Martin Haas was born Martijn Haas, at the end of 1936 in Breda, a small city in the south of the Netherlands. Just before the war started, about two hundred Jews lived in Breda. Martin survived because his parents kept him safe in hiding. His parents and 2 of his siblings did not survive. His sister Elizabeth and his brother Izaak, together with their mother Margaretha were murdered in Sobibor on 23 April 1943. His father, Jacob Richel was murdered on 28 February 1943 at Auschwitz.
Martijn Haas cries as quietly as he can at night in the dark attic of his hiding place. It is 1942 and World War II is in full swing. Martijn is five years old and he is alone. He does not know where his family is. Martijn nowadays goes through life as Martin, 83+ years old and the only one of his family still alive. Researchers found his family name in a research expropriated homes of Jews. They discovered nine properties belonging to Martin’s family in Breda were all taken away by the Nazis.
Most people in Breda know the Haas family. Jacob, Martijn’s father, has a large network of Jewish, but also non-Jewish friends and acquaintances. This is partly due to the family business Haas Manufacturen, where he sold textiles and delivered them to farmer families in the Breda area by car. A gap in the market, because many people do not yet have a car.
The business is going so well that Jacob invests in real estate with his two sisters Adele and Céline and rents them out. All family possessions are taken away during the occupation years. More houses were taken from other Jewish families in Breda. We discover this in the Verkaufsbücher, the administration of expropriations of Jewish property, which is managed by the National Archives in The Hague. Through post-war documents about the Jewish community of Breda, we know how to trace Martijn in the US. He now lives in San Diego and works as a professor at the University of California, where he has been addressed as ‘Martin’ for years.
Martijn does not find out exactly what happened to his family until the nineties. He tells us why and how he lives until then with all his questions. They pile up from October 1942, when he goes into hiding as a five-year-old.
“Just before my sister Rosa and I are taken to a hiding place, my mother puts me on the dining table. It’s a dark and rainy night. She expressly tells me to shut up. I must never reveal that I am a Jewish boy. Although I am, I have to forget about that for a while. And I do, more or less.”
Martijn says goodbye to his mother in the house of his grandfather’s brother at 42 Speelhuislaan, where they temporarily live. The bomb that the Germans dropped on Terheijdenstraat on Sunday 12 May 1940 destroyed their house. The actual target is the station around the corner, an important strategic point, but the bombers miss their target. Everything is gone, and no one is hurt. Breda was evacuated at that time because the mayor fears a fight between French and German soldiers in his city. However, the Germans advance so quickly that Breda is taken without too much resistance.
Because of that bomb, Martijn’s family lost all their belongings at the start of the war. Martin is then three years old. He is the youngest child of his father and mother, Jacob and Greet. He has two sisters, Elisabeth and Rosa, and a brother, Izaak. His grandmother Elisabeth is also part of the family.
“We move in with my grandfather’s brother right behind the station. On the wide sidewalk opposite the house, I learned to cycle with the boys from the street. And I remember one Friday night, the beginning of Shabbat. My two unmarried aunts Adele and Céline are visiting, as they often do. After dinner, we all sit together at the table and they talk about the situation. It is now war and it is very bad for us Jews. I don’t understand what they say. But after that, I don’t dare go into the hallway to go to the toilet. It’s dark, I think it’s too scary.”
“While we live there, my father has a new house built on the Mauritssingel. Another semi-detached house is in the centre. Our family is in one house number, where my father will also run his business, and my aunts in the other number, where they will start a boarding house. How my father did this in the middle of the war is not entirely clear. Because those ‘dirty dirty rotten Jews’ were not allowed to have a bank account. He must have had gold or a lot of cash. Anyway, the house came off. Once we went there with the whole family. And I remember well that there was a spiral staircase behind the house. This allowed you to go to the kitchen from the outside. Without having to enter the house. For the grocer, or anyone. I loved that so much. And that staircase, it is still there.”
The Haas family never lived in that house. During his search for what happened to his family, Martijn finds a handwritten letter dated 13 July 1942, from his father. In it, he writes to the municipality of Breda that he cannot declare the house completed because it is forbidden for him as a Jewish man to come there. It is an attempt to keep the house out of the hands of the occupier.
