|Mayer - Mattie|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Even before he has said a word, who ever meets “MATTIE”, MAYER TUGENDHAFT, for the first time, is won over by his broad smile and the human warmth he emanates in an almost palpable way. The man is nice, sensitive and humorous, with eyes sparkling with intelligence. Starting out from nothing, he has become a very big businessman, who through his hard work has gone from one success to another. Meeting him, no one can imagine that he suffered martyrdom as a child.
One of the special features of the Shoah in Holland, in which about 80% of the Jews living in that country were murdered, was the phenomenon of the children who had been hidden. According to some sources, the Dutch resistance managed to hide between 15,000 and 16,500 people. In fact about 24,000 managed to hide, but about 9,000 were handed over to the SS by Dutch collaborators. It is certainly true that the people who hid these children ran enormous risks, and some even paid with their lives.
Today, the survivors who were hidden are starting to tell their story. As everywhere, in some cases things went well, while in others, children were gradually guided towards Christianity, and there were also children who were exploited and maltreated. A large number of these children never saw their parents again, yet others, like Mattie, after many and terrible adventures, had the privilege of being reunited with their families. While we cannot generalize from a single example, we have decided to tell the story of Mattie, which in our opinion is particularly significant.
Mattie was born on November 20, 1937 in Maastricht. His father, a Jew of Polish origin, had lived for years in Düsseldorf. On account of the economic crisis and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the situation became untenable for the Tugendhaft family and in 1934 Isaac (Fritz) Tugendhaft left for Holland, where he met the daughter of the Rabbi of Maastricht, Frieda, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. They were married in 1936 and two children were born to them, Mayer in 1937 and Trinette in 1939. Since Isaac spoke German fluently, he acted as an interpreter between the Jewish community and the Germans. Gradually the danger increased, so much so that at one point the Tugendhaft parents had to tell their children, then aged 5 and 3, that they would have to leave their home and change their name. That is how Mayer became Mattie Gevers.
With the help of courageous people, including a catholic priest, the Tugendhaft children were hidden in Belgium while their parents were able to go into hiding in Maastricht itself. Mattie was moved from place to place and at one point was even in a sort of convent, but with Easter approaching he risked being discovered. Thus he lived one after another in Sittard, Hoensbroek and Heerlen, finally ending up in 1943 at a farmer in Limburg, in the Leudal region. The family had three children who were older than Mattie and lived on a large, old farm where they raised cattle and horses. Very quickly Mattie became responsible for taking the horses out to the pastures. However, what appeared to be a bucolic story very quickly became a nightmare. Every morning, once the family had left for the fields to milk the cows, the farmer got Mattie out of bed and tortured him in all sorts of ways, maltreating him extremely sadistically. First, he hung him by a rope until he was suffocating, let go and then restarted the treatment several times in a row. On days that were particularly cold he made him run naked in the yard, on other days he through him into an irrigation ditch. One day when Mattie broke a leg he was not allowed to see a doctor and was made to take the horses out to pasture. Since he walked badly, he tripped… onto a pitchfork. One day when his ear became infected, the farmer simply cut off the infected part with a bread knife, thus taking off half the ear. It was only much later through plastic surgery that Mattie was able to get his ear back. From time to time the farmer’s children protested what their father was doing, but he terrified his family. When Mattie saw the farmer coming he tried to hide, but he knew very well that the next morning he would have to pay for having run away. The priest who had brought Mattie to this farmer came to see him from time to time, but the master of the place never left Mattie alone with the man of the church. When he expressed concern about the boy’s ear, the farmer told him that “the doctor had badly treated his ear”. One day, the farmer’s wife came home earlier than usual from the fields and found little Mattie hanging at the end of the kitchen and had already turned completely blue. She made an enormous fuss, and from that day on never let him out of her sight. A bit later, the priest came for him to place him with a family in Klimmen. On the way, he was able to see his parents very briefly, and there he went through another drama. When he told what had happened to him and of the maltreatment to which he had been subjected, no one believed him. It was in fact difficult to believe that someone who “hid a Jewish child at the risk of his life” would commit such horrors. Because of the dangers, Mattie could not stay with his parents and left for Klimmen, where he lived until the end of the war with a normal family. After the war he remained in touch with his adopted parents.
How do you explain the fact that this farmer hated you so much as to maltreat you?
There is no logical or plausible explanation. However, I finally came to the following conclusion. In the area where we were, there was a very large number of Germans. As I was a child, I would have happily said that I had to leave my family because we were Jewish. In fact, one day I saw another little boy from Maastricht, Michel Shlayin, whose parents were friends of my parents and who was hidden in the area. I called out to him, and the next day he was moved. As for the farmer, it is possible he feared that if I was taken by the Germans, I would say who I was and where I was living. He always told me, “What I am doing to you is nothing to what the Germans will do to you if they catch you”. If this is not the right explanation, then I can only believe that he was a mental case.
Yet in fact, after the war, what hurt you the most was that your parents did not believe you. How did you finally shake off this hurt?
