Friday, April 21, 2017

Jannie's Holocaust story: fortunate, painful ... and powerful

      "Jannie" van de Kar's story in the Holocaust is one of the most dramatic, most painful and most fortunate.
My  mother's great friend, Jannie van de Kar
    All Holocaust survivors were fortunate to escape the misery and the torture. But Jannie -- my mother's best friend in the Holocaust years -- had a remarkable experience.
    To have been pregnant for months in the concentration camp, to have had a guardian angel help keep that hidden from the Nazis, and to have delivered the child, and lived through all that ...
    The baby, a girl, had no chance -- and that pain never subsided for Jannie for the rest of her life. And she lived a full life, 92 years, the last 64 in Israel.
     Her given name was Marianna, but everyone called her Jannie. She and Mom somehow survived that hell on earth -- and to the end, they never forgot those days or each other.
     Unlike my mother, Jannie did not speak or write publicly on her life and specifically of the time as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz and the "Death March" that followed.

    But in 1994-95, she diligently typed those thoughts, for her family and the world -- and future generations -- to see and study. Her daughter Kitty now has given us permission to share them.
    Her story -- 13 computer pages on the copy I received -- is dated January 18, 1995, from Nahariya, Israel, where she and Abraham ("Appie") van de Kar eventually settled after moving from Amsterdam in 1949.
     They are the couple responsible for my parents meeting in Amsterdam in late summer 1945, a few months after they all had returned from Auschwitz and other camps.
     I have written about this previously, in Survivors: 62511, 70726 -- the book on my parents and my family -- and in a blog post two years ago:
     This particular blog piece will recount the ordeal of the pregnancy in her first few months at Auschwitz.
     It will not include other gruesome parts of Jannie's story -- the transportation to the "holding" camps and to Auschwitz, the medical experiments in which the Nazis tried to sterilize the women in Auschwitz's Block 10. I covered those in writing about Mom.
     And for another blog piece, I am saving the segment on the "Death March" because it contains a not-previously-publicized revelation about my mother. Rose Van Thyn did not tell you everything, or could not deal with it. 

