By MARILYN SHAPIRO
Anne Frank is one of the most well known victims of the Holocaust period. But she and her family were not the only ones to go into hiding to avoid capture by the Nazis and their collaborators. While some Jews lived in the open with changed identities, others, like the Franks physically hid to avoid certain deportation and almost certain death. Dutch Nathan and his family were one of many families who relied on others to help them hide.
Gert “Dutch” Nathan was born on Jan. 5, 1932, in Duren, Germany, the second son of Wilhelm (“Willy”) and Hilde (nee Friesem) Nathan. Willy had a cattle hauling business throughout Europe. He did not have a formal education, but he was street smart—Dutch remembers that his father could “out calculate a calculator.” The Nathans lived a mostly secular life in Germany, observing major Jewish holidays and he remembers his mother lighting Shabbat candles.
In 1938, after Hitler’s rise, the family moved 60 miles west to Valkenburg, The Netherlands. “Holland had proclaimed neutrality when war broke out in September 1939, as they had done in World I,” said Dutch, “so my father thought our family would be safe.” Willy took a job with the De Valk bus company, a former competitor, and there he continued with his cattle business.
A Plan For Survival
On May 10, 1940, Hitler’s forces invaded the self-proclaimed “neutral” country. Five days later, after the bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch forces surrendered. By 1942, the situation began to deteriorate for Jews. Willy, made arrangements with his friend, Johan Kengen, a member of the Dutch Underground: If his family, the Nathans, were in danger of deportation Willy would pay for the family to stay in the home of Kengen’s fiancé’s aunt and uncle for “a few days” until the Nathans could be spirited away to England. Willy also made arrangements for his neighbors to move most of the furniture and bedding to the house next door. Whether the neighbors were paid or volunteered as an anti-Nazi action remains a mystery to Dutch.
The plan, unfortunately, had to be put into effect only few months later. While walking from the bus station into the De Valk building, Willy was stopped by a friend and fellow employee. He was told that Germans were waiting for him to arrest him and would send the family to a concentration camp.
So Dutch’s father quickly stole a bike and peddled the 10 miles home. Dutch and his older brother Fredo were immediately instructed to leave their home one hour apart to walk the two miles to a house “located on the right hand side just before the road crossed the railroad tracks” and were warned to “not speak to a soul.” Their parents arrived later that evening, expecting to soon hear from the Underground of their upcoming clandestine trip to England.
The Hiding Continues
The days turned into a week, and the Nathans were still in hiding. Other people, including downed pilots, had priority with the Underground. To cover-up the ongoing extra activity in the “safe house,” an elaborate ruse was staged. Johan Kengen and the elderly couple’s niece Ann quickly arranged their wedding. At the reception, Johan picked a huge fight with Ann’s parents, who resolved that they would have no contact with the couple until Johan apologized. The newlyweds then also moved into the house by the railroad tracks, bringing the inhabitants of the house to eight.
As weeks turned into months, tensions grew. The Nathans spent most of their time in a small main floor bedroom. Ann was prone to hysterical outbursts, and Willy and her husband Johan would have to physically restrain her to keep her from running outside and giving their hideout away. Meanwhile, Hilde was in anguish because that she had not been able to bring her parents with them to the safe house. Dutch recalls that she would be haunted by their deaths in the concentration camp for the rest of her life.
Johan’s government job determining the number of animals that farmers could slaughter provided a means to get extra meat and milk, but food was still scarce.
Dutch and Fredo, 10 and 12 respectively, spent most of their days quietly reading books and avoiding the windows so no shadows would be seen by people on the outside.
Along with possible discovery, the occupants lived in fear that the house near the railroad track was in danger from the Allied forces! Although the noise from the passing trains provided an extra buffer they knew that the Allies strafed German trains. They hoped that these attacks would not hit the house, which could possibly kill them or force Nathans out into the open.
In the second half of 1944, the southern half of Holland was liberated by American troops. (The remaining areas of the Netherlands were not liberated until May 1945.) The Nathans stayed inside for a few days after liberation to make sure they were safe.
Once they realized they were actually free, the Nathans stepped into fresh air for the first time in 26 months. “I walked a few feet and collapsed,” remembered Dutch. When asked if he had been overcome with emotion, he said, “I hadn’t used my legs in 26 months and initially had no muscle tone to walk more than a few feet.
Before they could move back into their home, however, Americans bombed Valkenburg. One of the casualties was the Nathan’s home. “No one understood why the brick home next door burned so much,” remembers Dutch. “The furniture hidden in the attic acted like a tinderbox, and flames shot up in the air for hours.”
In May 1945, the remaining areas of the Netherlands were liberated. Free but homeless, the Nathan family moved into a neighbor’s home until 1946, when they obtained visas to move to United States, where several of Willy’s siblings lived. Willy built a crate the size of a truck and filled it with everything they had accumulated since the end of the war—including a piano.
Once in the States, Dutch, now 16, enrolled in City College to learn English, adding to his previous background of German, French, and Dutch. At 18, he enlisted in the army and volunteered to go to South Korea. When he returned home, he sought employment in whatever “made money.”
In 1979, Dutch, who had been married twice before, met Sue Cohen. He proposed shortly after their meeting, but it took 10 years for her to say yes. During this time, Dutch started the Stretch Lace, a Sharon Mass.-based company that manufactured and sold elastic shoelaces. (“Tie once, never Tie Again!”) Although his invention was successful, Dutch admitted that he didn’t know marketing and sales. He eventually sold the business, but Easy Laces are still available today and are worn by such celebrities as Brooke Shields. The couple lived in Sharon for most of their married life before retiring to Kissimmee, Fla., in 2007.
Visit To Germany
In 1982, residents of Duren, Germany, invited the couple, to return to the Nathan’s original home. They were treated royally and met with church members as well as school children. Sue’s main mantra to everyone she met was “Just remember! The Holocaust did happen.” Although their visit was supposed to last a week, Dutch felt uncomfortable there. He rented a car, and the two of them toured France before returning to Massachusetts.
Almost 75 years after his liberation, Dutch graciously shared his story, a story that he indicated he had spent most of his life trying to put behind him. “I try not to think about those things,” said Dutch. “It is over and cannot be undone.
His story, however, as one of few remaining Holocaust survivors, must be told. Kristallnacht was 80 years ago. As Sue Nathan told the people in Germany during the 1982 visit, “Remember! The Holocaust did happen.”
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. Recently, a second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World was published. Tikkun Olam now joins There Goes My Heart. Shapiro’s blog is theregoesmyheart.me.