As you can readily understand, everything I said was based only on memories. Almost 60 years later, a friend in business, to whom I had told everything, suggested making a visit by car to where I had been hidden. Arriving there, I suddenly recognized the house. For me it was as though a nightmare was coming true, I was deeply shocked. The shock was not so much returning to the place, but because I had before my eyes the proof that what I had been saying all the time was true. It was not at all some childish invention. I could not get out of the car, I was petrified and I asked my friend to leave immediately. About two years later, my friend asked me if I wanted to go back to the area where I had been hidden. I said yes and that I was even ready to go into that farmhouse. In the meantime, it had been sold to an acquaintance of my friend who lived nearby and had bought it to pull it down. We went there, and since the house was to be destroyed it was empty. We asked the new owner for the keys, and he wanted to know why we wanted to go in there. When we explained the reason, he said that he knew that during the war there had been a Jewish child hidden on that farm who had been terribly maltreated. He told us that at the local café people had spoken about it at the time and he recommended that we should go there. He also told us that the owners had been awarded the medal of the Righteous Gentiles from Yad Vashem because they had hidden children during the war. In fact, because it was an enormous farm, they had sheltered 50 Jewish children in the attic as well as some British airmen who had parachuted in or had been shot down.
How did your visit to the house go?
I will not hide from you that I had to make an effort, but when I went in it was as though I had left the day before. I saw again the spot where he hung me and beat me, the ditch where he threw me into freezing water for just not quite long enough to drown; in a word I recognized and found again every nook and cranny.
Did you go to the corner café, and if you did, what did you find out there?
First of all, when I entered the café, I saw people quite a bit younger than me, who were in fact the children of the owners. But there was also a woman of 80, who should have been aged about 10 at the time of the war. I asked to speak to her, and when she came out of the kitchen I asked if she remembered a farmer called Opendrout who had hidden a Jewish child during the war. She replied, “ Drink your coffee and go, I do not want to talk about that”. The I told her that I knew she had received the medal of the Righteous Gentiles from Yad Vashem for what she had done during the war. It was as though I had waved a magic wand. She asked me to sit down and started to talk. She clearly told me everything that had happened in their house, and at one point she said to me, “Everyone was talking about the Jewish child who was abused at the Opendrouts”. For me it was like a lightening bolt of truth that exploded in my face. Almost sixty years later, at long last, I had tangible proof that all this had not just been a bad dream. Unfortunately, from a certain point of view, it was too little, too late, since my two parents were no longer alive.
What happened after the war?
From the time I left the farmer and until after the war, I changed places perhaps ten times until I arrived at a family in Klimmen. I was brought up as a little Christian, I sang in the church, and still today I know the liturgy by heart. But I always knew I was Jewish. Yet I believe that with time, had our parents not found us again, my sister and I would have grown up and lived as Christians. Trinette was hidden in a convent in Belgium. A few years ago, she went back there, and the nuns still living there recognized her, and as thanks for what they had done for her, Trinette gave them a trip to Israel.
How did you find your parents again?
It was thanks to the mother of the wife of André Rieu, the violinist. She was in the resistance and it was she who had arranged that we be hidden and who brought ration cards for my parents. She always knew where we were and after the liberation she immediately did everything to get our family reunited. I should add that at the end of the war, my father had no money and with the little he had, he went around to the people who had hidden us to repay them for our food, including the nuns who had hidden Trinette. He even went to my torturer, but he claimed such an exorbitant amount that my father left without giving him anything.
What is interesting is that after this terrible experience, after having seen Christianity from the inside, you chose to remain Jewish. Did you ever think of abandoning Judaism, having suffered so much for being Jewish?
Absolutely never. Quite the contrary and even more so since the birth of the State of Israel, of which I am so proud. When we met up again with our parents we of course went back to our Jewish lives. When we came back we were respectively 5 and 7 years old and we found that we had a little brother, Benny, born during the war and who had not been able to be circumcised. He was the first Jewish child circumcised in Holland after the end of the war, and by a doctor, an American general.
You have succeeded remarkably well and in Holland today you are considered a major donor. But how has your life been?
After my unhappy experience, I had a lot of problems following a normal school education. I was always troubled by this idea of not having been believed and by this doubt that I had to know whether everything was not just the fruit of my imagination after all the horror stories that I had heard after the war. I started working very young and despite having a lot of problems concentrating I gradually succeeded in building a business that became highly successful. I felt I had a lot of luck and blessings. I believe that if in the end I have had the privilege of succeeding, it is because I help other people. One of the projects closest to my heart today is developing the Jewish hospital in Amstelveen, Ziekenhaus, and the Jewish psychiatric hospital, Sinai Centrum. Of course, I am very involved with Israel, because I know it is all we have and that the entire world is jealous about that.
We could have stayed listening to Mayer – Mattie for hours. Physically, he has recovered from his traumatic experience, while the harm to his spirit as much from a sadistic farmer as because he was not believed, has certainly diminished but will probably never disappear.