The International School for Holocaust Studies
An Interview with Holocaust Survivor Dukie Gelber
Interviewed by Jackie Metzger and Yael Weinstock
Please introduce yourself and give us a brief overview of your life.
My name you know is Dukie Gelber. I’m from Holland originally. I’m nearly 77 and I have been under German occupation for five years. In 1940 they invaded Holland and I’ve been 2 years in German concentration camps. About half a year in Westerbork which was the main transition camp concentration camp in Holland, [from] which about 109,000 Dutch Jews went to the east. Somewhere around 5,000 came back after the war. And I have been a year and four months in Bergen- Belsen and another two months after the liberation in Eastern Germany in a small village where we were liberated by the Red Army. But I consider that a part of my Holocaust because we came back to Holland only at the end of June 1945.
Now, we were in a sort of family camp. We were so called in German “exchange Jews.” The idea was that because my parents were very active Zionists and my mother had a sister here in Jerusalem, we would be exchanged against German nationals living in the allied countries. So that’s the reason why we were sent to Bergen-Belsen, which was supposedly to be a privileged camp. There were at the end about 7,000 exchange Jews at Bergen-Belsen from different countries with different papers. There were people who had South American passports or identities which were falsified. And there were people with British passports or what they call double status which means two citizenships, Dutch and English. And only 222 Jews were actually exchanged and sent to Palestine.
So the camp became a normal German concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen was one of the worst concentration camps and the only privilege we had, which was a big privilege, was that we stayed as families in the same compound. We were wearing our own clothing with the yellow badge of course, but besides my brother and me, children under the age of 15 were staying with the women, and my father was staying in a different barrack but we could see him every day. But as the camp deteriorated, the physical conditions and the diseases which appeared in Bergen-Belsen were terrible. And in the end in January 1945 we got in Bergen-Belsen body lice, and body lice brings a disease with it which is called spotted fever which is a type of typhoid transferred by the body lice and you get a temperature of over 40 Celsius or 100 Fahrenheit degrees and you get red spots on your body and you are so weak and you die and most people died in the last months from spotted fever.
When Bergen-Belsen was liberated there were over 60,000 inmates and another 14,000 died after the liberation. Now, we were not liberated in Bergen-Belsen. We were put on a train, all the exchanged Jews, we traveled for 2 weeks through Germany between one side, the western front, the US army, British army, Canadian army, French army, and on the other side, the Red Army. So the war was nearly finished already. Still they had a train, or 3 trains as a matter of fact, to deport Jews. My great luck is that I came out of the camp with my father, with my mother, and my brother.
For sure. I’d like to ask you, when you were transferred from Bergen-Belsen to the other camp, you said you were on a train for 2 months, I think.
No, we were deported on a train. Until today, we don’t know to what place. We have been going to archives and looking to find a way to find out where we were going. And We were liberated on the way after 13 days to be exact, by the Red Army. So we were in Eastern Germany. And what the Russians did, gave a catered two villages, farming villages of the Germans. They threw them out of their homes. They were living in the cellar or in the pigs stay in the yard and we got the houses. And we stayed for two months with the Russians and another 428 people died after the liberation.Out of 2,400 on our train, 528 died. By the way there is a memorial for them over here.
Where is that memorial?
You know there is a cave, memorial cave. If you go inside at the entrance immediately you see the whole story with the names of the 528 people who were on the train and died afterwards in the village. We call it the lost transfer.
The question I wanted to ask you was, “the family was your mother, your father, you, and your brother?
And right at the end of the Holocaust you were together on that train because you were together at Bergen-Belsen except that your father was in another barrack but you saw him everyday.
I would like to start with this. From let’s say 1939 or 1940 when the Germans come into Holland, what pressures were there on the family unit? Can you be more specific about how your father or mother reacted to this situation?
First of all, the strangling of the Jewish community in Holland started right from the beginning. They dismissed all the Jewish civil servants. They dismissed Jewish lecturers, judges, and so on and so forth. However, my father who was a trained industrial chemical engineer, was running a part of a factory which made cloth for uniforms for the German army and because of that at the beginning we were exempted from deportation because they needed him. But we were all the time under pressure, all the time. I couldn’t go to school because in the town where we were living, we were the only Jewish family. And Jewish children were not allowed to go to school, only in the big cities where they established Jewish schools. And I was the only Jewish child so they didn’t establish a school for me.
