Writing my name openly here almost feels like a liberation. For that’s the double layer that you carry around with you all your life…
I am, I think, the youngest of the second generation. What for many seems so long ago is actually very recent.
If I had been born a boy, I would have been called Bernard. Or Berrie, just like him. My mother was 3 years old when the war broke out, and so was her cousin Bernard.
Together with her two sisters and her parents, she survived Theresienstadt, where she ultimately ended up after first being taken to Westerbork. And for good reason, for a good friend of my grandparents had them registered with the church, as though they had been baptised. All seven sisters of my grandmother and their children met a different end: the hell we call Auschwitz.
Just before the end of the war, my mother, her sisters and her parents were transported to Switzerland. The Nazis needed medicines, and it is said that they received them from the Swiss in exchange for people. And even there, after all the years spent in camps, the children were separated from their parents…
And Berrie? She spent her whole life searching for him. When I was 21 I went to Yad Vashem. Hours and days in the library. She wanted to know so badly if it was true, if her favourite cousin hadn’t survived by some accident. For you often heard stories, people who met their son by accident in Israel or in some roundabout way. And, maybe, mistakes might have been made in the register after the war. I sought and found. But how could I tell my own mother, whose health had been so affected since early childhood by years spent in camps, and who was such a strong and remarkable woman despite all the traumas and nightmares, how on earth could I tell her that there too, on the pages of that big book, I read that her small cousin really had died in Auschwitz? In the end, all I told her was that I’d found my grandfather’s father. She almost seemed relieved to know where (Sobibor) and when he had died.
For a long time I kept silent about my ‘discovery’ of Berrie. Just like when I secretly went to Westerbork when I was 15. The only person who knew was Ida Vos, the writer who meant so much to me in my younger years. I devoured all her books about the war, until I met her once at a children’s book fair. I was always allowed to visit her and read her manuscripts, and she was forever answering my questions. “Ida, I don’t understand something. How can flowering sprigs blossom at Westerbork?” There was no question for which she wasn’t able to offer an acceptable answer.
Sometimes I think that my father and Ida Vos were the ones who helped me to understand all the ‘strange’ things about my mother, call them ‘camp ticks’ if you will. I had never experienced my youth in any other way. Okay, I did have very few relatives, unlike most children at school. And yes, I felt an eternal battle inside to fight against injustice. With words, it must be said. That everything had to be spotless seemed logical, and that you had to be aware of the fact that one day everything and everybody can be gone — at the most, that only made me an independent person.
She never hated the Germans. And she was even able to pass over the words of the old Nazi that she and I met in Austria (I’ll spare you his nasty comments). My grandfather showed me that everything is possible. Despite everything, he was a positive and cheerful man. And, strangely enough, all those elements together are the secret of my current ‘success’.
I still support so-called underdogs of the world, no matter what their race, religion or whatever. For we are all people, and I’ll never understand hatred. It may sound unpleasant, but very occasionally I think that all this has made me the person I am.
Yes, I think it’s strange to write here that I carry that legacy around with me. Because you’re better off keeping quiet about being Jewish. At least, why was that again? I cautiously abandoned that attitude bit by bit. Even so, it still feels a little scary. And for someone who’s never scared, that’s intriguing.
The best-known market here in the Oud-West district of Amsterdam bears the name of my great-grandfather on my father’s side. He even received a commemorative stone in the Nieuwe Kerk in 1923. My mother, who died far too young, will never be able to witness the day unfortunately, but in silence I tell her with a smile in my heart that all her mother’s sisters (Dormits), her grandfather Hartog Hedeman, her cousins and yes, especially Berrie (Bernard Wolf Jules Jacobs), will at least have been able to exist …
And me? Above all, I am thankful.