège, painted and embroidered an Idaho flour sack to transform it into a tablecloth.
In this blog, I will tell the impressive life story of Nelly and her family.
I saw the tablecloth in the collection of Musée de la Vie Wallonne in Liège (MVW); it was part of the donation from the Welsch family.
Please see my blog Musée de la Vie wallonne’s Educational Collection, Liège.
Together with Nadine de Rassenfosse, in charge of the museum depot, I admired the fine watercolor drawings, set in a carousel on the cotton canvas.
The flour sack “Record Flour” originated in Rexburg, Idaho at the Farmers Elev. & Milling Co.; presumably it arrived in Liège with American food relief in late April, early May 1915. After the sacks of flour were emptied at the bakeries, a series of sacks were transferred to the Ecole Moyenne.
Nelly chose to cut a square from the flour sack with the print as the center. In the four corners she painted a watercolor.
In a comic strip of four paintings, she tells her story about the food relief:
– In the field: two farmers plow their field, one farmer guides the draft horse, the other leads the plow; they will sow the field with wheat, after the harvest the wheat will go to the mill.
– In the field: a woman readies her donkey; the miller makes a deep bend to load a sack of flour on the animal’s back.
– In the bakery: the ovens are burning, the baker’s wife is kneading the dough in a trough, the baker -with bare torso- chases away three startled black mice with his peel.
– In front of the house: a girl bites into her sandwich, another child is being handed a sandwich by her mother, while their cat looks on expectantly!
When the watercolors had been finished, Nelly added the embroidery: she embroidered the brand name Record and the circle of the logo in the Belgian colors red, yellow, black.
Finally, she added a lace decorative border at the edges of the cloth. The total size is 20 by 19 inches (52 by 50 cm).
Nelly’s father was Alfred Sasserath (ºLiège 1869.05.19 – +Wilrijk 1945.04.11). He was the youngest in a family of five children: Salomon (º1860), Rosalie (º1861), Charles (º1864†), Maurice (º1866) and Alfred.
As a very young, hard-working dentist in Liege, Alfred regularly advertised his practice in the newspaper La Meuse. Already at the age of twenty he began doing so, established as “M. Alfred Sasserath, chirurgien-dentiste, Quai d’Université 7 in Liège”. On October 11, 1890, he “informed his venerable clients that he had returned from vacation and resumed his practice!”
A few months later, he warned the public against the misuse of his name, by people who pretended to be dentists without proper schooling.
By May 2, 1892, he had established his practice at Place Saint-Pierre no. 2 in Liège, near the Palace.
In 1902, his practice was located at no. 6. The newspaper La Meuse praised his dentistry.
Nelly’s mother was Betty Dührenheimer (ºNeidenstein, Germany 1869.06.20 – +Liège 1910.11.21). Betty and Alfred probably married in Germany. They had two daughters: Nelly Henriette (ºLiège 1897.10.08) and Lucienne Berthe (ºLiège 1902.04.01).
There was a great sense of grief when Mother Betty died at the age of 41; Nelly was only thirteen years old, Lucienne was eight.
“Madame Sasserath was a charming young woman, she was gifted, with the best qualities of heart and mind. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her”. (La Meuse, November 23, 1910)
In April 1912, Grandpa Dührenheimer (+Liège 1912.04.14), Betty’s father, died.
Louise Van Hamberg
Alfred Sasserath remarried a year later to Louise Van Hamberg in Antwerp. The ties to Antwerp were present through Alfred’s brother Maurice Moritz (ºLiège 1866.10.25 – +Antwerp 1913.06.08), he had settled in Antwerp as a dentist; his children were daughters Yvonne (ºAntwerp 1901.02.06 – +Auschwitz 1942.09.04) and Reine (ºAntwerp 1903.07.18) and son Ernest (ºAntwerp 1904.09.10), thus peers of Nelly and Lucienne.
Alfred’s second wife was Louise Ludovica Charlotta Van Hamberg (ºAntwerp 1874.07.05 – +Liège 1925.07.13). Louise was the eldest in a family of six children; she had three sisters Charlotta (º1876), Rosalia (º1877), Marianne (º1880) and two brothers Maurice (º1879) and the Benjamin of the family, Louis (º1889). The Van Hamberg family was originally from Amsterdam. Grandfather Mozes Van Hamberg was based there as a leather merchant.
