By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
So in February 1938, Aron sold the farmland, the pastures, the house and everything in it for 10 percent of its value to a Nazi collaborator. A short time afterward, the family—Aron; his wife, Frieda; Bert; his sisters, Edith and Rose; and his brother, Martin—left Germany for good and set out for the Dutch border.
"It was a dark winter night—I remember that. We crossed the border, and it was nearly midnight. There were SS troops standing there, ordering us out of the car," Bert says, his voice still thick with a Dutch accent. "They were immense, those soldiers, with their helmets and gray coats. And we were very much afraid of them. We were each taken into a room and forced to strip. They were searching us to make sure we didn't take money or gold or jewelry out of the country. And I was scared."
By German law, each Jew was allowed to take only 50 marks out of Germany—enough to last a few days at most. But during the previous year, Frieda Jakobs had visited Holland repeatedly, ostensibly to visit relatives. On each trip, she had worn the same dress—a green dress that had twin sets of buttons.
"But she only came back with one set—because the second set were buttons made of gold covered with cloth," Bert says.
With some of that smuggled gold the family rented a house on the outskirts of Nymegen, a small town in southeastern Holland. Aron once again rented a farm and took up buying and selling cattle. And the children went to school, trying to resume a normal life.
On Nov. 9, 1938, Europe's Jews caught a glimpse of their terrible future. That night, known as Kristallnacht, Jewish synagogues and institutions all over Germany were burned to the ground. Seven thousand Jewish businesses were destroyed, thousands of Jews were beaten and tortured, and many were killed. And when Hitler's armies swept over Poland in September 1939, Aron was forced to rethink his plan.
"Now my father felt we weren't safe anymore," Bert recalls. "So we moved to Den Bosch, another city in southern Holland, which was behind the so-called water line. You see, Holland had inundated certain areas of the country with water so the Nazis couldn't get across."
But water did not stop the Nazis. On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Holland with no warning—but not by land. Thousands of soldiers dropped in from the skies; the Germans were the first army to exploit parachutes.
"I remember that morning," Bert says. "It was 4 a.m., very gray outside, just before daybreak. My father wore a white nightgown. We heard all these planes coming over. My father was standing on the balcony of his bedroom in his white nightgown. He looked up and said, 'Those are German planes.' But the soldiers were dressed in Dutch army and police uniforms."
Nazi planes bombed Rotterdam, killing more than 500 people. Four days later, Dutch resistance crumbled and Holland surrendered. In no time, the Germans appointed a civilian governor —the ferocious Austrian anti-Semite Artur Seyss-Inquart—who immediately began the insidious assault on Holland's Jews, attacking by stages their rights, their livelihoods and then their lives.
When the Nazis decreed that Jews didn't need cars, Aron rode from cattle market to cattle market on his bicycle, involving trips of 30 or more miles per day. By March 1941, Seyss-Inquart's government confiscated the property and businesses of all Dutch Jews. By summer, Jewish children were barred from public schools. And in April 1942, Holland's Jews were forced to wear the infamous yellow star.
"We were totally ostracized. If a German soldier came walking by on the sidewalk, you would have to get off. Otherwise, he would push you off," Bert remembers. "The only people who would pay any respect to Jews were the Catholic and Protestant clergy. If you came across a priest on the street and you had a yellow star, he would take off his hat and bow. He would get off the sidewalk."
Then 6, Bert had no illusions about what was happening. "My father told me the Nazis were out to kill the Jews. We knew that."
To stop Dutch Jews from fleeing the country, the Germans ordered the male adults to report for labor duty.
"My dad told the families he knew, 'Don't go. The Germans are bad news.' But they said, 'No, we will go. That way our families will be safe. We'll come back in six or seven weeks, and everything will be fine.' Well, these Jewish families would get a post card saying how wonderful everything was, that they should come over soon to be with their husbands. That's how they tricked the Jews. The families would join them on the train, and they were sent to the extermination camps."
By July 1942, the Nazis began deporting Holland's Jews to transit camps where, unbeknownst to them, they would be shipped to Auschwitz. Within a month, Bert's father found a Dutch farmer willing to hide most of the family and arranged to pay other families to hide Martin and Rose.