The following article was published in the Globe & Mail, as “A Dutch family hid me from the Nazis: I owe them my life,” in advance of Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, 2020. It is reprinted here with permission, in recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27.
I can never pass Remembrance Day without reflection. This year, we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. It meant freedom for Dutch men, women and children after a brutal five-year occupation by German military forces. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers rest in Dutch soil and are mourned and remembered there annually. They were our liberators and will never be forgotten, for Canadians and Canada are seared into the collective memory of the population. I myself saw Canadian tanks chasing German half-tracks down the streets of The Hague. On May 4, 1945, I was looking out the window of my mother’s small apartment, where she had been hiding. A man across the street opened his door one day too early. He was shot by a retreating German soldier. I was dragged away from the window. I was not yet 5 years old.
Unlike most Dutch children who began their lives anew after the war, I was a Jewish child hidden with Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter, Nora, from November 1942 to May 1945. I became Robbie Munnik and was returned to my parents, who had miraculously survived, the only survivors of their families of origin. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins had all been murdered. For Jews, the postwar world offered precious little solace or hope: it was a world of death and of mourning. Liberation did not feel particularly liberating. Within that depressing atmosphere, I made the transition from Robbie Munnik back to Robbie Krell.
For this Remembrance Day 2020, I want to honour the memory of my Christian Vader, my second father.
When my mother passed me on to Moeder (Mother), who agreed to take me for a few weeks while she secured a hiding place, Vader accepted me without hesitation. Did he know of the risk to his family, hiding a Jewish child? If not in 1942, certainly he did by 1943. But, unlike many in this situation, he did not dwell on possible consequences. He simply set about loving me.
Early in my hiding, they allowed Nora to take me out, but that was a mistake. A woman recognized me. She happened to know my mother and asked Nora why she was looking after me. Vader contacted her immediately to ensure she remained silent. From then on, I was housebound. He read to me and made toys for me. His brothers and a sister all kept the secret of my presence. One slip could lead to betrayal. I was beyond lucky. Vader worked hard, loved deeply and enjoyed his hobbies, which included playing the piano by ear and carving wood and shaping metal. He was talented.
The danger increased. Only after the war would we learn that more than 80% of Dutch Jews were deported and murdered, primarily in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Of 108,000 souls sent to the death camps, only about 5,000 returned. And of about 14,000 children in hiding, more than half were betrayed, as was Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam.
Because of his modest nature, Vader stands in danger of being forgotten. Of course, not by me. Unlike so many, including princes and popes, presidents and prime ministers, industrialists and intellectuals, he defied the Nazis and accepted the risk of my presence. So, while the names of the Nazis that murdered us linger on, as do the names of leaders who either did not lift a finger, or worse, actively prevented Jews from reaching safe havens, he might have been forgotten. So, I choose to remember him. In the hour of need, he included me in his life then and thereafter. His only reward was that I called him “Vader” and that he had, in addition to his daughter, a son.
In 1965, he and Moeder were brought to Vancouver by my parents to attend my graduation from medical school. My fellow graduates were drawn to him especially. He spoke no English, but the twinkle in his eyes spoke volumes. He was a people magnet. When they returned for my wedding in 1971, he fell ill shortly after and was briefly hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Vancouver. There, he enchanted the nurses. When I came to visit, everyone on staff already knew him. They flocked to him. He radiated good humour and optimism. He did not know from anger, fear or bitterness. He hoped that I would not be consumed with anger over the Holocaust of my people, and that I would not turn away from Judaism or from Israel. And then, in 1972, he died. I do not know what he would have thought about the resurgence of antisemitism, the BDS movement and the antipathy toward Israel. But I can guess. And so can you.
But Vader will be remembered because Albert, Violette and Nora Munnik have been inscribed among “the Righteous” at Yad Vashem, the official site of Holocaust remembrance in Jerusalem. A tree planted as a seedling in 1981 grows at the site of the plaque bearing their names. And, in Vancouver, at Vancouver Talmud Torah Jewish day school, a sanctuary has been named in their memory and the entire story of their heroism lines the walls.
So, this year my memory is not consumed by what took place in Auschwitz and Sobibor, where so many of my family perished; this year, I will concentrate on remembering Albert Munnik, my Christian Vader, on Remembrance Day, and the Canadian troops that freed us.
Dr. Robert Krell is professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Albert Londres was a Parisian journalist born in 1884. He became an international reporter who chose to chronicle human suffering and expose injustice and cruelty. He denounced inhuman conditions in mental asylums, the ordeals of black workers, conditions in a penal colony. His journalistic philosophy: “our profession is not to give pleasure nor to do harm; it is to twist the pen into the wound.”
Why was I drawn to Londres’ The Wandering Jew Has Arrived (Gefen Publishing House, 2017)? For one, I had spotted it in Israel and it was produced by Gefen, a familiar name in the publishing world. Its founder, Murray Greenfield, his late wife, Hana, and I once visited Terezin together and his son, Ilan Greenfield, published a book about the Buchenwald boys I co-wrote with Judith Hemmendinger back in 2000.
