Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rose and her 'camp sisters'

Jannie and Rose: Reunited in Shreveport, 1977
 (The Shreveport Times photo)
       For my mother (Rose Van Thyn), out of the horrors of the Holocaust came some beautiful relationships, ones that lasted for the rest of her life.
       A few minutes after she stepped off the train -- the cattle car -- at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, she found perhaps the greatest friend she ever would -- Marianna van de Kar.
       Everyone close to her called her Jannie. Like my mother, she was from Amsterdam.
       She was the first of what Mom forever would call her "camp sisters." And, as you will see, she played a critical role in my mother's future.
       When she went to Auschwitz, Mom had an older sister, Anna (called Annie). What she didn't know then, what she wouldn't know until much later, was that Annie went to the gas chambers the day she and her husband (Nico Fierlier) arrived at Auschwitz.      
       Mom often said she and the others would not have survived 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz, in the cruel medical-experimentation program, without the support of her "sisters."
       Two other women -- Hilda Meier Kretsenstein (a German native who had married a Dutch citizen) and Trees Suttendorf Van Praag-Cigar (also from Holland) -- were in the group of four who suffered that time together in Block 10.
        The "sisters" group grew to 10 on the horrific "Death March," a couple of months of walking in the middle of nowhere in Poland and then Germany, from one concentration camp to another, in the middle of a typical brutal European winter.
       This, as my mother told it, with rags for clothing, some with shoes but some (such as Mom) with pieces of wood tied to their feet with string, and with less food than clothes.
        How? How did they survive all that?
        "You were really dependent (on others); you couldn't go through that yourself," Mom said in her 1996 Shoah Foundation interview about her life and the Holocaust. "You had to have people close to you. And we took care of each other."
         Through the dire circumstances in Block 10, the women somehow became Holocaust survivors ... and bonded forever. 
         The interviewer asked my mother: "Did you, among yourselves, the four women, talk about this?"
          "Oh, sure," Mom answered. "I always said when you spend almost 2 1/2 years, or over a year and a half, with women 24 hours a day, you know more about them. I spent more time with them than I spent with my own family. We knew everything about each other.
          "We knew everything about each other," she repeated, "and at night when the guards would leave -- and I know this sounds just crazy -- we would sing songs, and since my father taught us all kinds of songs, I knew songs the other women had never heard. And the four of us, we were very, very close."
          But to the very end of their lives, it was Rose and Jannie who were the closest. They each would wind up with their families far from The Netherlands -- Mom in the U.S., Jannie in Israel -- but they always remained in touch.
         There were joyful reunions in Nahariya, Israel, and in Shreveport -- and a 1977 story in The Shreveport Times about that, a subject I will return to in this piece.
          I cannot verify this, but I believe they lived longer than any of the "camp sisters." Mom died June 27, 2010; Jannie died April 26, 2013.
          Kitty Wiener, Jannie's daughter who lives in Israel, told me in a letter that although her mother was having memory issues near the end, "she 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."
          Kitty added, in another note, "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."
          The day in 1942 before they were "arrested" by the Nazis and sent to the Westerbork transition camp in eastern Holland, Jannie married Abraham "Appie" van de Kar -- who had grown up in the same (mostly Jewish) neighborhood as Louis Van Thyn and Rozette Lopes-Dias. (My mother had married Moses "Mo" Lezer in the same time frame; they also were sent to Westerbork.)
          Louis and Appie knew each other. They were in Auschwitz, or nearby camps, at the same time. They met again just after the Russian Army came in to find the prisoners in the camps the Nazis had abandoned in 1945. At one point, both Dad and Appie wore Russian Army uniforms they'd been given.
           Now here is the connection.
           Jannie and Appie, reunited in Amsterdam as survivors, were housed in the same diamond-cutting warehouse turned into barracks for displaced Holocaust survivors. Because they were married, they were given a separate room in the attic. Rose was among the women sleeping on cots on the bottom floor, and men were on the other side of the building.
            Dad had traveled back to Belgium, where he lived from 1936 to '42 and had married Estella (who died during the war), and had seen Appie, who suggested he come to a get-together of survivors.
            And so Jannie knew Rose, Appie knew Louis -- and they were introduced. They had grown up two blocks apart (Dad was two years older), but only knew of each other.
             They began dating, they married, and the marriage lasted a mere 62 years.
             It began because of the van de Kars.
             The first day at Auschwitz, Sept. 16, 1943 (Mom knew that date) ...
              "So when I came out of the car, in the car next to me was a woman my age," Mom said in her Shoah Foundation interview. "I had gone to school with her, to kindergarten, elementary school, high school, and then we lost track of each other. She went with another group [of friends] and I went with a group."
             That woman was Jannie.
             "Then when we got out of the cattle cars, she grabbed my hand," Mom said, "and we were waiting with those hundred women and she said, 'I don't know what's going to happen to us, but whatever is going to happen, we are going to stay together.'
          "...  And we walked about 15 minutes and we came to the gate of Auschwitz with the sign, 'Arbeit Macht Frei.' And then we went to the sauna, Block One. We went in there, we had to undress, the SS was in there with us, and they shaved us, our hair everywhere, and they sprayed some disinfectant spray or powder on us, and then they gave us ice-cold showers.
           "And we were really upset. Still didn't register where we were. Ice-cold showers, I mean in the middle of September. No soap, no towels, no nothing. They threw us some clothes. We had no striped clothes. I had, for example, a navy-blue, polka-dot dress which came to my ankles and my friend, my childhood friend who was -- and still is -- a very good-looking woman, 5-foot-10, very tall, had a very short dress. So we changed. And the SS was in there and they were making fun of us, the way we went in and the way we got out."
"Camp sisters" -- that's Rose Van Thyn (bottom left)
 and Jannie van de Kar (top row left)

