After his presentation Mr. Koek took questions from the audience. He said he decided to tell his family’s story about seven years ago after a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at his synagogue. The president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum was the speaker at that service:
And I said to him, I said, ‘I’m one of the hidden children’, I said, ‘And I’m one of the survivors.’
And he says, ‘Are you telling your story?’ And I said, ‘No I can’t.’ Like most of us, we couldn’t. And he looks me straight in the eye the way you’re looking at me now and he said, ‘But Joe you must.’ And ever since then I haven’t shut up.
Some audience members wondered if Joe had ever gone back to visit his host families. He did return many decades later and made contact with the son of one of the couples.
Joe came to the U.S. after his oldest sister moved to the states after the war. She found him a job and so, in 1956, he came to Chicago. He became a tailor like his father, and then opened a dry cleaners. He also married, twice, and has three children and five grandchildren. His younger sister still lives in Amsterdam.
Question: What was it like the first time you told your story and where was it?
The first time was in Libertyville at a junior high school in front of over 300 children. Before I went there I went to the gentleman who was in charge of the speaker’s bureau and I said to him, ‘Where do I get trained for this?’ And he says, ‘You don’t.’ He said, ‘You go to school, you walk in front of these children and you tell them your story.’ And of course since then it’s become a little bit less difficult but it’s still not that easy.”
Question: What was their response?
“Interestingly enough the kids are wonderful. The questions…are fantastic. I’ve had groups of children where they would come to me, ‘can I shake your hand?’ ‘can I hug you?’
There’s a lady here from the area…brings children from the Middle East who are Muslims and other religions…these kids have become my friends.”
Joe says he wants the students he meets to understand that “we are all alike. We need to live together peacefully.” He read the audience a final page from his story that he usually reserves for students:
“The story of the Holocaust tells us that there are people who hate other people so much that they will kill them only because they believe different, or look different. My story also tells us that there are also people who will do anything to save others, including risking their own lives. My wish for you children, is that you will grow up and belong to the second group.”
Joe also spoke to troops and guests at the Rock Island Arsenal’s Day of Remembrance Ceremony on April 9th. He answered a few more questions there.
What happened to your first host family – the ones where you were wearing the wooden shoes and then you fell?
“That was the second host family. The first one was The Haig, the second was the farmers and since I was no longer living with them when the Nazis walked into their house it was just a farmer and his wife. They turned around and left them alone.”
So they were safe.
“They were safe.”
The name of the village where the slaughter took place is Zevenhuizen.
Since you’ve been sharing your story does it make the memories more difficult, or does it help?
“It comes and it goes. It depends on who the audience is, what my mood is that day. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes…a day like today…it was not so easy seeing all these uniformed men. It’s a little difficult.
Joe’s son Steve was with him at both of these events and has seen his dad tell his story before.
What did you think when your dad started doing this?
Oh I thought it was phenomenal. I mean I think it’s changed his life. I think it’s added years to his life, to be able to do it. I was telling someone over there that he’s always loved to talk, he’s always been a ham – it’s been such a release for him, to be able to share it and to see the importance of the story living on for the next generations. I think he enjoys it and sees the importance of it. And for me as a son to be able to watch him and to hear the story is incredible. And to see the reactions from people, now that I’ve seen it a few more times, is really endearing.
At the Arsenal Ceremony several members of the audience, men and women alike, were moved to tears.
4/19/14 – The Dutch want to create the first Holocaust memorial that includes the names of over 100,000 Dutch citizens who were exterminated by the Nazis. For more information see holocaustnamenmonument.nl