November 16, 2022
By Al Munzer
Two of the most precious photographs I have of my family were taken at my brit milah, the ritual circumcision ceremony performed on all male Jewish babies when they are eight days old. Because I was born a year and a half into the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, my parents’ friends counseled against a circumcision. “It will identify him as being Jewish,” they said. My parents’ dilemma was solved when a pediatrician who examined me shortly after I was born told my father that I needed “a minor operation, called a circumcision.” My father then reminded him of our Jewish tradition and that I would be ritually circumcised. That is how family and friends came to gather in our home on December 1, 1941, to observe this first milestone of a Jewish life.
The two photographs taken that day are small, only one by one-and-a-half inches in size, but they have gained mythic significance because my mother kept them with her through her eventual stay in 12 concentration camps. She developed a superstition that if ever she lost those photographs, it would mean that I had died or been killed. My mother survived, the photographs survived, and thanks to the Dutch-Indonesian Madna family and their Indonesian Muslim nanny, Mima Saïna, who sheltered me from the Nazis for over three years, so did I. The photographs are now part of the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One photograph shows the mohel, dressed in a tallit, and a nurse, and me on a pillow. The other shows a large, solemn gathering in the dining room of our home on Zoutmanstraat. I am able to recognize the faces of my father, my sisters, Eva and Leah, my Uncle Emil, and his girlfriend, Ellie, gathered around the table graced by the five-arm candelabra that, thanks to caring neighbors, escaped plunder by the Nazis. My mother continued to light it on Jewish Holy Days throughout the years, and I own it now. A few of the faces in the photographs looked like people I met after the war. My foster sister, Dewie Madna, told me the face on the far left belonged to her mother, Annie Madna, the woman who first agreed to hide me from the Nazis before I was transferred to her former husband, Tolé Madna. Dewie told me that her mother was terribly upset when I cried out during the circumcision. “What are they doing to that poor baby?” was how she put it to her daughter afterwards.
Until recently, I was never able to identify any of the other guests around the table. But then I received an email from Ron van Hasselt, the man who helped in my search for the fate of my sisters. He is writing a book that includes their story, and he asked me whether the name Helene Hausmann was one my mother might have mentioned to me. Helene Hausmann, he explained, was born in Dresden, Germany, and on January 4, 1939, when she was 14, came to the Netherlands as part of a group of children sent from Germany to escape Nazi persecution. While most children like her eventually were sent on to Great Britain or the United States, some, like Helene, remained in the Netherlands. Initially her group was housed at a children’s home in Smitoord, then a similar facility in Rotterdam, and finally in a villa in Scheveningen, the beach resort adjoining The Hague. After Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 14, 1940, a group home was no longer felt to be safe, and the young refugees were placed with families instead. Helene, according to records found by Ron van Hasselt, was placed as a kindermeisje, a nanny, with “the Münzer family which lived at Zoutmanstraat 98 in Den Haag.”
Ron asked whether I might have a photograph of Helene. After a search of all the photographs in my possession, I decided to look closely at the group picture taken at my Brit Milah. And that is how I was able to put a face with the name Helene Hausmann. Between and above my sisters and to the right of my father, there is the unmistakable face of a young woman. Isn’t that the exact place where a nanny would be expected at a traumatic event like the circumcision of their baby brother?
In mid-1942 my family was forced to go into hiding. My sisters were hidden with two devout Catholic women. My parents took refuge in a psychiatric hospital, and I was placed with Annie Madna and then with Tolé Madna. Helene, according to Ron, spent time in Almelo and was then arrested by the SS and deported. Documents from the archives of the International Tracing Service tell the tragic story of Helene Hausmann: April 9, 1943, arrival in the Vught concentration camp, where she worked as a seamstress for Philips Electronics; June 3, 1944, departure from Vught; then, a gap in the record; next, evacuated to Sweden after liberation; and then, finally, April 30, 1945, death at age 20 in Malmö, Sweden. According to a JewishGen burial record of victims of the Holocaust, Helene was buried in the Gamla Judiska Begravingsplatsen, the Old Jewish Cemetery of Malmö.
The path taken by Helene Hausmann was remarkably like my mother’s. They worked at Philips Electronics at the same time, departed Vught on the same day, and were both liberated in Germany and evacuated to Sweden. It is not unlikely that Helene followed the same path as my mother from Vught. But as fate would have it, my mother survived, Helene Hausmann did not.
© 2022, 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.
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