A gripping story that takes place in the Amsterdam ghetto, 1943 – as experienced by the author’s father.
Although spring is approaching, it remains cold and bleak. It is the end of April and the oppressive dampness of the last few weeks only increases the longing for spring. The buds on the trees in our street are thick and need only the least ray of sun to open them up. The grass on the embankment in front of our house is turning light green. Everything indicates that nature is renewing itself. Birds are singing and are busy building their nests. Our life should be in step with this natural course. The equilibrium that we ought to enjoy in order to build up our young family is being impeded by the German occupation forces that are restricting the freedom of the Jews. The independence of the Dutch Jews is being increasingly limited from day to day.
No day seems to pass without a new decree being issued which we Jews have to obey. At the beginning of the month, our small family was forced by the authorities to move from Zwolle to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Up till then, we had always managed to avoid this move. Due to my position as Deputy Head Master of the Jewish grammar school in Enschede, this enforced removal was continually put off. Then the school was closed and the pupils sent away to an unknown destination. Last year on 11 November my wife and I were told to report to Amsterdam and were sent to the Hollandsche Schouwburg [former Jewish theatre where Jews were rounded up before deportation]. My wife then about seven months pregnant, managed to pretend that she was in her ninth month of pregnancy and could give birth at any moment. She was given permission to return home to have her baby. Because of her constant insistence that she could not leave without me, I also got permission to leave the Schouwburg with her.
The window of our room on the Tugelaweg, where the three of us now live, looks over the railway embankment. The rails shine after the rain and disappear in a wide curve over the viaduct of the Weesperstraat. The former inhabitants have left the curtains hanging and a worn piece of linoleum lies on the floor. There is a hole in the floor covering near the door caused by the many footsteps that have passed over it. The atmosphere is musty and impersonal. In some places the wallpaper is torn and has turned yellow. How many families have lived here recently? I would have liked to have taken my books with but in spite of this desire I had already given them for safekeeping in September last year to a good non-Jewish friend. Opposite the window in the corner is our bed and next to it, the cot. In the middle of our room is a wooden table with two chairs. The two suitcases, with our names and dates of birth written in white letters, stand on the floor in the corner by the window. On the other side of the window, piles of papers needed every day lie on a small low table.
The approaching departure of our child makes me sick at heart.
It is still early in the morning. My wife is busy packing the few baby clothes that we have for our son. I am holding the large yellow envelope containing the ketuba, our marriage certificate and a few photos that I prepared a few days ago to accompany our child. I am cold. This morning when Ammy breast fed our little piece of happiness, we sat close to each other and looked at our child who was drinking his fill of his mother’s breast milk. This new life that we created and that should have brought us light in these dark times - today we must part with it. With the envelope still clasped in my hands, I am standing in front of the window, weak-kneed, and am staring through the window looking outside. The approaching departure of our child makes me sick at heart.
A feeling of unreality, having no future and being prey to the all-pervading hatred against us makes me despondent. It is a fight that is lost before it has even begun. The stream of rumours never stops and are confirmed by the announcements of the deaths of our friends and relatives. In order to be sure that our child is not in any danger, we have taken the step of taking him to a safer place. Far away from any evil, far away from us, with an unknown family, to whom we have blindly entrusted our child. There is simply no other way. I have done everything to avoid the stranglehold of the anti-Jewish measures.
Tswi as a toddler
When I was a teenager, I gradually realized that I had to work on my Jewish identity in order to continue functioning as a Jew. The combination of the religion and having our own Jewish nation in Palestine is the only basis for a real Jewish existence. My library of Zionist books grew and kept pace with the longing to build Palestine as a “Halutz”. I took part in nearly all Zionist activities. I gave talks about Zionism and tried to inspire my audience. Before our marriage, my wife and I dreamt of our “Aliya” and prepared ourselves for the heavy physical work awaiting us in far-off Palestine. Even in these dark times, we carried on with these preparations. We reported to the Vocational Training course of the Palestine Pioneers and worked as farmers on the land in the province of Gelderland.
Father was arrested and sent to a labour camp in Drente from where he was later sent on to meet his death. Notice of his death came more or less at the same time as our application to go on aliya with Palestinian documents. The feeling that sending Jews away by train to labour camps in the east had something to do with death was confirmed by a notice from one of the camps that father had died together with the terrible news that my wife’s father and her brother had suffered the same fate.
