Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Going home to Antwerp (and heartbreak)

(26th in a series)
Louis Van Thyn, as he looked
at the time he returned home.
     There were many gripping, gut-wrenching moments in my Dad's story of his time in the Holocaust, but for me, none were (and are) more hard to take than when he finally returned home.
     Here, after 2 1/2 years in work camps and concentration camps -- in Auschwitz-Birkenau and its satellite camps -- he tells of the reality of what happened to his family, where he learns for certain what he had suspected, what he had feared.
     Among his original family and the family he married into, he was alone -- the lone survivor.
     He came home, after the greater part of three years, to emptiness.
     It is actually a two-part return: (1) to Antwerp, Belgium, his adopted home before World War II where he went to work and was married and lived with his in-laws and where he was picked up by the German/Nazi forces, and (2) his true home, Amsterdam, where he'd left his parents and his brothers some five years earlier.
     Louis -- or Levie, his original name -- was the last of his Van Thyn family.
     Lost his first wife, Estella. Lost her parents, his in-laws. Lost his father, Nathan; his mother, Sara; his brothers, Hyman and young Jonas, his sister-in-law Regina. His nephew, Hyman and Regina's baby, a 1-year-old boy named Nico.
     As he told of his return in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, I could see his emotion.
     He could be an emotional man, but he was the least demonstrative of the four people in our family. There aren't tears here, or sobs, or even a break in his voice. But when the interviewer asks the questions that bring him back to those awful days, Dad pauses and takes in the question, then shakes his head and says, "That was bad. That was real bad. ..." Or, "That was terrible. ..."
     Even as he talked then, 51 years later, those moments, those memories still hurt.
     This was near the end of May 1945, almost five months since the Nazis had bolted the camp (Janina) where Dad was in the camp hospital, left with 27 fellow prisoners. This was after he and others made two stops in southern Poland, then wound up in the Ukraine and then Russia, and then were among thousands on a boat trip from Odessa to Marseille, France.
     By now, World War II was finished in Europe; the Germans had surrendered. The horrors of the concentration camps were becoming reality for the free world.
     And the survivors were making their way home ... not knowing what was there, what their futures would be.
     For Dad, it meant a train trip from Marseille to Paris -- and he was still wearing the Russian Army uniform he'd been given in Odessa -- and directions to English barracks. There he was given an English Army uniform. And from Paris it was another train trip to Brussels, the Belgian capital, and on to Antwerp.
     "And in Antwerp, at the [train] station, I had one bag met [with] me," he recalled in 1996. "I  had I sold my prison uniform in Odessa to somebody who needs clothes. We were real poor in the time."
     At this point in the interview, Dad jumped ahead in the story to Amsterdam. But I will relate that part in a moment.
     "I find when I was back in Antwerp, the train station was full with people," he said. "The reason was that the military, the POWs, were coming back from Germany. We were coming back, and no one was looking for me. I come out of that station and the Red Cross asked, 'Where are you going?' and I say, 'I go to my old house, maybe there is somebody over there.' You know, you don't know.
     "And I walked -- that was not too far from the station -- I walked and I saw my neighbor and he say, 'Come upstairs and I let you see something.' And there was all my caps, my good suits, all my silver, my wedding ring, everything was there, pictures, china -- I got still some china over here [in the U.S.] from Belgium.
     "They saved it for me, my gentile neighbors. They had a Jewish daughter-in-law, but there a cross, a Catholic cross, was in the room. When the Germans came, they saw that in the room ... so they  saved all that stuff, my neighbors."
     Interviewer: "And they gave it back?"
     Dad: "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah." But at this point, he recalled that is not what happened in Amsterdam a couple of months later. More on that later.
     About the first night back in Antwerp, the interviewer said, "You started to tell me about the night you slept in your own bed."
     "Yeah, that was terrible," he said after a pause. "I don't think I sleep that night. All the memories come back from that time [before the war]. I was married out of that house. My in-laws lived there. My aunt lived 5-6 blocks from there, [that's] where I was living with my aunt and uncle [when, at age 16, he first moved from Amsterdam to Antwerp]."
     In a short time, he would find -- thankfully -- some members of his extended family who also had survived the war and the Holocaust. I will write about that in a future chapter, but here is the first reference.
     "The first couple of weeks in Antwerp I find a cousin of my sister-in-law," he said. "[His wife] was not Jewish. She was in Malines [the Nazis' holding camp for Belgian prisoners] and they came home. I visit him and they were living in a fort from the military. The house was bombed with the V-2 bombs. The house where I was living before was bombed, too."
     Here he interjects a pointed reference to a significant figure in World War II and later in the space race.
     "You know the V-2 bombs, Mr. [Wehrner] Von Braun, he was a hero here in the United States, and he had a big building called after him," Dad said. "He was the [Nazis'] organizer of the V-2 bombs in Germany. He was the hero here; I never called him a hero."
      (Indeed, Von Braun helped develop the V-2 combat rocket for Germany and two decades later came to the U.S. to work for NASA and was the chief architect/developer of the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo spaceships that carried Americans to the moon.)
     Dad said "the first couple of months in Antwerp was no good." But a couple of aspects made life bearable.
     "I find some friends that were coming from the [concentration] camp," he said. "We come together with [a group of] boys."
     And this, "The Red Cross was terrific good in Belgium," Dad recalled. "But Belgium was already free one year. We could pick up every week -- we had to go to Brussels -- and they give us 500 francs to live the first 2-3 months, to stand on our legs weer [again]. I give all the compliments to the Red Cross in Belgium. They took care of us."
     So that June and July, he began to work again. "I was a concrete carpenter, and I worked all odd jobs."
     Still, his future was uncertain, permanent job prospects uncertain, although going back to diamond cutting -- the trade in which he was going to apprentice and for which he came to Antwerp originally -- was a possibility.
     And the most nagging uncertainty ... the conditions in Amsterdam. He had to find out; he had to know.
     The interviewer: "Why did you go back to Amsterdam?"
     "I wanted to see what was going on there," Dad answered. "You know, my parents were over there, and my brothers were over there, and I wanted to see how Amsterdam looked."
       (Next: Home to heartbreak, Part II) 




  1. From Tim Hall: I find [the series on your father's story] to be most compelling as recounted from a privileged perspective, that of a son of a survivor and not of a historian who merely researched the war and it' manifold tragedies. I'm certain this process is
    cathartic for you.

  2. From Dick Hicks: Wow, what an incredible story. I can't even begin to imagine the pain and suffering your Dad and others went through. It is because of people like your Dad that we enjoy our freedoms today. Although my Dad did not experience anything like "the camps," before he died he used to talk sometimes about Antwerp and The Battle of the Bulge he fought in. Thanks for sharing this incredible story.

  3. From Ann Bloxom Smith: This is heartbreaking. I know it must be hard for you to write, but someone has to recount the story. Thank you for telling it.

  4. From Tom Arceneaux: These are touching and important to keep the memory alive.

  5. From Colin Kimball: Thank you for sharing. It's extremely important that my children and those of their generation hear these accounts. I was spellbound by the story of the "Catholic cross."

  6. From Ben Land: Thanks. I will read this to my grandchildren and we will discuss.

  7. From Reg Cassibry: Please keep posting; these are things we all need to read and remember.

  8. From Margetta Stoddard: I am glad you are telling your family stories. I know it is hard for you. We need to know the famly story to pass to our grandchilden.

  9. From Jim Pruett: With world events as they were then/are now in different settings, I cannot imagine what such must have been/be like. Wish I had a magic wand. Still, strangely, were it not for those times -- even that day -- there would be no Nico.