Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My mother appreciated Veterans' Day

    "I knew I wanted to go with the wonderful Americans."
       -- Rose Van Thyn, near the conclusion of her USC Shoah Foundation interview, October 1996

Rose Van Thyn, during her 1996 USC Shoah Foundation
interview, telling her Holocaust story
      My mother, who was as patriotic as any naturalized citizen could be, loved the United States Army and was forever grateful for it.
      Veterans' Day is an appropriate time to remember that, to remember how fond she was of the way the American military took in the bedraggled Holocaust survivors wandering in the woods of Germany near the end of World War II.
       Actually, it was the Russian military which first reached my mother and some two dozen other women who had been prisoners in the Nazi work and concentration camps.
        By then, the women were sick and starving and yet somehow had survived more than two months of the infamous "Death March" through southern Poland and eastern Germany. And this was after, in my mother's case, 16 months in the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and then an even more cruel, harrowing stay in Ravensbruck -- the largest women's-only concentration camp.
        The Russians -- the Red Army -- came to the rescue, but it was the Americans that gave the women hope.
        In her USC Shoah Foundation interview, my mother covers many of the gory details of the "Death March," which she said began for her on Jan. 18, 1945, when the Nazis -- knowing the Allied troops were advancing from the west and the Russians from the east -- abandoned the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
       As my mother recalled, the original group of about 800 prisoners who began the march, was down to a couple dozen. But that, fortunately for Mom, included 10 women from The Netherlands who had stuck together through Auschwitz and all the subsequent adventures.
       People had died of starvation, or had been shot because they could walk no farther, or died of illness, or froze to death (this was in the middle of winter in Germany and no one had much clothing) or were among those the Nazis threw into a tent filled with ice-cold water and drowned. (Mom and others could hear their screams.)
        After days and days of walking, they were at Malchow, which was an extension of the Ravensbruck camp.              
        "... It was the beginning of March and the sun was out and at Malchov we got a rest, we didn't need to do anything," my mother said in her interview. "We sat in front of the barracks in the sun. Don't know how long we were there [but] people were dying of starvation ... It was bad."
        Then it was another walk -- "it was slower and slower, and more people died. They would let us rest, an hour or so, people would get up and they would be shot. You never knew," Mom recalled.         
          And then another train ride to a town in the middle of Germany. (She referred to it as Talken, but looking at a German map, that is much farther north and west of  where she wound up. She might be referring to Torgau, which is where the Allied forces and Russian Red Army first met.)
          "Every day we marched for an hour around this square," Mom said. "I guess they prepared us for what was ahead of us."
          They left there April 13, then "walked in a circle for 14 days between Leipzig and Dresden, crossed the Elbe (by ferry) ... There were thousands of people [in the area]. We heard screaming. We didn't know, but we assumed that they were throwing people into the Elbe. When we crossed, we very scared that this was it."
           During their walks, she said they were shot at constantly from the air by Russian, German and even Allied pilots.
            Then, on a Thursday morning, a huge surprise.
            "They [the Nazis] gave us permission to sit down," Mom said. "We were all so hungry by then. We found the hide of a horse they must've slaughtered and we tore it up and had a piece of the hide and chewed on it." There was a little ditch from which they drew water to drink. And suddenly, "the Germans told us they were leaving us."
           This was in "what you called no-man's land. [But] nobody got up because we had learned already [not to assume safety]. ... We sat there for a long time because in the first place, we were so weak and we were so scared. But we had made it that far. We finally got up, the 10 of us, and we started walking, very, very slowly."
           The odd thing was that many of the SS guards, having given up and given them their freedom, "just sat in the grass and were waving at us."
           They came to a village and "we saw white flags. That's when we knew the war was over for us. It was April 26, a Thursday."
            They found a place to stay, at a farm. "The farmer was an old man, at least 70," my mother recalled, "and he allowed us to sleep in the hayloft. He cooked for us -- pea soup. Hadn't eaten [real food] in months and he fed us pea soup. He was German, but he was anti-Hitler. We didn't know and we didn't care as long as he fed us."
            Finally, the Russian Army caught up with the group and directed the women to a nearby town where the army was based, put them in a building to rest up. But as my mother said, "There was no organization, no Red Cross, no nothing, no place to sleep. We slept outside [and] we begged for food." 
            There was one other problem. "We had to play hide-and-seek with the Russian soldiers because they were after us (for sex)," Mom recalled.
            This was a town divided by a bridge -- the Russians were on one side, the Americans on the other side. Trouble was, the Russians wouldn't let the Dutch women cross the bridge.
             One of my mother's group, "Treess," could speak some Russian because her grandmother had been from Russia before the family moved to Holland. Treess went to the Russian officer in charge several days in a row looking for permission for the group to cross the bridge. He wouldn't relent and finally threatened her safety.
             "An American officer came in while Treess was there," Mom said. "Captain Lee. He followed her outside and asked if there was a problem." She explained the situation and "he told her to come to bridge at 2 p.m. and 'I'll make sure that you go over the bridge.'
             "I don't know what he did, and there were thousands of people who wanted to go over the bridge, and here we are, the 10 of us going over the bridge [at 2 p.m.]."
             That included one woman who had typhoid fever, "but we schleped her with us, took her along," Mom said. "We just couldn't leave her. To come that far, I mean, we had to take her."
             Now, the most beautiful part of the story.
             My mother, in her interview, is at times somber, and matter-of-fact, and emotional when talking about family, but when she talks about the American army, she is joyful.
              "So when we came to the other side, the Americans were waiting for us and, I tell you, it was unbelievable," she said. "They were so wonderful to us ... They gave us all the tender loving care, they were good to us. Nobody had said a good word to us for three years.
             "They took us to hospital, gave us examination from tip of our toes to our head -- I never had an examination like that again. My weight was 65 pounds and I was already free for a few weeks. ... We wanted to go back to Holland, but borders were closed because of all the diseases and the western part of Holland had suffered very much, people died in Amsterdam of hunger in the street."
             So the women were put up in a displaced persons camp for three days, in between Leipzig and Dresden ... (perhaps at Magdeburg).
             "There were all kinds of survivors, all nationalities," Mom said. "After three days, some Americans came in there with jeeps. ... We were sitting on a bench, all of us [and] he  stopped  and asked what nationally we were. One Dutch officer was in the jeep and we said Dutch.
           "[The American officer] knew the borders of Holland were closed and that we had to stay in Germany for a while and he said, 'Would you be willing to work in the officers' mess of the 69th Infantry Division?' We said, 'Of course; that is just what we needed -- food.'
           "And they put us up in two houses where Germans had lived. And I never forget, the first morning we came in this officers' mess to work and they fed us breakfast first. And we got each a stack of pancakes with scrambled eggs and each of us had three pancakes and they asked if we wanted some more and we all said yes. And more and more officers came in because they'd never seen women eating like that.
           "Then we went into the kitchen after we ate -- I think we all had nine or 10 pancakes, which was really very dangerous because there were people who started eating right after they were liberated and died because our bodies weren't used to food -- and, I never forget, we went in the kitchen and they were cutting bread, white bread, and they were cutting the crust off and they were throwing the crust in the garbage can. We thought it was criminal."
              The goodness continued.
              "I mean, it was just unbelievable. They were so good to us," Mom continued. "They took us to Leipzig and there was one department store, C and A, it was called, and it was still open, and we needed some clothes because we had nothing, and the clothes we had were full of lice because in Auschwitz there were clothes lice, head lice, all kinds of lice. And so they bought us dresses and they bought us, I never forget, blue raincoats and shoes and socks, and they were wonderful to us, they were just great."
             Eventually, the borders opened and Mom and her friends returned to Netherlands. But after some years, many of them moved on.
             My family came to the United States in early 1956 -- 10 1/2 years after my mother's liberation from Nazi Germany and Poland. She knew from the time the American military treated her so well that she wanted to live in the U.S.
               In her Shoah Foundation interview, Mom is quite outspoken -- harsh, really -- about her treatment in Holland upon her return, and what the country became in the years after the war. I'll spare you the details, but I will say her attitude was a bit disappointing to me. But that's how she felt.
                "Holland didn't mean anything [to me] anymore," she said. "When I came back, I already knew I didn't want to stay in Holland because I knew I would not have anybody left probably and that I would not have any close relatives. I didn't want to live there any more. I didn't feel that was my home any more.
               "Then when we married, Louis really didn't want to live there any more, either. I wanted to go to America, with my wonderful friends."
                And she did. The U.S. became home, Shreveport-Bossier became home, and my mother became a speaker/educator on the Holocaust, telling her story. She always praised the American military for its role, and among her many speaking engagements, few pleased her more than visits to groups at Barksdale Air Force Base, Fort Polk, La., and Fort Bragg, N.C.
                 She loved this country, and she loved the veterans. You don't have to wonder why.  


