War's end helped unlock secret that spared 8 lives

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Auschwitz, the most notorious death camp of the Nazi reign, was in the news recently and for good reason.

January 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation, signaling an end to one of wartime's darkest chapters. To those who somehow survived their stay at the concentration camp in Krakow, Poland, where more than a million Jews were murdered, the anniversary undoubtedly stirred a range of emotions that only they can begin to comprehend.

Some 22 years ago, during an interview of two Dutch natives, I became acquainted with the plight of eight Jewish refugees who were secretly sheltered from the atrocities of Auschwitz. Theirs was a story reminiscent of a much more famous Jewish refugee in Holland whose life was immortalized in "The Diary of Anne Frank."

In this instance, the story was told to me by Anneke Kooistra Burke and her then 76-year-old mother, Heiltje Kooistra. The mother and daughter were in the Ann Arbor area that day, visiting relatives and recounting a true-life tale worthy of a mass audience. Here it is:

Among members of the Dutch underground, it was affectionately known as the "rubber house" with walls that seemingly expanded whenever the need arose to hide another Jewish refugee from the horrors of World War II.

The home, one of many look-alikes in the Dutch city of Utrecht, was a two-story townhouse owned by Wopke Kooistra and his wife, Heiltje. At the onset of Nazi rule in Holland, the house was home to the Kooistras and their three young daughters. By war's end in 1945, the home would serve for three years as a secret shelter for eight "house guests," all of whom miraculously escaped the mass atrocities of the Holocaust.

In 1942, Anneke Kooistra was a fair-haired 3-year-old when unbeknown to her the first "guest" arrived. Her father, an unemployed baker, was a ringleader in the Dutch underground, working vigilantly to return Holland to free hands. Her mother, saint-like in the face of adversity, was devoted to her family, scrimping and saving to feed five mouths, all the while knowing that more would soon have to get along with less.

"I will give you a tour of our home," Mrs. Burke said to me that day in 1993. "It was small, one bathroom, with running water only in the kitchen. We had tiny bedrooms upstairs, and an attic. My mother used to say that our kitchen was so small that when she was there all alone it was still crowded.

"Now, please imagine this home with 13 people living in it, eight in one room, shut off from the rest of the house for three years."

Such was life in the Kooistra household from 1942 until the war's end in May 1945 when Anneke and her two sisters finally were told the secret behind the locked dining room door. The room, cloistered off from the world outside, had been a hiding place for eight Jews, none of whom had seen the light of day for three harrowing years.

"My parents never told us the reason why the door was locked," Burke said. "My father just made it very clear that the room was off limits. They didn't want us to know for fear of what might happen if the secret became known. It would have been certain death for all of us if the Germans had found out."

The eight seldom ventured from the dining room, except at night. Then they were allowed to use the bathroom or to take a sponge bath in the kitchen while the children slept. There were no beds in the dining room, so the guests took two-hour turns sleeping on a cot in the living room, returning to a chair or the floor for the balance of the evening.

Boredom was almost as much an enemy as fear for the Jewish refugees, according to Burke. Reading, writing, and sewing helped pass the time.

Mr. Kooistra, a handyman, hollowed out a section under the hallway for the guests to escape to in the event of a Nazi search of the house.

"It was a very cramped space in which everyone had to be seated on the ground underneath the hallway," Burke said. "They kept some cups of water down there in case someone had a dry throat or had to cough while the home was being searched."

The home was searched three times during the three-year period, and each time the refugees were able to elude detection. Help was provided by a neighbor who had joined the Nazi Party. The man became disillusioned with the reign of the Third Reich but remained a Nazi officer, leaking information of impending inspections.

Finding enough food for the baker's dozen was a daily test of ingenuity for Mr. and Mrs. Kooistra. Food was rationed during the war, so the Kooistras had to stop at several stores each day to make small purchases. Most of the money for the food was provided by the refugees, who helped pay their way during the time in hiding.

"One of the men ran out of his money after a year and told my father that he could no longer stay," Burke related. "My father told him that we would make do and that he would be committing suicide if he tried to leave our house. Everyone convinced him to stay."

Before long, however, food became a precious commodity. Late in the war, Mr. Kooistra informed his wife that there was no food in the house. He relayed the news in a manner that defied the bleak circumstances, offering this nugget instead: "We still have water."

The Allied victory in May 1945 was a time of rejoicing in the Kooistra household, fulfilling long-held hopes of those held captive by the prospect of annihilation. "When the Jewish people were finally able to leave our house and go outside for fresh air, it had been so long that they all kind of stumbled," Burke recalled. "They didn't know quite how to react to seeing the outdoors again. But the joy was soon all over their faces."

The relief was equally great for Mr. and Mrs. Kooistra, burdened for years with a secret that they dared tell to no one. "I remember my father telling someone after the war, 'What would we have done if Hitler had won?'" Burke related.

Such a chilling prospect eventually was too much of a weight to bear for Mr. Kooistra, who suffered what his daughter termed a "nervous breakdown" several years after the war.

"He endured so much stress that he could no longer cope," she said, fighting back tears.

In 1958, the Kooistras were invited to Israel by one of their former house guests, a music teacher. She paid for the trip as a token of her undying gratitude to the couple. The trip coincided with the 10th anniversary celebration of the Jewish state. Years later, the couple returned to Israel to receive an award from the Israeli government for their role in saving Jewish lives during the war. In 1988, Mrs. Kooistra was flown to Detroit to receive a tribute at the establishment of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

"My parents have received many honors since the war, but none of them matters as much as the knowledge that they made a difference in people's lives," Burke declared.

Published: Mon, Mar 30, 2015