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Margaret's grandmother's story - Holocaust Memorial.

My name is Margaret, and it is an honour to be invited to be with you this evening. I’m here to share the story of my grandmother, one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

 

For some of this, I have relied on my own memories of my conversations with my grandmother, or with my father, and family lore. I have also used an oral history interview she did with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1984, which is available online in its entirety, as well as the books The Courage to Care, by Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, and Rescuers, by Gay Block and Malka Drucker.

 

My role as the descendant of a rescuer, rather than someone with lived experience of the events, means that I feel a certain responsibility both to try and interpret her experiences for a time almost a century later, while also resisting the urge to editorialize and tell a story that ends up being more about me than about her.



Margaret on the left with the Alice band, Marion, her granmother on the right.

 

My grandmother was born Marion Philippina van Binsbergen in 1920 to an English mother and Dutch father in Amsterdam. Her mother was an unconventional woman who rode a motorcycle, and her father was a judge. The family was, in her description, not politically involved – her father, she knew, voted for a relatively liberal party, but could not be politically active due to his position.


My grandmother grew up in a country that, as far as her childhood consciousness was aware, was fairly cosmopolitan and diverse. She herself spoke four languages – thanks to an English mother, Dutch father, German nanny, and French governess. At school, she said, “particularly in elementary school, you didn’t know who was Jewish and who wasn’t. There were some kids who didn’t come to school on Saturdays, so for those, you knew, but it didn’t mean very much. And then, around 1934 and 1935, many Jewish children from Germany began arriving, and, in her words, “we became somewhat aware of Jewishness.”

 

She had Jewish friends at school, and while she couldn’t remember having discussions with any of them about what was happening in Germany, she does remember her father feeling very strongly about it. “He was a judge,” she said in her interview with the Holocaust Memorial Museum, “from a long line of judges, and he felt very strongly about justice. Not ‘law and order,’ but justice.” She remembers him being frustrated with the failures of the Dutch government to open the borders to any and all Jewish refugees from Germany.

 

The family lore is that, when Holland was occupied, and its liberal justice system subsumed within that of the Third Reich, my great-grandfather basically took to his bed and never got up again until he died in 1943. I don’t know how much truth there is to that. My grandmother – who later became a Freudian psychoanalyst – believed his cancer was a psychosomatic reaction to the occupation.

 

By the time the occupation happened in 1940, she was a student at the school of social work in Amsterdam. Upon the occupation, Dutch citizens were made to watch a propaganda film. My grandmother went to see it with friends. They all wondered aloud how anyone could believe the blatant propaganda, they laughed about it – but one of my grandmother’s friends admitted that while she thought the film was ridiculous, and it had only made her more determined to resist, she now found herself unwittingly seeing Jewish people as ‘them.’ She would walk down the street and think, ‘there’s one’ or ‘that person is Jewish,’ which she hadn’t done before. Even on someone determined to resist propaganda, and aware of its tactics, the film had succeeded in othering a group of people.

 

She remembers dinner table conversation about what was happening, seeing people wearing yellow stars once they were mandated, and discussions with her friends about “what do we do?” but, in her words, “these conversations all very informal.” For two years after the occupation began, my grandmother did not get involved. “I was one of the people who stood by and did nothing,” she says.

 

But in 1942 she was going to class and she passed a Jewish children’s home, which was being emptied out. The children didn’t move fast enough, and so the soldiers outside the home were loading them onto the back of a lorry by their arms, by their hair, however they could. Two women who were passing by tried to intervene, and they too were thrown onto the lorry. My grandmother remembers standing there with her bicycle, on her way to class, literally crying with helpless rage. That’s the moment she decided to act.

 

I don’t know what her first action was – I know she called some friends and asked what she could do. I once asked her how she knew how to get involved, it’s not like you could look the rescue movement up in the phone book, and she said “you just knew, who among your friends would know things that you could do.”

 

I know she procured false papers and extra ration cards, she moved children from one safe house to another, sometimes looking after them for a few days while a more permanent place could be found.

 

Once, she was taking a Jewish baby to a town far from home, in northeast Holland. She had been assured by her contacts that a good home had been found for the child, and they wouldn’t change their minds. She arrived after a long, difficult journey, with a baby who had cried the whole time, and found a man waiting for her. The home was no longer available, he told her – the family had been betrayed and arrested.

