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Leer was a small town near the Dutch border and had a population of approx. 13,000. According to statistics, the Jewish population numbered 175 families. The town had a beautiful synagogue able to accommodate many more than the Jews of Leer. I assume that the building was built that large to accommodate the Jewish people who lived in the surrounding villages. We also had a Jewish day school, which was called Juedische Volksschule. It was a one-room school in the annex of the house, which was the residence of the teacher, who also fulfilled the function of Rabbi, Chazan, Shochet, etc. He had to teach approximately forty children in eight grades all in one room. It was done with typical German discipline, including the occasional hitting with a bamboo stick.
The Jewish people in Leer were mainly engaged in cattle dealing (including my father). He bought and sold cattle. Most of the time he bought breeding cattle for his customers and collected a commission for the transaction. It provided us with a decent living on a middle class level. We lived on the outskirts of the town in a new housing development, (Pulverturm 25) in a two storey cottage with a large garden. For its time it was well advanced, since the house had indoor plumbing, but no bath or shower. Washing was done in the kitchen.
To the best of my recollection there was no cultural life, other than my mother getting together with friends for an afternoon or evening of music making. My mother graduated from conservatory, with piano and singing. She took further private lessons from one of the most famous singers, Lotte Lehmann. Up till the time that she got married she sang with the Leipziger Staatsopera. Apparently my father made her give up her career.
Our social life was very simple. Between observing the Sabbath and all the holidays in the traditional Orthodox way (we did not have a kosher household), visiting friends in a reciprocal manner, and playing bridge and skat on certain days, life went on in a quiet and leisurely way until 1933. Our relationship with our parents was a loving one, especially with our mother. In the olden days it was not customary for a father to show affection. In our case, we may have been lucky, since our father often hugged and kissed us, especially on Friday nights after the Kiddush. He never forgot to bless us, by putting his hands on our heads and reciting the traditional blessings after which he kissed us and mother and wished us a good Shabbes. (I could go on and on into more details about daily life, but again that is not the purpose of this narrative.) Let me finish with my description of what seemed to me a happy childhood. Vacations consisted of day trips by bike, or a local train ride to the nearest town, and/or once a year by paddle wheel boat up the river to the North Sea. Otherwise Walter and I were sent to our grandparents in Duesburg/Ruhrort, or to the Elkans (uncle and aunt) in Niedermerz, a village near Aachen (Germany). We always enjoyed these vacations since we had doting and loving grandparents. The same can be said about the Elkans. Mrs. Sophie Elkan was the sister of my grandmother. Their two sons Benno and Erich and their sister Helga were the most loving relatives anyone could wish for. As one can see from the above, family life was very close-knit, even among distant relatives.
Now we come to 1933.
History books have given all kinds of accounting for what happened. Let me briefly outline how the election of the Nazis affected the Jewish community in Leer, and my family in particular. It must be understood that the following narrative of what happened after Hitler took power in 1933, is a childs perception of these events. One must bear in mind that I was all of seven years old at the time. The first thing that happened, as far as I can remember, is that certain gentile friends no longer wanted to play with us. When asked why not, the answer was "Instructions from our Parents." Neighbours stopped talking to us. Next, neighbours started to appear in brown S.A. uniforms. Then signs in certain stores, restaurants, etc.started to appear, which said: "Juden unerwuenscht" (Jews not wanted) or "Fuer Juden verboten." (Forbidden for Jews.) Things became progressively worse. We couldnt swim in the municipal pool, beaches were closed to Jews, stores refused to serve Jews. Gangs made up of five or more Jungvolk or Hitlerjugend (Youth) members would wait for us in ambush and beat us up. We soon learned to defend ourselves and it did not take long before we, my brother and a neighbour Jewish boy, Herman van der Berg and I, started to retaliate and beat up the goyim. However it was a difficult time for young children.
For example we had to leave fifteen to twenty minutes early each morning to pick up Herman van der Berg and then, the three of us would go three blocks out of our way to pick up a girl and her younger brother for the twenty-minute walk to school. The reverse took place after school. Needless to say, we had pockets full of stones, a slingshot, a rubber hose and on some occasions a homemade shield, to ward off stones thrown at us.
As a child I could perceive the anxieties and worries my parents went through. At first the Jewish community did not take the Nazi threat seriously. But before long, when the first anti-Jewish laws took effect, the community started to worry, and quite a few started to make arrangements to leave the country. I remember that quite a few left for various countries in South America. However my parents did not take it real seriously until it was too late.
First, a nasty incident happened with my grandfather, Joseph Lion. He came home one night and gang of S.A. men (Nazis) under the "able" leadership of an ex-bookkeeper, dismissed by my grandfather for incompetence and fraud, forcibly took him, painted him with swastikas and marched him through the city. The police took him into protective custody only about five hours after the incident had started. My grandfather must have realized what the future was going to be and took a train to The Hague the very next day. A few months later his wife joined him and together they ran a guesthouse, catering to a millionaire family, the van Zwanenbergs, owners of Organon Oss (a large chemical industry). They left all their belongings, house, furniture, clothing, etc. behind.
As the situation became progressively worse, my parents decided to send me on an apparent vacation to my grandparents. I was not intended to return. This happened in the summer of 1937. This was quite a traumatic experience for an eleven year old child. It was not for lack of material things or love bestowed on me by my grandparents, but simply because I missed my parents dreadfully. However, I soon settled into leading a normal life. I went to school and Hebrew school. I made friends, went on school outings, was spoiled by my grandparents, especially my grandfather. I was his first grandchild, a grandson, and not having any male children himself, I was his Kaddish and favorite. I think that I missed my parents the most when I started to learn my Torah portion in preparation for my Bar-Mitzvah and eventually on the big day of my Bar-Mitzvah. In the meantime, my brother Walter arrived with a childrens transport from Germany. All children were first placed in an old quarantine camp outside Rotterdam. This camp had all modern facilities and the children were well taken care of, but had no freedom of movement. The camp was guarded by the Marechaussee, (Dutch Federal Police) with guard dogs.These facilities were used to put people from ships, especially passenger ships, in quarantine when there was a contagious or suspected contagious disease on board. Walter did not stay there more than a few months, after which he was placed first in an old Jewish orphanage in Gouda, and later was sent to a country estate outside The Hague. (Loosduinen).The weekends he could usually spend with us.
On May 5, 1940, Holland was invaded and occupied. Walter was released and came permanently to us.
I could go on and on to describe the five days of war, till the surrender on May 10, 1940. History books have done a far better job than I could do. Suffice it to say that it was a traumatic experience, especially for the older people, who had their roots in Germany. The number among them who committed suicide on the first day of the occupation is beyond description. Unfortunately, several cases happened in my grandparents circle of friends. They also predicted and anticipated difficult times ahead, especially for the Jewish people of Holland.
At first the Dutch Jews could not perceive or anticipate any problems. Their standard expression was "The Germans would not dare do anything to us, because we have the whole population with us." Unfortunately, history has shown otherwise.
Soon after the occupation the first anti-Jewish laws started to appear. One law that affected us in a dramatic way, came in September 1940, giving Jews of German origin one weeks notice to clear out of the coastal area. This affected us directly and we had to move. On such short notice, with a certain amount of panic, I guess my grandparents took the easy way out and we found shelter with the parents of one of our maids in Boskoop. Quarters were rather cramped, but the people were nice. Unfortunately the local German commander refused us permission to stay in this town, and we were forced to move on. Luckily my grandfather had stayed in contact with a friend by the name of Issie Schwartz, an old skat-brother of my grandfather. They also had to move from The Hague and had found shelter in a little village (of approx. 3000 people) by the name of Nunspeet. To make a long story short, the Schwartz family found a summer house for us. Large enough to accommodate my grandparents, my aunt Pitty and uncle Rudi Levy, Walter, myself and a niece of my grandparents by the name Helene Lion. Lene, as she was called, was very close to me, so close that I felt as comfortable with her as with my mother. Lets not forget that this was 1940. I was all of fourteen years old. With my "old" grandparents I could not and would not discuss certain things that are of paramount importance to a teenager. (I may bring up her name later on when we reach 1944).
We lived in this beautiful home for a few weeks, but the house was not suited for winter occupancy. We moved into another house, which up to that date had been used as an annex of a pension (family hotel). We lived there during the winter, but moved out in the spring of 1941 because German soldiers had requisitioned and occupied the premises next door. This was very uncomfortable for us, because shortly before that we were ordered to wear the Yellow Magen David with the name JOOD (JEW) on it. We found a nice and comfortable home for the five of us as Pitty and Rudi had since moved to Utrecht
What was life for me? The winter 1940/41 there was not much to do for me, other than helping my grandfather gather and cut wood, help around the house, read, study a bit and play games with the family. It was at times not very easy to get along with each other because of the close conditions, the nervousness and the continuous new laws against the Jews. Furthermore the war was not going in favour of the Allies, which was very depressing. My grandfather was very pessimistic, but the Dutch population kept up its high spirits and faith in the allied victory. The standard expression was: A dime (Germany) can never win from a quarter (the Allies).
In the summer of 1941 Walter and I enrolled in a trade school in Harderwijk, a town twelve kilometers from Nunspeet. We had to ride by bicycle to and from Harderwijk every day, about one hours ride, depending on the weather conditions. The road between the two villages ran for part of the way next to "Het Ijselmeer" formerly called the Zuiderzee. Our attendance at school regretfully did not last very long. A new German decree forbade attendance of Jews at public schools.
We almost immediately found jobs. I started to work as an apprentice blacksmith in a smithy owned by Mr. Slingerland and his two sons, located at Smeepoorterbrink in Harderwijk. Considering that the town was, and still is, a garrison town, it is no wonder that the smithy dates back to the 17th century. It was a tough job. I worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a half hour for lunch. I rode 12 kilometers to and from the village we lived in. However I learned a lot about blacksmithing, horse shoeing, bench fitting, welding, etc. As it turned out later, this training saved my life. I can not remember exactly how long this job lasted. At first, all Jews had to hand in their bicycles; however we were still able to go by train. Then came the edict that Jews were no longer permitted to use public transportation, which meant the end of the job. However, immediately after, I started to work for a blacksmith in Nunspeet, called Willem van Slooten and his two sons, Lambert and Willem Jr. They were beautiful people who were strictly religious Orthodox Reformed. (A very strict Protestant denomination).They were a pleasure to work for! I learned even more about that type of work. The end came in April 1943. In the times described before, life became increasingly difficult, with rationing of all food items, etc. To make matters worse, Germany was winning on all fronts, which was not conducive to optimism and/or to high spirits, hopes and belief in a better future. However my grandparents took it relatively well, caring for their two grandchildren and Lene. On or about this time, in the beginning of 1943, Lene disappeared from the scene and went into hiding. That was called onderduiken. (Literally to dive under water)
The people of the village and the surrounding farmers were most helpful and wonderful in their ways of helping us, by selling us extra food, such as eggs, milk, bread, flour, meat, etc. My grandfather worked and helped the local butcher, which also gave us extra food. All in all, we did not go hungry. At this point I could go on and on and talk about the virtues of my grandparents, and especially my grandfather. One can not imagine, not even in ones wildest dreams, what kind of big hearted people they were. Charitable, kind, friendly and ready to help any unfortunate individual! I will not go further. They will never be forgotten by Walter and me.
