|Yesterday - Today - Tomorrow|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The history of the Shoah in Holland is particularly terrifying since it had the largest number of Jews murdered of all Western Europe. During the first year of the German occupation the Jews had to register on government lists and anti-Jewish laws applied primarily in the work area. From January 1942 a certain number of Jews were forced to leave Amsterdam, while others were deported to Westerbork, a concentration camp located near the little village of Hooghalen. It was in fact a refugee camp for Jews who had fled Nazi persecution in other European countries. And from there the transports left for the death camps. All non-Dutch Jews were also sent to Westerbork, and at the same time some 15,000 Jews were sent to labor camps throughout Europe. The deportations started on June 15, 1942, and ended on September 13, 1944. In all, 102,000 Jews were deported in 98 transports that left Westerbork, as follows: 62,026 left in 68 transports for Auschwitz, 34,313 in 19 transports to Sobibor, 4,894 in 8 transports to Bergen-Belsen, and 3,751 in 6 transports to Theresienstadt. Lastly, 6,000 Jews were deported to Mauthausen and other camps in Germany and Poland from other places, such as Vught. There were just 5,200 survivors.
A widespread myth has it that most Dutch Jews were saved by the population and the various Dutch government authorities. Yet collaboration by the Amsterdam municipal authorities with the German occupier was very substantial, with the police and railway employees actively participating in the arrest and deportation of the Jews. Reality clearly shows that between 1940 and 1945 almost 80% of the Jewish population that was living in Holland was murdered with the help of thousands of Dutch people and the general indifference of the population to the lot of their Jewish compatriots.
What is more, again counter to a time-resistant myth, the survivors who returned were not welcomed with compassion and open arms, but had to face the hostility and complete indifference of the Dutch government.
The numbers, statistics and historical analyses will never equal the testimony and dramas experienced by the families. To illustrate the Shoah in Holland, we have chosen to tell the story of HERRY BRIL, the father of Mrs. Claire Tugendhaft of Geneva.
Can you summarize in a few words the history of your family?
Before the war Amsterdam was a very Jewish town with a large and very poor Jewish working class. My father was from an Ashkenazi family that had lived in Holland since 1715, and was part of this working class scene. Since the family had barely enough to eat, he had to start working at the age of 14. He was the youngest of a family of seven children, but all had already left home and were married. The brother born before him was 13 years older. When war broke out he was 16. The impoverished Jews of Amsterdam had no chance of escaping, all the more so since the Jewish Council had “provided” the list of Jews to the Germans, thereby hoping to save their own skins and those of their friends. My father managed to hide, however, his sister, her husband and their children as well as three of her brothers were taken immediately, in 1942. My father’s brothers and sister who were rounded up had ten children! Thus I lost 10 first cousins from baby to ten years old! What my father learnt after the war was that in addition to the three brothers who were arrested straight away, there was a fourth brother who was working for the city of Amsterdam. When he heard that his young brother Jacob had been arrested to be sent to a labor camp, he emerged from his hiding place and said, “Jacob isn’t very strong, he is in poor health, I’ll go with him to help him work”. Of course, there was no labor camp. He we was deported to Mauthausen, where he died. Another, older brother had been arrested earlier and deported to Bergen-Belsen. His wife had an uncle in America and she managed to be believed that he was her father. They were freed and left for Algeria, where they spent the entire war. These poor families had many children, and my grandparents were both from families of eleven or twelve children. At the end of the war, of this enormous family only my father remained, as well as the brother who had been in Algeria and a cousin.
Where was your mother during the war?
My mother was not from Amsterdam but from Utrecht, where she lived with my grandparents and her three sisters. The entire family had been able to hide and my mother, who did not look typically Jewish, survived by working, at 14 years of age, as a maid in a family. By going from one hideout to another my mother’s family was saved, except for an uncle and aunt who were deported. This is incidentally quite revealing about what happened in the various provinces of Holland, where the deportations tended to be haphazard. In Groningen, for example, 90% of the Jewish population was deported, while in Eindhoven 40% of the Jews were rounded up. In a nutshell, I can say that my mother’s family was saved while my father’s was wiped out.
