Thursday, August 10, 2017

Another Holocaust/book update: Mom's friend Hilde

         Hilde Kratzenstein Meier, a Holocaust survivor who we knew as Hilde Cohen, rarely talked about her days in World War II.
       Too painful, too sad.
       In the photo of my mother and her "camp sisters" -- the group of Auschwitz and other concentration-camp survivors -- the woman behind Mom (bottom left) is Hilde.
      She has her right hand on my mother's right shoulder. For the next 60 years, they were connected.
      She soon would become Hilde Cohen, marrying Jacob "Jaap" Cohen, a man with two sons. They all somehow survived those early 1940s World War II years, each with their own story.
      They are stories of family losses, separation, intrigue (hidden survivors), imprisonment, reunion ... and a new start with a new family.
      Hilde and Jaap each lost their first spouses and much of their families in the war years. Each was a native of Germany, and separately, left that country in 1933 to move to The Netherlands and escape Hitler's early reign of terror.
      Rob Cohen, the son born in 1949 to Hilde and Jaap, provided much of the information for this blog piece. He lives, as he always has, in The Netherlands.
      As Rob wrote to me and my sister Elsa a few months ago after reading the book about my parents and our family -- Survivors: 62511, 70726 -- Hilde was unlike my mother in this way: She preferred not to talk about the Holocaust experience. 
      "It took me some time to read the book," Rob wrote. "For obvious reasons. ... Especially the part of your mother during the war. It is, of course, also the story of my mother.
      "But contrary to your mother, my mother was not able to speak (much) about her experiences, mainly because of the loss of her mother, father, sister, brother and husband.
      "And because of her own character. So, for those reasons, she was not able to have much contact with your mother, but I can assure you that she loved her dearly."
      Rob did note one major correction:
      "My mother is mentioned in the book as Hilda Meier Kretsenstein. But her exact name is Hilde Kratzenstein."
      (Let's say that my mother's memory and notes were a bit faulty, and so was my lack of research.)
      The "camp sisters" photo likely was made in summer 1945, some months after the end of their imprisonment at Auschwitz, in the infamous women's Block 10 (and the gruesome medical experiments by the Nazis), and after their weeks-long "Death March" through Poland in the brutal winter cold of January 1945.
      By the time of the photo, they had recovered some health, had been given the hand-me-down uniforms they are wearing, and were waiting to find a way to return to The Netherlands.
      When Hilde returned, she soon reunited with Jaap Cohen. And Jaap had reunited with his two sons.
      Jaap was born in Ochtrup, Germany, on May 16, 1907;  Hilde was born in Schüttorf, Germany, on Feb. 5, 1919. So, Jaap was 12 years older than my father, Louis Van Thyn, and Hilde was five months older than Dad. Mom (Rose Van Thyn) was two years younger than Hilde and Dad.
      In 1940, Hilde married Otto Meier, who lived in Enschede, The Netherlands. It was in Enschede where she and Jaap first met, as working companions -- as Rob notes -- "at Meijer Clothing Shop. My father was a window dresser, my mother a saleswoman."
      Hilde, like my mother, was "picked up" by the Nazis in 1943 and eventually transported by cattle-car train to Auschwitz. Otto died in a concentration camp.
      Jaap Cohen, Rob said, "was a survivor, but not from the camps. He was hidden in Utrecht with the Van de Dorpe family (mother and two daughters, all three teachers) together with his wife Sophia (Fietje, she was called) de Lange.

