WALTER ROSENBAUM IN THE NETHERLANDS, 1938-1939
Joseph Rosenbaum and the author are both great-grandsons of Hannchen and Isaac ten Brink of Denekamp in The Netherlands. John’s grandmother Julia was murdered in Auschwitz, her sister Rosalie had managed to escape from Europe in October 1939. She took her teenage son Walter Rosenbaum (1922-1997). Joe is Walter’s son and only child. He grew up on the northern tip of Manhattan in New York City.
19 December 2013 – today 75 years ago your father Walter was taken into custody in an Amsterdam police office. Walter Rosenbaum was sixteen years old and a Jewish refugee from Germany. The Kingdom of The Netherlands was an independent country – one-and-a-half year later it was occupied by Hitler’s troops.
So why was Walter arrested? That day about three hundred male illegal refugees under thirty years of age were taken into police custody and forced onto buses of the Amsterdam municipal transportation authority. The Netherlands government had ordered these arrests. It felt that the swelling tide of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria had to be stopped. The government argued that if it would not do so, the Dutch Jews would experience an increase in anti-Semitism from their fellow countrymen.
Once that decision had been taken, arrest was a simple operation. The illegal Jewish refugees in Amsterdam were housed and fed by local Jewish organisations. They were registered with the police and each one of them had to report twice every week to the Aliens Office at Oudezijds Achterburgwal. When they reported on 19 December, they were not allowed to leave. Buses stood ready nearby to take them away.
This was late 1938. Before I continue, let me flash back to the early 1920s. Your grandparents had married in Denekamp in February 1921 when Josef was 43 years old and Rosalie 28. Your father was born eleven months later, on 9 January 1922. By that time Rosalie and Josef had settled in Josef’s hometown Dortmund. Josef ran a trading firm in ‘chemical-technical products’, and later a grocery store (Kolonialwarenhandlung) at the address Walter-Ufer-Straße 55, now Bergstraße 55 in Dortmund-Lindenhorst. An indication that, before Hitler came to power, they were living in reasonable prosperity is provided by the fact that they had a telephone. Their number was 633.
Josef and Rosalie lived within walking distance from my grandparents Adolf and Julia Löwenhardt, who ran a butcher’s shop at Lindenhorster Straße. Julia was Rosalie’s elder sister. When your father was born in 1922, my father was eight years old – so he may well have visited to admire the new family member.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, the situation of Germany’s Jews quickly deteriorated. Your grandfather was driven out of his business. I have no information on your father’s family during his childhood, but the terror of 1938 is well documented. The archives of the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp show that your grandfather Josef was first arrested on 19 September 1938, and taken to Dortmund’s police prison, the infamous ‘Steinwache’. His prison registration number was 3331, the false charges were: “attempted fraud, political”. He was released nine days later. On 10 November, the day after ‘Kristallnacht’, he was arrested again. Two days later he was taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, as one of six thousand Jews; his registration number at the camp was 12006. On 24 November Josef was released after haven been interned for twelve days. The nazi authorities told him to disappear from the country, and Josef managed to flee to Amsterdam. There, on 3 December, he registered at the address Volkerakstraat 41, second floor. It seems that he was accepted as a legal refugee.
From what you told me it seems that Walter followed his father and in November or early December fled to Amsterdam as well. He crossed the border illegally and in the weeks before 19 December probably lived at a different address. I have no information about the whereabouts of Rosalie until on 21 July 1939 she registered in Amsterdam at the address Tolstraat 99, third floor. She stayed here for only five weeks.
Legal divorce between Rosalie and Josef had been pronounced in Dortmund on 29 October 1938, in-between Josef’s two arrests. This was almost certainly an opportunity separation allowing Rosalie to reclaim her Dutch citizenship. There was a much better chance to receive an US visa on the basis of the Dutch quota than as a German citizen. On 28 August Rosalie moved in with her ex-husband Josef at Volkerakstraat. The last two months before she and her son boarded the Statendam III bound for New York, Rosalie lived with Josef – a strong indication that their divorce in Germany had been a formality.
By late November 1938 the estimate was that about four thousand legal and 1,500 illegal refugees had entered The Netherlands since Kristallnacht. Six hundred illegals had been interned and it was feared that new illegal immigrants would be sent back to Germany. The government was determined not to admit more Jews. Early December twenty children who had arrived unaccompanied were returned from Nijmegen to Germany. The government announced that from 17 December no more refugees would be admitted and that illegal refugees would be returned unless they could provide proof that they were in direct danger of life.1
On 19 December the Amsterdam city buses left in an easterly direction, carrying some three hundred men and male adolescents including Walter. They had no idea of where they were taken. They felt a growing fear that the destination was the Dutch-German border where they would be thrown into the hands of Hitler’s men. But after a while the buses moved to the north. It was dark by the time they stopped in front of a forbidding, barracks-like building. The men had arrived at a place none of them had ever heard of. It was the ‘Second Institution’ (Tweede Gesticht) of the ‘State Correctional Institution’ (Rijkswerkinrichting) Veenhuizen.
