Westerbork

January 27, the day in 1945 when Soviet Forces liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau — the largest Nazi death camp – – is Holocaust Memorial Day.

On that day in 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7,000 prisoners, who were mostly ill and dying, but not before — as the Soviets were approaching the camp — the Nazis forced nearly 60,000 prisoners to march west from the Auschwitz camp system, a march during which more than 15,000 died (Louis de Wind probably one of them), and not before of an estimated 1.3 million people who were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 at least 1.1 million were murdered — according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Except for wailing “Never Again!” and except for hoping that mankind indeed means that, there is nothing new I can say or write about that unspeakable tragedy.

So forgive me for recounting one or two personal stories as an infinitesimally small gesture of remembrance of and honor to those who perished during the Holocaust.

~.~

As the long freight train leaves the Nazi Westerbork transit camp and picks up speed across the flat Dutch countryside, Louis takes out the couple of sheets of paper he had stuffed in his pocket and begins to write his letter. He knows he has to hurry: It will not be very long before the train crosses the border into Germany.

Writing in Dutch, he starts:

Darling,

I am on my way to an unknown destination. I sit here with 56 people in a freight car. I have to write on my knee while we are riding …

Louis finds it difficult to write, for it is very dark in the sealed freight wagon.

Still not knowing how close to the border the train is — his growing anxiety reflected in his worsening handwriting — Louis hastily ends the letter with words of hope that, “God willing,” he will see his loved ones again; with words of love, “a thousand kisses;” and with a request to his wife: “Omhels Loekie,” — Give Loekie, his little daughter, a hug.

Louis de Wind, a Dutch Jew, then quickly puts the two-page letter into an envelope, addresses it to his wife, Elizabeth de Wind, and, through a slit in the door of the train that is taking him and a thousand other doomed Dutch Jews to some sinister destination, pushes the letter out of the wagon, hoping that someone will find it and send it to his wife.

The date of the letter is September 3, 1944.

By then, it had been four long years since the Nazis invaded and occupied the Netherlands.

Although people in the Netherlands suffered greatly under the Nazi boot, the plight of the 140,000 Dutch Jews was nothing short of genocidal. Soon after the occupation, the Germans initiated many measures to identify, shame and isolate the Jews in the Netherlands from the rest of the population.

“Registration,” discrimination, persecution and internment of Dutch Jews in camps in the Netherlands were not far behind, followed by massive deportations to Nazi extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.

The last mass deportations of Dutch Jews took place in September 1944. By that time, 107,000 Dutch Jews had been deported to Nazi concentration camps. Only around 5,000 survived.

The September 3, 1944 freight train — many of these “Holocaust trains” were used to carry both freight and cattle — taking Louis de Wind away from his homeland, away from his family to a near-certain death in a Nazi gas chamber was, in fact, the last of those tragic transports.*

Westerbork rail car Breendonk

Original boxcar used for transports to the Nazi concentration camps (Commons – Wikimedia, Fort van Breendonk, Belgium)

What happened to the letter? What happened to Louis de Wind?

I met Loekie de Wind, the daughter of Louis de Wind, a few years ago in beautiful Blaricum, The Netherlands, while finally getting to know the Dutch (de Wind) side of my family.

Examining the family tree, we found out that Loekie and I were cousins.

At the time, we briefly talked about Loekie’s father, and about what had happened to him during the war.

My visit to Loekie and to other de Wind family members in the Netherlands awakened my interest in my Dutch-Jewish family roots and ancestry. I soon made the sad and haunting discovery that among the Dutch Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, there were 124 de Winds. This may not seem like a large number, until one realizes that the name de Wind is quite an uncommon family name in the Netherlands; that virtually all the de Winds in the Netherlands have common roots and that the number 124 represents a significant proportion of an entire de Wind generation.

It wasn’t until very recently that Loekie confided enough in me to give me a copy of the letter her father had written in that cattle car on the way to Auschwitz in 1944.

Yes, the train was taking her father to infamous Auschwitz when he wrote the letter. And, miraculously, someone found the letter in a field along the railway and mailed it to Loekie’s mother. On the back of the envelope were only the words, “fallen out of the train” and the name of a small town in the Dutch province of Drenthe, Koekange.

Loekie tells me that in the summer of 1944 her father went to Loosdrecht, a popular Dutch lakeside resort, to sail, as he had done the year before.

