Living with new restrictions imposed on their accustomed routines and being urged to remain within their houses or apartments for safety as they try to avoid contamination from the coronavirus is objectionable to some people. They prefer to disregard the advised procedures because, they say, they “can’t stand that confinement.”
I wonder how they would act if they were forced into long-time confinement, if their lives depended on it.
As a survivor of World War II on both sides of the war, first in Nazi-occupied Europe and then in the U.S. Armed Forces, I can attest to the importance of the need for self-preservation over being irresponsible or naively defiant.
Those who object to the recommended solutions of social isolation, remind me of the fight for survival that my uncle in Holland went through during World War II, under truly incredible conditions.
As a young man, my mother’s brother, Wilhelm Marx, had emigrated from Germany to Rotterdam, Holland, right after his military service during World War I; there he soon became a successful commodity broker and a Dutch citizen. He lived the good life of the “Roaring Twenties.”
During the late 1930s, when anti-Semitism ruled Nazi Germany, he arranged and paid for four of his sisters and their families to escape from there. That is how I came to Holland, after Kristallnacht, in December 1938, at age 14. My parents and brother left Holland for New York in April 1940, but I remained in Rotterdam to finish school.
Four weeks later, on May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Holland.
I held a German passport, so my status suddenly changed from political refugee to enemy alien, and I was interned by the Dutch.
My uncle could have escaped to England at that time, but he remained in Holland because of me. I survived the bombardment of Rotterdam on May 14 and was reunited with him. By January 1941 he had managed to arrange for my departure with an experimental children’s transport to the United States, which became an adventurous odyssey. By that time, however, all his own attempts to escape had been unsuccessful.
In the fall of 1941 the Nazis started to round up Dutch Jews for deportation to death camps. That happened primarily in Amsterdam, where most of the Jews lived. My uncle still was in Rotterdam, but by the summer of 1942 he no longer felt safe there. With the help of Dutch Gentile friends, he managed to find a hiding place in a small village with a Dutch farmer. He was 52 years old.
After several weeks there, a Dutch traitor threatened to extort money from the farmer for hiding a Jew. Of course the farmer denied he was hiding anyone. The Dutch underground helped my uncle to escape back to Rotterdam the very next day, and his friends found a new hiding place for him there. But the conditions were very primitive. During the day he was hidden in a wardrobe — the freestanding armoire-type closet that was common in Europe. He could come out only at night to eat and sleep. The underground provided food stamps as well as it could, because no one gets rations without them. My uncle had to depend totally on his host couple, who were paid by his good friends.
My uncle existed under those incredible conditions for two and a half very long years, until liberation day finally came. Rotterdam was liberated by a Canadian Army unit on May 5, 1945, just three days before Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8. My uncle was lucky to survive, and to keep a sound mind. He had lost more than 60 pounds during his long confinement.
It was an incredible tale of human courage and the will to live. And it was a testimony to the brave Dutch women and men of the underground, who risked their own lives to keep my uncle from arrest and certain death — who kept his story from being like Anne Frank’s.
It took all my uncle’s mental strength and willpower to survive — but survive he did.
Why am I telling this story of survival under such extreme conditions? Of being locked in a closet without light, without communication of any kind, and with no space to move or exercise?
I am telling my uncle Wilhelm’s story to question how those people today who defy “confinement” would have reacted. Those who complain about their imagined hardships, about being isolated in their own homes, with cell phones, internet connections to the outside world, three daily square meals, and no constant threat of discovery and certain death.
After hearing my uncle’s story of survival, maybe they would reconsider their current “hardships.”