The hardest part was losing my mother
The hardest part was losing my mother. That still hurts. Why did they tear families apart? Why? I once told my daughter about my experiences in the war, they cried and got so upset that I decided never to say anything to my children anymore. But with Frank, my grandson, it’s different. He is now old enough and he interested in my story. So I told him about my war time experiences.
When I see people on television these days who are on the run, I empathize with them so much. These images always take me back to the days that I had to walk with my whole family from our hometown Antwerp to the French border to Calais in order to catch a boat to America. Because the Germans had already started Operation Fall Gelb (the invasion of the Benelux) that plan had to be abandoned. My mother decided she wanted to go home to Holland. We were after all of Dutch nationality. I was 7 years old when mother took me with her on bicycles from Antwerp to Amsterdam where my mother’s sister lived. A truck driver helped them reach Amsterdam. My mother thought it was safer there. We lived in a small room in the attic. My sister and father joined us later. I went to school and I played with my friends. I never even realized I was Jewish. We never had to live in hiding during that time.
In 1942, when the German raids (the rounding up of Jews in Amsterdam) began, my sister and I were able to take shelter with old neighbors. My father had agreed with the neighbors that when the raids came that Mary (my sister) and I could knock on their door for help. We where at the neighbors already from time to time for safety. My father had said, if there is a newspaper in the window, that they had been arrested. It sadly came true one day. The whole house was completely ransacked and empty. The day my father and mother were arrested, my sister and I are immediately went into hiding. My sister Mary overheard the local neighbors say:
“We don't want any hassle with the authorities, let's just report those children and they'll leave us alone!”
After overhearing what the neighbors had said, Mary and myself quickly packed some clothes and ran away. I had a few friends from school and one of the mothers said: ”Let them stay with us”. A big family with lots of children in the Jordaan, a district in the citycenter of Amsterdam. We had a Star of David but we never wore it on my clothes. My hair was blond and so nobody knew I was Jewish. We stayed there for about a month. Then a gentleman from the resistance came to take us to our hiding safe house. The friendly Smeenk family took us in. They were friends of our parents. A family with 4 children. They were a little sacred to take us in, due to the German reprisals when caught hiding Jews, but they did it anyway.
One of the sons of the first family in the Jordaan who took us in, had a crush on my sister Mary. Mary being 13 at the time, naturally did not respond to his romantic advances. In his anger he betrayed us to the authorities. I was sitting in the classroom under the name of Jacqueline Smeenk when the SS came in and took me away. My sisters was taken from the Smeenk home we were living in.
We were taken to the Weteringschans prison located at the Kleine Gartmanplantsoen 14 te Amsterdam. We were interrogated about who took us to the safe house, as the hunt for people of the resistance intensified during that time. We had alreayd made up a story between us that is was a gentleman with glasses and mustache which of course wasn’t true. We even were offered cakes during the interrogations. We kindly declined them as we felt we were being bribed. We stayed in that prison for two weeks. We were 10 and 13 years old.
After two weeks we were rounded up, brought to the train station and put on a train to Westerbork in Drenthe. Nobody told us what was happening or where we were taken. The camp was built by the Dutch government in 1939 as the refugee camp Westerbork to receive Jewish refugees from Germany. On 1 July 1942, the Nazis took over the camp to use it for their plans. The Nazis took advantage of the refugee camp's existing camp structure that was already there. Westerbork was a so called transit camp. The Germans called it Judendurchgangslager Westerbork.
We were reunited with my father and a few of my aunts who already where in Westerbork. When my father learned about us arriving at the camp, he greeted us in tears. My father worked in the camp as a medical aid. My mother came to Westerbork on June 20, 1943 and was transported to Sobibor on July 20, 1943. During her stay in Westerbork she stayed in barrack 58. She was murdered in the gas chambers in Sobibor on arrival, even though we did not know that at the time. We had a reasonably good time in Westerbork, I don’t have such bad memories about Westerbork. Because of the position of my father in the camp, we were spared the transport to Sobibor because all Jews caught hiding were instantly transported to the death camps in Poland.
