Monday, June 8, 2015

Stolen Childhood Holocaust Survivor ~ Maurits Louis Witsema (de Wit)

Stolen Childhood
Holocaust Survivor ~ Maurits Louis Witsema (de Wit)

As a little girl growing up in Michigan, I loved to play outside. I had several friends who lived right on my   street and we would have the best time. 

We would play baseball, kick the can, Murder in the dark (which is tag at night using flash lights), board games like Monopoly, Clue, Careers, and Cards, riding our bikes all over the neighborhood and into our town for ice cream or French fries. It was truly a fabulous way to grow up. I am so grateful also for the fact that I still am friends with a many of my childhood friends. Whenever I travel to Michigan I get together with many of my friends. It’s such a warm happy feeling and so good for my soul.

I was talking to my friend from here in The Netherlands the other day and basically he had the same beginning to life. But what if this little boy I’m talking about was not born in 1962 like me but in 1929? And right in the middle of his idyllic childhood a war begins and your country is invaded by people who want to take away everything and everyone in your life that you hold dear to your heart. Confusion, fear, anxiety grip your every fiber and all you want to do is survive.

Meet my friend Maurice. His full name is Maurits Louis Witsema (de Wit). This is his story.

Maurits Louis Witsema (de Wit) was born in Eindhoven on May 2nd, 1929. His parents, Louis de Wit and Philipina de Wit, had two children, Maurice and his sister Miriam who was 2 years younger and they called her Ineke. 

Philipina (Pien) de Wit

Louis de Wit

Maurice and his family lived in Eindhoven in a neighborhood where the houses, like a lot of Dutch homes, were very close. His very first memory of his childhood is of the Kermis or the Fun Fair that would take place right on his street on the Wihelmina square. Rides, vendors selling many colorful goodies, games and people just enjoying life. There was a big square not far from his house (Edenplein) where there is now a tall building. On this square every Tuesday there was Market Day. For the Queen’s birthday there was a firework display and once a year a circus. Maurice liked to watch the setting up of the tent and the animals. Maurice’s mother always bought a live chicken on the market which was put in a cage till Thursday when it was slaughtered by a kosher butcher, to be eaten on Friday.

Maurice had a lot of boys his age that he loved to play with that lived close to his house.  They would run up and down the street playing tag or running races to see who was the fastest. At the end of the street was a beautiful park with a huge area of green grassy park where they could play football and field hockey. Maurice and many of his school classmates were very involved with the Boy Scouts. He loved his time spent with his friends doing Scouting activities like learning how to tie a knot, creating plays, going camping and making pancakes. He just loved his time Scouting.  Also, in the park near his house was a pool but it was not in use anymore. Maurice and his friends loved to swim so they went to the indoor pool every Saturday. This was organized by the school at a reduced rate. But his best friend was Bertie van Vlijmen. Bertie did not live nearby but Maurice loved going over to his house to play.

Several times as a child Maurice and his family would take holidays together. Often, biking from Eindhoven into Belgium to enjoy time away from work, school and just to be with the family. They would ride to places like Luik, Yperen and Diksmuide where they would visit places of the WW1 to see the trenches the soldiers fought in and paying respect for the fallen at the cemeteries.

Maurice’s father Louis and his Uncle Ies owned and ran a store in the center of Eindhoven at Demer 42 called M. de Wit & Co. Maurice’s grandfather who he is named after, Maurits de Wit, founded the store in 1899. 

The shop sold household wares and supplies but what interested Maurice were the toys, goldfish and the stamps that could be bought for collecting. It was a fun place for Maurice to visit and he loved being with his dad and uncle.

Maurice doesn’t remember what he wanted to be when he grew up… but he does remember his mother telling him and his sister bedtime Grimm’s fairy tale stories. He especially loved Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood. 

Safely tucked in with his family all around feeling secure, happiness and loved.

And he remembers… when life changed and his childhood would be forever taken from him.

