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A part of history, a part of me

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Lauren Winther's Opa (grandfather), in color, as an orphan posing with his classmates at St. Jozef in 1944.

By Lauren Winther – Collegiate Staff

Throughout history certain events have captured the attention of all civilized societies. Adolf Hitler’s systematic elimination of millions of innocent people is such an event. It will forever be a subject taught in history classrooms across the country, bringing awareness to generation after generations the dangers of unchecked corruption.

Lauren Winther's Opa (grandfather), in color, as an orphan posing with his classmates at St. Jozef in 1944.
Lauren Winther’s Opa (grandfather), in color, as an orphan posing with his classmates at St. Jozef in 1944.

Among the millions of people who were eliminated were some of my relatives. My “Opa”, which is grandfather in Dutch, great-grandfather Waldemar Winther, and great-grandmother Janshe Papegaai were the only ones to survive.

Having this family history resonates with my family and instills a passion for tolerance and gratitude that fate led my Opa, Christian Waldemar Winther, to safety.

Born October 16, 1934 in Amsterdam, Netherlands, my Opa was born of Jewish descent and practiced the Jewish faith.

“I remember when I was 6 years old that my grandfather told me when I turned 12, I will have a big feast (barmitzvah),” said Opa, 79.

His childhood was normal before the war, frequently visiting the synagogue and spending time with his family, especially his aunt, Suze Papegaai.

“She was my best friend, because there was only a two years’ difference in our ages,” Opa said. “My grandparents on my mother’s side took care of me four times per week while my folks were at work and also so that my aunt (Suze) had a playmate.”

In 1940, my Opa’s life was drastically and forever changed at the young age of 7.

“In the fall of 1940, a truck full of German soldiers came to our neighborhood,” Opa said. “My neighbor friends and myself threw stones at the Germans and called them all kinds of not so nice names.”

After throwing the rocks, the truck full of German soldiers stopped and went after my Opa and his friends.

“I ran inside the house and hid behind the door, and then I went to the fourth floor attic crying and put myself in a big crate to hide from the German soldiers,” he said. “I was so frightened that I urinated in my pants and cried. I heard the Germans coming up the stairs and could hear them looking for me throughout the house and roof. After looking for me for what seemed like a half hour, I heard them leave and drive the truck away.”

The disturbing scenes my Opa witnessed can never be erased.

“I remember one day, my folks were taking me to my aunt’s house. Although I was not allowed to look out of the window, I saw people being taken out and put into big, trucks hauling them away to the train station to bring them to concentration camps,” Opa said.

“In the summer of 1941, there were many home invasions by the Gestapo, during which they would take the Jewish people out of their houses and throw them to the street. There were many invasions which involved beating with clubs, sticks and the handle of guns. People were beat to unconsciousness and were picked up and thrown into the trucks.”

Opa was attending school when his parents were picked up and beaten by the Gestapo and taken to the Dutch theater, Hollandsche Schouwbur in Amsterdam. A streetcar was sent to take him and his parents to a concentration camp.

“I cried very hard until I arrived to the location where my parents were,” Opa said. “I will never forget we stood outside and my father told my mother, ‘we have a chance to escape, there is no one looking.’”

After rounding the corner, heads held high not looking at anyone, they were able to reach a friend of the family’s, Hoogwater.  Surprised and happy that my Opa and his parents were able to escape, Hoogwater brought them to a train station and went with them to Rotterdam and transferred by bus to a little town called Moordrecht.

“Mr. Hoogwater knew the pastor of the Roman Catholic Church in Moordrecht. With his help, we were able to go underground to escape another capture,” Opa said.

At this point, my Opa had to be separated from his parents for a better chance of survival by going to a boy’s home called St. Joseph. In order for him to hide at the orphanage, my Opa had to convert to Christianity.

St. Jozef Orphanage in 1944
St. Jozef Orphanage in 1944.

“As a Jewish boy, I left my parents and had to go as an orphan to a boy’s home run by the Congregation of the Poor Sisters from the Godly Child,” Opa said. “I lived there for four long years, and I did not understand why I did not hear any word from my parents, grandparents or any other family.”

While my Opa was in the orphanage, my great-grandparents were able to buy a houseboat to take refuge in.

“They parked the boat in front of a farmer’s house and every time the police were looking for Jewish people, my folks would look out and see them, the land was flat, they were able to go into a little rowboat and hide. The farmer would then claim the boat as his. He protected my folks,” Opa said.

Although in hiding, my Opa was not always safe.

“When the Germans came to inspect the institution for anyone that was Jewish, I was put in a big closet,” said Opa. “The nuns put me in the closet to prevent me from being taken. I was always in fear of being taken by the Germans and worried about my mom and dad and what may have happened to them.”

While at the orphanage, Opa was still exposed to what was going on in the outside world.

“We could hear bombings; we were very scared that the bombs would hit the institution,” Opa said.

In 1945, after a four-year stay at the orphanage, the war was over and he was reunited with his parents and traveled back to Amsterdam.

“The horrific news came from the Red Cross that my mother’s whole family was murdered in the gas chamber by the Germans,” he said. “Her whole family was eliminated.”

His best friend and aunt, Suze Papegaai, was killed at the age of 10.

“It took many years before the pain and agony began to leave me,” he said.

“The life I lived as a child could not ever have compared to the life that I should have spent with my parents and family,” Opa said. “I had terrible nightmares and was afraid to go out and play. I was terribly frightened that the Gestapo was going to come and take me away. As a child, I didn’t understand what it meant that the war was over.”

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Lauren and her Opa, Christian Winther in 2014.

After the war, my Opa and his family had to start a new life.

“In 1945, we went to our old house, but somebody else had moved in and all our possessions were gone.  We were given an apartment and there we began to put the pieces of our lives back together,” Opa said. “Never did we forget the pain and sorrow of our experience. We did not have anything. No money, no possessions to start our lives back. This made everything we did or try to do very difficult.”

The experience my Opa went through is one that my family will never forget. He was saved, and without that I in turn, would not be here. Everything happens for a reason; not only were my great grandparents lucky to have escaped but I am lucky and grateful that they took a risk to hide and save my Opa, because without him, my world would be nothing.

The Holocaust began Jan. 30, 1933 and ended May 8, 1945. After years of separation and hiding, my relatives were able to survive one of the largest genocides in history.

Although not everyone has ties to the Holocaust, it is important to remember those who lost their lives simply for what they believed in.