Secondly, I quickly read the introduction by Rav Daniel Epstein. He described Londres as a non-Jewish Parisian reporter with an insatiable curiosity. He wanted to inform his French readers, “nurtured for centuries on a teaching of contempt and antisemitic clichés,” about the world of Jews, a world he also did not understand. So he learned. He observed. He made a brief visit to Poland in 1926 and was exposed to the reality of pogroms and ghettos (his word for shtetls). Who would not want to join him on his journey?
In 1929, he began to familiarize himself with the London Jewish community of Whitechapel. Then he traveled to Poland, Russia and Romania. He described observant and secular Jews, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Torah scholars, yeshivah students. From all that he observed and experienced, Londres concludes “the passion for learning is uniquely Jewish,” and links this passion as “undoubtedly the real mystery of Israel and the secret of its survival.”
He discussed the dangerous circumstances of Jews living among hostile nations in 1929. “The Jew,” he writes, “is guilty of one crime; that of being Jewish.” He elaborates, “A Pole or Russian chases a Jew from a pavement as though the Jew who is passing by, is stealing his air.” Londres travels as well to Palestine to witness and observe a “metamorphosis: the cowering Jew of the ghetto now holds his head high … he finds the wandering Jew in Jerusalem.”
Londres’ translator, Helga Abraham, writes, “Still widely read in France, the book came to my attention when the Hebrew translation was published in 2008 (Nahar Books). Surprisingly, I discovered that no English translation was available. An English translation had been published in 1932 but soon was out of print. I use the word surprisingly because it is hard to read this work without being arrested by its enormous significance – as a unique eyewitness account by a non-Jew of a pivotal period in Jewish history, as a major literary work in itself and as a masterful example of journalism at its best.”
Let me take you through some of his journey. In the opening chapter, “A Bizarre Personage,” he describes meeting in London the Jew who would squire him on his journey – a Polish Galician rabbi on a fundraising mission in London.
Londres wrote, “But I had to begin in London. Why? Because England, 11 years ago, had proclaimed to the Jews the same words that God, sometime before, had proclaimed to Moses on Mount Horeb,” assigning him the land of milk and honey.
This time the proclamation had come from Lord Balfour. Londres records both proclamations adding, “England knew how to defend its interests better than God His: God had given Palestine and Transjordan in one stroke. Lord Balfour kept Transjordan.”
Londres writes of the 1917 Balfour declaration as well as the betrayal of the Jews following the declaration, because, although the San Marino conference legalized the promise, by 1922, 78% of the British Palestine mandate was severed from becoming a potential Jewish area. And, only 10 years later, in 1939, unbeknown to Londres, who died in 1932 in a fire that broke out on the boat returning him from Shanghai, the slaughter of Europe’s Jews began.
It is all forecast by him, as he describes Jewish history to that time and modern Jewish history from the days of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl became a journalist in Paris, where he witnessed the Dreyfus Affair. He wrote a book called The Jewish State. He was particularly shocked by hearing the cry, “Death to the Jews” in Paris, particularly in France where, “if the suspicion that rested on an individual (Alfred Dreyfus) was projected onto all, it meant that a Jew, even in this privileged country was not in his own home.”
Herzl set out to convince monarchs and leaders to establish a home for the Jews. He visited heads of state, royalty and philanthropists, and reunited Israel as a nation, in Basel, for the First Zionist Congress. In London, 10,000 Jews came to hear him. In Vienna, another 10,000.
His schedule was hectic, his leadership challenged and he succumbed to illness at age 44. Londres notes: “Herzl is dead. His dream lives on!” Londres writes, “Three thousand two hundred forty-seven years after Moses, he succeeded Moses.” And, “He awoke a people that had slumbered for nineteen centuries.”
And so, Londres embarks on his mission to describe “the state of the Jews in the world to the French.” In London, he speaks with immigrant Jews and recognizes that, in countries like Poland and Romania, due to antisemitism, “A Jew over there is always a Jew. He may be a man, but he is neither a Romanian nor a Pole. And if he is a man, he must be prevented from growing.”
Londres places into historical perspective the Lord’s designation of Abraham as the patriarch and assigning to him the land of Canaan around 1920 BCE, and the assignation of the land at the San Remo conference, also in 1920, but CE. At San Remo, the Supreme Allied Council gave England the mandate to establish a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. Londres notes wryly that from 1920 BCE to 1920 CE, “the Arabs have not stopped creating an uproar. They deny that Palestine is the cradle of the Jews.”
Londres describes the development of Jew-hatred; the loathing of Jewish adherence to the laws of the Torah, followed by the birth of Christianity and then dispersion to hostile nations. They were ghettoized, marked with yellow badges, forced to give up Judaism in Spain and blamed for cholera in Germany, whereupon they moved to Poland followed by Chmielnicki, the leader of Ukrainian Cossacks, who “passed through all the ghettos to massacre 300,000 Jews.”
The French Revolution led to greater acceptance of Jews, less so in Vienna. But Londres was familiar with the Jews of the West. He wanted to see those in the East, and journeyed to Prague and followed others to Mukachevo, in Subcarpathian Russia. Jews were driven from their homes in Moravia, Poland and Russia into misery and poverty, all described by Londres, the roving journalist.
