Thursday, August 15, 2013

The would-be diamond cutter

(Eighth in a series)
      My Dad -- Louis Van Thyn -- was 17 when he left home in 1936, left his country (Holland) to pursue what had become his career goal: to be a diamond cutter.
       It could have been a noble and lifelong occupation, and a potentially lucrative one. But it never happened.
       The Dutch army intervened, and then the Germans -- the Nazis -- intervened, and World War II happened and Dad wound up in a concentration camp (Auschwitz) and nearby prison/work camps.
       When he survived, by the grace of God and luck and perseverance,  those three harrowing years, diamond cutting was still on his mind. But when he went back to that goal, he found he didn't have the desire for it, he couldn't sit quietly for hours enclosed in a manufactory and concentrate on the task.
      "I had to get out [outside]," he explained in his 1996 Holocaust interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
       So that dream ended, but life -- thankfully -- went on. Still, it was a memory of those years just before Europe, and the world, went through hell.
The last time my Dad (second from right)
saw his family: at the June 1940 wedding
 of my uncle Hyman (right). That's my
grandmother Sara (left), my grandfather
Hyman, and my uncle Jonas (young boy). 
       He was a school dropout at age 14, a trade school dropout, because in the Depression years of the early 1930s, his family needed him to work. So he spent a couple of years working for his Amsterdam neighborhood textile manufacturing plant, De Vries van Buuren & Co., as several members of his extended family -- including his mother -- did.
       He did odd jobs for the company, including delivering the work clothes, etc., that the plant produced. Then, at the urging of his uncle, who was a diamond cutter, and that uncle's son (Dad's first cousin) in Antwerp, Belgium -- two hours south by train -- he found a route he could take.
       It was a prestigious industry and Amsterdam, for more than 400 years, had been known as the "City of Diamonds." But by the mid-1930s, the powerful labor unions had made working conditions in the diamond centers so strict that much of the work force had shifted to Antwerp, which by then had become known as the "World Diamond Center."
       Because Dad didn't have an "in" to the business in Amsterdam, Antwerp was the answer.
       "I went to Antwerp to learn diamond polishing," he explained. "I was a polisher. First I was in the trade school and then later on someone was teaching me in the manufactory.
       "I could not do that in Amsterdam. You had to be a union man; your father had to be a diamond worker. My father was not, but my uncle (Hyman Scholte)  -- the husband of my mother's sister (Lena Van Beem-Scholte) -- was a diamond cutter, and he sponsored me to go to Antwerp and learn the trade there. I could not learn that in Amsterdam; no one wanted to take us."
       His cousin, Joopie Scholte, also was a diamond-cutting apprentice then. Dad not only moved in with the family -- replacing his grandmother, Eva, who had died -- he and Joopie would be best friends.  And it remained that way for the rest of their lives. Joopie, too, was a Holocaust survivor who came back having lost a wife and a daughter. Unlike Dad, he did become a diamond cutter post-war.
       (There's more to the story, but I'll visit that near the end of the series).
       As he did his apprentice work in diamond polishing, Dad still had to do other work to help pay for his housing and support himself.
       "My uncle was working for a newspaper; he was selling weekly papers, and he became director of the chevra kidisha (the Jewish "holy society" for preparing dead bodies for burial)," Dad said in his interview, "and I took his job. After I was learning [the diamond business], in the afternoon, I'd go on my bicycle and deliver papers to homes. My uncle and aunt helped me get through [those years]."
Dad, in his Dutch army uniform
       The German/Nazi threat was rumbling. The world had seen the possible might of it, seen and heard the propaganda in full blast at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and by September 1939, the German army invaded Poland.
       By then, just before he turned 20, even though he was in Belgium, he was in the military.
       "My parents were still in Amsterdam, and I was drafted by the army, and I started on April 11, 1939," he recalled. "I stayed in the army until May 1940 when the war broke out [in Holland]. Then [the Germans] made us POWs. So I spent one month in Holland as a POW, and they let us go home.
       "We were in Fort de Bilt, in a town near Utrecht, and they [the German army] took our whole group and put us in a big farm, with 400 or 500 people in the barns, and they kept us there."
       It was only a beginning, and a strange one. What happened?
       "We had to do nothing there. They did nothing to us," he said. "They were planning [for us] to go to Germany to one of the POW camps, but there were so many [people] that I think they were waiting, and then they decided to send us home. They sent the Dutch army home."
       He later learned that after a while, when labor work was needed in Germany, much of the Dutch army personnel were picked again and sent to those POW camps. But Dad wasn't in that group; he was no longer in the Dutch army, or what remained of it.
       He went back to Belgium, back to where he had been living, back to his uncle and aunt and two cousins (Joopie and brother Jonas), and in June 1940, he made a trip back to Amsterdam -- by bicycle -- because his older brother Hyman married Regina Kok.
       "It was the last time I saw the family," Dad said, the last time he saw his father, mother and two brothers. He never saw Hyman's baby boy, Nico, born June 23, 1941.
       There was a good reason Dad went back to Belgium -- he was in love.
       Next: Estella, and a short-lived marriage




  1. From Plater Robinson: I deeply, deeply appreciated this essay.

  2. From Bettye Spainhour: This is an amazing account of what strength of the human spirit can accomplish through times too unbearable to fathom.

  3. From Elsa Van Thyn: Great blog, but it took me aback to see the picture of my Dad, he looks so much like my boys.

  4. From Stan Tiner: A wonderful story, beautifully told, Nico.

  5. From Karen Bryant Dye: I recently (over a period of a couple of weeks) watched the mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The director of this series stood firm against the censors to try to make this as authentic as he could. It was difficult to watch the scenes involving the Nazi cruelty and inhumanity, but I think it is something everyone needs to see and never forget. I couldn't help but think of your parents and what a miracle it was that they survived. They were both such an inspiration, and I appreciate what you are sharing. I loved the photo of your father in his uniform.