Maurice’s first memories of his world shifting around him, were of course the whispers and discussions between the adults in his life. The anxiousness of his parents and intense conversations about what was happening in Germany. The family would gather around the radio and listen carefully to the news of neighboring Germany. The Netherlands at the time had a full is full policy with regards to immigration. Dutch laborers were worried that new refugees would take the much needed jobs at the time. But after Kristallnacht (Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass) in Germany, the decision was made to open its boarders to people who did not pose a threat to the work situation. 

With the help of Jewish leaders, soon German Jewish children arrived in Eindhoven. They were alone on the train and did not arrive with their parents. They had been sent alone for their own protection. Some of the children were sent to live in a place called the Dommelhuis in Eindhoven and on the weekends they would visit Jewish families like Maurice’s. 

The children would come from the Dommelhuis on Saturdays where Maurice’s family would give them food and talk and play a few games.  Most of the children who visited were close to Maruice’s age.

The Netherlands prior to WW2 had a strict neutrality policy but all of that ended when Germany invaded The Netherlands on May 10th, 1940. Maurice was 11 years old at the time and in the sixth grade of primary school. Maurice was at home at the time as the schools were closed. He and his family listened to the radio for news on what was happening. Five days later and only a day after Rotterdam was bombed, the Dutch forces surrendered.  Queen Wilhelmina fled with her daughter to England along with Dutch government.  She began sending inspirational messages on Radio Oranje and became very inspirational to the Dutch resistance.

In the beginning, there was not much of a difference for life in German occupied Netherlands for Maurice. He went to school, played outside and went to Scout activities with his friends. They would visit with the friends of his parents. One in particular that he remembers was the Hornemann family. While the adults visited with each other, he would play with their two young sons Eduard and Alexander.  
 In the remaining months of 1940, the Germans slowly started to implement anti-Semitic orders. 

Signs were posted where Jewish people could not go into public places like parks, schools, pools, theaters and had to shop in Jewish stores only. And the Scout movement was forbidden. Maurice would not be allowed to do the Scouting actives that he was used to with his friends. He was extremely disappointed.   

In Maurice’s neighborhood were different schools, a Roman Catholic school for boys, a nun school for the girls and a Nutsschool for the others, mainly protestant boys and girls. That school is still there. 

The Joodse Raad (Jewish Council) was set up and this is when Maurice had to leave his school with all of his friends at the school called Nutsschool Akkerstraat in Eindhoven. He started attending school lessons in private homes with Jewish teachers. This was not very fun for Maurice as he loved to walk to and from school with his friends and just appreciated the joy of learning in a school environment.

In the spring of 1941, the Philips factory had existed for 50 years. The workers went out of the factory to have a party in the center of Eindhoven. This quickly turned into an anti-Nazi demonstration. The German Grune Polizei, the German military police, shut the demonstration down. The Sunday after the demonstration, Maurice’s father and Uncle Ies were arrested while playing Bridge at a favorite café. Supplies for the anniversary celebration had been purchased from their shop. The German police came to Maurice’s house to carry out a house search. His father and uncle both received six month prison sentences and a fine of a few thousand guilders. They spent three months at the police prison in Eindhoven and three months in the Scheveningen prison. Luckily they were released at the end of their term and allowed to go home.

In the meantime, while Maurice’s father was in prison, their shop, M. de Wit & Co., received a new German verwalter (supervisor) while Maurice’s mother was in charge of running the store. Carefully his parents succeeded in smuggling out money and the stamp collection from the store.

In 1941, Maurice and his whole family had to register with the Jewish council. It was staffed with Philips employees. And he was given his STAR. 

This yellow star had to be sewn onto all of his clothing indicating that he was Jewish. He had to keep it clean and the star had to be worn at all times. It was inscribed with the word Jood, meaning Jew in Dutch.

In the beginning of 1942, a Jewish high school started in S’Hertogenbosch. Maurice received a special permit to travel by train every day to attend. Every day, Maurice would walk to his mother’s sister’s house for lunch.  Maurice was so happy to be able to be back in school especially because he and Bertie got to ride the train together and were in the same class. Maurice also loved meeting new friends.  In May, Maurice was bar mitzvahed in the old Eindhoven synagogue which was designed by the famous Dutch architect, Pierre Cuypers. 