 

Initially, he was keen to get rid of her. But she says, “we must have looked very pathetic, because [eventually] he invited us to come with him and rest a while.” When they got to the man’s house, his wife fed, soothed, and changed the baby while my grandmother slept.

 

When she woke up, she found the man’s wife explaining to her young children, “this young woman is a sinner. She has had this baby without being married. Her punishment is that we are going to take in the baby and she will never see it again.”

 

The man walked my grandmother back to the station. He apologized for casting her in such a negative light, but, he explained, “people in the village will ask questions about where the baby has come from, and we needed our children to have a convincing answer.”

 

On two other occasions, she actually registered a Jewish baby as her own – this was apparently referred to as “the mission of disgrace” – a young unmarried Christian woman would go to the registry office with a Jewish baby and tell a story about getting in trouble, so the baby would have the right kind of papers.

 

Again, I have no idea what happened to these records later, or if, should I ever go to Amsterdam, I would find two supposed aunts or uncles somewhere in the files.

 

For the last two years of the war, she sheltered a family – Freddie Pollak, and his three children, Lex, Tom, and baby Erika – in her own home. The mother was sheltered elsewhere – I don’t know why, or where. I know that all five survived the war and were reunited afterwards. Erika kept in touch with my grandmother until my grandmother’s death in 2016, and has children and grandchildren of her own.

 

My grandmother always made it clear that nobody saved lives on their own. It was always something that relied on a community – artists to forge papers, doctors to treat people who weren’t supposed to be in your home, pharmacists who would give you sleeping pills to keep babies quiet when you were raided, farmers and grocers who would leave an extra few pints of milk on your doorstep and shut up about it, and so on. And she made it clear that many of the people helping were themselves Jewish and were taking a much greater risk than she was.

 

There were two people in particular she mentioned – Karel Poons, a Jewish ballet dancer who was also gay – and Lientje Brilleslijper. On one occasion, they worked together to rescue Lientje’s daughter Kathinka. Here I will use my grandmother’s own words, adapted from the Raoul Wallenberg lecture in 1996.

 

“Lientje was the daughter of a vibrant Jewish family of circus artists, small businessmen, and musicians. [She and] her Aryan common law husband, a German, Piet … had decided early on that not only were they going to survive … but that they would assist as many others as they could in the process. They invited all of Lientje’s Jewish relatives to join them in a house that they managed to rent about two miles from the house where I was living with Freddy and the three children. They also helped to concentrate on keeping Jewish culture and religion and tradition alive through their work as artists. Lientje was a dancer and a singer. Piet was a musician. Another 15 or 25 Jews were brought or came to the house at various times.

“They were warned repeatedly that they were taking too many chances. The local drugstore owner told Lientje that he knew she was hiding Jews because she was buying too much toilet paper. This drugstore owner was hiding Jews himself. But their response was always the same. How can we turn down anybody who comes to us for shelter?

“On the 12th of July, they were having breakfast while the house was surrounded by police and SS. The house was searched for other inhabitants while an officer, Punt, remained in the room to guard Lientje, Piet, Lientje’s sister Jannie and the three toddlers – Kathinka and her two cousins.

“While he questioned them … quite calmly, Lientje whispered to Kathinka not to be scared and then she threw a very convincing fit. Her whole body bounced up and down on the floor. She rolled her eyes. She managed the foam in the mouth and squirmed, saying just don't take the children, whatever you do, don't take the children.

“Clearly taken aback, Punt asked what should we do with them. Jannie answered take them to the physicians in the village. They know them. They will take care of them. While Punt thought this over, Lientje threw another even more convincing fit and Punt hesitantly agreed.

“Two policemen took the children to the homes of the doctors who had to swear that they would only release the children to the Nazis authorities. The adults were taken to Amsterdam where they spent the night in prison and were taken to Gestapo headquarters during the day for questioning.

