Barry Spanjaard: American in the Holocaust

When I was in seventh grade, I met a man who would change my life in more ways than one. Until this time, I had never really met anyone who was outside my sphere of family. My protestant family was not much for going outside the norm, but I was always curious about other people. I wanted to know the way they lived, their culture, their religion, where they were from, what brought them here, I wanted to know. One of my first experiences were my Jehovah’s Witness neighbors. I wanted to take them a plate of Christmas cookies we had made but my mom told that they may not accept them because of their religion, but I was not to be swayed. I took the plate and marched over to their house, they were extremely polite in explaining why they couldn’t accept them, but they did take the non-Christmas chocolate chip cookies! My next big experience came one day at a school assembly. We all went into the cafeteria and were told by the teachers to take seats on the floor, as we had a special guest speaker that day. He was a Holocaust survivor. I really didn’t understand what that meant, but when he told us his story I was spellbound.

Barry Spanjaard was born in New York City on August 6, 1929 to Dutch immigrant parents, Fred and Sophie Spanjaard. Sophie loved America and the American way of life, she loved New York City and all the things that it offered and she loved her job at Macy’s Department Store. Fred never really adjusted to life in America. He never really cared about the American pursuit of the “all mighty dollar”. So, when his father became deathly ill back in Holland, Fred decided it was time to take the family home to Holland. It was 1932 and two-year-old Barry was on his way to a new country, with a language he didn’t speak.

When the family left America, Fred and Sophie had their Dutch passports as they were still Dutch citizens. They wanted to get an American passport for Barry, however the Dutch consul advised them that they really didn’t need one for him to enter Holland, that he could enter on his mothers’ passport. This would prove to be a fatal mistake in later years.

For the next eleven years the family lived in Amsterdam in a middle-class section of the city near the De Amstel canal for which the city is named after. Fred had taken over his father’s antiques business after his father passed away. They lived in a third-floor apartment with a water closest, no shower or bath tub, as only the wealthy had those in those days. Above them lived a young couple who would late become members of the N.S.B. (Dutch Nazi Party) and below them lived an older couple of German immigrants, who when the war came were forced to host German officers each Sunday in their apartment.

In 1933, Holland began to expand as Jews escaping the Nazi regime flee into Holland. Some are kept at an absorption camp called Westerbrook. However, Barry was living an idyllic childhood. Even though he often felt like an outsider, the Dutch loved all things American and it made Barry feel more at home knowing that Joe Lewis, Andrew’s Sisters and President Roosevelt were from “his country”.

School was another issue. At this time schools in Holland were funded by the families of its students. Each Monday every child brought “payment” to class, payment amount was based on how much income the family had. The amount was not kept private, each child’s name was called out and the amount that they owed was called out as well, so everyone knew which families were rich and which ones were poor.

Nazi Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940 and Holland surrendered on May 14, 1940, at this time no country was able to withstand the Nazi war machine for very long. Two days later, May 16, 1940, Barry had his first experience with the great German war machine. For several days through his street came the smell of diesel fuel and the rumbling of trucks, troops, cannons, cars, motorcycles and rolling kitchens. The troops came with the skull and crossbones on their uniforms, signaling their undying devotion to Adolf Hitler. His first experience with the hatred that came with the Germans came at the same time. While Barry and a friend, Gerard, were standing on the street watching the war machine go by, Gerard was singled out by a German soldier. He had straight blond hair and blue eyes, the typical Aryan look that Hitler so loved. The soldier asked him if he wanted to go visit Germany, Gerard said “yes”. A couple of weeks later a package arrived at Gerard’s house with railroad tickets and travel papers for a two-week trip to Germany. When he returned, he was not the same. He returned in a Hitler Youth uniform and told Barry that he could no longer associate with him. Gerard’s father would go on to become a high ranking Nazi official.

