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.