Usually in the days before Yom Hashoah, I recall my year and a half in hiding during the Holocaust. During this time I was holed up in a small apartment in Amsterdam with my parents. Until today I do not understand where they found the mental and emotional strength to withstand this situation. As a child of 6 and 7 years of age, I did not grasp the full importance or the risks involved. I now know that somewhere between 30-40% of the Jews in hiding were betrayed to the German occupiers, mainly by Dutchmen.
My parents had rented an apartment in the center of Amsterdam in the name of an unmarried mother. I know now that this apartment was about a kilometer from where Anne Frank and her family were hiding. This was the place we intended to go into once it became clear that Dutch Jews were being transported to the transition camp, Westerbork. We did not know that trains were departing every week to the east from there. Those people who were sent to Sobibor were murdered upon arrival. Some of those on the trains sent to Auschwitz/Birkenau were gassed immediately. Other Dutch Jews had a small chance of survival there if they were put to work. Most of them died from the horrible conditions in the camps.
The apartment we hid in had three rooms. The woman in whose name the apartment was rented occupied the front room. Her son was a mariner who rarely visited. The middle room was very small without windows. This is where I slept. We lived in the back room during the day and my parents slept there at night. Below us was a shop selling typewriters. The people who worked there knew that there was a single woman living above them who went out to work during the day. We were therefore barely able to move or make a sound during shop hours.
The courageous resistance organization supplied us with food stamps. Without this the woman would have been unable to purchase food for us. A cousin of my father, himself in hiding, supplied us with the money to pay the rent and buy basic necessities. Under usual local circumstances we would not have had electricity. However, someone from the resistance linked us up to the electricity from a shoe store a few houses further away owned by Dutch Nazi collaborators. Radios at that time were fairly large and depended on electricity. It was illegal to own a radio, but then again, we ourselves were illegal.
Many Jews in hiding were traumatized for their entire life from that period. The isolation period had a huge lasting psychological impact on them. Yet the isolation influenced my father in the opposite way. In hiding he made a vow that if he survived the war, he would devote the rest of his life to helping Jewish survivors.
That is indeed what he did. After the war, he established a social and pastoral department at the Amsterdam Ashkenazi community. This organization assisted survivors in a variety of ways. Even though a Jewish umbrella body had been created to help people out with financial problems, my father’s department also helped many poor people.
Besides poverty, there were also huge social problems. Many Jews had lost all or most of their relatives. My father arranged communal activities specifically for survivors where they came together, sometimes to listen to lectures, or to get together to engage in arts and embroidering activities. He also started to organize joint trips, initially to other Jewish communities in the Netherlands, and later to Jewish communities elsewhere in Western Europe. Eventually, there were annual trips to Israel. These activities were financially supported by Jews who had rebuilt their businesses after the war and saw it as a worthwhile charitable cause.
The condition of the surviving Jews – three-quarters of the 140 000 pre-war Dutch Jews had been murdered by the Germans — was radically different from that of society at large. Dealing with the problems of part of them made my father a pioneer in Dutch social work, a profession which was only beginning as a field of scholarly study. A Dutch professor of contemporary history, Isaac Lipschits, wrote my father’s biography. It became a commercial book.
During this time in lockdown in Israel, I have started to reflect more than usual, and in more detail, on my life during the Shoah. My personal history gives me a radically different perspective on the contemporary situation from many Israelis. Even though the current isolation entails a variety of handicaps, they are very minor compared to those in my days of hiding.
The Coronavirus risk is unpleasant, but minimal compared to the probability of being gassed. I am not alone being in lockdown, but together with many Israelis. I am also in this together with many people in the Western world. My children bring food. It is of very superior quality to what I ate during the last years of the Shoah. Did I eat tulip bulbs and sugar beets toward the end of the war? I don’t remember. I do recall that thanks to the Swedes, we received the first piece of white bread I ever ate a few days after the war ended.
Today there are pleasant surprises. Friends call to inquire how I am. I call other friends to find out how they are doing. I have received some calls come from people I don’t generally hear from. Friends from abroad also write. In many of these conversations, I learn very interesting things, not specifically related to the lockdown.
One of the highlights of my lockdown took place on Friday night, a few weeks ago. Neighbors and their children sang Kabbalat Shabbat from their windows. Others joined in from their balconies. A week later, there was much progress. Shabbat and evening prayers have become a collective experience. More than the 10 people required for a minyan gather in the streets, keeping distance from each other, while several including myself participate from the balconies.
We are now in the fourth week of Shabbat services. They have become formalized. People come out into the street over a stretch of 100 meters and stand at the required distance from each other. The Chazzan who leads the services has a very loud voice. During Pesach and last Shabbat we also had a reading from the Torah as well as the priestly blessing. During the weekdays of Pesach, there were afternoon and evening prayers, which have since continued on regular week days. At the end of the Shabbat morning service, a woman across the street puts out glasses and a bottle of — I guess — wine so that people can make kiddush. I cannot go to synagogue, yet I am fortunate that synagogue has come to me.
As I am thinking about this, I fully realize how crucial it was that more than 50 years ago my late wife and I decided to leave Europe and settle in Jerusalem.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is adviser on strategy issues to the boards of several major multinational corporations in Europe and North America.He is also board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and recipient of the LIfetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
This article first appeared in IsraelNationalNews.com.