Thursday, April 27, 2017

How close to death on the Death March?

Jannie and Rose: Together again in
Shreveport, 1977 (Shreveport Times photo)
     They shared the Holocaust years, the terrible days in the Auschwitz concentration camp, the painful sterilization attempts and hundreds of shots, the repetitive surrender of blood, and finally the three-month ordeal of the "Death March."
     They were best friends then, and forever. But when Rose Van Thyn (Mom) and Jannie van de Kar each wrote their stories -- their memoirs -- they did not quite follow the same path.
     To see Jannie's version, as we recently did (and wrote, in part, in a blog published last week, my mother was very ill -- at times unable to walk -- during the horrific months after Auschwitz.
     When they finally found freedom, thanks to the Red Army of the Soviet Union and then the U.S. Army, Mom was hospitalized for a couple of weeks.
     Mom never wrote that, never mentioned it. It was not part of the narrative she wrote and told for so many years.
     I was surprised by Jannie's recollections, and so was my sister Elsa.
     Our memories play tricks on us, or we play tricks on our memories. Maybe Rose Van Thyn repressed her brush with death on the "Death March," or maybe she just couldn't deal with it. (Don't we all have memories we don't want to recall? I know I have many.)
     We know this: There were times over the next 65 years when life -- and memories -- were too much for her, when she needed a mental "timeout," when she stayed home in seclusion or was hospitalized.
     Please, please, please, don't misconstrue what I am writing here. She was a little woman physically, but a giant in some many ways.
     There was no questioning her courage, her determination, her willpower, her impact on her world as an educator about the Holocaust. She was an admirable character, with loads of character.
     She could be quite serious when she spoke publicly or privately, and she could be funny (or zany) at times.
      But her great friend Jannie, who left Amsterdam to settle in Israel with husband Appie (also a Holocaust survivor) and young son Loek six years before our family left Amsterdam for the United States, reminded us of events that Mom saw differently -- or not at all.
       It was difficult to digest this. And we were reminded this week, while listening to an audio-book version of The Monuments Men, that the winter of the "Death March," 1944-45, was one of the coldest, most brutal, winters in history in Western Europe.
      As I have written several times, it is unfathomable how these women, especially my tiny Mom -- frozen, starved, tortured, humiliated for 16 months at Auschwitz -- survived. Mom, only about 5 feet short, said she weighed 65 pounds shortly after their rescue.
       Always an amazing story of survival.
       My mother's name was Rozette, but in America she was Rose to most people. In The Netherlands, that was shortened to Ro (that's what Dad called her), and in the Dutch method, many friends and what family we had left called her "Rootje."         
Appie and Jannie van de Kar, with their children
Kitty and Loek in Israel, late 1950s.
        That's what Jannie called her in her memoirs.
        So let's start when they meet -- again -- just after leaving the cattle car transport arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. This part, by Jannie, is much as Mom recalled it.
         It begins with a gruesome story.
         "On arrival in Auschwitz on the ramp," Jannie wrote, "the women had to go to the right, the men to the left. It was immediately a madhouse; we had to put everything down, we were not allowed to have anything in our hands. An old woman standing next to me did not want to put down her handbag. I told her she had better put it down, but she said: I need it. The SS [men] then hit her so hard on the head that she lay there dead.
        "At that moment I knew I had arrived in hell. I looked over at where Appie stood, and with his hands he gave me a sign: chin up. ... That was the last I saw of Appie."
         Enter Mom.
         "Suddenly someone took me by the hand and asked: 'Can I stay with you?' It was Rootje, who had been in my class at the school for domestic science [in Amsterdam]. From that time on we stayed together. It was a long walk to the camp. A lot of women had been taken by car. We said 'and we have to walk,' not knowing that those women were taken straight to the gas chamber.
         "On our arrival at the camp we -- Rootje and I -- asked if we could go to the toilet somewhere. We were allowed to go, wonder of wonders we were allowed to do that, but very quickly. When we arrived at a block [dorm-type building], all women were already standing there naked and we were shouted at to undress. We were shaved from top to toe, then rubbed with a dirty rag with petrol. We were no longer human.
       "We had a number tattooed [on their left arms]. My number still is 62506 [Mom only five numbers later, 62511].
       "From first to last I was in shock. I always had the feeling, this is not happening to me, I was an onlooker. From first to last, it was a nightmare."
      Later in the story, Jannie told of working in a herb commando -- tending to herbs in a garden, and picking the ripe ones. Mom told a similar story, but there is a twist.
       Mom said she was given a dress that was far too long and Jannie, much taller, had a dress that was much too short. So Mom said they traded.
      Jannie's version: "By then we had been given coats. All the clothes we had been given initially were rags. I had a dress which was very short and a pair of knickers. Rootje had a dress which was too long, and when I said, shall we exchange, she said: No, this way I’ll be warmer. Of course, she was right.
      "Everyone thought only of himself, your own survival, it was everyone for himself. Later we did share everything, later we were able to organize -- that’s what we called it -- other clothes."
      The Death March began on January 18, 1945, when the Nazis, knowing the Russian Army was closing in from the east and the Allied forces, led by the U.S., were coming in from the west. The women at Auschwitz were told the night before they were being transported, but had no clue where they were headed.
