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Good afternoon, and welcome to First Person. My name is Patricia Heberer and I am an historian here with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, a scholarly wing of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is our ninth season of First Person. Today’s First Person guest is Louise Lawrence-Israels, whom we’ll meet shortly.
First Person is a series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust, who share their own experiences associated with that period. Each First Person guest serves as a volunteer here at the museum, many of them with the Speakers Bureau that do outreach with the community, and especially with children.
Each Wednesday through August 27th, we will have a First Person program. The museum’s website, www.USHMM.org, provides a preview of upcoming First Person guests. This 2008 season of First Person is made possible through the generosity of the Louis and Dora Smith Foundation, to whom we are grateful for making this year’s programming possible. Is Mr. Smith in the audience by any chance? Okay, just checking.
Before we begin, I’d like to make a few housekeeping announcements. We’ll listen to Louise Lawrence-Israels for about 40 minutes as she shares her First Person experiences during the period of the Holocaust, and at the end of our interview, we’ll have about 15 minutes or so for you in the audience to ask Louise some questions.
Out of respect for the survivor, I’m going to ask that you all remain in your seats and in the auditorium while the presentation and the program is going on. Any passes for the Permanent Exhibit will be honored on or after the hour of the time print that’s on your ticket, so if you have a ticket for 1:30 or for 1:45, your ticket is going to be good for the balance of the day after that time, so you can leave the program and go immediately up into the exhibition.
Photography is not permitted here in the auditorium and I’m going to also ask at this time, for those of you who have audible cell phones or pagers, to turn those off or into the manner mode.
Finally, I’m going to ask you to take a few minutes of your spare time to write your impressions of this program on that little piece of - review form that you got from members of the staff as you entered the auditorium today and to give those back to staff members, who will be collecting them after the program is over. Your feedback is important to us and we really appreciate it.
Our speaker this afternoon, again, is Louise Lawrence-Israels. To give you an historical context for the experience she’s going to talk about today, we’ve prepared a brief video, audio/visual to introduce some of the concepts that she’ll be talking about.
The Holocaust was a state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims; six million were murdered. Gypsies (also called Roman Sinti here at the museum), the disabled, or handicapped, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic or national reasons.
Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and tyranny under Nazi persecution. This, as you can see, is a map of Europe, and this arrow is pointing to the Netherlands, where Louise was born in 1942. This is a photograph of the nation of the Netherlands, and the arrow indicates the city of Amsterdam, where Louise and her family lived in hiding until the war was over.
Louise lived in Amsterdam with her parents, her grandparents, her brother, and a family friend, Selma. This is Louise when she was one year old, already in hiding. This picture was taken on Louise’s second birthday, and with her is her beloved little chair.
She’s going to talk both about that doll’s chair, which may go into the Permanent Exhibition later this year, and that experience of her second birthday, when we have a chance to talk with her about her remembrances in just a moment. Louise, at this point, was two, and after this point, the family would have been in hiding for still another year more.
When Louise was three, the Netherlands and her family were finally liberated by the Allies. This is a contemporary photograph of the house where Louise hid with her family. After the war, Louise would go on to earn her degree in physical therapy and emigrated to the United States in 1967.
Ms. Israel’s story is one of the mosaic of experiences endured by Holocaust survivors. Today, she’ll share that story with us. Please join me in welcoming Louise Lawrence-Israels. Welcome, again, to First Person. Louise, to begin with, thank you for being so willing to talk to us today and to share your experiences with us.
I wondered if you might start by talking about your family’s life in the Netherlands before the war. You were born in 1942. I’m sure you don’t remember that period, but probably your parents filled you in on what life was like for your family before World War II.
Right. My parents were not very religious. They were Jewish, but it wasn’t a very important part of their life, that they had a rude awakening after the war started. My father was in business with his dad. It was a Jewish business and in 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland, he was mobilized into the Dutch army.
My mom and dad settled in the southern town, the most southern town of the Netherlands called Maastricht and my mom was pregnant with my older brother. My father trained in an engineering battalion. The town of Maastricht is on one of the largest rivers in northern Europe, and it’s really a natural border between Holland and Germany.
What his battalion was trained to do was to, just in case we had an invasion, to blow up the bridges. So they had the dreamy thought that that would prevent the Nazis from coming into Holland. In the beginning of May 1940, my dad sent my mother up north. He said, “It’s too dangerous for you to stay here,” and he couldn’t say anything else.
Sure enough, on the 10th of May 1940, the German invasion started, and my father did what he was told and they blew up the bridges, and of course, the Nazis were very ready—they had rubber boats and just crossed the river and took my dad prisoner of war.
You have to realize that, at that time, we didn’t have the communication means that we have today, so when my mom couldn’t communicate with my dad anymore, she realized he must be somewhere, but where, she had no idea.
The invasion was the organized part of the beginning of the war between Germany and Holland. The Nazis were more busy with thinking about invading other places and what they should do; then they weren’t organized anymore.
