Good morning everyone. What a privilege it is to be able to tell you my story here today.
Today we are commemorating Yom Hashoah, an inconceivable event. 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands before the war: 70% of them were murdered. Proportionately, in percentage terms, this was more than in any other country!
But let me introduce myself. I am Roosje Drukker. I was born in Amsterdam on 18 July 1940. My parents were Max Drukker and Fietje Levit.
My father was a photographer and, in the notorious 1930s, he travelled around Germany as a photojournalist. He spoke with the German Jews, heard their stories, their increasing fears and registered the frightful rumours that were circulating in Germany. My father took all these stories home, to our home in Marcusstraat in Amsterdam, the house from which all four of us would later go into hiding.
In the 1930s many German Jews fled to the Netherlands. They were certainly not welcomed. Our then Queen Wilhelmina, for example, did not approve of a reception camp being built for them on the Veluwe [an area of heathland and forest] behind her palace. That was too close to her backyard! Which is why this camp was built in Westerbork, as far as possible from the Dutch inhabited world! The costs of building the Westerbork camp were paid by the Jewish community itself, not by the Dutch government!
On 10 May 1940 the war began in the Netherlands. Our Queen had fled with the government to England. From London we received the order from the Queen: “to stay calm above all and to cooperate with the occupiers. That would be the best for everyone in the Netherlands”! Not a word was said about what awaited the Jewish population!
Here too, with all the imaginable help from local mayors, local government officials and the police, the German occupier drove the Jewish population slowly but surely into the trap. Whole neighbourhoods in Amsterdam were forbidden to Jews and many shops and businesses bore the sign “Jews unwelcome” in bold letters!
In October 1940 all Dutch people had to collect an identity document and whoever was Jewish had a big J stamped in it. A month later all Jewish officials were sacked!
There came ever more exclusions. Jewish musicians were sacked. Jewish children had to go to separate schools. Jews were no longer allowed to walk in a park, go to the cinema or visit a theatre. They could not move house and travel was also forbidden. Even contact between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden. In brief, we could no longer participate in public life.
Slowly but surely the great robbery of all the Jews’ possessions also began. Everything had to be surrendered. Property deeds, money, paintings and jewellery, if people even had them! And then to think that the largest group of Jews lived in bitter poverty. All the costs of the Final Solution were paid from all the money and possessions that the German occupier had seized! The Dutch Railways, for example, also sent their accounts for what they called their “Jewish transports” to the German government and so the railways earned 2.5 million from the transports to the gas chambers.
Then all the Jews had to collect a certificate from the Jewish Council showing how many Jewish grandparents they had. In our family we all had 4 Jewish grandparents. Consequently we were certainly destined to be deported to Poland.
I am telling the story in such detail here, because I am trying to convey the atmosphere and the fear that must have prevailed in our family and in all Jewish families. 140,000 Jews were then living in the Netherlands, 80.000 of them in Amsterdam alone.
In May 1942 all Jews from the age of 6 had to sew a star, the Star of David [Magen David], on their clothing so that they could be recognised in the street as Jewish. The Jews also had to pay for these stars themselves. Lastly, Jews were no longer allowed on the street after 7 p.m.. Then the Germans could force the Jews out of their homes, the so notorious ‘razzia’, after which they took them in lorries to the Hollandsche Schouwburg [a theatre in Amsterdam]. When everyone had been duly registered, they were taken by train to Westerbork and deported from there to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Sobibor, a three-day’s journey! We sat like rats in the trap! The first big deportations began in the summer of 1942. The Germans represented them as “Arbeitseinsatz” work assignment!
My mother had made her preparations as the Germans had ordered. So there were also rucksacks ready for us with the basic necessities. Naturally my parents, my grandparents and relatives had been given the advice NOT to report and not to believe the Germans and their “Arbeitseinsatz im Osten” [work assignment in the East]. But where could they hide? Who would take them in? The elderly, in particular. Who would take them in, who would take the risk? Moreover, after having had to hand everything in, most people had no money. That created problems, because people had to eat while they were in hiding.Some members of our family did report dutifully after they were summonsed, but my grandparents Simon and Roosje Drukker-Jacobs were removed from their homes during a razzia on 21 September 1942 and brought to the Hollandsche Schouwburg.
