January 31, 2020
Irit Nener (birth name in Netherlands - Lea Winnik)
Irit Nener, a Holocaust survivor in Amsterdam, donated two silver-plated ceramic birds to the Museum.
An Attempt of transcript. The story of Irit Nener.
Transcribed by Sasha Galitsky on 9/10/2019 in Akkhuzat Poleg, between 1pm and 3pm.
— When this Nomi started talking I was outraged.
— Which Nomi?
— You don’t know her. Never mind, let’s eat first.
— Don’t eat, if you don’t like it: I have no idea what you like.
— Salmon, artichoke, cucumber, mayo, lox. What I could find in the fridge. Don’t have olives. I always improvise.
— Yesterday I published your photo on my Facebook page. The one with VanGogh, remember? In 2013, in my project? So many people admire your work and you yourself.
— I? Me? What for? You’re making fun of me. What so outstanding in what I’ve done other’s haven’t? OK, not important.
— Tell me, Irit, Yad Vashem knows your story?
— Yes, of course. Not really. They’ve asked me time and again to tell them, but I don’t have strength. Don’t want to. How to explain? I’m like a soldier returning from the frontline. I’m coming home from the war and do not want to remember the war. I want to remember the war among other fighters, fighters like me.
It’s absolutely true.
Here nobody has a vaguest idea about what we have lived through. No idea what Shoa really was.
Of course people born in Israel don’t have the idea of it. Why was I so appalled a week ago? People are sitting there. And that woman made big eyes! First time in her life she heard about the Shoah! It hurts me badly!
— Are you talking about Leah?
— Yes, I’m talking about Leah. And, by the way, about Pinhas and his late wife, Auva. Once we were walking around Amsterdam. Where the ghetto used to be. It’s not there anymore: they have cleaned it away, demolished it. I am telling Pinhas and Auva about the ghetto. And Auva started painting her nails in the middle of the street! With whom can I talk? When it happens, it hurts too much, I can’t say anything. Nobody understands. I can talk only to people who have similar experiences. It’s understandable.
— Tell me, what Yad Vashem knows about your story?
— Nothing. They know I’m alive.
— Have they contacted you?
— Yes, several times.
— My husband has done something for Yad Vashem. Those “illegals”, those non–Jews, who saved us, they were sent to Auschwitz and never came back. Understand? They were devout Christians, like our Hasidim. It was a group of young Christians, 23-24 years old, and they paid with their lives to save us.
They managed to save 250 Jewish children from certain death.
In Israel many other Righteous among Nations have been awarded medals for saving Jews, received recognitions and every honor you can think about. We were told: “This is a group with no name, we can't count them among The Righteous among Nations.”
So finally my husband put Yad Vashem to rights. In the end, those who had saved us, were recognized as Righteous among Nations by Yad Vashem.
...And the concert took place. I was asked what music I wanted during the celebratory evening. I booked the musicians. They wanted a funeral prayer. But I said NO! Of course, I didn’t want Boogie Woogie, but I wanted a life-affirming joyful music. Nothing can be better than what those people have done for me! I’m sitting here now, and I started a new life, and I have children!
I gather, it was the first time this kind of music was played in the museum. It was great.
— So now the museum is aware of that group?
— Yes. They saved 250 children, who were going to death camps.
You can say, the group snatched the children from the lion’s jaws. Paid with their lives for it.
— How did they manage to do that?
— In different ways. Children under sixteen were separated from the parents.
Nazis gathered adult Jews in the Amsterdam drama theater. 4000 people were confined in the space built to accommodate 300. It was a transit point. Next stop — Auschwitz. Across the street from the theater Nazis emptied an orphanage, not Jewish orphanage, regular orphanage, and put Jewish children there.
Our street was on the tram route. Trams had several cars, connected to each other. The tram drivers probably knew something, or maybe the nearest stop made them slow down approaching the orphanage. There was an SS post nearby, but children had the time to escape hiding behind slow moving tram cars.
That’s how the children ran away.
— Where did you run?
— Whenever, just ran.
This was one route of escape. I didn’t run behind the tram. There was another one.
Our parents (don’t ask me how, I don’t know, I was just ten) somehow managed to take the names of my sister and me from the lists of children in the orphanage. So our names were not on the list of children who were going to Auschwitz.