      At first, their oldest son (Harry, born in 1940) was with them. But for safekeeping, he then was hidden in several places in Friesland, up north in The Netherlands, then and now the most sparsely populated, most rural -- mostly farms with cattle and crops -- province in the country.
      Harry was never betrayed, never discovered in hiding by the Nazis. He was too young to remember where he was hidden. 
      The younger son, Jaques/called Jack, was born in a Utrecht hospital in 1943. Details are sparse, but the mother -- as the boys were told -- died in that time frame, perhaps in childbirth. Jaap remained in hiding.
       This is for certain: The occupying Nazis immediately took the baby and he was sent to the Theresienstadt camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
      Here, from the encyclopedia on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum web site and other sources, is information on what is described as a "model" camp -- a stopoff for many Jewish prisoners, but also one where the arts were emphasized and were children of age attended an unofficial school.
       Some 140,000 Jews from all over Europe were sent to Theresienstadt; some 90,000 were transported onto Auschwitz and other death camps; some 30,000 died there from starvation or illness; and the number of children was estimated at 15,000.
       Only 10 percent of those children -- an estimated 1,500 -- survived the war. One of those was Jack Cohen.
       Maybe he was among the 1,200 Dutch Jews which a group in Switzerland -- the neutral country untouched (almost unbelievably) by the Nazis -- ransomed from the SS in exchange for millions of dollars. But maybe Jack and others were in the camp when the Russian Red Army liberated it and the International Red Cross moved in to care for the survivors.  
       What Rob Cohen and his brothers knew was that Harry and Jack wound up together -- and Jaap found them.
       "After the war all children (without relatives) were brought to the Berg Stichting Foundation in Laren (a town in North Holland)," Rob wrote, "where my father found them again and brought them with him to Enschede."
        That foundation, begun in 1909, was a shelter for Jewish children, many of them orphans. But the Cohen brothers, by now 5 and 2, were not orphans. They were survivors.
       By then Hilde was in Enschede, too. She and Jaap met again, and married on March 27, 1947. Rose and Louis had been married five months earlier.
       The Cohens soon moved.
        "A brother of my father had a clothing shop in Hilversum," Rob wrote, "but as he also didn't return after the war, my father got the chance to take over this shop in 1947."
        Hilversum is where Rob was born some 2 1/2 years later.
The Cohen family, 1950, in Hilversum, The Netherlands
     And Hilversum -- 16 miles southeast of Amsterdam and longtime base of the Dutch national radio and television networks -- is where I remember the Cohen family from visits there with my parents in the early 1950s. Rose went to see Hilde, Louis became friends with Jaap, and Elsa and I were along for the trips.
      Elsa, too young then to remember our visits, recalled her 1963 trip to The Netherlands with Mom -- their first time back after we left late in 1955 -- and told Rob, "I have such a clear memory of Jackie and his motorcycle. ... Remember how nice he was and actually took me for a ride. As a 12-year-old girl, I remember him being so handsome ."
     Elsa returned for visits with our parents in 1972 and 1975 and also told Rob that we had a home movie of him diving into the water near their lakehouse in Loosdrecht.
      "I have such wonderful memories of your family," Elsa wrote.
Frouke van Eijk and Rob Cohen
      Rob now lives in Almere, which is 14 miles almost straight east from Amsterdam -- although that straight line goes across the Ijmeer lake.
     For many years, Rob was a tax advisor ("still working a bit") and an active soldier in the Dutch National Guard. He retired in 2009 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
      Married in 1970 to Gisela Bässler (a German native, not Jewish), they have two children -- Claudia (1972), who is married and lives in Jerusalem (where she became an Orthodox Jew) and Peter (1975), a divorced father with two sons who has another son with a new partner and lives in Woerden, The Netherlands.
     Gisela died of a stroke on Dec. 31, 2006, at age 60.
     Since September 2009, Rob has lived with Froukje van Eijk in Almere.
     Brother Jack died of cancer on May 6, 2003. Harry lives alone in Sweden and, says Rob, "is doing well."

Jaap and Hilde, 1973
     Jaap Cohen died of cancer on July 23 1979, and soon after that, Hilde -- now alone -- moved to  Benidorm,  Spain, where she lived the last 25 years of her life.
     She died on March 11,  2006 -- so some 2 1/2 years before Dad and four years after Mom.
     She left Rob a memorable keepsake.
     It is a symbol of the great care the United States soldiers gave to Mom, Hilde and the other concentration-camp survivors in Poland in the spring of 1945.
      "Attached I send you," Rob wrote in an e-mail, "the emblem of the 69th Infantry Division, which my mother got for her memory from the American captain and which she always kept in her wallet.
      "I am proud to have it now  because it symbolizes the great gratitude we feel to our brave liberators."
       Rob's lasting memory of his mother and her Holocaust experience is "she did not want to talk about the history. It made her sick. So that is the reason she did not stay in touch with your parents and anyone else from her past."

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