The marriage took place on 1913.06.24 in Berchem.
The celebration had a tinge of grief: Alfred’s brother Maurice had died a few days earlier at the age of 46.
Nelly was 15 years old and would have been a pupil at the Ecole Moyenne in Liège. A year later, war broke out; on August 4, 1914, Liège was in the middle of the firing line.
The arrival of Louise, her stepmother, in Liège and the contacts with the Van Hamberg family in Antwerp must have meant a lot to Nelly and her sister Lucienne. This I infer from the choice of Nelly’s marriage partner.
She married Louis Benjamin Van Hamberg (ºAntwerp 1889.09.26 – +Antwerp 1931.01.27), Louise’s youngest brother, over a year after the Armistice; he had been a war volunteer. The marriage took place on January 15, 1920, in Liège.
Together they had three children: daughters Betty Hélène Louise (ºBerchem 1921.08.20), Claudine Claire Nelly (ºBerchem 1923.06.26) and son Lucien Alfred Isidor (ºAntwerp 1925.04.04). Nelly’s family Van Hamberg lived at the address Markgravelei 140, Antwerp.
A few months after Lucien’s birth the family again bore witness to great sadness: Louise, Nelly’s stepmother, sister of Louis and second wife of Alfred Sasserath, died, a week after her 51st birthday.
Lucienne Sasserath followed her sister to Antwerp. She married the engineer Alexander Stein (ºBogopole, Russia 1892.10.01) in Liège in 1924. They had two children: daughter Jeanine-Betty-Tatiana (ºAntwerp 1925.07.05) and son Robert-Joseph-Alfred (ºAntwerp 1929.03.31).
Jeanine was thus born in Antwerp on the birthday of her step-grandmother Louise, a week before she was to die in Liège. Robert was born a day before his mother’s birthday, turning 27. Lucienne’s Stein family lived at 297 Lange Leemstraat in Antwerp.
Nelly Van Hamberg-Sasserath
Fate struck once more. After a short illness, Nelly’s husband Louis Van Hamberg died. He was 41 years old and was buried in the family plot at Schoonselhof Cemetery in Antwerp. Nelly was left behind, widowed with her daughters aged nine and seven and her son aged five.
She remarried in Antwerp in May 1936 to Edouard Frenkel (ºTilburg, NL, 1894.05.31; he was a sales representative. (Betty’s Swiss pen pal (see below) described him: “Ihr Vater war ein angesehener Geschäftsmann im Schiffsbau auf den Werften der Hafenstadt”. (“Her father was a respected shipbuilding businessman in the port city’s shipyards” )).
Nelly’s family Frenkel-Van Hamberg lived at 34 Charlottalei in Antwerp.
Daughter Claudine attended the school Athenée Communale pour Jeunes Filles as a teenager. In 1939 she made a school trip to Liège and the newly opened Albert Canal. In the photo book of Henny Moëd, a former classmate, she is in the group photo at the bottom right.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, the threat of deportation became ever greater for Jewish families. Nelly’s family went into hiding; perhaps her father Alfred went with them.
They took refuge in Château de Bassines near Méan in the late summer of 1942. The estate was home to the Ecole Nouvelle des Ardennes, a boarding school where Lucien Van Hamberg would be educated.
Betty and Claudine were 21 and 19 years old, they may have helped teaching the youngest at school.
Nico Hamme, a Dutch Jewish boy, also spent a year, from September 1942 to October 15, 1943, at the boarding school:
“At our boarding school there were boys and girls, from 5 to 18 years old, in a primary and a kind of secondary school. In total there were about 60 people: pupils, teachers, and other staff. The school was in a sort of Renaissance-style palace called “Château de Bassines”. It was located amidst vast forests, near the village of Méan, in the region of “Condroz”.
The director of the school was Eugène Cougnet. Château de Bassines offered a hospitable home to the persecuted since the beginning of the war. It housed 40 Jewish people in hiding. Of the remaining 20, some also had to hide; either they were in the resistance, or they had to go to Germany to work, etc.