We stayed in the orphanage illegally. My sister is three and a half years older than me, she was thirteen.
So more than once we were woken in the middle of the night: “Kids, kids, get up quickly and run upstairs! From roof to roof, run! Inspection!” Our senior caretaker kept attic windows open on purpose. And we ran. Where? God knows.
So that’s how my sister and I scooted into town.
— How long did you stay at the orphanage?
— Something like two weeks. We were hiding in the orphanage, ran away twice.
— What do you mean — twice?
— It’s a long story.
So we scooted. Two girls. Where to go? Every second we might’ve been caught. We knew Amsterdam well. Went to the market and climbed under the tarp covering the stalls. It was drizzling. Not a downpour like here, in Israel, just drizzle, European drizzle.
We slept under the tarp. It was not easy. Hard to imagine. I have many stories. See, we had to eat, wash, change clothes. Cold. Rain. And suddenly we remembered that our former housekeeper lived in the house nearby, on the third floor.
Well, at least we had that. We climbed to the third floor and entered the apartment. The woman wasn’t exactly happy to see us. She said: “Kids, you could be arrested at any moment. I can’t help you.” I started crying and yelling: “I want my mama!”
The housekeeper went to the window and said: “ Look! (This is an interesting story.) Look, kids. There’s a man standing down there, on the street. I’ve heard he helps Jewish children. Go to him.” At that very moment a man was talking to somebody on the intersection. What was left for us to do? We couldn’t stay with her.
I approached the man. As I remember he was very tall, wearing a trenchcoat. And I said:
— Mister! And I tugged on his trenchcoat.
— Yes, little girl?
— I heard, you help Jewish children.
He looked at me. My sister whispered not to tell the man anything else. I guess I was smarter than her and we didn’t have anything to lose. He asked what our names were.
We told him our names and he said:
— Go back to Krash (Krash was our orphanage), — go back to Krash and I will get you out, WHEN THE TIME COMES.
That's what he said. My sister scolded me: “ Look, what you’ve done! We have to go back now. Surely he is an SS. He wants us to return to the orphanage!”
But everything happened like the man had said.
Afterwards Nazis captured him, tortured and sent him to Bergen-Belsen, where he perished.
— How did you come back? How? You couldn’t just use the main entrance?
— There’re things I can’t remember.
— How did the man fish you out?
— Two nurses from the famous professor Cohen’s clinic worked at the orphanage. Professor Cohen visited officially with the Nazi’s permission. It’s a well known story, he was put on trial after the war...
So those two nurses knew that we had to escape. One day we were called downstairs. We went downstairs. We saw the nurses and a strange man. He took a look at us and said:
—It will work. This one looks like an Indonesian ( my sister and I looked completely different), and this one will pass for a Christian. All’s well. Kids, go back upstairs.
Shortly we received an order to run once again. We had to appear at a certain Amsterdam address, where somebody would pick us up and send us further.
So it happened as had been planned.
And so my train trips began.
My sister and I were separated.
I was ordered not to talk to anybody.
That’s how I was saved.
— What about your parents? How were you captured by Nazis?
— Before that the whole family went into hiding, We left Amsterdam and hid. Somebody gave us away. I remember that night. Papa had made a secret room in the attic of some house. It was expensive — to hide.
One night the Nazis came: “ Four personen, raus, raus or we’ll shoot!”
And what do you think! We came down, or they would start to shoot. They knew we were there.
And we went from one jail to another. Real Dutch jails. Parents were in one cell, my sister and I in another. I can’t say we enjoyed it.
So we traveled from town to town until we ended up back in Amsterdam.
It was 1943.
Our parents knew they wouldn’t return. Once a week we were allowed to see our parents for half an hour. (When they were in the drama theater). Papa said : “Children! For more than nine months we managed to hide from danger, and we were together. Remember: most likely Mama and I will not come back to you. (Mama tried to shush him: Don’t talk nonsense!) But Papa knew. “Wait for us for 25 years. If we don’t come back after 25 years, it will mean we are gone.”
Those were our parents’ last words.
Papa also said to my sister: “ You should take care of Leah ( those days my name was Leah) you are the older sister. But when you are suddenly in fear for your life, you must think only of yourself and save yourself at all costs. And Leah must do the same. Don’t think about your sister when in mortal danger.”
