It was in about 1922 when my mother, Corrie, then aged 18, enters the employment of Mrs Katoen, probably already widowed (I never heard my mother speak of a husband) with two small sons: 5-year-old Max and 4-year-old Alfred. A small Jewish family living on Van Musschenbroekstraat in Amsterdam.
Corrie is fortunate. She does the housekeeping, but also goes out with the family now and then. Later she goes out on her own with the two boys, to Artis Zoo for example. Max is lively and restless, unlike Alfred, who’s very calm and serious. They are two true city kids.
The brothers Alfred and Max Katoen
Corrie stays there six years, such a large part of her young life that later, when she herself is married, often speaks about it. And my brother and I enjoy when she talks about Max and Alfred: how they could imitate the sounds of Amsterdam trams, screeching as they turned a corner. How they learn that you aren’t supposed to break wind but, instead, must leave the room, which we promptly put into practice in an exaggerated manner. And roared with laughter of course. How they come and stay with my grandparents in Alkmaar, where they, o such merriment, could sleep in a box bed. If they were still awake late at night, my grandfather would call out: “Boys, that’s enough, time for loeren!” To which Alfred would reply “Oooh, …. grandfather says loeren’. A cry that, half a century later, is still used in our family. Loeren means ‘sleep’ in the dialect of North-Holland.
I think that these stories make Amsterdam a very appealing place for us. Whether the brothers visit us often, I cannot recall. The visit I do remember must have been in 1938 or 1939, when I am about 9 and we live in Heiloo. They arrive by car, can you imagine? A car in those days (I vaguely remember that one of them is a representative). It’s a really festive occasion, because they take my brother and me to a pastry shop. We have to wait quietly in the car while they go in to buy cakes. And I can still picture them pointing to things in the window display, saying they want that and that, and coming out of the shop excitedly with a big box of cakes.
After that we are in closer contact. War breaks out and one day a letter arrives from Mrs Katoen. A blue correspondence card for me from ‘Aunt Betsje’ (why? birthday?) and she writes that “when everything is alright again, then my brother and I can come and stay in Amsterdam”. I couldn’t think of anything better in those days. I was mad about staying somewhere else, but I just had one aunt in the village, and that was a real party once a year. But yes, Amsterdam, that would certainly be something else.
Summer 1942. My mother is expecting a ‘late arrival’ in the family, and Max and Alfred are called up to report on such and such a date at such and such a place (Hollandse Schouwburg?) with a long list of things they had to take with them. I have the impression that everybody helped to make sure the boys were provided with all they needed. They both have a packed rucksack. Given to them by someone? Made for them? Or was it issued to them? Double-velvet curtains are used to make ‘lumberjacks’. DDT powder is apparently difficult to come by, but it’s possible. (That makes a big impression on me, that you go to some place where you know they need DDT!). They act brave, or do that just do that for their mother? Max says “If we have to work, well, then we’ll work”. Something like “You shouldn’t let yourself be intimidated”.
As far as I know, they have those big photos made that summer. Alfred with an expression on his face that says ‘This is a catastrophe’ …, Max looks like he’s thinking ‘Don’t despair immediately’.
I remember well that Alfred’s girlfriend was not Jewish. Doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t want to implicate her, and maybe make her wait a long time for him. Why isn’t he married to that girl? Others did that! Or maybe he doesn’t want to abandon his brother?
And then I think of when my mother takes us to Amsterdam to say our goodbyes to the boys. I can see us in the corner living room. I’m thirteen years old and wearing my nice blue dress with red/white checks. The conversation passes me by, or I don’t grasp it. (Actually, I don’t fully understand the seriousness of this farewell). As we are leaving, Alfred says: “Corrie, she’ll be a beautiful girl, mark my words”. My mother laughs with a face that says ‘Oh, it’ll be all right’. I give Alfred a hand (Naturally I give Max and Mrs Katoen a hand too, but I don’t remember that) and a few melancholy eyes (maybe the eyes in the photo?) when he says: “I hope that if I ever meet you again, you’ve grown a little bigger”. I am surprised, because nobody had ever said something like that to me before, and I didn’t really understand it anyway. But it turned out to be a sentence that would stay with me all my life.
Mrs Katoen receives a ‘cheerful’ card from Westerbork transit camp.
Back home, we can help decide on a name for the new baby. The name Alfred is mentioned. Yes, we all think that’s a nice name. On 24 October 1942 a boy is born. He’s called Dick. But why not Alfred? Hadn’t we more or less agreed on that? And cautiously my father says: “After reflecting on it, we decided against it, because that name might always evoke sad memories”. What we don’t know then is that the same would be true of the name Dick, because he dies, aged 3, on 29 October 1945.
After the war my mother makes contact again with Mrs Katoen (By then she goes by the name ‘Mendes Coutinho’). She survived the war, but don’t ask how. Hidden in a villa in the Gooi region maybe? The Germans raid the place. A Jewish boy is sitting in a high chair at the table, but luckily they ignore him. Mrs Katoen escapes into the garden and, never able to ‘do’ anything, somehow manages to climb over a two-metre-high wall into the next garden. She stays there for how long? Days? Nights? She must be very sick too, but she pulls through and considers it a sign that her boys would return …
The information doesn’t sound too hopeful. At some counter they tell her: “1942? No more survivors …”. How do you then return home? How can you live with that? I don’t know if she ever hears that they would never return, if she ever knows, where and when… She accuses my mother of not providing a safe house for her boys. And my mother, shocked at the death of her own child, is lost for an answer. Corrie and Mrs Katoen, both so wounded, have nothing else to say to each other.
Years pass. Whatever happened to Mrs Katoen? My mother thinks she might have gone to a relative in America. And we live with the thought that Max and Alfred were deported and perhaps in a labour camp… or in the mines …. Corrie dies in 1979.
In the summer of 1990 my husband and I are in Drenthe and we go to Westerbork, because we want to see the memorial. But we end up in the memorial centre and discover in a display case a book with names. It’s open at the letter K …… And out of the blue I say to my husband: “Shall I ask if Max and Alfred are mentioned in those books?” And so I ask. Mr. G receives us in the office. He looks and finds and nods and says “Both on the same date, what a coincidence! One in Birkenau and the other in Auschwitz”. What’s the sense of that? “That’s because,” says Mr G., “brothers tried to stay together.”
I wander through the woods of Westerbork crying…. “brothers tried to stay together”…. “I hope that if I ever meet you again… “, the cakes, the ... and the ..., and grandfather says “loeren” …. I have grown older, am now 60 and have a son aged 22. Don’t bearing thinking about….
May they stay united. May they, and the many others, sleep peacefully for eternity.