People who had the money paid, others did not. The adults made themselves useful by working. They became teachers, cooks, bakers, or tilled the vegetable garden. The baker, for example, was an economist from Austria,  and by the way, he baked delicious bread. There was plenty of food; the school was in an agricultural area near a large farm. The atmosphere was pleasant, the education excellent and the surroundings beautiful. I think back to those days with pleasure.” (dossier-bassines.nl)
The school was run by founder and director Eugène Cougnet (ºLedeberg 1891.01.16 – +Nordhausen/Bergen-Belsen, March 1945). Cougnet married Joséphine Fouarge (ºRocourt 1890.08.22 – +Kalmthout 1935.02.10) in 1915. They had three sons, Pierre (ºRocourt 1917.12.18 – +Libramont 2009.09.22), André (ºLiège 192 1 – 1997, see below) and Jean-Pierre (ºGhent 1927.01.07 – +Liège 2007.01.18) .
“Eugène Cougnet was an educator and a teacher who devoted his entire life, not only to young people but to anyone in difficulty who called on him. This was especially the case during the occupation.”  (dossier-bassines.nl)
The threat of discovery was constant. The Registry Office of the City of Antwerp inquired about Lucien Van Hamberg on November 16, 1942, with the Mayor of Méan concerning his registration card of the Jewish Register. However, the municipality of Méan did not cooperate with such inquiries.
The art teacher at the school was Klaus Grünewald  (pseudonym Maurice Torfs). He made sketches of the castle’s daily life.
Nico Hamme noted on this drawing:
“An animated conversation in the large salon. One sees the antique-style chairs, the paintings, and the high windows. The people are easy to recognize, on the sofa from left to right Mr. Cougnet, Mrs. Van Liefferinge, Mr. Sas (real name Sasserath?). On the seats from left to right Mr. Brancard (correct name Brancart), teacher of classical languages, Mr. Frenel (real name Frenkel) from Rotterdam and Mr. Pappy (correct name Georges Papy), teacher of mathematics. Mrs. Frenel, (not in this photo) was called Von Hamburg (real name Van Hamberg) and was a widow but Mr. Frenel was now her husband or partner. She had a son, Lucien, and two daughters. The entire Frenel family was deported to Auschwitz.” (dossier-bassines.nl)
The people in hiding at Château de Bassines were betrayed.
On Monday October 25, 1943, the gardes wallonnes surrounded the castle. German soldiers invaded and interrogated everyone present. Every person they could identify as Jewish was captured and taken away in trucks.
Nelly’s family disappeared.
In the Belgisch Staatsblad/Moniteur belge under no. 16735 on July 15, 1949, the judicial declaration of death appeared for seven people, presumed dead at Auschwitz on January 17, 1944, resp. presumed dead at Monowitz in early January 1945:
Stein, Alexander, 51 years old
Sasserath, Lucienne-Berthe, 41 years old
Stein, Jeanine, 18 years old
Stein, Robert, 14 years old
Frenkel, Edouard, 49 years old
Sasserath Nelly-Henriette, 46 years old
Van Hamberg, Lucien, 19 years old.
The archivist of Dossin Barracks in Malines explains what happened:
“Nelly was registered with her second husband Edouard Frenkel and her three children from her first marriage – Betti Van Hamberg (°1921/08/20, Antwerp), Claudine Van Hamberg (°1926/06/26, Antwerp) and Lucien Van Hamberg (°1925/04/04) – at the Dossin Barracks on November 17, 1943. For some time, they had been living in hiding under the name of Freney at the Château Bassines in Méan. During a raid on the castle on October 25, 1943, the Jews hiding there were arrested. They were held in the citadel of Huy and the prison of Liège before being taken to the Dossin Barracks in Malines. The real names of Nelly and the children were added to the deportation list of Transport XXIII under numbers 504 to 507. An application was made to the Secretariat of Queen Elisabeth to obtain a release of the family, but without result. The train left the Dossin Barracks on January 15, 1944 and arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 17, 1944. What exactly happened to Nelly and Edouard is not known to us. Son Lucien was selected as a laborer. The number 172335 was tattooed on his arm. However, he did not survive. Daughters Betti and Claudine were selected as laborers. They survived Auschwitz; they returned to Belgium.” (email message Dorien Styven, Dossin Barracks, Malines, Belgium, October 2021)
Nelly Henriette Frenkel, born Sasserath, is listed in the virtual monument Gerechte der Pflege (Righteous of Care). I infer from this that she was a nurse.
The family of Lucienne Stein, née Sasserath
The Dossin Barracks tell the story of the deportation of Lucienne Stein-Sasserath, her husband Alexander Stein and their children. A new owner of their house at 297 Lange Leemstraat in Antwerp, discovered a hidden container including 26 documents underneath the floor in 2013.