I gently tried to tell Mother about our planned departure. She had neither the strength nor the courage to let us go and I postponed our planned emigration. When we were finally prepared to carry out our plans against her wishes, it was too late and it was no longer possible to realize our dream.
To go into hiding and live with an unknown, non-Jewish family was the only way to save our skins.
To go into hiding and live with an unknown, non-Jewish family was the only way to save our skins. Even this step was not without danger. Betrayal resulted in the immediate deportation of those who hid and those who offered them shelter. The preparations to go into hiding had already been made. Before the order was issued that Jews were no longer allowed to work in government service, I worked as an assistant inspector for the municipality of Arnhem and surrounding areas. While I was employed, I got to know my director very well and appreciated him highly. A sense of justice is deeply ingrained in him and is the uppermost whenever difficult moments arise. After my forced resignation, he also kept in contact with me and helped me with various job applications. We often spoke of the German occupation and the measures taken against the Jews.
Willem and Marjge DeJongh
The first orders against the Jews seemed like bloody-mindedness in the beginning such as no longer being allowed to go to the cinema, the theatre or to go to parks. But after a while it became clear that the Jews we having all their rights as citizens removed. Their property was given to non-Jews or was liquidated. All Jews in government service were dismissed.
In one of these conversations, he confessed that he had contacts with the resistance and he offered to find a hiding place for our family. We agreed that if he thought it necessary we would disappear, he would warn us and when I felt that it would be safer to go into hiding, I would let him know. In July of last year, I heard that he had been taken hostage and was being held in Haaren together with other 250 well know citizens and that it was therefore too dangerous to contact his wife. Forced by these circumstances, I managed to tell his wife that we first wanted to make sure our son was safe by letting him go into hiding. This decision to give our little treasure away to strangers who meant our very future touched us to the quick. To hand over to others something so tender, precious and dependent left us speechless with unfathomable despair. The sorrow that came from our desperation cannot be expressed in words. Torn and full of doubt, as the day drew nearer, we were filled with dread and foreboding.
The doorbell rings and reverberates through the stairwell. The sound of the doorbell makes me hold the envelope even tighter, making my knuckles white. I turn around abruptly and look at my wife. Our eyes meet. Our common grief can be read in each other’s eyes.
The train from Utrecht approaches the Amsterdam-Amstel station at about eleven o’clock. Two women sit beside each other in one of the second-class carriages. As the journey progresses, their conversation peters out. They look through the window without really seeing the landscape racing past. Both women hide their inner stress. Early that morning mother and daughter left their house in Oosterbeek (near Arnhem) to travel to Amsterdam in order to return later that day. It is raining, the air is gray and it is cold, too cold for the time of year. The noise of the wheels going over the rails is monotonous, cling, clang, cling clang.
The young blonde woman with blue eyes looks sideways at her mother and seeks contact to make it clear by means of her intense look that in spite of her 17 years, she is capable of carrying out the difficult task she has taken upon herself. The very moment she was asked by her mother to help her and to travel with her to Amsterdam, she did not hesitate for a second and agreed immediately. Both women prepared themselves for this journey and thought of everything that might happen to ensure that it would be successful. The unknown mission that they must accomplish cannot be foreseen entirely and is certainly not without danger. By having her father taken as a hostage, the daughter had her carefree youth cut short. This also increased his wife’s burden. The uncertainty about whether their house will eventually be confiscated by the occupier hangs over the family like a dark cloud. If this journey is a disaster and if they are arrested, then the fate of the husband who is being held hostage will be sealed.
Tswi with his foster mother.
What motivated them were purely humanitarian considerations. Well-reasoned and thoroughly thought through, they both accepted their assignment and are without a single moment of hesitation prepared to do everything to bring this journey to a successful conclusion. The train enters the station, the brakes squeak and squeal and they come abruptly to a halt. The two women stand up slowly and shuffle to the door along with the other passengers. A blast of cold wind greets them in the main entrance. A man’s voice booms through the loudspeakers announcing something. German soldiers walk over the platform in their dark green uniforms shamelessly looking at everyone.