At that time, Jews had been banned from owning land and real estate for almost a year. The Dutch Property Administration registers Jewish property and outsources the expropriation and sale of Jewish properties to private individuals. In Breda, the ANBO does that, the abbreviation for General Dutch Property Management. NSB members lead this organization. In the Verkaufsbücher we see that nine properties of the Haas family have been expropriated, five of which are in the name of Martijn’s father and his two aunts Adele and Céline.
The homes at Bavelschelaan 112 and Rozenlaan 48 are the first to be listed as ‘provisionally sold’. That is in the summer of 1942. For 6,708.20 guilders C.v. Meant to buy both properties. This practically turns out to be a neighbour of the family. We see that this person is currently registered at the address Pastoor Pottersplein 39, two streets next to the Speelhuislaan where Martijn and his family live at that time.
It is also diagonally opposite another building of Martijn’s father: Pastoor Pottersplein 31. That house is also sold by the NSB members a few months later. Exactly the same is happening with the buildings at Prins Hendrikstraat 73 and Rozenlaan 40-42. The new owners pay no more than a few thousand guilders, a bargain
Around the same time as the expropriation of the houses, Martijn’s father is arrested. As a member of the Jewish Council of Breda, he managed to get a postponement a few times, but on September 29, 1942, that was no longer possible. He is forcibly taken to a Dutch labour camp in Doetinchem. Three days later, all men from the Dutch labour camps are transported to Westerbork. Martin’s father is there.
Martijn, his mother Greet Vleeschouwer-Haas, and his brother and sisters are also called up a few days later. They have to board the train to Westerbork on October 6 and will be reunited with their father there. However, his mother acts differently and thus changes the fate of Martijn and his sister Rosa.
“The evening before we were to be transported to Westerbork, Mrs Hees comes to our house. It is early evening, six o’clock, half past six. It’s raining and it’s dark. Mrs Hees wears a large black cape when she enters. My mother tells me that the two smallest children go with this lady. That’s me and my sister Rosa, whom I call Roosje. Two children could come along and the mother thought, ‘the smaller they are, the greater the chance that the surroundings of the hiding place will not get suspicious.’ And she was right about that.”
“We hide under Mrs Hees’s black cape and walk to the station together. There we take the train to Bergen op Zoom, about 40 kilometres from Breda. There is a lady waiting for my sister. Roosje goes with her to the Baars family, where she was supposed to stay. I continue with Mrs Hees to her house. It was then thought that we would only stay for a few months.”
“The first thing that needs to be done with the Hees family is choosing a name. I will be the seventh child in the family and will have a few options. I choose ‘Brother’, then a very common name. Because I’m blonde, I could easily pass for one of the Hees’ kids, but I don’t go to the same Catholic primary school. No matter how risky it is, Mrs Hees arranges a place for me at the public school in our street, the Coehoornstraat.”
“A heroic act, I later learned. Because I had no papers, my teacher had to be involved in the plot. And especially because Mrs Hees prevents Roosje and me from accidentally betraying ourselves when we meet in the schoolyard. She goes to a Catholic primary school.
Martijn leads a fairly normal life during the war. He learns to read, write and count, likes his teacher, and plays in front of the house of the Hees family with his friends. No one knows that he is a Jewish boy. He acts just like the rest. But at night it is different. Then Martijn can’t distract himself with schoolwork or focus on being a good boy. And he is overcome by loneliness, fear and uncertainty.
“I was still young, but to a certain extent, I knew what was going on. At night, in the dark attic where I sleep, I wonder how my family is doing. I’m very concerned. Where are they, what would happen to them? I cry as quietly as I can. I still carry that feeling with me. That is not going away.”
It will be years before Martijn gets answers to his questions. On the night he flees, his mother goes into hiding with Martijn’s sister Elisabeth and brother Izaak at a bakery in Princenhage, another part of Breda. His aunt, Rosa Vleeschouwer, goes with them. They are good there until the wave of betrayal in February and March 1943. The Sicherheitspolizei (SD) raids the bakery on 11 March 1943, at 11 a.m. His mother and his aunt just manage to get away with the children through the back door, but just before they reach the Bredase forest, the SD agents catch up with them.
The agents pick them up, interrogate them and take them to the detention house. They are then deported via Vught to Sobibor. Aunt Rosa is murdered there less than a month later. The same thing happened to Martijn’s mother, sister and brother a few weeks later. Elisabeth and Izaak are then 10 and 9 years old, Greet is 36. Martijn’s father has been deceased for two months. After Westerbork, he was transported to the labour camp in Auschwitz. He is 42 when he dies.