Life in the village was a continuous struggle. Everyone was pre-occupied with staying out of the Germans way, since most people were involved, one way or the other, minor and major, in the local resistance movement or helping "Onderduikers." Providing for ones family and in many cases "Onderduikers" in ones care was a major task for many. Unfortunately, people were caught, sent to concentration camps and some were shot as hostages.
In April 1943 a new decree from the German occupation forces, led by S.S. Oberscharfuehrer Seyss Inquart, was issued. All Jews living outside Amsterdam or The Hague, (I am not sure about Rotterdam) had to report, "providing for their own transportation" to either camp Westerbork or camp Vught. It was a simple as that.
The general impression given, and sadly believed by most Jews, including my grandparents, was that this was the preliminary to being sent to German labour camps to work in the war industry. Nobody, it seems, ever gave it a thought as to why old and sick people had to report the same way as the young and healthy. My grandparents decided to follow orders, rather than go into hiding. And we had plenty of places to hide. Many gentile friends offered to hide us all together or separately. How naive they were!
My grandfather felt, however, that this war was going to last at least another few years and he could not see himself being cooped up in a barn or attic, doing nothing for years to come. Our love for our grandparents made us decide to stick with them rather than go into hiding and letting them go alone to Westerbork.
So, one fine sunny April morning, I forget the exact date, we simply said a very emotional good-bye to our neighbours and friends and went to the train station. A number of people came to the station to say a tearful good-bye, bringing some food, prayers and good wishes. And so we boarded the train with our rucksacks (all we were allowed to take) and started our trip into the unknown, with destination Assen. The train ride itself was uneventful and within a few hours we arrived in Assen. As it turned out things were very well organized. A truck with a Jewish driver was waiting at the station. He helped us into the truck, and we were on our way to Westerbork, where we arrived in twenty minutes.
A simple description of the camp is as follows, including background and conception. In the middle to late 1930s the Dutch government took in more German Jewish refugees than their sagging economy could afford. Unemployment was very high in those days. Nevertheless, the government took in the refugees on humanitarian grounds; however it could not afford to absorb them into the labour market. Consequently they were put in camps where they were very properly cared for at government expense. One of the camps chosen was Westerbork. It is a rather desolate area, with a small population in the middle of the heather. The people were housed in wooden, winterized barracks, subdivided into small "homes," usually consisting of one or two small bedrooms, kitchen and a small living room. It was nothing special, but more than adequate and a hell of a lot better than living in Germany under the Nazis. I do not recall the exact number of these people who later, under German rule were called "Alte Kamp Einsasser" (Old camp inhabitants). But to continue, these unfortunate people met disaster for the second time, with the occupation of Holland.
The Germans immediately took over the camp, and put certain refugees in charge for the following tasks.
1. Enlarging the camp.
2. Building additional barracks.
3. Constructing a building which in the end turned out to be a building that could accommodate up to 1000 people on arrival for registration and processing. (Similar to the Ellis Island principle)
4. Building new barbed wire fences and watch towers.
5. Building a railroad line connecting Westerbork with main line Assen.
6. Constructing a large central kitchen.
7. Building workshops for the maintenance of the camp.
8. Building a crematorium.
9. Building a central boiler room to supply steam to the camp.
10. Building a building to be used as a theatre/concert hall!!!!!!!
These German Jews, unsuspecting of what the final solution would be, worked under the strict supervision of a token S.S. force of not more than six men, to accomplish what I described above. Guarding the camp were Dutch Federal Police (Marechaussee). By 1942 almost everything was ready to receive the first transport of Jewish people, arrested either individually, or in so-called "Razzias" (mass arrests).
In Amsterdam they opened a few drawbridges over a canal, and then conducted house to house searches for Jews. No one could escape, since the only escape route, the bridge, was blocked. Besides that, the Germans had a list of all Jews, names and addresses and telephone numbers through the "courtesy" of the Nederlandse Israelitische Hoofd Synagogue (Council of Dutch Jewish synagogues) All Jews belonging to the mainstream (orthodox) synagogues were listed at a central office. What it really means is that this Central Office of the Dutch Jewry never thought to destroy these records. Consequently the Germans found a ready made list of all Jews in Holland, with all pertinent information. For instance, what the Germans just loved, the cardex cards that showed the assessment of every Jew, based on 2% of the individuals estimated income. This gave the Germans a perfect opportunity to go after the rich first and confiscate their assets. I see that I deviated a little, but I think it gives a bit of inside information.
Back to Westerbork! The foregoing described how the Jews were gathered and then sent to Westerbork, which in the German books was listed as a "Durchgangslager" (transit camp). As we arrived in Westerbork in the middle of the day, we were duly registered, stripped of all "valuables" including money, and given a Lagerkarte (identity card) and assigned to one of the large barracks. This type of barracks was divided in two. One half housed males only, the other females. Each barrack had a barrack leader and an assistant to keep proper order and look after food distribution and hygiene. The leader assigned a bed to each of us and so camp life started. The first thing everyone tried to do was to get a so-called "Stempel" (stamp). A stamp on our identity cards, bearing the letter "Z", meaning "Zurueckgestellt" (held back). This actually meant that we could be temporarily held back from transport (deportation). These stamps came in green, blue or red. Even if one had one of these stamps they could be cancelled at a moments notice and one could find oneself in a freight train on the way to Poland.
To make a long story short, it took a few days before my grandparents got their blue "Z" stamp, based on the fact that my grandfather had fought in the First World War, on the German side, and got a "Verwundeter Abzeichen" (a medal for having been wounded in action). This kept them temporarily from being deported to Poland. However, they were advised that they would be sent to a so-called "Bevorzugten Lager" (preferential camp), namely Theresienstadt (Terezin) in Czeckoslovakia. Walter and I got a red "Z" stamp a few weeks later. This entitled us to move into one of the smaller barracks, with only eight people in a large room, with better bathroom facilities and a kitchen. I shall come back to this later.
In the meantime camp life went on. My grandparents were too old to be put to work. Doing nothing was hard on them and the misery around us did not do anything to keep our spirits up. Walter was put to work in the garage and I in the machine/maintenance shop. I started as a benchfitter and helper to other maintenance mechanics, doing repair work in the central boiler room, crematorium, kitchen, barracks, etc. On the weekends we were usually put to work to make lanterns out of old tins. These could hold a candle, that were hung in the freight/cattle cars, which came in on Fridays or Saturdays. This was the train that would leave every Tuesday morning at exactly eleven a.m., destination unknown!! After the war we found out that those destinations were either Sobibor or Auschwitz.
The weekends, when transports were to leave were charged with emotions and the scenes of people pleading not to be sent away. The callousness shown by the Germans and unfortunately also by some of our own brethren is beyond description. In order to understand that last remark, let me elaborate for a moment. The entire camp was run by our own people, from boiler room to kitchen, to crematorium, camp police, administration, etc. Usually there were only three or four Germans in charge. In my time, until the end of the war, the commander was SS Obersturmfuehrer Gemmeke. He received his orders from the Gestapo in Amsterdam and relayed these orders to the Jewish administrators, who then had to make up the weekly transport lists of 2000 to 2800 names. The orders were promptly filled and under the supervision of our own camp guards and the help of the "Fliegende Kolonne" (a large group of young people that usually worked outside the camp to help local farmers). The train was loaded and promptly left at 11 a.m.
Until the train had left, everyone else was confined to their barracks. After the departure, camp life took on some kind of normalcy, including a variety show the very same evening! (Klein Kunst Cabaret.) This reminds me of the following. My aunt and uncle, who in the meantime had moved from Utrecht to Amsterdam, on German orders, sent us a minimum of one, most of the time, two food parcels per week. Food in the camp was very basic. We had potatoes, little meat, cabbage, turnips, etc. It was not the most nourishing food or tasty, but enough to sustain you, without going hungry. Besides receiving parcels from Pitty, we also received a weekly parcel from the van Slotens in Nunspeet. These were the people in the blacksmith shop I had worked for. I could write a book about this family and their virtues, but it is hardly appropriate in the context of this narrative. Besides parcels, we soon made friends with some people who worked in the kitchen, who whenever possible supplied us with some milk, porridge, extra potatoes, etc. Why did I elaborate on food? Very simple. One day I received a letter from Pitty, asking me to go and see a certain family by the name of Kaufman and share some of our food with them. One evening I went there, brought some food, and we became friendly. They turned out to be a very nice couple with two children. He was a barrack leader and really did not need any extra food. She was an invalid, having troubles with her legs.
The reason that I am telling this story is that the very first time I met them there was another visitor, a young, blond, blue eyed girl. She struck me as rather nice. Consequently I asked her if she would "go out" with me one evening to the cabaret show which I described before. My recollection is that we hit it off very nicely from the outset. We saw each other quite regularly, but the friendship came to an abrupt end around January 1944, when she and her family were deported to Bergen Belsen. If by now you have not guessed it the girl was Ilse van Collem, my present day wife. To see someone go, meant very little at the time. It was routine. It may sound callous, but seeing so many people go, some of them good friends, others acquaintances of a few weeks or just a day, became something one got used to.
Camp life went on, with its weekly transports, cabaret shows and work in the machine shop. Remember, I was seventeen years old. At work during the day, you could temporarily forget what was going on around you. In the barrack that Walter and I lived in, there was a man with his son by the name of Akkerman from the city of Leeuwarden. The wife lived in another barrack, but came by every day and more or less adopted Walter and me. She took care of mending, darning and also cooking of whatever we scrounged, or received in parcels. I was able to get potatoes on a regular basis. Mrs. Akkerman prepared them and I cooked them on the smithy fire shortly before quitting time. Then the five of us ate together. This way we rarely went hungry. This routine came to an end in February 1944.
The order came that all the children of parents who were in Theresienstadt would be sent there for a so called "reunion." Walter and I were considered "children" since we were listed as under the guardianship of our grandparents. Within a few days all arrangement were made. To further the illusion that we were going to a "Bevorzugten Lager" (preferential camp), namely Theresienstadt, a normal passenger train was used to transport us. All cars were of course third class, meaning wooden benches, but at least we were not crowded and we had toilet facilities. In our compartment were mother and daughter Rena Rosenberger and daughter Margot. Both survived and live in Toronto. Occasionally we still have contact. Again I must say that the departure was a traumatic and very emotional occurrence. We had to say good-bye to many friends we had made in the past nine months, to break up a routine we had gotten used to, and last but not least to face an unknown future, and what was waiting for us in distant Czechoslovakia. Westerbork had almost become like "home." As the Dutch saying goes: "You can get used to hanging if you do it long enough."
Now back to the train trip. Anticipation, trepidation, fear and anxiety, all were there, once we were on board and the train started moving slowly out of the camp. We did not have time to properly write to people, especially the van Slootens in Nunspeet. Consequently we threw a postcard out of the train. We found out after the war that the card had reached them. Unbelievable. Thinking about what was lying ahead and talking to fellow passengers, it came as quite a shock when I all of a sudden realized, while passing through the province of Groningen, that we must be on the way to Leer. With my luck the train slowed down. Walter and I had time to look, absorb and recognize familiar landmarks. Needless to say that this was very emotional. Then for some mysterious reason, we came to Hamburg, and were promptly caught in an air raid. However, it hit the city but not us. We started heading south in an uneventful, one could almost say beautiful as far a nature was concerned, ride.
