In these tales, the truth and authenticity are to be found in the details that show these people were not just statistics. They were ordinary folk leading unassuming lives when the terror of the Holocaust descended upon them.

Written by Susan de la Fuente
Contact info: sdlfsusan at yahoo dot com

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fleeing the Predators

Though the winds of war blew ever closer, most Dutch Jews did not anticipate the monstrous threat to their existence looming in the late 1930s. My father-in-law, Alexander Henriques de la Fuente, z”l, was born in The Hague, Netherlands in 1912. His father, Mordechai, or Gompel, was head of shehita (animal slaughterer) and the family attended the venerable Sephardic synagogue, K.K. Honen Dal, built in 1726.

Alex’s girlfriend, Rosa (Roosje) Jacobson, worked alongside him in the same company. Though Rosa’s parents had never met him, they adamantly disapproved of the budding romance. Twice a year, Alex was stricken with bleeding ulcers, so they feared she would be burdened with a sick husband. Alex was short in stature, the youngest and frailest of five brothers. In later years, he plaintively described his brothers tucking into succulent portions of roast beef, while he sat in the kitchen reluctantly spooning up oatmeal. Despite the dubious state of his health, Alex was a fine young man and studied nights in the Jewish seminary under Haham Pereira. He had a fine baritone voice and was gifted in hazanut.

The turning point came in 1938 when Rosa was laid up for six weeks with stomach trouble. This somehow evened out the score. Her parents agreed to meet Alex, who visited with a bouquet of flowers. They finally relented and agreed to the match.

The couple were about to be married when World War II reached Holland in May, 1940, disrupting their lives. They married in the spring of 1941, after a long engagement, and moved in with Alex’s widowed mother. Life in occupied Holland grew increasingly restrictive and oppressive. They wore the yellow star and led a low profile existence. A German became nominal director of their company, but they continued working.

In August 1941, Rosa and Alex were the first of the family to receive an ominous summons for the concentration camps. Fortuitously, Alex was confined to bed with his stomach ailment, so they got a postponement. In the anxious months that followed, while friends and family were being deported daily, Rosa searched all around for a hiding place for the three of them – to no avail. In October, her parents and younger sister Liesje went into hiding in a small attic room. Despite the danger, she sometimes ventured out on a moonless night to visit them.

Rosa’s contacts with the resistance came up trumps in February 1943. She received the photo of a hotel owner from Bergen op Zoom, a small town near the Belgian border, who was to smuggle them over. Alex’s mother Miriam refused to go, and her devoted son was reluctant to abandon her. Finally, Rosa, with her strong instinct for survival, gave him an ultimatum.

“I can’t stay here any longer, Alex. The ground’s burning beneath our feet,” she said. “Decide if you’re staying with your mother or coming with me.”

Alex made his choice and tearfully hugged his mother goodbye. Hastily, they removed the yellow stars from their clothes. Rosa sewed 2,000 guilders (around $800) into the hem of her dress, and Alex inserted a small siddur into the lining of his coat. At 7:00 a.m. on February 26 they took the train to Bergen op Zoom. At their destination, the proprietor demanded 2,000 guilders. They were not the only ones fleeing that day, however. Two young Jewish girls were also in the back room counting out their money. Distraught, they found themselves 80 guilders short, so Rosa and Alex gave them the difference, though they had only 500 guilders left. This act of charity saved two young lives.

My in-laws’ departure was just in time. At 9:30 a.m. the Gestapo raided the house. They found only a small, amiable, 65-year-old woman with round spectacles and kerchiefed head, whom they promptly dispatched to Sobibor.

The four fugitives stashed away their scant possessions around their bodies to avoid suspicion. Mounting bicycles, they pedaled feverishly into the woods. They ignored a shout to stop, and rode even faster. It was only the man from the hotel, however. He soon caught up, took the bikes and told them to wait quietly. They had a long, cold, nerve-racking vigil in the woods from 1:30 p.m. until 7:00 p.m., when their border escort came under cover of darkness. Until they passed the border a half-hour later, they trod gingerly, fearful of the Germans patrolling within earshot. On the Belgian side, the familiar face of Solly Elburg awaited them. Rosa and Alex slept at the Elburgs in Brussels, and next day went to a hideout above a pub, joining three other Jewish refugees. Rosa busied herself cooking for everybody. When she and Alex entered a store to buy food, they bumped into some Dutch cousins who were in Brussels by default. When these had tried to cross into Switzerland illegally, the passeur absconded with their money. Luckily, with the aid of a Catholic priest in the resistance, Rosa’s cousins assisted them in moving on. Alex grew a moustache and wore a beret to look typically Belgian, and two weeks later they moved to Louvain, near Brussels – just in time! The next day the Gestapo raided the pub and arrested the three remaining Jews.

