Memories of a Holocaust Survivor
in the Netherlands

By Leonie Snatager Penney


few opening remarks:

“Memories” makes it personal and thus subjective. No objective study, but a telling of those events that happened to me and my reactions.

It also makes the following country-dependent. Circumstances and attitudes are different in, say, the U.S.A., Belgium, France or Holland.

Main difference between the U.S.A. and Western Europe is the place of Religion. In the 40's, less than half the population in Holland belonged to a Religious Congregation, such as a Church or Synagogue. This number is steadily decreasing. In America, the number of persons belonging to a religious institution is in the upper 90 percent. Important reason: greater social role of the Church: America is a very large country. People moving from State to State, through their Church, feel everywhere “at home.”

In Holland, several generations ago, the majority was affiliated. But that changed drastically. On a personal level: all my four grandparents belonged to a synagogue. But neither of my parents did later in their life, nor do I. There was a strong force for JEWS to assimilate. Except for the food. Items such as challah bread, matzos, and Haman's ears kept their following. But fewer households remained Kosher.

As to my personal background, which influences my reactions on events: I am an only child, one of 15 cousins. Of the 15 of us, six survived the Holocaust. This is better than the Dutch survival average, which is that of about 14 Dutch Jews, only about three survived. I mentioned before the influence of the character of a country's people. The Dutch are meticulous, and so are the records of their Public Administration showing in detail a person's religious status. Unfortunately, this simplified the locating of Jews by the Nazis, and influenced the low survival rate.

My Father had passed away in 1935. A blessing that he did not have to go through all this. After his death my Mother moved, together with her sister and me, from our rather roomy house to a much smaller apartment at the outskirts of The Hague.

In the late thirties I studied Economics at the University of Amsterdam, and lived sometime in a group-house and sometimes just in a rented room. I always was free as a bird, did not have to account to anybody for what I did or not do to Fortunately, I loved studying and did very well. I was part of a group of other students, who were all very idealistic youngsters. We knew how to improve the world, if only the world would listen to us!

On May 10, 1940, I was wakened up by a loud noise of airplanes passing overhead. I looked out of my window and saw part of the German air-force passing by.. At the horizon was smoke. Later I learned that those planes were on their way to pulverize the inner city of Rotterdam. The Dutch Government was told that the other big cities would follow unless Holland immediately capitulated and stopped their resistance of the German invasion of their Country. The Royal family had time to escape and survive.

My Mother and I decided that it would be best that I come home again to our apartment in the Hague, close to the seaside resort Scheveningen. I commuted weekly to my friends in Amsterdam, and studied hard at home. The exams were at the end of the year. All the studying paid off, and I did get my Master's degree in Economics in December 1940. Only the next year did we realize how lucky I had been: starting that year Jews were no longer admitted to Universities.

But before that, the first visible sign of the Holocaust did its appearance in the form of the Jewish yellow Star of David. It was a yellow star with a prominent, fat, letter J in the middle of it. It was to be worn on one's jacket or shirt: it always had to be visible. At about the same time Jews were no longer allowed to use public transportation, so there went my weekly trips to Amsterdam.

The seriousness of the situation started to dawn on the Jews, so we started to hide some of our possessions. I had some stock deposited in a Dutch Bank. With the help of a friend (also an Economist) that deposit got transferred to a Bank in London (and safely returned after the war). Other friends took our silverware, our books, pictures, clothing, college notebooks, etc. I had a portable small typewriter (the laptop of the forties) and that survived also with the help of friends. All these friends were of course non-Jewish: I mentioned before how assimilated people were.

Several people started also to look for hiding places. That was not so easy, because the Nazis put the death penalty on anybody who was hiding Jews. However, I had decided not to hide. We did not know about gas chambers, but expected to be deported to slave labor camps. In Amsterdam, I had a very good, idealistic friend: Etty Hillesum. You may have heard of her: she wrote a world famous book, translated in many languages. Her philosophy was that she wanted to share in the centuries old Jewish FATE, and not run away from it. And I was going to follow her example.