I, by the way had one eye taped up. The day before we left I had two enamel and one iron splinter removed from my eye as a result of welding a pot, and looking too soon for holes left in the pot. After a three day ride we arrived in Theresienstadt. The landscape of the last ninety kilometers was very beautiful, but then came the shock of arrival in camp. Again, first impression, everything was handled by our fellow Jews, with very little supervision. As soon as we left the train that stopped in the middle of the city/camp, we were gathered in a square, which was surrounded on four sides by four story buildings. Assembled in the square we were addressed by a German SS man and after that by several Jews including Jo Spier, a world famous Dutch cartoonist, with whose son Peter, I later became good friends. Basically we were told that we had to go through the "Schleuss." Literally a sluice, but the meaning really was that we had to hand in anything of value or otherwise punishment would follow. So we went through it, got another identity card (Ghetto Ausweis) and then we were assigned a certain room in the Hamburger Kaserne.
Theresienstadt, or Terezin, was originally built in the time of Maria Theresa. It was built as a garrison city, surrounded by very high walls on four sides. One could only enter through a few gates, I forget how many. The walls were about 100 to 125 feet wide and covered on top with approx. six feet of earth. After a few months a piece of this land (four by ten feet) was assigned to me and I had a chance to grow some vegetables. Underneath this earth, inside the wall, were storage spaces and/or workshops, etc. The slits (shooting openings) in many places in the wall were still open and not cemented closed. The city was built around a number of "Kasernes" (barracks) which were each four stories high, built around squares, which were used originally as drilling and parade grounds. The size of such a square was a little smaller than a soccer field. I remember that it was smaller, because we played "international" soccer competitions, with only nine men on each team. The balance of the city looked like any other city. There were houses, stores, some houses that must have been assigned to officers or other elite. The city even had a bandstand. The big "Kasernes" housed central kitchens to supply the ghetto with food. (Or so it was called!!) Again, all administration, police, etc. was completely in Jewish hands. Very seldom would one see a S.S. man within the camp. However there were a few streets, divided by a high fence, leading from outside the city to a large building inside the city. One could observe S.S. and civilians coming and going to this building, that housed the central Gestapo files. The ghetto had its own currency which could buy next to nothing. Here and there some used clothing! Some kimmel and other useless items! The one thing everyone needed was food, especially fruit and vegetables. None of this was to be had. The daily ration of food was bread, margarine and sugar which was handed out every three days. In the morning we got coffee (ersatz or substitute), at noon we got a warm meal of soup, water mostly, which was not worthwhile eating and I usually gave it away to older people who were begging for it. "Nimmt der Herr seine Suppe?" (Does the gentleman take his soup?) was the usual request. We also had potatoes and what the Czechs called Buchten, a piece of sweet bread with some sauce over it. But most of the time we were fed dumplings (Haefe Knoedel) with either some kind of filling and/or sauce over it. It would have been filling if one could have gotten more. The whole thing amounted to a diet of approximately 1200 to 1300 calories. Walter and I were among the more fortunate. We were assigned to work in the "Bauhof" (machine-maintenance shop).
I started working in the blacksmith shop doing repair work. To start with, it gave us 50% more in "warm meal" rations and furthermore it gave me the opportunity to get into the kitchens, butcher shop, bakery, etc. and scrounge extra food.
We also had to do maintenance in the central laundry which was outside the city. Our buggy (a two-wheel cart) had a double bottom which held a toolbox, which also had a double bottom. All was designed to hold two loaves of bread or four containers of a certain size. When outside the city, we were able to pick some fruit or vegetables and smuggle them in. As you can see, with these kinds of "arrangements" we did not starve. We maintained our body weight, strength and health.
As said before, after arrival in Theresienstadt we were assigned to a room in the Hamburger Kaserne on the third floor. It was a large room typical of army barracks and we were about thirty to the room, sleeping in double bunks (one above another), straw mattresses, with plenty of fleas and bed bugs. But somehow it was quite tolerable. As a camp, life was not too difficult. The Germans did not bother us too much, there was hardly any mention of deportation and working under supervision of fellow Jews did not really constitute hardship for us younger ones. However, all around us was the misery of the elderly people who could not help themselves to additional food, could not work to earn some extra rations and consequently starved to death. The dead were treated with the proper dignity, picked up by a special unit, cremated, and the urns containing the ashes put into what was called a Columbarium.
I must say that at the time that we were in Theresienstadt conditions had improved somewhat over the previous two years when starvation and disease had taken a tremendous toll. We also found out that a few hundred camp inhabitants had been sent to Lidice to dig mass graves for the residents of that town, who had all been executed. This mass murder was committed by the Germans in retaliation of the shooting of an extremely cruel, high-ranking S.S. officer by the name of Heydrich. After this task was done, our people were subsequently sent to Auschwitz and gassed in order not to have witnesses of this deed.
Another episode that is worth mentioning, just to show how devious the Germans were, is the following. It was announced that there was going to be a "Verschoenerungs Aktion" (beautification program). The object was to clean up and paint certain parts of the city. This only meant the outside of some houses and barracks. We also had to clean up some "parks" and plant flowers. This was because a delegation of the International Red Cross was coming to inspect the ghetto. The Germans wanted to show the world how well they were treating the Jews. To that end Kurt Gerron, a very well known actor and producer was put in charge of this project, including some filming. On film he was to show how young boys and girls were going out of the ghetto in ox-drawn wagons, singing on their way to go to work in the fields. He had to arrange for a bandstand concert and a theater performance. In order to have an audience people were bribed to show up by giving them extra rations. For extra rations almost everyone was, figuratively speaking, ready to kill.
The Red Cross commission showed up at the appointed time, saw the whole staged show, did some filming of its own, but thank God were not fooled by it. They met with and spoke to our Danish Jewish brethren, the only Danes that had fallen into the hands of the Germans, who were deported. The 150 Danish Jews in Theresienstadt had special accommodations and were under the special supervision of the International Red Cross, receiving regular food parcels, etc. Why? Who knows? But all along one could find this kind of paradox in German behaviour and/or attitude.
What I should have described before, in order to follow a chronological sequence, I deliberately postponed until now. A few hours after our arrival in the Theresienstadt ghetto and subsequently in "our room" I saw someone waving frantically from the street. It took quite a while before I realized and recognized that the shriveled old man waving at me was my grandfather, Opa Lion. I cannot describe my emotions at that moment of recognition. Certainly shock! Of course I expected him and Oma to be in Theresienstadt, but who would have expected to see a man become a "skeleton" in such a short time? (April Ô43-February Ô44) After a few hours we were allowed to get out of the barracks and my grandfather came to see us. It was heartbreaking moment of hugging and kissing, and needless to say, plenty of tears. We went immediately to see my grandmother and the same scene was repeated. This stately, tall erect woman of sixty-eight years of age had become, like my grandfather, shrunk and shriveled and reduced to next to nothing in weight. However, they somehow seemed to be in relatively good health and spirits and had remarkably adjusted to the existing conditions. Each was housed in a room with approx. ten others in a house that held five such rooms. It was very crowded, but at least they had a kitchen and a bathroom. Men and women were separated.
My grandfather remained an optimist, in spite of what was happening around him, and so always brought up the subject: "When we get back to Holland...." He had definite and fixed ideas as to what he was going to do once he got back to Holland. Having lost most of his possessions during World War I, during the inflation in 1923, and again in 1933 and last but not least everything in 1940, he continuously talked about "back in Holland." No more big city, but back to the small town of Nunspeet, to take over the butcher store of Jan Small, so that Small could devote his full attention to his farm! What a remarkable man! One could hardly find a better human being. He was full of compassion, always concerned about others, especially the family. The same can be said about my grandmother, who was not the outgoing type, quite reserved and quiet, but a woman full of love.
I was told by my grandparents that a sister of my father, my aunt Jula Mueller was in Theresienstadt and that my uncle, Julius Mueller had died there. I met Jula, who had overcome major surgery and had one lung removed. However she was quite well and worked as a nurse in one of the improvised hospitals. I never found out whether she was deported from Theresienstadt or if she died there. I found out after the war, from a girlfriend, Edith Cohen, whom I had asked to stay in touch with my grandparents, that they were deported to Auschwitz with the very last transport ever to leave Theresienstadt. My grandfather was over seventy years old, volunteered to go with my grandmother who was not seventy yet and was on the deportation list. From reliable sources I found out that this was the last transport ever to reach Auschwitz. After this transport was gassed and cremated, the Germans blew up these "facilities."
Shortly after Yom Kippur, September 1944, the rumours we had heard for a long time came true. Transports to "working"camps were to be continued. With our luck, Walter and I together with a whole lot of our friends, were selected for the first transport. The same emotions as in Westerbork were repeated. We were however a bit more optimistic, having heard about the Allied invasion and the progress the Russians had made in the East. On the other hand we were of course very apprehensive and started the journey with trepidation and strong sense of foreboding. Somehow our gut feelings were that we were heading for trouble. We had heard a lot of rumours about the so-called labour camps in Poland. So here we left on or about the 28th of September 1944.
We were told that our destination was a place near Berlin and at first we believed it. We were loaded into freight and cattle cars with about 60 people per car, which gave enough room for everyone to sit down and to take turns to lie down. Looking back I can truly say that I experienced the whole three day trip in a daze and that reality did not register. As we left Theresienstadt and the train headed north everyone became optimistic, thinking that maybe the Germans had told us the truth. Being in a camp in Germany was equated with "It cannot be as bad as a camp in Poland." However the same day by sundown we realized that the train started heading east. We could tell by the sun and we had enough people in our car who knew their geography well enough to recognize the names of the towns and cities that we passed. As the night progressed and daylight came we noticed that we were still heading east. Our mood became very gloomy as we realized we were heading for Auschwitz. Thank God, no one knew what Auschwitz really meant. All we knew was that we sensed and anticipated trouble. What kind of trouble we luckily did not know. I seem to have a complete mental block as far as remembering how we traveled, how we urinated, into what and where. Vaguely I remember that if two people would stand up, the third could lie down. We took turns to get some sleep.
On the third day, late at night we pulled into Auschwitz/Birkenau. As the train pulled into the camp, all we could see were compounds consisting of countless barracks, surrounded by high poles with electrified barbed wire. The whole thing was lit-up like daylight. And of course, there were watchtowers with SS guards with machine guns. The moment the train stopped a whole commotion started. Yelling and screaming came from the "Platform" from the various SS men, but most of the yelling cam from the "Canada Commando." Where the name Canada came from I never found out. Commandos were prisoners, mostly Jewish, who were assigned to receive incoming transports. Their duty was to yell and scream, scare the new arrivals into submission and make them understand that they had to leave every piece of luggage in the freight cars. One was not allowed to keep anything but the clothes one wore. Then we were herded, with beatings, into lines, one behind the other. There at the head of this "line-up" stood a SS officer, fully dressed, with hat and high shaft boots. Over this he wore a white coat, like a doctors coat. He nonchalantly had one or more fingers hooked into his front coat, leaving him enough movement of his hand to point with his thumb either to the left or to the right of him.
