Going outside with her brother to play is Louise Lawrence-Israëls’ most painful memory of the Holocaust. The siblings held on to each other in fear as their father led them down four flights of stairs from a dark, one-room attic in Amsterdam – a hideaway the children hadn’t left in three years.
“It was a sunny spring day but the light blinded us,” Lawrence-Israëls told McNamara Headquarters Complex employees April 17 while sharing her story of growing up in a non-practicing Jewish family during World War II.
Lawrence-Israëls’ parents sheltered their children from the war raging outside their four walls by not talking about it. Even on days when they ate only half a cracker, the deprivation was “normal” to the children. It was all they’d ever known.
Many thought Holland, Germany’s friend, would be spared from the war. But the Nazis invaded the country in 1940, two years before Lawrence-Israëls was born. The ensuing occupation ripped apart her parents’ lives, stripping them of freedom, jobs, food, medical care, education and all their cherished belongings.
In 1942, soon after her birth, Jews in her hometown of Haarlem were ordered to move to Amsterdam. Her father took the wait-and-see approach as the underground resistance strengthened. Resistors thwarted the Nazis from discovering which families were Jewish by bombing or setting fire to registration offices that stored family records. Angered, the Nazis marched 10 of the most prominent Jewish men in Haarlem into the town square.
“They were shot in front of the population. Our neighbor, who was the president of the Jewish community, was included,” Lawrence-Israëls said.
German soldiers stormed into the neighbor’s home three days later, kicking down the door and forcing all seven children and several adults into a truck she later learned headed to Auschwitz, Poland, where they were all killed. Lawrence-Israëls’ parents were frightened and took off that night for Amsterdam.
“My father found a storage attic on top of a set of row houses that had its own entrance and staircase. It was good because it would let him go out after curfew to make contact with the resistance and get food, medicine and news,” she said.
A park across the street also eliminated chances that neighbors would witness Lawrence-Israëls’ father leaving the building in the night hours. Fear of betrayal was rampant, she said, because Nazi collaborators were often rewarded with money for turning in Jews or others with suspicious behavior. Hoping to avoid eviction as the war progressed, her parents put down money for 10 years’ rent.
It was January 1943 and Lawrence-Israëls had just turned 6 months old when her family moved into the bare, cramped attic furnished with only a table and chairs, a broken-down couch and a toilet. There was no bathroom, no kitchen and only one small window. They brought with them a mattress, crib, camping stove, utensils, oil lamps, blankets, and stacks of scrap paper with pencils and crayons. As she grew older, her parents used the paper to teach both children letters and numbers. Her mother also drew pictures of things like birds and trees that they had no other way of seeing.
“Of course they were worried about their parents and siblings and friends, but they wanted us to live like things were ‘normal.’ Every day was great for us,” she said, referring to the playtime and singing that occupied them for weeks, months, years.
For food, Lawrence-Israëls’ father bartered with resistance members using bolts of fabric he’d saved from the textiles firm he owned before the Nazis invaded. A couple of yards earned a few slices of bread. When there wasn’t enough to go around, the adults went hungry.
In September 1944, Canadian forces liberated the southern part of Holland. They were in the north and hopeful they’d survive though still in captivity. But their last winter in the attic was the harshest and the children suffered from chilblains, their fingers and toes swelling with blisters and itching from repeated exposure to the cold.
“It was unbelievably painful and we cried a lot,” Lawrence-Israëls remembered. When the resistance could no longer supply medication, her father relied on an old remedy he’d seen used by farmers after feeding their livestock in bitter temperatures.
“They put their hands and feet in cow or horse manure because the uric acid in the urine was the same as what’s used in the cream medication,” she said. “So my father made us pee on our body at night before we went to sleep. The pain went away instantly.”
The family might have starved that winter if not for the plain, hard cookies her father made on their camping stove with butter, flour and sugar he got from the resistance. The cookies were tucked away for emergency in tins that were also provided by the resistance.
Then May 5, 1945, the family heard commotion on the street below. Lawrence-Israëls and her brother watched with alarm as their father dragged a chair to the window and opened it for the first time ever.
“He looked back at us and said, ‘I think we’re free.’ My brother and I had no concept of what he was talking about,” she said.
Out came a final tin of cookies.
“My father stuffed his face, put the tin down on the table and said, ‘Everybody can take as many cookies as they want now,’ because he knew food would be coming in again soon.”
Full after one cookie, Lawrence-Israëls heard her brother exclaim, “This is fun. Being free means eating cookies.”
The children’s first trip to the park came a couple of days later. Three more days passed, and the family finally gathered courage to walk into town. Canadian soldiers mingling with residents noticed Lawrence-Israëls and her brother clinging to their parents with tear-stained faces. They bent down and handed each a Hershey’s chocolate bar.
“That first taste of chocolate was magic,” she remembered.
With the war over, Lawrence-Israëls learned that her real name was “Louise,” not “Marie,” which accompanied her false identification papers. Though free, her parents continued to protect the children by avoiding any talk of the Holocaust. She was 9 when she went to a birthday party where there were four grandparents present. At home, she asked, “How come we only have two?”
“My parents didn’t come back,” her mother answered. Back from where, Lawrence-Israëls wanted to know, but she got no reply.
At 15, Lawrence-Israëls asked about her family’s Jewish faith. They didn’t support her journey into Judaism because they feared it would be dangerous, but they did let her make up her own mind about what to believe in.
“They were so afraid. I didn’t realize that until I had my own children,” she continued.
Lawrence-Israëls married an American medical student and moved to America in 1967. Her husband became one of the last draftees in 1973, and she begged him not to let the Army send them to Germany. They had three daughters and though she was willing to talk to them about the Holocaust, she did so with hatred in her voice.
While stationed in Belgium, their middle daughter, then 9, was chastised for referring to the Germans as murderers. But those weren’t really her daughter’s words, she realized; they were hers. With encouragement from her husband and “a little bit of professional help,” Lawrence-Israëls overcame her hatred.
“That’s how the Holocaust started, with that one little, four-letter word: Hate,” she said.
Lawrence-Israëls volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to help ensure the horrors of World War II are never forgotten. Of the 12 million people who were killed, 6 million were Jews and 1.5 million were Jewish children. People let it happen, Lawrence-Israels said, just like they let genocide go untamed in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Africa and the Middle East.
“People are murdered because their religion is different, they dress differently, their language is different or the color of their skin is different. And we let it happen,” she said, encouraging audience members to speak up when they see something that’s not right.
“We live in a country where we’re free.” But with choices, she concluded, come responsibilities.
More information about the Holocaust and survivor stories are available at https://www.ushmm.org.