The Germans took over our rented apartment, and gave us only a short time to find a place to live. We had to leave all our furniture behind. We had only a few days to find another place. My mother, my aunt, and myself all went to different places. I went to a couple (who had been like my second parents after my Father died). The husband was German Jewish, and the wife was German Aryan. I told them I wasn't going into hiding because then they could not afford to take me due to the risk. My Mother and my aunt each went to their friends.

While I was at my friends’ house, I took a walk in the woods and I realized that in that slave labor camp they will cut your hair off. Something like in Samson and Delilah. My hair had always been very important to me. It was reddish, like my Father's. So when I came back I told my hosts that I had changed my mind and would go into hiding. They thought it over and told me that the risk was too large for them so I had to look for another place to live.

The first thing was to get a false ID from the underground; a neighbor gave it to me. My new name was Jane Lamberts. The real Jane Lamberts had given her ID to the underground and they shaved the top of her picture, took my picture and shaved the bottom, making one complete new picture.

After all this, I became panicked and attempted suicide with aspirin. However when I had started taking only a few aspirin a wave of desire to live welled up inside of me, so I threw the aspirin away. The interesting thing was with this desire to live my memory reconstructed itself and I remembered that an old friend of mine had called me to ask whether I would like to see his apartment. He was also one of the group of economist study friends. I realized that that call was an invitation to hide. His name was Loet, he was the son of the orchestra director of the “Concert Gebouw Orkest,” a famous Dutch orchestra. Loet also offered to take my mother temporarily in his house, which was dangerous since they execute those who hid people. We gratefully accepted the invitation.

My first hosts were Dick and Thill; he was an economist, also part of the group in Amsterdam. They were well to do and lived in a villa with their two children, one was a toddler, and the other was four years old, for whom they needed a babysitter. They also had a maid, Dirkje. I moved in as Jane, a student looking for work outside the big city because everybody saw that I was not a maid or a nanny. They asked me to take daily walks with the four year old. The maid was jealous and suspicious, she felt that something was not quite right.

The difficulty of adjusting from “upstairs” to “downstairs” (remember the T.V. show?) led to a nightmare. I felt I could not handle the situation of Leonie becoming Jane. It felt like my skull was exploding, like I was losing my mind. Fortunately, in a close-by villa lived an old friend, Lil. I used to be her secretary. She was the first woman who got a PH.D in economics. I talked to her and then saw her one afternoon a week to help handle the situation. I also kept a diary and we discussed what I had written. Dick, the head of the house, found the diary and forbade it in his house. We did find a way around it: the diaries were kept in Lil's house and I used false names. Also, I started to relax. The daily walks with the 5-year-old were good for both of us!

While at Dick and Thill's house, I developed a medical problem. It turned out that a procedure was needed, which only was possible in a hospital. Fortunately on an in-out basis. Leading women in the Women’s organization got together and found a solution. I was driven to Amsterdam to stay overnight at one lady's house. The next day I was driven to a hospital, where the procedure was done by another member of the group. I remember being anesthetized. When it was over, I was driven back to the lady in the Amsterdam house, where I stayed a few days for check-ups and recuperation. Then I was driven back to Dick and Thill again. Looking back, it is unbelievable that this had been possible: a young woman with a false ID card having been admitted and helped in a hospital. Under the eyes of the Nazis! Those were remarkable women, and the (female) doctor sure was one of them!!

In the spring of 1943, all Dutch men had to register. Which made Dick a fugitive in his own house. For me, this meant that I had to look for another place to stay because giving me a living space in their house had become too dangerous for them. This sure was not easy, but the same group of friends who had found Dick and Thill's house for me were again a great help. After staying at some temporary addresses, a place was found where I would stay for quite some time.

Two well-to-do families who owned a mansion on quite some acreage became my new hosts. They were young, artistic couples with several children.

They “took me in” to get help. Not so much to help me remain underground as actually get help for their household.

But I was not a good help: my thoughts were taken up by the huge problems we discussed in our exalted student circles in Amsterdam before the 1940 invasion.

