Bram Pais Story (Conclusion)

BRAM PAIS: At first the Jews were scattered all over Amsterdam. Then the Germans concentrated a very large number of them into a de facto ghetto in the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, because it was easier to round them up when they all lived crowded together in one area. My parents did not move into this ghetto, but my sister and her husband Hermann did. They had no choice.

Photograph of Nazi Sign Marking Old Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam as the Ghetto One day they got picked up by the Gestapo, but were let go again. I was already in hiding at the time. Talking it over with Tineke, she said, "We will find them a place." So I sent a message for my sister to come to my parents' house on a certain night, and I came out of hiding to meet her. I said, "Look, this can't go on. You and Herman have got to go into hiding. Tineke has found a place and in a few days we will get you out of here." But she wouldn't go. Her husband was a business man who traveled a lot, selling things. "I can't," she said. "Hermann can't do it. He will go crazy. We're young and strong. We will work for the Germans."

That was an indelible moment in my life. I couldn't tell her, "You are going to a camp and will die in the gas chamber." We didn't even know anything about gas chambers. We just didn't know about that. But my instinct was, you must not go where the Germans can put their hands on you. It was a substantial belief. So I was in this quandry. She was insisting, "I can't go in hiding because my husband won't do it and I must stay with him." I didn't know what to say. I should have said, "So phia, I don't care what anybody says. Don't do it!" I remember that evening well. It was the last time I talked to her. They picked her up soon after, and she never came back.

FAMILY: I would say my childhood was a good and happy one, in a typical middle class environment, not poor, not rich. Everything was fine. I never had any problems. I was awfully bright, a miserably bright kid in school. I was physically healthy. I swam. I had friends. I went to the beach. I had nothing in particular to be afraid of. The Dutch formed such a solid society, with everything in its proper place.

My father was first a school teacher. After the war he became the secretary of the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam. I'm Sephardic, of which I am, like all Sephardis, immensely proud, even though I am not particularly practicing as a Jew.

My father was a man who felt a very deep solidarity with the Jewish faith. One day he said to my mother, "If they pick me up, I will go, because I want to share the fate of the Jews," to which my mother answered, "All right, go. Share the fate of the Jews. But, I'll stay here!" My mother was a very determined lady, so of course he didn't go. They went into hiding and made it safely through the war.

They were living on a farm somewhere outside Amsterdam, a safe place Tineke helped them find, but I didn't know where, and they didn't know where I was either. One of the absolute rules I learned in the war was, don't know anything you don't need to know, because if you ever get caught they will get it out of you. But Tineke knew where we both were, and she was our courier, bringing my letters, I think on her bicycle, to my parents. Of course we couldn't use the mail because we didn't know the addresses. It was a very special thing she did for us.

Through this correspondance system I taught my father English while we were in hiding. We each had a copy of the same little book. He would do the exercises and send them over to me, perhaps once a week or so, and I would correct them and send them back to him.

My parents were of fairly modest means but we had one tremendous asset. My father was a stamp collector, and stamps, during the war, were an extremely important investment, as valuable as diamonds, because you could make them safe from fire and bombing. So now and then we would sell something from my father's collection to keep us going.

I knew all the time I was going to get through the war. It was completely irrational, a silly idea, but I was not going to lie down and get myself killed. I was going to get out of it.

ARREST AND IMPRISONMENT: My last hiding place was an apartment in Amsterdam where I was living independently with my friend Lion Nordheim, his wife Jeanne, and her sister Tirtsah, Tineke's good friend. The girls were blond with blue eyes, the whole family was very Aryan looking. So they could go out, go shopping, all those things. But Lion and I were staying strictly at home.

Photograph of Tirtsah Van Amerongen, Bram Pais, Lion Nordheim
In some way or other, we were betrayed. Somebody knew. One day the Germans caught us and we went to prison. That was late; I think it was March '45. How they found us I do not know. I have always been too scared to find out. Somebody may have followed the girls, or may have thought they were Jews after all, because superficially they didn't look Jewish, but if you knew a little bit, then there was no question about it. But what actually happened, I do not know.

I was lucky because the same week that I went to prison the Americans crossed the Rhine and cut off the northern part of Holland, so there was no longer any possibility of being shipped out to a concentration camp. The rail lines were cut. So I was in prison in Amsterdam during the very last days of the war. We were sent to the men's prison and the girls were sent to a women's prison in a different place.

But first we were taken to the Gestapo headquarters for interrogation. Alone in a room with this man, he said, "Well, we don't have that much against you. If you just tell us all the things you know, we will treat you well." He was pacing up and down. I didn't know how they caught us. I have never known. And I did not know what they knew of our involvement with the Zionist youth organization. I didn't quite know what to expect. They were convinced that we had some connection with the resistance movement. They always asked, automatically, are you Jewish? "Yes," I said. So this man interrogating me is walking up and down the room. Then he walks by me and suddenly strikes me in the face! Now that is an experience I can never forget. Imagine that you are sitting, having a civil conversation, and suddenly the other person just hits you, but then keeps on talking as if nothing happened! It's not such a terrible physical hurt. It's the shock. They had these techniques to throw you completely off balance. They interrogated me again. For thirty-six hours they gave me no food. Normally I'm a very healthy eater and cannot live for more than three hours without food. But for those thirty-six hours I was never hungry.

Never in my whole life was I more afraid than on the day I went into that prison. The fear was like a physical pain. I couldn't tell you where it hurt, but I remember everything hurting. My body hurt with the pain of fear. They hadn't tortured me or anything, but it was such an incredibly intense fear I had.