—What was your sister’s name?
— How have you become an Irit?
— Here, in a kibbutz, in Palestine. They had six Leahs before me and didn’t want the seventh one.
In 1940 when Nazis invaded Holland everything was happening gradually. Dutch are Dutch. Nobody had an idea of gas chambers. If you work hard, things will be fine again. We learned about gas chambers after the war.
OK. Let’s continue with dinner. Soup!
— Tell me, have you told your story to the children? Do they know?
— I haven’t talked to anyone.
— I can’t be the first one you are telling the story now?
— No. My husband knew. To tell the truth, he couldn’t imagine it at first: hard to believe what happened to me. And the children were upset with me at first but in time came to understand not to ask me anything. They are still angry at me. They say: “ Mama, you’ll be gone soon. We want to know what you lived through.” I agree, but stop at that. You know, when my eldest, Yair, was still little, this Dutch guy came to visit, one of the people we used to know in the previous life. We had a conversation and I told him: “ Thank God, my children are growing up like everybody else, despite the fact that I survived the Shoa. They don’t feel it.” Little Yair said to me: “ You’re mistaken, mama.” I always wanted my children to be ordinary and normal. But it’s impossible to forget.
— When did you have your children?
— Yair was born in 1951, Anat — 1964. Yes. I was in a hurry to give birth to Anat, so she would make it in time for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah. (Laughs)
— 13 year difference?
— I’ve made a cold soup. Maybe there’s not enough salt, I was afraid to put too much salt in the soup. Add some yourself if you wish. Imagine, what jail can do to a child. No bathroom, nothing. Go into the bucket. I am always thinking about it.
— Oy, oy, oy. Stories... And it’s just a small part of my life. You are asking how all this was happening in Holland... Little by little. First Jews were forbidden to ride bicycles. Then they transferred me to a Jewish school after the joint education for non-Jews and Jews was banned, Then they burned books. Then we were forbidden to shop for groceries after 3 pm, and not all we needed was available. Then the curfew started at 8pm. Slowly, slowly Nazis were tightening the screws.
— Please, sit down already!
— OK, I’m sitting down. Let’s have some soup. This is my invention, this soup. With croutons. I fry them in olive oil with some garlic. Put some more in your soup, more! Eat the croutons while they’re crunchy.
— Thank you. So tell me how you moved from one family to another 22 times? Why 22 times?
— Sudden danger. You had to disappear fast. Quickly, quickly you had to run away in the middle of the night. Sometimes my hosts became fed up seeing me every day. God knows what else. And I had to run. Only during nighttime, I never left the house during the day. Guess why I have a bad back with four vertebrae out of place? Also my legs and feet used to get swollen from hunger.
I was hungry. Even after the end of the war we were still brewing tree leaves for tea. Sometimes villagers would spare a bottle of milk, and then it was my responsibility to shake the bottle so there was a little butter on the bottom. It was done for Christmas!
I was not a Jew any longer. I was a Protestant. I was holier than the Pope, even if he is a Catholic.
— You stayed with many families. How did they treat you? It was not too bad?
— Yes and no... Those people were paid to hide us. Are you surprised? There were some who hid us in exchange for a place in Haven, which they would get if they saved a Jew, the killer of Christ! (Laughs) Probably.
— I lived with Protestants. Some of them were nice, some not nice at all.
— How did you fit with the kids your age?
— Badly. All the children knew perfectly well who I was and did to me whatever they wanted. I had nobody to complain to. Once... I had a rough idea whеre my sister was... I went looking for her... You know, they had a barn so to speak... And he raped me. He was a boy about 18... I didn’t understand what had happened. It just hurt so much. I went to some house and told the people there about this thing. They figured it out and called a priest. I stayed with him for two days and was about to leave. The night I left, Nazis burst into his house and shot the priest in his own yard. The priest was in the Resistance.
Eat your soup before croutons get soggy.
I really didn’t understand what that guy had done to me. It was disgusting and I hurt everywhere. This is only a part of my story. I can’t just tell you the story start to finish! It’s as long as ten books, my story!
But it is impossible to put into words.
— The soup is delicious!