Cuypers is most notably known for designing the Rijksmuseum and Amsterdam Central. Sadly, the synagogue was damaged with the German bombing on September 18, 1944 during the liberation of Eindhoven. Later the synagogue was demolished due to the widening of the street.

During the early part of World War 2, Eindhoven saw the population of Jewish people continue to rise. Many coming from Germany trying to escape the war and the many children that had been sent to The Netherlands on their own.  Many people found work at the Phillips factory in Eindhoven in a special Jewish section. The Joodse Raad (Jewish Council) in Eindhoven consisted of many of the workers from the Phillips factory who felt the shop owners were inferior and did not give them the same protection as the factory workers received. This was the reason Maurice’s family would be in the first group of Jewish people in Eindhoven to receive deportation orders.

It was in August of 1942, when there would be a knock on the door. A man carrying a normal looking letter stood before Maurice’s mother. The letter contained orders for the entire family to report to the Eindhoven Train Station the very next day where they would be brought to a work camp in Westerbork. 

Horror, fear and panic set with in the family. Maurice’s father was at work but came home immediately upon hearing the news. What should they do? Who could they ask for help? What would happen? Maurice’s father who had been to prison and returned thought that maybe things would be ok. Their family could ride out the stay at Westerbork like he and his brother had done at the Eindhoven and Scheveningen prisons. Surely they would be ok. If they were telling the whole family to report, surely it would be to work. But Maurice’s mother was not so sure. She had talked with her cousin who was involved in the Dutch resistance. Maurice’s mother thought they should follow their advice. The decision was made, they would disappear and go into hiding (onderduiken).

With panic still flooding through their home, backpacks were hastily packed with a few clothing items and precious family items were quickly stored over at a neighbor’s house for safe keeping. Among them, was the stamp collection from M. de Witt & Co. That evening they would walk out of their family home and into the night and head toward what would become their first place to hide. Disappearing from all who knew them.

There was no story that needed to be invented on the disappearance of their family. Everyone who knew them, knew they must have gone into hiding. There was no foreign country to run to at this point. Some people were smuggled into Belgium to avoid deportation, but this was terribly dangerous as people were turning others in to save themselves. Again the word “onderduiken” is mentioned… which literally means to dive under. And that’s what people were doing… hiding under anything that would keep them alive. Attics, barns, basements, the forest, underground, anywhere and everywhere to hide for as long as possible. Luckily for some of the Jewish people in hiding, family and friends came to their aid. Also the Dutch Resistance, although not well organized and very sporadic throughout The Netherlands, did a wonderful job of placing people in hiding. Organized food coupon books and other documents that would be needed to fool the Germans. It was a great risk not only to the people hiding but also to the people that were providing the protection as well. If caught, people were deported to Westerbork or even shot on the spot. The people that were helping were given a tough sentence as well.

For Marurice and his family, they would first be moved to a house that was owned by the Mason Lodge.  The house was located behind Maurice's house and they had to take this pass to get to it. The house no longer exists. It was bombed on September 18, 1944 during the German bombardment. 

The family van Laarhoven were the caretakers. Mrs. Van Laarhoven worked in Maurice’s father’s shop. This was only a temporary place and so they only stayed 3 days. They were then moved to another address to the home of the family Vennix. 
After a short time, the underground organization was discovered by the Germans because of treason. Maurice’s cousin and his parents, who also went into hiding, were caught and transported via Westerbork to Poland. Only his cousin survived, working in the coal mines near Sobibor.

Because of the above-mentioned situation, Maurice and his family had to leave their hiding place and spend another few days with Mrs. van Laarhoven, the lady from their shop. Her husband’s brother then took them for a year in their house. This family was also named van Laarhoven. 