Her father felt safe because he was married to a non-Jew, had a false identity card and did not wear the hated, humiliating “Jodenster“, the yellow star.

This time, however, Loekie’s father was arrested during a razzia (raid) and was later shipped to Westerbork, a camp situated in the northeastern part of the Netherlands that served as a transit point for Dutch Jews before they were deported to Nazi extermination camps.

Just a few days later, Louis de Wind would find himself writing the letter, the only words his loved ones would ever again receive from him, in a darkened, crowded train wagon on the way to Auschwitz.

A letter in which Louis apologizes for his messy handwriting, jotted in a freight train hurtling relentlessly down the Dutch lowlands towards Auschwitz and “points beyond.” A letter in which he tells his loved ones not to worry about him, that he knows they will be well taken care of and a letter in which he sends a thousand kisses, asks his wife to give Loekie, who had just turned six, a big hug, and in which he says, “God willing, I will see you again…”

However, such was not God’s will.

Loekie would never see her father again.

In 1949, Loekie’s mother was told by the Dutch Red Cross that “It must be assumed that Louis de Wind died as the result of illness, exhaustion or ‘gassing.'”

When Loekie turned 21, her mother gave Loekie her father’s letter. Anxious to learn her father’s fate, Loekie contacted a friend of her father who had been with him in the train and was one of the very few Auschwitz survivors.

Loekie reading letter

Loekie de Wind re-reading her father’s letter

Her father’s friend informed Loekie that, as the Allies were closing in on Auschwitz, Loekie’s father came to say goodbye to him in the hospital where he was recovering from frost-bitten feet. Loekie fears that her father might have died during the horrific forced marches — the “death marches” to which the prisoners were subjected — when the Nazis attempted to move their prisoners out of Auschwitz, during the brutal, debilitating, murderous cold that was January 1945.

Loekie, now 72, tells me, “The most terrible thing of all is that I still am sad about my father and that I don’t have a place to mourn at his grave.”

But she does have that letter, a letter written 66 years ago in a dark, cramped cattle wagon, a letter simply ending with “1000 X gekust,” a thousand kisses, a letter that is now the only link to her father.

A letter which, along with all that has been said and written about the Holocaust, may help us keep that solemn promise of “Never Again.”

——

* Various reliable sources report that this last train transport from Westerbork making the three-day, three-night journey to Auschwitz also had on board Anne Frank and her family. The following month, Anne Frank would be transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Lead image: Rails and watchtower at the former Nazi transition-camp Westerbork in the Netherlands. (Commons-Wikipedia)

Dorian de Wind, Military Affairs Columnist
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Copyright 2014 The Moderate Voice
  • The_Ohioan

    Very touching, Dorian. It’s a strange thing that three countries could become so psychotic at the same time. I still have a hard time accepting that Great Britain, England, the United Kingdom could have been bombed into rubble within my lifetime. It just doesn’t seem possible given their history.

    In Germany, as in the Ukraine, and Italy and Japan during the 1930’s, much was known and much was ignored by the western countries. It really demands our attention to be centered on radically aggressive governments – always.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks for your comments, T.O.

    As to:

    In Germany, as in the Ukraine, and Italy and Japan during the 1930?s, much was known and much was ignored by the western countries. It really demands our attention to be centered on radically aggressive governments – always

    .

    I don’t know if you are referring to indications to war or to the Holocaust– and the Holocaust itself.

    As to the latter, I still am shocked that a tragedy of such a magnitude could have occurred without the knowledge of governments; why there was such a silence about it and why nothing or not much was dome to prevent it — or stop it.

    More on this, perhaps, later.

  • The_Ohioan

    Dorian

    I was referring to both the physical building of arms and the increasing power and actions of the three Axis member countries. Plus Stalin’s horrible treatment of the Ukrainians was unconscionable and killed as many as the Holocaust. Western governments had inklings of what was going on, but were hesitant about doing anything after the ghastly decimation of WWI or they simply ignored those reports. You can’t have that much destruction without some knowledge slipping out. Pope Pius was begged to help and, for the most part, refused.

    The dreadful famine that engulfed Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and the lower Volga River area in 1932-1933 was the result of Joseph Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization. The heaviest losses occurred in Ukraine, which had been the most productive agricultural area of the Soviet Union. Stalin was determined to crush all vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism. Thus, the famine was accompanied by a devastating purge of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and the Ukrainian Communist party itself. The famine broke the peasants’ will to resist collectivization and left Ukraine politically, socially, and psychologically traumatized.

