Friday, July 11, 2014

A tour of eastern Europe ... a boat ride west

(25th in a series)
    Stuck in a couple of cities in southern Poland, still searching for food and help, Dad (Louis Van Thyn) and some of his fellow ex-concentration camp prisoners needed direction.
    The thought, the goal, always was to return home -- to Antwerp, Belgium, and to the old place in Amsterdam. But the road to get there, the process, was convoluted. They were looking for direction.
    But the direction they received, and that they traveled, had them going east instead of west. It was yet another strange twist near the end of a horrendous five-year period, near the end of World War II and the Holocaust.
    Reasonably sure that he and his fellow ex-prisoners were safe from the Nazis a couple of weeks after leaving the Janina mining camp -- a satellite camp to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau main camp -- they spent a couple of weeks in Katowice and then Krakow.
    Then it was on to, perhaps inexplicably, a town in Romania -- or so my Dad said -- and then on a boat to Odessa, the then-Russian port on the Black Sea ... and then finally a train back to western Europe.
    By then, after being liberated when the Russian Army came into the Janina camp in mid-January, more than four months had passed. Hitler had taken his own life, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had been captured and hung, and the German Army had surrendered for good.
    And Dad was still searching for home.
    In Krakow, he recalled in 1996 in his USC Shoah Foundation interview, "They say there was a train for us, and gondolas, and they put hay in it, and give us some food, and I don't know where the food came from."
    The next part of the story is confusing to me, and I have no way of clearing it up.
    Dad says his group was taken to a town in Romania. The name of the place -- it sounded as if he was saying this -- was Czerniowce (Polish spelling) or Czernowitz (German). He said it was "close by Hungary, and we were put in barracks. And that was a Jewish town before the war. Czerniowce was one time Russian."
    I spent a half hour looking at maps of Romania, Hungary and Russia in that time frame -- pre-World War II, during the war and afterward. I Googled the town name and came up with the town names listed above, but also known as Chernivsi, which was then in the Soviet Union and actually closer to southern Poland -- where Dad & Co. were -- and very close to the Romanian border. But it was much farther northeast than Hungary. 
    The town is now in western Ukraine. There was a strong Romanian influence in its 1920s-'30s history -- perhaps this is why Dad remembered it as being in Romania -- and it did have a substantial Jewish population (26.8 percent) at a time before the war.
    So I'm not really sure if that's the right place, but good chance. 
    On with the story ...
    "And we find some Jewish people over there, we find some girls," Dad added, "and we stay with the girls over there, and want to take the girls to Odessa, but they no want to leave. Young girls, 18, 19 years old. How they come out of the war we don't know, maar [but] they don't want to go."
    Remember, my Dad and the others had not seen women up close for more than 2 1/2 years. Yes, Dad was married, but the likelihood of his wife having survived was slim.
    "Were they survivors?" the Shoah Foundation interviewer asked Dad.
    "No, they were not in Auschwitz," he answered. "There were many [women] on the train we met in Krakow, many that came from being liberated from Auschwitz. And I saw an old neighbor of mine, a woman, she was coming out of Block 10; she was sent back to Birkenau. Four or five [from Block 10] were there."
    In Czerniowce, he said, "They put us under the command of two military officers from England, and they asked if there were some ex-military, and they signed us all up to become military again (40 or 50 men, he estimated) and put us on the train to Odessa, and we got put in barracks.
That's my Dad, Louis Van Thyn, upper right.
     "We could not go out of the barracks, maar [but] I went out of the barracks; I not stay in the barracks, and go to the town of Odessa. And they gave us Russian Army uniforms. I have a picture of me in a Russian uniform."
    That picture was given to Dad, laminated on a plaque with the following explanation:
    "Jack Frankenhuis, 1924, was liberated in Auschwitz by the Russian Army, January 1945. He was told that there was a ship waiting for him and other survivors in Odessa, Russia, that would bring them back to Western Europe.
    "Jack and many other survivors left Odessa on May 25 on an Australian troopship called Monoway on their way to Marseille, France. This ship had made this trip twice before. On their way back to Odessa they loaded the ship with ex-Russian POWs who were regarded as traitors and were at their arrival at Odessa shot to death.
    "This picture was made right before they left Odessa. Back row to the left, Jules Granda; to the right, Louis Van Thyn; front row to the left, Ab De Hond; to the right, Jack Frankenhuis. Ages: Jules 26, Louis 26, Ab 32, Jack 21.
    "3 of the men are wearing Russian uniforms. They were given to them because the (cq) fought in the Dutch Army against the Germans.
    "The caps they are wearing has the Russian symbol of sickle and hammer."
    That photo/plaque is right here in the room where I'm writing this blog.
    When the boat arrived, Dad recalled for the Shoah Foundation interview, "We got better treatment, too. We were the first on the boat when the boat arrived in Odessa; we got the best cabins on the boat. And there were already civilians, not Jewish people, they had been laborers in Germany, they were there, too."
    Here is an amazing connection I found on the Internet when trying to judge the distance and the time it took to sail from Odessa to Marseille. I found the following on the nzhistory.netnz web site:
    "New Zealand has a small connection to the poignant story of Anne Frank, via her father, Otto, and the merchant ship TSS Monowai.
    "On 22 April 1945, shortly before the end of the war in Europe, the Monowai sailed from England for Odessa on the Black Sea carrying 1600 Soviet citizens who had been captured serving with the Germans in France. The ship then embarked Jewish Holocaust survivors from Western Europe -- including Otto Frank -- who had been liberated from the Auschwitz death camp by the Soviet army. On 21 May it sailed from Odessa for Marseille, arriving on the 27th."
    In The Footsteps of Anne Frank (1959), Ernst Schnabel wrote that: "The Monowai flew the New Zealand flag, and had come all the way from New Zealand so that a few survivors from Europe could return home." The men slept in hammocks, while the women were accommodated in cabins. Otto was impressed by the ship's comfort, the abundant food and the kindness of its crew.