— Eat, eat, eat! I now have the food for the entire week. Fresh tomatoes. What else have I put in... Salt. Pepper. Chicken stock concentrate. Do I know what else? A little bit of this, a little bit of that...Soy...And a slice of bread to thicken the soup! And mixed everything up with a blender.
And croutons! I add croutons everywhere. To borscht. To a cold beet soup with sour cream. Delectable! And during winter I add croutons to pea soup. Eat, there’s plenty left...
— Yes. And how did you get out of Holland? What happened after the war?
— When the war ended (I don’t know if you’ll believe me or not) this took place. This story as many others started well and ended in disaster. My uncle, my father’s brother, started looking for me after the war. His entire family perished in Shoa, he was the only one to survive. My uncle started looking for family members who were still alive. A child here, a widow there. He rented an enormous twelve-room apartment to accommodate everybody.
My uncle was a Jew, with a huge nose, but didn’t know anything about Jewish tradition. He found me and took me in. And I was a Christian!
It was difficult for my uncle to deal with me. I was stronger than him, And then this woman returned from Auschwitz. Not his wife, a distant relative. She didn’t want me in the house. My life became horrible. Row upon row. All hell broke loose. She wanted to get rid of me: I knew too much about her.
One day. One day another row happened. My uncle hit me. I hit him back.
He told me to leave. And so I left.
And so I’m walking and walking. It was a Saturday evening. All of a sudden I saw a house with Hebrew letters on the front. How did I know it was Hebrew letters? They are telling me, my father went to either Jewish seminary or to a synagogue school, I don’t know exactly where.
Even then, a long time ago, my grandmother, my father’s mother, owned a vacuum cleaner. One Saturday she started vacuuming, and my father told her that Jews were not allowed to do that on Saturday. My grandmother answered him something like this: “Who are you to be telling me what and when I can do in my own house?” Papa felt offended and left. He didn’t come back for half a year. And returned a brazen atheist.
Sad to say, but I hadn’t got any notion of a Jewish religious culture from Papa when I was still little.
— So you saw Hebrew letters on that house. What happened next?
— Yes, Yes. Here I am. I recognized Hebrew.
It started to rain. I knocked at the door. It was Sunday. A woman opened the door and asked what I wanted.
I told her that my name was Leah Vinnik (that was my name then) and asked: “Lady, what is kibbutz?” (Laughs)
She looked me over carefully and asked where I lived. I replied.
The woman invited me for coffee. As it were, her entire family also perished during the war. This woman became everything to me.
Later she helped me to move to Palestine.
I traveled via Paris with Transfer in Marcelle. On the train I met Hasidic Jews for the first time in my life. White beards, black hats. I wondered if they were some kind of monks.
— Irit, who were your parents? What did they do for a living?
— My parents owned a tailor shop. Papa was a well known local tailor, he dressed gentlemen of Amsterdam.
I remember sitting on a long table in the atelier watching papa work. I was five. Sometimes he had to take his clients’ measurements and I had to go play.
— This is delicious. You must tell all of this to your children.
— You know, Sasha, disappointment is a terrible thing. During the war you are waiting for it to end, dreaming about happy life afterwards. Here, now people don’t have the vaguest idea about what we went through.
It’s time for the second course.
— You’ve lost your mind. I have to take a picture of the table!
— This is eggplant with rice. Oy, can’t remember if I put salt in it or not. Didn’t have time for one more salad. This is sweet and sour beef. Help me.
— Irit, sit down already. Enough!
— You should put more salt in it if you want.
— You’d been waiting for mother and father for 25 years? Do you know anything about their fate?
— Not much. They were taken later that week. Papa — to Auschwitz, mama — to Birkenau.
— Papa survived for a long time. He died in 44, when Russians were advancing. He died in the snow. Don’t know anything about mama. Maybe she was taken for medical experiments? I don’t know.
Why I was outraged then, that day. It is very difficult to talk about our “Holy Land”, “Eretz Israel”. It all started with Nomi. She's one of ours, lives nearby. She decided to open a German class for the elderly in our building. She put the invitations into the mailboxes. At the bottom of the invitation it said: "Speaking German is very nice!"
