It is often said that children are resilient, that they can endure more than adults believe possible. This statement is proven in my case.
As a child, I survived years of discrimination, persecution, internment at concentration camps, the murder of my family and friends, and a childhood that was utterly lost. However, I survived and prospered, living to enjoy a wonderful life with a wife and children in the United States.
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© 2009 Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (formerly known as the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center) at Brookdale Community College, and the Brookdale Community College Foundation. All rights reserved worldwide.
My story begins with an introduction to my family. My parents, Sigmund and Elise Spiegel were married in 1927. They thought of themselves as a typical German couple who enjoyed many of the same things that their friends and neighbors did.
This is Father on his horse in the German army during World War I. He was quite the soldier, and had a dashing figure. My father served in the infantry and, in 1917, was wounded during the Battle of Verdun. These injuries would contribute to health problems that took him from us at a relatively early age.
Here is my family in 1932 in our home in Dinslaken, Germany. Dinslaken is a small town in the Rhineland on the border between Germany and the Netherlands. This is Father and Mutti (Mother), who is holding me. I am about one year old. My sister, Edith, is 5 years old in this photograph.
Sadly, I don’t have any more pictures of my father and I have no memories of him. He died on December 4, 1933, when I was still a baby.
My grandfather was very important to me as he became the man of the house after my father died. This is a picture of us together. I was 3 years old. Grandfather had also served in the German army as a young man.
Mutti decided that it was too dangerous for Jewish children to remain in Germany. We were fortunate in that we had relatives nearby in the Netherlands. A few days after Kristallnacht, Edith and I were sent to live with Uncle Adolf, my father's older brother, and Aunt Martha in Gennep. We had many relatives living there, including my cousins Margot, 12, and Alice, 10. We started school in January 1939, and I learned Dutch quickly.
Mutti had to find a job, so she applied for and was fortunate to get an au pair visa to work in England. Unfortunately, this visa did not allow her to take us along. Since the Netherlands had been neutral during World War I, she thought we would be safe staying there until she could make arrangements for us to join her in England.
In 1940, Edith and I were still living in Gennep. We were very good students, which made Mutti, Uncle Adolf, and Aunt Martha very happy. But then the German army invaded the Netherlands without provocation on May 10, 1940.
Life quickly became difficult. I was sent to Dinxperlo, a village in the Netherlands to live with Uncle Max, my father's younger brother, and his wife, Aunt Paula. Within a short time, anti-Jewish laws were added in the Netherlands. We had identity cards stamped with a big "J" for Jood, or Jew in Dutch.
Life began to change by 1941 when Razzias or raids for Jews began. This was how the Nazis rounded up the Jews for deportation. I went to public school until 1942, when all Jewish children were expelled. I began attending a local Jewish school in Doetinchem, about 25 km away. We had to travel by bus. Razzias became more and more common. Every few weeks, more children and parents disappeared. The school closed by the end of 1942; there were hardly any children left.
On April 10, 1943, when I was almost eleven, Uncle Max told me that he, Aunt Paula, my cousins Alfred and Ruth, Edith and I were being forced to leave Dinxperlo. The Germans were implementing a policy of making the provinces of the Netherlands Judenrein or free of Jews. The policy started in October 1942 and had finally come to our little village. Except for those few who managed to go into hiding, most of the Jewish population of Dinxperlo, including our family group, was sent to the slave labor/concentration camp Vught, in the southern Netherlands.
Upon arrival at Vught, once we left the trains, children were torn away from their parents. Alfred and I were sent to the barracks for boys. Many children were much younger than I. It was extremely overcrowded; nearly 1,600 Jewish children were detained there. Every morning, there was an appell or roll call. After a lot of screaming and yelling, adults were sent to work and the children were dismissed. It was frightening. Occasionally, parents saw their children but could do little for them; they only could witness their suffering.
Transports were leaving Vught concentration camp with increasing frequency. On May 23, 1943, all of our family members, except for my cousin Ruth, were deported to Westerbork, a transit camp for Jews. Once there, our family was separated. Alfred and I were sent to a very crowded barracks.
Every Tuesday, a list was compiled with the names of prisoners who were being deported on the trains to the “East”. Alfred and I were called up for deportation on May 25, 1943. We boarded a train where everyone was crying.
I didn't recognize anyone.
Scared, I started to panic. Everything was so crowded. I began to scream, "I don't want to go on this train!" Alfred joined in and began to scream too. This caught the attention of an SS guard who asked a Dutch policeman what the commotion was all about. He told the SS guard, "The children are afraid and do not want to go on the train." The SS guard then gave the order to take my cousin and me off that train. We were put in a small room, isolated from everybody else. The train departed without us. Later, I learned that the train's destination was the death camp at Sobibor in Poland. All onboard the train were murdered upon arrival.
When I was almost twelve years old, Edith and I were put on a transport to our third camp in less than a year — the "Exchange Camp" of Bergen-Belsen, in Germany.
We were alone and terrified.