     Jannie wrote: "As I said in the beginning, Auschwitz was hell. We thought it could not get any worse. But it did get worse and worse. Soon we forgot the pain of the [medical] experiments. For we set off without any food, in the snow, I don’t know how many degrees below zero. We walked for three days and nights. ..."
      That was only the start. There were trips on overcrowded open coal wagons -- Jannie and Rose's group had to stand, no place to lay down (and some of those who did froze to death) -- and just a little bread to divide up -- and, Jannie wrote of the walks, "hunger was not as bad as thirst. We wetted our lips with snow."
       After a stop at Gross Rosen, a well-known camp that was full -- "no place for us" -- it was three more days on the coal train to the Ravensbrück camp. There they had no barracks, but no beds. When they finally did get beds, they slept four women to a bed. 
     The next stop was Malchow and Jannie, because she was bigger than most of the Jewish women, was chosen to unload wagons with provisions and later to do heavy work, felling trees. 
      After seven weeks, "we were all so weak and many were sick." And then came another transport -- to Taucha -- followed by "a march; it was what later would be called the Death March.
     For 14 days and nights, "we marched in between the fronts," Jannie wrote. "... We walked day and night." The Nazis still present -- many had gone into hiding -- would call a halt occasionally, but not for long.
     After a stay in a barn and a night spent sleeping in a valley -- Mom had references to those -- the Nazis said, "Tomorrow you are free." And while the women still feared being shot, indeed the guards soon were no longer with them.
     "We were free without knowing it," Jannie wrote. "Our group of 10 [Dutch women] did not believe it."
     Some men pushing wheelbarrows passed and they were Dutch forced laborers, who had food in their barrows. They shared, and advised them to walk to the next village, which was overcrowded with released prisoners.  
     They came upon a farm, where a young woman was the boss, and they were given room in a barn and food -- "real food." They were told they could stay until they had regained some strength.
     My mother also wrote this. But here is the part she did not mention.
     "By then, Rootje was still very ill," Jannie wrote, "and we asked the woman if she did not have a bed for Rootje."
    Jannie added, "We didn't know it, but we were in no man's land. I don't know how long we were there. The war was not yet over officially. Suddenly the Russians came. The woman came to tell us that we were not occupied by the Russians and if we would tell those Russians that she had been good to us.
    "We could not say differently, for after all, she had given us lodging and food. All at once, she had a bed for Rootje. We were all in a big barn, in the straw."
       They were regularly delousing each other, and bathing, even with cold water, and finally they told the Russians they wanted to get to the west -- to Holland -- as quickly as possible. They found they were in the neighborhood of Leipzig.
        Another passage from Jannie concerning Mom: "Again we went on our way. We had taken a wheelbarrow, on which Rootje lay."
        Then came the story of the bridge, with the U.S. Army on the other side, and the lengthy process before they found an American officer who helped them finally get across that bridge ... and to freedom and great care. Mom always remembered that part.
      But here is another section by Jannie that is pertinent:
      "We asked a Jewish officer if he could arrange an ordinary house for us, and a hospital for Rootje. We got a house from which the owners had fled, close to the hospital so that we could visit Rootje all the time. We were then given vouchers for food by the mayor of that village.
       "... Only then could we delouse ourselves properly. From the curtains we sewed dresses. We also had vouchers for underwear. We were feeling a lot better by then. We were all waiting for a transport to Holland. I don’t know the exact dates. We learned to live again."
       By May, the war was over, and they were told to go to the train station to catch a train going west. But that didn't happen; the borders of Holland were still closed. An American soldier arranged for them to work for the U.S. Army -- Mom did write about this -- and after a thorough examination at a hospital in Leipzig, they were on their way back to good health.
     Wrote Jannie: "By then, Rootje had also recovered." 
     The road back to Amsterdam was much more convoluted for Jannie, and so was finding Appie again. It was a series of misses, a lot of hitch-hiking and some begging for rides and bargaining for passage, trips to Amsterdam and Belgium and back, and after some misdirection and misleading information, they were reunited in Amsterdam.
      Mom's road back, as I recall, went much more smoothly ... but she had no relatives waiting for her.
      Mom wound up housed in a facility especially for Holocaust survivors, a converted factory in Amsterdam. Jannie and Appie were there -- as the only married couple -- with a separate room in the attic. Louis Van Thyn -- who like Mom had lost his first spouse in the Holocaust -- came to visit Appie, his old friend (they had known each other before Auschwitz), and Jannie knew Mom, and so my parents were introduced to each other.
      Soon they were dating. The rest is obvious.
Like Rose, one of Jannie's great pleasures later
in life was to be a grandmother.
      At the end of her long story, Jannie wrote, "Of course there are a lot of things I have not written. We were often apathetic during our death marches. One after the other we collapsed and did not want to go on. I, too, wanted to remain sitting once so that the last guard would shoot me. But the 10 of us kept taking care of each other; that is why there is such a strong bond between us."
      Mom often wrote and said that.
      "Now we only need the peace we thought in 1945 would come," Jannie concluded.
      At times, Jannie's daughter Kitty Wiener has told my sister, her mother battled the demons the Holocaust had left with her. She could be difficult -- as we can tell you that Rose could be.
      But both -- Jannie and Rose -- were also lovable, admirable characters, and we were blessed to have them live so long (Jannie was 92, Rose was 88), and it was important for them to put their experiences on paper and, in Mom's case, to speak publicly so often.
       Bless their memories. We will not forget.