Going into hiding
My parents therefore chose to go into hiding. My sister, who was then 6 years old, was taken on a train one day by a strange gentleman who, it would emerge after the war, took her to the distant province of Limburg. Going into hiding was a very great problem for small children. An attempt was made by the student resistance in Amsterdam to provide the little ones with a new non-Jewish identity by putting them out as foundlings. I was a guinea pig for this! My mother had been supplied with an address and did as she was instructed.
On 24th September 1942 she dressed me in three layers of clothing and I was given a pair of real shoes for the first time. Why do I mention that so explicitly….? I was a late developer and could not yet really walk! I also could not yet really talk….. but it was precisely for that reason that my mother could leave me as a foundling. Lastly, she pushed a note into my clothing reading: “I can no longer maintain this ninth child!”
She then placed me in the pram and wheeled me to that address at Koninginneweg no. 9. There she put me down in the porch at the top of the steps, rang the bell and quickly walked away. With an empty pram!
That must have been a terrible moment for her. To have to leave your child, not knowing what might further happen to it. It was of course also a frightfully traumatic event for me, too, to see my mother disappear in that way!
It was the intention that I should remain with that family in Koninginneweg, but our own Amsterdam police did not permit that and so I ended up in the big Burgerweeshuis [City Orphanage] in Kalverstraat, where the Amsterdam Historical Museum is now established. The police tried through newspaper articles “to trace the parents of the foundling that had been left there in such a reprehensible manner!”
My mother cut out those articles from the Telegraaf and the Algemeen Dagblad and carried them with her throughout the war, kept safely in a small bag on her breast. She knew that, should the war ever end, this could be the only proof to enable her to reclaim me.
My parents went into hiding on the same evening, each with a false identity card. My mother as Trijntje/Truusje van Mourik and my father as Dr. Van Lienden. My mother left a beautiful farewell letter behind in Marcusstraat.
That 24th September, the day that my mother left me as a foundling and my parents went into hiding, was the day that my grandparents Simon and Roosje Drukker-Jacobs were gassed, murdered, in Auschwitz, simply and only because they were Jewish!
My life in hiding
But now for my orphanage period. I cried terribly for my MOTHER, who just never returned! I was allocated a “mother” in the orphanage, but it was not MY MOTHER. There were a great many little sisters in the orphanage, but they were not MY SISTER. But however much I cried for my mother, MY mama had gone…. and stayed gone!
In the orphanage I was given the name Irma van Schinkel. They estimated that I was younger than I actually was and so I was given as my date of birth 24 March 1941. This was all written on a cardboard label that was hung on a cord around my neck, which I wore throughout the war. I did not answer to my new name of Irma for a long time. That was not me! I was Roosje!
I experienced the noise in the orphanage with all those children, the commotion and the turmoil as frightful. I still cannot bear commotion and shouting. The Germans had their headquarters close to the orphanage. Razzias, police manhunts, were regularly held in the city, including in the orphanage, because the Germans continued to look for Jewish children. The noise of those German soldiers, not only their rushing over the orphanage playgrounds, their barking way of speaking and their crunching boots, but also the way they stomped through Kalverstraat and over the Nieuwe Zijds Voorburgwal with their loud singing, can still give me the shivers. The sirens wailed continuously during air raid alarms.
In the orphanage I received a strict Protestant Christian upbringing. Religious instruction in the music room where we learned to sing psalms and Christian hymns standing by the piano. I loved and still love music, so those were the golden hours for me. On Sundays we walked twice a day, neatly dressed in our orphanage clothes, in a neat line to the church. But these orphanage years were the very miserable, lonely and troubled years for me. Children came, children went. Groups constantly changed. It was impossible to form an attachment to anyone.
The notorious hunger winter began towards the end of 1944. The Germans allowed the supply of coal and food to stagnate, leading to a shortage of everything. In Amsterdam hunger and cold struck mercilessly.
The orphanage did occasionally obtain a little curd from the German occupier, which it then diluted with water, so that you got a kind of sour, weak porridge. That sour smell can still make me feel sick.
It was so frightfully cold that they fetched up old orphanage capes from the cellars and for the night we were given a piece of extra blanket.