     We received Jannie's memoirs as translated from Dutch to English by Joke Sterringa, Kitty's friend in Amsterdam who previously sent me some clarifications and corrections on several topics in my book. Much appreciated then, and now.
     Here is the introduction to Jannie's story:
      "Today it is 50 years ago that we left on foot in the cold and snow from Auschwitz. We were to be given bread on the road. We Dutch women wanted to do it well and had sewn extra bread bags for it. Our experiment block was the last to leave.
      "There was no more bread. There were women who had raided it. Filled with despair, we went on our way. That is when our sufferings really began. Auschwitz was indescribable, but it was a roof over your head. ..."
     Marianna van de Kar-Barend, daughter of David Barend and Naatje Gerritse, was born in North Amsterdam on April 12, 1921 (five months ahead of Mom). She had three older brothers and her father was head conductor for the Dutch Railways.
     When Jannie was 9, her mother died.
      "She had diabetes," Jannie wrote. "Why she died, I have never heard. Nowadays one can grow old with it. But later I was glad that she at least had a grave in Amsterdam, and had not been gassed, like my father and my brothers.
        "My mother was always a cheerful, beautiful woman who liked to laugh, just like me."
       The Great Depression soon followed in The Netherlands, and Jannie was sent to live with an aunt, her mother's sister, and three cousins. Her father paid board and lodging for her and her youngest brother, who went to live with grandparents.
      She was loved and cared for -- by that family, her father (who worked long hours but spent weekends with her) and her brothers. Still, it was a lonely life, and she missed her mother's nurturing and laughter.
      She loved reading -- all her life -- and as a good student wanted to go to high school, but her father refused to send her, explaining, "I have enrolled her at the school for domestic science. I don’t have a wife, and she must learn everything a woman must know."
My parents' friend, Jannie
and Appie van de Kar
      At that school, Jannie met Rozette Lopes-Dias (Mom) and "I learned sewing, knitting, home economics, cooking, pattern design, and other things. And what I could not do at home, I did there: I laughed a lot. I graduated from that school, even though I disliked going there. I was angry with the whole world. Why was it just me who was not allowed to study?"
       She went to work in the military clothing industry and her social life was limited to evenings at a sports club, where at age 16, she met Abraham van de Kar. But seeing boys, even allowing them to walk her home, was not allowed.
      Appie asked, she resisted, but he persisted, came to call on her at home -- not allowed -- and she answered, frightened.
      "I asked why he had rung [the door bell]," she wrote. "He said, 'I am a decent boy and mean well toward you.' He was a handsome boy, and he sang all kinds of songs by Bing Crosby for me. I was I n love, but did not show it. That's how things were."
      Her father heard of their walks together and intervened, telling her, "I want to see that boy here at home. That week Appie visited us at home, and everything was alright." Mr. Barend "was patient with Abram, and immediately loved him.
        "... It was winter and we walked in the snow and did not feel the cold. Appie visited us every evening, everyone loved him."
        Appie was in the Dutch military, serving in Venlo (close to the German border). He had been home on leave because his father, who had shoe repair shops in Amsterdam, was ill with stomach problems.
       When Appie returned to Venlo (he was a nursing orderly in the army), Jannie -- who could travel by train for free because of her father's job -- began visiting him.
        When the Nazis' occupation of The Netherlands began in May 1940, the Dutch army personnel immediately became prisoners of war.
         "Someone had told my [future] mother-in-law that he knew for certain that Appie had been blown up with the bridge," Jannie wrote. "I said: 'I don’t believe it, I am sure he is still alive.' I was always good at feeling things, and so it was this time."
          After three months, Appie came back to Amsterdam and became engaged on his birthday in August.
         "In the evening there was the blackout, but every evening after work [at the shoe shop] he came to me first," Jannie wrote. "He was my first love. And for me there never was anyone else."
      When her two oldest brothers were sent to a "work camp" at the end of 1941, Jannie and Appie -- trying to save up for their wedding in the 18 months since they became engaged -- pushed up their plans and were married at the Amsterdam town hall on March 25, 1942, and on March 29 in the synagogue.
      Jannie's family had little Jewish education -- she said she did not even know about the high holy days -- but Appie's mother "had her own God, she was kosher."
       Appie received his call-up for the work camp the day after their town-hall wedding.
       "My wedding was no feast for me," Jannie wrote. "My mother-in-law had really done her best, but I cried all day. I felt Appie would not come home anymore."
        Jewish men were being picked up everywhere by the Nazis and sent to work camps. In May, she learned she could go visit him ... if she brought children's shoes for the children of the camp commander.
     Done, and still with her railway pass, she traveled for free on the train -- although Jews were disallowed from doing so. She purposely left her identity card and required (yellow) Star of David decal at home.
      Back in Amsterdam, the Nazis were taking over Jewish homes. She returned to live with her father, but soon her youngest brother was "arrested" and sent to Auschwitz. When she went to a bath house -- no bathroom in their house -- she was forced to show her ID, which had "J" for Jew.
        The horror was beginning. A long standing wait in a museum, a walk across Amsterdam with a large group of Jews, imprisonment in the cellar of a school for three days ... and then a release: "I have never run through Amsterdam as I did that day."