“Alexandre Stein was born in Elizabethgrad (suburb Bogopol, Russia) in 1892. He migrated to Belgium in 1910 to study at the university of Liège (Lüttich) to become an engineer. In 1914, Alexandre, as a Russian citizen, served as a paramedic with a Belgian ambulance. He then joined a German ambulance crew, supposedly to spy for the allies, and was subsequently arrested by the German military. Alexandre Stein was sent to Chartreuse and was later on deported to the internment camp in Munster (Germany). In 1920 he was able to return to Belgium from Wolfenbüttel. Belgian immigration authorities distrusted him due to his reputation as a Bolshevik adept in Liège (Lüttich) before the First World War. When presenting himself at the immigration authorities in April 1920, Alexandre Stein was arrested for illegally crossing the Belgian border. In May 1920 he was allowed to settle in Belgium again, where he finished his engineering studies.
He married the Belgian national Lucienne Berthe Sasserath in Liège (Lüttich) in 1924. The couple moved to Antwerp where their first child, Jeannine Betty Tatiana Stein, was born in 1925. In 1927, Alexandre Stein himself became a Belgian citizen. A son, Robert Joseph Albert Stein, was born in Antwerp in 1929. From 1930, the Stein family lived at Lange Leemstraat 297 in Antwerp. Alexandre Stein, his wife and both children were arrested there in the night of 3 on 4 September 1943 when the Nazis organized Aktion Iltis, arresting hundreds of Jews whose Belgian nationality had protected them until then. The complete family was deported via transport XXII B from the Dossin barracks on 20 September 1943. None of the family members survived.
Archival: 26 documents were discovered in 2013 in a tube hidden beneath a double floor in the attic of the former Stein family home at Lange Leemstraat 297, Antwerp, by the current owner Ann Verhaert.”(beeldbank.kazernedossin.eu)
Betty and Claudine Van Hamberg
Betty and Claudine’s experiences in captivity were recorded by Betty’s Swiss pen pal, Ellen Keckeis-Tobler of Küsnacht, Zürich, Switzerland. Betty and Ellen wrote each other letters in the French language since 1937. In 1938 Betty came to Küsnacht on holidays, it was a carefree time. With the outbreak of war, the correspondence was disrupted, and Ellen no longer received replies to her letters.
Until 1945, when Betty wrote a letter that she and her entire family had been deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The parents and grandparents were separated from the children and murdered in the gas chambers. Betty, Claudine, and Lucien were employed as young workers. Betty and Claudine worked over 12 hours a day in a German weapons factory but managed to hold out. Lucien had to work in Monowitz until he died of pneumonia and malnutrition.
Betty and Claudine visited Küsnacht shortly after the war. They told their stories; they showed the number branded into their forearms. Betty had become thin and pale. Betty spoke most about the horror of the journey home on foot from Auschwitz to Antwerp. “Once again, the sisters had to experience the horrors of men. For the victorious Russian army, which had conquered the area from Poland to far in East Germany, also behaved shamelessly! The Soviet soldiers “plucked” young and old women from the streets wherever they could be found. Despite their emaciated bodies and dirty clothes, they took Betty and Claudine by force and raped them in the open. . . Thank God, without consequence, Betty said. For after so much hunger and effort, the girls’ menstruation had long since been disrupted or stopped. Their weak bodies had become infertile.
So, the girls decided to hide and sleep in haystacks during the day and walk further west at night. Far from civilization, they found peasant women, without husbands or sons, taking care of the fields and their remaining livestock. They were kind to the two girls and, when food was available, gave them the meals they needed to survive. Thank God it was summer after the war ended in May 1945; therefore, they did not have to freeze to death.” (ortsgeschichte-kuesnacht.ch)
Ellen concludes with the marriages of her friends: “Betty hat in Belgien ihren christlichen Jugendfreund wieder gefunden. Die beiden haben geheiratet und wurden Eltern von zwei gesunden Kindern. Auch Claudine hat eine Familie. Sie haben gelernt, vorwärts zu schauen. Ihre Lagernummern an den Armen haben sie nach einiger Zeit wegoperieren lassen.”
(“Betty found her Christian childhood friend in Belgium. The two married and had two healthy children. Claudine also has a family. They have learned to look ahead. They had their camp numbers on their arms removed after some time.”) (ortsgeschichte-kuesnacht.ch)
It was during their year in hiding at Château de Bassines that the sisters met their future life partners.