So as soon as Holland capitulated after four days of fighting, they figured we can send the prisoners of war back and my dad came back to Amsterdam, where my mom was.
And, the fact that your father was captured and he was a prisoner of war at one time, did this affect the fact of his later deportation? I remember us talking a little bit about that.
Yes, that came back later because, when after the Allies had come in to Normandy in June 1944, again, the Nazis got very jittery and they were afraid they were going to lose the war. They were also afraid that all of the people that they let go—the Dutch officers—were going to unify and help the Allies.
So they had a headcount and actually, the headcount meant that they were all put on a train and sent back to Germany as prisoners of war. By that time…maybe it’s better to go back and we’ll go back to that.
We’ll go back to that in a little bit. So at this point then, your mother and yourself were living in Haarlem? In northern…?
When my dad came back, they looked for a house and they settled (my brother was born by that time) in the town of Haarlem, what is about 15, or I would say, 10 miles away from the Amsterdam, more towards the coast.
It was a very quiet little street, and of course, two years after that…I should say, 18 months after my brother was born, I was born, and that was already 1942.
What did your father do for a profession, because it’s very important to your later survival, isn’t it?
Right. In the beginning, when Holland was invaded, and after Holland capitulated and the queen and her government fled to England, slowly the Nazis came with different measures. The first one was ration cards. Everybody had to register for a ration card.
That meant that you could only buy a certain amount of food every month. If you wanted to buy a pound of sugar and you didn’t have the right coupon, forget it—you couldn’t get a pound of sugar—you had to wait till the next month.
Then the next measure was that all Jews had to give up their business if they had one. Just a small business, like grocery stores or dry cleaning, were allowed to still operate. My father was in business with his dad. He had a degree an advanced degree in economics and all of a sudden, he couldn’t work anymore, so he had to look for a job; he had to provide for his family. And he became a pants presser in a dry cleaning place, a Jewish dry cleaning place.
Much later, many, many years after that, I actually asked him how that made him feel, from sitting behind a big desk and really dealing with the whole world, having a big job, and then all of a sudden, working in a smelly place. And he gave this strange answer that I’d like to share with you because it’s important.
He said, “I used to go to work smiling, singing or whistling.” I said, “How strange is that?” He said, “No. It doesn’t matter what you do—you need to provide for your family—and working in a dry cleaning place, I made money and I was able to buy milk and bread. That was more important than anything else.” So in certain circumstances, you can give up all your luxury and everything—just providing for your family is more important.
And at a certain point, while you were living in Haarlem, while your parents were living in Haarlem with you and your brother, the Nazis decided to force the Dutch government to round up the Jews and to concentrate them in one place, and that would have been in Amsterdam.
Right. When we were living in Haarlem…and I told you in the beginning that religion wasn’t so important for my family, although they were registered as Jews, because everybody was registered; Holland is a very organized country.
We lived across the street from a very religious Jewish family and we jokingly, much later, always said that must have been the house with the elastic walls, because in that house lived parents, seven adult children (the children were the ages of my parents), a set of grandparents and two unmarried aunts—all in a fairly small house and they made that work.
They were religious. The most important holiday in the Jewish tradition is the Shabbat, that’s Saturday, and that starts on Friday night and it usually starts with a big family dinner. So everybody pooled their ration coupons so they could buy food and then they cooked these meals.
In the summertime, the windows were open and they were singing and they were together. When they found out there was a Jewish family living across the street from them (us), we were invited. My parents and my brother were invited—when it started, I wasn’t even born yet.
We really became very good friends. Then I was born and one of the daughters from across the street, her name was Selma, she was very important in my life. That’s why I mention her by name. Selma used to give my mom a hand with the little children. She just hopped across the street and was always there.
Her dad, the father of these seven adult children, was the president of the Jewish Community in Haarlem. Just around that time, I would say there are two very important years. One is 1942 and one is 1944.
Just around the time that I was born, the group that we called Underground had become very active in Holland—very courageous people who tried to fight all the Nazi rules and regulations, and also tried to hold back on the deporting of Jews.
What they found out a way to do that is blow up registration offices so the Nazis could not find out where Jews were living. They did that in the town of Haarlem in 1942, just after I was born, and of course, that didn’t go unpunished.
So as a retaliation, they took ten prominent Jews: the father (Selma’s dad), the two rabbis and seven other prominent Jewish men, and took them to the main square in Haarlem and shot them in front of everybody as a warning—don’t blow up any more buildings, don’t’ do any more of this because next time, we might take 100 men.
That was one big warning. Then we all had, all Jews in our town and actually the whole coastal area around Haarlem got orders to move to Amsterdam, and what the Nazis were trying to do is concentrate all the Jews in a certain area in Amsterdam so it would be easy to go street by street, round people up, put them in a truck, take them to the trains, and just deport them to the concentration camps.
