How family survived Nazi terror revealed

By David Rumbach, Tribune Staff Writer
(This article was published in the South Bend Tribune on May 9, 1997).

South Bend - David Niekerk has a chilling home movie of his father and uncle playing happily on the driveway at their house in the Netherlands. It's the early 1940s, some months after the Nazi invasion. Painted in large letters on the driveway is the Dutch word "Jood.'' Next to it is a six-pointed star, painted yellow. "They're playing on top of it, oblivious to what it means and what is about to transpire,'' Niekerk noted.

What transpired is a harrowing tale of brutality, escape and survival, a story that has become fully known to Niekerk only in the last five years. Niekerk, 41, considers his father, uncle and two aunts to be child survivors of the Holocaust, though they avoided being sent to death camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Their experiences at the hands of Nazi terror make this year's Yom Hoshoah, or Holocaust remembrance, especially meaningful for him.

Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley, the memorial focuses on the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the death camps by the Germans. For more than six hours Thursday, local students and others gathered in Circuit Court Judge Terry Crone's courtroom to read the names of young victims. "If you were a child in a concentration camp, you were sure to be the first selected out for murder,'' he said.

But Simon and Rose Niekerk and their four children were never sent to a death camp, thanks largely to the ingenuity of Simon, David Niekerk's grandfather. Jews in the Netherlands were being systematically removed to an internment camp in the north, called Westerbork, that was under joint German-Dutch control. No one was being killed there, because, under the terms of the occupation, such executions could not take place on Holland's soil, Niekerk said.

That fact, and the fact that Jews had thrived economically and socially in the Netherlands, lulled the community into a false complacency. "They couldn't believe it would happen in Holland,'' Niekerk said. But Simon Niekerk, who had read a Dutch version of Hitler's book "Mein Kampf,'' knew better. A prominent businessman, he liquidated his assets and began transferring his wealth to the Dutch underground, Niekerk said. And he began encouraging his Jewish friends and relatives to go into hiding, but many refused.

Nazi terror came to the Niekerk home in Voorburg, a suburb of The Hague in southern Netherlands, in February 1943, almost three years after the beginning of the occupation. Troops smashed in the door, gathered the family and ordered them to be ready to leave in two hours. Niekerk's father was 8 years old when this happened. His youngest sister was 2 weeks old. "They took the family cat and smashed in its head with their jack boots and threw it out on the street,'' Niekirk said. "Then they told my grandparents 'That's where your children will be if you don't follow through.' ''

Instead of reporting to the Nazis as ordered, the family put Simon Niekirk's long-standing plan into action. The baby girl was placed in the custody of the maid. The three older children was sent to separate prearranged hiding places, with people that Jews now refer to as "righteous gentiles.'' The family would not be reunited until after the Netherlands was liberated by American and Canadian armies in May 1945.

Niekerk said his uncle had it relatively easy during the 26-month period of hiding. He was sent to a farm and had some freedom of movement. His father, however, moved to four different hideouts, including one where "he was forced to stay in a closet for months on end.'' "There was also some kind of abuse going on,'' David Niekerk said. The family emigrated to the United States in 1952, settling in California. Two more children were born to Simon and Rose Niekerk before they left Europe for good.

As the family got on with what became a prosperous new life in the States, any discussion of the subject of what happened during the war years was strictly verboten. The family had lost almost all their relatives on both sides back in Holland. Because, while there were no gas chambers at Westerbork in northern Holland, trains arrived there twice a week to transport Jews to Auschwitz.

In all, it's estimated that 80 percent of Holland's prewar Jewish community of 147,000 people perished at the hands of the Nazis. But David Niekerk, now a human resources director for AlliedSignal in South Bend, was always curious about the Holocaust. And always looking for ways to break through the silence. Then, about nine years ago, David Niekerk attended a talk by Michael Vogel, an Auschwitz survivor from Indianapolis, and later wrote to his father about it. The father began to open up and talk about the dark years.

The biggest breakthrough, however, came five years ago when Niekerk found a steamer trunk full of pictures, books and family records in his father's garage. The trunk contained pictures of Rose and Simon's wedding in a famous synagogue in The Hague. Also, there were dozens of pictures of relatives who had perished in the camps. Niekerk pieced it all together and expanded his knowledge even further in May 1995, when he visited Holland during the 50th anniversary of liberation.

In the old town of Voorburg, he found people who knew his grandfather, and his family story finally fell into place.

David Rumbach