Click to Listen: Mr. Koek Tells His Story
Joseph Koek was 10 years old when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands. His father was a tailor and his mother was a manicurist. Their family of five included his two sisters. Mr. Koek spoke to a hushed crowd at Augustana College Monday night. He started by explaining why he shortened his Dutch name.
“I was advised to change my name because if I ever got married and had children and my kids would go to school and they would be called “kook-kook” and have problems. So I cut my name in half.”
He said his early childhood was wonderful, and since his parents didn’t discuss politics in front of him he was unaware of the enemy about to invade their country.
“After the Nazi invasion of May 5,1940 everything changed.”
The fear didn’t begin to come ’til later when I was not allowed to go to stores that were owned by some people. And then I had to start wearing the yellow star on my suit with the word Jew on it. And that curfew started to get earlier and earlier until the family could barely get out of the house.
On August 18, 1942 our family received a letter ordering us to report to the train station to be transported to what they said was a work camp. Later as an adult came to realize that my parents must have been laying plans to escape for a very long time unbeknownst to my sisters and me Because the next day I’m leaving home with a resistance guide. He’s a total stranger but we talk as he takes me to the end of the street and as we turn we keep walking until we get to the home where we’ll spend the next few years in hiding.”
Being only 12 years old I have no idea what to expect or what’s going on. I do not turn around to wave good-bye to my parents. I don’t kiss them good-bye. Looking back, now that I’m in my 80s, I wonder what must have been going on in my mind and more than that, what my parents must have been thinking.”
For years after the war I have punished myself for not dealing with our parting any better. My parents had to offer their three children that they loved to strangers that they must trust. None of us know what the future will hold for us. We never see our parents again.”
The Dutch Resistance guide led Joseph and his sisters to a three-story building where they hid on the top floor along with other children. The second floor of the building was a school, so when class was in session Joe and the others had to be very quiet. He said they played cards, Monopoly and his sister even taught him how to knit to pass the time in quiet ways.
“We found out that our parents had been betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo. They were picked up and they were transported to the camp at Auschwitz where they were murdered.”
After that Joe and his sisters were separated. He didn’t know where his sisters went but he was taken by train to live with a farmer and his wife in the Dutch countryside. It was a common practice during the war for city-dwelling parents to send their children to live with relatives on farms because food was scarce in the cities. So the farming couple told neighbors Joe was the child of relatives who came to stay with them to get away from the city. The farmers were wonderful to him and he went to school, church, and wore wooden shoes everyday. One day, while delivering crops to market with a horse-drawn wagon, those clumsy wooden shoes saved his life.
“As I was walking beside the wagon my wooden shoe caught on one of the wagon wheels. I tripped and I fell and I broke my leg. I was brought to the hospital where I spent the next six weeks in the children’s ward of the hospital. During my stay at the hospital I became aware that there was at least one other hidden child in my ward, a young girl. I also became aware that the doctor who ran the department was a dedicated Nazi.
On the second or the third day after I arrived at the hospital the Nazis had a round up. They marched into the village where I had been staying and for a tiny village they were sheltering a very large number of Jews and other escapees. Every single person who was hiding and every single person who had been sheltering them was taken to the front of the house and shot.
After my leg healed I was taken to an interim hiding place.”
Mr. Koek moved again to a new farming family in the northern region of Holland. Again he tried to settle into a routine of farm work and school. His new foster parents were also very good to him and they helped others too.
The father was generous with food and tried to help any hungry people that came around. Sometimes people would drive for hours and come from the city and trade whatever they could for food. Since hunger was by then rampant in the big cities, and this man was always kind he would give them whatever he could share.
Mr. Koek spent three years in hiding and had no idea where his sisters were or if they were even alive.
He also didn’t know, at this point, if his parents had survived. News of the outside world was heavily censored in Nazi occupied Holland, but they sometimes snuck in a few minutes of listening to resistance radio.
“On June 6, 1944 I heard a broadcast from the BBC that announced that the Allies were invading France. The winter of ’44-’45 was extremely difficult for the Dutch. Thankfully I never went hungry. But I heard about how desperate and hungry the general population was from all the people who came to the dairy factory.”
In May of ’45 the Nazis capitulated and the Dutch were finally free. I was only 15 years old and didn’t know where I would go or what I would do with the rest of my life. The family that had sheltered me had been wonderful to me and they were very, very fond of me also. However with great love and kindness they told me that they could not adopt me even if I could not find my real parents. They explained that because the Jewish people had lost so very much they wanted me to be true to my heritage and live a Jewish life.
At this point in time many groups including some Jewish organizations and the Red Cross were trying desperately to find the hidden children and reunite them with their families. Somehow they found the three of us.
Eva and Annie had been living in the south of the country so they had been liberated almost a year before me. Eva had already been living as an adult and Annie was living with a lovely Catholic family that really wanted to adopt her. In fact, they fought for Annie in court more than once and eventually agreed however to give her up only on the condition that Eva would quit her job and go into the orphanage with Annie and me in order to take care of our little sister.
I learned that my sisters had some very difficult experiences during the war. At one point the girls had been in hiding with a number of other people. One very wealthy self-centered gentleman in their hiding place had bribed the local officials … to get to America. He decided he needed to look good for his trip to America so over strenuous objections of all the other adults he left the hiding place to go and get a haircut. He was caught by the Nazis and led the Nazis back to the group’s hiding place. Eva and Annie were led away from the hiding place by gunpoint.
They were supposed to be sent to Westerbork, the concentration camp in the northeast part of Holland. There was a list of all the captives but somehow Eva’s and Annie’s names were left out from the list thanks to The Resistance. An undercover resistance fighter told Eva to take Annie to the bathroom and wait there until roll call was over. Eva and Annie went to a stall and stood on top of the toilet seat. While they were there a Nazi searched the bathroom. He peered under all the stall doors but didn’t see them since they were standing on the tops of the seat. Later on they returned into the main room of the holding area and in the middle of the night a woman awoke them and informed them that they were being escorted to a doctor. For some reason the Nazis let them take them. The woman who was from the resistance took Eva and Annie to… a mile and a half down the road and cut off their Jewish stars and returned them to hiding.
We later discovered that our family had lost about 100 relatives during the Holocaust.”
The three Koek children lived in a Jewish orphanage for many years until each of them turned 21.
“It was during those five or six years that I learned what had happened to my parents. I got a letter telling me that they had perished in Auschwitz. But for many years it was hard for me not to know what really had happened to them.
I never had any closure. I never got a way to say goodbye to my parents. As I am writing this it’s in the middle of the night in 2012 and I can’t fall asleep. I’m thinking of my parents. Where are they? Is this the last days of their lives? They are probably not together. They are probably not together. I have no idea how much they must suffer. I want to be with them one more time and talk with them.
At the present time, it’s 2012, I still miss them and so I can’t fall asleep. Crazy? Not really. I think about how much they must have suffered. I wish that I knew more about all they did to save our lives. I wonder why I am still living and able to tell the story; to share my feelings with you.
Is it alright for me to say at this late date thank you to my parents for all that they have done for me? Of course it is.
I am 12 years old. I walk out of the house with a resistance helper and I never look back. Now I wish that I had turned around and waved good-bye. But maybe that would have been too dangerous? I loved them more than they ever knew. I still do.”
Joseph Koek at Augustana College.
The next day he shared his story with soldiers in Rock Island.
A moment of silence.
RELATED: I found a wonderful blog with posts about The Netherlands in WWII. Here’s the link.