Before the end of 1943, Martijn has lost almost all of his relatives. Aunt Céline dies in the summer due to illness at her hiding place in Breda. And his aunt Adele dies a month and a half later in Auschwitz. His nephews, nieces and their families do not survive the war either. Martijn’s grandmother did not have to experience the worst part of the war, she died in the summer of 1940. She was already gone when the war really started. Martijn will only find out about all this much later.
Despite the fact that they are both in hiding in Bergen op Zoom, Martijn and Roosje do not see each other during the war. They do send each other letters, which the underground brings back and forth. “I also occasionally receive a letter from the underground itself. From a lady who made contact for my hiding place. She helped both my mother and Mrs Hees during and after the pregnancy and uses her network to help Jewish children. I always cry when I read her letter. And it doesn’t even say anything important, not even her real name.”
Bergen op Zoom is liberated on October 27, 1944.
The north of the country has to wait until after the hungry winter. On 5 May 1945, the whole country is free. Martijn then went into hiding with the Hees family for almost three years. It is waiting for a family member to pick him up.
“I dreamed, hallucinated, that my parents came to get me. Even when none of my family returned, it remained that way. Because no one told me what really happened to my family. That I and Roosje were entitled to the property that had been taken from us, all the homes that had been expropriated, was not my concern. I was too young and focused on catching up on my schoolwork. Meanwhile, I kept hoping that a mistake had been made. That one day my family suddenly walked into the street. That it was all a big misunderstanding.”
There appears to be an uncle on his mother’s side who also survived the war with his wife and two sons. His name is Dick Vleeschhouwer. Martijn goes to Amsterdam to become the third child in the family.
“They had also been in hiding, but the war was so terrible for them that they decided not to be Jews anymore. When I came to them, they were already Christian. They sent me to a strict Christian private school because they thought it was best. But for me, that was a very bad year. It did not work. They couldn’t handle having me, a deeply traumatized child, there.”
“I returned to the Hees family, but staying with them was not an option either. Mrs Hees wanted me to grow up as a Jewish boy, with my ‘own people’. I had to get a good education, also in my own religion. I shook that off then, remembering what my mother had impressed upon me just before I left. But Mrs Hees turned out to be the smartest of the two of us.”
A grandniece of his mother, Beppie Kogel, eventually finds Martijn. She and her husband Ben Oudkerk decide to adopt him. They do not have children of their own yet and would also like to take care of Roosje so that the brother and sister can grow up together. The hiding family Baars would like Roosje to stay with them. They already had her baptized during the war and she follows Catholic education just like their children. She’s already part of it. Roosje of her own accord stays with the family who saved her life.
Martijn goes to live with his foster parents in a small working-class house in Amsterdam. Every day he cycles about twenty minutes to his public primary school, the Nicolaas Maess School.
“All that time there are only two Jewish boys in the class, one of which is me. It is after the war, the late 1940s, but nothing seems to have changed. Sometimes when the teacher is not there, the boys from the class hit me. They threw me down and sat on me. I am eleven years old and I feel very well: the hatred against us Jews continues. As if nothing had happened.”
Not long after, Martijn’s life takes a different turn. His foster parents ask him what he thinks about moving to Israel. Going by an alias, like many other Jews. “That saved me. Something had to change. And this was a great turning point for me. My whole life promised to be different. We left on 6 March 1950, after my Bar Mitzvah, which was also our farewell party. We said goodbye to friends and some family and left. I was thirteen years old and very happy to go.”
They settle in the coastal town of Nahariya.
Martijn attends secondary school and then studies electrical engineering at university. He enjoys the lessons and life in a society that is starting up. This period shapes him into who he has become, he says. He performs his military service and while still in the army, he marries Yaira. Martijn meets her when she returns a book to his house with a mutual friend. He immediately falls head over heels for her. Like him, Yaira survived the war.
After his military service, Martijn and Yaira settle in Jerusalem. He works as an engineer at the Hebrew University and becomes interested in projects in medicine and biology. So much so that he wants to get his master’s degree in Biophysics. The University of California at Berkeley gives him the chance and ensures that the young couple move to the United States in 1964. Martin is not yet thirty.
“Israel also became an important place for my sister Roosje. She visited me several times during the years I lived there. Then we would walk along the boulevard with my friends and I would see her perk up. We had discussions about life, about good and evil. Fifteen years after my foster parents and I emigrated, she did the same. She married and had three children. Finally, she too could start her future.”