As we slowly moved forward, I heard one of the Canada Commando prisoners speak Dutch to someone. I asked him what the terrible smell was and the fire coming out of the chimneys to the right of us. His answer was that it was a brick making factory, where they baked the clay bricks. Bless this man for not having told the truth, which at that moment would have been devastating! In front of me in the line-up was my friend Bernhard Frenkel. In front of him was his father. We were instructed that when we came to this SS officer we should give our age and our profession. I can still hear Mr. Frenkel mention his age (in his fifties) and his profession "Kaufmann" (Businessman). The poor man was only about 1.58 meter tall at the most and was sent to the right side. Bernhard gave his age of eighteen, "Autoschlosser" (car mechanic) and was sent to the left. Then my turn came and I stated twenty years. (Instinct made me say that I was older than my true age of eighteen. Schlosser und Schweisser (fitter and welder) and I was sent to the left. My brother Walter who was at least fifteen centimeters taller than I, and very ruggedly built, did not even have to open his mouth, but was sent immediately to the left. As we found out later, this SS.officer was the infamous Joseph Mengele who picked the physically fit ones to be put to work in various other camps.
Once we were "selected" to go to the left, we were herded together into rows of five. Under heavy SS guard we were marched to a huge barrack that was, if my memory serves me well, called the Sauna barrack. Once inside we were ordered to strip and throw our clothing onto a big pile in the center of this large room. Our belts or suspenders and shoes were the only items we were allowed to keep. On the way to this huge barrack some of the SS men tried to be "nice" by asking us to give them any money, gold, silver and especially diamonds. At the same time they threatened that if we tried to hide anything we would be found out and the consequences would be grave. No wonder they asked for diamonds. We soon found out that the transports from Hungary, some of them with 5000 people, packed like sardines, had arrived in cattle cars more dead than alive. Many died standing. However it became common knowledge that many of them carried diamonds with them.
In this huge barrack, we were made to stand naked, roughly 1100 of us. Shortly after our arrival in this barrack I had an opportunity to speak to an "inmate" who told me in a "no holds barred" manner that we were in the Zigeuner (Gypsy) Lager of Birkenau. Furthermore he nonchalantly explained the truth about the smoke and fire belching chimneys. Right at that moment another inmate (Haeftling) started to write on a blackboard on the wall the following: Number of the Theresienstadt transport. Number of people in the transport. (About 2500) Arrived in the Zigeuner lager 1150 (number close to accuracy). When I asked the inmate what the meaning of this writing on the blackboard was, he answered in the same matter of fact way: "Die andere 1350 gehen durch die Kamine" (The other 1350 are going up the chimney). He explained in detail the procedure of Zyclon gassing and consequent cremation. I do not remember what exactly my reaction was at that precise moment. Convulsed with horror, or struck with numbness? I just followed the throng, waiting for my turn to be shaven, disinfected and clothed. "Clothed" turned out to be a Haeftlinganzug (prisoner suit) of blue and white striped thin material, underwear made of a .... Tallith. (prayer shawl) and an old shirt and socks. I was lucky with my underwear, because it was wool and warm. All body hair and head were shaved, which for me was a terrible shock. All my beautiful wavy hair gone in a matter of seconds!! Once shaven, disinfected and clothed we had to go outside and wait for approx. 100 people. We were no longer persons according to the SS thugs that guarded us, but just plain prisoners. Part of our good spirits came temporarily back to us as we couldnt help but laugh when we looked at each other. Just picture all kinds of people and sizes, shaven bald, and in very ill fitting clothing. Enough to make anyone giggle even under these horrible circumstances and with the constant smell of the crematoria in ones nostrils!
Once the required number of prisoners were assembled we were marched into another barrack of the Zigeunerlager. It was by now mid-morning. The barrack leader, a Kapo, (Kamp-Polizei) (overseer) a German gentile with a green triangle on his jacket, indicating that he was a Schwerverbrecher (hardened criminal, such as a murderer etc.) grasped the opportunity to have some "fun" by picking out a few of our people and make them leap like a frog. In K.Z. (concentration camp) jargon this was called "Huepfen." If one is not an accomplished athlete, this type of exercise is exhausting and very painful. Needless to say that after a few minutes people just collapsed. But by beating them they were made to go on until they were unconscious. We were herded outside again to stand and freeze. For this time of the year it was exceptionally cold. Then we were put back into the barracks, which by the way, were originally Polish cavalry horse stables. Then we were taught how to sleep in this type of surrounding. One man had to sit down, lean against the wall, and spread out his legs in order to accommodate the next man. He would sit between the legs of the first, spread his legs and so on till eight men were sitting in this position. Strangely enough, I was able to sleep this way. The rest of the day was spent outside again till nightfall.
What about food? I estimate there were approx. 300 people in one barrack. At noon time a big barrel of "soup" was brought in with a dozen or so enamel bowls. A dozen bowls had to suffice for all those people. No wonder that the "organization"called for a few men (Polish) to go around and ask for "Miski Wolne" (wrong spelling) which means empty bowls. To aggravate the situation, no cutlery or spoons were available. The next day I was lucky to find a scrap of wood and a piece of glass. With this I was able to fashion a crude spoon. With hindsight I ask myself for what? The soup was more water than anything else. We also heard that the local name for the soup was "Ruderboot Suppe," because one needed a rowboat to get from one piece of turnip to the next, so few pieces were in there! The balance of our "diet"was 1/8th of a loaf of bread per day per person. I estimate this at 250 gram. Most people just ate their bread immediately. I was able to discipline myself to save a little piece till evening. It did make quite a difference as far as the continuous nagging feeling of hunger was concerned.
The daily routine was as follows. We were rudely awaked about 6 a.m. and again driven outside to stand for hours in the freezing cold, only to wait to be counted. This was called Appell (roll call) but without names. After this count we were marched to some site to carry stones and bricks from one place to another, and when the supply was exhausted the process was reversed and we had to carry them back to the original place. I suppose the object of this exercise was to break our spirit. In the meantime transports were coming in from Theresienstadt and, on a daily basis, huge transports from Hungary. It was pathetic to see these transports arrive. As I wrote before, they arrived with more dead than living. A few trains with children only arrived in the ten or twelve days that I was in Birkenau.
During our "working days" we were interrupted six times. The interruption meant lining up naked outside the barrack in rows of five. Then Joseph Mengele came to look for so-called "Muselmaenner." A Muselmann was described as a person with little or no flesh on his body. Most of our people were still in relative good health and shape, but because some, especially dark haired people, looked shabby because they were unshaven, they were "selected" and sent to their death. It actually is amazing how people took it and almost willingly and resigned went to their death. I suppose that most people had just given up and went to their "destination." Our small group of twelve friends, mostly my age, never gave up or lost our will to live or lost our sense of trying to make the best of it. We actually sometimes sang silly songs to while away the time and to make us forget our misery for a little while. While these selections were going on (to fill in for a lack of transport the crematoria had to be kept working!) we had to go through another type of selections. We were not housed in a permanent barrack, but in a temporary one. In other words, we had no fixed bunk or space to call our own. The second type of selection was the following: commanders of surrounding camps came to look for fit people to be transferred to their camps to work themselves to death!
One day some SS thug came to look for welders. As he announced what he was looking for and what he expected he let it be known in no uncertain terms that he was known as "Der Schrecken von Gleiwitz." (The terror of Gleiwitz) One of my friends, in spite of my urging not to, went ahead and volunteered. His name was Guenther Gruenebaum. We had become friends in Westerbork and I had taught him how to weld. Unfortunately the Schrecken von Gleiwitz was his death. My friends and I did not care for this thugs approach, whipping people in the face with his riding whip, and decided to keep quiet and to take a chance, which paid off. The very next day, another Sturmbandfuehrer or Untersturmbandfuehrer came and announced that he was looking for welders. All eleven of us volunteered. He immediately established the fact that most of us were not welders, but with a smile he accepted this fact. The man somehow had made a good impression, in spite of his position, because he was calm, spoke with a soft voice and did not give the impression of being a sadist like the previous camp commander. To make a long story short, he picked about 250 of us, most of us Dutch, the balance were Czechoslovakians from our transport.
It was at this point that we were all tattooed with numbers on our left forearms. The numbers followed our alphabetical names. Some of our friends changed their names to Wolfe, etc. in order to get numbers close to mine. We thought at the time, erroneously, that this might have a bearing as far as staying together was concerned. A Dr. Zeldenrust from The Hague got number B 12805, my number is B 12806 and Walter, my brother has B 12807. We were then given a bit better clothing, herded into trucks, and were on our way to Gleiwitz 3. Gleiwitz is an industrial city, which at that time was just west of the German Polish border, and approx. fifty kilometers west of Auschwitz, and this was considered a sub-camp to Auschwitz. All supplies, food etc, were shipped from Auschwitz.
When we arrived there we found the following: Two huge factories, partially surrounded by barbed wire, and two large very well built barracks. The first one was full of Polish Jewish prisoners, and there were another 100 of them in the second barrack. On our arrival we were made to stand at attention, taught how to obey the command Muetzen ab!! Muetzen auf!! (caps off, caps on), and listen to a speech by a SS man. He asked us what nationality we were. When one of us said that we were from Holland, he replied with a loud laugh: "Hollaender?? Ach, aber die Hollaender die sterben ja wie die Fliegen." (Dutch?? Oh, well Dutchmen, they drop dead like flies). Some welcome!! As it turned out the mans bark was worse than his bite. He turned out to be relatively moderate, who never mistreated anyone, just yelled a lot. The same was true of the camp commander. After his speech we were assigned to our barrack and each of us was given a bunk. Three bunks, on top of each other. Now we were under the "supervision" of a Kapo, who was a German gentile, with a green triangle indicating "hardened criminal status." I forgot his name. He limped and was a homosexual, who sexually abused some of our men, but gave them some extra food afterwards. He was never without his Heini. This was what he called his cane. He used it very liberally, especially when the beds were not made up to standard. "Betten bauen" (making beds) in all camps, was a preoccupation. They were fanatic about the uniformity and looks of the made-up bunks. If your straw mattress was not fluffed up enough and covered after with a horse blanket to make a perfect flat surface without a dent, you could fetch quite a few well placed strokes from Kapo's Heini, or worse still, be condemned to do time Huepfen, (jumping like frogs).
Wake-up time was 5 a.m. Cold as it was in mid October, we were chased out of the barrack to thaw out the water taps (if they were frozen) and "wash," of course without soap. Furthermore we had to put our upper body under the running tap as part of the washing process. In the beginning some of us caught colds and/or pneumonia and, as a result, died. The stronger ones became hardened through this process. Breakfast consisted of an eighth of a loaf of bread, some margarine and Ersatz (imitation) coffee. But what an improvement over Auschwitz! A warm barrack, a table and benches to sit down to eat and the food was a little more substantial; meaning more bread, soup that had potatoes and even a little meat in it! It certainly was by no means enough to survive, but one could last a few months. Having heard that things did not go well for the Germans made us optimistic and very hopeful.