One of the owners of the mansion took me aside: they could not afford me unless I improved. After hearing my problems, she referred me to a local counselor. He gave this advice: your task now is to be a very good helper. That is your only task. Interesting that this visit was possible: with a false ID. Only in Holland.

Another interesting event:

The owners of the mansion gave a fancy dinner party. A typical “upstairs” event! A cook was hired who worked in my kitchen. I was dressed up as a server: white small apron, white band in my hair. I helped the guests hanging up their coats, and they tipped me! (How great that I earned money!! Most people had to pay large sums for a space to hide.) Later, while upstairs serving the guests their dinner, I heard them discuss Ayn Rand's recently published book The Fountainhead. I really had to bite my tongue not to join the discussion: I myself was reading the book! Next, in the kitchen, the cook and I were discussing the cook's life. The cook was very “downstairs” and so was our talk.

But, as time went by, I was much more getting adjusted to living as Jane Lamberts. Even became befriended with Trudy, the other help.

Remember June 6, 1944? Right: D-Day!! As an introduction: the Germans had forbidden the Dutch to have a radio, so every household had a (hidden) radio. In our household, the radio was hidden in the kitchen. So, everybody in the house was clustered in my kitchen, listening to the BBC. Boy, what excitement: to follow the Allied invasion of Normandy!! What camaraderie was there in that kitchen!!

A very disturbing event started to happen on August 9, 1944. On that day, my Mother turned 66. At that time, my Mother and her sister were hiding in the inner City of Amsterdam in a house not far from and similar to the Anne Frank house. Like me, they had false ID's. I traveled to Amsterdam to visit hem for a couple of days (by train and streetcar). I left the evening of August 9. The next day both ladies were arrested by the Nazis. This is what had happened: a man, who worked for the underground, was living in the same house as my Mother and aunt. He had left there recently, but had still that address in his (false) ID. He was caught, and when the Nazis saw that address they decided to search the house, and found the two elderly ladies.

News of this reached the household I was living in, in a day. We visualized them being interrogated and their room being thoroughly searched for leads to other persons in hiding. Which lead to the conclusion that it had become too dangerous for all of us, if I would stay with my hosts. So, I started again looking for a place to live.

Now followed again a time for me of living short times with relative at various addresses. During this time, the situation in the Netherlands had changed in very important ways. From September 17 to September 25, 1944, the Battle of Arnhem or Operation Garden Market took place. It was the Allied assault on the German troops, with the goal to enter Germany beyond the Siegfried Linie (Line) by crossing the big rivers around and inside Arnhem. Unfortunately, the Allied troops lost and the Germans were able to stop the invasion. (Does anybody remember the movie A Bridge Too Far?)

The Dutch railroads had helped the Allies by going on strike, thus preventing advanced troops to receive support materiel. After the Germans had stopped the Allied invasion, the Germans punished the still occupied part of Holland by stopping the import of food and material and exporting (stealing) whatever food and material they could find.

This resulted in the notorious Hunger Winter. Not only was there no food, but coal, drinking water and many other necessities were absent. The longer it lasted, the worse it got. It is difficult for Americans to visualize what it means that there is nothing. People ate tulip bulbs, and more and more starved, especially in the big cities.

Under those circumstances, being a Jewish female became less and less dangerous. The Germans had stopped the transports of Jews from the Dutch concentration camp Westerbork to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The people who now were at risk were the males. The Germans would pick up every male, and transport them to their slave-labor camps to keep the armies supplied.

As a result of these changed circumstances, it had become much easier for me find a place to stay. I had a couple of different “jobs.” Of those, I want to tell about my last place.