Mother and daughter walk quickly to the stairs leading down and hand over their ticket to the ticket collector waiting at the exit. They are now in the main entrance to the station. The walls are decorated with very large paintings. It is buzzing with many voices and the din combined with the announcements from the loudspeakers makes the atmosphere impersonal. The two women leave the station in this anonymity. Once outside, the grayness of the weather and the look on the faces of the people in the street weigh heavily on them. Concentrating on their task, they cross the square and walk in the direction of the Jewish quarter to the address they have been given. The trees in the street are still bare but they are full of buds and can burst open at any moment. The grass on the embankment is renewing itself and is light green in color. It is cold and bleak. Both women walk on determinedly, the click of their heels resounding in the empty street. They scrutinize the house numbers. The houses look sad and uninhabited. They are few people about because of the bad weather. The chance that they will be stopped and asked about the purpose of their visit to the ghetto is small. Just a few houses more and then they are there. They stand in front of the number they have been given. After having made sure that no one is paying any attention to them, the mother rings the bell.
The bell rings loudly and can clearly be heard on the street. A few moments later the door is opened. The two women enter quickly and close the front door behind them. They look up in the semi darkness and see the figure of a man which quickly disappears. They slowly climb the rickety, narrow stairs. The steps are worn away, evidence of the many feet that have walked on them. The bannister is slightly loose. The walls look grubby which gives the stairwell an impoverished appearance. A stale smell of food hangs over the landing on the first floor. One of the doors stands ajar and a baby’s crying greets them. They notice the poverty and resignation as they enter the living room. The four people greet each other sadly. Questions sally back and forth about their domestic arrangements. Little remains of the zeal and resilience of the young couple. They stand helpless before them with their arms hanging down. Circumstances have brought them to a humiliating situation which defies justification.
Tswi in hiding with Willem
The table is set for tea. The drink warms the body but not the soul. The child has stopped crying as if it feels that the moment has arrived to say goodbye to his parents. He looks around the room with his blue eyes and observes the movements of each individual separately. The parents are faced with the heart-breaking decision to give away their child, their precious possession, to others - to strangers in the hope that when the terrible misery of this awful war has passed, they can see their child once more. The dreadful pain in their hearts can be read on their faces.
The father strokes the dark hair of the child with one hand. In the other he still clutches the large envelope. The mother takes the envelope from his hand and puts in the bag with the baby clothes. Then she turns and takes her child from its cot. She skillfully changes his diaper, puts his jacket on and places a cap on his dark curly hair. She gives the baby to the father tenderly who can no longer hold back his tears. With his free hand, he draws his wife towards him and the three of them embrace each other. Mother and daughter are motionless and deeply affected by this heart-breaking and tender farewell. They feel as if they are nailed to the ground and sob uncontrollably. They pray in silence, to the depth of their hearts that this tragedy caused by the unrelenting hatred towards Jews, should not be paid for with the life of this young and promising family.
It is time to part. In a natural, instinctive movement, the mother opens her blouse and gives the baby the breast. They all look at the child who drinks his fill and drums with his little fingers on his mother’s breast. The face of the nursing mother is wet with tears. Her mouth is turned down in grief and maternal pain that comes from her very soul shines from her eyes.
The two women from Oosterbeek stumble down the stairs. The daughter carries the baby and the mother the bag. Speechless, they say their tearful goodbyes. Their hearts torn by this deeply tragic event, both walk towards the station, leaving behind the young couple with a terrible emptiness. Both had stood at the top of the stairs hand in hand.
Nico Louis Herschel 20.09.1915
Ammy (Malchen) Herschel-Weijel 03.04.1919
Deported from Amsterdam to Westerbork 20.06.1943
Deported from Westerbork with 2207 other Jews to Sobibor, Poland 20.07.1943
On arrival, they were all gassed 24.07.1943
The young girl at the time of this story was 17 years old.
It took years of investigating to reconstruct exactly what happened. I found her living in the Netherlands 51 years later after she took me acting as a young mother in her arms and brought me into hiding.
I called Christine Schwencke and I introduced myself: “Mrs. Schwencke my name is Tswi Herschel and I call you from Israel”
She replied instantly: “Are you the son of Nico and Ammy?”
My answer was confirmative.
Her reaction was: “My God, it is as if I found my lost son back”
After a short period of emotional silence she continued: “I did not know that you are alive. This is so emotional; I cannot express my joy and happiness that you called me.”
She told me the full story when we met a few weeks later. We became family.
I have great admiration and profound respect for my parents and all the parents who had to entrust their children with indescribable pain in their hearts, to strangers in the hope that their own flesh and blood should live.
This life that they granted to us should be cherished and passed on.
We, child survivors of the Holocaust have to open ourselves up and recount our grief to our offspring in order to build their lives in peace and tranquility.