There was an outbreak of scabies and lice, which was combatted by shaving your head and rubbing in paraffin. That stank and it stung! The orphanage obtained this paraffin from the Bataafse Petroleummaatschappij [BP]. This company organised illegal food transports from Friesland in the hunger winter, principally potatoes, with boats over Lake IJssel [former Zuyder Zee] to Amsterdam; also intended for the soup kitchens. When the boats sailed back again empty they secretly carried children with them. In this way many young children were evacuated to Friesland, where there was no hunger.
At the beginning of 1945 BP offered to take six seriously undernourished children from the orphanage and I was one of those six. All six of us had a note placed in our pockets: “Undernourished! Do not give too much to eat!” Because if you are undernourished and then start overeating, you get ill!
So I sailed with one of those transports in February 1945. We lay in the forecastle and Sister Botman of the BP watched over us and kept us quiet. We were shot at by aircraft and the throbbing of those low-flying aircraft continues to hang somewhere in your head. It was a frightening crossing!
In Friesland I found myself in a completely new situation and environment. I was placed in a family with one daughter. I was undernourished, did not feel well after that unpleasant boat trip and must have cried at undergoing the umpteenth change in my life. Moreover they spoke Frisian, which I did not understand! In brief, I was considerably disturbed and clearly did not click with that family. They found me too much of a nuisance and wanted to be rid of me.
A couple of days later, scratching about in that little “Ot & Sien” [Jack and Jill] street, I became friends with a little village girl. She took me by the hand, walked with me through the village, played with me in the boxbed. That was nice… I had not experienced that before, but it did feel good! Her parents, Pake and Beppe, were kind to me and took me into their home.
Pake and Beppe wanted to adopt me. They could not write themselves and so they had a butcher in Leeuwarden write a letter to the orphanage. There could clearly be no question of adoption, because one morning, when my little friend was at school, I was suddenly picked up from the street by a strange woman, placed on the back of a bicycle and taken, as would later appear, one village farther along the way.
There I found myself in a large Protestant Christian family with eight children. In itself I was well received there, but it was a matter of getting used to something new again. Again different people, again a whole change. Not being able to say goodbye! For me it always felt like being left in the lurch.
In March 1945, according to the orphanage label I was 4 years old and I could go to nursery school. Because there was always fear of treachery, I was only allowed to go the back way to the nursery school and home again, over a plank bridge across the ditch.
I was well treated in this large family with all those big children. Heit and Mem taught me to churn butter on my lap with a very small churn. And with all of us sitting round the table eating and praying… it finally felt good and, above all, peaceful.
In April 1945 Friesland was liberated by the Canadians. That was a great celebration. For the first time I wore a new, white party frock with embroidered flowers and a big white ribbon in my hair. The school benches from the nursery school were placed on a large farm cart and we were allowed to sit on them. In this way we were drawn by horses through the village. The village brass band marched in front and the Canadians followed behind in their jeeps. Flags with the orange pennants hung everywhere and everyone was so happy and elated. We sang the Frisian national anthem and still, when I hear this, it brings tears to my eyes.
It must have been about six weeks later that Mem said to me one morning: “Irma, your real mother is coming tomorrow!” That said nothing to me. “My real mother?” How many mothers had I not already had?
The next day I did not have to go to school and I had to put on my party frock. I was allowed to play outside for a while in the meadow and suddenly Mem called …Irma are you coming? In the hurry to run home I slipped from the plank bridge and landed straight in the ditch. Mem fished me out… and there I stood in front of this strange woman, dripping with water and with green water weed on my head.
“Hello, Roosje… I am mama, I am your mother!” That did not ring any bells for me.
Mem picked me up, carried me to the bathroom, removed my wet clothing. Then this strange lady held me and examined me from all sides. Later she would tell me that she had not recognised me and was looking for points of recognition on my body. And she found one, namely, a mole on my left buttock. Then she knew for certain, that that little girl, that Irma van Schinkel, was her daughter Roosje! She hugged me close and cuddled me, but I froze. For me she was “the umpteenth strange lady!”