Fuchsiastraat 13

This house was very small and it did not have a bathroom or shower. They all had to bathe in a big wash tub once a week. Maurice spent his time studying and reading. This house was a row house so all of the houses were joined together with common walls. Silence throughout the day and night went into effect. Only the neighbors on one side knew that they were there and the people of the underground who supplied distribution coupons and helped to sell jewelry and silver objects as they had to pay for their living expenses.  After a year, the lady of the house became pregnant and as she became afraid, Maurice and his family had to leave.

Maurice and his family then went to a large house in the center of Eindhoven on Hoogstraat.

Hoogstraat 185
Does not exist anymore
Former Pal Studio for animation advertising films for Phillips

 In this house lived two families. The family named Scholten had two sons and one daughter and the family named Mes had two small daughters. Mr. Scholten did not do anything, but Mrs. Scholten bought food in trusted shops. Mr. Jan Mes supplied food coupons and was active in the underground organization. He worked in the Philips factory.

In this house the following Jewish families were hidden:
Mr. and Mrs. Louis de Wit-Leviticus with a son of 14 (Maurice) and a daughter of 12 who was Maurice’s sister Miriam (Ineke) ; Mr. and Mrs. Ies de Wit-Roosenveld with a daughter of about 20; Mr. and Mrs. Wertheim-Blomhof; their father, B. Blomhof and their uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. M. Blomhof.

They slept upstairs with the families in separate rooms and Maurice slept in the hall. During the day they could sit in a large room. The men read and played cards, the women prepared dinner while Maurice and his sister studied and were taught by their father. They also read a lot. Some old neighbors, who were involved with the underground, visited them from time to time.

On September 18, 1944, Maurice and his family were liberated by the American 101st Airborne Division and the British Second Army. A few days before, they had seen, from the house, the bombardment of the Eindhoven Airport by the American and British planes. 

After that they saw planes with parachutists from the American 101st Airborne Division and planes with gliders flying over the house. On the 18th of September, they saw the first American soldiers passing the house and they were allowed outside of the house.
Liberation Day September 18, 1944
Hoogstraat 185

In the center foreground is Maurice's sister Miriam (Ineke) and first on the left in the back row is Maurice. Second from the left is his father, Louis and in front of him is his mother, Philipina (Pien).

 The next day, they walked to their old neighborhood on the Rodenbachlaan several kilometers away. In the afternoon on their way back, the Germans started a bombardment. A bomb destroyed the house where they had twice spent a few days and where they had hidden some of the possessions. Some bombs fell in the garden of the house they were staying in on Hoogstraat but did not damage the house itself.

Immediately after the Liberation, Maurice helped to guide some members of the British Army bringing refugees to the Philips factory where they were housed. With a desire to help as much as possible, his Scouting skills kicked in in order to help those in need.

After a few days, Maurice’s family could move into the house where they lived before on Rodenbachlaan. 
Rodenbachlaan 20

The people who had been living there were forced to leave. Maurice’s family received furniture from a Nazi collaborator. They lived in their house with two families and after a short time, his mother’s sister and her daughter came to live with them. His cousin who survived Sobibor was liberated by the Russians, also came to live with them.

As time passed, the de Wit home provided beds and shelter for returning Jews from hiding and camps who came to register. Since the house was crowded, Maurice and some of his friends from Scouts went to live and work at a school run by nuns. This school was turned into a temporary hospital. Maurice did things to help out here like making the rooms blacked out fully enshrouded in darkness if needed. He was also in charge of summoning the Doctor if someone was about to have a baby.

In early 1945, as the war continued in the North of Holland and around the world, Maurice was able to resume his schooling in Eindhoven. The same year, his father and uncle opened a shop in the center of Eindhoven selling stamps from the collection saved by a neighbor during the occupation. The original shop on Demer 42, founded by his grandfather, had been destroyed by an English bombardment in December 1942.
On May 5, 1945, Holland was fully liberated and the enormous task of picking up the pieces of life for those that survived the war. Many would never return and those that did were starved, injured and forever emotionally damaged.

