Selma van de Perre – My name is Selma
6 September 1944 – to Greet Brinkhuis
Stuck here in a cattle wagon with 70 people, in Vught. Probably headed for Sachsenhausen or Ravensbrück. Keep your spirits up. That’s what I’m doing. Although I’d like to see the end of it now. Slipped this envelope with notes through a crack in the train. Would you send the letters? Merci. Bye darlings. Kiss Marga
We were told to pack our toothbrushes and other effects and wait outside. It was clear that we were going to be taken somewhere else, but where we didn’t know. I thought it would be safer to stay at the camp in Vught instead of leaving for an unknown destination and decided to hide under a mattress. I let the other women go first and loitered in the barracks, but I wasn’t fast enough. While I was still half-visible, the Aufseherin walked in and told me to hurry up. She dragged me out by the arm and ordered me to follow the others to the train station. This minor delay did work in my favour though, because I was pushed into the last wagon, which did not hold that many women yet. The other wagons had been crammed full and the poor woman in there, including my friends from the camp, spent those two days travelling in terrible conditions. My wagon held only some twelve or fourteen women, none of whom I knew. Many of them turned out to be prostitutes who had been taken prisoner so they could be treated for venereal diseases. They had been at work in the kitchen and had managed to haul a large suitcase full of bread and sausage and a pot of thick soup on board. A stroke of good luck, I thought; I knew the other wagons did not have these provisions. But the women did not seem to appreciate their good fortune, as they began to bicker over the food. I reckoned it would be wise to eat the food a little at a time, because we did not know how long the train journey would take. We assumed that we were on our way to Germany, but exactly where we did not know. I suggested it to the other women and luckily they listened. They asked me to dole out the food. It was an honour for me to do so. I distributed the soup, cut the bread and the sausage and they could tell I was doing my best to share it out equally.
There was enough space to sit on the floor of the wagon, with some of us leaning against the walls. I managed to find a piece of toilet paper and wrote a message to my friend Greet Brinkhuis in Amsterdam, telling her I was on a train and probably on my way to Germany. I slipped the note through a crack between the wooden slats when we stopped at the first station and although she was highly unlikely to ever receive it, I thought it was worth a try.
The journey wore us out and seemed to go on forever, even for us in our privileged wagon. Having been locked inside the wagons for three days and two nights we finally arrived at our destination on 8 September. The sliding doors opened and we caught our first glimpse of what later turned out to be Ravensbrück. Irony has it that this horrific place is set in beautiful surroundings near a big lake, Schwedtsee, although we could not see any of it. SS men were walking around with whips and huge dogs by their side. The dogs were barking and the men yelling: ‘Schnell, schnell, schnell! Heraus, heraus, heraus!’
Quick, quick, quick. Out, out, out. We were all terrified.
Bleached hair: in the resistance
My longest and most dangerous mission was the one to Paris. For someone who had only been out of the Netherlands once—on a school trip to England—I had become a seasoned traveller surprisingly quickly, but I had never been to France. There were bands of Dutch resistance fighters over there, some of whom were trying to open up new escape routes to the border with Spain and Switzerland. In April 1944 some of the people affiliated with our resistance group were arrested in Paris and detained at the Fresnes prison in Val-de-Marne, south of the capital. British spies and people from the French resistance were being held here under the most dreadful conditions and subjected to horrendous torture. Unless we freed our boys they would be killed. Bob and Frans asked me to go to Paris to hand an envelope to someone who worked at the German headquarters there and who would then give me some papers to take back. I did not know how my assignment might contribute to the rescue bid, but I was told it was essential. This mission was clearly extremely dangerous. I had taken plenty of risks before, but nothing as bold as entering ss headquarters. Filled with fear I took the southbound train, crossed the border with the help of farmers and travelled through Belgium and across the border into France.
Once in Paris I had no idea how to get into the German headquarters. As I approached the building, I could hear my heart pounding. Looking back, it seems like a mad thing to have done, but I realised it was crucial and even though I was petrified I knew I simply had to go through with it. I have always been very confident, but I also think I somehow did not really care anymore. Of course I wanted to be safe, but I felt I did not really have much more to lose.