Though the landlady had no idea they were Jews, their new lodgings were insecure. They told her Alex was job-hunting in Belgium as he had no work in Holland. An amicable chat soon revealed that her son was in Germany working for the Nazis. The red light went on again! Their false papers now dubbed Alex, Leo, or Leopold Joseph Goutteau and Rosa, Anne Goutteau. Though Rosa spoke fluent French, Alex did not know a word. He went to the nearby monastery every day to learn basic French. The 50-year-old priest instructed him in the depths of the cloister, and liked to hear renditions of Alex’s Sephardic melodies.

The cleric then arranged work for them in Brussels, as they dared not remain in Louvain. They fabricated a letter informing Alex he had found work in west Brussels, though actually it was to the east. Showing this to their landlady, they terminated their six-week stay. Alex’s job was with a mouthwash manufacturer, who gave them a basement room. Rosa assisted a little with marketing the goods but mostly, she had to clean, cook, bake bread, and do the wash. Though slight of build and never robust, her energy and drive made up for her lack of strength. Danger always lurked nearby. Once, Alex arrived for a rendezvous with a Jewish friend from Holland. He noticed a car with occupants parked there and realized something was wrong. Without pausing, he took the next train back. His friend had been arrested by the Gestapo and perished at their hands.

Another time, Rosa and Alex took advantage of a fine day in May to visit their cousins. On the way home, a German soldier stopped them in the dark street. He requested their ID cards, checking routinely. Alex blanked out and made a mistake when asked for his birth date. They soldier stiffened and shoved the cards into his pocket, glancing up the road to where the Gestapo officers were on duty. After a tense moment of silence, Alex corrected himself. Taking a long, hard look at the mild-eyed young man, the German relented and returned the IDs. Their hearts were beating tumultuously as they walked away. Another close call!

After a year, when the enterprise folded, the good priest again assisted them, suggesting a post in a small village. The drawback was that they would have to attend church to maintain their cover. As Alex refused to do this, they were sent to Liege in eastern Belgium. Here they worked for a year as maid and butler cum housecleaner for the distinguished Hanquet family. M. Hanquet, secretary of the Belgian Senate, was a widower. His oldest daughter, Adi, ran the household and managed the Red Cross office. They were active in the resistance and, like the mouthwash people, knew that Rosa and Alex were Jews.

They allowed Alex to do the major cleaning on Friday instead of shabbat and gave them eggs to eat when bacon or rabbit were served. Except for the frequent air raids strafing the town and Alex’s hazardous week-long hospitalization for appendicitis – Adi’s Red Cross affiliation protected him from discovery there – life with the Hanquets was generally pleasant.

Belgium was liberated in September 1944, about nine months before Holland. The German soldier billeted with them made a fast disappearance. Alex now obtained a tallit (prayer shawl) from the reopened synagogue in Liege and they found new employment translating for the U.S. Army. Pesach 1945 they joined in a memorable freedom seder with 1,500 Allied soldiers. Rosa, active as always, helped prepare the haroseth. (They had, incidentally, managed to obtain four tiny, hand-baked matzot in the spring of 1943 from Jewish partisans, and saved two of these precious morsels for Pesach 1944.

The liberation brought with it bitter news: all the 11 de la Fuente men, women and children deported to Auschwitz, Fuerstengrube, and Sobibor had perished. Rosa and Alex were the sole survivors of their immediate families. Their return to The Hague that September was emotionally devastating. They would scan faces in the streets in the forlorn hope of rediscovering their loved ones.

Ultimately, they Hanquets were declared Righteous Gentiles and honored by Yad Vashem. Adi and her sister, Marie-Jeanne, came to Jerusalem for the award ceremony. Rosa’s family was betrayed to the Gestapo in March 1944 and died in Auschwitz. Mr. Bellekom, their protector, was sent to Dachau but survived. He too was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.

The Sephardic community in The Hague had been obliterated by the Nazis. Of more than 50 families who attended the Honen Dal Synagogue, almost none survived except the Rodrigues Pereiras and the two de la Fuentes. Haham Shlomo Rodrigues Pereira, zt”l, who had bravely served as Jewish chaplain in the Royal Dutch Armed Forces during the invasion, returned to Amsterdam as Chief Rabbi of the Dutch Sephardim. He reassumed a leadership role and brought back many Jewish children who had been hidden with Christian families – a most difficult task.

My husband, Mordechai Eleazar, was born in April 1947 on his parents’ sixth wedding anniversary. The de la Fuentes immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1951, where they remained until their retirement in Jerusalem. Father Alex, once the frailest brother of five, lived to the age of 85. Mother Rosa, may she merit a long life, is now 89. My husband, his sister and our families thank Hashem for all His blessings and can say with fervor: Blessed be the L-rd, Who did not give us as prey to their teeth (Psalm 124:7).

(Originally published in 2003. Lessons in Emunah, New York Jewish Press.)