Jeanne and Tirtsah were let go. I was also let go, but Lion was shot, just ten days before the war was over. There were several reasons. First of all, I'm Jewish looking, but Lion had almost the caricature of a Jewish look: the nose, the mouth. If you were a real anti-Semite you would pick on him. Secondly, he was an extremely frightened person. When you are very scared in the face of an animal, the animal smells it, he knows it instinctively. I was scared out of my wits but somehow I kept myself looking unafraid. I cannot prove it, but I'm sure it made some difference. There is something in this style of fear, a certain faith you have to have. So I had this. Tina had it too. We would not lie down, we wouldn't take it. It was completely irrational. I could have been shot many times. I could have been caught any number of times. I think to have that sort of faith helps keep your mind sane.

But lastly, and most importantly, on the day that we were caught Lion and I had been talking about writing a memorandum on the fate of the Jewish war children living in hiding or among Dutch families. The question was about their legal position if their parents didn't come back after the war. Should they be brought back to the Jewish community, stay where they were, or be given a choice? All these kinds of things needed to be discussed. On the same day that we were caught a Dutch gentleman living in London who was working on this problem, had come to consult with us about it, as we were the representatives of the Zionist youth organization. He was a well known figure who later became a cabinet member in the Dutch government.

Lion, who had been taking notes of the discussion, put these papers in his jacket pocket when we took a break for lunch. When the Germans caught us they discovered his notes. If those papers had been in my pocket I would never have lived to be seventy. I have led a strange life, a set of complete coincidences.

Tineke told me how she went to the Gestapo to try to get me out, but how that happened I do not quite know. I was in prison for over a month, and then one day they let me go.

It was only a few days before the war was over. I was standing outside the prison door. I knew the war was nearly over. What was I going to do? I decided to go to Tineke's house. I will not forget it, ever. I rang the bell. They didn't know I was out of prison. When they saw it was me--free--they just pampered me like a baby. They brought me inside the house. They cuddled me. They put me in a chair, and made me eat.

For several months I was incapable of feeling anything, completely inaccessible to my feelings--I did not laugh, I did not cry. The second thing was this amazing trauma, where I forgot the names of everyone I knew. That was very strange. I knew who everyone was: this was a friend from high school, this was my cousin, but I had to relearn every name. It was quite striking, that very strong reaction that I had. They have a name for it, I think: post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Photograph of Nazi Occupation Sign: Baarn, Utrecht Province, Jews Not Allowed

I don't sit here conquering great resistance to talk. It is not my way. I don't suffer the reliving of these memories with tremendous pain. It's very odd, but it's finished for me. That, of course, is never quite true. It isn't finished. I am like all of my generation; we are marked people. But, I don't suffer; I can talk to you about it. Most of my family was killed. All my father's and mother's sisters and brothers and their children, my sister and my old grandfather, they're all gone. Four out of five Jews in Holland never came back after the war--eighty percent.

THE WAR ENDS: Holland's liberation came just a few days after I was released from prison. I was in Tineke's home. We had seen so many planes flying over. So many times in the daytime, we had heard the sirens, and at night, too, with air alarms and anti-aircraft guns going like mad. And now those American planes were there, dropping food. Imagine, a whole city being on the rooftops of houses, and all of us crying. We were so incredibly hungry. The great moment of liberation was the planes coming and dropping food. Then came the Canadian troops. All the women went mad. From every walk of life--the finest families and the not-so-fine families--it seemed like all the women got laid by the Canadians. The Dutch men, we were worn out! It was unbelievable. I remember that. I have no statistics, but it was truly a phenomenon.

I sit here listening to myself, being sort of a split personality, talking casually about all these people who got killed, as easily as saying the Danes lost against Spain in the World Cup. It's very odd. I have certain pictures in my mind about the situation that are so incredible, when I listen to myself I can't believe I'm telling the truth. How can I tell the truth about those times while I am sitting in this beautiful room with lovely people. It makes no sense. But I swear to you that I'm telling the truth, every word. It was such an incredibly strange time.

The thing which is very hard to understand is that, whatever the level of danger or terror may have been, there were good days and bad days. Even when I was in prison, there were days I had a great time, and there were days that were terrifying. It is never all bad; at any level of human existence you find there are peaks and valleys.

It's a very funny thing to say but I think for Tineke, her experience is more undigested than mine is for me. It has always struck me how for her it's almost as if the experience was more deep than it was for me. It's a very deep thing in her life. She struggles with it. I sometimes think that I am a little bit strange, that I can talk about it as if I'm talking about the weather.

I feel very strongly about Tineke's involvement. That family was simply glorious. The memory I have about them is sort of an overall memory, not a series of anecdotes. There is so much I have lost. I wish I had kept a diary. In fact, I did keep a diary during the war, and it was a very good diary, but then a little bit after the war was over, in a melancholy moment, I threw it away. I wanted to be done with it.

We have a feeling, Tineke and I, we have ties that will never break. We have this shortcut for telling each other things that people with a common experience have. You don't have to explain. You move right in. Everytime we get together, once in a year or two, I find that I am so happy to see her. We spend a couple of hours talking, having tea or a drink, and then we move on in our respective lives again. We will never lose each other.

There were many people in Amsterdam who helped one way or another, but I would say there were very few who had the single-minded dedication of Tineke and her mother. I wouldn't say that they were unique. I simply do not know, but I don't think there would be very many like them.

Abraham Pais gave the preceding interview at his home in Taagense, Denmark, 1986. He passed away on July 28, 2000.

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