My strategy involved flirting with the soldiers outside and in the waiting room. Although I spoke German I did not want to engage in a conversation and draw attention to myself, so I smiled and made eyes at them, as if I was interested. I tried to create the impression that I was having a whale of a time. They returned my gaze and looked at me suggestively, so my plan was clearly working. At the reception desk I simply asked for my contact by name, so I did not have to say too much. Luckily he came to meet me really quickly and we exchanged envelopes. It goes without saying that he was taking a huge risk as well. Then I made my way out again, as fast as I could, all the while smiling at the soldiers. I had expected far more security and questions, but everything went surprisingly smoothly. I guess it never occurred to the Germans that a young Jewish woman of the resistance would have the audacity to simply march into their building, especially not while also pretending to fancy them, but to this day I cannot believe how easily I walked in and out again. I had been so scared that I had been sick to my stomach throughout the mission, but after the war I heard that the boys who had been arrested had survived, so my travails were worth it.
The corridor of death: Ravensbrück
We lived in wretched circumstances. Since we could not wash our clothes, the stench was unbearable. It was almost better to be outside at roll call, even though it could last for hours and might be in the freezing cold or in the snow. Because we were all so weak and malnourished, none of us were having our periods. At least that was one less thing to worry about under these unhygienic conditions. It left many women permanently infertile and after the war we were told by doctors that it was highly unlikely we would ever be able to have children. But some women were already pregnant when they arrived in Ravensbrück. One of the Dutch women, Annie Hendricks, was expecting. Her husband had been shot dead in Vught before we left there. She was doing additional hard work, such as lugging large pots of soup, coffee or rubbish after a day’s or night’s labour, in exchange for some extra food—mashed potato and carrots or stodgy soup with kohlrabi and carrots. She had to do the work herself; nobody was allowed to help her. But with the birth of her child approaching, I offered to help her in whatever way I could and she asked me to fetch her the food. It was quite a long walk to the kitchen and once there she had to stand in line for ages before she was served, so she gave me her ticket and I went in her place. I will never forget the aroma of mashed potato and carrots. It was simply mouth-watering for someone who was starving. I must admit I was often tempted to have a taste, but I never did. Annie’s son was born soon after.
All we received for dinner was thin, watery soup. The only time I was given a bit of mash was when I nearly died of dysentery and ended up going to the doctor. You only went to see the doctor if you had run out of other options. The doctor rarely made an appearance anyway, but if he sent you to the Revier, the sick bay, in the main camp you would be scared to death that you might not come back, or that they would use you for medical experiments before gassing you. When we arrived, the camp was extremely overcrowded and it was well-known that sick people were murdered. I became sicker and weaker as I could not hold down any food. I stuck it out as long as I could, but then one Sunday I went to the doctor’s hut. Sunday was the only day you could go because you were not allowed to stay away from work. A new, female medic had replaced the previous male ss doctor, so that gave me a bit of hope. I had to wait in line outside for an hour before I finally got to see her. She was kind enough and gave me a ticket for the kitchen that entitled me to some mash. I was only given it once, but it was enough to temporarily stop the very severe diarrhoea. It never completely cleared up. For many years after the war, I had bowel problems. The doctors said they were bright red, as if they had been inflamed for a long time. Even now, more than seventy years later, my bowels act up when I have a cold or I am extremely tired.
Everybody had a tin mug, a tin plate and a tin spoon, all of which you had to carry on your body somewhere or else they would get stolen. Without those items you were unable to drink that foul soup and that filthy coffee, although theft was a little less prevalent in Siemens camp—probably because it was relatively small. But it did happen if you were not careful. When I had that dreadful diarrhoea I was unable to eat my morsel of bread one evening and slipped it under my mattress at the head of my bed. In the middle of the night I was woken up by a hand snatching my bread away. The woman who had stolen it quickly made her way to the bed opposite mine and climbed in. I was astonished, not least because she had always seemed like such a nice woman. Before she was taken prisoner, she had been a lawyer. I could not point the finger at her: first of all, I had no proof, and secondly, I did not want her to be punished. It was so sad. She had become mentally ill and not long after she was taken to the main camp and almost certainly murdered. Some people were clearly losing their minds. It began with a strange smile, next up they would start laughing out loud in a particular way, and then it would go from bad to worse. But I had learned my lesson and from that day forward I would always eat my slice of bread as soon as I was given it.
My real name: liberation
On 14 April 1945 the Dutch and Belgian women at Siemens camp were ordered to line up outside. It was early in the morning, a beautiful spring day. It was sunny and it was starting to feel warm; it was no punishment to stand outside. I had spent autumn and winter in Ravensbrück, so the prospect of warmer weather came as a relief. Still, any departure from normal routine made us nervous, and so it did now. We waited in the sun for a few minutes, but were then marched to the main camp by ss soldiers. This took us past the gas chambers of Uckermark and we all thought that our final hour had come. Two months before, the older women had been taken there and gassed. I thought it was our turn now and judging by the pale faces of my fellow inmates I could tell they were thinking the same. My heart was racing; I was convinced that having escaped death for so long I was now going to die.