That summer, Maurice and his father hitch hiked in cars and trucks to Utrecht to visit his father’s friend. This man was a Veterinary Professor at a University in Utrecht. Today, this trip would take about an hour and a half but in war torn Holland, this was not the case.  Along the way, shocked and saddened to see the damage that had happened to their beautiful country. Buildings, homes, roads all destroyed in the bombings. But the most haunting part were the people. People whose every fiber of their being had been shattered. People staggering home from the camps or hiding only to find that no one from their family had survived. Children who had been given the gift of life by being placed with a family while their parents were arrested. Taken into people’s homes. The bitter task of returning the children to their parents who were hard to recognize or that they never knew or had forgotten. Some of the children were never returned. It was a gift that they survived but for what and for who?

The following summer after the war, with freedom running through his veins, Maurice and his Scouting friends took off for London as part of a Scouting exchange. 

Maurice front far right

Scouts from London visiting Holland with a visit with the Queen

The year was 1946. As guests of an English Scouting group, they were invited to an official tea in the House of Parliament with the Minister of Labor. And among other fabulous sites were able to hear the Southhark Cathedral Scouts group sing in a church. They stayed at a church that was set up for the Scouts.

Continuing with his studies during the school year but ready for another adventure when summer came, Maurice took off with a friend on their bikes and rode all the way to Paris. Life never felt so good, 19 years old and doing whatever they felt like. They saw and did many things on this exciting trip to Paris. They traveled through the Champagne region and then continued on to Paris. They stayed at a girl’s school that was being used as a Hostel during the summer. Running around the city taking in the Eiffel Tower, Champ Elysees, eyes wide open in the Red Light district and even taking in a standing room only show called Casino de Paris. Oh to be young in Paris!

The next summer, ready to spread his wings again, Maurice and a friend hitch hiked all the way to the south of France. Taking in the beautiful sights of Nice and Cannes enjoying time along the Mediterranean. 

In 1951, after finishing his technical schooling, Maurice got a job working for a Dutch shipping company, KPM, in Indonesia. The family Mes that he had stayed with had previously relocated to Indonesia where Mr. Mes got a job in Bandung at the same time that Maurice was working in Djakarta. He went several times to Bandung to visit them, as Bandung is cooler than Djakarta. He spent 6 years in Indonesia before being chased out because of the problems between Indonesia and the Dutch. In 1958 Maurice then left for Singapore for about 4 months working for a company called KPM, helping take inventory of all ships that had been stolen or damaged. He then headed to Israel to work before finally returning in 1962 to Holland working as a commercial technician.

In the early 1970’s, Maurice came back to his family’s business coming to work with his uncle and his father at de Wit & Co. until his father died. He then worked with his mother until the early 1980’s when the decision was made to close the doors on the beloved Eindhoven Centrum store, de Wit & Co. For nearly 100 years de Wit & Co. stood strong and proud among the other shops in the centrum falling only once for a while, at the hands of a war. Maurice then took the business and started his own company, Waalrese Postzegelhandel de Wit, running it from his home until this past year when he finally decided to retire at the age of 85.

WWII was a war of wars, taking millions of people’s lives away that stood innocently in it’s path. The horrific atrocities that were inflicted upon the people of The Netherlands and around the world have been documented before and will continue forever. Hopefully these stories will keep other generations from repeating this horrendous lesson in the future. Maurice’s story is one of survival. But survival has come at a price. The price of a childhood that was interrupted and stolen from him never to be erased from his mind. The price of losing family members and friends that would never come home or get to run in that park down the street chasing a ball. The price of having to hide from people that wanted to take away everyone and everything that is dear to his heart. Hiding from a Monster, every child’s worst nightmare come to life.

Maurice survived the war and went on to live an incredible life traveling around the world and marrying two incredible women at different times of his life. His first wife was Janny whom he married in 1959 and died 1991 and his second wife Jeanne, my friend, whom he married in 1998 and sadly died this past year.