The camp was new. The first few weeks we were sent out of the camp to dig holes for cement poles that were going to hold barbed wire surrounding camp number two. The two camps were nothing but two large factories that were laid idle because the workers had been sent to the various fronts. We were to reactivate both plants. The first camp, which contained our living barracks, had an ammunition factory that made grenades, bombs, etc. A number of our people were put to work there, but did not have the necessary skills to reactivate the factory. This would have required skilled machinists. I, and all my friends were put to work in plant number two. This had certain advantages. Factory "number one" was not heated; number two was. The Factory had two sections. The first one was set up for the production of sea mines, a large round steel ball with tentacles. The second section was set up for the manufacture of "Staffetten." This is the tail of an artillery piece. To start with we had to organize things, which took about one month.
By the end of November 1944 we finally got into some kind of "slow" production. My job was to weld two half balls together to form a whole one. Over the joint was put another band which had to be welded on both sides. Considering that the diameter of this ball (mine) was approx. 90 to 120 cm., welding was a lengthy process. Then a number of fittings had to be welded to hold the tentacles. Once all this was done, everything was sealed, air pressure applied and the mine was then immersed in water for leaks. Since the whole process was done under very close scrutiny and guidance of German civilian experts, sabotage was impossible.
These civilians usually behaved in a very correct manner. But it was very easy to be fooled. One of them, for instance, was reasonably "friendly," and on some occasions even gave me a piece of his sandwich. However he did not hesitate to report to the Kapo, thank God not to the SS, that I had complained to him about the food, the crowded conditions, the lack of soap, and the lack of regular showers with soap. I promptly was beaten and had a tooth knocked out. It hurt for a little while, but my pride was hurt much more, and on top of it, I could not say anything to the bastard who had reported me. We kept working and slowly producing, but we never reached the "magic" number of 100 that would have meant the first shipment. It is of no use describing camp life, because it was no life. The routine was to get up, wash, eat, Appell, to be counted, living in fear that your name might be called for not having made your bed properly, go to work, come back, eat your soup, smoke a cigarette, if you had found a few butts that a civilian or an SS man had thrown away, talk a little while and go to sleep. Every day was the same.
Then on or about January 15th, a snowy winter day, we were rudely awakened and sent out for a long time onto the "Appellplatz" to be counted. However, we were not dismissed but ordered to remain. Somehow we knew that something very unusual was in the air, but we had no inkling as to what was happening. We soon found out. We were told that the Russians had launched an offensive and we were to be "evacuated." This turned out to be a synonym for the Death March. We were handed a blanket and a loaf of bread and a few hours later started marching through the snow in what turned out to be a South West direction.
I shall refrain from describing this march because it would be too painful to go into details. Let it suffice to say that not everyone survived, without proper clothing or footwear, and nothing to drink, but the melted snow in your mouth. Eventually after about three days we crossed a bridge over the Oder or Oder-Gleiwitz Canal. As we crossed, a military dispatch rider came and gave a message to our Commander, who after reading it gave the message to our guards. They in turn yelled out a loud "Hurray." It turned out the message was that the Russian offensive had been halted. (Zurueckgeschlagen) and we were to change direction and march a northern course.
Remember we were on the west side of the Oder. We "marched," or to use a more appropriate term, dragged ourselves for four to five hours in the same northerly direction alongside the river till we came to another bridge which we crossed, this time back to the eastern side of the river. After a few more hours we reached another concentration camp, called Blechhammer, which was under the direct control of Auschwitz. Before we came to this camp we passed a huge complex of factories and hundreds and hundreds of barracks in sight of the highway we were on. As we later found out this complex of factories were the I.G.Farben Hydrier Werke, that manufactured synthetic gasoline from coal. Remember this is Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien), a district rich in coal, quite comparable with the Ruhr district. The barracks we saw had housed till a few days previously thousands and thousands of prisoners of war. American, British, Canadian, French, Russian, etc. etc. as well as prisoners and civilians from occupied countries, who had been sent there as forced labour. Almost all of these people were forced to work in the I.G.Farben complex. As we were marched into the camp, we were assigned to a barrack, which turned out to be at the end of the camp. Very important to this tale. This camp was surrounded not by the usual barbed wire, but by a cement wall. We immediately looked for water and found plenty. Once we had a drink, food no longer seemed important. There was none anyway. We just fell on the bunk beds and went out like a light. When we woke up the next morning we were pleasantly surprised by the fact that there was no guard and/or SS in sight. Putting two and two together we thought that we were free. We concluded this from what was happening. We thought that we were in no-mans land because we heard artillery shells flying over us in both easterly and westerly direction. It gave us the impression that the Russians were near or approaching. We were too exhausted really to do anything but look for food which we found. Later that day we tried to go outside the camp even though grenades were exploding in the surroundings. It did not bother us. In our minds exploding grenades did not distinguish between Jews and others. Besides we were convinced we would survive. This by the way was a thought that never left me, from the day we reported to Camp Westerbork. After the war I discussed this with a psychiatrist who assured me that this was the most normal way to think. As he said: bad things only happen to other people. As we ventured outside the camp, maybe about two kilometers, a truck approached, loaded with still bleeding corpses, with SS men standing on top of them, yelling at us to get back into the camp. Pointing to the corpses they yelled "Auf der Flucht erschossen" (shot while trying to escape). Since we really were not quite able to think for ourselves we went back to our barrack, to the relative safety of two cement walls to protect us against exploding grenades and artillery shells. My brother became restless again and went once more in search of food. Shortly after he left all hell broke loose. Machine gun fire, exploding grenades, yelling and crying. The world had gone crazy. We immediately crawled under our bunk beds, not knowing what was going on. It turned out that a Vernichtungskommando (destruction detail) had moved into the camp, had taken up strategic positions and were throwing hand grenades and firing automatic weapons into the barracks and at anyone trying to escape the burning barracks. I got very nervous not knowing where my brother was and one of my best friends, Bernhard Frenkel, volunteered to go with me to look for Walter. We left the barrack and made it outside as far as the end of the building. As we carefully looked around the corner a sudden burst of automatic weapon fire hit a couple of inmates right in front of our eyes. Being wounded meant death in this kind of weather and they just froze to death. What we saw was enough to make us go back, crawl under the beds and wait for things to come. After maybe an hour everything went quiet, except the overhead whistling of artillery shells.
We ventured out again and almost immediately I heard the familiar LION/ZILVERSMIT family whistle. I knew it was Walter and sure enough, there he came around the corner pulling a big pail. To our good fortune the pail was full of warm boiled potatoes. Needless to say what that meant. We divided this amongst all of us, our first substantial warm food in five days. And where had Walter been during all this shooting? He had been in the kitchen, and had hidden on top of the potatoes in one of the enormous cooking kettles. Our joy was enhanced by the fact that again the SS had left, this time for good, even though we did not know it at that moment. On the sad side, most of the inmates were killed in this last defiant gruesome act, and corpses were lying everywhere.
A little while later we dared again to go outside the camp, this time further. Bear in mind that all around this camp were forests. As we were walking through the forest, in a group of three, we all of a sudden were confronted and surrounded by rather weird and shabby looking soldiers dressed in sheepskin coats and pointing their rifles at us. An officer stepped forward and shouted questions at us which we could not understand. The only word that had a familiar ring to it was "documenta." We answered in all languages that we had no papers. The reply was more shouting. I pointed out to him, also in several languages, that we were prisoners, at the same time showing him the number on my arm. This seemed to make an impression, but not enough to convince him. He made us take off our jackets so he could check our armpits for a possible blood group tattoo. The SS had this kind of tattoo.
After he found no tattoo he said something in Russian of which we understood one word. Yivray (Hebrew). When we nodded yes, he asked in Yiddish: "Ihr seits Jieden?" We answered him in our best Yiddish/German that we were, whereupon he hugged and kissed us Russian style and kept repeating his advice to us: "Gehts gen Osten!!!" (Go east). We are too close to the front (it turned out to be only three kilometers); you get killed here. He apologized for not having any food for us and told us that he and his men were a scouting detail with the main force right behind him. After a few minutes we shook hands, said good-bye and they were gone. We immediately went back to the camp to tell our other friends what had happened to us and to urge them to leave the camp which we promptly did. We went back to the main highway, searched for and found a barrack in what used to be a P.O.W. camp for British soldiers. We settled in what had been the camp commanders quarters, found plenty of food, tea, coffee, canned goods, etc. You name it, it was there, in the cellar. On top of it we found a stable with about 50 pigs in it. One of our group, Ernst Cohen, a butcher, promptly proceeded to slaughter one of them and prepared the meat in such a way, that we could not overeat. In our physical condition, overeating the wrong rich foods would have been the death of us as we found out later. We decided to stay put for the time being, regardless of the advice of the Russian officer and the proximity of the front line. We were just too weak to start walking eastward. We spent our days doing nothing. Just resting, sleeping and eating small quantities of food.
Slowly, after a few weeks, we regained some strength and weight. In the meantime the Russian army marched by. Huge, long columns, plus an almost endless stream of small wagons, pulled by very small horses, passed by, pilfering and taking whatever they could find, including "our" pigs. It was almost dark when we heard automatic rifle fire and deafening shrill sounds coming from behind our barrack. It turned out that some Russians had found the pigs, started shooting them but not always killing them, just wounding them. "Uncle" Ernst Cohen (he was much older than we were) immediately took hold of the situation and asked for my knife. This knife, a switchblade, was given to me by the first Russian officer we had met. It is an ivory inlaid knife, still in my possession. (I had it checked and it is not a Russian knife, but a Sicilian fishermans one. He probably found/swiped it from an Italian prisoner.) Ernst took the knife and finished killing all pigs by slitting their throats in order to bleed them properly. The Russians appreciated our help and showered us with cigarettes.
On another day, some Russians came by and asked us to help them round up whatever living cattle we could find in the immediate surroundings. For three days we went from farm to farm, took every cow and bull from the farmers over their protests, herded them to the I.G.Farben complex and, after having cleared out all the offices, herded the cattle in there. We had hundreds of cattle and Ernst, with us as helpers, butchered and prepared at least five heads of cattle per day. The Russians really appreciated our help, because whatever we prepared was immediately shipped to the front. The filet mignons we kept for ourselves. After about four weeks, having regained more strength, we decided that it was time to go East. We prepared a handcart and packed our belongings and plenty of food.
I must interrupt here and go back to the day the Russians came. They had captured common Wehrmacht (army) soldiers as well as a number of SS men. The latter were left in the hands of our boys. I am proud to say that no Jew laid a hand on them, even though we had a million reasons to kill, maim or torture them, to have some kind of revenge. But German and East European ex-prisoners killed them in what only can be described as a most sadistic manner. And the only thing that we were guilty of is that we watched them and did not try to stop them. Who could blame anyone for wanting to take revenge for what had been done to us. The balance of the prisoners were simply marched into the forests and machine-gunned by the Russians. No use taking them, marching them eastward and feeding them. "Too much trouble" as one Russian officer explained to us.
Now back to my story. We walked a few hours and settled in an abandoned house in some village. Lots of homes were abandoned, because much of the population had fled westward in order not to fall into Russian hands. They knew that the Russians were out for revenge. Goebbels had done his job well in scaring the population. Just before we wanted to leave the next morning we were rounded up by Russian soldiers and told that we had to help them dig ditches because they expected a German counter offensive. Where we had been liberated it took the Russians weeks before they were able to cross the Oder, while further north others had crossed the Oder without problems and had surrounded Breslau and were on their way to Berlin.