Even in Prague, in a more civil society in the heart of Europe, he notes, “Chased, beaten, mocked, unable to leave their concentration camp, accused of witchcraft, sorcery, illnesses, their garments marked with a yellow badge, they walk stooped, pale and thin, beards flowing, down the little alleys of yore, with big strides, heads bent, toward this old synagogue. It was their sole homeland.”
What is the vision that prompts him to use the words “concentration camp” for the Jewish area they cannot leave and the yellow badge to mark them, in the year 1929?
The reader will soon enough discover what Londres began to envision. For he discusses as well the absence of Jewish rights, their lack of political power combined with the ever-increasing torment of pogroms, forced conscription and soul-destroying laws. Londres emphasizes that Jews without a land of their own create a space in which to worship and temporarily escape the travails of their wretched lives. He knows there is no future for these Eastern European Jews who happen to number six million, without including those in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
He describes the pogroms of Kishinev in 1903 and the great pogrom of 1918-1920 in Ukraine and eastern Galicia, where 150,000 Jews were murdered and 300,000 wounded. Londres notes there is no particular reason for pogroms except one: “the fundamental cause of pogroms is loathing of Jews. Then come the pretexts.” In Bessarabia, he meets a chalutz (pioneer) from Palestine urging Jews to leave their misery. Alter Fischer had survived a Cossack pogrom and fled to Palestine. Now a proud Palestinian Jew on a mission, he attempts to inspire the Jews of Kishinev. At one point, he rages, “By dint of waiting for him [the Messiah], they will all end up slaughtered. They are like the inhabitants of Stromboli, waiting for the volcano to erupt.”
In contrast to “the wild Jews of the Marmarosh Mountains, the frightened Jews of Transylvania, of Bessarabia and of Bukovina, the begging, beaten Jews of Lwow” stands Warsaw, which is, in Londres’ words, “the Jewish queen of Europe.” Three hundred and sixty thousand Jews – but living in a country where, “One of the main pillars of Poland’s political program is to ‘crunch the Jews.’ A Jew cannot work for the government, or the army, or a university.”
Londres’ descriptions of the depth and intensity of Jewish life reflect an admiration of the commitment to study and education. But, he worries. His travel companion from Prague, Ben, offers these words, “The Jews of Russia? They know they are enjoying a truce now. Bolshevism has brought them peace. But every regime that follows Bolshevism will bring them war. And they will pay the price. It will be even worse than Petliura’s pogroms. Everyone knows this and it will be ghastly. In Poland? The situation is worse than it’s ever been. In Romania, the antagonism is blatant. In Czechoslovakia, there is neutrality but also neglect. That’s the picture. Who wouldn’t want to get out?” Ben adds, “All of us here are not at home. But we are no more than guests wherever we live.” It is 1929.
Londres travels to Palestine on a vessel, the Sphinx. He exclaims, “Here is the sun! I left Warsaw in the year 5690” (on the Hebrew calendar). “Now I enter year 10” (roughly a decade after the Balfour declaration). Londres exults in the discovery of “Herzl Street! Edmond de Rothschild Boulevard! Max Nordau Street! The synagogue, the main monument in the process of being completed, seems to say it all. It is like a flag, floating over a camp. The sole, unrivaled flag. No crosses in its shadow, no minarets in its radius. Just as when the Temple dominated Jerusalem, before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mosque of Omar.”
In discussing the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its 400-year occupation, Londres states simply, “Victory came. England puffed its cheeks and exhaled. The Arab kingdom vanished. Israel took its place.” He writes, “There is no point labouring over historical texts. Whether the settlement of the Jews in Palestine is called a ‘national home’ rather than a ‘Jewish state’ does not alter the fact. And the fact is this: this time, the Jews were arriving not as beggars, but as citizens. They were no longer asking for hospitality – they were taking possession of the land. They would no longer be a tolerated people, but equal.”
Londres’ remarkable work – of a period of time wedged in between two world wars, the latter resulting in the destruction of European Jewry – deserves a wide readership. Londres, the journalist, captures the essence of Jewish life and foreshadows what is to come through his awareness that Jewish survival is not possible and that the wandering Jew is destined to return home.
Dr. Robert Krell is professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Robert Krell, left, and Elie Wiesel. (photo from Robert Krell)
I met Prof. Elie Wiesel in 1978. I was 38 years old. He was 49. Elie, as he insisted I call him, came to Vancouver to speak at a commemorative event. It was for Yom Hashoah, the day of Holocaust Remembrance.
He arrived Friday afternoon and I fetched him at the airport and brought him to our home for a few moments pre-Shabbat and then to his hotel. He had agreed to a press conference on Saturday morning stipulating only that no microphone be used. Elie was observant.