This place was in the country, not far from the City of Utrecht. The owners of a row house were a middle-aged couple. No children. She was British, and, if possible, more anti-German than the Dutch. He was in hiding in his own house, because he did not want to become a slave worker. Me staying at their place was a win-win situation. I really could help them. They let me use a bicycle, and on that I rode from farmer to farmer to get food. I believe to remember that I sometimes paid for the food, or sometimes bartered for it. My household could have a surplus of apples, but we needed potatoes, which the farmer had. I mention apples, because my hosts had previously acquired a lot of those: they were worth more than money! But the hunger winter was rough. Nearly everybody had digestive problems and soiled bed linens. We became filthy. During the end of the occupation, many of us got head lice.

Close to the liberation, I had an interesting encounter. On a food-gathering trip, I came across a young German man. We started talking, and he confessed how very, very scared he was. The German army had called him up next month, which equaled a death certificate. It was sure he would be sent to the front, to be used as canon fodder. What a role reversal!! Terrified young German soldier, rather secure-feeling Jewish woman.

The front was coming closer. We could hear the shooting. My English Hostess became more and more enthusiastic. With some pieces of cloth she went up to her sewing room and made a British flag, which she proudly hung out of a front window. But the Germans had not yet surrendered. So an armed soldier from a nearby concentration camp came to our house. His weapon was a Bazooka, a kind of rocket, which he carried under his arm. It was scary to see him go up the narrow stairs, looking for hidden people. He found the husband and took him to that nearby concentration camp. Fortunately, Liberation came the next day, and the husband walked back home.

Yes, on May 5, 1945, the actual LIBERATION (and the surrender of German troops) took place. We were liberated by Canadian troops. The ecstasy to watch those troops parade through town is totally indescribable. One's whole body was like in a trance. Here we were, starved, filthy, and with lice, and there were they, well fed soldiers handing out cigarettes (Caporal) and chocolate bars, Our weakened stomachs could not digest those, so we got even dirtier.

The first thing I did after the Liberation was to hitchhike to the Dutch concentration camp Westerbork, to pick up my Mother and her sister. When I arrived there, they told me that she was no longer there, had been transported away. But people were returning. I should leave them my address and they would notify me when she had returned.

At that time, nobody knew about the gas chambers. Slave labor camps? Yes. But no gas. So I was not worried. I went back and got myself a bike. The Germans had taken my bike away from me, so I felt it was o.k. to take a bike from the pile the Germans had stolen from us. A bike was an absolute necessity to get around.

Next, I biked to Utrecht, to hopefully visit my cousins there. When I met them, a fantastic thing happened. I opened the door to their room, and what did I see? A baby! After all those years of killing and killing to see a new life!! I learned that they had married the year before, and that the nuns in a cloister helped the Mother. The Father, my cousin, who was of course Jewish, had been hiding throughout the war in the house of his wife's parents and her siblings. There were 14 of them – remarkable that, all that time, not a single one of them was loose-lipped!

A few remarks about my life in Holland before I came to the U.S.A. First, I worked as a student nurse, while volunteering in an American Jewish organization interviewing survivors from the camps (3-by-5 cards, B.C (before computer!). Worked in a Dutch Kibbutz, preparing for Israel by learning how to work on the land.

Started feeling as an Economist again, and got job with Netherlands Central Bank. I was the right person in the right place. The Government had to rebuild a devastated country, so needed Economists, who were scarce in supply. And here I was with my Master's Degree. The World Bank in Washington, DC, helped the Dutch Government with a loan. I met representatives of World Bank, asked whether they could use a Dutch Economist. They could, and so I arrived in the U.S.A. in August 1948, 64 years ago!

I met my husband in 1950, we had a most wonderful time for 50 years, until he passed away in 2000. We had three children, 11 grandchildren, and so far four great-grandchildren. Hitler, eat your heart out. You wanted to wipe the Jewish race from this earth!

Two final remarks:

  1. While raising my children, and based on my experiences, I made it a very important point to make them as self-reliant as possible. Example: the Boy Scouts' Survival Trips, where they would overnight in the woods without taking food with them. And, again based on my experiences, I impressed on them the value of a College Degree. Look what it did for me.
  2. And lastly, but not least: our grand daughter named her first born daughter after my “hiding” name on my false ID: Jane. Actually Jane Victoria.