When my dad got that order, he was kind of hemming and hawing, “Should we really do that?” and “Ugh, we’re not that religious and maybe we can get away with it,” but the something else happened. Our friend Selma again was taking care of me.
She stood in front of my bedroom window with me in her arms and probably was singing a lullaby (I was little) and a large truck moved in front of her house, and within seconds, a lot of screaming went on and her whole family (except her dad, who was already dead) was rounded up onto that truck—anybody who was there. There was a couple of cousins in the house.
And they drove away and only one brother escaped—the rest of the family, she never saw again. Of course, with all the screaming, my mom went upstairs and really had to hold Selma back from running across the street to try to help her family.
So that was such a wake-up call, believe it or not, for my family, that my father said, “We can’t stay here because who knows, we might be next. We should go to Amsterdam but not live in the area where we were told to live, but we should go into hiding.”
Well, he hadn’t prepared for that so we moved to Amsterdam. We moved in with one of my father’s army friends, who lived in a very small apartment with his wife and two children. And here is my mom, my dad, my older brother and myself, our friend Selma, who stayed with us for the duration of the war, and my father’s parents, and we all moved in with my father’s friend. And again, you can make that work if you have to—very close knit! And my father went out and he talked to some of his trusted friends and he found what turned out to be a very good hiding place, and you all saw a picture of it just previously.
It was a four-story walk-up attic apartment, not insulated, and towards the end of the war, we did not have electricity either. You have to realize, when you move in and you’re going into hiding, it’s almost like going into a witness protection plan.
Nobody is supposed to know that you’re there and you cannot move in with a large moving truck. So they took the minimum at night with some friends that helped my dad. They took mattresses for the adults and a crib for me, because I was only six months old.
My father had very strict rules. I’ve explained that it was an attic apartment and the one window that we had was like a dormer window. Adults had to stand on a chair to be able to look out, and for us as children, the window was somewhere up in the sky. You know, even standing on a chair, you couldn’t reach it. I was six months, but this was for my brother. It was a no-no for the adults—nobody was allowed to stand on a chair and look out, and nobody was allowed to open the front door four flights down in case the doorbell would ring or somebody would knock on the door. My father would decide if he should open the door or not.
One day, he walks into the main living area and he sees my grandmother standing on a chair, looking out of the window, and she’s waving to people walking down below, so he thought she’s putting the whole family at risk. So he asks somebody from the underground if they could find a different hiding place, so my grandparents kind of left early on.
How did you manage to survive in this apartment? Your father, as I recall, put down a number of years of rent, which was very far-sighted.
Yes. He paid rent for ten years. He had no idea how long the war was going to last, and he figured to go out and make contact with the landlord might put him in danger. Because one of the measures that the the Nazis, one of the rules that came for Jews (and I’m only talking about Holland—different countries had different rules), in Holland, every adult above the age of six had to wear a bright yellow star with the word “Jew” written in Dutch, Jood, in the middle of it, over your outer garments.
So for my father to walk out in the middle of the day with his star, he would never have made it home, so that’s why he paid rent ten years in advance.
And how did you manage, since you couldn’t go out, how did you manage to live two years, basically - almost three years in this apartment?
My dad had given to some of his trusted friends some artifacts that he had been collecting. They were small things, not Rembrandts or Picassos, but Chinese bowls or beautiful tiles. He had given that to them and he kind of figured (my father was smart) that he would have to barter for food because he could not make a living anymore.
So my dad used to sneak out at night after curfew, after it was dark, and make contact with these friends and also people from the Underground, because it was important to have food for the family; medicine, just in case we were sick (there were two little children in the house); and news.
News was so important. News could give you hope. We had no radio, no newspapers—there was nothing—so we were totally dependent on other people. That was very important. Of course, no means like computers or e-mails or anything, so you couldn’t get your news from anything but other people.
No cell phones.
No cell phones, no phones, that’s right.
That’s right. You were very young at this point, but what do you remember? I know very well that you remember your second birthday.
What are your general memories of this time period?
Right, as strange as it sounds, I have very strong memories about certain things. There are actually two things I’d like to share. When we went into hiding, my parents told my two-year-old brother at that time, “Never leave your sister alone.”
They were dreaming that if we would be betrayed and we would be separated, that the two children should always be together. My brother was such a good boy and he took that so seriously that he took my hand all the time—he held my hand all the time.
When I started walking, we walked hand in hand. When I went to the bathroom, he held my hand. When we went to sleep, he made me stick my arm through the slats of my crib and he held my hand. Of course, then you fall asleep and you both relax, but I remember that.
And if somebody gives me a very strong handshake, that memory comes back, because the few times that we were afraid, he used to really squeeze my hand. That was the only way. We didn’t cry, we didn’t say anything, but he used to just squeeze my hand.
The other memory is that we had floor covering, but nice and soft like this carpet here. If you take a coconut, and you take the outside of a coconut and you go over it with your hands, the rough fibers can hurt your hands.
