A dusty attic in an Amsterdam row house kept the Israels family away from Hitler during the Holocaust.
“The Holocaust is not a controversial issue,” said Louise Lawrence-Israels, a survivor. “The Holocaust happened.”
Lawrence-Israels, volunteer for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, visited SUNY Plattsburgh March 31 and told her story about hiding from German forces for three years.
“I feel like I have to tell my story because we were part of that, and my parents were part of that,” Lawrence-Israels said. “I feel that it’s my obligation.”
German forces invaded the Netherlands in May 1940 and set up a German administration. Trying to prevent this, Lawrence-Israels’ father was stationed at the Southern tip of the Netherlands in, blowing up bridges to prevent the Nazis from entering, but the Nazis came by multiple boats, soon overrunning the small country.
During this time, each Dutch family had to register and get identity cards. Jews got the letter “J” across their card. With this card, they could buy necessities once a month. However, the Germans left just enough so the Dutch wouldn’t starve.
Kicking down doors, the Nazi’s took homes from innocent people, in many instances forcing them to live in their basements. In 1941, Jewish businesses were confiscated, and Jewish people became segregated from the Dutch.
After a year of this, anti-Semitic laws were established near Lawrence-Israels’ birth in 1942, a time when she took the name of Maria instead of Louise.
Jews were forced to wear a yellow star by one of these laws.
During her speech, Lawrence-Israels took out a copy of her father’s yellow star and placed it on her blouse. While turning, she stated how wearing a star was different than wearing a scarf or jewelry. It couldn’t be removed.
“You couldn’t take that risk because the worst part was that you didn’t know who you could trust,” she said. “There was a price on every Jews head.”
At six months old, her family was ordered to move to Amsterdam from Haarlem. The Germans planned to place all the Jews in Amsterdam in custody, and then deport them to the concentration camps of Auschiwitz and Sobibor.
One neighbor, Thelma, joined them and moved to an Amsterdam attic bringing only a camping stove, a mattress and a crib, with the attic containing one sink, one toilet, one tiny window and a table with chairs.
At the table, Lawrence-Israels and her brother learned to read and write by playing games with their mother, keeping their minds off of what was going on outside.
“If my mother had seen there was a beautiful day, nice sunshine, she would say to us, ‘Oh children, the weather beautiful, if only I could take you to the park and let you play outside.’ My brother and I would have said ‘Park? Park? What is a park?’” Lawrence-Israels said. “If she wouldn’t have explained it, we would’ve missed it.”
Without knowing about their parents, grandparents, cousins or best friends, her parents kept their composure and their children safe and fed on the inside until something happened on the outside in June 1944.
Lawrence-Israels’ father went outside one day, then came back and said, “There might be an end to this crazy war and this crazy occupation because I just heard the news that the allied forces have landed in Normandy.”
The family commemorated this day on Lawrence-Israels’ second birthday.
In a black and white photo taken by a trusted friend, Lawrence-Israels sits on an old, antique doll chair in her new birthday dress made from her mothers’ old blouse, holding a doll made from rags by Thelma. Next to her feet, crammed into shoes several sizes too small, sits her brother’s pull horse.
“My best present was my brother’s pull horse, but he did say that it was just for today and I had to give it back,” Lawrence-Israels said. “It was all right. I was happy.”
At the end of July 1944, the allied forces started to liberate Europe. First, they liberated the northern part of France, Belgium and the southern part of Holland in September. By that time, an early winter bore down on the family.
The rivers froze, leaving the allied forces to wait until spring to liberate the rest of Holland. To prepare for winter, her father traded his things for sugar and flour to bake butter cookies, leaving them in tins and storing them away.
Calling it the hunger winter, they lost electricity and suffered from “winter feet and winter hands,” an unbearable pain from the cold. To cure this, they placed their feet in urine to get uric acid, an acid used in various medical creams.
After the long winter, liberation finally came.
On May 5, 1945, Canadian forces liberated the rest of Holland.
Her father ran over to the cupboard and found the last tin of butter cookies. “He unsealed it, stuffed his face, put the tin on the floor and said to all of us, ‘take as many cookies as you want,’” she said.
Walking down four flights of stairs, a bright light overwhelmed Lawrence-Israel and her brother as they stepped outside for the first time in three years. They stood on the grass where they both looked at each other and started to cry from fear.
After explaining the situation more, they went outside again a few days later. This time, a Canadian soldier approached them, reached into his pocket and pulled out two Hershey bars. After this, they weren’t so afraid.
“The next morning, my brother asked my parents when we were going out again,” Lawrence-Israels said. “He wanted more Hershey bars.”
The years to come after liberation brought questions of family, religion and the future to come. Lawrence-Israels married and had three children. She raised her children with the Jewish religion and a hatred of Germans, a hatred that she knew had to end.
“Hatred begets hatred,” Lawrence-Israels said. “Genocide is still going on today, and it hasn’t stopped with the holocaust.
“We cannot continue.”
Visit ushmm.org to see Lawrence-Israels’ pictures of when she was in hiding, and listen to her podcast.