My Aunt Tutti tells her concentration camp story. A fate that easily could have been mine had I been born in Europe just a mere twenty years earlier.
During my mother’s move, my Aunt Tutti, my mother and I sat down for nourishment and Tutti began to tell us of her time spent, as an eight year old, in Westerbork, a concentration camp in Holland. A fate that easily could have been mine had I been born in Europe just a mere twenty years earlier. Tutti’s mother and my mother’s mother were sisters in Germany but my mother escaped the Holocaust by her parents fleeing to England at the right time.
We listened intently as she spoke. The following paragraphs are taken from her speech that she made at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island :
For the first few years after 1945, the end of WW II, nobody in my life shared or talked much about their personal experiences during the war. And even though today the slogan exists never to forget in the 1940s survivors wanted to forget and come to terms with the horrors, mourn their losses and try to get back into the main stream of life.
The war years from 1940-1945 correspond to my age 5-10, so my memories are similar to a movie that you might have seen many many years ago and you only remember certain scenes. Every Jew received an ID card with a big J and for every male the name Israel was added and for every female the name Sarah.
Then all Jews had to vacate their homes and had to move within a few blocks in East Amsterdam which became a Jewish Ghetto. These were small little apartments. No barbwire and no guards, just a concentrated Jewish population.
As soon as a Jewish family had left their home, the German truck came and confiscated anything and everything of value which could not have been taken along. Paintings, furniture, and other belongings were immediately removed and transported to the Reich.
Then the so-called Razzias or roundups started. German trucks with loud sirens randomly stopped in front of buildings and unceremoniously rounded up the Jews living there they were shoved into open trucks that drove off. My father always had hoped to escape these razzias as he was a metal trader and even though the company was taken over by the Germans with German and non Jewish Dutch managers overseeing the day to day operations, my father kept his job as metals were a much sought after commodity during war time and the Germans needed the company to keep operating.
In 1943 however our life change as it became apparent that no Jew would be left in Amsterdam. My mother, father, brother and myself went into hiding and moved into the attic of Gentile friends where we slept during the day so as to minimize any noise and we spent the nights awake.
We lived for a short while a la Ann Frank but my parents didn’t have the stamina to live that way (Also, if we would be discovered hiding we would definitely be sent to the east to one of the many death camps). And so we left our Gentile friends and moved back into the Ghetto.
One day our turn came and we were picked up and delivered to the largest theatre in Amsterdam which was used as an assembly point, soon we were transported to the Dutch concentration camp called Westerbork.
My father was given permission to go back and forth to Amsterdam to make himself useful in the metal industry. Incidentally, he organized a group of Jewish prisoners to sort the various metals in plants and thereby postponed and even saved many inmates from being sent on to Auschwitz as twice a week trains left Westerbork for the east.
Food was based on potatoes and vegetables. The camp was encircled with barbed wire, tall towers with soldiers who had guns guarded the prisoners; and there were occasional executions when inmates tried to escape. I still remember and see in front of me several playmates and friends I made in Westerbork who all just disappeared as they were sent to the death camps. I don’t believe I questioned anything and I don’t believe I realized that there was an Auschwitz.
As a family we were fortunate. In 1939 or 1940 a business friend of my father smuggled forged Paraguayan Passports through to us in Holland? and that passport turned out to be our lifesaver as we were held not only as Jews but also as political prisoners in those days Germany and most of South America were on very friendly terms.
About 10 months after our arrival in Westerbork our number came up and we were told to report to the train platform to be relocated to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Before boarding the train my father had a serious talk with me, I was barely 9 years old. He took my doll and showed me that the doll I had received for my birthday had a solid body but a hollow ceramic head. He took the head off and stuffed it with several $100 bills, told me to always keep the doll with me and to make a big fuss if someone tried to take the doll. He said that those $100 bills might buy us food and save our lives.
My father was very astute, because upon our arrival in Theresienstadt we were stripped and searched but nobody ever looked at the doll! What a responsibility for a 9 year old!! We had to board cattle cars for our voyage and in that manner we traveled to Theresienstadt. It took several days a beer barrel sat in the middle of the boxcar serving as a toilet and on the floor was straw. We occupied a corner and stayed close together.
