In 2022, Léonie de Picciotto interviewed her friend and ICJW colleague Evelyn Askolovitch about her survival story and her personal take on combatting antisemitism. An edited version was included in the ICJW Newsletter in 2022, but here we reproduce the entire interview.
My dear friend Evelyn, we have known each other practically forever; your parents, like mine, young German Jews had fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930’s and were living in Amsterdam, where we both were born; this was supposedly a safe haven, a neutral country, like Switzerland, both neutral in the first world war. However Nazi Germany violated Holland’s neutrality in May 1940 and submitted the country to a brutal occupation. In the spring of 1943, in the wake of mass arrests of Jewish citizens, we were taken forcefully out of our homes, to be assembled in ‘the Hollandse Schouwburg’ theater prior to deportation. With my parents’ consent, I was smuggled out of the crèche by the Dutch resistance (an existing crèche, across the street from the Theater, where the Germans “parked” all small children, before deportation); I was hidden in the countryside with a caring Dutch family up to May 1945, Holland’s liberation. While Evelyn and her parents, like my family, were deported, first to the sinister camps in Holland, Vught and Westerbork, and from there to Germany, Concentration camp Bergen Belsen. Our parents had much suffering in common, in various degrees, but luckily survived the ordeal, with you, Evelyn, who just barely made it….
This short introduction to share with the readers our background and experiences, as very young Jewish children, survivors of the Shoah. To highlight Evelyn’s commitment to educate and bear witness, over and over again, in front of different audiences, but mainly in schools, all over France, to the terrifying history of the second world war, the horrors of the camps, the willful, organized crimes against Humanity, the extermination of European Jewry, 6 million men, women, children and babies…
Evelyn, when you stand in front of a school class of teenagers, what is your main message? The true History of the second World War? Illustrating that “Those who ignore history, are doomed to live it again”!?
When I am in front of a school class and start to tell my story, it is not really about the history of the Second World War, the Shoah is, according to historians, but a small part of the Second World War; what I do, is explaining to the young people the incredible fact that while millions were being murdered, no one cared… that it was possible, within a few war years, to eradicate European Jewry, without anyone intervening! While realizing fully what was happening to the deported Jewish citizens, the Allies, Canadians, Australians, Americans, the British, the French and others were focused on ending the war militarily, and to «deal afterwards” with the ‘Jewish problem’. As we all know, by then, “afterwards”, it was too late… Continental Europe was under powerful Nazi occupation and its governments, with very few exceptions, not only obeyed orders but collaborated in deporting their Jewish citizens to the death camps.
I always insist on the generally unknown fact, that my country, Holland, has the worst record of all Western European countries, 75% of its the Jewish population was exterminated in the gas-chambers of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. Of the 140.000 Jewish citizens living in Netherlands, in this civilized country, where anti-Semitism seemingly was not rampant, 102.000 were assassinated, between 1942 and 1945.
Your personal story, souvenirs, the very bad and the unusual ones?
I tell my personal story, not a heroic one, just the story of a little girl of 4 ½ years, who barely survived the horrors of the war, who suffered enormously during those terrible two years in 3 different concentration camps, for the sole reason that we were Jews!
The story of my family, brutally hauled out of our home, and immediately separated for two weeks, me in a creche, my parents in the Schouwburg, before being pushed into a cattle wagon (a total blanc in my memory), to end up in the first Dutch concentration camp, Vught, in the South of Holland. There, for 3 long months, I was in the children’s barracks, separated from my mother and father. All I can remember from these months, is illnesses, measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, hunger and I presume such an utmost misery, which I combatted certainly by a will to live, – a physician had told my mother that I would not survive the next week -, shutting the door of my mind, my memory. Which explains that I have no recollection of the second Dutch deportation camp, Westerbork; where children were no longer separated from their parents, I and my mother in the women’s barracks, my father in the men’s one.
However, I do remember the third camp, a concentration camp in the north of Germany, Bergen-Belsen. I remember the fear of loneliness, my parents were absent, working during the day, but at night I slept next to my mother, on the «ground floor» of 3 story beds. I remember the bombing of the camp by the Americans – a mistake apparently – and my fear that my parents might have been killed. I remember my 6th birthday with 3 presents, a piece of bread surrounded by oatmeal and “decorated” with a number 6 with oatmeal, and a little wooden bed and a wooden doll made by a man in the camp.
I remember the fear my father would die, he was ill, his kidneys suffering from the beatings he had undergone. While we were on a list of persons with Latin American passports, being scheduled in January 21st, 1945 to leave the camp in a Red Cross train, we had to attend the last Appel to prove we were alive and well, so as to be allowed onto the train; my father unable to get up for the Appel, I remember my mother screaming at him, and me, screaming at my mother that she should leave him alone, that she was being mean. Luckily for all of us, she managed to get him out of his bed and the next day we left the camp!! On our way to freedom! I do not remember the train, neither the Journey during 4 days and nights through Germany, bombed by the Allies, but I do remember the arrival at a station near the Swiss border and my father falling in the snow and me crying. He reassured me that everything would be all right. I remember going to a class in the Displaced Persons’ camp under the auspices of the UNWRA, the British and Germans, learning to write, read, calculate; slowly becoming a child again, not having been one during those two years..