    A couple of notes: The ship was New Zealand-based, not Australian; the spelling of the ship's name on the photo/plaque and in the New Zealand history are not the same, and the dates of the boat trip don't match. No matter; the stories are similar enough to make the connection of Otto Frank and my father.
    So the boat sailed to Marseille, and Dad had a couple of stories there to tell, too.
    "In Marseille, there was a boy who had a girlfriend, a Russian," he said, "and he smuggled her back on board in a big bag -- you know, a military bag -- and she came back to Holland -- I saw her later on -- and he married her.
    "We go naar [to] Marseille, and they [French authorities] checked to see if there was [Nazi] SS [men]," he said of the people arriving on the boat, "and they find three SS, Dutch SS, in our group and they say [they were] laborers in Germany and they had that mark under their arm, and they arrested them over there."
    Dad is referring to -- according to an Internet search -- a small black-ink blood group tattoo which all SS members had on the underside of their left arm, usually near the armpit.
    "They were three of the SS, and they were good friends of ours," he said. "We don't know they were SS. ... "
    Back in the freed part of western Europe, Dad was about to return home and he was back among familiar people.
     "The Dutch people [who had been in] England came over there [France] because  Holland was just liberated in May 1945, and we took the train to Paris; I was in my Russian uniform, and in Paris, I come in the English barracks, and they give me an English uniform."
    One of the men who was in Dad's group and on the boat also was from Amsterdam, from the same mostly Jewish neighborhood, also a survivor and possessor of a Russian uniform. His name was Abraham (Appie) van de Kar ... and, yes, I remember him and his wife from my early days in Amsterdam.
    But when they got to Marseille, "We split up already and I lost my friend," Dad recalled. "Then later on in Amsterdam, I saw him [again]."
    This is actually a deep connection because my mother and Appie's wife, Jannie, were in Auschwitz together. Their story is an important part of my mother's Holocaust history.
    "His wife came back [to Amsterdam from Auschwitz]," Dad told the interviewer in 1996. "She was in Block 10 and -- my wife go tell you this later -- that was her best friend, and she still write us. Every two weeks we get a letter from her. Her husband [Appie] died three years ago, and he was my friend on the streets and I come together with my wife [because of him] in August 1945."
    Next: Home ... and heartbreak




  1. From Howard Radley: I have just read your blog and thought you may be interested to learn that my father, still alive, was the only Jewish (English) crew member on the Monoway, which must have been the ship your father took from Odessa to Marseille.

  2. Beste Nico, Dear Nico.
    I am the daughter of Jack Frankenhuis, you mentioned in your article. The story is exactly as my father always told me. Thanks for sharing it!!!!