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2-The Depression Years & Move to Antwerp
Do you remember Kristallnacht?
Kristallnacht? No, that, see, that took place in Germany. That was not in Holland.
But, did that affect you?
No, because this was 1938 when that took place, Holland was a free country. There was no war yet. Kristallnacht took place I believe on the 8th or the 9th of November in 1938. And that was strictly in Germany. Holland, no such thing.
But you got no news of it?
Nope. Oh, we had news of it, but it came much later. It came by newspaper like two days later. You know, news was not instantaneous, like you have today. News was ... the newspaper would come, there were no radios to speak of, obviously there was no TV. So, whatever news there was, came by a newspaper, or by word of mouth because somebody had listened to it on the radio if they had a radio.
What was the Depression like for you and your family?
The Depression for us as children as well as the adults, that, number one, there was less food on the table. Number two, in as much as we had the poultry store now, we ate all the leftovers. My mother would make chicken soup from chicken feet. And if there were no chicken and we had a goose leg we have a soup from a goose leg. Because everything was boiled and cooked, so therefore, what you may not finish the night before you'd have the next day.
Second hand clothes. Second hand shoes. That's what it was like. No haircut, the hair grew longer, cause nobody had that fifty cents to put the kid out and get a haircut.
It was a time when you lived, in Amsterdam, where I was, from hand to mouth. There was a lot of protest in the city, there were rallies by labor, you know, to get work, to get better support from welfare, or unemployment insurance, that sort of thing. It was bad, but as a youngster, of eight, nine ten years old, you're not cognizant of all these things. You know, it's not like you're in your late teens, or your twenties, when these become very important events in your life. When you were growing up, all you can think of is I want to go out into the street and play. And my mom calls in to have dinner, you go up there and you eat what you get in front of you, because, hey, there's no restaurants, you're not going to go out to a restaurant. The first restaurant that I can even recall, to go out to "dinner," was when we had moved to Antwerp, when I, after I had been eleven years old and my father began to make some money, I think after about a year, I was thirteen, we actually went to a restaurant once. Otherwise, it's always eating at home or eating at family.
Did your family remain as close during the depression?
As close? Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Why did you move to Antwerp, and when was this?
We moved to Antwerp when I was eleven years old, and, the story given me at that time was that my father could get a job quicker in Antwerp, and be fully employed, and so we left in the middle of the night. And a truck came, they loaded all the furniture, schlepped it down the stairs, put it in the truck, and a neighbor across the street joined us in that, and two families moved to Antwerp during the middle of the night. And in Antwerp, my father got a job right away, which in fact, he had gone to Antwerp and had already lined up the job and lined up the apartment that we were going to move into, and we arrived . You know, to drive a truck from Amsterdam to Antwerp takes three hours at the most, even at that time with narrow roads. So we arrived in the very late morning or early morning, late night or early morning hours.
Later on, and we moved back to Holland in 1939 when the war years began to come, and it's only later that I figured out for myself, that that's not the reason we had moved in the middle of the night. We had moved in the middle of the night because my father had not paid taxes on what he had earned in the poultry store. And he was delinquent in the taxes. And I figured that out later on when we came back to Amsterdam in 1939, my father went back to Amsterdam, and settled up with the tax bureau, for the taxes that he had been delinquent on, which allowed us to come back to Holland. And, he never told me this. And I figured this all out, that's what must have happened, why we left in the middle of the night. And why he had to go back to Holland to pay up first, before coming back.
When did you stop going to school, and what did you do after that?
In Holland and Belgium at that time, you were allowed to leave school at the age of thirteen and go to work. So I left at the age of eleven which meant in Amsterdam I still had one half year of school to go. So I came to Antwerp, I had to finish that, and then I went into what is MULO, which meant junior high school. And I was there my twelfth and thirteenth year. And when I turned thirteen, hey, I was done. You know, I could go to work. And I went to work as an apprentice diamond polisher, in Amsterdam - in Antwerp.
In your eyes, how did Belgium differ from Holland?
Belgium had two languages, for one thing, it had Flemish and it had French. When you were in the junior high, the law was you had to learn the French as well as the Flemish, Flemish being a dialect of Dutch, was not a problem for me. And so my first learning of French was in Antwerp when I was in the junior high. My impressions of Belgium were very limited because we lived in Antwerp, we had no car, we had a bicycle, so traveling was nil. So, the only thing that you knew was your neighborhood and being able to go downtown on the street car.
Were you treated differently as a Jew in Belgium versus Holland?
We again moved into an area that was mostly diamond polishers in Antwerp, and diamond polishers in those years basically meant Jewish workers, so we moved into a neighborhood, so we didn't see any of this so called, presumed, anti-Semitism.
What were some of the differences you remember after moving?
What were some of the differences I remember?
Yeah, changes in lifestyle you remember.
You mean before the war?
Yeah. When you moved to Antwerp.
Well, when I moved to Antwerp, we first moved in a very bare apartment. And after about a year, my father had started making good money, and so we moved to a new apartment in a newer section of Antwerp, and suddenly, we had a bathroom, and my sister and I had separate bedrooms, we had a dining room, we were not on the top floor anymore, we were on the second floor, and we had built in closets. And so we had better clothes, that's, you know, that was the difference. Now, again, when you are thirteen, I don't think you're as cognizant of clothes, or things, you know, that sort of thing, but having your own room for the first time, and having, actually you don't have to go to the bathhouse anymore, you can take a shower at home, now, that was a novelty. My mother also had a refrigerator by now. So, you know, this is kind of "hey, we're climbing the ladder." But, you didn't call it that way, you just lived better. And that's the difference.
