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Against all odds: My family survived Bergen-Belsen

I was 3 years old when a Dutch Nazi and a German soldier with guns in hand broke down our front door

Seventy-five years ago, in the middle of the night on 28 September 1943, a Dutch Nazi and a German soldier with guns in hand, broke down our front door at 39 Kraijenhoffstraat, Den Haag, the Netherlands (Holland). They rushed up the stairs to our second floor flat, shouting “geh raus, geh raus” (get out, get out).

I was 3 years and 8 months old.

My father and mother immediately ran to my bedroom, which I shared with my 8 year old brother. The Dutch Nazi told us to get dressed and bring a small suitcase. When my mother came out of my bedroom she threw a tin of talcum powder at the Dutchman, he shouted “you made the place dirty, you dirty Jew” she shouted back “the only thing dirty here is you.” He hit her in the cheek with his gun.

The four of us were pushed down the stairs, having to leave all out possessions behind. Once on the street we were herded into an army truck surrounded by Dutch policemen, with our neighbours silently looking on.

This was the beginning of a journey that could only end in our death, 107,000 Dutch Jews were transported via Westerbork to Nazi Concentration camps, only 5000 survived the Holocaust, 102,000 were murdered including 64 of my immediate family. At the railway station we were forced into cattle wagons, which took us to the North-East of Holland where we arrived at Westerbork transit camp.

Four month later on 1 February, 1944 we were again forced into cattle wagons and taken to the Dutch-German border where the Dutch railway crew handed us over to German railway workers. A few hours later we arrived at an army railway ramp belonging to the Wehrmacht where we, together with 906 other Dutch Jews, were unloaded from our train. The ramp was located 6 km from the main entrance to Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp. The 906 prisoners were lined-up 6 abreast and were ordered to start marching, including the very old and the very young. My parents being tall, were ordered to march at the front of the long lines, my brother and myself with the other children, at the back of the lines.

It took nearly 2 hours to reach the main gate, where SS guards surrounded the prisoners and a roll call was ordered, just to make sure no one had escaped. Everyone was exhausted and frightened.

My father had fought in the Dutch army against the Germans and he realised that Bergen-Belsen would be a dangerous place. My mother was worried about where my brother and I were and keeping my anxious mother quiet was not an easy task but my father understood that the SS guards would have no hesitation in shooting anyone who was troublesome. Once counted my mother was separated from my father, she came looking for us and luckily found us amongst the other children. My mother, brother and I were sent to a section of Bergen Belsen called Star Camp where we were allocated to Barrack 22 which was meant to hold 300-400 women and children. When we arrived the bunks were two-high, my brother slept in the top bunk and my mother and I shared the bottom one.

My father was held separately in Barrack 11, located in the men’s section of Star Camp, this housed double the number of prisoners than barrack 22 and bunks were three-high.

Bergen-Belsen was divided into four main parts, each with separate sub-sections:

1. POW Camp (established 1940)

2. Exchange Camp (1943)

a) Special Camp for Polish Jews (July 1943)

b) Star Camp (August 1943) this camp was set up specifically for exchange Jews, where prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothing and everyone had to wear a yellow Star of David. In 1944, this camp held the largest number of prisoners, including my family of four.

c) Neutral camp (August 1943) for Jews from countries not at war with Germany.

d) Hungarian Camp(July 1944) for 4000 Hungarian Jews.

3. Men’s Camp (March 1944)

4. Women’s Camp (August 1944)

In the early days of our incarceration, there were about 4000 prisoners in the Star Camp, averaging 200 people per barrack, but as more prisoners arrived and the camp became overcrowded, the number rose to over 400 per barrack.

The four of us were held prisoners in Bergen-Belsen for 434 days, 6 days prior to arriving at Bergen-Belsen I had my 4th birthday in Westerbork and 12 months later on 26 January 1945 I had my 5th birthday in Bergen-Belsen.

There was nothing to celebrate except that I was still alive.

I was one of the youngest children imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen and one of the very youngest to survive this hell where tens of thousands of others lost their lives, including many hundreds of children. Records recovered show that at least 70 babies were born in Bergen-Belsen most did not survive. The youngest known survivor was born in the Women’s camp on 14 April 1945, this was just one day before the British army liberated the camp.