How and where did your father pass the war?
He was practically buried alive for the entire time, underneath the floor in a 1m2 hideaway. Since he looked very Jewish, he literally could not even put his nose out of doors. However, while he was hidden, having never really been to school, he was able to get hold of some books and in that way learned English and accounting. At some point his hiding place became too dangerous, and he went to hide elsewhere. He joined the resistance and was arrested in 1944. Members of the resistance were not deported, they were shot. He was imprisoned in Dribergen near Utrecht. One day, his cell was opened and a squad of Germans came to take him out to be executed. However, these Germans were in fact members of the resistance who had stolen a truck and uniforms in order to free him.
Following the liberation, since he had learnt English, he was hired as an interpreter by the US army and was given another job. He had to shave the heads of all the women who had liaisons with the Germans, so his friends stuck him with the soubriquet, the “hairdresser of Dribergen”.
At the end of the war he found himself bereft of everything: his family had disappeared, the district and the house where he had lived had been totally destroyed. Thanks to his willpower and what he had learnt during his years in hiding, he was able to start working and took on all sorts of small jobs. In 1947 he met my mother and they were married in 1948. Unfortunately, in 1949, when my mother was expecting me, it was discovered he was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. I think this was triggered by the various shocks he suffered in his youth, the worst being to find himself at 21 completely alone, without anything and having learnt that his entire family had been murdered. At Yad Vashem we have been able to track the whole family, the dates of the transports in which the various members left and in which camps they died. Most were exterminated in Sobibor, a few in Auschwitz and two brothers in Mauthausen.
We often talk of the impact of the Shoah on the second generation, of which you are part. How has your family’s tragedy affected you?
I was deeply affected. First of all, I lived without grandparents, bearing in mind that my paternal grandparents had passed away before the war. I had my mother’s family, because her sisters survived, but I effectively had no family on my father’s side, except for one cousin and an uncle.
In my youth I felt this absence of grandparents very strongly, because all my girlfriends went regularly to visit their grandmothers or grandfathers. We were seriously missing a family framework. However, on the other hand, what was fantastic was that my father used to tell us about Jewish life in Amsterdam before the war, which was his life, and all about his brothers and his sister. The result was that I had the impression that I knew this family a bit, while on the other hand it magnified my sense of loss, because I would have really liked to know them.
Do you believe that this heavy weight of family history influences how you live your Jewishness?
Of course. My father, who had attended a Jewish school and had grown up in an exclusively Jewish environment, was not religiously observant, in part because he had not grown up in a religious family and partly because he had lost his faith on account of the Shoah. So he brought us up without practicing religion, but inculcating in us a very strong sense of Jewishness. For him, it was an essential part of our identity, and so my brother and I attended a Talmud Torah. For a period, on account of the Shoah, I had some doubts about the existence of G-d, which is clearly not the case today. However, thanks to some amazing encounters, firstly with my husband, Joe, I became a believer and religiously observant, and that continues to be all the more so.
Apart from being a religious woman, you are highly involved with Israel. Why?
For me, as for my husband and daughter, this commitment to Israel, our responsibility towards the Jewish state, is an unwavering fact. I am convinced that had we had the State of Israel before the Shoah, it would not have happened. We have our roots in Israel, it is what unites us and what protects us against a possible repetition of the horrors of the Shoah. Israel lives inside me. What’s more, I feel in a certain way that it is a debt I have to those members of my family who disappeared. By participating in the growth of the State, I am giving them back a bit of life.
You have donated a Sefer Torah to the synagogue of the Amsterdam Jewish Hospital, and on the mantle are some of the names of members of your family murdered in the Shoah. Why?
Donating a Sefer Torah in Amsterdam was of course very moving. But in fact, it was much more than that. For me, it was the culmination of a development going on within me. It was a circle that closed, because I felt very strongly that giving a Sefer Torah in Amsterdam, at the place from where my family was deported to be murdered, was a fundamental act with special meaning: it was a very powerful symbol link a horrible past with a future that we all hope will be glorious.