So we went with them, walked for about one hour away from the village and started to dig. They fed us well and at night we slept in an abandoned farmhouse. After two days they let us go, saying that the danger was over. We came back to the village and the house we had stayed in, but to our dismay our buddy, Richard Wolf had disappeared even though all of our and his belongings were still there. We made inquiries and an old couple told us that he was dragged away by some Russian soldiers and put together with some German P.O.W.s, and that they were marching eastward.
We decided immediately to break up and leave and try to catch up with this group. They were a day ahead of us. We did not catch up with him till we came to Gleiwitz. At this point I better mention that we were dressed in British uniforms that we had found in the British P.O.W. barracks. Some of us even had pinned stars on our uniforms (Russian style) and posed as British and South African officers!!!!!! We went to the Russian headquarters where Marshal Zhukov saw us and spoke to us through an interpreter. He right away told some officer to accommodate us, and within minutes we were led to the basement where we found our friend amongst the German prisoners, alive and well. As a reward for looking after our friend the Russian soldier made one of the prisoners take off his warm winter coat and handed it to my brother. Furthermore he informed us that in the next city, Katowitz, gathering places were set up for all kinds of nationalities. The next day we went there and were housed in the office building of a dormant coal mine.
At this point I have to go back a few days and relate a few things of interest. To start with, one day during our travels we came to a town by the name of Birkenau (!) We stopped at the local school and asked for a nights shelter. We were told that there was no room, but that there was a convent in town that could shelter us. We went and were welcomed by a priest and a few nuns. We spent a pleasant evening with them. Unfortunately most of the conversation was about the number of priests that were killed by the Russians and the pilferage and raping that were the order of the day. After we had gone to sleep we were suddenly awakened by a drunk officer and his aide. He kept yelling "I want woman." He finally found the nuns, grabbed the mother superior and forced her into his car. Early in the morning she was returned by his aide and we heard the story of her experience. On the way to, and in Gleiwitz we witnessed several rapes, "in the street" mostly by Russian soldiers with Mongolian features. Also the morning we arrived the Russians had just blown up a hotel with over a hundred German girls in it. (B.D.M. Bund Deutscher Maedel) who had been raped during the night. I could go on describing other atrocities committed by the Russians, but that is not the object of this writing.
It happened, it was understandable, and frankly, to be honest, at the time we approved and enjoyed what the Russians were doing. All in the name of revenge.
Now back to Katowitz. We soon settled into a routine. The food was adequate. Everyday there was kasha soup with everything in it. Very nourishing and filling. There was little or nothing to do but eat, sleep, drink and go into the town and try to meet people. I became friendly with a Polish family, but we had very little in common. I also made friends with a Dutch Jewish girl. After a few dates, when I made advances, like every young man would do, she started to cry. Hardly a reaction to a "lovers" advances. After I had calmed her down and asked her what was bothering her she told me, in tears, that she had been in one of the "Experiment" barracks in Auschwitz where Mengele had experimented on her with X rays to her lower abdomen. She also received injections in the same area with chemicals unknown to her. The end result was that she could not muster any sexual feelings. Unfortunately I have forgotten what her name was and consequently lost contact with her.
Another noteworthy event was that we were now together with hundreds of Dutch gentiles (P.O.W.s, forced labourers and prisoners). Among them was a so-called Dutchman who spoke the dialect of Southern Holland, which is very similar to the German dialect of the district bordering the province of Limburg. Somehow people did not trust this man and told our appointed spokesman about him. We suspected him to be German. Our leader reported him to the Russian commander who was in charge of our group. He was an officer in the Russian army who could speak Dutch! He in turn arrested him and took him to the Russian commandatura. Later we found out that the secret police, in no time at all, knew exactly who he was. An officer in the German Luftwaffe!! (Air force) They also knew that he had spied for Germany in France in 1936, etc. etc. Considering that we were hardly more that 50 km behind the front line is was quite a feat to come up with this information in so short a time. Communications in 1945 must be considered primitive compared to 1985. The German officer was consequently executed the very same day.
During our stay in we filled some of our time with trading in the public market, mostly selling what we had "gathered" after our liberation. Eight of us in our group of eleven volunteered also at the Russian commandatura to help win the war. They assigned us to a night shift at the railroad, to shovel coal to fill the huge Russian locomotives. The Russians in their own way had made arrangements to separate the various nationalities and started preparations to try to get us back home. The day came that we Dutch were told that we would be sent to Murmansk. There we would be put on Allied ships that came and went in the now famous convoys. One day we were put in boxcars, about 35 per car. In the center of the car was a pot belly stove.(it is March 1945) with planks about 1.80 meter from the floor, forming a second floor. We slept seven below and seven atop, on either side of the boxcar, and the remainder of the time on the floor in the center around the heater. This was the usual way for Russian soldiers to be transported. Convenient it was not, but we really didnt care. We were on our way home and that was the main thing. After travelling for about three days in a northerly direction we suddenly stopped. After a few hours we were told by our Russian transport leader that the Government had changed its mind and had decided to send us southward. The locomotive was hooked up to the other side of the train and we started moving. Describing the trip would be futile, because I remember to little about it. Basically I could only write about the landscape we passed through, and this could only be done if I had kept a diary.
In the meantime let me touch on a few points that I do remember. To start with: breakfast Russian style. (In the train of course) One piece of Chleb (Black bread) one piece of salted fat bacon and half a water glass of vodka. Considering the cold, this was a welcome breakfast. But the result of vodka on an empty stomach made for some hilarious scenes. But this lasted only for a few days and our stomachs soon got used to the alcohol. The second event worth relating happened when we pulled into the train station of Lvov. Formerly Lemberg. It was late at night and we were asleep. We were woken by our Russian transport leader who was slightly inebriated. He laughingly told us to come with him because he would show us something funny. What else could we do but follow him. After crossing a number of rails and platforms we came to a train looking similar to ours, but the cars were locked. Our officer smiled and said: Watch it. He opened the sliding door of the car, shone his flashlight into the interior, and what we saw was a car full of German soldiers. He yelled Achtung!! And made them stand at attention. Then he ordered one of them to take his belt off. He took it from him and held it up showing them the buckle which says: "Gott mit uns." (God is with us) In perfect German and in a loud voice he yelled at them where they were going, namely Siberia, for their sake the words on the buckle better be true, because nobody else would be with them or help them.
Back in our train we rode for days, maybe a week, till one fine Saturday morning we reached the city of Chernowitz, formerly Rumania, now Russia. We were informed that for the time being this would be our destination. The city has something in common with Montreal, namely that it is built against and around a mountain, with the railroad station downtown. We took our luggage and started to walk up the mountain. Halfway up we encountered a scene that made many of us cry, certainly me. Right in front of us on the balcony on the 3rd floor of a house, stood a few bearded men, enveloped in Tallithim (prayer shawls) swaying and immersed in prayer. I shall never forget the moment when one of the men spotted us, took off his tallith, made the other men do the same, disappeared into the house, to emerge with about 15 other men from the house a few moments later, to run to us. In no time communication was established, mainly in Yiddish. They ran ahead of us, rang doorbells and in no time Jewish homes were opened to us. Food and drink handed to us and the Sholom Alechems, together with hugs, kisses and crying filled the air.
Unbelievable how excited these people were when they saw and could touch fellow Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Later we were told that almost all of them were survivors themselves. According to what was related to us, the city had had a Jewish population of about 150.000. They were transported to Transnistria (spelling may not be correct) and about 20.000 had survived and returned. Quite a few had already left the city for Bucharest in order to try to get visas to leave the country to escape the Russian occupation. The successful ones made it because they were able to pay large sums in gold, silver, diamonds or U.S. dollars. As we walked along and had to eat, drink, kiss and talk, my friend Ernst Cohen and I were approached by a man and his wife who told us in German not to go to the Russian camp, but to come and stay with them. We did not need much prompting and quite willingly went with them to their home. Their name was Gross and they had a daughter. They were of Polish descent but had lived most of their lives in Rumania. They were very nice and hospitable people. They explained that the Russian camp was full of lice and that was one of the reasons they asked us to stay with them. It was a very pleasant stay. We talked to each other about our experiences of the past years, deportations, etc, as well as what the present situation would be for the Jewish people. Most of the Jews of Chernowitz wanted to go to Bucharest, meaning from (now) Russia to Rumania. To get out of Chernowitz and consequently later out of Rumania was a very costly affair as I mentioned before. Our days were filled with simply doing nothing but eat, drink, walk and talk and try to come to terms with what had happened to us. Both Ernst and I felt that we should try to do something for the family, because life was tough and the income hardly sufficient to feed five people, even though the daughter was working. Ernst and I came up with a terrific idea. We went to the market, bought a heavy pig, took it home, slaughtered it, kept a few choice parts and took the rest back to the market. We must have stunned the town with our white bed sheet nicely put on the ground and the meat clean and properly cut, on the sheet. They had never seen something like that before. Whatever meat was displayed at the market, I would classify as very unhygienic. No wonder we sold out in less than two hours. We made a handsome profit and gave it to the family as a token of our thanks. They were delighted with our contribution and arranged a small celebration that night. The vodka was flowing freely and for the first time in my life I drank too much. I paid the price for it, because all of a sudden I got sick and did not make it to the bathroom in time. As I said before we had a good time with this family. I also befriended a lovely girl, Tillie Lautman (what a memory) with whom I had a "very good time." She represented my dream. I always had in mind to marry a dark-haired, dark- eyed woman. Well she was. I did want to marry her in order to get her out of Rumania, but was advised against it by our Dutch transport leader, who had married a Polish girl and could not take her with him. I took his advice and promptly married a blond fair-skinned and blue-eyed girl four years later. But we will come to that part later on. After a few weeks we got word that we had to continue our journey with destination Odessa. We went back into the same kind of train with the same kind of accommodation. Saying goodbye to the friends we had made was very emotional with lots of tears. We really had created a bond in those few short weeks, and we knew, without saying it, that we would never see each other again.
Just to touch on a few interesting happenings during this part of our journey: In the train two women were assigned to us, to be taken care of, and to have them sleep between two males. In my case the two women were mother and daughter Geiringer. The reason I mention this is that at a much later date Mrs. Geiringer married Otto Frank, the father of the late and now famous Anne Frank. Another reason for mentioning this is that one day when the train made its usual stop to give people a chance to follow natures call, the train started moving again, without the locomotive giving us the usual whistle first. We all scrambled aboard with the exception of Mrs. Geiringer. Bernhard Frenkel and I jumped out of the train and tried to help her get back on. However, she was scared and all our efforts were in vain. Bernhard and I barely managed to get back into the train. She was left behind in the middle of nowhere. Approximately two weeks after our arrival in Odessa Mrs. Geiringer showed up. Apparently where she was left behind some other passing trains made stops. About 1.5 kilometers from the railroad she had found a farmhouse and the people took her in and were very good to her. Every morning she went to the railroad and spent the day waiting for a train to stop. After two weeks, one finally did. It was a military train and she was taken aboard. When she arrived in Odessa she told us her experience of good treatment and plenty of food, but also that she had been raped several times.
