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< Echoes of Memory

A Letter to Olivia

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by Alfred Münzer

Dear Olivia,

Last month I met your dad at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. He was in the audience when I gave a talk about my family’s experience during the Holocaust. It was the first time he heard an account by an actual survivor of that terrible chapter in the world’s history. Afterwards he came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “I am a young father and have a one-year-old daughter. Who will tell her your story when she grows up?” He then asked whether I would write a letter to you that you could read when you are old enough to understand the history and the lessons of the Holocaust that I shared that evening.

The Holocaust, as you may have learned in school by now, refers to the persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 to 1945, but there were millions of other victims too. I told the audience at Old Dominion University that I could not possibly tell the story of what happened to all six million people. That is a story better told by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. All I could do, I explained, was to tell the story of one small family. And that story multiplied millions of times over, I said, would give them an understanding of what the Holocaust was all about. It’s not a pretty story, dear Olivia, but one that is important to learn if we are ever to have a world where all people live in harmony.

My parents were born in Eastern Europe and came to the Netherlands—sometimes called Holland—to escape antisemitism and to seek greater economic opportunities. They were married in The Hague in December 1932, just as Adolf Hitler came to power in nearby Germany, bringing with him his Nazi racist ideology that especially targeted Jews. But in Holland where Jews had lived for hundreds of years, my parents felt secure, and in July 1936 they celebrated the birth of my sister Eva and in November 1938, the birth of my sister Leah. 

But then, Olivia, early in the morning on May 14, 1940, my parents listened to the radio and heard that the Dutch port city of Rotterdam had been bombed by German planes and a few minutes later they heard Queen Wilhelmina announce that Holland had surrendered. My parents knew the terrible restrictions that had been placed on Jews in Germany and in other countries that Germany had invaded, and they began to fear for their lives and the lives of my sisters. And indeed, within a matter of days Jews were forced to take a new middle name, Israel for men and Sara for women, so they could always be identified as Jews. They had to register all their property so it could more easily be taken from them. And they were even forbidden from using public transportation or going into public parks.

Early in 1941, my mom found out that she was pregnant again. Her doctor ordered her to have an abortion. But in reading the biblical story of Hannah, a woman who was desperate to have a child, my mother decided against terminating the pregnancy. Her doctor fired her as a patient, and as a result, I was born at home with the help of a nurse on November 23, 1941. By the time I was nine months old, in August 1942, Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Like many other Jewish families and like the family of Anne Frank, whose diary you may have read, my parents decided that we should go into hiding. My sisters Eva and Leah were placed with a devout Catholic woman, and I was taken in by a neighbor of my parents, Annie Madna. My parents then went into hiding in a hospital, my father pretending to be a patient and my mother a nurse.

Annie Madna had had some bad run-ins with the Nazi occupiers and was afraid that her house might be searched and that I might be discovered. She therefore passed me on to her 27-year-old sister, Yorina. But after three weeks, Yorina too got scared because she had a neighbor who turned out to be a member of the Dutch Nazi Party. Annie then handed me over to her former husband, Tolé Madna, a man born in what was a Dutch colony, Indonesia. Tolé Madna now became my father and the three Madna children, Wil, Dewie, and Robby, my sisters and brother. And it was their Indonesian nanny, Mima Saïna, who became my mother. Mima came from a very poor background and could not read or write and did not speak Dutch, only the Indonesian language. But she had a heart of gold and cared for me as if I were her baby. I slept in her bed and she kept a knife under her pillow to fight off any Nazi who might try to get me.

The Madna family and Mima risked their lives by agreeing to hide me from the Nazis. They also had to share whatever food they had with me. Food was severely rationed, and every food item they bought required a coupon, and there were no coupons for me since I was in the home illegally. A few years ago, I met a woman in Holland who told me, to my surprise, that I used to drink her milk. She then explained that during the war years young children were given a small bottle of milk every day in school and that her mother had told her to save half the little bottle for the baby next door. I was that baby. You see, Olivia, even a young girl maybe eight or nine was encouraged to do whatever she could to save a human life!

The few memories I have of being with the Madna family are happy ones. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house or even go near a window for fear that someone might spot a strange white child in a family that was darkskinned. My only view of the outside world was what I could see through a mail slot in the front door. From time to time I had to hide in a closet because the house was being searched. But that wasn’t so bad because I played with the Christmas decorations that were stored there. What I remember most was Papa—that is what I called Tolé Madna for the rest of his life—playing the piano and Mima singing an Indonesian lullaby. My favorite private space was to sit in the kneehole of Papa’s desk. The only bad memory I have is of being very hungry which must have been the last winter of the war when one of the few things left to eat in Holland were ground up tulip bulbs. You may have seen pictures of Holland’s beautiful tulip fields, but I am sure you never imagined their bulbs could possibly be edible!

While I was with the Madna family my parents were discovered and taken from the hospital where they were hiding and sent to a series of concentration camps, first in Holland and then to Auschwitz in Poland where they were separated. My mom was sent on to a camp where she performed slave labor in an electronics factory. After that factory was bombed by the Allies who were fighting the Nazis, Mom was sent on what was later called a “death march” because so many of the prisoners died of starvation and disease or were shot along the way, to a series of other camps. Fortunately, she survived the death march and was liberated early in 1945 at the Danish border.

In August 1945, I was three-and-a-half years old and was finally reunited with my mother. But I had no memory of her and to me she was a complete stranger. All I remember of that first meeting, Olivia, is that I had been asleep and cranky and was carried into the living room and passed from lap to lap but refused to sit in my mother’s lap and kept pushing her away. But after a short while I came to understand that that strange woman was my mom who loved me dearly. 

Sadly, Olivia, my sisters did not survive the Holocaust. The husband of the woman who had agreed to hide them from the Nazis, reported his wife to the Nazis for hiding two Jewish children. His wife was sent to prison but was eventually freed. But my sisters were sent to the Auschwitz death camp where they were killed. Eva was only eight and Leah was only six. Altogether 1.5 million children were killed by the Nazis.

My dad too did not survive. After Auschwitz and several other concentration camps, he was taken to Ebensee, a camp located in one of the most beautiful spots in Austria—maybe your parents will take you to an old movie called The Sound of Music, which was filmed in that area, to see what it was like—where he worked in an abandoned underground salt mine assembling rockets for the German Army without ever being allowed to see daylight and almost without food. He survived long enough to be liberated by the US Army but was so weak that he passed away two months later and was buried in the concentration camp, which is now a huge cemetery.

The story of my family, dear Olivia, brought tears to the eyes of your dad and no doubt will make you sad. But I reminded your dad, and also want you to remember that even when there was so much evil, there were people willing to stand up and do what is right, like the family that saved my life. Annie, Yorina, Tolé, and Mima risked their lives to save a nine-month-old Jewish baby, making it possible many, many years later for that Jewish baby to become a doctor and eventually to become acquainted with your dad and to write this letter at his request.

I hope, dear Olivia, that you will never be confronted with the choice the family who saved me had to make. But there will be times when you may hear hateful words being said about people of a different religion or of a different race or who speak a different language. And I hope that you will then remember the story of my family and the terrible consequences when hate goes unanswered. Don’t ever go along with people who hate others and always look for ways to tell them what you learned from this letter. I hope you will share the letter with your friends and classmates. All of us working together can make sure something like the Holocaust never happens again.

I wish you all the best, dear Olivia! And please say hello for me to your mom and dad.

 Alfred Münzer 

© 2019, Alfred Münzer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 12alfred münzer

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