Thursday, April 30, 2015

For the van de Kars, tragedy and triumph

Louis and Rose Van Thyn visiting with Jannie
van de Kar (center) in Israel, early 1980s

     Abraham and Marianna van de Kar, a couple whose marriage survived the Holocaust, played a huge role in what would become the Van Thyn family. As in, we could not have done it without them.
     As I wrote in a recent piece, they were most responsible for my parents meeting each other.
     (And recounting the friendship of Rozette and Marianna is among my personal favorites of the more than 300 blog pieces I've done in about 3 1/2 years.)
     Appie and Jannie, as we knew them, have a story as fascinating as my parents' story.
     If anything, theirs is more tragic -- the loss of most of their families of origin, but also the loss of two children -- one a baby, one an adult.
     With some of my mother's recollections, from her Shoah Foundation interview in 1996, and with the help of the van de Kars' survivor daughter, Kitty Wiener, who lives in Nahariya, Israel -- the family's adopted hometown -- what follows is part of their story.
      Our families were united through location (Amsterdam, their hometown) and circumstance (Auschwitz and the Holocaust aftermath).
      There are similarities -- the pre-World War II experiences, the suffering in the camps; the new beginnings; a son born in 1947, a daughter born in 1951; a move out of The Netherlands to new frontiers; long, productive and mostly happy lives; grandchildren; respect, admiration and love from so many they'd known in Holland and those they came to know in their new homes.
      As I mentioned in the previous blog, my father and Appie were more acquaintances than friends in the mostly Jewish neighborhood in which they grew up; my mother and Jannie were in school together, but not close friends ... until the day they arrived together in Auschwitz.
       Our fathers, Kitty noted, "did not have the same special bond our mothers had," but as the concentration camps were freed, it was the Russian Army which Dad and Appie first saw, which is why they wound up wearing Russian Army uniforms they were given.
       Unlike my parents, each married to someone else as the Holocaust began, Appie and Jannie were married -- the day before the Nazis "arrested" them and sent them to the Westerbork transition camp in eastern Holland.
      "My mother (maiden name Barend) was supposed to get a grant to go to high school," Kitty wrote, "but her father was against it, thought she needed to learn how to be a Jewish housewife since her mother passed away when she was 9. So surely [he was] thinking that she would marry a Jewish man; he thought that what was best in these times.
       "Our mothers arrived on the same day to Block 10 [at Auschwitz]," Kitty added, "and never separated until they were freed, and saved each other by supporting each other every time one of them was on a breaking point -- and there were many."
       And here, as my mother told the story in her Shoah Foundation interview, was one of those breaking points.
       In Block 10, the Nazi "doctors" -- and I use that term loosely -- soon began their medical experiments and because no one got much to eat, Mom recalled they all lost weight ... except Jannie, who gained weight.
       "Now all our periods started," Mom said. "Not mine, but most women. And she [Jannie] didn't have a period anymore, but she grew. And so after six weeks being in Auschwitz, we knew she probably was pregnant."
        If the Nazis on site had known, it could have meant immediate death for her. But there was a great turn of fortune.
       "Now in our block, we had a Czechoslovakian doctor who was a 'preferred' prisoner," Mom said. "Her husband had invented something for the Germans, and she was in Block 10, and she was downstairs and she was in her own room and she had her two boys with her. Jewish. One boy was 6 years old and one boy was 4. And we went to her and we talked to her. She was wonderful. She had rescued other women.
        "When I came in Auschwitz, several women had died because they gave up; they didn't want to eat. And they had women who got sick, who got scarlet fever, and they put them in the sick room. She [the doctor] knew exactly when the SS would come in. They would come in at times unexpected, but she knew because she had connections. She knew when they would come in.
      "They never went into the sick room because they were scared to death. They would ask her, 'What are those women? Are they sick?' She would say, 'Oh, yeah, they have a little bit of cold.' So she really rescued a lot of women.
      "So we went to her and she examined my friend, Jannie, and she said, 'You are expecting.' And she says you are too far gone (along) for an abortion. She said we cannot let you walk around here all the time because the SS might find out. But she said what I will do is, as long as you don't show that much, you can stay in your work, stay in your commando. But when I know that the SS is coming, I will let you know and I will keep you hidden in my room.
      "And she did. There were two other women who had babies. And in the sixth month, she gave her some shots and, I'll never forget it, we walked the stairs 24 hours up and down, and then she got into labor, in the doctor's room, and she delivered a little girl. And the child was alive, but she couldn't keep her.
      "By then she had heard from men who came in our block, to bring the soup, they had a little note from her husband; she was in Monowitz [aka Auschwitz III], and one of those men had been in Monowitz and was transferred back to [main camp] Auschwitz. Had a little note from her husband [Appie] that he was still alive. And so they took the baby, and that was it."
       A bittersweet story. But like my mother, the sterilization efforts the Nazis tried did not prevent Jannie from having children after the war.
      Louis D. -- called "Loek" (Luke, in English) -- was born April 15, 1947, in Amsterdam -- two months and one day before me. Kitty was born in Israel in 1951.
      Yes, Israel. Because that was the promised land for the van de Kars, just as the United States was for my family. But the van de Kars left Holland six years before we did.      
The Shreveport Times photo, 1977
       "My father decided in 1949 that he wanted to join the Jewish fighters during the independence war in Israel and told my mother to join him after he would find a proper place for them to live," Kitty wrote. "She did not want to leave Amsterdam since they already lived in a nice apartment, and a shop with a shoe repair shop and also sold material to other shoemakers."
        "And in 1949 they arrived in Israel -- first my father and a few months later my mother with Loek, and lived first for a few months in a small settlement like a kibbutz, but decided they want to live in something more similar to the Dutch villages, and so found Nahariya."
