At six months old, Louise Israëls went into hiding with her family and a friend of her parents. For two and a half years she lived in an attic, never feeling the sun’s rays or the grass under her feet. Sometimes the only food she had was warm water. But Louise was never afraid because her parents made life as normal as possible for her and her brother: “They never talked about the outside world.”
Louise Israëls was born in July 1942 in Haarlem in the German-occupied Netherlands. German forces had invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940. At the time of Louise’s birth, Jews in the Netherlands were subjected to a variety of German-imposed antisemitic laws and restrictions. Jews had to wear yellow star badges on their clothing. The Nazis also confiscated Jewish-owned property, including Louise’s family’s textile business.
Beginning in July 1942, the Germans deported Jews from the Netherlands to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. That summer more than 100 Jews from Haarlem were taken to Westerbork transit camp. The Israëls family, along with other members of the Jewish community in that region of the Netherlands, received orders to move to Amsterdam. The Israëls family did not immediately comply.
In January 1943, when Louise was six months old, the situation for Jews in Haarlem deteriorated even further. On January 30, a German military official was found shot to death. As a reprisal, on February 2, 1943, the Germans executed ten men, including three Jewish leaders from Haarlem, one of which was a neighbor of the Israëls family and the president of the Jewish congregation of Haarlem. A few days later, Selma, one of his daughters, was not home when her entire family was taken away and deported to Auschwitz. She was across the street with the Israëls family helping to care for Louise and her brother.
After this incident, the Israëls family and Selma moved to Amsterdam. Through his connection with the Dutch underground resistance, Louise’s father acquired false identification papers for the immediate family and managed to rent a top floor attic in an Amsterdam row home. Soon afterwards, the Israëls and Selma went into hiding in the attic to avoid deportation.
Louise’s parents tried to give their children a “normal” childhood while they were in hiding; playing and learning colors, letters, and songs. It was in this attic that Louise learned to walk. When air raid alarms sounded, the family took refuge on the steep staircase, the strongest and safest part of an Amsterdam row house. Louise’s mother had an emergency basket ready to take with them during air raids. Louise’s father had to leave the attic after curfew to get food and medicine for the family; sometimes he brought home news about the war.
On May 5, 1945, Canadian forces liberated Amsterdam. Louise was almost three years old. Louise initially had difficulty adjusting to a world without walls, having never been outside for the duration of the hiding. After the war, the family did not talk about their life in hiding. Shortly thereafter Louise’s father found work in Stockholm, Sweden; the rest of the family joined him during the winter of 1946. The Israëls family moved back to the Netherlands in 1948. Louise earned a degree in physical therapy in the Netherlands, and in 1965 she married Sidney Z. Lawrence, an American medical student in Amsterdam. They moved to the U.S. in 1967. After Sidney retired from the U.S. military in 1994, they settled in Bethesda, Maryland. Louise volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Why I Volunteer
I volunteer at the USHMM because I think it is important to be part of the dissemination of information about the Holocaust, in honor and memory of my family.