Family and Friends of Maurice’s who were murdered and would never return:
Maurice’s uncle, aunt and cousin (his father’s younger sister)

The wedding of Jaap and Selma with them in the middle
Maurice is standing center front with his sister Miriam to his right 

Jaap and Selma and Vieyra - de Wit and their son Max Vieyra born 1940 in Amsterdam
June 11, 1943 Sent to Sobibor and immediately gassed upon arrival

Maurice’s aunt and uncle (his father’s older sister)
Betje Hartog - de Wit and her husband Meijer Hartog
Murdered at Auschwitz January 31, 1944
Their son Jo survived Treblinka and was liberated by the Russians. He came to live with Maurice after he was liberated.

The Stolpersteins for Betje & Meijer Hartog

Many, many friends would not return from the camps leaving the schools and neighborhoods all but empty. But so near and dear to his heart…

His best friend Bertie van Vlijmen – Born Bernard Andre’ van Vlijmen August 29, 1929

Bertie’s father (Joseph) worked for Phillips and they thought they would be spared but they were all rounded up and taken to Vught Concentration Camp and then sent to Auschwitz. Sadly, Bertie was deported to Kdo Wustegieisdorf where he died on May 9, 1945…. The day after VE Day.

But the story that was so upsetting to me was the story of what happened to the Hornemann family. So much written about it and in horrific detail. This is the family that Maurice used to go over to their house to play when their parents enjoyed adult talk.

Philip and Elizabeth Hornemann and their two sons. Eduard Born 1932 and Alexander Born 1936.  Mr. Hornemann was an executive working for Phillips at the time and as was the case he was able to provide certain special privileges to his family that were denied to other Jewish families at the time of occupied Holland.

 As I said before, Phillips had set up a special Jewish section at their company specifically for their Jewish employers. They all thought they were safe. Till one day, the company was surrounded August 18, 1943 by the Nazis and all of the Jewish employees were rounded up and taken to Vught Concentration Camp. Elizabeth had been hiding on a farm with young Alexander and Edward had been hiding with another family on a nearby farm. 

When Elizabeth heard that her husband had been taken, she was advised that he would receive better treatment if the family was together. The family was deported to Auschwitz on June 3, 1944. Elizabeth died 3 months later of typhus in September 1944. The boys, Eduard and Alexander, were moved to the children’s barracks. Their father was sent to Dachau Concentration camp and then onto Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He died during the transport February 21, 1945.

But little Eduard and little Alexander would be in for a worse fate. Chosen along with 18 other boys and girls between the ages of 5-12. Ten boys and ten girls. They were taken to Neuengamme Concentration Camp where an SS doctor named Kurt Heißmeyer and others conducted unthinkable medical experiments on the children. They injected live tuberculosis into their bodies and removed lymph glands to study the effects.
On April 20, 1945, the children and 4 adults who were looking after them were brought into Hamburg to a school called Bullenhuser Damm, taken to the basement and murdered. Hanging the 4 adults first and then injecting the children with morphine and then hanging them as well. They were so small they had to hold them down to murder them. The British were less than 3 miles away from the camp when the children were taken away in an effort to cover up the atrocities that had been done. Eduard was 12 and Alexander was 8.

Maurice’s story is one of survival and learning how to pick up the little pieces of your life during the war and when the war was over. Millions upon millions of little pieces like sand running through your fingers at the beach….. Are just lost forever. But thanks to people like Maurice who have to courage to come forward and share such an intimate, personal story…. Maurice's loved ones lost will not be forgotten. Nor will the memory of his stolen childhood.

  Can Anyone Hear Me? My Name is Maurice.
 In my bed awake at night
Laying still with fear and fright
Time keeps passing day by day
I dream of when I can go out to play
Boredom, quietness, worrisome, fear
How long can we sit here, year after year?
Smells, sounds and sights fill my brain
 Feelings of this horrible time will not pass in vain.
My stolen childhood, with innocence never replaced
 Friends and loved ones taken from me, I will keep in my grace.
                                My name is Maurice, please don’t forget me.

                                                (Written by Lisa Jochim)

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