CHAPTER 2: 1940-1942

In one day our lives changed. From an almost idyllic life our world suddenly became one of fear and uncertainty. Some months before the war broke out we heard news about Hitler and what he was doing to countries in Eastern Europe but it seemed so far away. We had also heard about some of the horrible things he did to the Jews in Germany, about "Krystal Nacht" when so many synagogues were destroyed, store windows smashed and Jews beaten up and murdered. It was so far removed from us. We heard horror stories from German and Austrian Jewish refugees. We thought that these were exaggerated; we were in a state of denial. There was news of soldiers being called up into the armed forces and we saw war planes overhead, some strange looking ones. We debated whether these were "ours" or "theirs." We also heard the tirades of Hitler and he frightened us. We could not understand all he was saying but the way he was shouting and gesturing, and the rhythmic applause from the audience scared us! And that word "Juden!", over and over we heard that. That was frightening.

Then, on May 10th 1940, it happened. Early in the morning we heard the screaming sound of the dive bombers. They were not attacking our city but they scared the living daylight out of us. We had never heard such a sound. They dived down low over the city and then they disappeared. Later we heard that they leveled Rotterdam, the great harbor city on the North Sea and that they threatened to level more cities if the Queen would not capitulate. Poor little Holland with its unprofessional army could not stop the German war machine for long. On May 15th Holland capitulated. The royal house escaped to England and we were waiting with great trepidation and uncertainty. We did not have to wait long.

Early the next morning the German Army marched through our home town. Later we realized that in order to go into the rest of Holland they did not have to go through our street but this was also a propaganda war. What a show! We were huddled behind drawn curtains, just peaking through a little space. I will never forget not only the sight of this powerful, disciplined army, but even more so the sound which would reverberate through my brain for many years. First came a long beautiful car with the commanding officer standing proudly looking down on the onlookers in the street. Then the motorcycles followed, most with sidecars, with a tremendous roar. And they revved up the engines in order to make the sound even louder so that the houses seemed to shudder in fear, as we did. And then, the worst noise: thousands of marching soldiers, in perfect formations, led by an officer on horseback; each soldier had metal taps on his heels. You could hear them coming from far away even outdoing the sound of the disappearing motorcycles. And then the singing! Loud and in perfect unison, the German songs, a sound that still rings in my ears. My heart is racing right now, just trying to put words to one of the most horrific experiences in my life. I was then ten years old .......

That evening my parents called their friends. I could feel the tension. After a while a few came over. Strangely, instead of ringing the bell, they knocked on the door three times. After they came in there was a hushed discussion. Then my mother said:" We are staying with Tante Sara tonight, so get a few things and let us go." Aunt Sara lived just down the street, not far. For the first time I was afraid to walk outside even though the whole family was together, but soon we entered Aunt Sara's house. There was a lot of talking going on most of which I did not understand. But I knew that this was a serious and dangerous situation. Eventually we were all assigned a place to sleep. I was the youngest and smallest so I was chosen to sleep on the floor between the living room hearth and the wall. Somehow I managed to sleep. Later in my life I often volunteered to sleep on the floor rather than sharing a bed with someone.

The next morning we returned to our own house. I had the strangest sensation that morning, walking home on that familiar street. I felt as if people were staring at us. Maybe they were. It was an uneasy feeling and I was glad when our door was closed behind us.
From left to right: My oldest brother, Hans, my mother, 
Austrian refuge and German refuge, both staying with us, 1942
We settled down into some kind of normal routine, but not for long. After a few months we were told to take two refugees into our house, one a clean-looking student from Germany, the other a casually dressed actor from Austria, a wonderful reader of short stories. He often entertained us during those difficult times. Jacques and I had to give up our rooms and move in with my oldest brother Hans in his room.

Again we adjusted, and again we were not allowed to settle down for long. At the end of 1940 my father became seriously ill. Later I found out that he had cancer. For the next six months he was in and out of the hospital several times. It was very difficult for all of us but especially for my mother. I can hardly imagine what she went through in those days. My father was well aware of the situation. Once, when somebody tried to cheer him up by telling him that he would be all right he said: "I don't know about men but I know cows and if a cow has these symptoms she will not survive."

On May 12, 1941 my father died after an extended fight with cancer. I was eleven years old and matured fast. I cannot recall how I was told about my father's death. Somehow I knew. I do remember very clearly the day of the funeral, a dismal rainy day. I can see myself walking with my grandfather and brothers directly behind the horse-drawn black-draped wagon. We made several stops and many people joined our cortege. I can still see the long procession entering the Jewish cemetery, immediately turning to the right, then at the wall to the left until the middle of the cemetery where we turned left again. Forty years later I had no trouble finding the grave even though the cemetery was now completely neglected and my father's grave was unmarked. I just followed the way I had walked forty years earlier as an eleven- year- old distraught child.