So the mats were woven from coconut fibers together. I was six months old when we went into hiding and maybe I was ten months old when I started to stand up, and what do you do as parents with a little child that stands up? You say, “Come, walk to me.”
Now also, I was always on bare feet. My mom could not take me to a shoe store because we never went out. If there were still stores with shoes, she couldn’t take me to it, so I had to learn to walk on my bare feet.
So, “Come to me, come to me,” and I used to, one step forward, a second step forward. My feet hurt on those mats. I didn’t like it so I used to sit down and I probably thought, “You go walk on these mats, but I’m not going to do it.”
Of course then, my brother with his hand, came up and he made me walk later on so I learned to walk on it, but even today, walking on sand on a beach or anything, I don’t like it. It’s rough and that whole thing with the coconut mats comes to mind and it’s really a vivid memory.
And the other memory that you just elaborated on is my second birthday. My mom, my dad and our friend Selma wanted it to be a very special day for me, and they really worked on it. I also have to explain that my mom, my dad and Selma were always in fear.
They must have gone through a terrible time, but they wanted the children to not feel that. They really shielded us. So a birthday party for a second-year-old was important for them. Just before my birthday, a friend of my dad’s had come across a little doll’s chair.
And he asked my dad, he said, “Is that something for your daughter?” and my dad was so happy. He said, “It’s going to be her second birthday. Yes, I would like to have it.” So the friend brought it over and he brought a camera and said, “We need to take pictures. It’s going to be your second birthday.”
We found those pictures after the war. He could never leave the pictures with us because then, God forbid, you were ever found out and there would be questions, so we found the pictures after the war.
But he also said, “If we take pictures, she needs to have shoes on,” so he brought over shoes and they were two sizes to small, so my feet were squeezed into the shoes for the picture. But my mom, out of an old blouse, had made a beautiful dress—all handmade with tiny little elephants on it. It was one of her blouses.
Our friend Selma made a doll, a rag doll, out of really old rags. The face was an old stocking and she made eyes; one eye was a little droopy. My brother had a pull horse—maybe you remember from seeing that in the picture.
I was allowed to play with that all day. It was really special. I didn’t have to ask him. For that day, it was my pull horse. But the doll, I really unpacked, and then I saw the chair. I was only two years old, and it was doll’s chair, but I sat in it and I was so happy! So here’s the picture with me sitting in it.
The chair had a different life. My brother and I used the chair for everything. When we were angry at each other, we threw the chair at each other. If we needed to step up on something, we use the chair as a stepladder. You name it, what we did.
So the chair, at the end of the war, was still there, but there were some parts that were missing, so in 1948, my mom had the chair restored. The chair was in the family all the years. When we used to visit Holland with our daughters, they played with it.
The chair finally came here. We did a lot of moving, so I left the chair in Holland for many years. When the chair came here, I asked our children if they wanted it for their children, our grandchildren.
The chair was fragile, so they said, “Mom, maybe better not. You keep it.” What am I going to do with a doll’s chair forever? So I donated the chair to the Museum, so it’s here right now, and it’s a good place for it. I’m really happy.
Indeed. Indeed. Many people think of the hidden child, which is what you basically were. Anne Frank, who was a German Jewish child, but who was hidden, like you, in Amsterdam…
Four blocks away from us.
I didn’t know that—four blocks away. But she was in a secret annex; you were sort of hiding in plain sight, and yet you never left and you were in an ordinary apartment block. Did your neighbors never suspect, or do you think they perhaps suspected?
I am sure they heard. The area that we lived in was an attic apartment that could be used by the other apartments below, and it was not insulated, so it was not really a real apartment.
So that was already something hidden, but what was important, the less you knew about people, the better it was, because you never knew who would ask you questions.
So the people below us and on the sides must have known, but never asked questions. We didn’t know who they were and they didn’t know who we were, what was the safest way to do it.
This is where the round-up of Dutch Jews comes into the equation and that was this famous headcount that we talked about earlier, and this is maybe the time to bring it into the story chronologically.
Right. In 1944, after the Normandy invasion by the Allies, there was this headcount of Dutch officers and my father was told by one of his army friends that this headcount was going to happen, because we didn’t have mail; we lived clandestine, in hiding.
My father said, “I’m not going.” The friends said, “But you have to. You’re a Dutch officer and there’s a headcount for everybody,” and my father said, “Yeah, with a star on my clothes?” So till about three years ago, I thought that none of the Jewish officers ever came back—they were taken prisoner of war but then they were taken to a concentration camp.
I used to, and I occasionally still do, translate a lot of documents that come to the Museum, from Dutch into English, and I came across one document where a Dutch officer did come back, but that was with the intervention of the Phillips company, so it was a little bit different. So to my knowledge, as far as I know, only one ever came back, so my father made the right decision. It haunted him a couple of years after that.