So it’s 1940, remind us. How old were you in 1940?
I was exactly 7 years old because my birthday is on the 4th of May, and on the 10th of May the Germans invaded Holland so I was exactly 7 years old. I was 12 years old when the war was over.
So you can’t go to school now. What did you do?
We stayed at home. My mother was teaching me how to read and write. And we played outside. We could still play outside. In the beginning, I think in March 1942, they imposed the yellow badge so my brother and me, had to wear the yellow badge outside if we went out to play. That’s what we did.
Is your brother older than you?
No, he’s 2 and a half years younger.
What did your mother do in those years?
My mother stayed at home. She hardly went out, took care of the house. In 1941 we were thrown out of the house by the Germans. And we moved to another house where we stayed a year and a half, and we were thrown out of there as well. When we were arrested we were living in a third house. So my mother was busy keeping the house and looking after two little boys and she was very worried also about her mother and younger sister who went into hiding and they were caught and betrayed by Dutch Nazis and sent to Sobibor.
Do you think your parents ever thought about going into hiding with you?
That is the big million dollar question. I can’t ask them today. They are already dead for many years. But if I try to think of it, going into hiding was quite easy. There was a good Dutch resistance and my parents were also active in the resistance as much as they could. We could have easily gone into hiding, but if you go into hiding that means you break up the family cell. Your mother goes to one place, your father goes to another place, my brother to another place, and I to another place, and at that time, I assume, we had a letter from the Swiss Red Cross which said that we have four certificates in order to be exchanged and go to Palestine. For whatever it was worth we didn’t know, so I assume that that was the reason that my parents decided not to go into hiding.
If I look at my Dutch friends of today who were young children after the war, 99% were orphans, they had no parents anymore. So I think that was the main reason why they did not go into hiding. You must understand the situation. Holland was completely isolated. In the north Germany, in the east Germany, in the south Belgium occupied by the Germans, in the west the North Sea, and the other side, Great Britain. We were isolated, I’m talking now 1942 when already in the east probably two million Jews were already eliminated, massacred, and we had no idea what was going on in Eastern Europe. We didn’t know about Auschwitz. We never heard the name Treblinka, Sobibor, nothing. So we didn’t know. Perhaps if they would have known about the extermination in the east they may have taken another decision, but that is hypothetical.
Your father is working for an industrial firm that’s making stuff for the Germans from May 1940…
Well he worked there long before World War II of course.
But the Germans take it over.
Well at a certain moment they started to make cloth from which they made uniforms for the German army, so that gave him a stamp that the family is exempted from deportation.
And that ended when you went to Westerbork?
That ended in July 1943 when my father came home and said, “No more raw materials. Production has stopped. This part of the factory is going to be closed. I have no job anymore.”
And you all went to Westerbork.
July 1943. And you were there for half a year?
Yes, we arrived on the 13th of July 1943 and we left on the 11th of January 1944 for Bergen-Belsen, which makes it about 5 and a half months to be exact.
I would like to go into Westerbork with you and your mother and your father and your brother. How did you live there? Did you live as a family in one hut? Together with how many other people? Or separately?
Westerbork was established in the late 1930s by the Dutch government with money of the Jewish community to be an absorption center for German Jewish refugees who fled to Holland. They were living there in small homes. In 1942 the SS came and surrounded the area with barbed wire and erected large barracks. Those barracks were divided into two. One side, men and boys. The other side, women and girls. So we were able to see each other all the time.
So that’s how you lived.
Three beds, one on top of the other. But you know, Westerbork was still a camp where you could, if you wanted, communicate with the outside world and you could receive parcels. Every week we got from the factory. They used to send us food parcels, clothing parcels, whatever we needed. Life was bearable over there.
Besides the fact that every Monday afternoon they wheeled a freight train into the camp. Monday night was curfew and they read off the names of the people who were going the next day to the east.
So when they are going off to the east and you’re in Westerbork, do you think your parents understood what was going on in the east?
