Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Going home to Amsterdam (more heartbreak)

(27th in a series)
Street sign at the block where Dad's family
 lived in the 1920s and '30s in Amsterdam
     I have tried to imagine how my Dad (Louis Van Thyn) must have felt when he finally made his way back home -- Amsterdam -- after the end of World War II.
      I have thought about it often, to put myself in his place. But it is unimaginable.
      It was bad enough when he first returned to Antwerp and realized that his wife and her parents were no longer there, victims of the Holocaust. He must have known that it was likely that his parents and brothers, sister-in-law and nephew were not going to be in Amsterdam.
      Don't know why he didn't contact someone in Amsterdam to ask questions. But remember that not all that many people in those days in Belgium and The Netherlands had telephones. Nor did they have cars.
      And remember, too, that Dad -- after 2 1/2 years in concentration camps and almost five months of wandering around eastern Europe -- had practically no money. Just finding his next meal was often uncertain.
      So first he had to find some footing, maybe some work, in Antwerp. He stayed -- as was pointed out in the previous chapter -- in his in-laws' abandoned apartment (and later with an aunt who survived the war because she was hidden). But he wasn't in a position to just take off and go to Amsterdam. Not yet.
      Yes, he could have written his gentile neighbors in Amsterdam and asked questions, could have borrowed or begged the use of a telephone. I'm not sure what he knew or tried to find out between early January when the Nazis abandoned the concentration camps and late May/early June when he got to Antwerp.
      These are things I never asked -- I should have -- and he does not detail in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview. He might have known the most important people in his life had died in the gas chambers or the concentration camps; the rumors, the talk must have filtered among the prisoners in the camps.
      But the interviewer asked him: "When did you finally find out that your parents and brothers were gone?"
      And Dad's reply was, "Now, when we come back in Amsterdam."
       By the end of July or early August (he wasn't sure exactly when), still without steady work and without a plan for his future, he decided to make the trip. It's about two hours by train ... but it's telling that he made the trip another way.          
        "I hitchhiked on a truck to Amsterdam," he told the interviewer. "Then we were somewhere and I had a little suitcase and I put that on the back of the truck, and they stole my suitcase, with the only suit I had. I was in uniform, so I had some shirts and my suit and some underwear in that suitcase. Nothing else, and they stole it.
         "And I come in Amsterdam and my cousin made enough money already in the black market, and he furnished me with everything."
        The interviewed asked him, "You were still in the Russian uniform?" (The uniform given to him during his stop in Odessa.)
         "Ya (yes)," Dad answered, jumping ahead in the story. "We were in Amsterdam, we walked with six boys in Russian uniforms one time; we did that for fun. Maar [But] I had my English [army] uniform on because I could hitchhike better from Antwerp in an English uniform than in regular clothes."
         But the stolen suitcase wasn't the only problem on the trip.
         Dad also tells of a cousin who was hitchhiking from Brussels at the same time. They were to meet, but he lost track of him. "I forgot to know where he lived," Dad remembered. 
         "... I came into Amsterdam on Saturday night, and I don't know where to go," he added, then shook his head. "That was bad.
         "You know I come to a town where I was born and raised on a Saturday night, about 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, and a man said, 'Where are you going?' I say, 'I ... don't ... know.' Money I don't got; ya, maybe a little in my pocket. And he say, 'Come spend the night with me.' So I spend the night with that truck driver. ...
          "I didn't know the man [truck driver]; he was a stranger."
          The cousin, he explained, "was back in his home. He was married to a gentile girl, and he was in [prison] camp a couple of months in Holland and they [the Germans] let him go back home. You know, they let many that were married to gentiles go. I had more second cousins over there; they were cousins of my father all."
          He found the cousin in a short time.
          "The next morning I know where my cousin was coming to the cafe," Dad said. "So I walked there. He came in and said, 'Where have you been?' I say, 'If you tell me where you live, I could find you.' "
          That was bad enough. But the most difficult part was ahead.
          "Then I went to see my old neighborhood over there, and that was something," Dad said, pausing. "That was bad. That was real bad, you know. The first night I stay in my own bed weer [again]. That was bad. Nobody around. You know that was a bad time for me. ..."
          The interviewer: "Did you believe that all your family was gone?"
          Dad: "I had to believe because I not saw anybody. ... Not 100 percent [sure]. I still was a little bit, how you call that ...?"
          Interviewer: "Skeptical?"
          Dad: "Yeah. That that could happen in this world. You know, that something can happen like this."
          What he did find was that some of the neighbors had taken some of his parents' and his brothers' possessions -- and they weren't going to let go.
          " ... My parents' and my brothers' [stuff] ... was with gentile people," Dad recalled, "and I not could get it back. They say my brother give it to them, and I was not ready to fight in that time."
          Eventually, he went to city authorities, who forced the neighbors to give him the material. Among those possessions: photo albums, which came with us from Holland to the U.S. Some of the photos posted with pieces in this series were in those albums.
          When were you convinced, the interviewer asked Dad, that your family was gone?
          "After the war, 1945, when I saw nobody coming back, and read the books already," Dad answered.
          He found some more cousins and some friends as he stayed in Amsterdam for the next few weeks -- and he found a barracks-type facility which housed hundreds of fellow Holocaust survivors.
          One of those survivors was a little woman named Rozette Lopes-Dias-Lezer, who also lost her spouse in the concentration camps.
           "You see they had houses in Amsterdam for survivors," Dad told the interviewer. "The diamond industry, they made places, cots; that's where Rose stay. I met Rose there because my friends were over there and I met them there."
           We'll have more on that story soon.
In April 2013, I stood in front of the location -- 38 President
Brandtstraat -- where my Dad returned 68 years earlier.
           Dad would go back to his life in Antwerp, but eventually return to Amsterdam, and that was home again from late 1946 until we left for the United States in late December 1955.
           He would make, as best I can recall, about eight trips from Shreveport to The Netherlands, to Amsterdam, over the 50 years. None of it was as painful as that return in August 1945, but ...
            " ... I was in to Amsterdam many times since we came over here [U.S.]," he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer, "and every time I go back and I go back to my old neighborhood and go see.
          "And every time I cry when I come out there."
          When Bea and I made our trip back to The Netherlands and to Amsterdam in April 2013, it was  the first time since I was very young that I went to that old neighborhood and to the location where Dad and his family lived in the 1920s and 1930s. I was so young then that I don't remember it.
           The neighborhood is the Transvaalbuurt -- in the old-east section of Amsterdam -- and my cousin Heleen (with her husband Jacky) drove us there. As I wrote in a May 8, 2013, blog piece about the visit, it was difficult to find and, because some streets were blocked, it took some effort for Heleen, who grew up in the city and can maneuver the car in all sorts of situations.
          But we finally reached the street and the location (38 President Brandtstraat) and I stood in front of the new building on that spot.
          For a moment, though, I had to walk away so the others in my group would not see my tears. And I thought about my lost grandparents and uncles, and the 26-year-old Louis Van Thyn coming home ... to emptiness.
          (Next: Checking the family in Belgium)