On September 4, 1944 my sister Mary, myself and my father were put on a train to Theresienstadt. I don’t recall how long the journey was. Theresienstadt was concentration camp in the fortress town of Terezín, located in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (a German-occupied region of Czechoslovakia). Theresienstadt a former a holiday resort reserved for Czech nobility, is contained within the walls of the famed fortress Theresienstadt, which gave the ghetto camp it's name and was created by Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the late 18th century. The name Theresienstadt is in honor of Joseph II's mother, Empress Maria Theresa. The camp ghetto existed for three and a half years, between November 24, 1941 and May 9, 1945. Although Terezin was not an extermination camp, about 33.000 died in the ghetto. This was mostly due to the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density, malnutrition and disease.
We did not have a lot of food but my father made sure we were okay. But we had to struggle to survive. I recall one day the cellars needed to be cleaned out. So together with other children we were put in a line from the cellar to the street to collect urns which contained the remains of deceased people, which we had to put on a truck in the street.
On February 5, 1945 Swiss politician Jean-Marie Musy (10 April 1876 - 19 April 1952) negotiated with his personal friend, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, about releasing a group of 1.200 Jews (mostly from Germany and Holland) from Theresienstadt to neutral Switzerland. But only after a large sum of money was placed in a Swiss bank account by Jewish organizations working in Switzerland. Himmler personally wanted to receive 5 million francs for this first group. It is unlear if this money was ever paid to the Nazis. Musy's motives also remain unclear, but had probably more to do with promoting some anti-Bolshevik friends in Germany, than with heartfelt humanitarian concern.
The most people selected to go to Switzerland, were musicians, professors and people who were still in good health. My sister myself and my father where also put on the list that came to be known as the "Exchange Jews". That saved our lives. Jews on this transport traveled in luxurious Pullman passenger cars and were allowed to remove our Star of David. We even were given Ovomaltine mostly cacao powder that is dissolved in cold or warm milk.
Detention in Switzerland
On February 11, 1945 we arrived in a detention centre in Saint Gallen in Switzerland to recuperate. We did not believe at the beginning that we were going to Switzerland. In Saint Gallen, we where registered and examined. After a brief stay in the detention centre we were placed in a boarding school in Clarens. We could go to school in Glion (which was situated on the mountain slopes overlooking Clarens) and we we housed in a Castle with gardeners and maids... it was heaven for me plain and simple. It was a Dutch Boarding School so we had Dutch radio. The announcement came that Holland was liberated. We did not have school that day as everybody was overjoyed.
Back to Holland
A lot of girls including myself became quite ill with typhus. The bacteria was found in the water pipes. Two of the girls even died due to complications associated with the disease. Thanks to fantastic treatment by Swiss doctors and the help of a Dutch nurse who helped us with the translation from Swiss to Dutch, we got better. At the end of 1945 after spending some time in the hospital, we could finally return to the Netherlands.
When we came back to Holland the overall welcome was cool and distant from the Dutch people. The overall feeling was “Too bad your people are back, what are we do to do with you”. Nobody supported or helped us in any way. We had no money, we had nothing but the clothes we had on. So we moved in with one of my aunts because our home was gone. My father received a huge bill for the time my sister nad myself spent at the boarding school in Switzerland. Even though we had been placed there by the government, they now wanted us to repay the huge fees. After a long protests, this was eventually reversed and we did not have to pay. It was scandalous.
My mother and my children
It was not until 1948 that we received a message from the Red Cross that my mother was murdered in Sobibor in the gas chambers. All this time I had kept the hope that she was still alive and that she would come back to us one day. You still need your mother when you are ten years old. I've always search for lots of distractions, I still have a full agenda.
It was good to be able to tell my story, but the sorrow never passed. My heritage has had an effect on the upbringing of my later children, I spoiled them way too much as I wished them to have a very happy and better life.
A very big thanks to Jacqueline Turfkruyer and NPO - 3FM DJ Frank van der Lende for sharing this story.
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