  1. From cantor Jalda Rebling: Jannie told more stories, for example when they were asking for water to drink, a German woman came with a bucket of water and threw it in front of their feet, saying "That is what you deserve."
    But, yes, it is like with my mom, they told "their" story and sometimes the stories of Lientje and Janny Brilleslijpr were contradicting, but all the stories are true. And, yes, I also had a mom who was absent for many days. They gave her strong drugs ... OY.
    Well, thank you for that. I will pass it on to Ravensbrück, because they did not find Jannie in their files. But Jannie remembered the lake and the little town at the other side of the lake. The town is Fürstenberg and the lake is full of ashes of the murdered women.
    May we bless life and continue to love it.

  2. From Richard Liles: While I was at Centenary I did hear your mother speak a few times. Before hearing her I had only had minor exposure to what the Holocaust was. It was only through her story and learning more and more as I grew older that I truly began to understand the atrocities of what happened, if any of us who were not part of it could even really imagine what it was. It is through your retelling of your mother’s life that we, those of us who grew up insulated, can know what evils mankind can bring upon the human experience.
    Other than your mother’s talks, my knowledge come from my friendship with Fletcher Thorne-Thompsen as he was in a military group that had come in to the camps and his visceral fear of what he had seen and experienced.
    ... It is so important to tell of your parents' journey and those who lived such lives. Thank you. If these stories ever die, I fear for the future.

  3. From James Bustillo: Perhaps you can but most of us have no conception of what horrible experiences your parents, friends and relatives must have endured in order to survive.
    I can only offer belated prayers.

  4. From Kitty van der Woude: No wonder your mother once told me that you only stood a chance if you were part of a very close supportive group. She gave me a few examples and said they looked upon each others as sisters and she made it clear that that bond was a lot closer than that of real sisters.
    Another time your father told me that they were held up at the border when they were visiting Israel. When the immigration officer asked your mother what she was going to do in Israel, she said she was going to visit her sister. Then Louis was asked the same question and he said they were visiting a friend. Only after quite a lot of explaining and showing their Auschwitz numbers were they allowed into the country.

  5. From Thomas Aswell: God, I knew it was horrendous. Never doubted it,but to read the description of a survivor was absolutely heart-rending.
    Thanks so much for sending this along. We simply cannot allow ourselves to EVER forget.

  6. From Tommy Canterbury: Wow. Such a sad, terrible story. Has to be told forever.

  7. From Pat Flenniken: Thank you so much for sharing these blogs about your mother and the Holocaust. It is so important that we never forget.

  8. From Philip Kopuit: Thanks, another important blog, especially valuable in this week of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Love.

  9. From Carolyn L. Davis: That's not unusal. I don't believe two people ever remember it the same way. Thanks for sharing the photo.

  10. From Sue Turner Carter: Two extraordinary women who persevered through hell and forged a beautiful friendship the bonds of which could not be broken.

  11. From Martha Henderson: I heard your mother's story. Can't believe how brave she was and how she focused on the positive -- getting selected to go outside to pick vegetation, getting to the American side and receiving wonderful care. I could not have survived what she went through. She was a wonderful person!

  12. From Ross Montelbano: What an awesome testimony to the determination to live. God bless those people and I hope that the apathetic finally "get it" that things like this CAN happen again if people don't get involved.

  13. From Leo Van Thyn: Excellent article, except once again brutal reading. I have a tape -- testimony of my mother to the South Miami Holocaust Association -- in which she talks of the Death March. Can’t really stand listening to it, but it is the only recording of my mom’s voice that I have.