‘We don’t talk about the war’

Lous Steenhuis-Hopelman

NOS News

Exactly 78 years ago, the last transport to a concentration camp left Camp Westerbork. There were also 51 Jewish children on the train, which ended up in the Bergen-Belsen camp. Children of the Unknown the Nazis called them. They were arrested while in hiding. As a result, the names of most of the children were unknown and they did not know who their parents were.

By a great miracle, these children—babies, toddlers, and preschoolers—survived the war against one of them. And managed to find out who they are. More than twenty years ago, some of these children reunited for the first time, and since then there has been a reunion on or around September 13th. The day of the transport from Westerbork.

This month, the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany invited all survivors of the camp to a memorial gathering. And so nine ‘unknown children’ from the Netherlands, Israel, Canada and the USA met in Bergen-Belsen. The camp where they spent two months in the fall of 1944.

The togetherness in the former Bergen-Belsen camp means that the reunion takes on a different character than usual. Marita Deen-Simons (80) and Lous Steenhuis-Hoepelman (81) have been back several times. “It is of course special to walk through Bergen-Belsen with the others. How is it possible that we were there as very small children. And that we are still there. The Nazis somehow spared us. Can’t imagine . And almost 80 years later we are together again in the camp. Bizarre after all,” says Marita.

Like most of the Unknown Children group, she and Lous have no memories of the camps. They were still too young. Both have tried to find out what happened to them during the war. There are still questions. “Who took care of me? Where did we sleep in Bergen-Belsen? Were we together in a barracks? You can’t find out anymore. Because who can tell? And when I’m there, I want to know, says Marita.

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Still, they don’t talk about the war together, not even when they walk across the camp site with the other ‘kids’. “The first years the group met, they talked about the past,” says Lous. “That time has passed. It’s a kind of code not to talk about the war. I’m fine with that too.”

“It’s nice to see each other again. We really have a bond with each other,” adds Marita Deen-Simons (80). “We talk a lot about the children, the grandchildren, life today.”

Still, it touches them to be back in the place where they were imprisoned as a small child. “I get emotional when I see the hills with the mass graves,” says Lous. “Horrible idea that all the people are lying there.”

CC Wikimedia

Prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after liberation

The British filmed what they found when they liberated the camp in April 1945. “Your stomach turns when you look at those pictures. All those piles of corpses. All those emaciated people. I think I was there too,” he says. Louis. “And I’m glad I have no memories of the war. My memories start after the war.”

The children were imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen for two months. Then they were sent to Theresienstadt, a camp in what is now the Czech Republic. They were liberated there by the Russians in May 1945. After this, the group fell apart. It is not known how many people from the group of unknown children are still alive. Not everyone wanted to stay in touch.

Marita hopes there will be another reunion next year. In Holland. “Nice to see each other again and catch up. On September 13 hopefully it will be possible again next year.”

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