I moderated that morning. He was engaging, handled difficult and peculiar questions equally graciously, and made a deep and lasting impression on the journalists and religious leaders who attended. I learned that morning that his book, Night, a slim 120 pages, had once been nearly a thousand pages written in Yiddish and published in Argentina. How had he reduced it to its present size? By eliminating every paragraph without which the book would not lose its essence, and then by eliminating every sentence in those paragraphs that was not needed to sustain its narrative. Ever since, I have tried to practise that in my talks and writings.
Elie asked me to visit at the hotel on Sunday for breakfast and we ended up talking all day. That evening, he spoke to an audience of 500. I had the honor of introducing him. I used two minutes. How long does one need to introduce Wiesel? He was known to all, even though he had not yet received the Nobel Peace Prize; that was to come in 1986. His lecture that evening was astonishing. One could listen to him forever, one of the few speakers in the world who commands attention and seldom, if ever, loses his audience.
We remained friends. He was the kindest, gentlest, wisest person in my life. And he always made time for me although he was also the busiest and most prevailed upon person imaginable.
So, I took it upon myself to do two things. One was to call him from time to time and briefly visit when I was in New York. Famous people sometimes have no one who inquires as to their own lives. I did not ask him for anything unless the idea began with him. No demands, requests, or favors. The other was to assist wherever I could with whatever little I could do. For example, he asked whether I could arrange for him to be in touch with Rudolf Vrba, one of only four or five escapees from Auschwitz and the author of the Vrba-Wetzler Report (Auschwitz Protocols) warning of the imminent deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Vrba lived in Vancouver and I knew him well. Elie and Rudi subsequently corresponded for years and I can only guess that some of it concerned the fact that the Wiesel family was not informed by those who received the report in Hungary when there was still a chance to flee into the nearby Carpathian Mountains. Did they ever meet? I offered Elie the opportunity. His response, “I do not think I can look into his eyes.”
One time, when in New York, I received Elie’s return call. Yes, he had time for me to have a brief visit on Monday morning. I went to his home and we caught up for perhaps a half hour. During that time, he excused himself only once, to take a call from the White House. Presidents, secretaries of state, governors and senators, all sought his counsel. He often flew at short notice to speak, to warn, in the midst of various crises around the world.
It was close to Passover. He asked who was traveling with me and I told him, my wife Marilyn and our oldest daughter and granddaughter. Elie was upset not to greet them and he insisted we all visit the next Thursday so he could personally wish them a happy Pesach. How he made time in his wildly busy schedule, I will never understand.
I saw Elie speak in Israel at the 1981 World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors at Lohamei HaGeta’ot (the Kibbutz of the Ghetto Fighters) and at the closing ceremonies with then-prime minister Menachem Begin. While in Los
Angeles in 1982, I heard him speak at Cedars-Sinai Hospital on “the Holocaust patient” and on “talmudic tales” at UCLA Hillel House. Spellbinding.
For the very first International Conference of Child Survivors and Their Families – the 1991 Hidden Child Foundation/Anti-Defamation League conference – the New York-based committee asked if I could convince Elie to speak. Since Elie seldom said no if he was able to attend, wherever in the world he was needed, this request for my involvement was puzzling. After all, this was New York, his home and the site of the gathering. But he had declined. My guess is that the situation had become complicated by competing factions.
I called him and reminded him that this was “the gathering of the children.” Where else would he want to be? He graciously agreed to give the closing address. I introduced him on the closing night and wondered out loud how it was possible that I had heard him lecture at Yale, in Israel, New York and Los Angeles. Somehow, wherever he was, I found him. I must be his groupie! I certainly never missed an opportunity to hear him and to learn from him.
In 1998, in New York, Elie presented me with the Elie Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Medal for my work in Holocaust education, my psychiatric contributions to the care of Holocaust survivors and the founding of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Elie had visited the VHEC and served on its international advisory council along with Irwin Cotler, Yaffa Eliach and Sir Martin Gilbert. My family was there and my children all came to know him better. His loving presence is seared into their memories. Children, for him, were like a magnet. All who wrote to him received a personal response. How he managed this, in between teaching at Boston University, speaking around the world and publishing at least one book every year, I do not understand. But that is what he did.
In 2008, I went to Boston to celebrate his 80th birthday, which consisted of a three-day Festschrift devoted to his scholarship and writings, as well as a tribute concert.
Although surrounded by his friends and fellow scholars, I found him sitting alone in the front row and joined him. At one point, I turned to him, “Elie, what is it like to hear all these scholars speak about your contributions all day long?” His response, “I am a good listener.” And, indeed, he was. He listened attentively, to individuals and to humanity.
I nominated Elie for an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia and, although he was still recovering from open heart surgery (and wrote a book Open Heart), he traveled to attend the 2012 ceremony and to participate in An Evening with Elie Wiesel, held at the Orpheum theatre, attended by some 3,000 people. Our cab driver said, “Oh, look, Elie Wiesel is speaking.”
As the interviewer for the evening’s proceedings, I asked questions, some “naïve,” as in “Why remember such awful events?” referring to the Shoah.
Elie’s response: “How can you not? Memory is part of who you are, your identity. I have so many wonderful memories of my family and being in shul and it’s all I have now of my family except my two surviving sisters, of whom one has since passed on. Without memory, who would I be? The moments are so important.”