I came to the first class. And I spoke. I said: “Nomi. I don’t go to Germany. Before, when I used to travel, I had to change planes in Germany. Not to worry others, I did my best to take it easy. I know that here, now not many will understand me. But to come to our retirement home with “Speaking German is very nice” — isn’t it too much?”
I told Nomi she wasn’t capable of understanding: Nomi came to Palestine from Germany as a baby, in the early 30s, before the war. What difference does it make if she had been a school principal or a department manager of some special school in Nagaria? I told Nomi it was time for me to declare I would not speak German and had no intention to attend her class.
The room was silent. Nomi told me she herself loved Germany very much and enjoyed vacationing there with her German friends. She respected my point of view but was entitled to her own.
See, it was impossible to cause me more pain. Once again I was reminded of the fact that people here have no idea, just don’t know, what we have gone through.
Help yourself to more beef. I always improvise.
— What happened to that Dutch group that saved you and your sister?
— Some of them were captured by Nazis, tortured and sent to camps, to join the Jews.
Their leader was tortured especially brutally.
Remember the guy in the trenchcoat who stood on the street? The one we approached and pulled on his coat? He died in Bergen-Belsen. His wife saved my sister, hid my sister in their apartment in Amsterdam (I wasn't aware of it at the time)
Eat, eat. Didn’t know if you’re a vegetarian, made some rice just in case. I should’ve asked you earlier. Tastes good? Good.
— Tell me about your husband.
— My husband lived through the war in Switzerland. They didn't have it easy there also. Not many know this story.
My husband’s name was Hanoch. His family emigrated from Poland to Switzerland in 22. They never got citizenship because it was very expensive to obtain. The family remained Polish emigrant paupers. Hanoch was offered Swiss citezenship right after the end of the war but he was a Zionist, didn’t want to stay in Europe and made it to Palestine. He would turn in his grave if he knew about Nomi and her German class in our building.
Hanoch was so handsome!
— What happened to him at the end?
— At the end he was sick.
Hanoch arrived in Palestine with the group of 600 young men from all the camps. First they had spent some time in Sweden, recovering.
When Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem was bombed they marched the streets with flags. Everyone was very handsome,
Hanoch was wearing a blue shirt, young, flag in his hand, ahead of everybody else. They were singing that march (singing) “lalalala, those words are written in blood…, lalalala”— you know this march ( I don’t. S.G.)
My husband… At first we lived in kibbutz. The Corean war started and Hanoch decided to bring his parents to live with us. We left the kibbutz.
Then Ben Gurion took notice of Hanoch…
In short, Hanoch became the first mayor of Eilat. Yes, yes, yes! You can’t imagine the sea there! The whole place was empty, devoid of people. Nobody was around.
Then Hanoch served as a consul in the US, in Chicago and after that, in France.
One day Hanoch was diagnosed with cancer. Before that we were in a car accident. Head-on collision with a truck not far from Haifa. Route 2 hadn’t been built yet.
My son, Yair, was in the car with us. We were lucky to be in the fiberglass Susita, not an ordinary car. Otherwise, nobody would’ve survived.
The surgeries. My husband, my son…
I told Hanoch the family was more important to me than anything else. I wanted him to leave the foreign service all the more so our son never fully recovered from the accident.
Hanoch obeyed me without arguing.
Then he got sick. He was sick for a long time, five years, and died in 1992. Hanoch was 69.
One thing I have to tell you, Sasha. My life was never dull. Rises and falls. Nightmares and boundless love.
— What about you? What did you do? Were you able to have an education?
— Yes. At first I volunteered at a hospital in Eilat. I helped with conducting tests and learned to verify them with a microscope. Professor Granot sent me to some courses. She sent me a quality microscope. And so my career took off! (Laughs.)
And then I got my bachelor degree in Chicago. My field is microbiology.
— Tell me have you submitted the names of your killed family to Yad Vashem?
— No. Their records state I was in Auschwitz. It is a mistake. Though a photograph of my sister and I is on the display at the Amsterdam (Holocaust) museum. But they don’t know my true story at Yad Vashem.
— Irit, I’ll write about you in Russian. We don’t know much either. I grew up in the USSR. Nobody told us about Jewish genocide. We were told ”Many civilians died”. I myself did not know anything.
— Now desert. Melon and kiwi.
Hanoch was ten years older than me.
I will follow him soon.