While your father was in custody he was schlepped around the country to four different locations. At Veenhuizen the three hundred men were kept for only two weeks. On 3 January 1939 they, or most of them including Walter Rosenbaum, were bused to Hellevoetsluis, a small harbour town just to the south of Rotterdam. Less than two months later, on 28 February, Walter was moved to Eindhoven, the industrial city some 140 kilometres to the southeast. And finally, on 14 July he was transferred to an institution originally built for isolating migrants with contagious diseases: the ‘Quarantine Institution Zeeburgerdijk’ in Amsterdam. This had been in use as refugee camp since November 1938.
What were these places like? And how did Walter in the end manage to get free?
VEENHUIZEN – two weeks
‘Veenhuizen’ is a village in the middle of nowhere in the northeast of the country. When in 1823 the ‘Society of Beneficence’ (Maatschappij van Weldadigheid) opened its institutions, it was surrounded by vast stretches of peat moor and heaths. From Amsterdam and other cities, hobos, criminals and loafers were sent to ‘Veenhuizen’ to be re-educated through hard labour. At night the men were locked into narrow ‘sleeping cages’ holding a bed, a pisspot and some blankets. By the time Walter and his companions arrived, these cages were still in use.
I went to visit Veenhuizen in April 2012. It is now the National Prison Museum. I wanted to see the sleeping cages (picture). The understatement used to describe them was ‘alcoves’. After I returned home I was shocked to find in parliamentary records that in spite of protests in our national parliament, the alcoves had been in use until the very end of the 1960s.
HELLEVOETSLUIS – eight weeks
Hellevoetsluis Fortress had been a major Dutch naval base in the Seventeenth – “Golden” – Century. It was home to our naval heroes, admirals Piet Hein, Maerten Tromp and Michiel de Ruyter. But in the early Twentieth Century it lost its importance and economic viability. Naval shipping had been transferred to a more northern port. When in 1938 the government was desperately trying to find locations for refugee camps, the Hellevoetsluis town administration jumped at the occasion and offered the fortress. It was an attractive offer, for the fortress had natural barriers to people trying to get out. It was turned into a camp for illegals, military police were stationed at its gates. Some of the prisoners succeeded in finding odd jobs with businesses within the fortress walls.
Your father was in the first group of refugees that arrived – from Veenhuizen – on 3 January 1939. They were housed in two naval buildings, the former naval hospital being one of them. Each boy or man received forty cents pocket money per week, for coffee or tea in the canteen they paid 5 cents. The camp had the reputation of being one of the worst in the country, with a very strict regime. The dormitories were crowded and dirty and most of the men had nothing to do during the day. They were bored stiff and found it difficult to understand why they were locked up as if they were criminals.
But for those who had relatives or friends in Amsterdam, occasionally visitors arrived and stayed for a few hours. The ad from the Jewish weekly Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad (3 February 1939) shows that on Sundays Pool’s Tours travel agency offered one-day bus trips from Amsterdam to the “German Emigrants” at Hellevoetsluis at the price of 1,60 guilders. I have read the account of one such trip by a Viennese refugee with the same age as your father, visiting his brother. It may be that Josef bought a ticket with Pool’s Tours and visited Walter during the two months that he was locked up in the Hellevoetsluis fortress. Perhaps.
EINDHOVEN – four and a half months
On the last day of February 1939 Walter was moved to the Dommelhuis in Eindhoven. This building had been constructed in the 1920s for Philips, then a major European manufacturer of radio’s and light bulbs. It was intended for single workers who came to the booming city to work for Philips, but who had no place to stay. In 1938, Frits Philips gave permission for the Dommelhouse – named after the Dommel river that flows past its front lawn – to be used for housing Jewish children who had fled from Germany and Austria.
Conditions at the Dommelhuis were far better than in Veenhuizen or Hellevoetsluis. It was a home for children, and by decision of the local refugee committee for boys exclusively. Veenhuizen and Hellevoetsluis were prisons for illegal adults where Walter had been out of place.
I went to see for myself in May 2012. The building is located in a pleasant residential area just outside the city centre with lots of lawns, parks and stately homes. There was no military police at the front door, the refugee boys were free to move and to visit the city. Many of them went to school, some found work with businesses in the area or farther away. Meals were provided by the Philips company canteen. Some of the boys were informally adopted by local Jewish families who invited them for the weekly Shabbos meal. The refugee committee went out of its way to make their involuntary stay as pleasant as possible
AMSTERDAM – ten weeks
While Walter was in Eindhoven, his mother campaigned for his transfer to Amsterdam. On 22 April she sent an handwritten letter to the ministry of Home Affairs arguing for her son’s transfer. Her words implied that the visa application was getting along. Rosalie pointed out that her son had no family or friends in Eindhoven and it would be so much better for him to live close to his parents. “In Germany my son studied for installer and plumber,” she wrote in Dutch, “and perhaps he might continue his studies at a vocational school in Amsterdam for as long as he has to stay in The Netherlands. I would be able to pay for the tuition.”