“Elie,” I asked, “you were asked to be the president of Israel. Can you tell us about this?” He answered that the thought had tormented him. How could he turn down the highest honor that could ever be bestowed upon him? He felt he was letting down the state of Israel that wanted him and his leadership. But, he explained, he was without political experience and all he really has are words which, as a politician, would no longer be his. “And besides,” he joked, “my wife would have divorced me.”
“How do you choose the language in which you write?” (Elie speaks Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew, French and English.) “I prefer the eloquence of French, which is the easiest for me. And, sometimes, my choice is determined by what I am writing about. And I like to write to classical music, preferably a quartet, as an orchestra is too distracting.”
“What message would you send to our young people here tonight?” His response, “Your life is not measured in time and years. It is a collection of moments. You will look back and have so many moments in time that remain fresh, memorable and meaningful. I would tell all of you young people in the audience to enjoy all these moments in time. Being here in Vancouver this weekend has been one of those moments for me.”
With his passing, I shall be without more such moments with him. His death leaves an enormous void, for his moral strength and inspiration will be missing from all who benefited. We must resolve to step up and commit to continuing to learn from and emulate this remarkable human being who returned from the depths of despair and loss to provide a measure of hope.
I urge you to read Night and Elie’s brilliant memoir in two parts All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full. Having absorbed at least these books, you may then reflect upon, and hopefully act upon, the lessons learned. They will last you a lifetime.
Dr. Robert Krellis professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of British Columbia, distinguished life fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, in whose newsletter, Zachor, this article has also been published.
This photo and caption appeared in the Jewish Western Bulletin, Aug. 23, 1946.
May 5, 1945, is firmly etched in my “child’s” mind for that was the day of my family’s liberation or, more accurately, what remained of my family. The German occupation had been brutal and, with the collaboration of thousands of Dutch Nazis, 108,000 Dutch Jews had been deported and nearly all were murdered. Of those sent to Auschwitz and Sobibor, approximately 4,500 survived. Of Holland’s total prewar Jewish population of 140,000, fully 80% were murdered.
I had survived with my Christian hiders, Albert and Violette Munnik, and my “sister” Nora, their 12-year-old daughter. When I was reunited with my parents who had miraculously survived also, I had come to love the Munnik’s as my own family, and I was Robbie Munnik, not Robbie Krell. But I was given back, not without protest, a Jewish child who had no experience with Judaism but was nevertheless hunted for being a Jew.
In Nazi-occupied countries, 93% of Jewish children were murdered. Some escaped just before the war, a few thousand during the war through clandestine operations. But overall, no more than one in 10 survived. That is the nature of genocide. Murder the children.
Holland has somehow managed to maintain a reputation of comparative decency during the war years. Some of this good will emanates from the story of Anne Frank who left behind a diary written during her days in hiding in an attic in Amsterdam. The Frank family did in fact receive heroic assistance from Miep Gies, as did I from the Munniks and my father from the Oversloot family.
But of roughly 14,000 Dutch Jewish children in hiding, over half were betrayed. And, of course, so were the Franks. That adorable, intelligent adolescent Anne and her family were deported on the second to last train from Westerbork to Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1944, three months after D-Day! She died an agonizing death of hunger and typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Only her father survived.
I write this piece on the 70th anniversary of liberation, a gift of 70 years of life. Who could imagine it? During the war, death had been a close companion, confirmed shortly after the war by the chilling reports that came our way from the few survivors that returned and from the photos that formed part of the news. I heard the descriptions of torture and murder from eyewitnesses. They were there. They had seen and suffered. And their lives and ours had been destroyed. No grandparents, no aunts or uncles. Two other children in our family survived, one also spared in hiding, the other, smuggled into Switzerland. That was it.
And what have I learned over these 70 years? The Holocaust imprint never leaves and no day passes without reminders. Had we tried to forget, it would have proved impossible. From the moment that the world discovered what had been done, the antisemites began their effort to deny what happened. Holocaust denial followed the campaign of murder with the effort to murder memory.
No wonder. Nearly everyone had blood on their hands. The British Mandate of Palestine was closed to Jewish immigration, preventing European Jewish refugees from fleeing. Canada and the United States had closed their doors. The Jews of Europe were trapped and murdered with technological efficiency, aided and abetted by Jew-hating collaborators in almost every country dominated by the Nazi invaders. The only way to be freed from guilt would be for the Shoah not to have happened. But the perpetrators were unable to erase the evidence. The Holocaust is the best-documented massive crime of murder and theft in human history.
Over the years, I have also learned of the systematic betrayal of visionary Jewish leadership who fought for the reestablishment of a Jewish nation-state in what is now Israel from the 1890s. No, Israel is not the result of the genocide inflicted upon European Jewry. If it were, Jews would not have had to fight the British colonialists in 1945-1947 to achieve freedom. And Holocaust survivors trying to reach Palestine would not have been incarcerated in camps in Cyprus.