We didn’t know. Nobody knew. It was a total secret. I want to tell you that at the beginning there were even volunteers because the Germans said you were going to work camps and you have to work but you can have a family life over there, so in the beginning people believed that and some even volunteered to go. We didn’t know what was happening in eastern Europe until we got to Bergen-Belsen and after a few months we met people who came from Auschwitz. They told us, “don’t look for anybody. There won’t be anybody.” My mother’s family - 120 family members - was exterminated. Their names are also in the cave over there.
And food? Food is prepared by whom in Westerbork?
Food was cooked in the central kitchen and at breakfast and lunch they were giving out food. I don’t remember exactly what. Don’t ask me because I don’t remember. I remember Bergen-Belsen but not Westerbork. I know much more about Bergen-Belsen than about Westerbork. I don’t even know what we did all the time as children in Westerbork.
How do you explain that?
Because the impact on our life in Bergen-Belsen became much stronger than Westerbork. Because Westerbork was somehow as I told you, still bearable. But if you stay a year and a half in a terrible camp, that does the impact of your memory.
Ok, so now I understand that for 5 and a half months you’re living with your father in Westerbork and then when you get to Bergen-Belsen…
All children under 15 years stay with the women.
Right, so you move across to the mother’s side.
Do you remember any effect that that might have had on you going from your father’s jurisdiction to your mother’s jurisdiction?
Not really. Look, even in Westerbork, my father was running a workshop. A workshop where they took apart batteries. So he went early to work and we went to my mother. So we were used to the fact that we stayed with my mother.
Do you remember if there were any markings like birthdays or holidays?
Not really. It seems there was in Bergen-Belsen some sort, of course there were many religious Jews over there; there were a lot of rabbis. There must have been some sort of a religious life over there. I must tell you if people ask me what I was doing as a child in Bergen-Belsen, I can remember only one thing. The fact that we were standing for hours, long hours on the roll-call field in order to be counted. That’s my main memory of what we were doing as children in Bergen-Belsen.
So you would stand together with your mother at that roll call?
My mother was the head of a barrack in Bergen-Belsen.
I can’t imagine that. And then you finished with the role call and went back to the barracks?
Yeah, but how long do you stand on roll call! You know, the SS, I don’t know what you know about the SS, but that’s the most horrible horrifying organization ever existing in human history. They were sub humans. They were not humans. They were human beings who were not human beings, and they could not kill us because we were exchange Jews, but they could humiliate us and make our lives as miserable as possible. That’s what they did. They would beat us, swear at us. They could let us stand for six or eight hours to be counted because a number never matched. So you see that camp was not run by kapos. The kapos came only in December when there was a change in commandants and there came a commandant who came from Auschwitz and he brought a whole team of kapos with him.
With mortality so high in Bergen-Belsen, how is it that you managed to stay alive?
I have to look up into Heaven. We have no explanation because in the camp there were lots of families and I think that only ten, somewhere between ten and fifteen families came out as families. For instance there’s a family, Emanuel, they were haredim, Agudat Yisrael [ultra-Orthodox], father and mother with 8 children and only 4 children remained alive. How can you explain those things? You cannot explain them. We did not have spotted fever in our family, nobody in our family. But if the war would have lasted another 2-3 weeks my mother would have been gone.
Why your mother?
Because she was very very weak and she was never able to overcome it after the war. My mother went through lots of operations. She had a lot of medication and she never could [come to terms] with the fact that her mother and sister were gone. It wasn’t possible for her. And at the age of 65 she got a stroke, in Israel, and she was paralyzed half her body for 10 years and her body was completely wasted and she died at the age of 75.
As a child, when your mother was so weak and you knew she was sick, do you feel like you took charge or did you feel like you could take care of her?
You couldn’t. Look, we were children, and after the liberation of course she got fed and she ate but her physical condition was always bad. She was a young woman. She was [born in] 1906. That means in 1945 she was 38-39 years old.
