A survivor’s story
- Paul Duchene
- Portland Tribune - Features
• In the death camps, an Oregon woman learned defiance
Eline Hoekstra Dresden slept well until Jan. 8 this year.
Then, four days after her 79th birthday, the Holocaust survivor had a stroke.
Suddenly the terror of the death camps came flooding back.
'Many people ask if I've had nightmares, but I've never dreamed about those years at all,' says Dresden, who spent 18 months as a laborer at Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands Ñ never knowing if the next train to Auschwitz would be hers.
'Then I had this stroke. It left me blind in my right eye. I'm not as capable as I was, and now I have terrible nightmares. I can't work hard enough, I can't run fast enough, and soldiers keep shouting, 'Schnell! Schnell!' ('Faster!').'
Dutch-born Dresden is one survivor who will recall her experiences during the Portland visit of the 'Anne Frank: A History for Today' exhibit, at Lloyd Center through May 5. It is expected to attract more than 100,000 people.
The diary of teen-ager Anne Frank is considered the definitive account of the daily terror and spiritual resistance to Adolf Hitler's 'final solution,' which led to the extermination of 6 million Jews.
Frank and her family fled Germany and hid in a secret apartment in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for two years until they were betrayed.
Her diary, published in 1947, has sold 25 million copies in 56 languages and inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and an Oscar-winning movie. The exhibit re-creates a room of the Frank family's hideout, and visitors can take a virtual walk through the apartment.
Against the odds
Sunlight gleams on Dresden's log home outside Oregon City as she settles in her kitchen, fingering the worn documents of her frightening youth. Chickens cackle in the back yard; the setting feels almost like Eastern Europe.
Dresden met Anne Frank at Westerbork, the labor camp where Dresden was interned from September 1943 to the end of World War II. Frank and her family were shipped there in 1944 on their way to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where, shortly before the war ended, Anne and her sister, Margot, would die. Otto Frank lived through the war and published his daughter's diary.
'If Anne hadn't been caught so early, she would have survived,' Dresden says. 'She missed it by a week. No trains left for the death camps after that.'
But the odds were stacked against the Franks, she says:
'If you were caught hiding, you went to the punishment barracks and straight on the first train out. You had no chance to work. If you worked, there was a chance you might survive. In the beginning you didn't know whether to bet on hiding, but very few Jews survived hiding.
'Holland had a very poor percentage of Jews who survived the war. There were 140,000 Jews in Holland, and only 35,000 survived. Poland was disastrous, but in Denmark the population put the Jews in fishing boats and took them to England.'
Dresden was born in The Hague in 1923, the youngest of four children of a successful turbine engineer. She was a rebellious child, a trait that would stand her in good stead in the trials ahead. Throughout her internment she would find ways to defy the Nazis, and it kept her going.
'It's a risky thing to do, but it makes you feel powerful,' she says, telling tales of smuggling food and messages.
The noose tightens
When the Nazis invaded, Dresden had been about to attend medical school in Utrecht and planning to get married. Then the Nazis began the process of isolating the Jews, using synagogue records to identify them.
Dresden completed one year of medical studies but was kicked out because she was Jewish.
'The professor said I could come and study at night,' she says, 'but after a while it was too dangerous.'
Meanwhile, the Nazis tightened the noose. Food, gasoline, soap and cooking gas were rationed. Jewish identification papers carried a large J; Jews could only shop from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and had a curfew.
They were fired from all positions of authority; bank accounts, stocks and real estate were seized. The Nazis confiscated all the Jews' bicycles Ñ then banned them from using public transport. Jews were also invited to 'donate' any diamonds they held.
'It was insidious,' Dresden says. 'The Nazis assured us nothing had changed. They even gave receipts for what they took Ñ which were worthless.'
Dresden married her non-Jewish boyfriend, Kees, in secret because of the danger to him Ñ he'd be considered a Jew if he married one. Soon, she became pregnant.
Meanwhile, the Nazis seized the family's home, first ordering the couple to empty it and 24 hours later demanding that everything be returned because the troops who were going to occupy the house would need furniture.
Dresden gave birth to a son, Daniel, on March 28, 1942. Two days later the Nazis decreed that all Jews must wear yellow felt stars on their clothing and could no longer entertain non-Jews in their homes.
'This is 60 years old,' Dresden says, fingering her own star. 'The organizers asked me to bring it down for the Anne Frank show, but I don't think I will let it out of my sight. My children took two to school for show and tell, and I never got them back.'
A splintered family
When daytime roundups started, the young couple realized they would have to give up their 3-month-old son if he was to survive. Nel Vermey, a non-Jewish friend, took Daniel. Kees left town, and Dresden went into hiding.
'I couldn't stand it,' she says. 'I was in this apartment, and I couldn't answer the phone or the door or walk in front of the window. I was a nervous wreck. I decided I'd rather go someplace and work than go crazy. We thought the Jews went away to work. Who could conceive of the mass killings?'
But Dresden's grandparents had already been sent to Auschwitz and gassed, as she discovered after the war.
Then the Nazis came for the Dresden family. Her brother escaped from the train and hid out in Utrecht until the war's end. In another stroke of good fortune, Dresden overcame scarlet fever and diphtheria Ñ despite lacking drugs to treat the diseases.
Her group labored at Westerbork, in the fields and railway yard and in the hospital. Somehow they avoided shipment to the death camps.
'We worked hard, and I guess they had so many people they didn't need this group to fill the train requirement of 2,000 people a week,' Dresden says. 'Every week they'd read off the names (for the next train) Ñ somehow this group survived.
'My father told this joke about two frogs who fell into a milk jug. One was sure he was going to drown, and he died. The other struggled and churned the milk into butter. You don't know why you work hard, but you don't give up.'
But the situation was appalling. There was little food; Dresden and the others worked outside in all weather. Refugees were constantly arriving sick and in misery. Mothers bound for Auschwitz tried to give their children to refugees who weren't going. Death was ever-present.
'We had to burn people who died, maybe of sickness or hunger, maybe shot trying to escape,' Dresden says. 'The Nazis would give us a glass of gin afterward because the experience would make us sick.'
Lives warped forever
When the Canadians liberated Westerbork, other refugees appeared who turned out to be Nazi collaborators. To avoid being rounded up, they tried to hide among the Jews still living at the camp.
The Canadians urged the Jews to search the new arrivals. Dresden said that when they did, they found that many had hidden Nazi badges and photographs of loved ones wearing SS uniforms.
'That's when I found out what lives in all of us,' she says quietly. 'It's an ugly thing. We cut off their dresses and ripped their cases apart. It's an awful thing to find a dark side in yourself.'
Dresden was also troubled by the Nazis who guarded and mistreated the Jews.
'These guys would go home and pet the dog and play with the baby. I used to think: 'What kind of people are they? Loving fathers, nice guys Ñ how can they justify what they did?' '
At war's end, Dresden's husband was freed from a Berlin prison by a Russian tank bashing down the door. Together the couple went to collect their son, but they found that Vermey, his surrogate mother, could hardly bear to give him up.
'We went to get him from this wonderful girl, and she said, 'I can't have you here. I was hoping you wouldn't return. Take him away.' She married an American and moved to Chicago, but she could never stand to see him again,' Dresden says.
Dresden had three more children and emigrated to the United States in 1958. Her act of closure, she says, was to get Vermey put on the 'List of the Righteous' in Israel in 1999. The list is reserved for gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews.
'It's very hard to prove something 60 years later that was secret at the time,' Dresden says. 'It took two years, but we did it.'