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Bonzer Words!: Remembering May 1945

Ans Redelaar-Seinen recalls a day which brought tremendous happiness for some, and an inconsolable sadness for a 10-year-old girl.

Ans writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please do visit www.bonzer.org.au

On a sunny afternoon my stepdaughter Erica and I had to cross a large bridge in Amsterdam. We were surprised to see that both sidewalks were jammed full with people. The police had stopped all the traffic and a street organ was playing festive music.

I asked a lady standing in front of us what was going on.

She said: “Our sons and husbands (forced labour workers sent to Germany) are coming home! After being away for more then two years they are arriving here on the bridge. I am so happy.”

“Of course,” I said. “This is a great day for all of you.”

While we were talking, Erica was pushing her way through the crowd to the edge of the pavement. She was saying, “Sorry, but I can’t see, please let me through.” For such a small girl at the age of ten I was surprised by her urgency and it was also unlike Erica not to say anything to me.

Several old buses arrived with a lot of thin, shabbily dressed men inside. When the first passenger left the bus, the crowd pushed towards the bridge. The police tried to control it without success. People were looking for their loved-ones who had survived the labour camps and the day and night bombing of Germany, which left not much more than ruins and dead bodies. We were surrounded by women and children hugging their sons, fathers and husbands. The street organ was playing the Dutch national anthem and some people sang along. Other people were either laughing or crying. It was a heartbreaking experience.

Most of the crowd had moved to the waiting streetcars to go home. I walked over to Erica who was still standing on the edge of the pavement and said, “Come on Ery, we have to go”.

Erica said, “No. I am staying here and will wait for Mama.”

My heart stood still. I didn’t know what to say.

With a pleading look, Erica’s brown eyes looked into mine and she said, “I want to wait until Mama comes back.”

I was unable to speak.

When I caught my breath, I explained to Erica that we only saw men arriving on the buses and their relatives had received notice of their arrival, which is why the people were waiting for them. I told Erica maybe the women would come back on another day.

Erica replied, “Yes. And soon we’ll get that letter too.” She put her small hand into mine. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I’m tired.”

While we were walking home, I remembered we had told Erica and her sister Ilse in 1942 their mother had been sent to Germany to work. We didn’t tell them she had been sent to a Concentration Camp. It was like Erica was reading my mind. She said, “Papa will know where to ask about Mama. Maybe at the Jewish Council.”

With great sorrow, I nodded in response, thinking he already knew.

When we came home, Walter was playing at the neighbour’s. Walter was only six years old and he believed I was his mother. Erica was very excited and started to tell her father and sister what we witnessed and she added, “Mama is coming home too.”

When I went to the kitchen Co followed me and he closed the door. I looked at his tired face and I said: “You have to tell them and now is the time.”

He said, “Yes. But God knows how. Could you send Walter to bed early? We’d better wait telling him until he’s older. It will only hurt and confuse him.”

Later that evening Co held his daughters close and told them that their mother was not coming back. Joanna Korper-Sarfaty died 30 September 1942 in Camp Auschwitz at the age of 32. Co had read this a few days prior on one of the many death rolls from the Red Cross. They both started crying. Ilse asked whether Grandma and Grandpa Sarfaty were coming back.

Co said: “No. Everyone died in that place.”

Erica said: “But the Germans lost the war.” And she started to weep again.

I took Erica in my arms and stroked her hair, but I was lost for words.

Ilse asked Co how Mama died. He answered: “I don’t know. But many people died at these camps from hunger and diseases.”

It was too difficult to tell the terrible truth. That their mother was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.


© Ans Redelaar-Seinen

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