  1. From Maxie Hays: So sad Nico. How awful it must have been for your Dad. That wonderful man was SO strong. I love your story. Keep it coming.

  2. From Tim Looney: Another great piece, Nico! Very touching.

  3. From Leo Van Thyn: My mom told me virtually the same story.

  4. From Geraldine Zelinsky: So much history. Lest we never forget. Your parents were such extraordinary people. May their memories always be for a blessing.

  5. From Sherry Gwin May: This brought tears to my eyes. Your parents were such wonderful people. I am honored to have known them and to have grown up around them.

  6. From Philip Kopuit (cousin in Jerusalem): Hard. Touching. Brings back a lot of memories.

  7. From Kitty van der Woude: Thanks a lot for this blog. You said the train ride from Antwerp to Amsterdam takes two hours. Yes, maybe now, but I am not at all sure there were any trains then and if so the ride would have been a lot longer. I remember that the aunt I spent the last part of the war with and I had to return to Amsterdam from the island of Texel by boat through the Noord Holland kanaal. Look it up: Cross from Texel to the mainland and follow the canal from Den Helder to Amsterdam. There was no other form of transportation and we had to wait from liberation day (May 5) to somewhere in August to get places on that boat. Arriving at the back of Central Station in Amsterdam there were no trams or buses so we had to walk to my parents’ home in the extreme south.
    Talking of coming home: your mother once told me that when she returned in Amsterdam there was no one to meet her and she sat at Central Station all by herself, wondering what to do and where to go. A heartbreaking picture.