HISTORICAL NOTE: The Camp at Bergen-Belsen was founded in 1940, originally holding French and Belgian prisoners of war, and later Soviet prisoners as well. In 1943, the SS added two additional functions to the facility. One section of Bergen-Belsen became a concentration camp and another section was established to hold prisoners who were suitable for exchange with the Allies for German citizens being held in internment camps in the United States and Great Britain. These prisoners were allowed to stay together in families and wear civilian clothes. When he became commandant of Bergen-Belsen in December 1944, Josef Kramer, denied the exchange prisoners the special status that they had until that time.
My sister and I remained in Bergen-Belsen from January 1944 until April 1945. Sanitary facilities were almost nonexistent; I took only two showers in sixteen months. People were starving by the thousands. I received one piece of bread daily. This was cut to two slices every three days, and finally, one piece of bread every three days. At the slightest infraction, as a punishment, bread was withheld. Hunger and disease were killing thousands of us. All I did was think and dream about food. Food. Food.
By March 1945 I was in a state of starvation. Our rations were down to one thick slice of bread a week and some frozen turnip soup each day. I could hear some faint thunder in the distance. One of the German guards told me that it was not thunder, but the guns of the British army. They were still a long way from Bergen-Belsen. I was not sure that I would live to see liberation by the Allies.
On April 7, 1945, our sector of Bergen-Belsen was evacuated. We were transported by cattle-wagon trains around Germany as the war raged around us. On the sixth day, April 13, 1945, the train unexpectedly stopped in a small valley near Magdeburg on the river Elbe. Shortly thereafter, an American unit of soldiers appeared from over the hill. Our agony was over.
Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945. The barracks that had housed us for 15 months were so infested with lice and the contagious disease typhus that the British soldiers burned them to the ground.
After three weeks, we were moved to Maastricht, the Netherlands, and I was finally admitted to a temporary hospital housed in a convent. I was semiconscious as the nuns nursed me, bathed me, fed and clothed me. I began to recover under their gentle care. In Maastricht, Edith had been taken to a different hospital than I was. Within two months, we had both recuperated and were reunited.
Uncle Adolf found us at the Laren Orphanage; our names had been on a list published by the Dutch Red Cross. He, Aunt Martha and cousin Margot had gone into hiding when Germany invaded in May 1940. They were the only members of our family in the Netherlands that survived. Uncle Adolf had contacted my mother in England and made arrangements for us to join her.
In November 1945 Edith and I were reunited with our mother in England. We were on the first passenger ship that sailed since the one my mother left on the day the war began. I was apprehensive; I had not seen my mother for more than six years and so much had happened.
I joined a Zionist Youth Movement, Hashomer Hatzair, and wanted to go to Israel. In 1949, I moved to Hachashara, a program in England that would help me prepare to farm on a kibbutz or collective farm in Israel. In November 1952 I finally immigrated to Israel, settling in Kibbutz Zikim on the border with Gaza.
In 1954, I was drafted into the Israeli army, serving in a special unit called the Nachal, which protected the border settlements. During the 1956 Suez War, I served in the Sinai Desert and Suez Canal. Shortly after, in 1957, I returned to Kibbutz Zikim.
A year later, I took a ship to Valparaiso, Chile, to visit Mutti and Edith who had moved there in 1954 to be with Aunt Klara. The family was together in this new land. My visit lasted five years!
I left Chile in October 1963, having decided to move to the United States. After obtaining an immigration visa, I found work at the American-Israeli Shipping Company, Zim Lines. The Jet Age was just beginning, so I took a job working for El Al, the Israeli airline, as their sales manager in New Jersey.
In 1968, El Al sent me to Israel to attend courses. There I met my future wife, Yael, a Sabra, or Israeli-born citizen. In December 1969, Yael and I were married in Israel. We then returned to New Jersey, and I continued to work for El Al for thirty years before retiring. We raised three wonderful children, Omri, Yuval, and Avital and made a life for ourselves in Howell, New Jersey.
I began to speak about my experiences in the Holocaust in the 1980's but since my retirement in 1998, I have spent a great deal more time speaking at schools and colleges, as well as studying in the United States and in Israel. I enrolled in a special course for survivors at Drew University where we learned to tell our stories through writing. This ultimately resulted in the publication of my memoirs, Once The Acacias Bloomed
In 1989, I returned to my hometown of Dinslaken, Germany, with my wife and two of our children. My friend, Mr. Jurgen Grafen, welcomed us. We visited my father's and grandmother’s graves in a completely restored Jewish cemetery. We returned again for the 55th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1993.
On April 12, 2000, fifty-five years after the liberation, I returned to the site of the Westerbork transit camp for a commemoration.
On November 9, 2002, our son, Omri, a police officer, married his lovely wife Nancy, with our whole family in attendance. We now have two wonderful grandchildren. Our son, Yuval, is autistic and lives in a group home. Our daughter, Avital, who received her Masters degree from University of Pennsylvania, works with adults needing special services.
I often speak about my experiences during the Holocaust. I tell my listeners: We have to forgive, but never forget. We have to remember what happened, when racism, bigotry, hatred and antisemitism became the law of the land. We have to teach this to future generations and build bridges into the future. And always remember everybody is born equal, no matter what religion, race, color or creed.
I hope you embrace this idea when you remember my story.