How had my mother been able to find me? As I have already told you, she had always kept the newspaper cuttings from the time when I was left as a foundling, safely in a little bag under her clothing. She had reported to the police with those newspaper cuttings of 1942 and then had to prove to all kinds of bodies that the foundling in that newspaper article was really her daughter. Through the police magistrate she eventually came to the orphanage, who told her that I had meanwhile moved to Friesland. My mother obtained a letter from the director of the orphanage with which she could prove in Friesland that she was the true mother of that orphan, Irma van Schinkel. How my mother reached Friesland I do not know, nor how we made our way back to Amsterdam together.
Now you would think: all’s well that ends well. The war is over, your parents have survived it, so as we Dutch say so beautifully: “All’s well on board!” But I had at least enjoyed some calm for the last three months in Friesland and known a certain rhythm of an ordinary family. I had been to nursery school. And now I found myself in a very strange and especially tense situation.
My mother had succeeded in finding a dwelling in Amsterdam, because they had understood through Radio Orange from London that the government would require the Jews who had survived the war to prove that they could provide for the children whom they wanted to remove from the hiding places. Thus they had to possess a home and an income! If they could not prove that, the children were taken from the parents and again removed from parental authority.
These were of course frightful requirements. Let us be clear: all the Jews were either deported, most of whom were gassed, or they had been in hiding for years with all the attendant tensions. Let us also not forget that, at the beginning of the war, everything, literally, everything had been confiscated. So how could there be a home? Where could you find one so quickly and how quickly could you find a job? Moreover, there was absolutely no social security. This was the terribly cold attitude of Dutch society towards the Jewish part of the population returning from hiding or from the camps.
My sister Carla, I discovered, had found a hiding address in Limburg, but my mother left her there for the time being in that safe and peaceful spot.
The next problem arose after the war. My father had become acquainted with another woman in his wartime hiding place and no longer wanted to restore his old family. My mother could not deal with this at that time. She felt that her family, a dream for which she had lived for all those anxious years in hiding, was now also beginning to slip from her hands.
She became ill, very ill…. And I, Irma van Schinkel, that poor orphan girl, drifted around in total loneliness. We remained behind devastated and finally a psychiatrist advised my mother, if she wanted to survive this, to divorce and to get on with her life herself with the two children.
My mother went to look for another house and for this she went to Zandvoort. She now had to try to earn money herself. Zandvoort was a seaside resort. She wanted to start a Jewish boarding house.
Zandvoort was in fact a terrible place for us to go and live. At the beginning of the war it had immediately chosen the side of the Germans and very quickly worked its Jewish population out of the village. Zandvoort had earned well from the building of bunkers along the coast and the laying of mines in the sea and dunes.
My mother found a big house there, but everything in the house was broken. Not a window was unbroken, not a toilet or washbasin could still be used. My mother could not keep me with her in that chaotic situation and so I landed again in a children’s home: the Pniël Children’s Home in Zuiderstraat. I found it terrible there. I spent the whole time in that children’s home screaming and crying and I no longer wanted to eat. Eventually they found a Protestant foster family for me so that I could recover. And so I returned to what was for me the familiar Protestant Christian world, with its church going and praying with folded hands. That was a breathing space for me.
In 1948, three years after the war, our family came together again. My sister, then twelve years old, had been brought up a Catholic with rosary and beautiful prayer cards. I was still that little Protestant girl, spoke a little Frisian with Dutch, I stuttered, prayed with folded hands before going to sleep and sang my psalms and Protestant hymns. My sister did not recognise me, but nor did I recognise her! And with us my oh so sad and lonely mother, still waiting, hoping that someone had survived the war. The three of us were absolutely alone in the world!
But I was still, as it felt to me, that little orphan girl Irma van Schinkel. The reversal, the transformation to Roosje Drukker still had to take place. My mother repeatedly told me, told us, or shall we say, tried to explain, why we had gone into hiding, why she had left me as a foundling. Why she had already foreseen in 1942 that I, as a toddler, could not have survived that long three-day journey and had therefore chosen to go into hiding. She tried to explain to us, because we were Jews, what being Jewish meant. In this way the stories came to me, came to us.