The victory over the Ottoman Empire led to the establishment of a number of Arab states. Only the British promise of the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s intent to establish a home for the Jewish people went unfulfilled. The 1920 San Remo Conference affirmed that intent, only to witness the British carve off 80% of the territory known as British Mandatory Palestine to create the Emirate of Trans-Jordan. To add insult to injury, it was decreed that no Jew could settle there. This travesty resulted in the remaining 20% to be contested by Jews and Arabs to this day.
I was in Israel in 1961. The Western Wall of the Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, was controlled by Jordan and Jews were forbidden access. During Jordan’s illegal occupation from 1948-1967, all the synagogues in east Jerusalem were destroyed. Nor had Jordan advanced the cause of their Arab brethren or established a Palestinian state in the territories held.
I was at the Eichmann trial. I saw the architect of the annihilation of my people. Over time, it appears that a great deal of European posturing over Israel and its policies are an attempt to deflect attention from the horrendous misdeeds of the European past. There is a concerted effort to make Israel look like a nation with a brutal bent and whose activities, even those in self-defence are painted with the brush of Nazi and/or apartheid terminology. How offensive! How cruel! Its practitioners deny antisemitism for they have found a new outlet for Jew hatred, anti-Zionism. Israel has become the Jew of nations.
It is disconcerting, indeed, to witness the dawn of liberation 70 years ago descend into a night of renewed hate. I seek a measure of comfort in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher. Dr. King wrote, “Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.” And Hoffer, “I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish, the Holocaust will be upon us all.”
I have to hope that antisemitism will be opposed and extinguished wherever it flourishes and that Israel’s right to exist will be protected. Then our liberation will have acquired meaning.
Robert Krell, MD, is professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, and founding president of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
In late August, a $250 million fund for Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust was established. (photo from Memorial de la Shoah, Paris, via claimscon.org/2014/09/child-survivors)
On Wednesday, Aug. 27, a symposium was held at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. The topic was Lost Childhood, referring to the impact of the Shoah on Jewish children who survived and continue to live with its consequences to this day. The audience was comprised of German government officials, members of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and child survivors of the Holocaust.
Among those present were members of the negotiating committee, including Ambassador Colette Avital from Israel, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat from the United States, Roman Kent, treasurer of the Claims Conference, and Greg Schneider, who serves as executive vice-president of the Claims Conference. From Germany, representative Rüdiger Mahlo and deputy director of negotiations Konrad Matschke were in attendance, as was Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, and Max Arpels Lezer, its European representative.
A variety of speakers, from historians to psychiatrists, politicians to psychoanalysts, participated in order to press the case for restitution to previously overlooked Jewish children, now aging in trying circumstances connected directly to their early childhood deprivations and traumas. The negotiations following the symposium took place on Aug. 28, and resulted in the recognition of child survivors as a distinct entity deserving of restitution. Mahlo noted, “German politics has been made aware of the particular fate of the child survivors and its negotiations with the German government, the Claims Conference succeeded in establishing a Child Survivor Fund. With this, the loss of childhood is recognized for the first time as a case of damage.”
A fund of $250 million was established for Jewish child survivors worldwide. My address, entitled The Continuing Struggle to Survive After Survival, follows:
I stand before you keenly aware that I am here only because of a narrow escape from those who sought to murder me. As a Jewish child born in 1940 in The Hague, Holland, my family was ordered to report on Aug. 19, 1942, for “resettlement to the east.” That meant being assembled at Westerbork and, from there, deported primarily to Auschwitz or Sobibor.
My mother and I would have been killed shortly after arrival. Mothers with babies were doomed. One hundred and eight thousand Dutch Jews were sent to the factories of death. About 5,500 returned.
I stand before you keenly aware that I am in Berlin, the city in which were conceived the most grotesque crimes in human history. It was here that the minds of well-educated and presumably civilized Germans formulated plans for the annihilation of Europe’s Jews: men, women and children. And, by war’s end, in German occupied countries, 93 percent of Jewish children had been murdered.
I survived in the care of my Dutch Christian rescuers, Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter, Nora, who I shall visit in The Hague in two weeks. Nora is 83 years old, nearly the age of Anne Frank had she lived. But the Frank family was betrayed and deported on the last train to leave Holland, on Sept. 3, 1944, destination Auschwitz.
And I stand before you also aware of the great strides that Germany has made to preserve this history and to remember not only what it has done but to teach this history to succeeding generations, indeed, to the world.
For those who pose the question concerning whether there are long-term consequences, a story. One day, my mother, in her mid-80s, suddenly apologized for giving me away into hiding. I was stunned. I told her she had been heroic; there was nothing to apologize for. Her response, “When I left you, you tried to follow me pulling a little suitcase, and I looked into your eyes and knew you would never forgive me.”
And it is true. She was so smart. She knew that having saved my life through her uncommon courage that I would nevertheless be unable to truly forgive her for abandoning me. A child cannot comprehend the reasons for such a rejection. That, we learn only as adults. We live with such complexities, we Holocaust children.
What was done to us involved not only physical annihilation. Those who survived also experienced the touch of death, the murder of the soul. My parents, who miraculously survived in frightening circumstances, never recovered. How could they?
