My parents were born in Germany and fled after Hitler’s rise. Many of the members of their extended family managed to reach safe havens between 1933 and 1939 when the war actually started. This was the pattern of a great part of German Jewry. Thus I have cousins in South Africa, in Australia, in England, North- and South America.
They individually fled to Holland, a country known for its tolerance, which had been neutral in World War I unlike most of the rest of Europe and met there, both stateless refugees. My father’s mother followed and lived with them when my younger sister and I were born (in 1938 and 1939). Six of my uncles and aunts also found their way to Holland. Their circle of friends consisted mainly of similar German expatriates and they had trouble integrating into the Dutch society where they were considered outsiders. Among their friends were the Frank family, the parents of Anne Frank. They lost contact with Otto (her father) after the war when he moved to Switzerland after having lost his close family.
After the Germans invaded Holland in May 1940 all former German Jews were evacuated from the coastal zone and we had to move to a small town where there were only three other refugee families. My father was unable to work and he managed to rent a shop where we lived (my sister and I slept and played in the front of the store in the display window).
Slowly, but very surely, frighteningly, the restrictions against Jews became more severe and all were instructed to wear ‘yellow stars’, not allowed to use public transportation, enter parks, etc. etc. Then they had to register and were summoned to report to be moved to Westerbork, a concentration camp in the North of Holland from where later transports to the East would take place. My father who had witnessed the Nazi cruelty in Germany took no chances and contacted the Dutch resistance. He got in touch with an evangelical grouping called the ‘Assembly of Believers’ who considered it their duty to rescue the ‘Chosen People’ even though it would jeopardize their own safety and might cost them their lives.
These people were real heroes, since against strict orders of the occupying forces they hid Jews and could be killed on the spot if discovered. My sister and I (aged three and four at that time) were taken to a farmer with twelve children. My father took us there (I assume my mother was unable to witness the separation) and told us that as a treat we were allowed to spend a couple of days on the farm provided were ‘good and behaved’. We slept in the (meticulously clean) cowshed, since it was summer and all the cows were outside in the meadow. Behind a curtain there were more people, a family, whom I do not remember. When the war lasted and the summer had passed we were moved to a different place. I do not remember at how many different places we stayed and for how long.
My parents were (usually not together) hidden elsewhere, but apparently most of the time knew that we were safe and occasionally were able to glimpse at us. We had forgotten what they looked like. We had to assume another identity and mainly keep mum about the past. We had to ‘forget’ that we spoke the German language and what our names had been. Sometimes we were allowed to play outside and were told that we were the nieces of our hosts and often we had to change religion, since we moved between Catholic and Dutch Reformed families. This proved not difficult for us. We were used to adapt easily and had learned to be ‘good’ and not make ourselves seen or heard. Or else…………
It is a miracle that thus for three years, until the war ended, our existence remained a secret. It is thanks to many incredibly unselfish and fearless wonderful people that we owe our lives. The resistance took care of food ration-cards for us and thus we did not have to starve. Like the rest of the Dutch population during the last ‘hunger-winter’ of the war our menu consisted of tulip bulbs and sugar beets. But since we were usually in farms there was an occasional illegal slaughter or sometimes some milk not confiscated by the Germans. We did not experience the horrors of the camps and were even reunited with our parents. With some of our rescuers we have remained in contact until this very day. In Jerusalem there is Holocaust Memorial Center which honors non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jews, their fellow human beings. A couple of years after the end of the war we invited them to a trip to Israel. Here they received a medal from the Israeli Government in an especially moving ceremony. Then they planted a tree in the alley of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’, the few who dared oppose the cruel occupiers. At least once a year I return to inspect those trees.
After the war
We were probably shocked that the strangers who came to look for us were our parents. I was seven years old at the time and do not remember the reunification. I must have repressed it since it was too frightening. They had German accents and different customs, so we were ashamed to bring home friends from school. Since we were one of the very few family units who survived (my uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc. had been sent to the camps and perished) my parents took upon themselves to absorb those who returned from the camps. Human wrecks who had lost all that was dear to them. The experience proved too much for my mother. She had had no time for her own bereavement and to get used to her children again. She became ill and spent most of the time in and out of mental hospitals. I do not remember much of that period. It must have been painful, but I had been trained to ‘be good’ and ‘keep mum’. After I completed High School I left Holland to start a new life in Israel. I studied, married, we have four children and are now proud grandparents.
Since I had not been a camp, I never considered myself a ‘survivor’. Until I met a neighbor a couple of years ago who told me that she had been to a Conference of Hidden Children. She explained that non-Jews had hid her during World War II. I blurted out: ‘”Me too, but I am still in the closet.” Then I heard about a group that had formed in our city of people with similar experiences. I found out that some of my best friends, whose children had grown up with ours, had also been hidden and had never talked about it. We shared a common past, but also common experiences of fear of abandonment and fear of the big unknown (the Nazis, the camps, extermination) which had sometimes turned us into ‘people-pleasers’, you see we had to ‘behave’ or else………..
I went to an International Conference of Child Survivors last year and was able to identify with many of the stories I heard. Then I registered by E-mail together with those among us who are willing to tell their story to interested strangers. This is my first attempt.