I imagine. At a certain point, the Allies came. It was very slow getting through to Amsterdam; I believe the Canadians came, did they not?
Yes, the Allies came and liberated the southern part of Holland and then they came up through the large rivers that kind of divide Holland in southern Holland and north Holland. We had a very early onset of the winter and the rivers froze. And the Allies did not have the right equipment to continue. So they decided, “We’re going to wait till spring comes until the frost is over, and then we continue.” So we had this crazy phenomenon, where the southern part of Holland were dancing in the streets in September 1944, and we were not liberated till May 1945.
The winter 1944-1945 was one of the worst winters in the history of northern Europe—it was so bitter cold. Some experts even say it was a mini ice time. We lived in an uninsulated attic and we had no electricity anymore. We had no kitchen—all the cooking was done on a camping stove.
So when we were closed off from the southern part, the Nazis also closed off all the supply lines, so food was really very difficult to come by. Just before the winter started, my father had traded a lot of his stuff for a lot of butter, sugar and flour, and he baked cookies.
Now how…I can bake cookies, I need an oven; he baked them on top of a camping stove. I don’t know how. And he put those cookies in tins and sealed them as emergency food. That’s a good thing he did, because very many days, that was the only food that my brother and I had.
But again, we were not used to a regular breakfast, lunch and dinner, so whenever our parents gave us something, it was okay. The adults went without many, many days. Then I have to tell you a story how my mom and Selma played this silly game with each other that really made a big impression; my brother and I just listened to that.
My mom would ask Selma, “Are you hungry?” and Selma would respond, “No, I’m not hungry. I just finished this big bowl of delicious, juicy strawberries with whipped cream. You know, because I shared them with you,” and my mom’s whole face would light up.
She would say, “Oh yeah, and they were so delicious.” What did we know what a strawberry was? We had no idea, but all we could figure out was it must be something very delicious.
One day, somebody from the Underground brought over a big bag of tulip bulbs. Holland is famous for their tulips; they’re very pretty. Tulip bulbs are not really edible, so my mom and Selma made this delicious-smelling stew and we all got a big soup plate full, and it was warm and it filled our tummies and we felt good till about a half hour later. The tulip bulb stew left our bodies with lots of cramping and stomach pains, so that was the end of the tulip bulbs. We didn’t eat any more. They’re not edible. Don’t do it.
Don’t try this at home. Do you remember the liberation? I remember you telling me a story about liberation and what frightened you most about liberation.
Right. Liberation came in May 1945—a lot of screaming on the street and here’s my dad, pulling a chair over to the window and we are like, “What is he doing? Nobody is allowed to do that.” He opens the window and he looks out at what’s going on.
He looks back and he said, “It’s peace.” And my brother and I thought, “Okay, whatever.” So he had to explain to us what peace really meant, but as a little child (I was three years old), what do you know? He almost fell off the chair in a hurry to go to the last cookie tin that he had saved.
He opened it up, put it in the middle of the floor, and said, “You can all take as many as you want.” A big deal for us! Take one cookie with one hand, cookie with the other hand, “Where am I going to start?” We finished each, my brother and I each finished one cookie and we were full, so we put the other one back for next time.
My parents waited a day and then they decided to take us outside. They took us to a park that we had lived across from for three years, and put us on a grassy area. It looked huge to us. They put us down, we were holding on for dear life. We were scared, so my brother is squeezing my hand. We are looking at each other and, “What are we doing here? No walls, no ceiling,” we were scared. So we started crying and my mom, with all the tension that she went through and keeping a stiff upper lip for her children, she just couldn’t hold it anymore and she started crying.
It went on for so long and made such an impression on us. It was just that she’d finally let go. And we went back inside and we were happy and maybe had another cookie, I would assume. But it didn’t last very long, our being afraid.
Amsterdam was liberated by Canadians. Now here, we’re walking in old rags, no shoes—whatever they tied around our feet. Most Dutch people…there were no more stores. Holland was plundered by the Nazis—everything was taken out, so if there were stores still standing, they were empty.
So here were the Canadian soldiers, walking all over the streets in their crisp, khaki uniforms, but they were so nice. We didn’t understand them, we didn’t speak English, but when they saw children, they pulled out Hershey bars.
So, my mom, as soon as we started going outside, my mom told us, like any good mother does, “Don’t take anything from people,” so my brother and I, coming home with a Hershey bar, “Look what we got. Can we eat it?” and my mom said yes. You have no idea how delicious that was. So after that, we couldn’t wait to go outside because we wanted to meet more Canadians and get more Hershey bars.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your life in the post-war and how you got to the United States, and how you met Sidney? Your husband is here in the audience. I thought I’d embarrass him. There we go.
We moved for a couple of years to Sweden after the war, because my father couldn’t make a living anymore for us and was invited by a Swedish friend. Sweden was neutral during the Second World War. That meant that they had dealings with the Allies and with other countries that were in war, but also with Germany, so they hadn’t suffered. They had everything.
