Her name was Betty and she was Zevenhuizen’s grammar school sweetheart. Everything about her – the way she laughed, the pretty smile – all of it was wonderful to the love struck 11-year-old boy.
So when Betty showed up one day at school wearing a bright yellow Star of David on her blouse Zevenhuizen was captivated. He marveled at how the star made her stand out in a crowd and felt it only enhanced her uniqueness.
Zevenhuizen raced home from school and begged his mother to let him wear a star to school, too.
“My little sweetheart showed up with the Star of David,” said Zevenhuizen. “I thought it was great.”
Zevenhuizen was too young to realize what he was asking. His mother was not nearly as naïve. Looking back on it decades later, he can only imagine what thoughts were racing through his mother’s mind as her youngest child inquired about the star.
This, after all, was Holland in early 1942, nearly two full years into the five-year occupation by the Nazis.
The Germans had begun their mistreatment of the Jews soon after their invasion of the Netherlands in May of 1940. By May of 1942 the Jews had lost practically all their rights and were forced to wear the Star of David on their clothing.
Then one day Betty didn’t show up for school. In fact, she was never seen again.
“I asked my mom what happened to that little girl,” said Zevenhuizen. “She said they moved to another city. Bull----.”
Betty and her family were most likely among the 110,000 Jews deported out of the Netherlands by the Nazis. Most were sent to concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and were never heard from again. It is estimated that of the 110,000 Dutch Jews that lived in the Netherlands before the war, a staggering 70 percent perished during the Holocaust.
“I never did find out what happened to her,” said Zevenhuizen. “She was just a little girl.”
Five years of Zevenhuizen’s childhood was spent living under the horror of Nazi rule and much of what he saw still haunts him to this day. But thanks in large part to an ingenious father the entire family survived the war unharmed.
Tens of thousands of his countrymen were not so fortunate.
Zevenhuizen’s hometown village of Overschie was simply idyllic in the 1930s. Although it’s now part of the bustling suburbs of Rotterdam, Overschie was a quiet, peaceful village 70 years ago.
The family lived in a small thatched-roof house surrounded by beautiful flowers and gorgeous farmland that stretched on for miles.
It was into this quaint setting that Aat was born in 1931, the youngest of three children raised by Arie and Katarina Zevenhuizen.
“It was absolutely delightful,” said Zevenhuizen about the pre-war years. “We lived in a typical Dutch home. It was mostly grazing area all around and plenty of cows. We all walked to school. It was wonderful until the war broke out in 1940. That’s when things got tough.”
Since his father made a pretty good living as a partner in a tobacco import company, Zevenhuizen never had to work as a young boy. That gave him plenty of time to play soccer, hang out with friends, and learn to milk cows.
“I learned to milk cows because that was the only thing around,” laughed Zevenhuizen. “The only reason the (farm workers) let me do this is they would say, ‘Why don’t you get your mom to fix us some hot tea?’ So when I came up with the hot tea they would drink it and let me milk the cows.”
Zevenhuizen was just eight years old when the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, signaling the beginning of the Second World War. Of course, all of that meant nothing to him.
“At that age I didn’t have any conception of that,” said Zevenhuizen.
Less than a year later, he would develop a much better understanding of the meaning of war. The Nazis unleashed their ferocious blitzkrieg on the Netherlands on May 10, 1940.
As a way to force the Dutch into swift capitulation the Germans launched a brutal bombing attack May 14 on Rotterdam.
The Zevenhuizen family along with many neighbors stood and watched helplessly as the German bombers destroyed much of the city located just a few miles away.
“We stood in our front yards as the bombers would drop their loads and fly away,” said Zevenhuizen. “They bombed the hell out of Rotterdam. I mean, there was nothing but fire. After that afternoon, the game was over.”
Just two days later, fearing more attacks on their cities and additional civilian casualties, the Dutch surrendered.
“I didn’t understand what the hell was going on,” said Zevenhuizen. “It wasn’t until much later I realized the criminal part of it.”
Living with Nazis
Life as Zevenhuizen knew it changed forever. Within days of the surrender the Germans were taking over his small village.
A German officer and five of his men knocked on their front door and informed the family they would bunk in their living room. The Germans made the rules but they also had to abide by some as well.
When one of the soldiers showed up at the house with a prostitute Zevenhuizen’s father wouldn’t let him inside.
“A sergeant showed up with a floozy at around noon or one o’clock and he wanted to get in the house,” said Zevenhuizen. “My dad said, ‘You can’t come in.’ The sergeant said, ‘I’m blah, blah, blah and I’m going to blah, blah, blah.’ My father told him again he could not come inside and that he was going to call the German commander and tell him what happened. Both the sergeant and his floozy were gone.”
While most of the Dutch were at the total mercy of the Germans, the Zevenhuizens did have one important bargaining chip – cigarettes.
When the threat of invasion began to loom in early 1940, Zevenhuizen’s father went to his warehouse and gathered up as much tobacco as possible. He then hired someone to transform his piles of tobacco into cigarettes, a commodity that was nearly as good as gold during the war.
“What saved us is my father had foresight,” said Zevenhuizen. “He had access to some excess tobacco at his firm and had it made into cigarettes. I don’t know how many he had but he had plenty of them. He knew that money was of absolutely no significance but cigarettes were.”
The importance of that decision became clear one morning when Germans troops in the village began rounding up young men over the age of 16. They were all sent to Germany and used as forced labor in the war effort.
Zevenhuizen was just 11 or 12 at the time but his brother, Albert, was four years older. The Germans knew were Albert lived and they were now looking for him.
“My brother and I woke up one day and there was nothing but troops all around,” said Zevenhuizen. “They were rounding up everyone over the age of 16 and shipping them off to Germany. My father sent my brother to the attic (to hide) and I later joined him to keep him company.”
With several soldiers standing outside a German lieutenant entered the house and asked if anyone over 16 lived there. Zevenhuizen’s father said no one lived in the house but his wife and daughter, Else.
The lieutenant rechecked documents he was carrying and said he was sure that a 16 year old boy lived at this address.
That’s when Zevenhuizen’s father lit a cigarette, took a deep puff, and asked the lieutenant if he would like a cigarette. The German smiled at him.
“It was like gold,” said Zevenhuizen. “My father gave him 10 or 12 cigarettes and the lieutenant looked at his sheet again and said, ‘Great, we don’t have a problem here.’”
The German left and never returned to look for Zevenhuizen’s brother.
“It was unbelievable,” said Zevenhuizen. “It was my father’s genius to understand how important those cigarettes would be.”
(Part two of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)