You mentioned a teacher that was like a second mother to you. Did you ever hear from her again or did you keep in touch with her?
After the war, I went to look for her. And I went to her place where she had taken me as a youngster to be taught, when I was sick. She had left, was no longer there. I asked around, where did she go? She went back to the province where she had grown up, which was Zeeland, Z-e-e-l-a-n-d, which is one of the provinces in the southernmost portion of Holland, on the North Sea. It's almost all islands in there. And that she had gone back there, that's where she was born.
Now, you remember, this was now, when I came back it was 1945, and I was now twenty-one years old, and I would imagine Mevrouw van der Roest must have been, probably, about ten years older than myself, ten, twelve, thirteen, and so I guess with the war that she had gone through in Holland, or, she may have moved already to Zeeland, during the war, because she came from a farm community, more food was available there than in Amsterdam, and so that's what I surmise happened, that she moved to her family area, where she and her husband could get better food.
Back to Amsterdam & Rise of Antisemitism
So why did your family move back to Amsterdam?
We moved back to Amsterdam in 1939. And the reason was, my father saw a war coming. The Anschluss had already taken place in Austria. Now Munich had begun, you know what Munich is all about? Chamberlain, and, the giving away of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and then Czechoslovakia? And my father felt there was a war coming. And he believed that the war would again be like the First World War. Germany would go through Belgium to get to France, Holland stayed out of it, and that's the way it was going to be again. So we moved back to Holland for that reason, because we were Dutch citizens, and so that would be our country, and presumably, if my father was right, we would be neutral and Germans would just go by us and leave us alone. Well, course he was wrong. But that's the reason why we moved back to Amsterdam.
How was Amsterdam different from when you first lived there?
There was no difference. We only, actually, we lived in this - if this is the canal or the river, which is the Amstel - Amstel is the river after which Amsterdam is named - if this is the river, I grew up on this side of the river, when we came back to Amsterdam, we lived on the other side of the river, exactly on the opposite. Directly opposite of each other. So I was well acquainted with that whole neighborhood. And again, this was a downgrade, because we were back to an apartment like we had on the other side, where I grew up; no more private bathroom, no more separate bedrooms, you know, my sister and I slept still in the same bedroom, again, we're sleeping in the same bedroom.
What other discussions do you recall people talking about right at around the beginning of the war? What other stories and other discussions do you recall talking about, in terms of Hitler, and-
When we came back to Holland in 1939, and, when we left in 1935 for Antwerp, the first immigrants out of Germany had already begun to arrive in Holland, the Jews, who begun to see after Hitler had come to power in '33, that didn't smell well - the Nuremburg laws had become effective, so the first German Jews began to arrive in Holland. Now, I was eleven years old, what do I know, you know, I mean what's different to me, doesn't mean anything. Now I come back to Holland, and I'm going to be fifteen the very month that we come back. The newspapers have been blaring, you know, all that, we know what's going on, and, you know, the influx has increased from Germany to Holland of Jews. And so, a camp was built in northern Holland where they could receive those Jewish immigrants out of Germany and they were first put into that camp before they were allowed to dissipate into the rest of the country. Later on that very same camp was then used as a transit camp for the Jews to go from there to the destruction camps. The name was called Westerbork.
That's about the only thing that I saw differently until the day that the war actually broke out because when we came back to Holland, I was no longer interested in being a diamond polisher and I had started to taking odd jobs, and I wound up, in the end of August, middle of August 1939, working for a travel agent in downtown Amsterdam. And basically what I did was stuff envelopes and do mailings and take posters down and put another attractive poster up. Then of course that first weekend of September is when all hell broke loose. We all stood there around the square listening to the loudspeakers telling us about England and France having just declared war and things like that. And I came back to the office and the guy, my boss, said "Max, you're fired.' I said, "What for?' He said, "Nobody's going to go on trips anymore.' He said "I'm going to have to close up shop because where am I going to sell railway tickets or you know tours or that, so my experience as a beginner travel agent, I think took what - a week and a half.
How did you feel when you found out that there was such a big movement against Jews?
It's a difficult story to answer you right away with a definitive answer because the Germans attacked Holland - I believe it was a Friday night - they had told the government and the queen the night before that Holland's neutrality would be honored. And then in the early morning hours the tanks and the troops moved into Holland from Germany. I think on Sunday, Rotterdam was bombed, and the threat was given out by the Germans that if you don't surrender, Amsterdam is next. And so, the whole war in Holland took five days, and then the German army moved in and occupied Holland.
Nothing really happened as far as Jewish measures were concerned, until '42 when the requirement - well, first, before even '42, all those who were Jewish bureaucrats in government - that it was city, counties, province or federal - not federal but nations - they were automatically discharged; no Jew was allowed in public work. No Jew was allowed to be a musician at an orchestra. And there were many restrictions that came into play.
And nobody thought, you know, that this was very important. Until 1942 when the first edict came out that we all had to register, and then we had to wear the yellow star. And then we could not be out on the street after eight o'clock at night. And then part of that whole thing was that you could not use the streetcar except at certain hours. You were no longer allowed to go to the movies. You were no longer allowed to go to the restaurants. You could only go to shop - or your mother or you could only go to shop I think from 10 to 11 in the morning and from 3 to 4 in the afternoon. I'm not positive about those hours but the gist was you had a break in the morning and a break in the afternoon that you could go shop because, as I said, there were no refrigerators, so you had to - your mother, or the women had to shop every day while they lived there.
And it's not until the end - until about the late summer of '42 when the first raids began of picking up young boys off the street, putting them together and sending them off to the concentration camps. That - it was steps- very well measured steps that the Nazis imposed on the Jewish population of Holland.