We had heard that the Norwegian and Danish women had been liberated a few weeks ago, but we were doubtful whether that was true. Too many women had heard stories of freedom or of a better camp and treatment and none of them ever turned out to be true. Luckily we passed Uckermark and my heart slowed down again. We walked all the way to the main camp and stopped outside a barracks. We did not know what to make of it. Everybody was speculating. There were wild rumours that we were about to be freed, but that seemed unlikely. It was better not to believe it. It would be unbearable if it proved to be untrue. Mind you, we, the Belgian and Dutch women, had just received a Red Cross food parcel for the first time, and that gave us hope. Something had changed. We could not stop talking, discussing possibilities and trying to keep our spirits up. There had been reports to the effect that the Germans were not doing well in the war, but those had only made us more afraid; they were still murdering women every day and we knew that they would not want to leave any survivors who could share the horrific tales of all the killing after the war.
We were held at the main camp for nine days, during which nothing happened. It was a terrible time. We were expecting to be hauled away to be murdered at any moment. We thought our number was up, yet we were resigned. There was nothing we could do anyway. For nine days on end we had to attend roll call every morning and evening. The rest of the time we just hung around or slept inside the barracks.
On 23 April all the Dutch and Belgian women had to remain standing outside after roll call. We made our way to the main street and were convinced we were about to be murdered. I tried not to show my terror, but I was trembling and having trouble breathing. The guard called out our numbers. This did not take as long as before. There were relatively few of us left; so many had been murdered, had succumbed to diseases or been sent to other camps. After all the names had been called out, we were ordered to walk, as always in rows of five, through the entrance gate. Are we on our way to the gas chamber, I wondered, had my luck run out after all? I forced myself to walk on as bravely as possible and I knew that my companions were doing the same. Outside the gate, we were told to wait. We stood there for a while, still not knowing what was happening. Suddenly we saw a sports car approach from the distance. The car came closer and closer. It had its top down. We all held our breath.
To our big surprise, the car stopped beside us and we saw a handsome young man behind the wheel. We were dumbfounded. He jumped out of the car and said he had come to liberate us. He was not in uniform. He introduced himself and told us he was from Sweden His friend Count Folke Bernadotte, the vice-president of the Swedish Red Cross, would be sending buses to collect us and drive us to Sweden. This information sounded so bizarre and came so unexpected that I found it hard to believe, but he was clearly telling the truth and we were unable to hide our excitement. After all this time the war appeared to be coming to an end and we were liberated at last.
My family is in my thoughts every single day. The death of mum, dad and Clara remains the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. Worse than anything I went through during the war—and that includes my imprisonment in Ravensbrück—is knowing how they were murdered. Despite my happy and satisfying life with my much-loved husband and son, I never managed to come to terms with this horrendous event. There is a huge hole inside of me that will never heal. In my head I reconstruct what was done to them in gruesome detail. I wonder if mum and Clara knew what was happening, those two sweet, innocent people who never harmed anyone. I wonder if they were holding each other’s hands when they died. I wonder if dad was thinking of us in his final seconds, or whether he was in too much of a panic to think of anything. It is cruel to deprive someone of his right to a natural death. Even now, 74 years on, I lie awake at night and tell myself: ‘Selma, go to sleep. You can’t change what happened by thinking about it.’
Although I have been back to Ravensbrück, where I was imprisoned myself, on numerous occasions, I have never been able to make myself go to Westerbork, Auschwitz or Sobibor. It would be a dagger to my heart to stand in the places where mum, dad and Clara spent their final days and were hounded to their deaths.
I am one of the few Jewish survivors of World War II. This is the story of how, as a young woman, I ended up in the resistance, was arrested and then held as a non-Jewish prisoner in the infamous Ravensbrück, the only all-female concentration camp.
In no other Western European country was the persecution of the Jews as efficient and the death toll as high as it was in the Netherlands. At least three quarters of the Jewish population was murdered, among them my father, mother and little sister Clara, my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.
I was one of the many Jewish people to fight the Nazi regime and my story illustrates what happened to thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. In this personal testimony I have recorded the small details that made up our lives, the sheer luck that saved some of us and the atrocities that led to the deaths of so many. It is a tribute to all those who suffered and died, and to my courageous friends and colleagues in the resistance who risked their own lives to try and save others. We were ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. This book was written as a testament to our fight against the inhumanity. The horrors of World War II and the bravery of the people who defied them must never be forgotten. I hope this book will contribute to their lasting memory.