I remember a constant stream of visitors paying their condolence calls to my mother. Two visitors stand out sharply in my mind; one was our Hassan (cantor) and spiritual leader, Mr. Frank, the other a Capuciner monk, his hood over his head, so we could barely see his face. It bothered me that both these religious leaders were making my mother laugh while talking about funny incidents in my father's life. Later I learned that this is a custom in our religion. We want to remember the good times we had. After the war Mother told me that this monk had been a great support to her and had helped her through some of the most difficult times. He visited her even after the Nazis did not allow Christians to have contact with the Jews. I still miss my father. Hardly a day passes when I do not think of him.

I remember sitting "Shivah," the seven days of mourning, when we were sitting on pillows on the floor whenever we had visitors. I remember going to the Synagogue every day with my older brothers to say Kaddish with our grandfather, a prayer said for the death of a close relative and which speaks of the affirmation of life.

Again we tried to have some normalcy in our lives. In September 1941 Hans graduated from the Gymnasium, a school which prepares one for a college education. However, he had to become our breadwinner, and so he went to work at the Philips Fabrieken, the major employer in Eindhoven. At the same time, the "normal" life started to unravel. Time after time notices were posted on lamp posts and in parks putting restrictions on our every day life. First we were not allowed in parks or into the movie theater. Then we had to give up our bicycles. It was one thing after another. Each order was accompanied by threats of the severest nature. We lived in constant fear of what would happen next. It was a very unsettling time. Only Jews would visit us and only after letting us know by phone that they were on the way.

Then it happened: we were ordered to wear the "Star" on our clothing, a bright yellow patch with a black outline of the star of David and in the middle in thick large letters the word "Jood," the Dutch word for "Jew." And they made it hard on us, because they did not give enough stars for all the outer clothing for all the family members. Mother constantly had to remove one star from one item of clothing to sew it onto another. We felt so humiliated when we walked in the streets. We would rather stay home but we had things to do. Some people came over to me and told me to wear the star with pride. That was not an easy thing to do for a child.

Then we were notified that Jewish children were not allowed to go to our schools anymore. We had to go to a special Jewish school which was located in Den Bosch, some forty-five km North of Eindhoven. Every morning we had to take an early train so we could get to our school on time. There we sat with our yellow patches in the train. People were often staring at us but at no time were we teased or accosted by anybody. Late in the afternoon we took the train home. The school was not large and the classes crowded. But it was not very long before one by one students would not return and gradually the class became smaller and smaller. I do not remember what we studied or if we learned anything at all. Our minds were on other things.

In 1942 Jewish people we knew started to disappear. We heard that they had to go to work camps in Germany. It did not seem too bad except when children in our classrooms started to disappear. Did children have to go to a work camp, too? We were asked to volunteer to make duffelbags for our acquaintances who were called to go to the camps. I also helped. I remember that we were sitting in a large room, maybe in some kind of factory. Some were cutting the cloth and others were sewing. I had to make holes and put metal rings in the cloth. We were putting together duffelbags for the unfortunates who were "called up." We spent many hours doing that. The conversation usually was about someone who had to leave for the camp.

We asked relatives of the disappearing persons if they received any mail from them. We were so naive. Nobody heard anything personal. Some received a formal letter telling them that their relatives were doing well. We had an uneasy feeling that it was not quite true. Nobody received a telephone call and nobody ever came back. We heard about the horrible things which happened in Amsterdam where Jews were rounded up and taken to a concert hall overcrowded with families who were previously taken there. We were wondering about some family members we had in Amsterdam but a call assured us that everybody was still together but that many of their friends had already disappeared. It was obvious that it was only a matter of time before it was our turn.

This is a good time to introduce a good friend of our family, Mr. Michael van Lieshout or "Oom Michael," as we called him. He and his large family lived on a street behind ours. My mother gave some of his children piano lessons. They were devout Catholics and their large house was filled with the most exquisite religious artworks which Oom Michael proudly showed to friends and guests. He was a remarkable man, large and with a stiff left leg. I never knew wether it was an artificial leg or not. That leg was also a little shorter so you could detect a definite limp. This however did not slow him down at all. We all had trouble keeping up with him walking and when he was on his bike, which was especially made for him, he pedaled faster with his one good leg than we could with both of ours. He had a strong chin and he talked fast and with a dialect so I always had trouble understanding what he said.


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Contents & Images, Copyright 2000 Fred Greenwood. All Rights Reserved.