When we came to Sweden in our old rags, it was very cold, it was a cold winter, and I remember a lot of cold and cold feet. My brother and I went to school and here are these Swedish kids with beautiful clothes and well-fed and we weren’t used to that.
The problem was that the kids made fun of us and called us by silly names, like “Potato Head” or whatever, and were laughing about the clothes we had. That is a very important thing. Much later, I thought about that and I thought how important it is to be nice to strangers, even if they look different. Figure out why they are looking different. One child could have said something to the other kids and said, “Hey, these kids come from a war area. Maybe we should look in our closets and see if we have a jacket left over, or a pair of boots, and help them instead.”
So it wasn’t a very happy time for us. In 1948, my father was invited back to Holland by the government to try to start up his business again, to get the economy in Holland going. Anecdotally, it wasn’t so funny for my father, when we came off the plane from Sweden into Amsterdam, the Dutch military police was waiting for him.
At that time, you could still drive up to a plane; there wasn’t the security that we have today. They took my father away in handcuffs. We were flabbergasted. We’re going to a strange country, we’re meeting grandparents that we don’t remember, and here our father is being arrested.
My mom went to The Hague, where the government was seated, and tried to reason with them and tried to find out why he was arrested. He was actually arrested because he had not come for the headcount in 1944 and that was conduct unbecoming an officer and they arrested him.
So when my mom had explained everything and my dad explained it, they let him go, so everything was fine, but it took three days to do that. My father made a start with the business and the business was returned to the family in 1953, about eight years after the war was over.
I did all my schooling in Holland and became a physical therapist. My husband went to the university in Amsterdam (he’s an American) and I met him there and we got married and had our first daughter before we came back to the States.
And you’ve been living here since…
Nineteen sixty-seven, but not always in the States. My husband, in 1973 when the draft was over, he still had to go into the military, so with the military, we lived in Europe for many years.
I have one more question, then we’re going to open the floor to the audience. But, since you were so young, I know, when we had the first conversation about your story, you told me that your parents, who had been through this tremendous ordeal and had suffered a great deal, you children had been shielded by your age and by them. But they weren’t willing to talk about it in the post-war, and this was where Selma had been very helpful.
Yes. My parents didn’t want to burden the children with those horrible war years and also, with the relatives that were taken to concentration camps and did not come back, but we didn’t know them, so they didn’t even want to mention them—aunts, uncles, cousins.
So they didn’t talk and we were not allowed to ask questions. I was inquisitive, I wanted to ask questions, but one look of my father…. My father used to look like that and that was a no-no. You don’t ask any more questions.
My brother was okay with not asking. I spent many summers with my friend Selma, who was the only survivor with her brother, and stayed very good friends with us. I saved my questions, as young as I was, for my friend Selma, and she helped me out.
Same thing with religion: My parents didn’t want to have anything to do with religion; I wanted it. So I was 15 years old and approached a rabbi and asked for help, so I’m the only one in the family that’s still religious.
Why don’t we, since we have only about 15 minutes, why don’t we open the floor and then I’ll let you have a little bit of a say in the end. We’ll open the floor for questions now, from the audience. I’m going to ask you to be brief and concise so we can get in as many questions for Louise as possible. Anybody with a question? Yes sir, right here. You in the blue. Oh oh Ma’am I’m sorry. It’s dark. We can’t see from here. I am going to get in trouble with this audience. I can see that now. Ma’am.
[Question from Audience] I’ll repeat the question. Basically, what did the family discuss about the grandparents living elsewhere?
That was a very difficult decision, especially for my father, since they were his parents, but he had to do it. My grandparents were very angry about it and didn’t talk to the family—they didn’t even know that we survived—until 1948, till we came back to Holland after Sweden. They felt betrayed by my father, but my father did the right thing because my grandparents also survived. Together, we probably would not have survived.
I saw a hand up in the back. Yes, I am not even going to say sir or madam because I can’t see you. [Question from Audience] Okay so, I’ll repeat briefly. Did you have to remain quiet in the apartment and since you were children, how did you manage that?
We were spoken to with a soft voice, and as children, you repeat what you see and what you hear. We were never yelled at. I guess we were good children, but if we did something wrong, there were three adults and two children, so they took care of us in a small area.
I don’t remember yelling and screaming, and the one time that we had a betrayal and somebody came to the apartment and did a lot of yelling and screaming, my brother and I were so scared that he squeezed my hand and we hid in a corner.
But as children, you do what you are taught. You mimic what you are taught, and if you don’t hear yelling and screaming around you, you don’t do it either. Crying, in case I fell on the hard mats or anything—there was always an adult there that took me and took care of it and then a child stops crying.
So I don’t think they encouraged us to whisper, but we were talked to with a soft voice. You take for granted…and you know that comes to something else. We lived in hiding with false papers—fake identity papers, different names.