On our birthdays we always received a couple of small presents, never one big present. My mother’s explanation was: “If your grandpas and grandmas, aunts and uncles had still been alive, you would have received more presents!”……
Eventually she brought in the help of the Haarlem Jewish Community to shake all the Christianity from us. My mother went to work for the Jewish Community in Amsterdam in 1949. In this way we landed in a Jewish pattern of life at home. My mother was at home on Saturday – on Shabbat – and worked on Sunday morning.
But how guilty I felt on Sunday morning, when she was away, as I listened in secret to the radio, to the Reverend Spelberg, who told the so familiar Bible stories to the children and to me and who, with those children, sang the to me still familiar Protestant hymns. But that was no longer allowed, that was not appropriate for the Jewish Roosje! How schizophrenic.
Another problem for me was that I had no-one to talk to about MY time in hiding, about my time in the orphanage. Also the constant fear that if you are not good you will be sent away again! That stuck! There was also the eternal doubt. Was I really Roosje? Had my mother not taken the wrong child from the orphanage? Whom did I resemble? Because a frame of reference “who do I look like” had become an impossibility, partly through the absence of family. It felt as if I did not fit in there at all. Being different, feeling that you are different has permeated my whole life, including the schools that I attended. We were again sworn at in Zandvoort as “dirty rotten Jews”!
At some time in my twenties I could no longer bear the sadness that hung around me. I tried to flee from all the baggage of my Jewishness. I tried to live like the world around me. Don’t stand out, don’t adopt another life rhythm! Don’t always have to explain why you wanted time off on the Day of Atonement to go to shul, to the synagogue. Not always to have to explain that I did not wish to eat pork, that I did not wish to pay a birthday visit on Friday evening. In brief, I adjusted to the world around me and tried to be like “the other”! But that came to an end. My mother died in 1981 and then I had a complete breakdown. It was clear that the war had never ended for me. Nightmares and depressions struck mercilessly.
They were frightfully difficult years, but it was also a liberation for me. I had crawled back as it were into my Jewish world and how good that felt. Our family has learned a lot. We have joined the Jewish Community and live at home as a Jewish family with all the associated traditions. The emptiness of having no close family has shaped my life, perhaps I should say, misshaped. That is the sad conclusion of the Shoah.
Yes, I always try to see the positive points, because miracles did occur in my life. For example, I rediscovered in 1982 my boxbed companion for, at the same time that I was trying to recover that Friesland period, she was searching for that orphan girl Irma van Schinkel. A long article on the subject appeared in Margriet, a weekly women’s magazine in the Netherlands, and so out of the blue I received a letter from the lady on whose doorstep I had been left as a foundling in 1942.
Again, later, in 1989 there was an exhibition in the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the former City Orphanage, of orphanage clothing and there I found, very unexpectedly both my little shoes and the clothing in which I had been left as a foundling. That was very poignant. I then went with those little shoes to the lady with whom I had been left as a foundling and we wept together. So many emotions came up in both of us.
In 1995 there was an exhibition in that same museum about the Hunger Winter in Amsterdam. My little shoes were exhibited there with my story in a glass case and so I suddenly made contact with the children from the first family with whom my mother had gone into hiding. I got to hear a whole lot of stories about my mother from that far distant time. All the pieces of the puzzle had come together. I had often doubted whether or not I was fantasising, but now, as it proved, all my fantasies turned out to be true and that felt good.
And now I am sitting here in front of you and telling my story about that dreadful war and I am alive. I have children, grandchildren and even three great grandchildren. That is a miracle is it not?
I am telling my story, the story of a Jewish woman, in order to let people understand what a war destroys. It is not only the loss of my family, but the fact that we ought not to have existed, that we were wiped out, so to speak, that as Jews we people evidently did not count! That hurts and continues to be inconceivable! We Dutch Jews felt safe in our country before the war and imagined ourselves protected. But that trust was nearly fatal for us! The peace and freedom that we now enjoy is a great good and you do not realise that until it is taken away from you!
The task that I once set myself is to continue to tell this story. For as long as I live I want to go on drawing this terrible history of my family and all those murdered Jews from the shadows, from the threatening oblivion.
Then we had to wear the yellow star on our clothing as a humiliation. Now I wear my Magen David with pride. I am Roosje Drukker, a proud Jewess and everyone may see it!
Am Yisrael chai!