As the child of a Holocaust survivor, the Shoah is never far from my mind or thoughts.
It takes up a lot of space in my life as I continue to read, learn, rail and process my own family’s experiences during the war. In some measure, that is the life of the Second Generation. We try to find meaning and understanding where our parents often could only just survive and try to escape the horrors that they lived through.
My husband is part of the Second Generation too. I have lived in the Netherlands for nearly 12 years and it is never lost on me that every single Dutch Jew has a story of tragedy and survival.
Including my husband’s family.
My father-in-law was barely 2 when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. My husband’s grandfather, Leopold, was a doctor of internal medicine at the Dutch city of Groningen’s academic hospital. He eventually left his job as the restrictions against Jews grew, he established his own practice, treating Jews and some loyal Dutch patients.
Until he went into hiding.
Finally in 1942 , right around the time Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in Amsterdam, it was discovered that my father-in-law, his sister and my husbands grandfather’s names appeared on a German list of Jews in Groningen and that it would not be long before they were rounded up and likely sent to Westerbork, the Dutch Concentration Camp or worse.
The list was based on the city’s municipal records, which were meticulously kept. It is long thought that this was one of the principle reasons that such a large percentage of Dutch Jews were killed, because the Dutch kept such good records of their population and registered people’s religion at birth.
My husband’s grandmother, Betty was not identified as a Jew. Her father was Jewish but in a stroke of luck, her parents when they registered her birth, registered her as a Christian which is why her name didn’t appear on any arrest or deportation lists. Betty, blonde and blue eyed, classically Dutch looking was not betrayed as a Jew by her physical features.
Still, a Dutch wife was not enough to protect them. Betty and Leopold felt certain that if they didn’t do something drastic that it would only be a matter of time before death came for them. They had to try and save their own lives but more importantly, that of their young children, whose only crime was being registered as Jews at birth.
They were desperate. They did the unthinkable. They gave up their children.
They found a family, former colleagues of his from the hospital, that were willing to take both my father-in-law and his sister in. They gave the children different last names, concocted a story, drilled this story into them until they would say that they would use their Dutch names and report that they were not from Groningen, but from The Hague. Leopold went into hiding and Betty moved home to live with her parents.
Betty took her children on bicycle to this family and she left them there.
I was lucky enough to be able to know Betty, my husband’s grandmother in the last years of her life. She was a woman of unbelievable character, warmth and kindness. I used to love talking with her. She was open enough to talk to me about the war years. I remember asking her what it felt like to leave her children with strangers. She told me that she had to turn off her feelings for her children to do what she did. She told me that she told herself every single day that she was saving her children, and saving them was more important than being with them, that being their mother would probably kill them, so she put her feelings into a box and closed it tightly.
One day as the children were in their new home a neighbor was over. The neighbor asked my father-in-law where they were from, he answered as he was told to by his mother that he was from The Hague. The neighbor asked where in the Hague and my father-in-law told them of the landmark which was close to where he was born, the problem was the landmark was in Groningen and not in the Hague.
Within a week my father-in-law and his sister had been sent to new families, this time the children were separated and they spent the rest of the war separated also from one another.
My father-in-law lived with seven different families in three years.
The last family he stayed with was a student of Leopold’s and my father-in-law had the good memories of the three months he stayed there. The family was warm and generous and very kind to him.
I often think of my father-in-law, what that must have been like for him. To be separated from his parents at such a tender age, to have those most fundamental of bonds be broken. To live with strangers and within a few short months to be taken and have to start over again, all with the threat of death hanging over his head. Where is your sense of security as a child if that is your life experience? Who do you count on?
After the war the family reunited and they moved forward with their lives. Betty and Leopold had two more sons after the war. They named their youngest son Willem Jan (“Pim”) to honor just one of the families that took their children in. The last family who showed my father-in-law a lot of kindness and compassion.
Leopold went back to his work as an internist and was a pioneer in researching the side effects of drugs. His book, Schadelijke Nevenwerkingen van Geneesmiddelen (The Dangerous Side Effects of Drugs) is still taught in medical schools today. There is an annual award named for him that is awarded to those doing work in this field.
My father-in-law grew up, he became a dentist, got married, raised a family and had four children.
Betty told me that living with what she had done after the war was in many ways worse than enduring the separation. Although she was very grateful, having to break that bond, both for her and her children left permanent scars. My father-in-law, when he returned at age 7 to live with his parents knew them, but those bonds were fractured and it was very difficult to bridge that distance.
The times she talked to me about it, her clear blue eyes were always cast downward, she stirred her empty teacup to give her hands something to do. I tried to reassure her as best as I could, telling her what she knew in her head, but couldn’t get all the way into her heart. That those were extraordinarily difficult times and she did what she had to do to ensure the survival of her children. That what was really important is that they were here, they were alive, they married, raised families.
That is what she gave her children. I think she made peace with it as best as she could.