December 28, 2020
By Alfred Münzer
The Holocaust should be receding into history, the purview of scholars, books, museums, and memorials. After all, the Nazi regime that gave rise to the Holocaust gained power 87 years ago and was defeated 75 years ago. But for me, in these last few weeks, time seems to have been moving in reverse. The resurgence of antisemitism and xenophobia in the United States and Europe may have played a part, but the sudden, unexpected discovery of new information about the fate of my sisters has hurled me back to a time when I was less than a year old, a time when I was too young to comprehend the breakup forced on our family by the Nazi occupation. It is as if the immunity conferred by the slow piecemeal exposure to the Holocaust as a youngster growing up in its immediate aftermath had worn off, and I now fully felt the pain of the loss of my sisters and the anger at the perpetrators and collaborators responsible for the murder of two bright and beautiful young girls, only five and seven, in a man-made hell called Auschwitz.
This sudden turn began with an email from Ron van Hasselt, a man in the Netherlands who received a membership newsletter from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that described a special tour of the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition that I led for a group of victims of religious persecution from around the world. The newsletter included a link to my personal story on the Museum’s website. Ron van Hasselt told me that it seemed likely that my sisters were deported on the same transport to Auschwitz as his two nieces, about whom he was writing a book. Shortly after hearing from him, I received a call from Suzy Snyder, the curator of the Museum’s 2003–04 special exhibition Life in Shadows that dealt with the stories of children who were forced to hide from the Nazis, and which had brought me into the Museum’s family. The exhibition included a photograph of my sisters, Eva and Leah, when they were flower girls at a wedding. It also featured small photographs of my brit mila, the circumcision ceremony that marks the first milestone in a Jewish life, which my mother had kept with her through her stay in 12 concentration camps. Suzy asked whether I might be willing to speak to a fellow in the Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Lilly Maier, who was writing her doctoral thesis on women who tried to save Jewish children during the Holocaust and who had come upon the story of my sisters. I was surprised by the request because I knew so little about the woman who had agreed to hide my sisters or about the circumstances of the betrayal to the Nazis that led to their murder in Auschwitz. Lilly told me that an inquiry with the Netherlands Central Archive for Special Jurisdiction (CASJ), the highly secretive repository of the records of the prosecution immediately after World War II of Nazi perpetrators and collaborators, had yielded a reference to my sisters in the file of a man called Dirk Vas. The file, she told me, was protected by privacy laws and could only be viewed by appointment and could not be copied. I shared her findings with Mr. van Hasselt who readily volunteered to file a request for an appointment at the CASJ.
While trying to imagine what he might uncover in the CASJ, I did an internet search of some of the names of those who I knew had been responsible for the placement of my sisters. I searched for the two Catholic priests, Fathers Schulling and Lodders, and for the van Leeuwen sisters who had been neighbors of my parents and who, to me, became Tante Jo and Tante Ko after I was reunited with my mother. At first, I found nothing. But then when I added the name of the church, Elandstraat Kerk, to the search, I found an article by Trees Krans in the December 2016 issue of a church bulletin called Ignatius News. It mentioned the role Father Lodders had played in saving Jewish children, which led to his incarceration at a prison established by the Nazi government in Scheveningen, near The Hague, the so-called Oranje Hotel.
To my surprise, the Museum’s library had a copy of the Gedenkboek van het Oranje Hotel, a memorial book published in 1946 to preserve the inscriptions on the walls of the cells left by prisoners. It also listed many of the inmates confined in the prison by the Nazi regime, including names, dates of birth, nature of their offense, and their ultimate fate. There I found not only the listing of Father Lodders, P.F. Lodders, imprisoned January 29, 1944–February 26, 1944 for baptizing Jewish children and distributing ration coupons,
but also, the names of the two sisters I called Tante Jo and Tante Ko: C.J.M. and J.M. van Leeuwen imprisoned February 2, 1944–February 17, 1944 for providing help to Jewish children.
I remembered 30 years ago, when I first began sharing the story of my family during the Holocaust, that a man who worked at the Library of Congress sent me an advertisement placed in the September 14, 1945, issue of the weekly Jewish newspaper, Nieuw Israëlitisch Weekblad, inquiring about the whereabouts of my sisters. It gave their names in hiding as Maria Jansen for Eva and as Anny Jansen for Leah, names which my mother did not recognize. But in the Gedenkboek there was a Mrs. Jansen-de Gelder imprisoned January 20, 1944–May 2, 1945 in the Oranje Hotel for helping Jews in The Hague:
Still waiting anxiously for what Ron van Hasselt might find in the CASJ, I found another book, Jodenjacht, (Jew-Hunt) edited by A.D. Van Liempt and Jan H. Kompagnie. In it, Dirk Vas is described as a devout Dutch Nazi, who joined the Waffen SS as soon as the Netherlands was invaded and who was sent to the Eastern front. There he was injured and sent back to The Hague, where he became a particularly committed and sadistic member of the police force focused on pursuing Jews, especially children. Dirk Vas, second from left in this photo, is shown reading Mein Kampf.