My brother and I were growing boys and keeping us warm during the winter was difficult, whatever had been in the small case we were allowed to bring had long gone. The 1944/45 winter, was one of the most severe in many years. I had grown at least two or three sizes. The only way to clothe us was to steal or trade with mothers who had boys growing out of size or we had to find clothing discarded by parents of young children who had died. My mother told me this was not easy and often we just had blankets wrapped around us to keep warm. Shoes especially were difficult to find and if I did get them they were pretty- well worn out. During the winter my feet especially my toes would get very cold. To keep my feet warm my mother told me to pee on them. Though the warm did not last long, it felt good for a while.

Every prisoner had to work. My mother worked mostly in the kitchen cleaning pots and peeling potatoes, she also had to clean the outside toilets – not very pleasant at all. My brother then aged nine and I (then four) were mostly left on our own to roam around the camp where my brother tried to steal food and clothing and making sure not to cross a SS Guard. My father’s job was to take a horse and cart around the camp and pick up the dead bodies lying around in the dirt and the dead from the barracks. The major advantage of this job was that he was able to steal food meant for the horses, such as a carrot or potato, (yes the Germans fed horses better than the Jews), and through my brother was able to get this extra food to my mother. My mother did use some of this extra food to trade for clothing.

The food was terrible, two thin slices of bread and a cup filled with a liquid – supposedly turnip soup (a root vegetable, usually fed to livestock) and sometimes a piece of potato. The Nazis decided that only children three or younger would receive extra rations of food but the extra food for children ceased in the winter of 1944 when Bergen-Belsen became overcrowded and food became more scarce. Sanitary facilities were virtually non-existent; the toilets were not located close to the barracks so at night especially, prisoners just went outside and did what they had to do.

Every morning at 5.00am, rain, hail, snow or shine the prisoners ,including children over four years old (which included me), and the sick, had to go on Appel (roll call). This became particularly bad during the extreme winter of 1944/45. The roll call could take hours, especially if a prisoner was missing or if there was a miscount. Punishment for missing roll call was severe – beating and torture being most common.

As is well known, Anne Frank and her sister Margot died in Bergen –Belsen.

Both were held in the Women’s Camp. Both arrived on a transport train from Auschwitz in October 1944. My father’s job included, being at the train ramp to collect the bodies from arriving trains. When trains arrived my father would walk pass the arriving prisoners and asked, in Dutch, if anyone was from Holland. Anne and Margot made themselves known to my father and he told them, as he did with all Dutch arrivals, that he would find out if there were any of their relatives in the camp. It turned there were none. Margot died of typhus in February 1945 and Anne died shortly after, in March, also of typhus.

When British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, they found about 10,000 unburied bodies scattered throughout the camp and 50 to 60,000 starving prisoners, including about 500 children under 14 years of age – most had not had food for days. Except for the sick, all prisoners of Star Camp had, between, April 8-10 been transported on three trains to the east, destination Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. (My father, mother, brother and myself were on the third train, which became known as ‘The Lost Train’ with 2,400 mainly Dutch Jews, crammed into cattle wagons with no food or water. After 14 days, of going backwards and forwards, the Russian army near a village in eastern Germany called Trobitz, liberated our train. Whenever the train stopped my mother would jump of and look for food, mainly stealing potatoes from farms. In Trobitz, the Russians put my family up in a school yard, again the only way to feed ourselves was to steal food and water from surrounding farms, which my 9 year old brother became very good at.)

Despite the fact that the British made every effort to feed and delouse the prisoners, unfortunately many prisoners could not be saved.

Approximate death count for 1945:
February: 7,000
March: 18,000
Mid-April: 9,000
April 15: (after British arrival) 9,000
May/June: a further 4,000
All dying of starvation or typhus.

Time went on, April turned into May and May turned into June, when we finally, after 1 year 8 months 14 days, on 13 June 1945, with the help of the Americans and the British, managed to make our way back to Holland.

I had survived typhus and starvation and against all odds my family of four had survived the Holocaust, whilst 6 million had not.

According to Red Cross records, they have no other record of a family of four, father, mother and two sons going into a concentration camp and coming out alive; as a family of four.

About the Author
Eddy Boas is the author of 'I'm Not A Victim -- I Am A Survivor.' He lives in Australia
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