      Here is how close Rose and Jannie were. The number tattooed into my mother's left forearm by the Nazis was 62511. Jannie's number was 62506.
      That fact was in the story done by The Times when Jannie and Appie visited with my parents in Shreveport in 1977. A copy of that story is posted below, and the photo of Mom and Jannie was taken that day by a Times photographer.
      Kitty Wiener provided the group shot of nine of the 10 Dutch "Death March" sisters (right).           
      In her Shoah Foundation interview, Mom said, "I was very close to my sister, but I'm closer with them [the camp sisters] because what we went through, and the bond we had -- all survivors have a bond. I knew their families, although I didn't know them personally, I knew, I knew who they were, I knew where they came from. We are so close.
          "It's like one of the 10 women I was with went back to Holland and moved to South Africa. I had not seen her in 40 years. She came here and it was like I had talked to her the day before. It was like 40 years didn't mean anything. We really picked up right where we left off."
            But the Van Thyns and the van de Kars, that was a special bond.


  1. From Kitty Wiener: Thank you for writing this. It means a lot also to my children, who seem to know nothing about this period because I did not allow my mother to turn another generation into "second generation" victims. Now all of a sudden they do want to know more and are old enough to be able to deal with their feelings.
    It is less painful when you understand how powerless [our parents] 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 start 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.

  2. From Ken Ivy: The articles on your mom and dad are wonderful because they were wonderful people and these articles serve as a reminder of the suffering they went through. This must never happen again.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Your mother and father, along with their fellow prisoners, are among the world’s strongest ever. My hope is that our world, with all its ease and no price to really pay for anything compared to your parents, NEVER forgets this time.

  4. From Sue Turner Carter: Thank you seems so inadequate, but I really appreciate your sharing the stories of your mom and dad and the Holocaust. I have read so many books, seen so many documentaries, and actually met some real survivors. We can never ever let this happen again! Yet there is genocide to this day in other countries. Will we never learn?

  5. From Danny Walker: What a heritage. So heart-warming ... Touching. ... Touching. What an impact.