Still Seeking Justice: One Dutch Holocaust Survivor’s Ongoing Fight With Germany’s Government
Op-ed by Ben Cohen published in The Algemeiner
13 September 2018
Now 82 years old, Dutch Holocaust survivor Albert de Leeuw worked in the Amsterdam Jewish ghetto from the age of five.
Photo: Courtesy of Albert de Leeuw.
At the end of the Second World War, Albert de Leeuw was one of several Dutch Jewish children who turned up at the offices of the Jewish community in Amsterdam, searching for family who might have survived the Nazi Holocaust in The Netherlands. On a winter’s day in late 1945 or early 1946 — Albert doesn’t remember exactly — a man he did not recognize came to collect him, announcing himself as Albert’s father and bearing the news that Albert’s mother had come out of the war alive.
The man in question, a Mr. Blog, was Albert’s mother’s second husband. The two had met during the war while in hiding. Albert’s biological father, he was later to discover, was murdered in July 1943 in the Nazi concentration camp of Sobibor in Poland.
Severely traumatized and barely ten years of age, Albert accompanied Blog to the city of Eindhoven, in the south of Holland, where he was met by a woman who said she was his mother — the mother he had last seen in 1942, before she went into hiding, leaving the 5-year-old Albert with his grandfather in the heart of Amsterdam’s Jewish ghetto. That was the beginning of Albert’s childhood under Nazi occupation, marked by the loss of beloved relatives, mental and physical cruelty at the hands of strangers, and the abiding fear of being captured while in hiding.
“I didn’t recognize her,” Albert said, recalling the reunion with his mother. “So I addressed her as ‘Mrs. Blog.’ She was saying, ‘No, no, I am your mother,’ but I kept calling her ‘Mrs. Blog.’ The problem was, I couldn’t remember having had a mother. It was out of my system. I’d had so many mothers over the past four years.”
For those who have studied the accounts of Holocaust survivors, the kind of ordeal that Albert endured as a child has a depressingly familiar ring. Far less familiar, though, are the circumstances in which he experienced the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and the destruction of Dutch Jewry — circumstances so rare that, 72 years after the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule, Albert still hasn’t received proper compensation from the German federal government. The politicians and state officials he has appealed to for years, he informed The Algemeiner, tell him that they are sympathetic to his case, but that until German law is changed, there is nothing that can be done.
Hardly a satisfactory answer for a man of 82 who is still seeking justice.
Just one photograph of Albert as a child remains. It shows him at the age of five — he knows he was five, he said, because had it been taken a year later, he would have been wearing the yellow star which the Nazis required Jews over the age of six to display on their outer clothing. In the photo, Albert smiles proudly, his hands tucked into the pockets of his double-breasted overcoat, his socks pulled up to his knees.
There was no hint in that smile of what was to come. Before he turned six, in May 1942, Albert already had a job in the Amsterdam ghetto — unpaid, and with long hours, but still the only means of saving him from Nazi captivity. “My grandfather had a barber’s shop, a tiny place with only two stools,” he said. “I was the cleaner.”
In the spring of 1942 — a few weeks before the Nazi deportation of Dutch Jews to the killing centers in Poland began in earnest — Albert went to work in the cellar of Amsterdam’s Jewish hospital. “I was peeling potatoes, endless potatoes,” he remembered. But by October, the situation was no longer tenable. Albert’s grandfather sent the boy into hiding through a contact at Amsterdam’s Jewish Council. Two weeks later, his grandfather was rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, where he perished.
For the next three years, Albert was in hiding. “I lived at different addresses with different identities,” he said. “I hid at 23 separate addresses.”
Even then, Albert was captured twice by the Nazis. The first time, the Nazi officers pulled down his pants to check if he was circumcised — a tried and tested method of capturing most Jewish males, but not Albert. “My father didn’t believe in religion, so he never had me circumcised,” he said. “They let me go.”
The second time, he was less fortunate. Captured while in hiding by collaborators he described as “Dutch bounty hunters,” Albert was delivered to the Nazis. “Those men received 7 guilders and 50 cents for every Jew they betrayed to the Gestapo,” he recalled.
Albert de Leeuw at the age of five.
Photo: courtesy of Albert de Leeuw.
Albert was sent to the Westerbork concentration camp in the north-east of Holland, from where the great majority of the pre-war Dutch Jewish community of 140,000 were deported to the slave labor and death camps in the east. Albert was placed on one train eastwards, accompanied by two policemen. A small band of Dutch resistance fighters appeared, pretending to start a fight and making lots of noise on the crammed train as the locomotive pulled out of the station. With Albert’s guards having been distracted, the boy was grabbed my one of his fellow passengers and passed to a woman on the platform. “We left the station immediately,” he said. “I was put on a farmer’s cart and taken to these nearby woods, where there was a hiding place underground.” For a week, perhaps two, Albert languished in a hole in the ground.
That ushered in the next phase of Albert’s life under Nazi occupation. He was passed between several families in rural Holland, all of whom put him to work on their farms. He tried to escape from one family — “bastards,” he called them — “but they caught me and beat me half to death.”