     That day, too, Appie and her brothers were sent to Westerbork, the Dutch holding camp before transport to the concentration camps.
      On September 4, the Nazis "came for my father. I tried to protest that he was a retired civil servant." But off he went.
       A week later, after going out for material for her sewing work, she returned home to see the Germans emptying the house of furniture. She protested, but -- thanks to a neighbor sticking up for her -- was allowed to keep a bed and her sewing machine.
     Soon she went to live with a friend and her children. But they, too, soon were taken away -- and so was she, transported to Westerbork.
      Upon arrival, "the first person I saw was my father. In that brief period, he had already become old and thin." She looked for Appie, but could not find him ... until a long wait with her father in front of the shoe workshop.
     "My father had looked for him in his barracks and left a message that I had arrived and where we were waiting for him," Jannie wrote. "At long last he came, and of course, I was very happy to see him."
       But later she heard that Appie had been unfaithful -- "with a girlfriend and did not know I had arrived. My trust in him was badly shaken. ... There men went to bed with women when it was offered.
      "All my life I could only go to bed with one man out of love. In spite of everything I have only loved Appie, never longed for another man. We had our difficult periods, and that began in Westerbork. The war poisoned the whole world. For a lot of people there were no longer any norms, they took what they could get. Only strong characters remained themselves.
      "I always had to think of my father’s words when I got engaged. He said: Whatever you do, take care never to make me ashamed of you. And I always remembered that."
      Appie was on a "safe" list in Westerbork because he worked in the shoe workshop. So Jannie was safe, too, and so was her father because of his son Maurits' railway connection.
       Jannie was put on a transport list [to the concentration camps] six times, but spared each time, with Appie's help. She worked in the camp kitchen, then outside pulling weeds in the bitter cold, then inside as a cleaner in the barracks.
     Although men and women lived in separate barracks, they did eat together and she could go on walks with Appie, and he "always knew a place where we could do what should really have been normal for married people. So I got pregnant. It was May 1943, and my father had gone on transport."
       She had wanted to go with her father, but he urged her to stay near Appie as long as she could.
       "I was very unhappy because I was pregnant, and got no help at all," she wrote. "No doctor was willing to help me. They all insisted that I was a healthy young woman, and if I was sent to Auschwitz, I would not be the first one to go there in my condition."
        On September 14, that is what happened -- she was part of the packed-with-people cattle car, arriving in Auschwitz three days later.
        "From that moment on, we were no longer human beings, but beasts ..." 
         And as they were being separated after leaving the train, Rose -- our Rose -- grabbed her hand and became her best friend.
       After the undressing, the shaving of all hair, the washing with a dirty rag with gasoline, and then the number tattooed on her left arm (Jannie was 62506, five numbers before my mother), and their arrival at Block 10, they were put in quarantine.
    And then the greatest fear ...
    "Someone kept coming into our dormitory, asking if there were any pregnant women," Jannie wrote. "I kept my mouth shut, I did not know what they wanted.
     "We were with 200 Dutch women in a dormitory. I asked someone who had been there for some time already, why they kept asking that. She told me that they could not use such women for experiments, and they were sent away to be gassed. I kept my mouth shut, I was five months pregnant. I was plump, that’s how the Germans registered me. Ordnung muss sein. [Order must be.]
     "I could not sleep anymore. All the time I thought they were coming to get me. Outside SS guards were [pacing], you could hear it inside. I always thought they were standing next to my bed.
     "They began the [medical] experiments immediately. First they took women from their beds at random for operations. Everyone began to scream and shout. Then they started alphabetically. When I was called, I said to the doctor -- his name was Samuels; he was a prisoner too, a famous Jewish gynecologist from Germany -- that I was pregnant, and asked him not to operate on me.
     "I asked him if he could help me. He first examined me and then said: You are already too far [along] for an abortion. But I no longer wanted one. I thought that the war could be over any day now, and then I would have my child. He told me there wasn’t a chance of that.
      "He wanted permission to do a premature birth. I lived in great suspense. Apart from myself, only Rootje [Rose] and Hilde, my friends, knew about my situation. After a week, the doctor called for me and told me it was all right, he had the permission. He told me I just had to wait a bit longer, my number would be called, and then I would have to hurry to the operating room.
     "Suddenly, we heard he had been hanged. We did not know why yet, later it was said that he had done special operations so the women would still be able to have children. He should have sterilized us.
    "There were no longer any operations. But in the meantime another doctor had come, a woman, her name was Alina Brevda. So I told her of my situation, she became my guardian angel. She always called me 'my child.'
    "By then it was November and I had a big stomach. We had a blockalteste [block leader] who was a bitch, she hit us whenever she had the chance. She never touched me. When we had to stand downstairs for roll call outside in the cold, she would say to me: "Du schwangere Holländerin, du brauchst nicht Appel stehen" ["You pregnant Dutch woman, you do not need to stand at attention."] In all my misery I was always lucky.