    The policy of all-out collectivization instituted by Stalin in 1929 to finance industrialization had a disastrous effect on agricultural productivity. Nevertheless, in 1932 Stalin raised Ukraine’s grain procurement quotas by forty-four percent. This meant that there would not be enough grain to feed the peasants, since Soviet law required that no grain from a collective farm could be given to the members of the farm until the government’s quota was met. Stalin’s decision and the methods used to implement it condemned millions of peasants to death by starvation. Party officials, with the aid of regular troops and secret police units, waged a merciless war of attrition against peasants who refused to give up their grain. Even indispensable seed grain was forcibly confiscated from peasant households. Any man, woman, or child caught taking even a handful of grain from a collective farm could be, and often was, executed or deported. Those who did not appear to be starving were often suspected of hoarding grain. Peasants were prevented from leaving their villages by the NKVD and a system of internal passports.

    The death toll from the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine has been estimated between six million and seven million. According to a Soviet author, “Before they died, people often lost their senses and ceased to be human beings.” Yet one of Stalin’s lieutenants in Ukraine stated in 1933 that the famine was a great success. It showed the peasants “who is the master here. It cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay.”..

    No wonder the northern Caucasus has little use for the Russians. The Ukraine is in flames once more.

  • petew

    Dorian,

    Its true that no words can truly encompass the utter infamy and cruelty of the Holocaust, and I thank you for sharing such a touching story about your relatives.

    I have also been aware of Stalin’s murderous reputation but never about many of the details like the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians—thanks to The_Ohioan for that.

    It’s a sad state of affairs when so many people are willing to kill, die for, and torture innocent others in the name of ideology and ethnic hatred. And, its a shame on the human race itself, that we continually allow ourselves to be controlled, manipulated, and emotionally seduced by greedy leaders—be they the Robber Barons of the early 20th century, or fascist monsters like Hitler, stalin, Mussolini or “little kim”. Too many “ideas” often replace the importance of dignity in the human heart, and whether we continue killing about a million of our fellow human beings each year, as we have for the past century, depends largely on how we access our higher natures, and our loving human potential.

    And we do have that potential—just as so many commenters, providing insightful comments about the horrors of WW2, and how it has left a large gaping wound in your family tree—continue to respond with that love, as well as sensitivity and thoughtful reflection, on both our human depths and our human virtues when manifested as love and kindness. Perhaps I am trying to sound too profound. But if so, we all know that profundity itself is far too inadequate to explain or even chronicle the ugliness that really happend in WW2. But thank God, the greatest generation was there to end one of the greatest travesties and wars of hate and cruelty that the world has ever known!

  • sheknows

    When I lived overseas, my husband and I went to Auschwitz. Everything is just as they left it after the clean up. the gas chambers,( showers), the soldiers bunkers, the prison buildings, the basements, even the wooden gallows… everything.
    I could not stay. I will never forget either.

    Chamberlain knew…The U.S. knew…Italy and France knew, the Netherlands knew. The underground was in almost every country in Europe and relatives in the U.S.knew. Why no one helped is the mystery of all time.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    @T.O

    Thanks again for your comments and clarification.

    I am well aware of the many other massacres, atrocities, genocides, etc. that have occurred — and are still occurring — in the world. My focus on the Holocaust on this Holocaust Memorial Day and due to my personal connection to it, should not be taken as either ignoring or minimizing those.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Petew and sheknows, thanks for your comments, too.

  • The_Ohioan

    Dorian

    Yes, I thought later that bringing in Stalin’s perfidy should have been in another thread. The Holocaust was different in that it wasn’t just a dictator or a war lord doing what they do; it was a political leader and the people that elected him that betrayed their Jewish citizens, friends, and neighbors. An educated, sophisticated society that turned on their own.

    And it was driven by hateful propaganda which sounds so much like today’s it’s frightening. The ability to see your opponent as not quite human or not a valuable member of your society or not as astute as yourself – as hateful – is the water that can create a grand canyon of prejudice if allowed to continue long enough. And can lead to the terrible results you describe.