Then just this past week, I received the report from Ron van Hasselt about his visit to CASJ. The file on Dirk Vas, he told me, runs 1,000 pages, of which about four pertained to my sisters. It contains testimony offered by Father Lodders and, to my surprise, testimony from my mother who only days earlier had been repatriated from Sweden where she had been sent to recuperate after the trauma of experiencing many concentration camps and death marches. When she was asked about the whereabouts of my sisters, her reply was, “nog niet terug” (“not back, as of now”). But the most heartbreaking testimony was from a woman called Roza Marie Schermel-Mazurowski. Roza Marie, sometimes called Rosalia, had inherited a boarding house at Reinkenstraat 67 in The Hague from her husband. She was remarried to a J.J. Schermel, but discovered—too late for my sisters—that he was abusive and untrustworthy. Father Lodders arranged for my sisters to be placed with Roza Marie in September of 1943. On January 31, 1944, Dirk Vas took my sisters into custody. Roza Marie believed that they were betrayed by her husband since the police did not announce themselves and did not knock or force the door, but simply used a key to enter the house. They then questioned her and some of the boarders, but, significantly, not her husband who stood by, unperturbed. Eva and Leah, she said, were taken to a police station on Laan van Copes Cattenburg, then to the prison in Scheveningen on Alkemadelaan, the prison which became popularly known as the Oranje Hotel. Their names like those of the many Jews rounded up by the Nazis are not listed in the Gedenkboek. On February 6, they were taken to Westerbork, and from there on February 8, to Auschwitz where they were killed on February 11, 1944. Their transport on February 8 included 1,015 people, 251 of them children without their parents. Among the children were Ron van Halsselt’s nieces, Els and Karla, and two little boys Bernard Ari Cohen and Bernard Elberg whom Ron never knew, but who were brothers of his childhood playmates.
Dirk Vas denied any involvement in the arrest of my sisters but was convicted and sent to prison for 20 years. So many questions remain. Where were my sisters before they were placed with Roza Marie and her husband? According to the CASJ records, my mother indicated that my sisters were initially left with the van Leeuwen sisters with the hope that Father Lodders might find a safer, more permanent place. Could it have been with Mrs. G. Jansen-de Gelder who was mentioned in the records of the Oranje Hotel? Was it she who shared her last name “Jansen” with my sisters? My hope is that there may be records in the Oranje Hotel that explain the reason for her lengthy detention there. Or did my sisters remain with Tante Jo and Tante Ko until they were taken to Roza Marie? The van Leuwen sisters were both teachers, and Tante Jo often showed me a notebook with Eva’s beautiful handwriting and children’s catechism books with angels in one column and devils in another that she proudly told me Eva was able to read when she was just five!
An online search of the archives of the city of The Hague and a search by Trees Krans, the woman who wrote the article in the church bulletin about Father Lodders and who is the volunteer archivist of the Elandstraat Kerk, of the marriage records of the church provided me with additional information about Roza Marie. She was of Polish nationality, born in 1894 in Calbe an der Saale, Germany. She married Gerardus Cornelis Kuyper in 1934, who died in 1940. In 1942, she married Jacobus Johannes Schermel, the man who would denounce her and my sisters less than two years later to the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators. Ron van Hassel recalls from his review of the criminal proceedings against Dirk Vas, that Schermel called Roza Marie a “Poolse Jodin” (“a Polish Jewess”). Both her weddings, however, were performed in the Elandstraat Kerk. An annotation in the Elendstraat Kerk documents shows that Roza Marie’s first husband was not Catholic and received the needed dispensation for a church-sanctioned wedding, but that Roza Marie had been baptized shortly after her birth in Calbe. It is likely that by calling his wife a Polish Jew her husband all but assured the most severe sentence, deportation to a concentration camp.
I was shocked when Trees Krans sent me records signed by Father Lodders that my sisters were baptized by Father Lodders with Jo and Ko van Leeuwen as witnesses January 18, 1943, two weeks after my parents were deported. My mother told me that she last saw my sisters on Christmas day 1942 when they were brought for a last visit to the Oud Rozenburg clinic where she and my father were hiding. I wonder, but will never know, whether the baptism was discussed at that time.
For many years after the Holocaust, I refused to fully accept that my sisters had been killed, despite documents provided by the International Tracing Service. Yes, I included the story of their betrayal and their murder in Auschwitz in the narrative of my family during the Holocaust, but it is only now as I learn details about their final days, that my soul cries out for them and cries out for the unspeakable cruelty that the human race is capable of, cruelty that sadly has not been erased by the memory of the Holocaust. The 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust, including my sisters, cry out for a world free of hate and cruelty. Will the world ever listen?
There are a few people who did stand up to the evil of the Holocaust and whose example also calls out to the world. There is the Madna family and their nanny, Mima Saina, who risked their lives to rescue a nine-month-old baby so that he could write these words, and now there is Roza Marie Schermel-Mazurowski who tried to save the lives of that baby’s older sisters. Roza Marie paid dearly for her altruism. Records discovered by Suzy Snyder show that she was deported to a concentration camp in Amersfoort, then to Vught, and finally to Ravensbrück where she developed typhus, but survived and from where she was liberated.
As I think back to the time shortly after I was reunited with my mother, I remember my mother took me to visit the woman who she said had tried to save my sisters. That woman probably was Roza Marie Mazurowski. Further research by Trees Krans told me that Roza Marie lived in The Hague until 1955, then moved to Boskoop where she passed away August 26, 1971. How much do I wish I had been in touch with her! My search continues for anyone who might have known her and with whom she might have shared the story of her desperate efforts to save my sisters. Roza Marie Mazurowski’s name deserves to be added those of Tolé Madna and Mima Saïna as the Righteous Among the Nations at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.View All Blog Posts