Régine Karlin-Orfinger, born in 1911 in Antwerp, became the first woman to be admitted to the city’s Bar Association in 1934 and established a movement for women lawyers. During World War II she was no longer legally able to practice law, yet she continued to work and helped evacuate Jewish children. Her opposition to growing German persecution led her to engage in dangerous missions, including delivering messages and arms and helping Jewish refugees who lacked identification papers. She had a brilliant career as a lawyer and is remembered as a symbol of infinite humanity.
Early Life and Education
Régine Karlin was born on May 26, 1911, into a well-to-do Jewish family living in Antwerp. She was the granddaughter of Elias Karlin, founder of Antwerp’s Tachkemoni school, and the daughter of Grégoire Karlin (1869–1932), a Russian diamond merchant, originally from Mogilev (Mahilyow, Belarus), who had moved to Antwerp in 1893. Her mother, Rose Aschkénazy, whom he married in 1903, was originally from Warsaw. Régine Karlin had two brothers, Henri and Maurice, respectively seven and five years older than herself. In 1927 Henri, who had studied engineering in Liège, drowned in the Meuse.
Régine’s parents were acculturated and integrated. Since her father was a freemason, the family mixed easily with all sections of society. Régine Karlin attended a public school and, later, the Antwerp public high school for girls. Jewish tradition was not very evident in the family; thus, when, at the age of eighteen, she informed her parents that she was an atheist and had no intention of observing any religious obligations, the announcement provoked hardly a murmur.
In 1934, having completed her studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Régine Karlin was called to the bar in Antwerp, thus becoming the first woman to be admitted to the city’s Bar Association. At this time there were innumerable groups from which women were excluded—a situation which Karlin found intolerable and which led her to establish a movement of women lawyers. She also joined the Freemasons in the 1930s, as soon as women were admitted.
World War II
In 1939 the Vlaamse Conferencie (the association of young Flemish-speaking Antwerp lawyers) set a precedent by expelling all of its seventeen Jewish members. However, when in October 28, 1940 the German ordinances forbade Belgian Jews to practice law as of January 1941, the Antwerp Bar Association did not immediately follow suit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of unease, since some months later the Bar Association decided to invite all the lawyers affected by the German prohibition in order to enable them to present their case. In December 1940, when she was the counsel for the Antwerp municipality, she was denounced as Jewish for the first time. She requested the Jewish organizations to destroy all documents relating to her, but was met with a refusal: “Are you ashamed of being a Jew?”
At this time Régine Karlin—who had meanwhile married Lucien Orfinger, an engineer at the Bell Company who had graduated from the University of Liège—was an employee of the law firm of Grijspeert, Hebbelyuck, and Vanderdonckt (the latter was the secretary of the Bar Association), where she had been articled. Once the German interdictions were implemented, she ceased appearing in court but continued to work in the office, dealing with the cases for which she was responsible. On April 28, 1941, when four lawyers appeared before the Bar Association committee to present their opinions regarding their being struck off the register of members, she was the only one who contested the move in writing, arguing that it was the Ministry of Justice rather than the Bar Association that had been charged with implementing the German order and also that, while it forbade Jews to practice law, there was no justification for their being struck off the register. The latter, she argued in her deposition, was a grave sanction, applicable only in case of severe infringement of the profession’s principles and she challenged the committee to consider, in all conscience, whether they wished, of their own initiative, to aggravate a situation which seemed to be already sufficiently painful.
Her deposition evoked no official response but on June 9, 1941, the Bar Association decided to retain the Jewish members—a move which aroused violent protest, not only in the extreme right press but even in a totally non-political weekly legal information bulletin, the Juristenblad, which demanded the immediate expulsion of the Jewish members and excoriated the unpatriotic stand of the Bar Association. Though well-argued, Régine Karlin’s deposition was of no avail. On July 3, 1941 the committee met once again and decided unanimously to strike off its register all Jews, all members of the Jewish community and all those in whose case there was a suspicion of their being Jewish. Régine Karlin, wife of Orfinger, was among the seventeen members listed. Among those who voted in favor of this appalling move was M. Van der Donckt, a partner in the law practice where Régine Karlin worked.
Despite the official stand of the Antwerp Bar Association, Karlin decided to continue working at the Grijspeert office and at the same time to help evacuate Jewish children. Her opposition to growing German persecution led her to engage in ever more dangerous missions.
As soon as the Occupation became a reality, Lucien Orfinger joined the armed resistance, participating in what soon became the Armed Partisans, launched and controlled by the Communist Party. Régine bought materials for bomb manufacture. An officer in the Belgian reserves, Lucien was under constant surveillance and had to report to the Gestapo once a week. In 1941 he left his Antwerp home and, together with his brother-in-law Maurice Karlin, moved in with his parents in Brussels. When his wife joined him she was assigned the post of courier for the resistance leader Jean Bastien, who knew her from her pre-war court appearances in Brussels. She delivered messages and arms, but since she felt a need to do even more, she volunteered her services to Ezra, a Jewish organization established before World War I to help refugees, of which her father had been vice-president since 1906. Here she helped Jewish refugees who lacked identification papers or residence permits. She flatly refused to work for the Association of Belgian Jews (AJB) when they took over from Ezra, insisting that she worked only in opposition to the Germans.