In 1945, my father learned that his parents and two sisters were dead; my mother was informed that her parents, two brothers and little sister were dead. And so, there were three of us. Only the son of one of my father’s sisters survived also.
We spent those postwar years in shock. While Dutch citizens resumed their lives, traumatized by years of occupation but largely intact, Dutch Jews were shattered. I saw them. They came to our home, some with whip lashes on their backs. I heard them describe the horrors of the camps, the smell of the crematoria. It was too much for a little boy aged 5 or 6. And you may ask, even today, were there consequences and did they last all these years? The answer is, “What was done to us, never, ever left us. The Shoah envelops us like a shroud. But we put it aside so that we can function as if normal.”
For children under the age of 16 in 1945, there was little help. Most surviving children were orphaned and housed in orphanages or shelters such as Ecouis in France, where 426 boys from Buchenwald were looked after by the OSE [Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants]. And yes, of these boys told by a psychiatrist or psychologist that they would never recover, the majority led productive lives, even attained great achievements. They included Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a chief rabbi of Israel, George Goldbloom, a U.S. businessman, and Kalman Kalikstein, a physicist who worked with Einstein.
But who can say that they recovered from the Shoah? Elie Wiesel, who devotes his life to healing, injustice and Holocaust remembrance and education? Rabbi Lau, who is now the director of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority? Their lives remain rooted in Holocaust memories. The Holocaust’s imprint was too traumatic to overcome, too painful for healing, and medical professionals shied away from us in the postwar years. There was no help.
Think of it. Before the war, every psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and psychologist focused on the traumas visited upon a child in the developmental years. Anna Freud discussed the vulnerability of a child’s ego. One symptom, and therapists recommended years of individual or play group therapy to heal children suffering from anxieties. But postwar, where was this legion of therapists? They were nowhere to be seen. They were not prepared to deal with us, we were the carriers of traumas too great to confront.
We left for Canada in 1951 and I set about becoming a normal Canadian. With after-school jobs and summer work, I put myself through medical school, then psychiatry in Philadelphia and Stanford, and became professor of child psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
In the 1970s, Holocaust survivors brought me their children and I worked with Holocaust survivor families struggling with overwhelming memories, some of which complicated the lives of the entire family. I helped some of the adults fill out restitution forms. A particularly poor and troubled survivor patient who had worked in the mines as a slave laborer, and who lost eight brothers and sisters, was awarded $1,300. I was furious upon hearing this. He saw it differently: “They acknowledged my suffering. They owned up to what they did to me.” I learned from him that reparation is not just about money, it is also about justice.
I soon discovered that Holocaust survivors who sought restitution were, in many instances, directed toward German psychiatrists for evaluation. Can you imagine it?
One child taken by her mother in an effort to obtain some financial help faced a particularly gruff doctor who yelled at her in German. This particular child, who, when hidden with a Polish family, had sat in total silence under a dining table at which German soldiers had a meal. Had she spoken, moved or coughed, her death was inevitable. And, years later, she endured this harsh treatment from a German physician. Dr. Kurt Eissler, in his powerful article “Perverted Psychiatry” in the American Journal of Psychiatry (1967), cites instances of reparations exams performed by appointed German psychiatrists:
“A Jewish woman aged 23 years lost her father and two younger sisters upon arrival in Auschwitz. She went through four concentration camps in which she often had to collect corpses. Amongst her complaints during examination were lack of initiative, difficulty in concentrating, poor memory and hypermnestic preoccupation with traumatic events. The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was ‘anxiety neurosis, unconnected with the persecution.’
“A woman was interviewed whose parents, brother, three sisters with their children, husband and 8-year-old daughter had been killed during the course of the persecutions. She herself spent years in a ghetto and in several concentration camps and had frequently been beaten to unconsciousness. She complained of depression, anxiety, phobia, feelings of guilt. The doctor denied any connection between these symptoms and the experience of persecution. He included in his report, ‘despite such grave experiences, of which no one is spared, most people continue their lives and have no chronic depressions.’”
It may stretch belief, but these psychiatrists frequently attributed the excruciating symptoms of atrocity to the patient’s prewar personality or to that of their upbringing.
It is no wonder that children who survived the Shoah all but disappeared into their own lives. The few who tried to talk were told that, as children, they had no memories and, therefore, did not suffer; or, if it looked like they were suffering, were told to forget it and get on with their lives. The comparative few who applied for compensation were humiliated and shamed again.
I got on with my life. My Holocaust preoccupations never stopped. I did not let on. But, when I presented myself for a Dutch restitution program to personally experience the process, the examiner, a pleasant lady representing the Netherlands, asked me why I thought I should seek compensation. After all, her Dutch husband had been a child during the war and he did not need any help. She did not even recognize that her non-Jewish husband suffered neither loss of family nor required hiding, at risk of discovery and death. Yes, he was hungry also.
As protocol dictated, she referred me for a psychological interview. I felt confident. After all, I was a 60-year-old professor of psychiatry, successful in my career and with a lovely family. I was asked the reason for my assessment and then I cried for two hours. I remained in therapy for five years.