“Lientje steadfastly refused to provide any information, and Lagus, a notorious highly placed SS officer, hit her in the face with his whip and screamed, "I know how to make you sing little bird. I am going to order your child to be brought here and when you see what we do to her, you will tell us what we want to know."
“Lientje was later to write in her autobiography, ‘I don't know what I would have done if Kathinka had been confronted with me.’ That night was the last night Piet and Lientje shared a cell in the prison. Lientje was deported first to the transit camp Westerbork and from there to Auschwitz.’
“Piet was taken back for more interrogation in a van with his sister in law Jannie. At one point, the van stopped and one of the guards said he had to do an errand, but he would be right back. Jannie threw Piet a meaningful look and began to flirt with the remaining guard. Piet took advantage of the distraction, jumped off the van and managed to reach the house of friends in the center of Amsterdam.
“From there, he called a friend in the village and pleaded with him to remove Kathinka from the doctor's care. Karel was visiting with us the following night when his friend came and asked me if I would try to kidnap Kathinka the next morning. He and some other people in the village had attempted to remove her from the doctor and his family but failed.
“A police guard had been assigned to the house. Karel announced immediately that he was coming too. I didn't want him to. If we failed, I would probably be in trouble but there was no doubt what Karel's fate would have been, either immediate death or concentration camp.
“But he insisted and at 8:30 the next morning, we went to the village. Since I was quite familiar with the house, we agreed that I would go inside and try and find Kathinka while Karel would distract whomever he had to deal with at the front door.
“I found the doctor's wife and all the children in the bathroom. Fortunately, Kathinka was already dressed.
“I grabbed her, went down the stairs, put her on the back of my bike and pedaled off. It seemed as though she knew how high the stakes were. She was so small, so scared and so brave. She didn't utter a sound and, of course, I did not want to be conspicuous.
“In the meanwhile, Karel at the front door had encountered the doctor and the guard and kept them occupied for as long as he took me to get away.
“Without Karel's knowledge and without Karel's courage and Karel's ingenuity, Kathinka would have been arrested half an hour later when the Gestapo appeared. They were enraged that the small victim had escaped and they arrested the doctor.
They also put up FBI like posters all over the village offering reward for information leading to the capture of Kathinka Anita Bosch, date of birth August 8, 1941. The doctor was released the next day.
“After many traumatic experiences, especially for Lientje, who was in Auschwitz, after the war, she, Piet and Kathinka were reunited. They had another daughter after the war, and Lientje carried out her plan to perform Yiddish songs of celebration, defiance and remembrances for the next 50 years."”

 

Here ends the first person narrative, and I am now speaking as myself again.

 

I don’t know what happened to the other two children. I’d heard this story many times as a child and teenager, and that particular detail either didn’t stick or wasn’t told to me. Imagining my grandmother, in her early 20s, faced with three children bound for deportation and only having room on her bicycle for one, is an image that now haunts me.

 

The limits of what we are able to do can be overwhelming. The need of the world can be overwhelming. And please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the Talmud says “It is not up to you to finish the work, but you are not free to abandon it.” We cannot save the entire world. But we can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d in whatever way we can, wherever we are, with whatever we have.

 

My grandmother said many times that she felt she hadn’t done enough, there were always times she could have done more. In The Courage to Care, she said, “there were times that the fear got the better of me, and I did not do something that I could have. I would rationalize the inaction, feeling it might endanger others, or that I should not run a risk, because what would happen to the three children I was now responsible for, if something happened to me, but I knew when I was rationalizing.”



In her UNRRA uniform after the war

 

Those fears, she says, grew after her arrest. She was actually arrested twice  – the first time she happened to be at a friend’s house after curfew, who, unbeknownst to her, was publishing an underground magazine. She was imprisoned for six months that time, and she was tortured. As children, the fact that she had experienced this was something we knew - there was, for example, a long scar on one of her arms that had no signs of stitches, unlike another scar from an accident later in her life. But we didn't know many details. I still don't, but she did discuss it in a bit more detail in an oral history than she ever did with us.

 

Many of those details, even in the oral history, are shadowy. In listening to her speak about this, I had to read between the lines. She stated that there was not a great amount of outright, explicit violence. But there were attempts to shame, to degrade, and to humiliate.  There are hints, in her testimony, that she was left in a room naked for significant periods of time, as well as being subjected to constant light and noise on occasions.


The interviewer asked if her father might have pulled strings in the legal world – what remained of it – to get her out of prison. In her very elegant, formal way, she replied “I absolutely hope not. I would have been ashamed if he had.”

The other time she was arrested was late in the war – she and a few others were coming back over a bridge with her bicycle (by that point, without tyres) and some black market food for her charges, which she had sold some family silver to buy. The information they’d been given on when it would be safe to cross turned out not to be good, and they were all arrested.


