Louise Lawrence Israëls’ Story: “Being Free Means Eating Cookies”
This is the second in a series of interviews of Holocaust survivors conducted by Thomas Siurkus, a volunteer from the German peace organization Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). Below is the first-person testimony of Dutch Holocaust survivor Louise Lawrence Israëls.
My name is Louise Lawrence Israëls and I am a survivor of the Holocaust.
I was born into a kind of assimilated Jewish family in Holland. Religion wasn’t important to them. My father worked in textiles with his father. They had a very good life, until my father was mobilized in 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland. He was a reserve officer and was stationed in the South. His engineering battalion was organized to defend the border with Germany, but Holland never actually expected Germany to invade. My mom was pregnant with my brother, and she was supposed to move south and be with my father. But he told her that it wasn’t a good idea, and within three days the Nazis invaded Holland. My father was taken as a prisoner of war and my mom had no idea where he was until he came back after a few weeks. The Nazis annexed Holland. We as a nation did not exist anymore. We were from then on part of the Third Reich. My father came back simply because the Nazis needed the barracks for other people.
Our family lived in Haarlem, a town only 10 kilometers outside of Amsterdam. My brother was born and they lived a quiet life. After a while the quiet life became restricted. Every day new measures came out against Jews. Every day was something different. My father’s business was confiscated. Food was very scarce, because it was rationed for all the Dutch people. In 1942, all Jews above the age of six were ordered to wear a yellow star. We got orders to move to Amsterdam. My father didn’t take it so seriously in the beginning. He said that we should wait.
Then I was born in 1942 and a couple of things happened. We were very good friends with a large Orthodox family that lived across the street from us. They had seven children who still lived at home. As a reprisal measure against the Resistance, the Nazis took away the ten most prominent Jewish men in the town of Haarlem: the two rabbis, two cantors, five other people and also the father across the street, who was the president of the Jewish community. They took them and shot them—a signal to show the public that you don’t sabotage the Nazis.
Two days after our neighbor was shot the whole family, except for two, was picked up and put on a truck. They were murdered in Auschwitz.
Then we went into hiding in Amsterdam for three years.
My memory before my second birthday is like a photo album—there are flashes, but my real memory starts at my second birthday, because the day was so different from other days. We had the same routine every day. We were living in a room, had a tiny little window in the roof. We got up and there was light. If we got nothing to eat, we had a bowl of hot water to drink. Sometimes my brother and I shared half a cracker. Food was really scarce. But we were used to that.
On my birthday they actually made a celebration and there was a birthday cake baked on top of a camping stove. That day was so spectacular for me, so I remember it. Someone from the Resistance came over and took a picture of me and the cake. My mum put a birthday dress on me and they were all singing “Happy Birthday.”
They wanted the celebration because the Allied army had landed at Normandy. From that day on, things began to get more hopeful.
But the euphoria ended with the start of the winter in 1944. It was the most horrible winter, and it had begun in September. For us it was the “hunger winter.” We had almost nothing to eat and were freezing. We had no electricity. That is a vivid memory for me. The cold hands and feet—I can almost still feel it when I talk about it.
My parents were exceptional people. They never talked about the outside world during the war. We didn’t know the outside world. Waking up in the apartment and staying there the whole day was normal. If my mother had talked about a beautiful spring day and sunshine, we would have missed that. But they never talked about it. They were worried all the time, but they didn’t worry us.
On May 5th, 1945, Amsterdam was liberated by Canadian forces. It was a traumatic event for me because our life changed. I was three, my brother almost five. We were used to our life. My mom used to say, “It’s all going to be okay.” She didn’t know that, but she didn’t want to worry us.
When liberation came, there was a lot of noise on the street. We lived five floors up, right under the roof of a tall Amsterdam row house. My father opened the window for the first time and looked outside and looked back at us again and said, “I think it’s really over. I think we’ve made it!” My brother and I had no idea what he meant.
Then he stepped down and took out a tin that was full of cookies. It was our emergency food. In September, after the southern part of Holland was liberated, my father had requested baking ingredients from people from the underground—just sugar, flour and butter. With those he baked cookies on top of the camping stove, because we did not had an oven. He sealed them in a tin. Now, he unsealed it.
I can still see my father undoing the seal and stuffing his face. He had two cookies at the same time. Then he put the tin down and said, “Everybody can take as many as they want.” Before that, my brother and I had never had more than a quarter of a cookie; half a cookie was shared between the two of us. My brother said, “Being free means eating cookies.” We had no concept. My parents tried to explain some things for the first time: My brother and I both had fake names. We had fake identity papers. From then on, I was Louise.
The problem then became when they took us out for the first time. They wanted to take us to the park. We had to follow my father down the stairs. My brother and I held on to each other, because we were scared to go down the stairs for the first time. My father opened the door and there was all this light.
Finally they took us to a park, put us on an open field and said, “You are free now. Go play!” I said, “I don’t want to be free. I want to go back upstairs.”
My parents took us back home to explain some more, but we didn’t want to hear it. We just wanted more cookies. Then, a couple of days later, we went for a walk through the city. It was full of Canadian soldiers that liberated Northern Holland. It was a beautiful spring. Everybody was walking around in rags, old cloths. We didn’t have shoes, our clothes were too short. These Canadian soldiers loved talking to everybody, especially to children. We had no idea what they were saying, but they pulled Hershey’s chocolate bars out of their pockets and gave one to each of us. We were full after one bite.
Children get used to things very quickly. We got used to the situation during the war and the situation after the war. We just lived and never questioned the decisions or the behavior of our parents. That changed slightly when I was nine years old. At that age, I discovered two things. After I went to a friend’s birthday party, I came home and said to my mom, “Something strange happened. Ida had four grandparents there.” You’re only supposed to have two. I only had two. My mom had to explain that her parents had not survived. We didn’t know that. That was one discovery.
Six weeks later, my brother and I walked to the post office to mail a letter. It was December. Somebody came up to us and asked, “Do you have a Christmas tree in your house?” We said no. She said that was good, because we were Jews and we shouldn’t have a Christmas tree. Again, we came home confused, as if we were from another planet. “We’re supposed to be Jews?” I asked my parents. My mom had to explain. She said that it is a religion that we don’t take part in.
I discovered when I was nine years old that I was Jewish. I was so inquisitive. I wanted to know everything about the religion and I got really into it. I started to read the children’s bible by myself. My parents believed all their lives that something terrible was going to happen again and being a Jew was dangerous. But still they did not forbid me to practice Judaism.
We lived outside Amsterdam and the synagogue was not close to my house. It was a 15-minute walk to the bus, then a short bus ride to Amsterdam, and then a 15-minute walk to the synagogue. My father worked in Amsterdam. If you think that he would have picked me up and taken me home, you are wrong. I had to do it on my own. My parents wanted me to make absolutely sure that this was what I wanted. I wanted to be Jewish, and I am happy today with that choice.
I’m volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum because I think that education is the key to preventing genocides. Of course, it has never stopped. It’s been repeated every year since the Holocaust. But we should continue to educate people, because I really believe in the quote by Anne Frank, that in spite of everything people are still good at heart.