I became deeply involved in the self-discovery of child survivors and our emergence as a distinct group of Holocaust survivors that culminated in the 1991 Hidden Child Conference in New York. From 1982, I worked with Prof. Sarah Moskovitz, author of Love Despite Hate, concerning 24 child survivors found in Terezin and brought to England for their recovery, and followed up by her nearly 40 years later. In 1982-83, I helped found the Los Angeles Child Survivor group and we began to write about child Holocaust survivors and their coping skills and adaptation.
In the course of that work, we defined child survivors generally as those children who were aged 16 and under by 1945, and we also examined restitution issues concerning children.
In 1998, Sarah and I coordinated a survey of child survivors to inquire about their experiences for war-related consequences. One thousand questionnaires were sent out. At that time, child survivors were aged mid-50s to mid-60s and were asked, “As you look back on your life, how do you think you were affected by your Holocaust experiences in childhood, physically, socially, emotionally, educationally and economically?” Six hundred and sixty-four child survivors responded.
The general findings revealed a staggering number of separations from parents with three-quarters of fathers and two-thirds of mothers never returning. More than half of respondents lost both parents.
Three-quarters of the child survivors in this survey reported themselves to have suffered serious to severe lifelong effects emotionally as a result of their traumatic past.
With respect to restitution, there were at that time, six main road blocks to obtaining restitution.
Missed deadlines: Many children did not know how to make claims. Nor did they know if their families had property or insurance. Children placed in adoptive or foster homes were not in touch with the community. They were taught not to think of themselves as survivors. When they did, it was too late to apply. According to our survey, over half never applied or had applied and been rejected. One third of those who applied received a one-time lump sum payment, one half of them less than $700 US.
Documentation requirements: In most cases, young children had neither the knowledge nor resources to obtain proof of country of origin, birth certificates, death certificates or names of witnesses. As one respondent stated, “First they killed my family and now they want proof that they existed.”
Time requirements for those in hiding or in ghettos: In order to qualify, a child was required to have been in closed hiding (confined) for 18 months. “Open” hiding (able to be outside) did not warrant restitution – as if these children had not also suffered loss of home, family, identity and religion, leaving them with feelings of abandonment, identity confusion and loyalty conflicts. A 1987 study by Moskovitz had also revealed that over one half of child survivors in hiding were harshly treated, beaten, and one in five were sexually abused.
Time requirements for six months in concentration camp: In Treblinka and Majdanek, young children were unlikely to live more than one day. In Auschwitz, the majority of adults lived no longer than three months. It raises the question, “How many days in Auschwitz are required for the experience to have left its mark on a child?”
The means test: One’s economic status was required to be at poverty level, precisely the persons who cannot afford legal advice or the resources to pursue rightful compensation. Even today, the annual net income for residents of Canada to meet the income eligibility requirement for a monthly pension is $29,103.
Requirement to be interviewed by German psychiatrists: Under certain circumstances, such as continuation of pension, an interview is arranged with a German psychiatrist rather than simply a board-certified psychiatric practitioner. This raises a single question: Where any Jewish child survived the Nazi occupation, what could possibly be grounds for discontinuing a pension? Each and every child has suffered enormous losses, profound disruptions, fear and malnourishment, and lifelong consequences.
To summarize, in our survey, child survivors reported themselves, despite personal successes and achievements, as seriously and permanently affected to this day: emotionally, 81 percent; socially, 69 percent; educationally, 66 percent; physically, 67 percent; economically, 65 percent.
We are 15 years beyond our 1999 survey and child survivors are now aged mid-70s to mid-80s. And, for many, the war’s memories are returning to cripple them once again. For those persons who have had reasonably normal lives, childhood recollections are a nostalgic review of mostly cherished memories. For child Holocaust survivors, it is a trip back into bottomless despair.
It should be noted that in Los Angeles this year there is a shortfall of $1.1 million for the care of Holocaust survivors. This is being raised by the local Jewish community. A typical account follows:
“I am a 78-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. I was a child during the Nazi occupation and I was hidden in the countryside by a Christian farm family. Both of my parents perished in German concentration camps. I immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s.
“I live on a limited income. I receive $800 in monthly income from social security and a $1,100 monthly pension from Holland. I rent a small apartment on the west side of Los Angeles that costs $1,180 per month. I have a lot of medical bills related to hearing loss, arthritis and psychiatric care relating to chronic depression.
“Last year, I was granted about $4,800 from the Holocaust Survivors in Urgent Need Fund. This was a life saver for me. I used the funds to cover dental work and bills relating to my apartment. I am feeling much better and able to eat and chew without pain.”
I suggest you view those who express need with compassion. Do not humiliate them with seeking proof beyond establishing they lived under the Nazi domination and survived. And do what is right and just to ensure their remaining years are dignified.
Remember that it is not only about establishing a degree of
financial security. It is also about assuring a measure of justice. And justice demands an official acknowledgement by responsible governments, particularly those that collaborated in the murders of my people.
It is growing late in the day. Our sun is setting.