February 24, 1941 the Nazi’s begin to round up Jewish men in Amsterdam. Jewish men aged 16-35 are told to report to the Tip Top Theater (a Jewish theater in the Jewish section of the city). There was no way to escape and the Nazi’s had every possible exit covered. The men were taken to Waterlooplein Square, where they are made to crawl around on their hands and knees for over an hour. Something just to amuse the Nazi’s. The next day, in protest of the Nazi treatment of Jews the gentile population shut down the city. They went on strike halting trains, buses, telephone service and closing banks. In retaliation the Nazi’s charge the Dutch government fifteen million guilders, about 8.4 million dollars today. Hitler’s dream was to eradicate the Jewish race from the planet. In 1935 there were 120,000 Jews in Holland in 1945 there were only 3,000 left.

In 1942 the Germans began full scale deportations of Jews to Poland. Barry and his parents felt “protected” by Barry’s US citizenship. Even with anti-Jewish laws in place, because of Barry’s American birth certificate he was not required to wear the yellow star of David that all Jews were forced to wear, that meant that even though his mother and father could only go into stores from 3-5 pm a day, Barry could go whenever he wanted to. At this time, Jews and non-Jews are not allowed to socialize, and Jews had to surrender their bicycles to the German police, and Jews businesses were given over to a Dutch Nazi Party member to run in the owners place. Again, because of his American birth certificate, Barry was able to escape many of these restrictions. However, the war made its first encroachment upon the family on April 2, 1943 when Barry’s grandmother was informed that she would be deported that day to Poland. She was Barry’s only living grandparent, who upon the day she was notified of her deportation called her family to say goodbye. They went over and helped her pack the few items that she was allowed to take with her. Within two weeks, she would die in a gas chamber in Sobibor, Poland.

The German’s tried thirteen times to deport Barry and his parents, and every time they showed them his American birth certificate, the Germans left them alone. That all changed on April 6, 1943, just four days after his grandmother was deported, Barry and is parents were deported to Westerbrook Transit camp. Westerbrook, that same place that had been an absorption camp for the Jews fleeing Germany a few years before. Barry spoke with camp officials and discovered that they had missed his grandmother by five hours.

Bergen-Belsen Inmates

On May 6, 1943 Barry and his parents were sent to Amersfort, a political prisoner camp run by the SS. The never found out why they were placed there, but it was another place to witness Nazi cruelty. The camp was surrounded by three rows of electrified fence, if you got near it a guard from the tower shot you, if you were lucky enough to reach the fence, the fence got you. Either way, you died. As a way to “practice” for the tower guards, one of the prison guards would single out one prison and torment them, this time it was a boy, not much older that Barry. The guard took the boys hat off and threw it into the fence, he then told the boy to fetch the hat. The boy knew that if he didn’t go for the hat, he would be shot. If he did go for the hat, he would be shot by the tower guard or if he reached the fence be electrocuted. The boy ran for the hat and just before he made the fence, a shot rang out and the tower guard lowered his rifle.

A month later, June 6, 1943, Barry and his parents were returned to Westerbrook. The commandant was a man named Gemmecer. Overall, he wasn’t a bad man, not as cruel as most camp commandants. He allowed the prisoners outside for guarded hikes, there was no where to run the camp was in the middle of nowhere. He set up a boxing training school inside the camp, and watched the boys beat each other up. One day, Barry and is parents are called to the registration building ran by Fraulien Slottke, she would later become famous for her hobby of making lamp shades from human skin. Slottke asked for Barry’s American passport. When Sophie tells her that he doesn’t have one because he entered Holland on hers, Slottke tells them that is a shame. With the passport they would have been sent to a internment hotel in Southern France, instead they will be going to the exchange camp, Bergen-Belsen.

January 31, 1944 Barry and his parents are transported to Bergen-Belsen. Sophie is ill, sickness was common in the camps from a lack of proper hygiene facilities, so Barry and his father are allowed to be in the “hospital” car with her. There are 10 cots and 40 people shoved in the “hospital” car. By the time they arrive in Poland, they had lost four children, six women and three men on the journey. In the camps, the prisoners had no human rights. The guards could do anything that they pleased with them. Life was cruel and food was scarce. The camps Commandant Kramer had told his capos: “the more dead Jews you bring me, the better it is”. Life was cheap here, Jewish life even less.