The resilience, against all odds, what are the mechanisms that helped you?
I realize that we, the children having survived the concentration camps, were just huddled in a cloud of misery during the deportation; somehow we bounced back, playing again, studying, singing, shouting at the Germans when they left the camp at the end of the war.
I remember arriving back to Amsterdam, on January 31st, 1946, after a Journey in Red Cross trucks, to a festive atmosphere with Dutch flags all over; I figured: they were celebrating our return. In fact, those flags were celebrating the birthday of little Princess Beatrix!
I bounced back naturally, I think, perhaps it is in my genes, in my body, in my mind, the will and wish to live, to be happy, to see the sunny side of the street, to hope for a better world. Having experienced in my childhood real horrors, gives me the strength to see unfolding events in their true perspective, as the saying goes “what does not kill you, makes your stronger” ?! or better said, it creates a sort of resilience, that pervades our lives. Comparing the Covid of to-day to war times, amounts to ignorance of what war truly is about… ; we may be experiencing a difficult episode, but we are by no means facing a state of war.
The “never again” as the leitmotiv of your commitment to tell your story, your advocacy? combatting fake news and negationists?
It is not only the «never again» that is my aim when I confront the new generations, it is rather the certainty that I, amongst the very last survivors of the second world war and the Shoah, victims of a murderous Nazi regime that aimed at a ‘Judenrein’ Europe, cleared of its Jews, deported to terrible camps where people were maltreated, exhausted, sick and starving, dying! When not assassinated in gas chambers. When my generation will not be around anymore, the historians will take over, comment, and explain the Shoah, hopefully correctly. But as long as I can, I want to transmit my personal experience, to bear witness for all those who perished. Obviously the ‘’never again” is underlying this effort; I want to tell my story, which is the story of the survivors, what we had been through, the tragedy… These kids will know! And understand what antisemitism, hatred and cruelty can achieve when allowed to dominate unchecked. In all honesty and humility, I want Humanity to learn from its history, as told by an eye witness, a survivor. . I ask the youngsters for just one thing: if they meet people who deny the existence of the extermination camps, who pretend the Shoah never happened, that they, these youngsters, might answer that they had seen with their own eyes a victim who had survived the Shoah and had listened to her life story, that her unforgettable testimony had touched their hearts and minds.
In light of the above, just like antisemitism, all forms of hate, exclusion and discrimination need to be eradicated; how do you differentiate between the past and the present?!
You ask me a question, which is central to my discourse. I always insist that to-day we are witnessing again terrible wars, awful persecutions, a ten year war going on in Syria, millions of helpless refugees, after the 1994 horrific civil war in Rwanda, whole populations with their children being killed, recently Taliban takeover of Afghanistan…and so many other tragedies.
However, I refuse to compare anything of what is happening in the world to-day to the Shoah, for one simple and unique reason : The Shoah, was decided in cold blood, in two hours, at the Wannsee conference, at the outskirts of Berlin, in January 1942, by Hitler and Heydrich, and their thugs; it was called the «Final Solution to the Jewish problem»! no Jews were to survive in Europe and for that purpose all available means should be used : military, chemical, financial and economical, so that all of European Jewry would be wiped out, and Europe would be ‘Judenrein’ = purified of its Jews..
It is this aspect, this unprecedented historical fact, that makes the Shoah a stand-alone phenomenon.
You were honored twice by the French authorities, you received the “Palmes Académiques “ on September 2nd, 2017 and were awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur on July 2nd, 2021 ; please tell us about those events.
I have indeed been honored by the French Republic, first in 2017, when I received the highest grade of the Palmes Académiques because of my commitment to give my testimony in schools, and participating in a variety of history related projects. I confess that I was very astonished and felt honored, when the Chief Rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, informed me that he had submitted my candidacy and that it had been granted. Of course, I appreciated and was touched, at the ceremony we were 4 Holocaust survivors who received this distinction, for their commitment to sharing their life stories with young people.
The Legion d’Honneur, extended to me on January 1st 2021, I received actually at a ceremony in July, by someone I admire, Dr, Professor Boris Cyrulnik, neuro-psychiatrist, whose research has contributed tremendously to the understanding of how children cope with trauma. He is also a survivor, having been a young hidden child himself, in his speech he addressed me as his « little sister » ! I was touched and honored! You, Léonie attended the ceremony ( as you did for the previous one) with my family, my children, grand-children and great-grand-son. This recognition of the French Republic was a revenge, a kind of a slap in the face of the Nazis. I was not supposed to live, I was supposed to have died in Vught during the Kindertransport, or in Bergen Belsen, and there I was, surrounded by my wonderful family, 7 grandchildren and one great grandson, being officially and publicly honored, with the distinction of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur !
And so, I continue going to schools, taking part in a number of projects, such as this interview for ICJW’s newsletter! I want to thank you, my childhood friend, Léonie , for the introduction to this interview and your well-formulated questions, and Lilian Bosboom, for taking the initiative, to include my story in the Newsletter on Antisemitism!
An edited version of this article was published in the ICJW Newsletter in 2022. Click here to download the Newsletter