I didn’t know my real name till the war was over. I thought my name was Maria. I didn’t even know that I had a last name. When the war was over and my parents told me that my name was Louise, okay. Your parents tell you and there’s no reason to question it.
“Have a cookie, Louise.”
Yeah, that’s right. There’s no reason to question your parents. A child is trustworthy. A child is made not to trust by other people, but if you’re not made that way, then you do what your parents tell you.
Okay. Other questions. Yes.
What’s happened to your brother? Is he still alive? What contact have you had in adulthood with him?
My brother lives in Amsterdam with his family - with his wife; his children are grown. But we were always very, very close. Just a look and one word would do it. Since we both got married, life has changed somewhat. When I’m alone with him, we still have that tremendous closeness.
What about Selma?
Selma stayed my dear, dear friend. Even when I came to the United States, I used to go and visit my parents often, and always Selma, and Selma, at the age of 80, after her husband passed away… First of all, Selma was engaged before the war and her husband was hidden in the southern part of Holland. They found each other after the war and got married and made the unselfish decision to adopt two Jewish war orphans and not have children of their own. They figured if we adopt war orphans, they have known their own parents and who knows what has happened to them during the war. If we have our own children, that probably would be conflicting you have two different families living under the same roof. So they had these two children that I know very well.
Selma always wanted to go to Israel, so after her husband passed away, one of her children had already moved to Israel. She moved to Israel by herself and lived there for about ten years. I used to speak to her every month by phone and we used to visit her every other year. She passed away about three years ago and she’s buried in Israel. That was her last wish.
Yes, over there.
How much older was Selma than you?
Selma was my mom’s age, so she was 28 years older than I was. We were very, very good friends.
Other questions. Here and then over here.
Was your family ever close to being arrested? Did the Nazis ever come to your street?
That’s a good question. I think there was some betrayal going on because, at one point - this was probably after the southern part of Holland was already liberated - the Nazis had stopped deporting people from Holland to the concentration camps, but they were still putting people in prison and still locally killing people.
But they had become unorganized. There was betrayal and a German officer and a Dutch collaborator did come to our hiding place, did a lot of screaming and when they checked the identity papers, my mom’s and Selma’s were all right.
My brother and I were written, like you do with children on a passport, on my mom’s identity papers. My dad’s, they didn’t like, and they arrested him. My dad has had a lot of luck during that time. He was put in prison and of course, we didn’t know where he was, but after about a week in prison, they kind of dropped him off there and left him there.
He tried his…it was a makeshift, an old school, that they used as a prison. He tried the door where he was and he found the door unlocked and looked in the hallway, at night, late at night, didn’t see anybody in the hallway, walked to the front door, found the front door unlocked, and walked home.
How about luck? But, see, if the people that arrested him had known that…but they went on to do the next arrest or the next nasty business. They never checked up with the prison and maybe the people in the prison didn’t even know where he really lived.
He just walked home, came home in the middle of the night. He knew Amsterdam very well and that helped. The prison was in Amsterdam too so he knew where he was and he could walk home at night.
Sir, you had your hand up.
At the time that you went into hiding, the sense of purpose became survival. After the war, people had to regain a sense of purpose. Do you know how the process was for people who had to do that? To gain a sense of purpose in their lives?
I think, if I’m talking about my own family, their purpose was taking care of the family, feeding the family, and they never thought about anything else. We didn’t have the means that we have today with psychologists, psychiatrists and pills for depression; we have to keep on living.
My parents had children and my mom was pregnant again, gave birth to my sister, and afterwards we had two more, so we ended up with five children in the family. Their purpose was taking care of the family. They never thought about anything else.
Today, things are sometimes taken out of proportion because of publications about television, what’s in the newspapers—we didn’t have any of that. No, okay, we’re free, food is becoming available, clothes are becoming available.
My mom made everything by hand because there was nothing in the stores, but she found material or an old winter coat, or whatever she could cut up for us. Their whole sense was taking care of the children. But they were…my dad, till the day he died, was always afraid that something was going to happen again.
So he was forever putting stuff aside, saving money, so that if something happened again, that he could provide for his family, but the family was the most important thing. I don’t think they gave anything else a thought. Taking care of the family and not burdening the family—our children should have an upbringing as normal as possible; that was important.
We have about five minutes left and it’s usually the practice of First Person to leave the last word to our guest. I know that Louise would want to take this opportunity to share some last thoughts with us.
Yes, I have two messages that I would like to leave with you. I told you my parents didn’t want to talk, they didn’t want to burden us, but they did something and as children growing up, we didn’t even realize it, and I understand what they did, but it wasn’t maybe the right thing.
They used derogatory words for Germans. You know, Germany and Holland border, so it’s very close. Very derogatory words—they never said “this German” or “the Germans,” no; derogatory words, full of hatred. German products wouldn’t get into the house. They wouldn’t spend money on that.
Going to Germany, heavens forbid. So we were brought up with that and that was really hateful. I thought I had brains but I maybe didn’t want to hear it or I didn’t want to process it, so I also did exactly the same thing.