At the same time, the restoration of rights was in full swing in the Netherlands during those years. From August 1945, the Council for the Restoration of Rights has been committed to returning property wrongly seized by the German occupier to its rightful owners. It is the legal procedure that for minor orphans, the court assigns an administrator to handle this. Martijn cannot remember how this went for Roosje and him. But he knows how it ended. In his personal archive, he has a statement from notary Drion from Breda with the division of their inheritance.
“My family’s houses were returned to me and Roosje after the war. Almost all houses and apartments went to Roosje, but the Mauritssingel 6-7 was for me. That house was a dream. We would all live there. I wanted to keep it and decided to rent it out. That this was taken from us before is bad, but not nearly as serious as what happened to my whole family. I still find it incomprehensible that only I, Roosje, an uncle and an aunt of the family were left. Why did this happen to us? And why did so many Dutch people join Hitler? In receiving the inheritance, I actually had proof that my family had been killed during the war. But believe it, I still didn’t. And accepting history happened much later.”
Martijn and Yaira have three children in the US: Daphne, Daniel and Ariel. After Berkeley, San Diego follows, where Martijn is doing his postgraduate. “Academia gives me a goal, a clear guideline, in my life. And with that many happy years. It made it clear to me what I do, and what I contribute to in life. It’s also a great environment to be in, very progressive. I have always had the pleasure of working with very nice people.”
“Now I’m retired, but I still go to my lab every day to research a cure for prostate cancer. I want to keep doing good, the morality of Judaism. In my case, that’s trying to make a lot of people better. That is what faith brought me.”
For most of his life, Martijn does not want to talk about the war. He can’t stand anyone bringing it up and wants nothing to do with it. Because it won’t bring his family back anyway. In the meantime, he has health problems that general practitioners cannot explain. Later it turns out that they are caused by a specific stress syndrome that Holocaust survivors in particular suffer from.
It was not until the nineties, when he was in his sixties, that he started his search. The reason for this is a call from the Red Cross in which the organization offers next of kin to find out the details of the death of family members. He registers and when Martijn receives the letter with the research result, he sees it for the first time: the dates of death and the extermination camps where they were murdered. Proof that his family is a victim of the Holocaust. In the years that follow, Martijn conducts follow-up research himself. He also travels to the Netherlands a few times for it. It is becoming increasingly clear how it all happened. But the acceptance is not there yet. The 2009 trial of John Demjanjuk, a camp guard at Sobibor Extermination Camp, changes that.
“That process has been very good for me. I was asked to be one of 22 accusers. This was a guard in the camp where my mother, sister, brother and aunt were killed. I didn’t have to think about it. I had to represent their voice, that’s how it felt.”
“During that process, I finally discovered the truth. The way the lawyers discussed the facts, so seriously, made me face it. It really happened. I just never could comprehend it before. During the process, I also met people who had experienced exactly the same thing and in whom I recognized a lot of myself. The trauma never goes away, but you can learn to forget it once in a while. To surround the feeling and not give up, but try to achieve something. Some are like brothers, we have that much in common. We still write to each other every New Year.”
“It is now history for me, but in some situations, it comes up again. After the trial, I also regularly went to the Netherlands. On my own, to do further research, but also with my children and grandchildren. I showed them everything: the Speelhuislaan with the wide sidewalk, the ‘dream house’ on the Mauritssingel with the spiral staircase that I never actually lived in myself. I had to sell it to buy a house for our family in San Diego. We also visited my grandparents’ tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in Oosterhout. Breda never had a Jewish cemetery itself. I wanted to show it to them all because it’s their history too. We all come from somewhere.”
Martijn will never live in the country where he was born. “Not everyone will agree with me, but there is no place for Jews in the Netherlands. The Jewish community there never really got the chance to grow. There is still anti-semitism. I have even heard such views from the grandson of the Hees family, the family that took me in at the risk of their own lives. Which he told in my presence. I can’t reach that with my head. He has never seen a Jew, except me. And he’s such a nice boy. After all these years I still don’t understand where this hatred against us comes from. I’m actually a nice person myself. I don’t get it, why?”
“My sister Roosje suffered a lot, a lot, more than I did in that respect. As a young Jewish girl, hiding among Catholics, she was often told that her people are evil and that she would have killed God. This had a major impact on her life. The doubt that this could be true has never gone away.”