A chance discovery evokes an indelible first-hand perspective of history's atrocities
Could it be? I gripped my catalog tighter; my anxiety spiked as the auctioneer's lilt slowed in sync with the rise of his gavel.
"I have twenty-two hundred bid. Do I hear twenty-three... twenty-three hundred, anyone? Going once?" His trained eyes quickly panned the gallery as bid spotters remained silent. "Fair warning, going twice?"
I held my breath, praying for the magic word that came with the crack of his gavel.
"Sold! to the gentleman in the third row for twenty-two hundred Euro. Thank you sir.”
Fantastic! It was mine, and so cheap. Southeby’s settlement clerk apparently agreed it was a bidder's coup, who later opined: “Well done, Mr. Levine. I do believe you’ll find Lot 342 to be the buy of a lifetime.”
She was right; I was willing to go double the price. The solid walnut masterpiece with exotic inlaid marquetry was in perfect condition for its age. The catalog described it as a rare, mid-19th century armoire that once graced the rectory of the Dutch Reformed Church of Eibergen, Holland─ now the prized centerpiece of my parlor, though I would never have dreamed it would have launched such a heart-wrenching trek through one of history's darkest hours.
I remember beaming with delight after getting the unit home. The following day, my cabinetmaker was measuring its interior for custom bookshelves when he unexpectedly beckoned: “Mr. Levine, you’d better come have a look at this!”
What in Sam Hill? I was captivated by what he'd found: a thin but sturdy veneer overlaying the upper interior which fit snugly into narrow grooves along the uprights. Sliding the panel a quarter inch up and to the left, he gently removed the false back to reveal a most startling find. Behind, we discovered photographs and official-looking papers of children, couples, and families from the late 1930’s and early ‘40’s. We spread them atop a corner console, eyeing the prints with intense curiosity. Penciled on the backs were names, ages, and what appeared to be Dutch locations.
I became obsessed with nosing out what these documents were, and why so painstakingly hidden in my armoire. Who were these people, and what became of them? The passel triggered a meticulous mission pouring over hundreds of war records, museum archives, and the occasional correspondence with scholars of the Holocaust in an effort to identify and link names to documents.
The obvious starting point was the Church. I was amazed to discover the secret role it played during the war, its clergy working in unison with the Dutch underground that saved untold numbers from the onerous horrors of Hitler's Final Solution. Every one of those photographed was of Jewish descent hiding from the sadistic Nazis who had invaded their homeland.
The first I managed to authenticate involved two adorable sisters, Carla and Sonja Weiss, ages two and four. I was able to trace records to Hennie Weiss, their father who worked in a factory that had sponsored a SOBU, a special division for Jewish workers who were at first exempt from Nazi deportation. But as German lies proliferated, Hennie must have feared the worst and moved them in with the Kronen family. Despite six children of their own, false registration papers were created identifying them as Kronen offspring, even dyed their hair blonde to look like siblings. Hennie's foresight paid off; he saved his precious daughters. Though he and his wife suffered the ultimate sacrifice at Auschwitz, the two girls survived the war, married, and prospered─ unlike Ben and Gretha Meyerson.
The Meyerson's were a handsome couple, proud and smartly dressed newlyweds who had posed for a professional portrait. Their fate was sealed at Sobibor after the Gestapo followed a member of the Dutch resistance to their safe house and arrested all, including both families who had risked hiding them only two houses apart.
A similar mischance wiped out the entire Kauffman family of diamond cutters after an SS officer was found strangled. Despite orders to spare such skilled Jews for working the Third Reich's fledgling diamond industry, the Kauffman's happened to be arrested during a Razzia, or reprisal round-up. The family was split up; the younger twin girls spared and sent to Bergen-Belsen, considered a privileged concentration camp in northwest Germany. The three oldest boys died from slave labor among the 300,000 who perished at Mauthausen, nicknamed the bone-grinder; their parents exterminated like vermin at Auschwitz. A second hapless twist befell the girls who managed to survive their ordeal, but when put aboard a train with 1200 other prisoners days before VE Day, a ruthless German officer stopped the train at the Elbe River and had them executed in mass graves.
The more I tracked through countless documents, the more incensed I became with the jackbooted Nazi machine. But of all the despicable events researched, one of the most infuriating involved the Van Haffer brothers, a defiant trio of courageous teenagers who were betrayed by a fellow countryman, a gutless Dutch collaborator who was summarily tried and hung after the war.
The brothers, ages sixteen, fourteen, and thirteen were non-Jews but had the chutzpah to thumb their noses at Nazi rule and escaped to the Hoones Forest outside Eibergen, about three miles from where my armoire harbored its secrets. They and a half dozen resistance fighters had built a rough subterranean shelter consisting of two rooms and a rudimentary stove. Their concealed bunker eventually became home to twenty-three rescued Jews who remarkably had managed to tough it out for over two years before that spineless traitor led the SS to their hideout. All were executed on the spot, and only eighteen days before they would have been liberated by the U.S. 9th Army.
WWII had to be fought; I'm convinced of it! Such thoughts helped temper my emotional flare-ups. We may have morphed into an out of sight, out of mind generation as they say, anesthetized from history's atrocities. But as hard as I try, I think it's virtually impossible for anyone to fully grasp what it must have been like─ of how these subjugated people managed to endure the brutalities, the hunger, the abject fear and despair wearing away at their will to live. May God bless them all.
I eventually turned the parcel over to the Holocaust Memorial, but I'll never forget them. Only six of my forty-seven survived. To this day, I often get misty-eyed when offering a prolonged and reverent look at the stately antique. I can see their faces. I came to know them, their stories─ their fates. It now seems ironic when recalling the settlement clerk's comments. What was it she said? 'You’ll find it to be the 'buy' of a lifetime?'
Yes, that was it. You were close, my friend. Your words may have had a prophetic ring to them at the time, but I prefer thinking of Lot 342 as something far more sublime, like— a priceless Tabernacle for forty-one lost souls of Eibergen.