In May 1942, when their son Pierre was three years old, Lucien, who had adopted a false identity, was arrested in the street. Explosives and an instruction manual were found on his bicycle. While imprisoned at Breendouck he wrote her two letters, expressing his joy in living and referring to the significance of life, since he had learned that she was pregnant with their second child. One must continue living, he said, precisely at the moment when one is in danger of losing one’s life. The letters were delivered to Régine by a German soldier, whom she rewarded with a precious kilo of coffee. When he was caught, he denounced Lucien, fingering him as the writer of the letters, and was sent to the Russian front. Lucien was badly beaten and consigned to solitary confinement. When his true identity was revealed in 1943, he was at once moved to the precincts where Jews were held and shot in February 1944. Régine learned of his death from the newspaper Le Soir. Risking her life, she took over his responsibilities and hid arms under the concealment provided by her pregnancy.
At the end of 1943 Régine Orfinger moved to the Namur region where she continued her resistance activities under the command of Emile Altofer. She bicycled along country roads organizing sabotage and forging papers. In June 1944, when Altofer was murdered, Régine took over the leadership of the Namur group, continuing her sabotage activities until the end of the war.
On September 25, 1944, following the liberation of Antwerp, Karlin-Orfinger was notified of the Antwerp Bar Association’s unanimous decision to reinstate all the Jewish lawyers who had been expelled from its ranks. She refused to accept this penitent “magnanimity” and instead registered with the Bar Association in Brussels, whose response to the German edict of October 1940 had been the direct opposite of that of its Antwerp counterpart.
Régine Karlin’s resistance activities would alone have warranted esteem and recognition, but she did not desist from further work. Totally bilingual in French and Dutch and even a polyglot, since she was also proficient in both English and Russian, she had a brilliant career as a lawyer, characterized by her militant and unwavering support of causes that she considered just. She opined that one had to oppose all form of racism, whether directed at Jews, Arabs, or Gypsies, as well as all forms of inequality, whether of women or of the poor. Her work began at the Belgian Ministry for Repatriation and the Aid for Jewish Victims (AIVG), later the Jewish Social Service, where she oversaw the reclaiming of Jewish children who had been hidden in Christian institutions and represented cases of claims for war reparations for the Jewish victims of Nazi barbarity and naturalization of foreign Jewish children and orphans.
At the AIVG Karlin-Orfinger worked with employees of the Joint Distribution Committee and with Karl Zeilinger, who joined the organization in 1946, worked in its legal department and became its director in 1959. Though at times she felt deep down in her heart that some of the children would have been better off staying with their adoptive families, she wholeheartedly defended the AIVG position of reclaiming the children and thus was able to help a number of the orphans find Jewish relatives or an appropriate Jewish environment. This work moved her tremendously. She also dealt with concentration camp survivors, for whom residence permits had to be obtained. Financially supported by the JDC and assisted by the Belgian government, her work met with considerable success.
Karlin-Orfinger was equally involved with UNRWA in relief work for Palestinian refugees and together with some of her friends founded the Belgian League of Human Rights (1954). She was also indefatigable on the issue of women’s rights. In 1966, during a major strike by “machine-women” at the Herstal munitions factory, she led the women’s claims, setting up a committee with the slogan “Equal Pay for Equal Work.” Her 1973 fight for abortion rights, in collaboration with Dr. Willy Peer, soon led to her representing a number of cases related to this cause. In the 1980s she participated in the establishment of the Maison des Femmes (Women’s House).
A great humanist, she did not restrict her activities to feminism but also frequently represented the Movement against Racism and Xenophobia. Because she believed that justice should be available to all, she helped establish the Syndicate of Lawyers for Democracy, which succeeded a collective of left-wing lawyers.
Later Life and Legacy
In 2000, towards the end of a life devoid of prejudice and sectarianism, she worked behind the scenes as co-author of Belgium’s law against racism. She never forgot the importance of welcoming refugees. To her it seemed self-evident that as wealthy a country as Belgium should be hospitable to people who suffered because of their political opinions. She declared expulsion to be shameful and unworthy of a democracy, a shameful phenomenon always to be denounced.
Regularly consulted by the Jewish Social Services, which she also represented in court, Régine Orfinger did not hesitate to declare herself-anti-Zionist, to befriend Palestinian militants and to defend the widow of PLO representative Naïm Kader. Until she was almost ninety years old she participated to reunions of board members of the League of Human Rights and chaired the “foreigners’ branch” at the Brussels Bar Association.
Régine Karlin-Orfinger died in Brussels in January 2003. Optimistic by nature, she was convinced that there would always be young people to defend the notion of liberty and resist extremism. She gave her name to a prize awarded by the Belgian League of Human Rights, the first recipient of which was Nabila Benaïssa, the older sister of little Loubna, who was among the children murdered by the notorious pedophile Marc Dutroux. Karlin-Orfinger was a symbol of infinite humanity.
Steinberg, Maxime. The Persecution of the Jews in Belgium (1940-1945). Brussels: Complex Edition, 2004.
Weiner-Henrion, Jacqueline. “Régine Karlin-Orfinger”, in Les Cahiers de la Mémoire contemporaine Herinnering 5, 2003-2004, p.187-200.