    "So one day my number was called and I had to go to the operating room. There Alina Brevda did some surgery under anaesthetic, and when I came to, she said: 'You are not to sit down quietly anymore. I had to climb up and down beds and go up and down the stairs for the child to descend.
     "The waters had already broken, so at once I was walking with labor pains. I was racked with pain, but I gritted my teeth, for I was afraid that if I would make the tiniest sound, I would be gassed.
      "The sixth day I couldn’t endure it any longer, and I went downstairs to the sickroom, where I asked Alina Brevda to give me an injection so I could die. I could not go on anymore. She said: I’ll give you two injections, so that the child will come sooner. I was given a bed in the ward, and that night, 15 November, my first daughter was born. Of course, I never saw her. They said she had been born alive, but in the seventh month. Probably they have killed her immediately, like all children.
      "The next morning an SS officer was standing in front of my bed, and asked my name, where I was from and who was my husband, and if I knew where he was. I felt as if I was sinking into the earth with bed and all, I thought this is the end. He turned on his heel and left.
     "Suddenly all the nurses came and embraced me, and told me I was saved, for I was the first woman not to be gassed after a childbirth. The next day Alina Brevda came to the ward very early and said I had to leave it, for there was an outbreak of diphtheria which was contagious, and she did not want me to catch it. I was transferred to another ward where there were only Greek girls whose ovaries had been given radiation treatment, so that those girls were completely burnt, shrivelled, unhappy for the rest of their lives.
      " ... After the delivery, which understandably was very difficult, and when I was with those Greek girls, was the only time in all the days I was in the camps that I cried. My first child, that I could not have kept, alone without any love around me. A mother of one of the Greek girls came to comfort me, without our being able to understand each other.
    "When at last I came back to my own dormitory, my friends were overjoyed. From then on I was a guinea pig just like the others. ..."
       In April 1944, Jannie -- still in Block 10 -- received a letter from Appie through a prisoner who had to visit a dentist on the men's side in Auschwitz.
       "He wrote that he would do everything to stay alive, and if I were still alive not to lose courage, so that if we survived  we could start again, for he loved only me. He wrote the names of all the men with him who were no longer alive. They were all of them my friends’ husbands.
      "Of course, I was very happy to have heard from him, but sad for all those husbands of my friends. I was able to give a letter in return, in which I wrote that he would always be my only love, and told him our daughter was no longer alive, and that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to give him another child because of the experiments. But I would do my utmost, in spite of everything, to hold out.
    "So I knew Appie was still alive and to the last I always felt he was still alive."
      There was much more to come, of course; they heard about the Allies' Normandy invasion (on June 6, Jannie's father's birthday), and the "Death March" was arguably a greater test for the survivors than the camps themselves.
     Jannie and Appie each went through those -- and survived.
      "I never forgot when someone had been good to me," Jannie wrote. "There [in the camps] you got to know the real person. There were decent people and bad people. Your true character came out there. Someone who was decent would remain human there as well. But in your life you also need luck. I learned a lot from a great many women. I was still very naive. A person is what life makes him."
A still-young couple with Loek (probably early 1949)
     Making her way back to The Netherlands and then finding Appie again were long, torturous adventures. But reunited and through good times and bad, they were fortunate.
       They were able to have two more children together -- Loek (Luke, in English) born a couple of months before me in 1947, and Kitty, born a few months after my sister Elsa in 1951.
    Jannie and Rose were similarly fortunate; Jannie and Appie emigrated to Israel in 1949 ("I never wanted to, but all my life I always did what Appie wanted," Jannie said); we moved to the United States at the end of 1955.
    The van de Kars made it together through 51 years of marriage -- "the last years were the best," Jannie wrote, although Appie's heart was failing. Despite his ills, his death while hospitalized at about 3 a.. m. on October 6, 1993, was unexpected and sudden.
    "Now I am alone, I miss him very much" is what she wrote near the end of her memoirs.
     And Loek, who came to the U.S. to study, died of cancer in 2004 at age 57. He lived in the Chicago area and was a respected research scientist in the medical field and a professor.
An Israeli family in Dutch garb -- Loek, Jannie,
Appie and little Kitty
     Telling portions of Jannie's story, said her daughter Kitty, "is exactly what she would have wanted. It was very important for her that people will know every detail, including the loss of the baby.
    "She used to cry on the date it was done and Loek told me once why she is crying; as a child I never saw her cry so I asked him what happened. He was 4 1/2 years older and always asked her many questions, especially about Auschwitz.
     "I used to hate these conversations they had since I never wanted to hear about it. It was painful for a child that such horrible things happened to the mother, but he was persistent and (until he was a teenager and busy with his own life) never stopped asking as long as we had lunch together."
     The photo below is of Jannie on her 91st birthday -- "the last nice one she had," said Kitty. "The next year, when she turned 92, "she felt it was the end and indeed 2 1/2 weeks later she passed away (cancer)."
      Some 70 years earlier, she had been cursed and blessed at the same time.





