How I finally got my grandmothers message
By Semra van der Linden
It is the winter of 1942. Stien van Dijk, just fifteen years old, works at Hollandia-Kattenburg in Amsterdam. At that point, Hollandia-Kattenburg is the biggest confection factory in Europe. The war has given the company extra work and a lot of army gear for the German occupier is produced in the north part of Amsterdam. Despite of the war, Stien is enjoying a careless life. That changes on November 11th 1942 when the German police walk in and deport 360 Jewish employees.
Stien is my mother’s aunt and the only one in my family who talked about the war. My grandad told me about it once, in a far stadium of dementia. ‘They took them all away’ ,he said, talking about his Jewish neighbors. It was the first time I saw my grandad cry. My family is from Amsterdam, where a lot of Jews lived before the war. Most of my family members have a trauma due to the war and used to avoid the topic in a conversation. Except Stien, she talked. She was the sweetest woman and was well known in her neighborhood for her charity work and lovely appearance. She was a second mother for my mum and I always called her grandma. She died a year ago.
A bench at IJ-plein
But this amazing woman would burst out in anger when talking about the war, all because of what happened at Hollandia-Kattenburg. I think about this while I am cycling to IJ-plein, where the Hollandia-Kattenburg monumental is located. When I arrive at IJ-plein I walk to the monument. I read the text: ‘To the memory of the 395 nazi victims’ one of the pillars says. I take a seat on a bench. It’s an ordinary sunny Saturday and IJ-plein is full of people who are getting their groceries for the week. Although the square is filled with sounds, I am surrounded by silence. This is the place where one of the worst brutalities by the German occupier happened. Stien told me about the 11th of November 1942 many times. For the first time in history, I am going to write down her story, in the same spot where it took place 69 years ago.
‘I was fourteen years old when my parents decided that I had to start working. That was really normal back then. As I was living close to Hollandia-Kattenburg, it was more than logical for me to work there. The war had just begun and there was plenty of work because of all the army gear that the occupier needed. I had to sew different kinds of garment. Hollandia-Kattenburg was very modern and I really enjoyed working there. After work on Fridays, we used to go out with a few girls from my department. I had a lot of friends there.’ This memory always used to make Stien smile. Most of the employees of the factory were Jewish, but Stien did not care about their race. ‘It is the inside that counts’, is what she would tell me over and over again, ‘not your race, your color or how you look’. Her face would fill with anger when she talked about the 11th of November 1942. ‘I didn’t enjoy working as much as I used to, as the war proceeded. Next to making new army gear, we also had to repair pieces. It happened offen to find cut off body parts in the pockets of garment. It was disgusting. The 11th of November just seemed like another day at the job until suddenly the German police walked in. They separated the Jewish employees and told them to go outside. Apparently it did not go fast enough because the employees got kicked of the stairs, were beaten and verbally abused. Those employees were my friends, they were the same as me, except for the fact that they were Jewish. I never saw any of them again.’
She was fifteen years old. The raid was so traumatic for her that she didn’t talk for months. Until the day she died, she did not understand why the raid happened. Afterwards, she found out that all the employees and their family were deported to Westerbork straight away. They didn’t stood a chance. For Jewish people, working at Hollandia-Kattenburg meant that you were provisionally expelled from deportation. The occupier did not like that and as soon as they found a link between a communistic group and the factory, they deported every Jewish employee and their family, 826 people in total. My mother’s aunts attended the memorial ceremony of the factory every year. She learned me the greatest lesson in the world: to accept everybody as they are. While the other members of my family would keep their experiences of the Second World War to them selves, she shared them. Sitting here on this bench, in the north of Amsterdam, it suddenly becomes clear why she talked about it. Something as horrible as that raid should never happen again. ‘It’s the inside that counts’. She wanted to spread the word. I look at the people around me, at the building. I smell the air, which carries the aroma of the chocolate factory in Zaandam. I look at this story, the story I am writing. I realize that she achieved what she wanted to. For now, it is my turn to spread the word.