T’was some sixty years ago, or thereabouts. I am eight, ten years, twelve perhaps. In the nightstand in my parents’ bedroom I find a mysterious document. It is a stack of carbon copies of typed sheets. ‘General Police, Gelderland Province. Political Branch’ is printed in the left upper corner. In the right upper corner, in handwriting: ‘Mimi de Leeuw, Almelo’. That is the maiden name of my mother. Then: ‘Identification and documentation of the corpses found on Wednesday 7 November 1945 in the forest at Tongerenscheweg, Vierhouten’. Five bodies are being described in two sheets of paper. Then ten sheets with the police report on the interrogations of one Ferdinand Frankenstein and some members of the former ‘Landstorm-Nederland’, armed Dutch helpers of the German occupiers. The report is signed on 13 December 1945 by detectives L. D. Schaap and D. J. Dekker.
I am not reading every page and I do not understand everything I read. But I feel the family secret burning in my hands. I am ten years and perhaps I begin to understand the trauma of my parents. This is about my grandparents and their son Johan, my mother’s elder brother. That I do understand. They have been murdered in Vierhouten and in my home town Almelo I have seen my mother weep at their grave. Not once have I confronted my parents with my discovery of the document, not once have I discussed ‘Vierhouten’ with them. The trauma-born taboo silenced me, as it did them.
Many years hence, when asked what has happened, I produce this somewhat cynical response: the parents of my father have been gassed in Auschwitz ‘as was usual’. But those of my mother died by bullets just outside Vierhouten village on an unpaved forest road. For Dutch Jews of their generation this was a very special death as almost all were killed in the extermination camps in Poland. 1 These grandparents have a grave, in Almelo. How can that be? What exactly happened? Some sixty years I have been looking for answers… and still the puzzle is not complete.
I do have some routine now in summarizing the incomplete story. It goes as follows. In the Summer of 1942 my mother Mimi went into hiding, jointly with her brother Johan. Their parents and Mimi’s fiancee Heinz Löwenhardt went into hiding at about the same time but at a different address. Some two years later the parents and Heinz were forced to leave their hiding place. At this point Mimi asked her brother Johan if he would relinquish his place in favour of her fiancee. Johan did – and the swap was made. I owe my existence to that exchange.
Brave people of the resistance took Arnold and Louisa de Leeuw, the parents, and their son Johan to Vierhouten. Deep in the forest a hiding camp of dugout dwellings had been organized by the resistance of Nunspeet-Vierhouten. Here they were provided with shelter. For more than eighteen months some eighty to one hundred Jews and an occasional downed pilot or deserted German soldier were protected here, fed, sheltered and kept alive.
But in the early evening of 29 October 1944 two soldiers discovered the hiding camp. They went to their base for reinforcements. As soon as they had left, the residents of the camp dispersed and fled into the dark forest. When early next morning many more soldiers returned, only eight people were found and apprehended. Three of them were my grandparents and uncle Johan. I do not know why unlike so many others they were not successful in staying out of the hands of the Germans. Perhaps it was because they had arrived only two months before.
An aged couple, Mr. & Mrs. Gompes, died the next day in or next to the Paasheuvel building in Vierhouten where the Germans had their HQ. The remaining six Jews where executed on 31 October at Tongerenscheweg.
One detail should not be ignored, the final act of desperation of my grandfather. I mentioned it for the first time in my speech when on 4 May 1994 the monument at Tongerenscheweg – a split boulder – was inaugurated. Six people, among them the six year old John Meijers with his father Arend, then 45 years. They have been taken from the cellar of Paasheuvel building, where they had been locked up. The five grown-ups carry spades. They know all to well why these have been forced onto them: to dig their own graves. To all sides of the small group walk Frankenstein and his Dutch helpers, all armed.
Somewhere on this guilty dirt road my grandmother Louisa starts screaming. Grandfather Arnold uses the occasion to strike Frankenstein with his spade. Alas, the blow is not hard enough. The others make a running but are shot – some fatally, others not. They are killed in the shallow grave they have had to dig for themselves.
I have felt comforted by that blow, my grandfathers act of despair. At least he has tried to repel doom. His reflex provided the others with an opportunity to run.
I believe it was in the 1970s when I first visited the dugout dwellings at Vierhouten. All but one had collapsed. They could be located only by large, overgrown pits in the forest floor. In-between was a sea of huckleberry bushes. The dark blue berries were begging to be picked and we arrived home with a large harvest. I couldn’t help thinking Would my grandparents have picked berries here in the Autumn of ’44?
- Of 107,000 deported from The Netherlands, only 5,000 survived.