  1. From Mark Murov: Beautiful chapter, written well and rich in content, like so many of your posts.

  2. From Raleigh Whitehead: An exceptional account.

  3. From Missy Parker Setters: I had the pleasure of hearing your mom speak years ago at a Holocaust memorial service at our church. What a brave, strong, amazingly beautiful woman. I was so moved by her strength and will forever remember her.

  4. From Gary Ferguson: Your parents were war heroes for everything they did to finally find freedom.

  5. From Maxie Hays: Wonderful story. Those women were made out of good stuff to be able to survive that. Your Mom was a special lady. God bless her and all that suffered through that awful journey.

  6. From Christy Bickham: I loved this story so very much. Thank you for sharing your stories of your family. Thank God for the American soldiers. We owe them a debt.

  7. From Philip Kopuit (son of Rose's first cousin who lives in Israel): Thanks for sharing this. Very impressive. She was a lovely, wonderful lady. We didn't see her enough, but we really loved her.

  8. From Elsa Van Thyn: Nico tells the story so well. I proudly wore my red, white and blue with my American flag pin today, in honor of all those wonderful veterans who sacrificed for us all.

  9. From Frank Thaxton III: I always loved seeing my Oma Ro. She was a great person and I was blessed to have known her.

  10. From John Marshall III: Wow, really good one! ... I don’t understand why they didn’t give the women some clean clothes straightaway.
    Hard to believe your mother was one of only about 10 left after starting the Death March with so many. This is a good reminder of how special the U.S. and its people were and are, and how there is probably no nation on earth who would have treated your mother and her companions in a manner such as this. It’s not as good as it was then, however, but it’s still good.

  11. From Sylvia Pesek: Definitely sharing. This story filled my heart ... so much so that the 'overflow' ran down my cheeks. What an amazing lady.

  12. From Jim McLain: I thoroughly enjoyed your blog on your mom's survival on the winter march after the Nazis closed the death camps. She was lucky also to have survived the Russians, who went on a rape spree in conquered territory during the last months of the war.