Map drawn by Barry of Bergen Belsen

The allies landed in France on June 6, 1944 and a month confirmation of the invasion reached Bergen-Belsen. The guards dug foxholes outside the outside the camp incase the Americans, British or Russians reached them. In the fall of 1944 a group of Dutch girls arrived at the camp. Since adults over the age of 15 were forced into labor, kids were left on their own. Barry would often play with the girls, as he knew the came layout and had been there for awhile when the girls arrived. Years later Barry would learn that one of those girls was Anne Frank.

355 days after arriving at Bergen-Belsen, Barry and his parents were called to the commandants’ office. Fred was to ill to walk, so Barry and Sophie went alone. The commandant wanted to know where Fred was, quick thinking on Sophie’s part lead to her telling the commandant that he was on work detail and they could not reach him. If the commandant knew he was ill and unable to walk, it could mean an immediate death sentence. The commandant asked them if they would like to go back to America! Of course, they would! The commandant sensing sarcasm, told them that they were welcome to stay and “die with the rest of them”. Sophie and Barry begged him, they wanted to go back to America. He told them that they had ten minutes to pack and be ready. Barry and Sophie went to get Fred in the hospital, they hoped that knowing he was leaving would give him the strength to walk out of the camp. Unfortunately, it didn’t, Fred had dropped to 65 pounds and Barry would carry him out of the camp.

The family was deloused, as lice was rampant in the camp barracks, given an actual shower and walked to the exit camp. From there they were driven to the railroad station in Celle, the same station they arrived at just under a year ago, but this time there were no cattle cars to board it was a Red Cross train. It was the first time since they were deported that they felt heat, saw real lighting again and sat on nice soft seats, it felt like paradise. Aboard the train they were met by Fraulein Slottke again, however this time she was nice, polite and called herself their “travel agent”. She advised them that they were on their way to Switzerland and that they no longer had to wear the yellow star of David, she gave them scissors to cut it off with. Then a German soldier brought them food, cheese, butter and three full loaves of bread! Something that had not had in a very long time. That evening they were again brought food, a soup with real vegetables and meat in it. The train stopped in Hannover and Berlin, they were not allowed to leave the train, but they could see that the “Americans were doing their job” as the cities had been severely bombed. The train made no more stops until they reached the German-Swiss border.

When they reached Konstanz station they had to sign a card that stated: “I, the undersigned, do solemnly swear, that I will never pick up any weapons against the Germans, nor help to produce them in factories”. Once they signed, they were lined up and counted on the German side of the station, they were given American flags to pin to their clothes (which caused nasty looks from the Hitler Youth on the platform). The exchange was five German POW’s for each American. As they walked to the Swiss side, the Germans walked to the German side and finally the Spanjaard family was free!

The Red Cross and Swiss military put them on a train that was loaded with food, sweets and proper medical attention. Barry’s father Fred had gotten dysentery from eating so much food after being starved for such a long time, and that combined with his illnesses from the camp caused the Red Cross to send him to the hospital when they arrived in Switzerland. The family waited a few days while the American consul sorted out their travel papers and passports into the United States, however on January 29, 1945 Fred Spanjaard passed away. Fred was to be buried the following day and Barry and Sophie had obtained permission from the consul to attend his funeral, however the morning of the funeral the consul had all former prisoners board a train for Southern France. The consul was not willing to allow anyone to stay behind, so Barry and his mother missed his fathers’ funeral. After traveling through Switzerland and into Southern France, the Americans had booked passage for them on board a Swedish ship bound for America.

After being gone from America for fifteen years on February 21, 1945 it was announced over the ships PA system that they were now entering New York Harbor. They were free and ready to start life anew.

Hearing Barry’s story forever changed my life. I learned to look beyond the outside of a person to see their heart. I learned that I had a lot to learn and I needed to explore and learn about other religions, cultures and lifestyles. I was fortunate to count Barry as a friend until he passed away in the late 90’s. We had not talked for years, but when I contacted him for copies of his book, he remembered me. When he passed his wife, Bunny, sent me the last copy of his book that he had autographed before his death. To honor him and keep his story alive, I tell it to everyone I meet.

Footnote:

Barry’s book, Don’t Fence Me In, is available from Amazon. Barry’s Book on Amazon

1983 Copy of Barry’s book.
1998 Copy of Barry’s book.

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