Contributing Editor: Philip Wagenaar

Philip Wagenaar provided this autobiography for ITN:

Phillip Wagenaar

I was born in 1924 in Amsterdam, Holland, where I lived with my father, my mother and my brother. I was brought up as an Orthodox Jew and went to a Jewish grade school for six years and to a Jewish high school for five years.

Courses provided at this high school went through the equivalent of the second year of a US college. After passing the final exam, which covered everything we had learned during the previous five years, I could be admitted to a university to pursue a profession.

When I graduated in 1941, however, at the age of 16, Holland was occupied by the Germans, who, after invading Holland in May 1940, had started their program to annihilate the Jews. This program included some the following:

  • Jews were not allowed to study at a university and were excluded from many professions.
  • Every Jew of any age (even babies) had to wear a five-pointed star, with the word “Jood” (the Dutch word for Jew) on it, on all their outer garments.
  • Our identity card — which everybody was supposed to carry at all times — was stamped with a “J.”
  • We could enter stores only between 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon
  • A curfew kept Jews off the streets between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. in the summer and between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the winter.
  • We were required to turn over all precious metals and radios to the government and could only sell owned bonds, stocks, jewelry and artworks to the state at a very reduced price.
  • Pensions for Jews dismissed from civil service jobs were arbitrarily reduced.
  • Jews had to move to ghettos.
  • Jewish driver’s licenses were suspended.

All these humiliations became a normal part of our lives.

Once, when I was walking on the Jonas Daniel Meyerplein, one of the Jewish squares in Amsterdam, a man, seeing my Jewish star, approached me and said, “I am a train conductor and I drive cattle cars full of Jews to Auschwitz, where everybody is gassed. If I were you, I would hide.” I told my parents, but they decided not to hide.

Then the Germans started to deport people to so-called work camps. Every night, trucks would cordon off the streets and SS soldiers would enter the Jewish homes to collect families for transportation to a concentration camp. (Nobody knew in the early years that people were going to be gassed.)

One night, they came to our home.

There was the persistent ringing of the bell, with the SS men standing outside. They knew we would be home. After all, we had curfew.

Who else would come in the evening but the SS to take us away, away to a concentration camp?

The bastards came in, and my father and I were loaded into the truck waiting outside. My mother was allowed to stay home because of her foot, which had been deformed in a bus-bicycle accident. For some reason, they left my brother home also. The SS knew they would get them later anyway.

My father and I were taken to the playground of a school, where many Jews were already milling around. It was fall and cold and drizzling and everybody was out in the open, except for the Germans, who were looking over the playground from inside the warm school building.

My father was very orthodox, and he hoped that when he prayed, God would help us. He donned his tallit (prayer shawl) and his tefillin (phylacteries) and said his usual prayers.

In cattle cars, the SS sent us to Westerbork, a concentration camp in eastern Holland, where inmates ruled the barracks in order to leave the SS free to inflict punishment.

We first had to register. I urged my father to hurry, so we would be at the beginning of the line, hoping our place there would allow us a temporary reprieve and maybe we would be sent back home.

Indeed, we were the first of our group to record our name on the list. Afterward, we were herded into barracks where beds stacked three high were each occupied by more than one person.

 A line formed to consult the physician. A way to get out? I pressed my father forward in the long row of prisoners. He did have angina. Would it qualify? My father refused to go to see the doctor. Suddenly, I had an idea.

I contorted my face and made jerking, grotesque movements with my arms and legs, looking like a drunk who had been on heroin. Everybody paid attention. I certainly must have been sick, they thought.

I was pushed to the front of the line, and within moments I saw the doctor. He took one look at that crazy person that was I and directed me to the hospital. I continued to make the grotesque movements, certain it was the ticket to freedom.

A needle stick…

Hours later, I woke up from a deep barbiturate-induced sleep. Upset that I had not been able to continue my contortions, I promptly started them up again. I looked around and noticed that I was the only occupant in the 12-bed ward.

Half an hour later, I saw the handle on the door slowly go down. The door opened a crack and my father’s face appeared. He rushed to my bed and whispered, “We are going home.” We were overjoyed for ourselves but sad for all the others, who had registered after us. We never saw them again. Only Auschwitz saw them.

We walked out of the camp and went by train back to Amsterdam, where, as I was not allowed to study at the university, I entered the seminary to study to become a rabbi. My seminary course lasted only one-and-a-half years, because the SS got tired of organizing pickups in different parts of town and forced us to move from our nice apartment to a much smaller one in the ghetto. Whatever furniture did not fit in the small house was confiscated.

During this time, I started wondering if the Germans would come back again. Indeed, they did come back. After all, it was easy for them now. Everybody was in the Jewish quarter; everybody was in one place.

Early one morning, we heard the Germans shouting in the street. They kicked in our entryway and stomped up the stairs. I was still in bed. Bashing open the door of my room, the SS man pointed his rifle at my head. “Heraus” ("Out"), he said. I knew that if I complied, it would be the end of my life.

I did what had worked before. I screwed up my eyes and twisted my face in grotesque patterns, at the same time making bizarre movements with my arms and legs. The SS man kept pointing his rifle at my head.

“Heraus,” he kept saying, each time with less conviction. Finally, I heard him say, “Der ist verr├╝ckt” ("He is crazy").

During the next five minutes, he seemed to become increasingly upset with my behavior, afraid I might be contagious. He left the room.

I knew I had to continue moving; otherwise, we surely would be transported to a concentration camp... to die.