Claudine married André Auguste Paul Jozef (Pous) Cougnet (ºLiege 1921.02.23 – +1997.02.27), the second son of Eugène Cougnet.
The legacy of Nelly Sasserath
Betty married Raoul Eugène Aurélien Ghislain Brancart (ºBraine-le-Comte 1921.01.15). He was a teacher of classical languages in Bassines and a contemporary of Betty. They had two daughters.
These daughters also married and had daughters.
“We had no idea that our (great) grandmother was an artist! Mother spoke of her as a wonderful woman and a very talented singer, but she probably knew nothing about these flour sacks. It was a shock to become aware of so many aspects of Nelly”.
Thus, Nelly Sasserath stands in the lineage of generations of women.
Her decorated flour sack invited us to find out and document her life story. So that our daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters will know the origin of this special flour sack and know the impressive life story of the Liège student Nelly Sasserath, who as a seventeen-year-old drew the comic strip in watercolor at the Idaho flour sack.
– Hubert Bovens in Wilsele, Belgium, for the searches of biographical data, and his extensive search for many of my sources. Sharing the sad life story of Nelly Sasserath has deeply affected both of us.
Please note that new questions continue to arise. For example, we did not find a photo of Nelly Sasserath, nor photos of her family(s). If we find more information, it will be added to this blog.
– Dorien Styven, Dossin Barracks, Malines, Belgium, for her information on the Sasserath/Van Hamberg/Stein family;
– André Dessaint in Méan, Belgium, for his information on Château de Bassines;
– Nadine de Rassenfosse, Musée de la Vie Wallonne in Liège, Belgium, for showing the museum’s flour sack collection.
– Georgina Kuipers for her attentive corrections to the English translations of my blogs.
 The economist from Austria was Kurt Pick. The story of his life in WWII is described in Jennifer Henderson’s book, Against All Odds: the Story of Kurt Pick, London, Radcliffe Press, 1998.
 We did not find descendants of Eugene Cougnet’s sons.
 Quote from George Liefferinge in letter January 7, 1982, to Yad Vashem, for a recognition as Righteous Among the Nations for Eugene Cougnet.
 Drawings and paintings by the artist Klaus Grünewald are preserved in the collection of the Jewish Museum of Belgium, Brussels.
His sister Margot Grünewald, later married to Massey, also stayed at Château de Bassines; she published the book Spring into Winter: A Novel, Ann Arbor, MI: Wyman House Publications, 1994, about her life in WWII.
Dessaint, André, Glanages a Méan. Histoire(s) d’un village condrusien. Troisième partie. Special 1940-1945. Méan: 2019.
Hamme, Nico, website: Un Hollandais, caché en Belgique (A Dutchman, hidden in Belgium). 1995/2008. (www.dossier-bassines.nl) consulted in December 2021. This website is not available anymore in March 2022.
George Liefferinge provided the images of drawings by Klaus Grünewald for the website; he sent photos to Nico Hamme. There is said to be a small book of all the Bassines sketches by Klaus Grünewald in the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. When asked, the curator of the museum informed me on 2021.12.16 that unfortunately he cannot find any trace of the book of drawings. Hopefully the book will be found.
Pauwels, Ivo, Huts, Karine, Wat mijn kleinzoon weten moet. Hoe een joodse jongen onderdook in België (What my grandson needs to know. How a Jewish boy went into hiding in Belgium) (1939-1945). Tielt, Belgium, Uitgeverij Lannoo, 2017. This romanticized chronicle tells the colored life story of the Jewish boy Georges Kluger from Austria including his experiences at Château de Bassines.
Brouwers, Fred, De Koninginnewedstrijd. Gesprekken met 18 Elisabethlaureaten (The Queen’s Competition. Conversations with 18 Elisabeth laureates). BRT, 1987.
Keckeis-Tobler, Ellen, Meine Freundin Betty aus Antwerpen in: Küesnachter-Jahrheft, 1996 (website: www.ortsgeschichte-kuesnacht.ch, consulted in December 2021)
Moëd, Henny, Just a Jewish Girl. A Pictoral Family Album of Pre-World War II. Antwerp, Belgium. Los Angeles, California: Jans Custom Photobooks, 2011. (website: collections.ushmm.org, consulted in December 2021)