Coming back to Holland was also tough for me. I suffered most of the four of us. We came back to Holland, the next day after we got back to our town, we got two rooms in a house, the next day [my father] took a bike and went back to work. The problem is that we had to go to school and I was by now 12 years old and my only formal education was first-degree elementary school. I’m 12 years old so my parents sent me for a few months to the 6th grade elementary school. I was the oldest in the class. Then I had to go to high school. That was mission impossible. Those were terrible years. I did the first class first year in high school took me two years. And then I did the second class in high school and then I said to my parents, “Finished. I don’t want to go to school anymore.” I was 16 and left school. Those were terrible years.
Dukie, do you think you survived 16 months in Bergen-Belsen because of your mother? You and your brother?
I don’t understand the question.
If your mother wouldn’t have been with you in Bergen-Belsen do you think you would have survived?
No, there is no question about it.
Your mother kept you alive?
My mother kept food out of her mouth to give us and she kept us alive. She was taking care of us the whole day.
Was she able to help the husband, your father?
My father was in Bergen-Belsen. He was working. He was a technical man and the SS wanted him. They didn’t call him Herr Gelber, but Jude Gelber, Jew Gelber, or Juden Schwein, Jewish pig Gelber, but they were able to respect his knowledge and his abilities to do all sorts of technical jobs for them.
Did he eat better as a result?
Eh, I don’t think so. If he had something extra he gave it to us.
So you survived Bergen-Belsen because of your mother. Now after the war…
You’re putting something in my mouth, which I didn’t say. I don’t know. I don’t know. You have to understand this. I can’t give you a direct answer on it.
But you did get tremendous support from her.
Now when you get back to Holland, is your mother able to function as a mother?
Oh yes, she functioned. She and my father. My father went back to work and he was very very intensified with his job. And he came back in the evening and early in the morning and then he had his cigar and his drink and my mother was doing the cooking, entertaining. She was very aware of the fact to try and give us a normal life again. You have to understand that we had no childhood. We were not children.
When you got back to Holland, was it all the same? You said you were the only Jewish children in your area…
Yes, but my father was promoted and we moved to the city of Arnhem. In Arnhem there was still a very small Jewish community. Most of the Jews did not come back. You know in Holland they murdered about out of 140,000 Jews, they murdered about 105,000. So when we were living in Arnhem I told my mother and my father, “I don’t want to be a Jew anymore.” So my mother was very excited about that.
Upset, of course! I said, “Why do I need to be a Jew?” I had enough of this. You know, a child of twelve or thirteen years. But she was lucky because Arnhem is along the Rhine, big river. And the Germans blew up the bridge over the Rhine and they sent the British army to repair it. So the engineering company of the Jewish brigade came to Arnhem. They stayed there a few months and there was one man or one boy, he was killed later on in Israel, whose family was Dutch who were friends of my parents. She said, “please do me a favor, you have to save my son. Get him back.” So I became a sort of mascot of the company. I had a small uniform and I was very happy. So that brought me back to Judaism and then I joined the Habonim. So at the age of 16 I left home and went to Hachshara training center for two years and then I went to Israel.
And my parents were active Zionists. Think of my father; he was 50 years old. He left a very good job in Holland. He was going to be one of the directors of the company where he was working. He was once on a business trip to the States and as he was there he heard that General Tire [in] Akron, Ohio was going to establish a factory in Israel so he phoned them. They said, “Come over. We want to have a talk with you.” And they immediately appointed him as the factory manager. He was a world-renowned specialist in those days on nylon, nylon yarns, so they immediately accepted him. They said, “you have to come to Akron, stay here half a year in order to learn the tire business,” which they did. He and my mother moved to Akron for half a year, my brother who was 15 came to Israel stayed with a Dutch family in Tel Aviv and I was in a kibbutz.
And you were 17.
No, I was 18, nearly 19.
And that was the first time you really had separated.
Yes we were separated. My parents came in 1952, beginning of 1952 they came to Israel. But they were real Zionists. They fulfilled their Zionist ideology. Because at that age to go to a county, a primitive country as it was in those years…to come back to a country which you left at a certain time or were pressured to leave. You were arrested, you were sent to camps, and you come back and you don’t find any family anymore. Of course Jewish friends were not there anymore and life was changing completely. I think that was, besides the camps, my most difficult period in life.
Did you speak about it among your family?