The ministry took its time, but finally on 14 July Walter was transferred to Amsterdam. Closer to his parents… but not free yet. A letter on your father’s case has been preserved, dated 11 September 1939 and written by the Government’s Commissioner on Illegal Refugees, one Mr. Smeets, to the Minister of Justice. Smeets stated that “it is unlikely that within foreseeable future emigration to America will [for Walter Rosenbaum] be possible” and advised the Minister not to release him from ‘Zeeburgerdijk’. Release from custody should take place “only when it has been established that emigration will take place within a few days.” This letter provides proof that Walter was still at the Quarantine Institution on 11 September.
RELEASE AND DEPARTURE
The Statendam III sailed from Rotterdam on 22 October 1939, seven weeks after World War Two had started in Europe. She arrived in New York Harbour on 31 October. In the archives I found evidence to suggest that Walter was released from custody a month before the ship left. Rosalie’s registration card in the Amsterdam civil administration files shows this last entry: “20Oct39 New York USA”, saying she deregistered in Amsterdam on 20 October, stating that she was leaving for the USA. I found Walter’s card, too. Its last entry is “25-9-39 Vertrokken n. Amerika met de Statendam” – left for the USA on the Statendam on 25 September 1939. This may indicate that he was finally released from the Zeeburgerdijk camp on 25 September and had one final month with his father before he boarded the ship that took him to New York.
Three women have played a role in Walter’s escape from Europe. First, of course, his mother Rosalie. She applied for a visa for the United States on the basis of her Dutch citizenship and somehow managed to take her son along, who had German citizenship.
About the other two women I have only ‘circumstantial’ evidence. There is no direct proof of them acting on Walter’s behalf, but considering the circumstances it is possible that they did. The first is Gertrude van Tijn, born Gertrud Franzisca Cohn in 1891 in Löwenstadt, Germany. From 1933, Gertrude was one of the central figures in the Amsterdam Committee for Jewish Refugees. Financially supported by generous donations from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, ‘the Joint’, she helped many to organise their escape from Europe. Rosalie and Walter received American visa’s on the basis of a guarantee by a ‘friend’ in the US, one Ch. I. Gilbert.
The third woman is Hilda Verwey-Jonker. She was a member of the Eindhoven city council for the Social-Democratic Party and secretary of the city’s committee for refugee children. Hilda was an informal mother and protector to the Dommelhuis boys and helped them in many ways. She insisted that they go to school. If she saw a possibility, she arranged for their status to be legalized. Her wide network in administration and society allowed her to help individual boys in finding temporary employment and speeding up emigration procedures.
After your grandmother and father had left Holland, Josef Rosenbaum continued living in Amsterdam at Volkerakstraat 41. He was still at this address when in May 1940 the Germans invaded and occupied the country. By then your father and grandmother were living in Washington Heights. In February 1943, Josef was arrested and taken from Amsterdam to Westerbork transit camp in the northeast of the country. On 17 March 1943 he was on the list for deportation and his train left for Sobibór in Poland. Josef was one of 964 people on the train, men, women, elderly, children, babies. Jews. Sobibór was an extermination camp, the people on the train did not know. After three days and nights in a cattle car, these trains arrived. With very few exceptions, all deportees were gassed the same day. Your grandfather was murdered on 20 March 1943. He was 65 years old.
The Hague, December 2013
The author wishes to thank Miriam Keesing and Bernard Wasserstein for their comments to an earlier version of this article.
A family tree of the Ten Brinks from Denekamp is here.
- Bundesarchiv.de – Chronologie der Deportationen aus den Niederlanden
- City archives, Amsterdam
- City archives, Dortmund
- Dokin.nl archives (Miriam Keesing; German and Austrian War Children in the Netherlands)
- Email/research by Magdalena Strugholz, 12.11.2010
- C.L. van den Heuvel, P.G. van den Heuvel-Vermaat, Joodse vluchtelingen en het kamp in Hellevoetsluis: een onderzoek naar gegevens over de Joodse vluchtelingen in de jaren 1938-1940. Hellevoetsluis 1995
- Netherlands Red Cross archives, The Hague
- New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, ancestry.com
- Fred Schwarz, Treinen op dood spoor. Fred Schwarz, Badhoevedorp 2005
- Bernard Wasserstein, Gertrude van Tijn en het lot van de Nederlandse Joden. Amsterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam 2013. US edition expected in March 2014: The Ambiguity of Virtue. Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews. Harvard U.P.
- Bernard Wasserstein, Gertrude van Tijn en het lot van de Nederlandse Joden. Amsterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam 2013, p. 58 [↩]