I said before, you know you do what you’re taught, but there comes a time in your life that you have to realize, ‘Hey, maybe this wasn’t right,’ and you turn and you do something else, but I didn’t. Even after I was married and after we had our three daughters, I brought them up with the same hatred toward Germans.
Hatred begets hatred. It doesn’t get you anywhere. That’s how the Holocaust started. Hitler hated the Jews. He hated the other groups that Patricia explained to you, like the gypsies or homosexuals or Jehovah’s Witnesses. He spread that hatred around so other people started to hate too, and that’s how the whole Holocaust started.
So in the military, when we were stationed in Belgium, we joined a small Jewish congregation and the president of the congregation lived in a duplex house next to a German officer. We were stationed in Belgium and it was a multi-national military base.
Our nine-year-old daughter, our middle daughter, rang the doorbell of the Jewish family one night and said, “You have Germans living next door to you. They hated the Jews. You better get out because one night, they will come in and kill you all.”
That was my wake-up call. I was already in my middle 30s. The president of the congregation called me and told me this story and of course, Naomi, our daughter, couldn’t help that, because that’s how I brought her up.
My husband, who is the nicest, sweetest person, who knew that if he fought me on this that maybe we wouldn’t be together anymore, because I was adamant, I have a strong personality…I talked to him and I asked for his help. I said, “We have to change this around. What can we do?”
So we were able to change it. Our children are wonderful. For the duration of the time we lived in Belgium, they made German friends, they had German children come to the house. I made a special effort that not all Germans were bad; the Nazis were bad.
So that’s what I want to tell you. I’m not very proud of what I did, but I want to tell you that I did that, and that hatred begets hatred, so be very careful when you use the word ‘hate’ and try not to. You can dislike something, but hate is a very strong feeling. That’s one message I want to tell you.
And the other is that I am so fortunate. During the Holocaust, approximately 12 million people were murdered. Out of the 12 million people were six million Jews. From the six million Jews, there were a million and a half Jewish children, age birth to approximately 15.
If you were 14 and you were a big person and the Nazis could use you for their war effort as a slave laborer, they would let you live for, you know, as long as you could produce for them. They would also starve you. But if my mom had been sent to a concentration camp with my brother and myself, we would not have had a chance.
What were they going to do with little kids? Nothing. So that meant instant killing, either the gas chamber, or however else the camp you were sent to would do their killing. So if we had gone to a concentration camp, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.
These million and a half children had not done anything wrong. They were just killed because they were Jewish. My big problem is, trains came to these killing camps so many times a day—big boxcars, cargo/animal trains, not normal seats like what we sit on when we go on a train.
Out of those trains came moms, dads, little children. What did the people in the towns think? They saw these families get off the train; they never saw those children play, never heard them sing or laugh. They just were gone. They never questioned it.
What would have happened if one person was courageous enough to say, “Hey, what is happening to these children? We never see them. More and more trains come and more and more children get off.”
And it’s like the story I told you about living in Sweden and kids making fun of us. It takes one courageous person—and you have to have courage to do it—to question this. Then it becomes a snowball and maybe they could have prevented a lot of children from having died during the war.
Genocide, like the Holocaust, is still going on today. Look what’s happening in Africa, what happened in Rwanda a couple of years ago, and what’s happening in Darfur today. We all need to stand up and speak up against this genocide and maybe if we do that, one year will come and we won’t have genocide.
I’m one of approximately 80 survivor volunteers. I’m probably the baby of them all because I was a baby during the war. We’re all trying to give this message, especially to young people. How much longer can we speak; we’re getting older?
We need all of your voices. You see something wrong, at home starts. You see a sibling that is doing something that is really badly wrong; it’s not tattletaling on your sibling if it’s really badly wrong. Don’t tell your sibling because they won’t like it when you say something to them—they might bop you over the head—so go to your parents.
Always go to a person of authority. In school, don’t tell the bully not to bully other children, but go to the teacher, go to the principal. On the street, you see something on the street corner the really shouldn’t happen, don’t go to the people because like I said, you will be in danger, but go to a police officer. Go to a person of authority and speak up. You will see, that will make a difference. One person speaks up and is courageous, more people say, “Hey well, he can do it; I can do it too,” and that’s really the message that I wanted to give. Especially the young ones: Speak up when you see something wrong. You can make a difference. It’s really important.
I want to let you know that Louise will be signing books, Echoes of Memory, outside of the auditorium when you are out there in a few minutes. So take the opportunity to talk to her for a few minutes personally and have her sign a book.
Echoes of Memory is…the museum has been so wonderful to give the survivors that want to, the opportunity to take a writing workshop. None of us are professionals and I’m probably the worst of them all, but I did write some stories. The museum has been printing the stories in a book called Echoes of Memory. That’s what we…
Let’s clap again for Louise and thank her for joining us today.