          So they settled there -- for good. But Appie -- shoemaker by trade -- was an Israeli patriot, and Kitty said, "My father served in the Defense Forces Reserves until he was 45, and then joined a civilian group that guarded our town, until he decided he was too old for it.
         "(He did like the feeling that he could defend his country. WWII left him scarred, but he never showed it the way my mother did. She could never stop talking about her terrible years in Block 10, but she kept talking about Ro as the sister she had during these years.)"
         Military service is part of the Israeli tradition. Luke served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army and fought in the Six-Day War of 1967, serving into 1968. Kitty served in the army two years and her husband Danny did from age 18 to 21, was injured in a small war in 1968, but despite that continued to serve in the reserves for three decades as a paratrooper "until the age of 51 (when I told him enough is enough ...")
        Appie and Jannie visited Shreveport in 1977; my parents took them on a trip to New Orleans. A  few years later, my parents went to Israel and saw the sights and, as Kitty remembers, were guests at a Passover Seder service with the van de Kar family.
        I have written in previous blogs that while my parents certainly took pride in being Jewish, neither was devoutly religious. Their families of origin were not, either.
        I bring this up because Kitty wrote that as she and Loek grew up in Nahariya, their parents "were so very much against religion. They just could not believe in anything anymore after the Holocaust."
       Plus, there were in "a village whose founders were all from Germany, and were very stubborn and independent and did not let anyone get involved in their decisions of how to build the village and how to educate the children." Part of that was very little of the Jewish tradition and education so prevalent throughout Israel.
      Loek van de Kar, like the Van Thyns, wound up living in the United States, and sadly, died in the Chicago area at age 57 (Sept. 4, 2004) of cancer. Much too soon, obviously.
      He lived in Israel until he finished his army service at age 21, studied in Amsterdam and then received a Fulbright scholarship to study in the U.S., graduated from the University of Iowa in 1978, and spent nearly 24 years as a professor at the Strich School of Medicine, Department of Pharmacology, at Loyola (Chicago) University.
     He was, according to a tribute ( written by Dr. George Battaglia at Loyola, "an exceptionally creative, talented and forthright scientist and his research contributed to furthering many areas of scientific investigation," including cancer studies. He wrote more than 100 published papers.
      That tribute also noted -- of course I would like this -- that he was an avid soccer player, coach and fan. That's our Dutch heritage.
      As Kitty remembers, he made annual return visits to Israel and was usually introduced as "the professor from the U.S.," invited by the Hadassah Medican School or the universities.
       Loek was married for 25 years to Susan Schmitt and they lived in Hinsdale, Ill.
       "They never had children," Kitty wrote, "as he believed children should not live in this horrible world, and also believed the experiments done on our mother in Block 10 might affect the children in future generations."
       Kitty, who has been Facebook friends with my sister Elsa for years and visited with Elsa and husband Jim Wellen on their trip to Israel a couple of years ago, has been married to Danny Wiener for 40 years. For three decades, Danny was a quality control manager at a plant and Kitty,  now retired, was an administrative assistant to CEOs. Their daughter, Yael, is 39; their son, Uri, is 35.
       Appie van de Kar, Kitty wrote, "worked all his life as a shoemaker and had a very nice shop,"which he turned over to a man he took off a wayward path and taught him the profession."
       Appie's heart problems led to bypass surgery, after which he learned about EKG procedures and became a volunteer at the Nahariya hospital -- "and loved being there helping the staff," said his daughter.
       He died Oct. 6, 1993; mercifully well before his son's death.
       Jannie survived Appie by nearly 20 years, but had the heartbreak of losing Loek for almost a decade. She, like Appie, was a volunteer in the hospital, assisting people before and after colonoscopy tests.
       "After my father passed away," Kitty wrote, "she left her volunteer work at the hospital and regularly went to a place where she, with friends, prepared cakes, coffee and soft drinks for soldiers who came from the train to the bus station to be driven to their base in the north, passing through Nahariya on their way. She loved doing it, especially since the soldiers called them 'aunts.' ... They did it until they were 90; it gave them a sense of purpose and a lot of satisfaction."
       Jannie died April 26, 2013 -- nearly three years after my mother's death.
        Kitty plans "to translate my mother's memoirs" when she is "ready to deal with her horror memories. They suffered so much that it is unbelievable they managed to start all over after the war and seem normal to the outside world.
       "Only we know what really went on with them. People in our town only remember my mother as the beautiful Mrs. van de Kar, and remember her for the kindness she showed to everyone."
      Recalling the story of the van de Kars and the Van Thyns, Kitty Wiener says, "is less painful when you understand how powerless they were and to appreciate that despite all this horror they were strong enough to be able to start all over.
     "I think both our parents were remarkable by actually 'inventing' themselves and starting a new life in a new country, building a new home and having the faith in themselves to be able to raise children despite it all."
     To tell the story of Appie and Louie, and especially Rose and Jannie, she says, "would have meant a lot to my mother, who kept telling what happened to them during the war and how their friendship actually saved their lives. They supported each other and that meant everything to them."
      And to us.   


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  2. From Loretta Geneux: We got to meet these friends when we lived on Schaub Drive (across from the Van Thyns). Your parents were always super to us and taught us things that books did not have the emotions to do. Always enjoyed a Dutch party; they were fun and very interesting.

  3. From Kitty Wiener: Thank you! You have written exactly as our mothers and fathers would have wanted, and have given my children the information about their grandparents I never allowed them to tell directly -- as they were too young at the time to accept these horrors. Now they are interested to know more and you have given me the best tool possible.