“Segor et Hadeleth” ("Close the door"), I called out to my parents in Hebrew. I was too exhausted to continue my contortions.

The Germans left.

However, we didn’t. Stupid us, we didn’t depart and hide in the home of friendly Dutchmen. We stayed in the house, and the next evening the Germans returned.

With their heavy boots, they trampled up the steps. When my brother and I heard them come in, we quickly went into our chambers at the head of the corridor. The SS men went to the living room at the end of the hall, where my father, mother and grandmother were talking.

While the Germans were there, my brother and I slipped out the front door and stayed all night in an empty lot, hiding behind one pillar, then behind another, to seek refuge from preying eyes.

In the morning, we went back to our home. It was still and quiet. Our father, mother and grandmother were gone.

We each picked up a suitcase with clothes, then walked for one hour to another part of town where we knew non-Jewish friends who would help shelter us. Fortunately, we were not intercepted by any Germans and were able to reach our friends, who sent us to a minister in the province of Friesland, in eastern Holland.

Since I had blond hair and blue eyes and, as such, didn’t have what the Germans considered a Jewish appearance, I could walk around freely.

I was sent to work in an area of reclaimed land (a polder, in Dutch) where a new town was being built. My job was to transport heavy four-by-fours on my shoulder to the construction sites. On one occasion, while I was doing this, a British plane strafed me, but I did not get hit.

Of course, as an employee in the Noordoost Polder, as the reclaimed area was called, I had to get a false identity card, one without a “J." I took the new name of Jan van Vliet.

After a while, I got severe arthritis from carrying the heavy wet wood and, preferring office work, I applied for an office job. Thinking my complaints were not substantiated, they sent me to a neurologist. I figured if I made the same grotesque movements that had helped me before, my request for office work would be granted. It worked!

Several months later, I learned that the Germans were coming into the polder. Somebody had betrayed the Jews who were working there.

I promptly left on my bike and went to see the minister who originally had assisted me. He offered to help again. (It should be noted that it was very dangerous for anybody to help Jews. The Germans would torture and eventually kill anyone who was caught doing so.)

This time, I was sent to the family Bos, farmers in the nearby village of Oldeholtpade, where I could walk around freely since I did not look Jewish. For safety’s sake, I was made to sleep in a cavity excavated out of the haystack. The wooden dividing wall of the stable covered it.

One morning, as I was in the process of leaving my shelter, I heard German voices.

“Wo ist der Jude?” ("Where is the Jew?"), they demanded. They looked, and they banged on the stable wall to find my hideout, but, thank God, they never found me. Had I gotten out of my hideout one second earlier, I would have been caught.

Subsequently, I was sent to various other friendly Dutch people, all of whom took care of me as if I were their son, until the Canadian Army finally liberated the area on May 5, 1945.

During the war, I lost 10 immediate relatives and hundreds of distant ones. Before the war, Holland had 100,000 Jews; after the war, 10,000 were left.

After the war, I looked for my brother and found him at the home of a Calvinist minister. As he looked Jewish, he had to stay indoors during the last two-and-a-half years of the war.

One of our relatives returned from the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. You have no idea what she looked like. While, before the war, she weighed 260 pounds and was markedly obese, after her return she looked like a skeleton and weighed 62 pounds — the result of starvation, torture and multiple infectious diseases.

She informed us that our father had died four weeks before the liberation and our mother two weeks before.

I entered the University of Amsterdam, where I studied chemistry for two-and-a-half years, then switched to medicine. In medical school, I met a delightful medical student, Flory, whom I married in 1949.

Flory Wagenaar

We lived in an apartment on the fifth floor by the Prinsengracht, one of the famous canals in Amsterdam, in a building dating from the 1600s.

Soon after we got married, we requested visas for the US, which we received within nine months.

Since I had to transfer from the University of Amsterdam Medical School to a medical school in the US, I applied to 45 universities in the US. Several universities responded favorably, and I went for an interview at the University of Illinois.

The interviewer, after reviewing my transcripts from the University of Amsterdam, asked me only one question: “How do your find your way in Chicago?”

I explained the grid system of perpendicular streets intersected by a few diagonal ones, whereupon my interviewer replied, “You are accepted!” Can you imagine?

I received my MD degree in 1953 and took a residency in ophthalmology at the State University of New York in Brooklyn.

In 1957 I became subject to the Doctors’ Draft Law, which required all MDs under 55 years old to serve in the Armed Forces. The Air Force asked me where I wanted to be stationed. When I answered 'East Coast or West Coast,' the brass deliberated long and furiously and decided that Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois was just the ticket for me.

As a medical specialist, I automatically became a captain and, as such, did not have to go through basic training. When I arrived by car at the main gate of Chanute Air Force Base, the airman smartly saluted me, while I, not knowing how to salute, gave him a friendly wave.

Flory and I moved to Seattle in 1959, where I practiced ophthalmology (and Flory, anesthesiology) until our retirement in 1983. Flory and I had three children and, in addition, raised two cousins.

After retiring, we traveled furiously, taking many two-month-long bike rides in Europe and hiking all over the world. I began writing the column "The Discerning Traveler" for International Travel News in 1995. I also have given lectures about the Holocaust and about medical hypnosis.

More recently, Flory and I lived in a retirement community in Seattle and continued to travel until, on December 5, 2012, she died of a chest infection. We had just taken a 75-day cruise.

I continue to travel and to write for ITN.— Philip Wagenaar