“I have to tell you this story so all of you realize that you’re fortunate to be free, that you come from many different countries, you have other cultures, traditions, etc. but please accept and understand each other and then you will live in freedom”.
Henny Domits is a holocaust survivor from The Hague. Upon invitation from the ASH Peace Coalition Club, she visited ASH this week to share her story of survival with our Grade 8 students who are currently researching and studying World War II. She gave them a first-hand account of how she managed to escape the Nazis and survive the war.
Ms. Henny explained that Hitler truly hated the Jews but that he did not exclusively marginalize this group. He also targeted his hatred towards homosexuals and gypsies, for example. On November 9th,1938, after the so-called “Kristallnacht”, or the “Night of Broken Glass” when Nazis destroyed synagogues, Jewish shops and homes, the Dutch and German Jews in the Netherlands were sent in the middle of the night to a refugee camp in Drenthe called Westerbork. Two years later, in 1940 the German army occupied the Netherlands and Queen Wilhelmina escaped to England. This marked the start of a nightmare for Ms. Henny and her family and many other Jews across the Netherlands.
Ms. Henny explained that, “In the beginning, we had hoped that it wasn’t going to be the same as it was in Germany, but we were wrong. The first signs posted stating “forbidden for Jews” were put up on theaters, swimming pools, zoos, and cinemas. My mother was only allowed to do her shopping after 17:00 o’clock and I (a 12 year old girl at that time) couldn’t accept invitations to go to the swimming pool with my friends nor go into town because we weren’t allowed to use the public transportation.” Her father, who was a successful business owner of with five butcheries had to leave his business behind because a Nazi sympathizer had taken over his business without his consent. This was possible during wartime, therefore her father could do nothing to stop it.
Ms. Henny continued her conversation explaining that the situation only got worse. “From April 1942, every Jewish person had to wear a star on their clothes and this meant that from that moment on we were stigmatized.” She had to transfer schools and attend one for Jewish children only. Every day in the new school there were fewer and fewer students. She would pass by their house to check if they were alright but all she could see was a stamp on the door that meant they weren’t living there anymore. Her father's fear increased and soon he asked a friend in the resistance if he could help. He heard that people with baptism papers were not being arrested, so Ms. Henny’s family arranged a quick baptism for all of them and began attending a Protestant church every Sunday.
As the Nazis continued to arrest more and more families around them, so her father arranged a hiding place, which took quite some time because it required somebody willing to risk their lives to help their family. Ms. Henny describes that night in great detail. “We walked for one hour until we reached the location where we were going to hide, my father walked with my sister and I walked with my mother separately with no bags and no stars to avoid any suspicion. We left everything behind, all the nice furniture and everything my parents had worked for. I left my nice toys, my bed, my room… can you imagine what that meant to us?” Ms. Henny and her family hid there for 5 months until someone betrayed them and disclosed their location. They were arrested and the family was sent to the concentration camp in Westerbork. Compared to all the concentration camps they had heard of (Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Terezin…), this one was the best one. They had doctors, some food, dentists. They were luckily sent there because they had been baptized.
They remained in Westerbork until September 1944 when they were transferred to Terenin, unaware of the gas chambers being used there. Luck was on their side, as just after the transfer a message was sent out that the Nazis had traded 1,200 Terenin refugees to Switzerland in exchange for medicines. Ms. Henny and her family were part of that group. At the time she didn’t understand why her family was chosen, but she later heard that it was because they still had hair, normal clothes and were a complete family. After three days of travel, they were finally a free family. Henny and her sister were sent to a Dutch school and her parents to a hotel for refugees.
In May 1945, they celebrated the liberation at school and her father decided to return to their family in the Netherlands. When they arrived in The Hague, they reunited with the family who had helped them while in hiding and they stayed with them for six weeks, while trying to find their family members and get back on their feet. It was then when they learned the tragic news that their entire family had been killed during the war. Ms. Henny concluded “this is what hatred does. I have to tell you this story so all of you to realize that you’re fortunate to be free, that you come from many different countries, you have other cultures and traditions. But please accept and understand each other and then you will live in freedom”.