    At another website, a Jewish contributor talked about how even though he feels as safe as anywhere in the U.S., he still doesn’t trust that it will always continue that way. He’s always alert to possibility that it could happen again – anywhere. My original comment was about the phenomenon of three countries seeming to simultaneously go mad all within a decade. We can only hope that “Never again” will remain the watchword for the world.

    And, again, thank you for making it personal for all of us.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Hi, T.O.

    Thanks for your follow-up. I agree, we are going through some very unsettling times.

    Added:

    Talking about unsettling times, just hearing about another deadly (mall) shooting in Maryland — three confirmed fatalities so far.

  • JSpencer

    Why was the rest of the world so slow to believe the stories that were filtering out (usually sent at great risk) about what was happening? Was it outright rejection of something so incredible? A wish not believe in slaughter on such a huge scale? Or was it a lower priority for some because the genocide was happening to people who were viewed as not white, not Christian? Remember, returning black US servicemen who could be treated as 1st class citizens in France were still victims of injustice in thier own country.

    In the latter stages of the war the Germans built a model village called Theresienstadt that was used as a propaganda tool to show the west how well Jewish people were being treated. The Red Cross was even invited to inspect and see for themselves that stories about concentration camps weren’t true. Most of the prisoners in Theresienstadt were either worked to death or shipped to concentration camps where they were killed or died, men, women, children.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresienstadt_concentration_camp#Use_as_propaganda_tool

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Those are all good questions, JS, that would take volumes to answer, as there are volumes and volumes written both supporting and contradicting the thesis that “the West,” including even the Vatican and the U.S. – -and within the U.S. even American Jews — were oblivious at best, did not believe or simply ignored — closed their eyes — at worse to both the Nazi preparations leading up to the Holocaust or the Holocaust itself. Just Google “Why did the West ignore the Holocaust” and your get “About 5,280,000 results in 0.46 seconds”

    Here is one reference “The Holocaust in American Life” by Peter Novick that begins as follows:

    We begin at the beginning, with the response of American gentiles and Jews to the Holocaust while the killing was going on. Though we’ll be concerned mostly with how the Holocaust was talked about after 1945, the wartime years are the appropriate starting point. They were the point of departure for subsequent framing and representing, centering or marginalizing, and using for various purposes the story of the destruction of European Jewry.

    At the same time, America’s wartime response to the Holocaust is what a great deal of later Holocaust discourse in the United States has been about. The most common version tells of the culpable, sometimes willed obliviousness of American gentiles to the murder of European Jews; the indifference to their brethren’s fate by a timid and self-absorbed American Jewry; the “abandonment of the Jews” by the Roosevelt administration — a refusal to seize opportunities for rescue, which made the United States a passive accomplice in the crime.

    And concludes the first chapter as follows:

    In any event, the result was that for the overwhelming majority of Americans, throughout the war (and, as we will see, for some time thereafter) what we now call the Holocaust was neither a distinct entity nor particularly salient. The murder of European Jewry, insofar as it was understood or acknowledged, was just one among the countless dimensions of a conflict that was consuming the lives of tens of millions around the globe. It was not “the Holocaust”; it was simply the (underestimated) Jewish fraction of the holocaust then engulfing the world.

    This is just one of many versions as to why and how…

  • JSpencer

    Those are questions people will (should) be wrestling with for a long time to come. I know the subject is the Holocaust specifically, but since it took place in the context of WWII it had me thinking about how many millions died around the world in that war. The link gives a chart breaking it down, showing civilian and military losses for each country. It’s pretty staggering.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties

    Thank-you Dorian for sharing your personal story with us.

  • petew

    My understanding is that, FDR resisted repeated requests from Churchill to commit American troops to the war. As in most wars, we were typically nervous about the consequences of boots of the ground (just as we recently were in regards to Syria). Moreover, Churchill actually went to the lengths of sinking a ship in Italy (or Spain)? while completely unprovoked, in order to demonstrate England’s military might—therefore qualifying them as a staunch and powerful ally. But obviously my recollections of a PBS edition about WW2, which gave this information, are not very clear.

    Its understandable not to commit millions of men who must then risk their lives. But more than that, I think we may have been unaware and completely incredulous about reports of such infamy that their heartlessness were almost unbelievable. But once we knew the truth and entered the War, we were instrumental in defeating Hitler—thank God! If anyone can fill me in on more of the specifics, please do.