Edith Velman’s Story of Survival as a Jew in Occupied Holland

Edith Velman’s Story of Survival as a Jew in Occupied Holland

I am reading the book Edith’s Story by Edith Velmans about her experiences as Jew in Holland during World War II. During the German occupation, she adopted a new identity with forged papers and lived with a Protestant family in another town.

Germans It is a different story then that of Anne Frank and her family. The Frank family had hidden in a house of a Protestant family for two years until they were betrayed and arrested in 1944. Anne, age 16 and her family were deported to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland. She died in another camp in early 1945 just weeks before the liberation. Her father survived, returned to Holland and was given his daughter’s secret diary found in a hiding place. But Edith Van Hessen, now Edith Velmans, survived the war, by adopting a new name, posing as a relative of the adoptive family and using forged identity papers. In a curious twist of fate, before the war, Edith’s mother had shared a hospital room with Anne Frank’s mother after both had given birth.

Most of Edith’s family didn’t survive the war, however. In fact about one third of the other Jews who were "hidden" were discovered and assassinated by the Germans and the family who hid them either killed or imprisoned. Less then one in five Jews survived the war in Holland or about 30,000 out of 140,000 Dutch Jews. In fact, the percentage of Jews killed in the Netherlands is higher then in any other Western country. Some 107,000 were deported to concentration camps and work camps and 102,000 murdered. The remaining went into hiding or fled the country.

Jews came to the Netherlands beginning with the Roman conquest. More came in 1490’s during the Spanish Inquisition. Unlike other European countries, the Jews were economically and socially more integrated into society. Many were prominent in professions and businesses. Then when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, refugees, including Jews, fled to the Netherlands. As a neutral country, it had an open door policy. By the time of World War II there were 140,000 Jews living in the country as well as many refuges.

On May 10, 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands. The Royal family fled to England. In spite of agreeing to surrender the city of Rotterdam was heavily bombed and many people killed or left homeless. The Dutch Army was no match for the German onslaught. Five days later the Holland surrendered and the German occupation began. Holland wasn’t liberated until five years later and only after enormous human suffering in the country had taken place.

Once the country was occupied, a military regime was established and the Germans adopted increasingly more restrictive laws regarding the Jewish population. Small oppressive steps were taken first, such as prohibiting Jews from acting as volunteer air raid wardens. The restrictions continued to become more severe, such as prohibiting Jews from riding bikes and banning them from public transportation. Jews were prohibited from attending public schools or using public beaches, parks or recreational facilities. Curfews were imposed. Jews were allowed to shop only during specified hours and for a very limited period of time. Restrictions against gentile and Jewish social and work contacts were imposed. They were dismissed from civil service and dismissed from their professions or businesses. They were ordered to vacate areas of the country. Then the Germans ordered all Jews to register. Identify cards marked with a "J" for Jew were issued and they were ordered to sew on their clothing a prominent a yellow star of David with the word Jew on it. When the Roman Catholic Church publicly condemned the action and the deportation of Jews, the restrictions were increased even more. Later Catholic priests and leaders were deported to concentration camps. Male Jews were ordered to report for medical examinations to determine their fitness for German work camps and Jews ordered out of their homes to allow German take over.

Dutch Resistance took many forms. One of the most dangerous was hiding refugees, Jews, and enemies of the Germans. Draft age Dutch young men and even downed Allied airmen were hidden along with people like Edith Velmans and Anne Frank. Violent Resistance always triggered reprisals from the German SS. If the Resistance attacked the Germans, they would order the killing of multiple hostages. The entire population of Putten was executed as punishment for Dutch resistance actitivies. After an attack on SS General Rauter’s auto, 116 men were rounded up and executed at the site and another 147 Gestapo prisoners executed as well, in retaliation. The Germans were brutal in their occupation of the country.

When the Germans first invaded Holland, Edith Van Hessen was a teenager who kept a diary and continued to do so until she adopted a new identity. Many years later, she used the diary and her recollections to write the book. After the war she became a psychologist and eventually came to the United States where she and her husband lived. In 1996 she as knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. This is an extraordinary story about a period of history we should never forget.

7 thoughts on “Edith Velman’s Story of Survival as a Jew in Occupied Holland

  1. Edith’s book is wonderful.

    I don’t think Edith’s mother shared a hospital room with Anne Fank’s mother. The book begins with Edith talking about having her twins in 1950, after the war, and sharing a hospital room with Miep Gies who had helped hide Anne Frank’s family. Miep had just given birth to her first child and she told Edith about Anne Frank and how Anne Frank’s father was going to have his daughter’s diary published, and Edith thought to herself that the diary was one of thousands of wartime diaries, and that she even had a diary from that time but that it seemed that people didn’t want to think or read or talk about the war in Holland anymore. I loved the honesty of Edith’s book. I think it is one of the most relate-able accounts of WWII that I have read. Edith talks about the erosion of rights and dignity and how easily it was accepted at first, the incredible tragedies that struck her family and pretty much all the people she knew, how she stayed positive, and also how after the war, her anger and sadness crashed down on her finally. She was strong throughout the war, and it was not until afterwards that she was able and had to confront the reality of having lost her parents, one of her brothers, and grandmother. Anyway, that was the connection between Edith and the Anne frank in the hospital.

  2. I highly recommend reading Edith’s book in combination with her husband Loet Velmans’ book “Long way back to the River Kwai.”

    I was prompted to look for stories like Edith’s and Loet’s after a visit to Amsterdam and the Verzetsmuseum about the Dutch occupation and resistance. WIthout question a more moving experience than seeing Rembrandt’s finest works.

    “What would you do?” is the disarmingly simple yet profound question posed at the Verzetsmuseum.

    Edith’s story shows how minor errors, seemingly simple cooperation, and delayed decisions compound into life and death choices for each member of her family. Loet’s book reveals how even bold, successful actions have unexpected consequences. He escaped the Nazi invasion of Holland to England, joined the Dutch Army, was shipped to Indonesia, only to be forced to surrender to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. He documents how he survived years in Japanese POW camps including the Burma railway death camps.

    What is most remarkable is that these two people, Edith and Loet, reveal their experiences, even the embarrassing ones, to us not as heroic stories, but as stories of two ordinary teenagers whose simple quest for life became extraordinary.

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