It was late in 1944 by this point and she just lost it – she started screaming at the guards, telling them what she thought about the war, what she thought about the Germans, and what she thought about their leaders in particular. The other prisoners desperately tried to shut her up, but it didn’t work. The next morning, two soldiers came for her and led her out of the place they were being held, and she was thinking, “this is it, I’m going to die.” But they gave her back her bicycle (though not the food) and they let her go.

 

She never had any idea why they did it. “I suspect,” she said, “they had some basic decency left.” These were people who undoubtedly committed atrocities. But on that occasion, they saved not only my grandmother’s life, but the lives of all those she was looking after. And I owe my existence to them as well.


There are few stories, few people, whose actions were all good or all bad. Again, in The Courage to Care, she says, “there were indeed some people who behaved criminally by betraying their Jewish neighbours and thereby sentencing them to death. There were some people who dedicated themselves to actively rescuing as many people as possible. Somewhere in between was the majority, whose actions ranged from the minimum decency of at least keeping quiet if they knew where Jews were hidden to finding a way to help them when they were asked.”

 

The most dramatic story is also the one she found the most difficult to talk about. I don’t think she ever actually spoke with me about it – all I know of it is from interviews.

 

Later in the war, she moved out of Amsterdam to a larger house in the country, where it was easier to stay under the radar. The Pollak family lived with her, relatively openly – friends had helped take up the floorboards under the rug and build a hiding place, but it was used only in case of raids.

 

One night, the house was raided, and after the raid, she let the family out of their hiding place, as Erika had started to cry.

 

Groups of soldiers had learned that this is often the way things happened, and it would occasionallybe profitable to come back after a raid. On this occasion, they sent one person back – a Dutchsoldier, a collaborator. He appeared back at the house and found the family – a friend had given my grandmother a revolver, which she kept by the door, never expecting to actually use it, but she remembers thinking, “it’s him or the children,” and she shot and killed this man. 

 

When I tell this story to people now, the reactions are, in general, wholly positive. This is considered a story of my grandmother’s heroism. And that is true. I’m proud of her for what she did in defending Tom, Lex, Erika, and Freddie’s lives.

 

But she spent her life haunted by that night. “I would do it again,” she said in The Courage to Care, “under those circumstances, but it still bothers me, and I still feel that there ‘should’ have been another way.”

 

Again, you needed to know people – a local undertaker agreed to put the body inside the coffin of a local man who had died recently, so there were two bodies buried together. My grandmother says she local hopes the man and his family wouldn’t mind.

 

(As a side point, to those of us who knew her, the most astonishing thing about this story is she got the gun to work. This is a woman who needed three pages of written instructions to turn on her VCR. But I digress …)

 

This again points to the spectrum of behaviour I mentioned earlier – she said that if anyone had really tried to figure out what happened to the soldier she killed, they probably could have figured it out. But the majority opinion in the community was that there was one less traitor to worry about.

 

She left Holland almost as soon as the war was over, working in a Displaced Persons camp in Bavaria, where she met my grandfather, who was an American GI – in one of the first units to liberate Buchenwald –  and then moving with him to the USA in 1947.

 

She had three sons, and worked as a psychoanalyst in Boston, retiring to Vermont, where she and my grandfather had an idyllic farmhouse in the countryside, down a dirt road, in 120 acres of fields and woodlands. But there was a hallway lined with human rights awards, and a bookshelf of children’s books about the Holocaust. As my cousin Abigail said at my grandmother’s funeral, “we always knew. We knew Grandma shot a Nazi before we knew there was no Santa Claus.”

 

My father also says he always knew – that there was never a time that this was a secret, though many of the details only came out once my grandmother started speaking more publicly in the 1980s.

 

That hallway full of human rights awards was referred to by my grandfather as the “hall of plaques.” She received honorary citizenship of Israel and has a tree with her name in Yad Vashem, as well as many other awards. She is briefly featured in the film Shoah, and there’s a 45-minute oral history with her on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

 

From her, I learned to be on the lookout for the steps it takes to go from ‘othering’ a group of people to dehumanizing them. That is a lesson all of humanity needs. She wrote that she herself was imbued from childhood with the knowledge that we are our brother’s keepers, and this in part meant that she felt she had no choice in the face of injustice and terror. But she also said that it was probably easier for her than for others – unmarried, and without children, she was risking nobody’s life but her own.

 

But “It never occurred to me,” she said, “to do anything other than what I did.”

 

“I think you have a responsibility to yourself to behave decently. We all have times when we should have done something and didn’t. And it gets in your way the rest of your life.”





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