Climbing the tree one branch at a time
International Holocaust Remembrance Day
In November of 2005 the United Nations marked today International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is the day that Auschwitz was liberated. So in honor of that I am sharing with you something my great aunt Edith wrote for a book I put together a few years ago about the story of their escape from the Nazi’s.
Our escape from the Nazi’s
The Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939, but in Holland everyone was hoping that also in this war Holland would stay neutral, as had been the case in the First World War.
This hope was brutally shattered in the early morning hours of Friday May 10, 1940 when the Germans, after occupying Norway and Denmark, invaded Holland.
At that date our parents, Alfred and Fien Polak, and Judith, who was still in high school, lived in the Professor Dondersstraat 73 in Tilburg. Adah was on “hachshara” in Loosduinen near The Hague, where as a Zionist she was trained for “alyah” to Palestine. I, Edith, lived in Amsterdam, where I studied at the School for Social Work. The brother of Father Uncle Hans, who was a widower, his daughters Floor and the twins Leonie en Wies lived also in Tilburg. Lot Elias lived with them. Uncle Hans’ son Bertram had been recruited in the Dutch army. After his discharge, while trying to escape to England, he was unfortunately caught by the Gestapo and murdered in the concentration camp Birkenau.
The next morning Saturday May 11, the family decided that all those living in Tilburg would go to Amsterdam, which was considered to be safer, as it had been during wars throughout the ages. Amsterdam lies north from the big rivers and the land could be flooded by opening the floodgates. It did not work, because not only was the army not prepared for this, as the invasion caught Holland by surprise, but the Germans used airplanes. Some of the bridges over the big rivers were destroyed by the Dutch army.
And thus the eight people living in Tilburg crowded together in one car and traveled to Amsterdam. They were very lucky, that one of the big bridges they had to pass was not yet destroyed and that they still could buy gasoline. Arriving in Amsterdam Mother sent a postcard to Adah with the address of the hotel.
I remember the number of license plate of the car: 16510. After the war, when our parents returned to Holland from the States they brought a car with them and Father received the same number again.
I still remember the big contrast between the beautiful spring weather with a cloudless deep blue sky and the horror that was enfolding itself.
On Tuesday May 14 there were rumors going around among the Jews in Amsterdam, that people were trying to flee to England through the port of IJmuiden, a small town not far from Amsterdam, which is situated on the North Sea. While Father, Mother and Uncle Hans were discussing this possibility (Bertram was in the army and Adah was not in Amsterdam), Adah suddenly entered the hotel room. She had received mother’s postcard and had found a taxi driver who was willing to drive her to Amsterdam in spite of the great danger: Germans parachutes were coming down, there was shooting and the roads were bombed. It was decided that we would try to get out of Holland.
This time there were 10 persons in the car. While leaving Amsterdam, there was an air raid alarm. As there were no shelters, we crowded under the roof of the entrance of two houses for some kind of protection. In one of them was a man, who lived not far from IJmuiden and who was returning home by car. He offered to take some of us in his car. At a certain intersection we had to go different ways, and after explaining how to reach IJmuiden, he left for his destination. This explanation was very important for us as the authorities had removed all road signs.
In the meantime it was already evening. After first being refused by the Dutch army to enter IJmuiden, we were allowed to continue. But then there was an air alarm, as the Dutch army was blowing up parts of the ports in order to block them. We were taken into a house and there we heard on the radio that the Dutch army had surrendered to the Germans. It was at about 9 o’clock in the evening of May 14. The way to the port was open and it was an all-out “save yourself”. In the confusion that developed, we lost Floor, Leonie and Wies, the three daughters of Uncle Hans. We found a ship, which intended to reach England and the captain was willing to take refugees. I still can see Father standing with one foot on the shore and the other on the gang-way of the ship saying: ” And what about the girls”. But apparently in such a situation the instinct to be saved has the upper hand and he came on board. And poor Uncle Hans, who was already on board said: “Today I lost all my children”.
The ship was a big fishing boat which was converted into a mine sweeper. Near the coast of Holland we were bombarded by German planes, but fortunately nothing happened. On the way we were met by an English tornado boat, who signed “we will bring you safely to England “.
Upon arrival in Harwich we were welcomed by a committee of volunteers. We were apparently the first refugees to arrive and they were very happy to receive us. We were sheltered in a school and received the most necessary things such as food and a toothbrush. We arrived with only the clothes we were wearing, as in the chaos of getting on board the ship in IJmuiden we had to leave all the luggage in the car except for one small suitcase of great importance which I will explain later on. Father, Mother and Uncle Hans contacted friends and relatives in London. Overnight we stayed in the school in Harwich and the next day we traveled to London, where we warmly welcomed and taken in by a cousin of Father and Uncle Hans, Andries de Leeuwe.
While visiting a friend of Father, Mother and Uncle Hans on Saturday May 18, there was a phone call from Floor, who had arrived together with her sisters Leonie en Wies in Dover. After losing us in IJmuiden they got into somebody’s car, which brought them to another port of the town. They, too, succeeded in getting on board of a ship fleeing Holland. This friend drove to Dover to bring them to London. It was a very emotional reunion!
Upon our safe arrival in England Hans and Lot were married. After being about six weeks in England we all immigrated to the USA.
How was all this financed? The captain of the ship did not asked for any payment nor did we have to pay for the train tickets from Harwich to London.
But this is only a small detail. Father and Uncle Hans had a very thriving business in Tilburg, importing raw hides from Argentine and Africa which were sold to tanners for the leather industry. In the small suitcase that we carried with us to England there were, together with other valuables, papers certifying a shipment of hides from Argentine that had arrived in England and could not be shipped on to Holland because of the war. Father and Uncle Hans sold those hides in England. Moreover with the rise of Hitler and the prospect of war they had transferred part of their capital in Holland to the USA .Because of this money in the USA and in view of the fact that very few people from Holland immigrated to the States before the war, we did not have any difficulties receiving immigration visas.
After the war Adah married Alfred, who had been imprisoned in the concentration camp Monovitz-Buna which was located about five km from Auschwitz, I married Fré, who had been in hiding with Christian friends in Amsterdam and Judith married Harry, who had been with the US army in North Africa, Italy and Germany. Knowing what happened during the Second World War, it is in a way unbelievable that all three of us were so lucky to be reunited with our loved ones, resulting in a lovely and wonderful second, third and fourth generation.
Jerusalem, July 2008