Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Beaten, but never defeated

       (Third in a series)
       The mental reminders of being a Holocaust concentration camp survivor were with my Dad the rest of his life, 63 years. The physical reminders you could see on his left arm.
        Louis Van Thyn lost every member of two families in World War II -- his original family in Amsterdam and the family he married into in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1941.
Louis Van Thyn: one scar on an elbow, one saved life
      What he never lost was the number tattooed on his left arm -- which I wrote about in the previous blog -- nor the scarred area near his left elbow.
        That smoothed-over light scar was the result of being struck by a German wielding a copper hammer ... the last of four beatings Dad talked about in his 1996  Holocaust interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
        That beating, that scar, saved his life.
       Listen to his testimony and he talks of seeing a man shot to death on the first day in camp, of two instances where prisoners were hanged -- after the entire camp of prisoners had to stand for hours and wait for that to happen.
      He talks of sickness, of prisoners being taken to the camp hospital and never coming back; of the lack of food, of starvation, of bargaining for something extra to eat, of stealing food, of stealing clothes.
      Dad was an opportunist. If he saw something that could make things better for him and others, he'd often take it ... even if it wasn't exactly permissible. These were survival skills; perhaps they helped him through nearly a thousand days in Nazi captivity.
       So, yes, in my years with him, at times I saw a sense of entitlement. And that sense of entitlement is what led to some beatings in the camps.
       But Dad was not a fighter, not in the physical way. I saw him angry, sure (especially the day I backed my car into his car), I saw frustration -- with work situations, with life situations, with my mother, with my sister and me.
       What I never saw was meanness.
       What I saw, I believe, was why he could take the beatings and not strike back; why he could take his punishment, and survive.
       His first reference to a beating: "I was picked up in Auschwitz one time. I had 25 [lashes] on my behind. We were walking in a field and I stole two tomatoes, and somebody catch me. 
       "Back in the camp, I had 25 on my behind with a rubber hose. If one man did it, it was bad, but two men was much worse. I was all black and blue; they had a special chair to do that [whipping]."
       Two of the beatings came when he was working in the coal mines outside the Jajina work camp, a satellite camp near Auschwitz. Again, the sense of entitlement.
       The first time, after the daily change of clothes in the mines, he found a coat (with pockets) his size, picked it up, saw it didn't have a number on it, and put it on.
       "You know I could put my bread or something in it [the pocket]," he said. But as the men were standing at attention before going on the night shift, the guards walking down the line noticed the coat and the pocket.
       The coat belonged to a kapo (one of the German guards, often the worst German criminals taken out of prisons to enforce "discipline" in the camps).
       "They put me in the office and hit me all over," Dad recalled. "I was sick like a dog, and I had to go back to the coal mines. And I was lucky in the coal mine; they let me not work. They put me somewhere and gave me a break. You know somebody else was maybe killed for that."
       Then three months before his freedom, late in 1944, he was one of 10 men picked to work in the mines on a Sunday night, a night they were supposed to have off.
       "There was some extra work," he recalled, "and I was in charge of the 10 men. [That afternoon] I organized some extra food. I stood in line for food four times. But one guy not like me, he catch me and he told [the guards' leader] that I stole something.
       "I was hit real bad ... it was real, real bad. But I still had to go to the mine. But they saved me in the mine, they let me sleep all night. ... You know, I was lucky."
      By January 1945, he had been placed in a different commando in the coal mines, and his group was working on building a new elevator, using big bricks to build a shaft.
       "One night I had to count the men that come out of the shaft," Dad said, "and I made a mistake. One of the kapos had a hammer, a copper hammer [used to determine whether there was stone or coals in the mines]. And he hit me on my arm, right here [pointing to his left elbow]. Two days later, it was like this [shows how it had swollen], and they put me in the hospital."
       And here's the good timing, the good fortune. Dad was in the sick barracks with 27 men. Meanwhile, the Nazis abandoned the camp and took the prisoners on what was to be a "Death March," as was the case with many of the concentration camps as the Allies closed in. Left behind were the 27 men and a camp doctor.
       But there was no long march in this case. The prisoners from the mining camp were ill-fated.
       Dad: "They took the whole camp from Janina, took them 2 miles in the woods and shot them all -- 770 people."
       An astounding twist: He never knew that story until 1986 ... he heard it 41 years later when he was contacted by the German government to testify in a trial against a Nazi guard.
        What he did know in January 1945 was that luck was with him after the operation on his left elbow.
       "I still have a mark there, a big mark," he said, "and you know what happened in Auschwitz if you were sick; you went to the crematorium. And I was lucky."
       For a day or two after the camp was emptied -- Dad recalled it being Jan. 6 or 8 -- German army members were coming into the hospital looking for first-aid materials. For a few days, the patients could hear shooting in the distance. Then it grew quiet.
       The Germans were gone.
       "I remember we were lying there and the camp was empty, the gate was open, but we don't know it," Dad said. "I was still lying in the bed, but I could walk already. We no had no food the last couple of days.
       "People weren't coming in the camp, civilian [workers] were not coming in the camp, [but] the gate was open -- I remember that. We were walking in the camp; we were with two [men] from Holland ... and then, eight days later, we saw the Russian Army coming in."
        The prisoners were free. But never free from the memories.
        Next: The family Van Thijn 


  1. Amazing! Hard to fathom what it must have been like.

  2. From Ken Sins:
    Reading this just underscores how cushy our generation has had it. My student deferment kept me from Vietnam, I never even had to join the Army. I've never been in a fight, never experienced real hardship. Folks of this generation had a right to lecture us on how soft our lives have been.

  3. From Brenda Laird: Nico, this is something most of us can't even imagine. ... You were lucky to be able to tell his story.

  4. From Maxie Hays: Awesome story, Nico. Your Dad was a tough dude. We don't have a clue about what those poor people went through.

  5. From Magdalena Rood: You wrote a lovely tribute, Nico.

  6. From Harrison McCoy: I really enjoyed this blog entry. I have often wished I had had a chance to meet and hear your parents in person. You're doing a great thing with this. I passed your blog along to our eighth grade English teachers (at an Arlington middle school) this morning as a possible resource for their classes.

  7. From Patrick Booras: Thanks for sharing. Appreciated your parents as good people... and enjoyed spending some time with them.

  8. From Roy May: Thanks for sharing this, Nico. Both your Dad and Mom were remarkable people.

  9. From Jimmy Russell: Great pieces and something we should never let die is what happened in Germany. I have often told you I truly regret not hearing your mother speak. I met your dad with you on a couple of occasions. I know he was a (Billy) Wiggins man. Your dad, you and I watched Wiggins' team play in the LISA finals and he had a big lead and we joked it probably might be another Captain Shreve–Brother Martin game.

  10. From Dale Brown: What a man you had as a father. May all those bastards burn in hell. Great story thanks for sharing.

  11. From Joe Julavits: Great series on your Dad. As someone pointed out in the comments, our generation really doesn't know what hardship is.

  12. From Leo Van Thyn: There was a period of time when my dad was suffering from severe back pain. Doctors could not determine the cause of the pain as there was nothing physically wrong with him. Counsellors reasoned after extensive questioning about his past, that repeated beatings with rifle butts left an indelible “mark” on his back. Oh yes, and the numbers... Again, thank you for continuing to write.