Well you know how it is. If you are a young man and you are on a kibbutz, doing your army service. I served in the reserves for 35 years, and I left the kibbutz, or we left the kibbutz, I was married at that time in 1959. You have to start something anew. You are busy building a career and a family and the Holocaust is there somewhere but it’s not active. We talked at home about what happened in the camps and I read, if you come to my house you’ll see I have an enormous library about the Holocaust and World War II because World War II interests me also very much because it’s the same period. And you are busy building a career, you get children, thanks God I have four, 3 daughters and a son, and you’re busy with building your life, and the Holocaust is there but it’s somewhere not active. And then one day when you get older it’s like a bombshell exploding on you.
To me that happened during the first Gulf War when the scuds were landing, first time I wasn’t called up in the army, I was too old already. My son was at home and my youngest daughter came and then suddenly you get hit over the head. I used to fall asleep, I didn’t wear a gas mask. I fell asleep and I wake up in the middle of the night screaming. I’m all wet, perspiring. My wife said, “What’s wrong? What happened?” I say, “The SS is on my back.” And since then I have been busy with the Holocaust all the time.
I claim, that you serve in the army for many years then one day it’s finished. You return your shoes, uniform, everything, finished. I worked for 40 years in tourism, and one day you retire. Today ask me about travel, and I’m far away from it. But the Holocaust is something which always stays with you; you can’t get rid of it.
What else you want to know?
I’m thinking about the fabric of the relationship between you and your parents and me and my parents. I didn’t go through the Holocaust with my parents; they went through it without me. You went through the Holocaust with your parents. After 1945 would you say that your relationship with your parents and your brother was different from a regular family that never went through it.
I can’t say that, but you know I’m living in Ramat HaSharon. I left the kibbutz, my parents said came to Ramat HaSharon, so I moved there. We had a very close relationship always with my parents. They were living close by and they took care of the children also, like I take care of my grandchildren today and we had a very strong relationship also with my brother, who in 1967 went back to Holland. He divorced and remarried a Dutch girl, she became Jewish and so on. But we have a very good relationship. We talk nearly every day, my brother and me.
From Holland! But we talk on Skype. But we always had a strong family life. Now the rest of the family, 120 family members were exterminated. My grandmother, my mother’s sister. From my father’s side no family left. So that’s it. But our family cell was very strong always. And today I have a very strong relationship with my children. Every day we talk to the girls. One is living near Rosh Pina, one is going to move now to Ein Hot, the third one lives in Hertzeliyah very close to us. And my son is in the States so we talk every time on Skype. He shows us the grandson and that’s it.
I was wondering if you knew your grandmother.
Grandfathers I never had. That means my father was 18 years younger than his brother. So he was born in Germany. Now I still had a German grandmother and on Kristal Night, Gentile friends of my parents went into Germany and brought her over to Holland. Holland was supposedly a safe haven because Holland had not taken part in World War I. And my other grandmother, I knew her until I was 9 years old. I have a very good relationship. My Dutch grandmother, my mother’s family came to Holland in 1750 so that’s a very old established family. And my grandmother was a concert pianist and her daughter as well.
But that daughter, your mother’s sister, she died.
She went to Sobibor with her mother. And the other sister was living here in Jerusalem.
Was she also an exchange Jew?
No, she emigrated to Palestine in 1934.
Do you think your parents the Zionists thought about coming in the 1930s?
As long as I can remember, as a small child.
But they didn’t decide to go before.
I was told that one day we would go to Palestine. My father came here in 1934 in order to see what the conditions were because he said, “I’m a trained industrial engineer. I’m not going to dry the Hula. Not drying the swamps, I’m not going to build roads. If I find something in my field I move my family immediately to Palestine. So he even talked to Chaim Weizman in Rehovot and my mother came a year later, to visit her sister and to see what the conditions were. Unfortunately, there were no conditions for my parents.
You have to take into consideration the condition of families who came back after the Holocaust. This was very difficult. But today, you know, we get money every month from the Dutch government. All the Dutch survivors as far as that is concerned are well off. I can live on it comfortable.
I think it’s important for people who went through the Holocaust to come and pass on the message because in a few years it won’t be here anymore.