Holocaust survivor Dirk van Leenen was our guest speaker.
Before the war, Hitler connected with the influential Jews in Germany and told them they should save the Jews in other countries by going there and starting a Jewish Council, “because if there is a war coming, you need to be advisors to your people.” Jewish Councils were set up in every country in Europe. As a result, when the Germans came in and took over the administration, they knew where every Jew lived.
When the Germans came to Holland, they directed the Jewish Council to send a letter to their people telling them that they had to be at the train station at a certain day and a certain time. They were allowed to bring one suitcase, a blanket, all their money and all their jewelry. Because the letter came from the Jewish Council, people did it. They were told that they were going to be transported to a concentration camp, but the term didn’t yet have the connotations that it does today. The Jews believed that they were to be concentrated together, and eventually they would be given their own country.
Three years later, people found out that the Jewish people were being murdered. The Germans were able to keep the reality of the camps secret for so long because no one was allowed out of the camps – not even the soldiers or civilian workers.
Word was finally leaked out about the camps through a Dutch doctor. He was Jewish also, but when the Germans learned that he was a specialist in venereal disease, they put him to work; venereal disease was a big problem during the war. In collaboration with a young Jewish woman who had come to the camp claiming to have syphilis in order to avoid being sexually used by the Germans, the doctor was able to make the Germans believe that he had discovered a cure for syphilis.
When the commandant of the camp reported that their doctor had discovered a cure, he was told to give the doctor anything he wanted to come oversee the management of the disease for the Germans. The doctor said he would do it, if he could visit with his mother in Holland first. The Germans agreed and, while the doctor was visiting his mother, he connected with the resistance and told them what was really happening in the camps. In turn, the resistance fighters were able to get the word out to the rest of the world about the truth of the camps.
Van Leenen and his family were active in the Dutch resistance throughout the war. Dirk, at age four, would go with his father, delivering fake ids and food ration stamps to the Jewish people at the safe houses. Dirk would be packed with the cards as he rode on the back of the bike. They were always stopped at checkpoints and his father was searched, but the soldiers never searched Dirk. Sometimes, if the questioning became too heated, his father would rub his cheek as a sign to his son, and Dirk would start crying and fussing, “I’m hungry.” It would draw the soldiers’ attention away from his father, and many times the soldiers would even give him food. They were never caught.
The van Leenen family, at any given time, would have as many as 20 Jews staying with them. When the lookout warned that someone was coming, they would all slip through trap doors into a hiding place inside the concrete base to the staircase. The Germans were sure the family was harboring Jews, but they could never prove anything.
Finally, the Germans arrested the family, put them on a truck, and sent them to Auschwitz. They arrived at 2am and were pushed into already overcrowded barracks. Shortly after their arrival, they started seeing bonfires outside; the Germans were burning files. At 8am, the Russians rolled in, liberating the camps.
Dirk has written two books about the holocaust: “Resistance on a Bicycle” and “The Americans are Coming.” All proceeds from sales of the books go to the Wounded Warrior Project.