Between the ages of six and nine, Albert remembered, “every family I hid with had a different religion. I had to adapt to the standard of each family in order not to stand out. One might be Dutch Reformed, another might be Catholic.” After attending Mass on a Sunday with one of his Catholic “families,” Albert said, the priest took him to a back room of the church where he raped him. “I was sexually abused at different places,” he said matter-of-factly. “It happened three or four times.”
As the war ended and some semblance of normality returned to the Netherlands, Albert — now reunited with the mother he’d forgotten — faced a wall of silence. “No one explained anything to me,” he said. “It was standard procedure that no one spoke about the war. My mother would become hysterical when I asked her about it.”
Nor was there any fairytale ending. Mr. Blog was physically abusive toward Albert’s mother and domestic life was a variation on his previous misery. “I threatened to kill him,” Albert said of his stepfather. “I was a very difficult kid.” A decade after the war, Albert did his military service and returned to Amsterdam. “I was living in the streets, begging,” he said. “There was a group of us, kids who had been in hiding or in the camps during the war. There was no support at all, the Dutch government didn’t do anything.”
The search for justice
Slowly, Albert began to rebuild his life, finding work as a salesman, and even getting married twice before settling down with his third partner, Gladys, in 1978. It was Gladys who helped Albert to deal with his past, and she continues to be his greatest support, both morally and practically, in his bid for proper compensation from Germany. So far, Albert has received a pittance — a lump sum of $1,700 in recognition of the 165 members of his family who perished in the Holocaust, and, from 2013 onwards, a monthly pension of just 12 euros. That sum was increased to 28 euros (about $30) in 2016 — an amount that remains woefully short of the “worthy pension” (“angemessene rente”) for all ghetto workers that the German parliament voted in favor of in April 2014.
One factor that has made Albert’s case so distinctive is his date of birth — May 2, 1936. Under Germany’s social security rules, the pension for a ghetto worker who hadn’t attained the age of 14 by 1949 is calculated by the few months that he or she actually labored, resulting in a typical monthly payment of under 100 euros. “In practice, we Holocaust ghetto workers are recognized as the same as the average German citizen,” Albert said.
That technicality has resulted in a double standard denounced by Shimon Samuels — the director of international affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) who has worked closely with Albert for several years — as “sickening.”
“Since 1945, Germany has reportedly paid the equivalent of 1,500 euros per month to 25,000 Dutch volunteers in the Nazi Wehrmacht, totaling approximately 450 million euros per year,” Samuels told The Algemeiner. Indeed, when those payments caused a political storm in 1997, the German government confirmed that “former members of the Waffen-SS and their survivors could claim war-victim pensions under the German welfare laws on the grounds of injury or disability during the war.”
While Albert could also claim to have suffered both “injury” and “disability” as a direct result of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Germany’s pensions agency, the DRV, doesn’t quite see it that way. Officials at the agency who have spoken with Albert have told him that his pension — and those of 150 other Holocaust survivors in the same position — can only be reviewed if Germany’s Parliament passes an appropriate law.
The current guidelines for ghetto worker applicants are riddled with qualifications, but they do acknowledge that “in the case of persons persecuted under National Socialism periods of employment in a ghetto that was situated in a territory within the National Socialist sphere of influence may be recognized under certain circumstances as German [social security] contribution periods.” Those who manage to qualify, however, receive a sum that pales in comparison to the monthly pensions paid out to former SS volunteers.
“There is no fixed pension amount,” a spokesperson from Germany’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs explained to The Algemeiner. “The amount depends on the number of contribution periods and the amount of earnings on which the level of contributions is based. If only few contributions were paid to the German pension insurance — so if, for example, the majority of a person’s working life was spent outside Germany — this will only result in a low pension.”
But that response drew an angry reaction from the SWC’s Samuels, who pointed to the parallels with the campaign by Jewish organizations in the 1990s to secure the life insurance payments owed to victims of the Nazis.
“Back then, the major life insurance companies responded to beneficiary policy holder claims by demanding, ‘Provide the death certificate!'” Samuels recalled. “Unfortunately, these were not made available in Auschwitz.”
By the same token, Samuels continued, “it is inconceivable that, today, a German official claims that the pensions of ghetto workers depend on ‘the number of contribution periods paid into German pension insurance,’ and on ‘how much of a person’s working life was spent outside Germany.’ It’s sickening.”
While ghetto workers can also claim a one-off payment of 2,000 euros, Samuels stressed that this still falls markedly short of the millions of euros paid in pensions and benefits to SS volunteers and other collaborators with the Nazi regime. In the light of Albert’s advancing years, Samuels said, the German government should agree to a “without prejudice settlement now, before it’s too late.”
For the present, though, Albert continues to receive the same answers from Germany’s pensions agency. “The DRV officials keep adhering to the minimum age of 14 in 1949 in order to be eligible for a ‘worthy’ pension,” he said. “This is the main cause of our fight, which so far we could not win.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Albert revealed that, “I sometimes ask myself, ‘What was worse? The time during the war or after?'” Perhaps a modicum of justice in the twilight of his life will provide him with some kind of answer.