I’ve made known before my ambivalence about Holocaust stories (here) and won’t repeat them, but this one which in any case is not new, was worth listening to and adds to our understanding of the huge variety of places and backgrounds Australians come from.
Hetty Verolme (1930 – ) was born a year or so before my mother and they are both now probably happily and comfortably retired in Melbourne, but their experience of the War was completely different. While mum was attending school in the Mallee and living in relative if frugal post-Depression comfort on the meat, milk, eggs etc of my grandparents’ farm, Hetty Werkendam was confined with her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers, Max and Jack, to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, her father paying all he could raise to the SS in a vain attempt to have the family sent to neutral Portugal in exchange for German prisoners of war.
Their neighbours being rounded up around for transport to concentration camps, her grandfather mistakenly volunteering to go to a ‘work camp’ (in fact Auschwitz), it was only a matter of time before the Werkendams too were transported, in 1943, to Bergen-Belsen. There – and it is a week or so so since I listened to this – the family were able to stay ‘together’ for a while, mother, Hetty and Jack in a women’s hut, father and Max in a men’s hut, but gathering in the women’s hut until the nighttime curfew. Mother working long hours in the ‘peel room’ attached to the kitchen and bringing back scraps of carrot. Father too having to work and held in a cage for some time for disobedience.
Food is of course inadequate, mostly watery soup and sometimes potatoes. The Germans enforce long daily assemblies in all weathers to maintain their counts of the prisoners but also out of sheer bastardry. This is a ‘solid’ account, told without a lot of emotion, though the facts, like the dead bodies, pile up and have their own force. My initial feeling was that the account was a bit wordy but on reflection I think the word constructions which I found awkward are just reflections of the author’s underlying Dutch language.
Soon father and mother are transported, separately to other camps. The 30 or 40 Dutch children left behind are moved to their own hut under the care of two Polish (and I assume Jewish) women prisoners, in particular ‘Sister’ Luba who, despite Hetty’s initial suspicions, goes to great lengths to secure food and clothing for the children.
Late in the war, the older children are also moved away, but Hetty alone, by then going on 15, secures permission to stay on, in her role as ‘little mother’. She describes the horrors of the other sections of the camp, seen as she walks through it to the kitchen. No gas chambers – though word gets back to them from Auschwitz – but starvation, hard work, sickness and punishments.
She describes a group of women dressed in rags railed in and housed in tents which blow away in a storm. She does not say so but this group includes fellow Amsterdam teenager Anne Frank, soon dead of typhus.
Hetty is herself almost dead of the same disease, which had understandably swept through the camp, when the war ends and the camp is liberated by British troops – the Germans surrender the area around the camp before the end of the war and it is still apparently British territory. The children, clinging to Sister Luba are moved to a comfortable camp where they begin to recover, but are then flown to a school building without facilities in the countryside outside Amsterdam.
The children, and their father are soon reunited. Mother, who has ended up somehow in Sweden is held up for months before she too can return to Holland. Hetty is interviewed for the BBC and elements of her story have been in the public record ever since.
The British on their arrival at the camp found tens of thousands of bodies awaiting burial. Hetty describes them being dumped in great piles visible from her sickbed window. If you have the stomach this Time-Life story includes photos. Pits were dug and SS guards, men and women, were forced into burial details.
Hetty found herself unable to return to school and entered the fashion industry – her father had been a cloth merchant. She migrated to Australia in 1954 and in 1972 was named “Most Successful Migrant”. She was a founder of a trust for the children of Belsen towards which are directed the proceeds from this book. She surprised herself by attending the 50th anniversary of the end of the War at Belsen and found many old friends.
Hetty E Verolme, The Children’s House of Belsen, 2000, Audiobook: Bolinda, 2011, read by Deidre Rubenstein
Wikipedia has these as her published works –
- The Children’s House of Belsen. Published by Werma Pty. Ltd. Perth, Western Australia 2009, 2013 as Trustee for “The Children For Bergen Trust”. ISBN 978-0-9922973-0-5. First published 2000 by Fremantle Press, Western Australia.
- Hetty: A True Story, Fremantle Press 2010, ISBN 978-19-2136-133-3
see also my ‘Anne Frank’ review: Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic (here)