Another item worth mentioning is the following. While still on our way to Odessa we came one day to a town by the name of Kamenetz Podolsk, a town located on the river Djnester and in the foothills of the Karpatian Mountains. We stopped to get a second locomotive to pull us through the mountains. It gave us an opportunity to walk through the town. The town itself is a typical Russian small town. However while walking along the riverbank we found an old Jewish cemetery, quite neglected, but some tombstones had dates, with inscriptions going back to the 17th century. Something else that happened is that one day our train was shunted to a railroad siding where we stayed for about two days. Finally another train arrived and was coupled to ours. Unbelievable as it may sound, the train was full of Dutchmen who had just come from Murmansk. They were dressed in Russian style uniforms, bearskin hats, etc. And even more unbelievable, there were three men from Nunspeet, one whom I knew very well. They had all been taken by the Germans as forced labour. Just imagine, out of nowhere in Russia to meet three people from a village with no more than 3500 inhabitants! After a week of more or less uneventful travelling we arrived in Odessa and were transported by trucks to an abandoned seaside sanatorium. The building was completely empty, not a stick of furniture, carpeting, etc. We had to make ourselves as comfortable as possible on the floor. This did not present a problem or discomfort, as we were already used to sleeping on bare wood in the train. As we looked around in the vicinity, we found a number of similar buildings and abandoned hotels "housing" different nationalities: Jews, ex P.O.W.s and civilian forced labourers. All were waiting for the end of the war and transportation back home. We met a lot of nice people, especially soldiers of different nationalities. Finally, THE day came. The war in Europe was over. With thousands of our kind of people, I do not have to go into the details as to what the celebration was like. We went a little crazy. Lets just say that the vodka was flowing freely with all its consequences. But who cared? Once the celebrations were over we got back into a daily routine. But the waiting for transportation to get home made us all edgy. We thought the day would never come.
Finally we were told, sometime in June Ô45, that we would embark the next day on the British troop transporter named the Monoway. (In 1983 or Ô84 I happened to see a picture of this ship in an American magazine with a description of its history. It turned out to be a converted freighter, capable of accommodating approx. 2500 people.) Mostly Dutch and Belgian nationals embarked, together with several hundred French ones. (The figures may not all be accurate, it was a long time ago) We slept in hammocks, head to toe, which was not too bad. The food was, after the Russian diet, excellent. Typical British, starting with porridge in the morning. It is now about the middle of June. Discipline on board was military. We steamed through the Black Sea, the Bosporus, the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean. It was an absolutely magnificent voyage, certainly helped along by the time of the year. It was fantastic even though I and several of my friends had contracted a form of what we called Geelzucht (jaundice) but is better known as a form of hepatitis. We really were not too sick from that. The doctor on board made us eat a lot of sweets. All was well till we reached the island of Corsica on our way to Marseilles. All of a sudden we hit a bad storm and most people including myself, became very seasick. The only reason I mention this is that on one of my frequent trips to the "bathroom" I met my friend from Nunspeet. He was very sick. When he saw me, he put his arms around me and started crying, at the same time telling me to tell his father and mother that he died bravely, without suffering. He really thought (as most people with seasickness can attest to) that death was near. I could fully understand this. However it only lasted 1.5 days and we landed safely in Marseilles.
It is hard to describe the beautiful reception we were accorded, but let me try. To start with we were greeted by a military band. The French were of course the first to disembark, to the very moving sounds of the Marseillaise. They then proceeded to form an honour guard with the French flags at the foot of the ramp. This was to give every soldier an opportunity to salute his flag. Many of these men had been prisoners for over five years. Needless to say how many kissed French soil. Once the soldiers had disembarked the civilians followed. Finally French women disembarked. The honour guard rolled up its flags and turned their backs. The women were hurried into police vans instead of busses. Women were considered collaborators. Then the Belgians left the ship. Again with an honour guard, national anthem and flags. Finally it was the turn of us Dutch people. We all got the same moving beautiful greeting. Busses took us to a large hotel where food and drink were prepared for us. The amount of everything as well as the variety of the foods was enormous. It also took several hours to get rid of our sea legs. It was funny to see people standing still and swaying like they were still on board. After a while we were examined by a doctor, sprayed with D.D.T. and then processed by the Red Cross, the French department of repatriation, the American Joint Distribution Committee and finally the Dutch consul. The Red Cross handed each of us a parcel with cigarettes, chocolates and other goodies. The French gave us a "carte de repatrier." With this card we could get free hotel accommodation, meals and transportation. The same privileges as their own compatriots, were extended to us. The American Jewish Joint Distribution gave us money. I dont remember exactly how much, but it was quite generous. The Dutch consul interviewed us all, and asked some very pointed questions before he gave us a temporary passport. The Red Cross also interviewed us and took statements as to the atrocities we had experienced, names of people we knew were alive as well as names we could verify as having been killed. After all this we had to make a decision. With the money we had and the card that allowed us to live for free, were we going to stay for a while in France or try to go to Holland? My brother and I still had jaundice.
Walter decided to stay by going into a hospital. I wanted to get home as soon as possible. I wanted to see if anyone of the family had survived. It was hope against knowledge. The very same evening a train was leaving Marseilles going to northern France. I went and left Walter behind. It was an unforgettable trip. Even during the night, at every station, there were reception committees who served food, wine, soft drinks, fruit, etc. Once we came close to the Belgian border we had to transfer to another train. This one went as far as Mons. There we had to get off the train in order to attend another reception with lunch, sponsored by the local Jewish community, whatever was left of it. (Remember that France, Belgium and the southern part of The Netherlands were already liberated at the end of the summer of 1944.) It was a really heart warming and beautiful experience. The whole thing lasted less than two hours, so that we could catch the next train that took us through Belgium to the Dutch city of Tilburg. What a let-down when we arrived on home soil. The food was meager, the accommodation was the floor of an abandoned shoe factory. Granted it was less than a year after the liberation, but after France and Belgium this was very disappointing. However, most people were processed the very same day and transported to their destinations in army trucks. I had to stay in quarantine since I had been in the same compartment with someone who was suspected of having typhoid fever. After three days I was released and made my way to Nunspeet. At the time I could not think of a better place to go. I arrived in Nunspeet late Sunday afternoon and went to the van Slootens, my old blacksmith boss. The greeting was not more than a warm "Hello, we kept the food hot for you and a bedroom in the attic is ready for you. You stay with us as long as you wish, and should you decide to come back to work for us you are more than welcome and we will work out a salary for you!!!!"
These people were actually waiting for Walter and me. How come?? Very simple. The three men we had met in Russia had come back to their village a few days earlier and as it goes in small villages the word that "de Jodenjongens leven en komen terug" (The Jewish boys are alive and are coming back) spread in no time. Consequently the van Slootens kept "the food hot" every day for three days in anticipation of our return. To really understand these simple, very religious (Calvinist) and extremely decent people, one must meet them and live amongst them for some time. I must tell a little story about their goodness, decency and complete naivete. Back in January 1944, when we were suddenly deported to Theresienstadt, I had no time to mail a card that I had written to let the van Slootens know that we would no longer be in Westerbork but were on our way to Theresienstadt. I threw the card out of the train with a message to the finder to please mail the card. I had to advise them since they sent us every week a parcel with butter, bread, often a piece of pastry and maybe beans or peas, etc. Now follows the story as told to me after the war by the youngest of the van Slooten sons, Willem. He was on a business trip to Amsterdam and decided to drop in at the Gestapo headquarters in the Euterpestraat, to find out what had happened to "His Jodenjongens." The Gestapo agents must have been so taken aback by this request and the nerve of this man that they actually looked into their files and gave him the address in Theresienstadt!!!! And believe it or not, a few months later a parcel arrived with the usual contents, only by then the contents were blue and green except for a pound of green peas, which were more than welcome.
I accepted the van Slootens offer, made myself at home and started working spare time in the smithy for a few weeks. Dont forget that this is July Ô45. A very short two months after the liberation of Holland. Bridges and railroads had been blown up, vehicles were not available, food was in very short supply, etc. etc. When I write "spare" time it means that our arrangement was that I could come and go as I pleased. And it was coming and going, all done by hitchhiking, the only means of transportation. I went back and forth to The Hague, trying every way to find out if anyone of my family had come back, even though I had no high hopes. But I was lonesome, lonely, lost and desperate to find someone, some family member with whom I could discuss things. How was I going to shape my future, how to make a living, etc.?
I also spent days with the leader of the local underground movement in Nunspeet, who helped me find some of our family possessions. A tour de force, the way furniture, china, crystal, jewelry, and other objects had been spread over many farm houses in the district for hiding from the Germans. Once I knew where most of our things were, I hired a farmer with horse and wagon to start collecting things. It took three days to gather the items, plus another two days for picking up the belongings of a family Micheels of which three daughters had survived and were recuperating in Switzerland.
I must take a moment to relate some of my experiences with the local population. First and foremost, NOBODY held back anything that had belonged to our family. One day as I walked through the village, I heard someone calling me. After the usual hellos and niceties I was told that they had a large Persian rug that belonged to my grandparents. "Come and pick it up any time you wish!!!" Another family stopped me in the street, called me into their house and the lady broke into tears when she told me that she had had two suitcases full of clothing that belonged to Walter and me. She cried, because she confessed that she had sold and/or traded the clothing for food during the "Hunger winter" of 44/45. She offered to reimburse us which I refused.
Another incident that should be mentioned is the following. Our immediate neighbours had a strongbox buried in their garden. It contained family jewelry and silver cutlery. They refused to dig it up because they wanted to wait and see if our grandparents would come back. They found it impossible to accept reality. Eventually after a few weeks they decided to dig it up, which was done in my presence. First they insisted that we sing the Wilhelmus (Dutch national anthem) and then they dug up the box.
One day I met the wife of the local butcher, Mrs. Small. She told me that her husband had died during the war and how he had spoken so often about my grandfather with deep affection. The feeling was very mutual because my grandfather spoke the same way about him and had many plans for when he got back to Holland. Mrs. Small told me that she had returned everything to me with the exception of an antique Sederplate. She said that my grandfather had told her husband that, should the worst happen and he would not survive the war, she should keep this plate as a memento of him and his family.
I nevertheless tried several times myself as well as through an intermediary to get the plate back into our family and substitute for it something else, but it was in vain. Mrs. Small on one occasion called her son to her home when I was there on one of my visits, and he told me that his parents had familiarized him with the significance of this Sederplate and he assured me that after both parents had passed away, that he would take possession of it and give it the same place of honour in his woonkamer (living room) as his parents did in theirs. This is the kind of decent, deeply religious people that made up the fabric of the Dutch nation.
I may as well dwell a little more on the subject of Nunspeet and its people. I do this because the village is very dear to me and very close to my heart. When you read the following you will fully understand my feelings. Sometime in 1943 a Jewish family by the name of Bartels (originally from Leipzig, Germany) suddenly disappeared. They had gone into hiding. Even though we had the best connections with the underground movement (Opa (grandpa) Bakker was the leader) he would only tell us that they were in a safe place. After the war I found out what the safe place was. The Bartels had moved into the middle of the forest. (Nunspeet is surrounded by large woods.) Father, mother, son and daughter started digging, long, wide and deep enough to build underground housing for at least six people. In the meantime the people of Nunspeet supplied the "underground" with the necessities of life which they in turn supplied to the Bartels family and others that joined later. Once the first shelter was finished, more people moved in and started building a second shelter. Slowly but surely more and more people moved in till at one time there were enough shelters to house 150 people. Besides Jewish people the underground aided and saved air crews of the allied forces who had been shot down over Holland and had been found and rescued by the local population before the Germans found them. All together, at different times, 250 of these men stayed there and waited their turn for a way to make their way back to England at night via Belgium, France, to Spain and Portugal. There were some Russian escaped soldiers as well as a few German deserters.