Upon the arrival I again was asked by my father to do a grown up job. As we stood in line and waited to be processed my father spotted someone he knew and he made a crude ball from paper or a piece of cloth tied with a bit of string. I was to play with the ball and throw it in a certain direction towards a certain person. At the time I did not know that a hidden forbidden message was tucked inside the ball.
Theresienstadt was a camp for the privileged, a so called model camp which the Red Cross visited as the wool was drawn over their eyes so they could report to the world at large that all was well in the concentration camp. Of course it was all a sham. Weeks were spent in preparation a cafe was created, these were stores erected with merchandise and everything got a fresh coat of paint.
When the committee came through with the German Commandant and Staff, a group of children were told that they would get chocolate pudding for dessert that day, a lie that the children were well attuned to.
Theresiensladt was an old fortress with large army barracks usually forming a square with a large quad in the middle where roll calls were held. The elderly were housed in certain barracks usually named after German towns able bodied men in others and women and children in other barracks. Conditions were appalling with overcrowding, infestations of vermin, lice and worst of all bed bugs in the straw mattresses we slept on. Everybody had to work, even kids.
The rooms had eight rows of triple decker bunk beds on each side which means 48 people living together in close proximity sharing one small wood stove, it was freezing. People were of different backgrounds, different values and religious persuasions from Orthodox to Atheist which led to many arguments and fights.
There was one big washroom. It was always very crowded and in appalling condition. My mother believed that in order to survive (she was always an optimist) we had to try and stay healthy. As she had to get up at 3:00 am to light the furnaces she would wake my brother and me and made sure we washed ourselves top to bottom with ice cold water as the washroom at that time of night was fairly empty.
During my year in Theresienstadt gas chambers were being built right outside the camp but nobody was actually aware of it though there may have been rumors. We were aware of the many transports to Auschwitz? quotas had to be filled and many artists, musicians, writers, actors, painters as well as Jewish philosophers and intellectuals were all sent to their death including one set of my grandparents and many other relatives.
My father got the dreaded command to assemble for a train to Auschwitz and I remember clearly that he came to the women’s barracks to say goodbye. That was the one and only time I saw him shed bitter tears.
He was excused at the last minute due to the forged Paraguay passport which saved his life.
I still have that passport as well as the doll and a diary that my surviving grandfather kept throughout the war years and which I translated for my children and grandchildren.
On May 8th, 1945, my brothers 7th birthday, we were liberated by the Russian Army which was greatly feared as they had a reputation of being barbaric and stories of rape and cruelty made the rounds. But we never had any bad experiences they fed us heavy dark bread and lots of barley something our systems were not used to and many inmates got very sick and quite a few died after having survived the camp.
Our return trip to Amsterdam took many weeks. We traveled at times on a train, this time not box cars, but often the trip was interrupted due to bombed railroad tracks. We traveled by open trucks with stops that sometimes lasted days and days but eventually we arrive back in Holland.
The first night in Amsterdam my father contacted a Gentile friend whom he had given a lot of our wordly possessions and savings for safekeeping. Little did we know that he had collaborated with the Germans and had gambled on the fact that we would not survive and he was totally surprised to hear from us. When my father explained that we literally had no roof over our heads and asked it he could take us into his home, his reply was negative, he was busy and could do nothing for us. And so we slept that first night back in Amsterdam at the railroad station on baggage carts.
We had to rebuild our lives slowly, first we lived in a rented room, but within two years we were back on track. I had lost 3 years of schooling and my parents had lost all tangible possessions and many family members.
Much much later, in the 1980s when I spent many hours with my widowed father and I asked him questions pertaining to the war years, he was not well and not willing to discuss them and only would say lass mich in ruhe which means leave me in peace”. I didn’t pursue the matter and respected his wish though I had a great number of unanswered questions.
I want to end this by saying that according to the statistics, of the 15,000 or more children who passed through Theresienstadt, only 100 survived and my brother and I were two of them? Pretty mind boggling!