In 2013, the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews showed that remembering the Holocaust was the most important marker of Jewish identity for 73 per cent of respondents. Next in importance was leading a moral and ethical life (69 per cent), and working for justice (56 per cent). Along with other members of my congregation, I am reading Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” and I recently got to the chapter about what happened to Dutch Jews during the Holocaust. Here is the short version: three-quarters were murdered.
“This people is likened to the dust and likened to the stars. When they go down, they go down to the dust. When they rise up, they rise up to the stars. We are now in the dust – how do we reach the stars?” (Talmud, Megillah 16a)
In the summer of 2014, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, I visited Amsterdam’s Versetz Museum/Dutch Resistance Museum. There was an exhibit about the 1,300 Jewish children of the Dutch Camp Vught who, on June 4, 1943, were suddenly separated from their families and deported to the Westerbork transit camp and then, almost immediately, onward to the Sobibor death camp. The exhibit featured the secret diary of a 32-year-old woman who wrote about the deportation of the children. How did she manage to keep this diary all that time in brutal Camp Vught? Then I saw her name: Klaartje Walsvisch.
Walsvisch. Thirty-two years old. A secret writer. A rebel. Walsvisch, Waisvisz.
The “l” looked like an “i” in her notebooks, but, anyway, there are variations to our family name. Many of the historical records about my Dutch relatives end the same way: “overlaven Sobibor” or “overlaven Auschwitz.” Here was another: Klaartje Walsvisch, 32 years old, who worked as a tailor in Amsterdam before she was sent to Camp Vught. When I learned about Klaartje, I had just turned 33.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Psalm 137)
Camp Vught was the only camp outside Nazi Germany and its annexed territories run by the SS. Men, women and children were split into separate barracks in a camp lacking food, clean drinking water and basic hygiene. Chaos ensued, brutality reigned, and the children were the most vulnerable. Eventually, the SS officers came up with a plan to solve the problems of the camp: get rid of the children.
Klaartje Walsvisch wrote in her secret diary: “Everything we have experienced up to today was bad, but what is happening now exceeds all bounds: all the children under the age of 16 have to leave the camp … families will be torn apart … We truly could not grasp it anymore. Where in the world has anything like this ever happened? Heading for the children’s camp I saw awful scenes. Women screamed in fear and horror. They screamed like mad and truly did not know what they were saying. In the children’s camp it was hell.”
Eventually, the SS allowed one parent from each family to accompany each child, but not both.
Klaartje Walsfisch continued: “What must have gone through their heads when … the men working on the Moerdijk learned that their wives and children were stolen from them? … One of these men, who had a wife and children here, arrived here clueless. Naturally he went straight to the children’s camp to greet his children. Imagine his horror finding ruins there instead of his little children.”
Klaartje Walsvisch managed to keep her secret diary until July 4, 1943. Then she herself had to go on transport, via Westerbork. Two weeks later, she was killed in Sobibor, where the children had died.
On the wall commemorating the children who died at Sobibor via the kinder transport from Camp Vught, I found these names:
Barend Waivisch, 15 years old;
Alida Waivisch, 9 years old;
Sonja Walvis, 7 years old;
Jonas Walvis, 6 years old;
Sara Walvis, 4 years old;
Elly Walvis, 3 years old;
Hans Walvis, 2 years old.
“Baruch Dayan ha Emet,” I whispered.
“My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is bowed down within me.” (Lamentations, Ch. 3:20)