  1. Thank you Nico for doing this for my mom - she would have appreciated it so much!

  2. From Kitty van der Woude: Thank you for sharing this story. Heart-rending and amazing. She and your mother must have been very close. I'll save this.

  3. From Tommy Henry: I assume y'all have seen "The Zookeeper's Wife." If not, it is a MUST -- about life in Warsaw during World War II and the horrible treatment of people, especially the Jewish people living (and dying) there. I'd say it is one of, if not, the most powerful and moving movie I've ever seen. I teared up so many times at all of the sadness that was shown in the movie that I lost count. Both Mildred Ann and I walked out of the movie just sobbing and I almost never tear up in a movie, but this one was different -- special.
    I grew up hating Hitler -- still do -- more than ever after seeing that movie, and I believe that he's still burning in hell right now and his fiery existence will never end.

  4. From Tommy Canterbury: This was both heart-breaking and outstanding.

  5. From Karen Ann Bryant Dye: What a beautiful family. Thank you for sharing this. We must never forget!

  6. From Jacqueline Frankenhuis: Again a very powerful blog. Thank you for writing them. Keep up the good work.

  7. From Elsa Van Thyn: One can only admire the courage and determination of one of my mother's dearest and closest friends. I thank her daughter Kitty Wiener, who took such loving care of both her parents the last 20 years of their lives.

  8. From Billie Barcomb Nethery: Thank you so much for this blog. I enjoyed your book so much. It was a wonderful testament to your courageous parents. This family is amazing as well. The atrocities committed by this terrible man must never be forgotten!

  9. From Kate Keating: Oh, my heart. Such a story. Oh, I just wept. Thank you for sharing. We who have everything and still complain. #blessed

  10. From Dave Moormann: Heart-wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Puts life into perspective. Love how you keep the past alive. Creates better understanding.

  11. From Cindy Childers Kilpatrick: As always your story breaks my heart. I pray that history never repeats the horrors of that time.

  12. From Jalda Rebling (cantor/spiritual leader of congregation Ohel HaChidusch in Berlin, Germany):
    Dear Nico: My name is Jalda. I am the daughter of Rebekka Brilleslijper. My mom and her sister Janny survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. I got your blog information from my cousin Kitty Wiener in Nahariya (Israel). In the story about Jannie van de Kar, you write: When Jannie's mother passed away, she lived for a time in the house of an aunt. This was my grandmother Fijtje Brilleslijper, born Gerritse. The three cousins were Lientje, my mom; Janny, named after the same maternal grandmother as Jannie Barend; and Jacob, who was murdered in Auschwitz.
    My parents decided to live in Berlin, where my father came from in 1936. Don´t ask my how difficult this decision was for my mom and us daughters, but this is another story.
    Today I still live in Berlin. Every year I go to Ravensbrück for the commemoration of the liberation. I promised to Jannie van de Kar at my last visit to her to do so.
    We do there an interfaith commemoration, as we did yesterday.
    In this blog you write that you told Jannie's liberation story in another post. ... I retell over and over again out of my memory as she told me the story.
    I personally was only once in Westerbork (transition camp in The Netherlands), in April 2000 when they opened the new memory center. I went with my aunt Janny Brilleslijper Brandes.
    I never was in Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen, and don´t want to go there. So what I do in Ravensbrück is not only for Jannie van de Kar but for all those women who suffered there. But it is also for a new generation, that they will never forget. And to teach them Am Jissrael Chai. And we are proud Jews.
    Thank you for the great work you do. I send you my blessings at Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Memorial Day].

  13. From Sue Turner Carter: I'm just finishing a book called "A Parisienne" about the women in Paris during the occupation and my blood is boiling because when all of those who had survived the camps including Ravensbruck came back, Paris was more interested in getting its haute couture running at full steam again than trying to recover stolen Jewish properties and possessions and taking care of the survivors of the camps, especially the women.
    It's long been denied that there was a gas chamber at Ravensbruck but there are many eyewitness accounts that there definitely was the last year before the liberation.
    Your story about Jannie really touched me.
    I just got the DVD out of the library, "Escape from Sobibor." I know the widow of one of the men who was behind the escape from there when I was at the Holocaust Remembrance Day. She is 90 years old, sharp-as-a-tack, still driving lovely lady really enjoyed being with her. She helped her husband write a book about his experiences, but too $$$ for me. She suggested that I try to find it online cheaper.
    It's totally unconscionable what happened in the camps and that the United States was so complicit and so many companies everybody admires so much today were complicit, but when the survivors returned, especially to Paris, they went through hell again and not just once.
    The extraordinary people who overcame the hell they went through have my deepest admiration and prayers.