My father Andries Gobes was the youngest of a family of nine children from Amsterdam (born on Havikslaan in 1909) and he had the good fortune to be married to a non-Jewish woman (Antonia Johanna Jansen, Amsterdam, 1908). The family into which he was born were not practising Jews, but they did respect some Jewish food customs, and my granddad worked, very traditionally, in the diamond industry. A surviving aunt often made delicious Kugel with Pears, and chicken soup with dumplings, even though, despite her Jewish appearance, she had nothing to do with Jewish belief and was an ardent socialist. Those Jewish traditions obviously continued to be part of their later lives, and she even visited Israel.
I was born in 1936, and despite the war my brothers and I had a good youth in the wonderful Nieuwendam garden village, which was a paradise for children at the time, with all its gardens and pedestrian streets.
Even so, the war brought the tensions of raids, bombs on the Fokker factory, and the need to keep on the lookout for Nazi sympathisers who might betray our father. We were well instructed and knew precisely where ‘collaborator’ families lived. A memory etched in my mind like a film concerns a raid by German soldiers wearing huge jackboots. They stormed into every house in Nieuwendam and pulled lots of boys and men out of the attics, putting them to work in German war factories. During one such raid my father hid behind a black heater, which didn’t contain a fire, and around which my mother had placed a three-piece wooden rack for drying clothes. She stood in front of that heater ironing clothes. They must have come up with that plan previously, because the raids came out of the blue. So papa had a lucky escape, even though he must have been very anxious hidden there behind the heater.
I also remember very well the yellow David star that my father always hid beneath his briefcase when he still went to his office in the early years of the war. Unaware of what it signified, I thought it was a beautiful star.
The winter of 1944/1945 was extremely cold, and there was not much left to eat or burn, but we survived thanks to food hunts that my mother undertook to farmers in the Beemster area, and together with the neighbours we had a round iron stove in which we stoked wood from Vliegenbos Park. I remember eating ‘pulp cookies’ made of sugar beet, and the slice of bread that we children got from Farmer Knook on Schellingwouderdijk. I don’t remember being really hungry, but my mother did suffer from hunger oedema. No doubt she put the children first. The taste of soup made from potato peels at the soup kitchen on Blauwe Zand was very distinctive, but it did help to ease the worst hunger. Big ice floes on the IJ were spectacular to behold, and on the ditches around Nieuwendam you could skate clumsily on your Frisian skates with straps cutting into your ankles. We also had itching winter hands and feet, but everything seemed normal to a child, and Mama always had a remedy for everything. And once winter was over, spring soon arrived with the Liberation. So that Winter of Starvation didn’t last too long, although the stories might make you believe otherwise. The people who died of starvation in Amsterdam were exceptions of course. That was terrible, and not everybody had such a strong, young mother who spent hours walking to farms in search of food.
Around the time of the Liberation, tins were dropped from aircraft onto the land. Inside we found rock-hard hardtack, a sort of cracker, and that Swedish white bread was as tasty as tart, especially if your mother had a bit of margarine hidden away somewhere, or a spoon of sugar. Sometimes I still take a slice of white bread and top it with butter and sugar, and then I become that happy child of long ago. We were also given clothes after the war, I don’t know where we got them, but all the girls in my class at the Purmer School wore the same green dresses made of some sort of jute material, onto which my mother had embroidered lovely red roses.
After the war my parents had a boy, our little brother, a present for the whole family.
My father and mother both lived to a grand old age: Andries reached 91, and my mother Ton 97, so they must have been strong people.
So in some way or another (hiding, destroyed passport), my father survived the war, but after the war he learned that four of his brothers — Abraham, Isaac (Jacques), Jacob (Jaap) and Michel — had been killed in the concentration camps. The first three brothers were killed along with their Jewish wives and children. And they even took away the mother of the family, my grandmother, from her retirement home on Plantage Middenlaan and killed her in one of the gas chambers. Grandpa Jozef had already died in 1936, which was probably a blessing for the man.
For a long time the whole slaughter remained an unfathomable subject, and my parents built up their own lives after the war. They worked, kept house, set up a korfball club for young people, and were tidy, sensitive parents. The Jewish faith was not a big thing in our family. My father even detested all religions, because he felt that ‘they were the cause of most wars’. My mother, by contrast, did take some comfort from her belief (Dutch Reformed) and often came out with expressions like ‘When the need is greatest, the Lord puts out his hand’ and ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb’. I still use many of her sayings to this day.
A great moment of joy was when our uncle Louis managed to return to Amsterdam months after the Liberation, after a terrible journey by foot, the effects of which he was to feel for the rest of his days. He was rescued by the Russians just in time from a concentration camp where he had experienced terrible things. My little brother and I had to welcome him with ‘Hi Uncle Lou, how do you do?’ I think that was because we’d been liberated by Canadians, but I’m not sure if my uncle saw the humour in it, since I’m sure he had other things on his mind.
For a very long time we heard nothing from Michel, the father of my cousin who lived with her mother on Nieuwendam. My aunt couldn’t believe that her strong, smart husband would not return, and even went with my mother to a fortune-teller, who gave her false hope. In the end, the Red Cross broke the news that Michel had also been murdered by the Nazis, which my aunt refused to believe. She thought there must have been a mistake and spent years waiting for him to return. He was taken away after being betrayed by neighbours who were Nazi sympathisers. After the war the daughters of that family were taken around Nieuwendam on a wagon, their heads shaven and covered in pitch, taunted and spat at by onlookers. That’s something I object to; it was horrible.
We didn’t talk very much in the family about relatives we’d lost. My father still had three sisters, who were all married to so-called ‘Christian men’, and those aunts sometimes revealed more of their sorrow. One of my cousins (Lies, now well into her 90s) lost both parents and her brother of 16 and sister of 20. She herself had just married before the persecution of Jews started and so managed to survive.
The remaining family members Andries, Louis, and the sisters Bloeme, Alie and Jetta lived their lives in Amsterdam and concentrated on their own families, although my cheerful aunt Jet in particular was fond of gallows humour.
Only much later did I realise just how many family members I had missed during my youth and long afterwards. My grandma, four uncles, three aunts, six cousins: I would very much have liked to have known them all better. But inspired by the positive life of my parents and aunts, and also helped by the family of my Amsterdam mother, who was also the youngest from a Catholic family of nine, I had a happy life. I think the same is true of my brothers, although the youngest, born after the war, was more preoccupied with the tragic family history than my older brother or I was. Did he perhaps understand it better because it was around the time of his birth (1948) that the loss of all those relatives really started to be felt?
As I grow older, I increasingly find it impossible to comprehend how something so terrible could have happened. How everybody just watched as whole families were ‘removed’, first to Westerbork and later to extermination camps, with those trains whose drivers surely must have known where they were going.
Through my aunt Jet I received a letter from my uncle Jaap, written in Westerbork, in which he asks his sister to send him some socks, vests and shaving things. He was still highly optimistic and finished his letter by saying how hopeful he was that they would see each other again very soon. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Now that I have an opportunity to put the name of a family member on the Holocaust Names Memorial, I choose my little cousin Sonja, who was fourteen when she was forced into the gas chamber. It’s all still so incomprehensible, but gradually, seeing what’s happening now in countries torn by war and elsewhere in the world, I am of the view that people are not as good and you might wish.