They were not discovered until the winter of 44/45 and only through an unbelievable coincidence of circumstances. Two German soldiers, walking through the wood, heard the noise when someone opened a milk can (one of those old-fashioned ones). Not knowing what they were dealing with and how many people were involved, they decided to return to the village to get reinforcements. By the time they returned, the underground had evacuated all the people and found temporary new shelter for them. They even managed to pull out a lot of furniture, some of which turned out to have belonged to my grandparents and the Micheels family. At this time I will take the opportunity to remember "Opa" Bakker, a gallant brave and deeply religious human being, who one day was arrested together with eight others, including a friend of mine. The Gestapo suspected them of being part of the resistance and decided to hold them as hostages. One day a German SS group was ambushed and killed by the underground. Gestapo style was to give notice that the attackers had 24 hours to come forward or the hostages would be killed. Of course, no one volunteered and the hostages were promptly shot. After the war the bodies were exhumed and given a proper burial in the local cemetery where a monument was erected in their honour. This cemetery is cut out of the woods and a small section was set aside for allied soldiers who were shot down in the surroundings. The local population takes care of the graves and for many years invited one person, wife, father, mother, brother or sister to come and visit the grave of their relative.
Where other villages and towns looked for recognition and/or credit for their heroic deeds, performed during the war, Nunspeet did more than anyone else, but kept it quiet. No boasting or publicity.
When Queen Wilhelmina spoke on "Radio Orange" from London and asked the Dutch railroad workers to quit their jobs and go into hiding, dozens of workers found a hiding place in Nunspeet at a time, the autumn of 1944, when life had become extremely difficult and food supplies at their lowest level. Honourable mention should also be made of the local police and the Mayor of Nunspeet. In 1942 as well as 1943 they all refused to arrest and round up the Jewish people living there. Consequently they themselves were all arrested and sent to concentration camps. All but one survived. But what a price to pay for ones convictions.
As previously stated, I remained about two months in Nunspeet and then moved to The Hague. My friend Bernhard Frenkel, who had come back with me, had found his mother and had settled back in their old home which was rather large. I rented a room from her and settled down. The first thing to do was to find a job, which was not too difficult. I found a job in a machine shop that concentrated on the manufacturing of ornamental iron chandeliers. I spent most of my time doing blacksmith work, shaping iron into curls and other shapes to make beautiful lamps. At the same time I registered in a night course that prepared you for entrance examination to the technical schools. I finished the course and wrote the examination to the Technical High School for Aeronautics. This school trained future flight engineers. This was originally a three year course that was condensed into a two year course by lengthening the school days and shortening the vacations. It was a tough grind but worth it. It was a comprehensive course, that covered approx. 20 subjects from mathematics to languages, aerodynamics, electricity and a host of others. Furthermore there were practical courses such as, machine shop work, woodwork, motor mechanics, sheet metal work and several others. All in all a very good general education. That I was able to take two years off without working for a living requires an explanation. Since I was only 19 years old, the government decided that I needed a guardian. And one was appointed as such by the office of O.P.K. (Oorlogspleegkinderen) (War orphans) This office also arranged for me to receive some money on a monthly basis. Not quite enough to live on, but I had saved up some money while working and would be able to manage. However, things were made easier for me since a childless couple by the name of Leo and Dora de Vries took me into their home as a foster child. I insisted on paying something to which they agreed. They lived in a large and beautifully furnished home. I had a large room for myself and they were absolutely wonderful to me.
I just noticed that I have run a little ahead of myself and I must go back to the Frenkels house and describe an episode that found its beginning in 1943 in Camp Westerbork and eventually changed my life. Also at the Frankels house lived a widow by the name of Margot Sonnenfeld with her two sons. She had been with the two boys in Bergen Belsen. One day she approached Bernhard and me and told us that she was expecting a young lady visitor for the weekend and asked us to behave like gentlemen. (We were still a little wild in those days) Of course we promised that we would be on our best behaviour. When I asked her who the young lady was she told me: her name is Ilse van Collem. I blushed and Mrs. Sonnenfeld immediately reacted with: "You know the girl!!??" When I asked "Is she the daughter of Mr. van Collem who owns Pento Cosmetics?" she said yes, but that she had lost her father in Bergen Belsen. I was utterly delighted to meet her again. Then we were cautioned once more.
"Please be nice to her, she is nearly bald. She had typhoid fever and was shaved by the Russians to get rid of the lice." At that moment I could not care less, all I wanted was to see her again. The weekend came, November 3, 1945 and there she was, head covered and as good looking as I remembered her. The old spark was still there and re-ignited the old fire. To make a long story short, we hit it off just fine. I took her to see the movie "The Scarlet Pimpernel" on our first date. Unfortunately we experienced some unpleasantness. She had only six months growth of hair, and not looking what people consider Jewish looking, but blue eyed and blond and gentile looking, she was several times taken for a girl that had collaborated (read slept) with Germans. The Dutch punished all these girls immediately after the liberation by promptly shaving them. One could really forgive them for their jeers; the average population really hadnt grasped yet what had happened to their Jewish fellow citizens.
However, on the brighter side, after our first meeting, she managed to find plenty of excuses to come to The Hague. But it did not take very long for her mother to become suspicious and she simply asked: "Who is the boy?" I was invited to meet her mother, a visit that went very well. No wonder. I brought her a bouquet of beautiful red roses, which Ilse thought were for her. I guess I disappointed her badly. It was a good thing she did not hold it against me. I could go on and on and write a book of all that happened leading to our engagement, but this is not a novel. I shall pick up were I left of.
During the time that I went to school, I reached the draft age. I received my military draft notice, I tried everything, including a letter to the Queen, to get out of having to serve in the military. Unfortunately, to no avail. With hindsight I guess I just didnt have the right connections. I was however allowed to finish school first. Because I attended a school for prospective flight engineers, I was lucky in one way, that I did not have to report to the army (with a chance to be sent to Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies) to take part in what was euphemistically called a police action, but to the Air Force. I had to report to the Air Force training center in Nijmegen, where I went through three months boot camp. After that I was transferred to Radio Radar School at the air force base in Arnhem. There I followed a course to become a wireless operator. This was an 11 months course. After successfully completing the course I was transferred to an Air Force parts depot just a few kilometers outside Amsterdam. I was allowed to report in the morning and go home in the evening, just like a civilian in uniform.
We had become engaged in 1947 and had married in the summer of 1949 while I was in the service.
I must allow myself to go back once more to the time that I became a "regular visitor" in the van Collem household. It is significant because it changed my outlook on life. When I first visited Amsterdam, sometime in December 1945, I was still pretty much anti-religion. So, shortly after the war, the wounds of having lost parents, grandparents and countless other relatives, had not healed. The question remained on my mind: "If there is a God, how could he possibly have allowed the wholesale murdering and slaughtering of millions of Jews, and God knows how many other millions of other men, women and children, gypsies, retarded people, and yes even millions of soldiers?" It was completely beyond my comprehension.
On one of my visits, Ilse asked me if I wanted to go along to Friday evening synagogue service. I politely declined. A few weeks later the same invitation was extended and my answer was the same as before. However several weeks later I eventually went along. After that I went a few more times and gradually came back to religion. It became such a part of my life that I eventually started to chant the cantorial parts of the service, there being no cantor. With the help of the late Mr. Dusch, our organist, I became quite an accomplished semi-professional Chazan, and served the Liberal Congregation of Amsterdam for quite some time. Please be advised that I cant read a note of music. Later on in Canada I did the same, off and on, for about two years for our fledgling congregation until we hired a professional. But I remained in the choir for almost 15 years.
Lets go back to the summer of 1949. When we got married July 6, 1949 I was still in military service. Our "home" was one room with a walk-in closet that I converted into a kitchen. A bathroom and toilet facilities we had to share with other tenants. But to us it was "home" and we were no exception to the thousands of others who could not find a house, apartment, flat or other suitable living quarters. The shortage of housing was terrible. And then, one fine day Ilse announced that she was pregnant, which was unexpected, but we were delighted. In our renewed efforts to find a flat, which we were, with some help, lucky to find, we had to pay the fare for the family, occupiers of the flat, who were going to Australia. It was a refined way of paying "key"money (bribery). We moved in and it remained our home till we left for Canada in October 1951.
In the meantime our Ruth was born and spent the first sixteen months of her life in Holland. She was born on June 25th, 1950. On that day the Korean war started and we thought: "Here we go again." We knew at that moment that we wanted to get out of Europe and as far away from Europe as possible.
After many deliberations and checking out future possibilities we decided on Canada, especially since friends of ours were going there also. These deliberations and our settlement in Canada may warrant a future story. And so, while still in the air force, we made our preparations for emigration. On October 13, 1951 we embarked in Rotterdam on the Steamship Rijndam from the Holland America Line. It was a ten day voyage, almost like a holiday trip. In New York we stayed five days with Ilses uncle and aunt Lutz (Ludi) and Grete Loewenstein. We were received like we were heads of state. The night before we left they threw a big party. People, not known to me and sometimes not even to Ilse, came and showered us with gifts. Mostly really for our Ruthi. Later that evening I took uncle Ludi aside and asked him what this was all about.
He put his arm around me and said: "My dear boy, all of these are people, including myself, who during the thirties were helped by your late father-in-law. A lot of them really owe their lives to him. They either found shelter in the van Collems home, while waiting for visas, or had their fares paid for by Harry van Collem; some were actually smuggled out of Germany and over the Dutch border, and all kinds of other assistance to make their way to the U.S. This is their way of expressing their gratitude. Unfortunately they can not thank him, so they are grateful for the opportunity to show their appreciation to his daughter, and offspring. Dear boy, this shows the real meaning of the Jewish tradition of "Shem Tov" (A good name). Carry on in his footsteps and your offspring will reap as you have sown" For these wise words I shall be eternally grateful and never forget uncle Ludi.
The time came to say good bye. The train took us overnight to Montreal, entering Canada at Lacolle. Our friends the Engels, greeted and welcomed us and for the next few weeks we stayed with them, till we had rented an apartment and our furniture arrived from Holland. They were also very helpful in finding a job for me. Unfortunately my first job as a welder did not last more that ten days. On the tenth day, when I came back from lunch I and 149 others were laid off, as of immediately. This was a hard knock and the first hard lesson in Canadian life. Who had ever heard of throwing someone out of work without even a one minute notice. It took awhile before I found another job. After that, thank goodness, the job always came looking for me. I should go on and could go on and describe every detail of our life in Montreal. The highlights being the births of our other children, Judy and Richard, the various addresses we lived, jobs I held, the social life we had. But that was not the original intention. Maybe in the future I will.
The forgoing may have some slight inaccuracies, because remembering is not always an exact science.
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