The Children's House of Belsen
By Hetty E. Verolme
Fremantle Press, (2000)
Reviewed by Simone Bonim - June 16, 2011
A few weeks ago I reviewed Hetty, by Hetty E. Verolme. This was a book that chronicled her experiences during the Holocaust. The book seemed a bit jagged at times, as if certain things had been skipped. When I got to the end of the book I found that this was because they had been! It turned out that Hetty was an abridged version of The Children's House of Belsen, and that an abridged edition had been issued so as to excise some of the more graphic and disturbing elements of the story so as to make the book more suitable and accessible to younger readers. I found Hetty to be a remarkable Holocaust story, in part because it is told from the viewpoint of a young Jewish teenager (Hetty was thirteen when her family was 'rounded up' and sent to a concentration camp.) But I wanted to learn her complete story, so I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to review the unabridged version of her story - I was not disappointed!
The Children's House of Belsen is a remarkable story that chronicles the experiences of Hetty and her family during World War II. Born in Belgium in 1930, Hetty and her family moved to Amsterdam, Holland in 1931. In 1943 her family was one of the last of the Jewish families to be arrested and deported to a concentration camp for the sole crime of being Jewish. The family was first sent to the Westerbork Concentration Camp, which was essentially a transit camp from which inmates where sent east, either to the death camps such as Auschwitz where they were murdered upon arrival, or to concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen where people where either worked to death, or allowed to die slowly from starvation or disease. For Hetty and her family, fate would lead them to Germany and the Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp. For a while, Hetty, her parents, and her two younger brothers were allowed to stay together, but eventually her parents were sent to other camps. By this time, Hetty was fourteen and no longer considered to be a child in the eyes of the Nazis, which made her eligible to be used as slave labor, or worse, and she was separated from her younger brothers as well as a group of Dutch children that they had been with since their parents had been sent away. Hetty soon learned where her brothers where and began to visit them daily, and Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, a heroic woman who had voluntarily taken charge of the Dutch children arranged for Hetty to be assigned to the children's group as a helper. This, in all probability, saved Hetty's life.
The Dutch children were special. For the most part they were the children of diamond workers, and the Nazis had placed them in a special category, in part because there was a slight possibility that they would be returned to Holland at some point as a publicity measure. No matter the reason, they were given special treatment, including some degree of medical attention, a barracks all their own segregated from the rest of the camp, a group of women to care for the children, and food - not as much as they would have liked or needed, but enough to keep most of them alive until the camp was liberated by the British in 1945. Other Dutch children in Bergen-Belsen where not as lucky. Anne Frank and her sister Margot where in the Bergen-Belsen the same time that Hetty was, but they were housed in with the general population and died of a combination of starvation and typhus. There are no firm figures on just how many people died in Bergen-Belsen, nor how many of them were children, but the numbers were staggering.
For example, to take a look at the last fifteen days that the Nazi's controlled the camp... On April 1, 1945, German records indicate that there were 44,000 prisoners in the camp, and that by April 15th, 9,000 of them had died. During the same period, 25-30,000 inmates where added to the camp's population. How many of these died is unknown, but the British guesstimated that when they entered the camp on April 15th, there were more than 10,000 unburied bodies scattered around the camp, often side by side with the living. During this same period, about 7,000 prisoners were transferred to other camps, many of whom also perished. When the camp was liberated on April 15, 1945 the British found that nearly all of the 60,000 inmates that were still alive in the camp, almost all of them, including the children in the Children's House were ill. The camp was strewn with dead and rotting bodies, and despite the best efforts of the British, many of those who survived to see the camp liberated, died shortly thereafter. [The information on camp fatalities, and movement of prisoners was extrapolated from The Relief of Belsen, April 1945, edited by Paul Kemp.]
The bulk of this book concentrates on Hetty's experiences in the Children's House, how the children were treated, how the Nazis used the Children's House for propaganda purposes, and just how hard the women in charge of the children worked to give the children some semblance of a normal childhood, and love, in a very unnatural situation. Hetty also examines what happened to her and her brothers (who also survived) after the camp was liberated, how they came to return to Holland, and how, at last they were reunited with their parents who also miraculously survived. They were one of only a handful of Jewish families that survived the war intact.
The Children's House of Belsen is an important addition to the body of survivor testimonies that are available on the Holocaust. This one is unique in that there are very few available from such a young eye witness, mainly because the young were often the first to be murdered by the Nazis who could not use them as slave labor. At times, this is a hard book to read, but overall, it has a rather uplifting feel about it. Granted Hetty's experiences during the war were horrific, and had she written this book within weeks of liberation it might have had a very different feel, but as it is, and knowing that she survived, the story is infused with a sense of hope and a feeling that eventually, things will get better.
The Children's House of Belsen is ideal for use as a supplemental text in both high school and college classes on the Holocaust, and should be read by anyone seeking a unique glimpse into one girl's experiences during the Holocaust. In addition, this book includes numerous photographs and a translation of an interview that Hetty gave, at age fifteen, to the BBC on April 18, 1945 days after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Child of War, by Nachman Seltzer.
This is an intimate recounting of Arye Leibish Friedman's childhood experiences during the Holocaust. The young Leibish, a Bobover Chassid boy from Budapest, survived by hiding in plain-sight disguised as a gentile. This book also provides a glimpse into what life was like for the Jews of Budapest, just before and throughout the war.