Koen Gezang was a Jewish foundling who became the Nazis' darling. But he was deported nonetheless
A visit to Anne Frank’s house when she was a child made her cry: student Aline Pennewaard was transfixed by the horrors of Holocaust and set to work collecting photographs of deported Jews.
“When I was about eight, I had to give a class talk”, recalls Aline Pennewaard (1978), a World Religions student. “My parents suggested the Second World War as a subject. “Ask your Granddad about it; he was born in 1916’, they said. My Granddad showed me some ration coupons, which made the War come alive for me, and told me about the Jewish butcher’s family Izaks in Woerden, where he had worked as a butcher’s boy. The family were murdered in Sobibor Concentration Camp. I thought that it was so bizarre. It was the first time I had ever heard of the Holocaust. It’s simply inconceivable, especially for a child. It was so unreal, I wanted to know more.”
Years later, this fascination led to a project, when Pennewaard worked with journalist and author Guus Luijters to compile the recently published In Memoriam.
During the war, 19,048 children were deported to concentration camps, mainly Jews, but there were also Roma and Sinti among them. Only 1,048 children survived the Holocaust.
Luijters and Pennewaard have succeeded in putting names to 3,000 photographs of children murdered by the Germans and Amsterdam City Archives have set up an exhibition based on their book In Memoriam.
Pennewaard explains: “We wanted a central location where all these photographs could be linked to names. There’ll be a time, not so far into the future, when there’s nobody left with firsthand knowledge, but now, many of the surviving relatives say that these children will still remembered when they themselves are not around anymore, and that makes them feel better.”
As a child, Pennewaard devoured large numbers of books and documentaries about the war. “My parents wouldn’t let me see everything; after all, the suffering might have given me bad dreams. But that made me angry, obviously.”
However, sometimes it really was too much and a visit to Anne Frank’s house really upset her. “I had read her diary and of course I wanted to see it. I needed the loo and after I had been gone for a while, my mother went to look for me. There I was, in floods of tears. Actually, I can’t remember the incident myself.”
The opening of the exhibition was rather a distressing affair. “There were quite a lot of surviving relatives there, and the atmosphere was emotionally charged. People’s grief is tangible. It made a huge impact.”
Pennewaard became interested in children about whom much less was known than about Anne Frank. “I read about Sanne Ledermann, one of Anne’s friends, and I realised that thousands of other children had died about whom we know practically nothing. I wanted to see if I could find anything.”
The quest started in 2001. “I ran all the names I found through a CD-ROM containing every Dutch telephone number and address, then I approached people personally by letter and that’s how I collected the first hundred pictures. Then it caught the media’s attention, and it was featured on television on programmes like Hart van Nederland. After that, people got in touch with me and things moved much faster.”
Pennewaard feels that all the photographs make an impression: the touching and formal family portraits, the pictures of children with braces or slightly oversized glasses. And then there are the school photographs of whole classes. “After 1941, Jewish children were not allowed to attend government-funded schools and there are more and more pictures of rows of girls with big Stars of David on little dresses. And then you realise that almost all those children were killed. At most, three from every class survived. All of them should all be here still. They never had the chance to grow up.”
Pennewaard learned to cope with the pictures. “You develop a self-defence mechanism. If every photograph made me cry, I would have to drop the project. I’ve been exposed to disturbing images since I was young. You get used to it, by giving it a place. But I was extremely upset the first time I saw the pictures.”
The Nazis’ iniquities could be eccentric, as the brief life of Michieltje Prins heart-rendingly illustrates. “He was born prematurely in 1943, and arrived in Westerbork Transit Camp more dead than alive. The commander sent for an incubator: the best care wasn’t good enough and they spent a month of two nursing him back to health. And then they sent him to the gas chamber – I just can’t understand it at all.”
But Koen Gezang’s story it the one that moves her most of all. In 1942, a foundling was brought to the Jewish nursery in Amsterdam and was named Remi van Buijtenwijck. Everybody loved the child, including the Nazis, but that made it impossible to hide Remi safely as he would have been missed immediately. “He was spoilt, the Germans gave him a teddy bear, but they still allowed him to be deported. It’s inconceivable.” Remi was put on a transport to Westerbork and was then sent on to Sobibor where he was murdered in May 1943.
It was only ten years ago that it became evident that Remi’s real name was Koenraad Huib Gezang. Pennewaard discovered that Koen was not mentioned on the lists of the transports to the camp. “The Germans recorded everything very accurately, so that was strange. He had been deported under another name.”
In the end, she was contacted by Edward Gezang (83), Koen’s brother. “He called me from Sweden where he has been living for a very long time. He had some pictures, but after a short conversation he started to weep inconsolably and hung up. I assumed I wouldn’t be hearing from him again but he rang back half an hour later and said he wanted to help.”
Although the book has been published, it does not mean that the search ends there. “We’re not stopping. The book’s publicity has encouraged more people to send in pictures. We will have finished when we have the 18,000th photograph. I want to continue with Holocaust Studies any way and I’ve been walking around with notion of compiling a book about murdered German children for some time now, too.”
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