Before the war ERIKA VAN HESTEREN's parents were friends with Tina's mother. Now they were reduced to hiding in an Amsterdam attic, with food brought to them every day, like Anne Frank's family. Erika's father was the "big Jewish businessman" Tina spoke of who sent her to prevail upon Herman Goering's friend to release Bram Pais from jail. When living on her own became untenable, Erika was taken in by Tina and her mother, where she remained for a year. Throughout her stay Tina helped Erika maintain contact with her parents.
Among the dangers of protecting Jews from the Gestapo was the difficult job of finding proper medical attention when necessary. As Erika's back condition worsened while she was staying in their house, Tina managed arrangements for her to have an illegal hospital operation.
TINA STROBOS: Erika Van Hesteren was part of an underground group I was afraid of--the Soldiers of Orange. She had been caught in a house where they were making bombs. Her boyfriend, her brother-in-law, her boyfriend's brother, everybody was shot to death, except her. Why? Because her Sachbearbeiter, who was still a young man, and a protege of Himmler, fell in love with her. He dyed her hair blond and set her up in an apartment for himself. He was hoping to enlist her services as a counterspy and she went along with him. She was 17 and scared to death. All her best friends were shot. She was hardly in a position to say no, so she was no hero in that sense, but as far as I know she didn't betray anybody. She contacted the underground and told them the true story. They began feeding her information to bring back to her Gestapo friend, so that she could keep up the game. It was in their interest too.
But she became terribly ill. She started having severe backaches and just couldn't take it any longer. It's odd; when she was arrested in the summer of '44, she had been wearing sandals and a summer dress. She escaped in December, and for some crazy reason she was wearing the same dress and sandals. She had a kind of superstitious idea that she should not take anything her Gestapo friend had given her. Then she was brought to us and we gave her winter clothes.
She arrived in our house a sick little girl, bedridden. She was, of course, a dangerous person who was sought by the Gestapo. After a year, I was able to get her into a hospital under a false name with good papers, where she was able to have an operation on her spinal disc--a laminectomy and fusion. The Catholic hospital was very good to us, because anyone could see she was a Jewish-looking girl. They were doing these things for sick people who were in hiding. They delivered babies too. I visited her regularly during the two months she was recovering in the hospital, until the end of the war. Fortunately, she was the only one in our house who became sick.
THE LAST YEAR: We lived under such terrible strain during the war, but then practically everything we did was punishable by death: listening to the radio--which we did faithfully, even buying potatoes. If they wanted to, the Gestapo could kill you for that. They usually didn't because people were really hungry. The Germans took everything that last winter, after D-day. They simply emptied out the north of Holland. Below the Rhine it was liberated. They attempted to cross the Rhine at Arnhem in the fall of '44, but it failed, and after that we were totally isolated. Fortunately, no more transports could get to Germany, so the Jews in hiding were relatively safe after that, but they did take all our food, all our cars, all our factories. They dismantled everything. It was as if a plague of locusts had descended upon us.
That last winter there were no more cats in Amsterdam. People ate them. Before the war our maid's family were big importers and exporters, using the Rhine boats for transport. Now, when everything in Holland was being sent to Germany on these boats, her family was surviving by stealing things from them to sell on the black market. That's how we managed to get fairly well fed. Fairly well. Mostly we ate potatoes. But occasionally we had smoked eel, or a box of biscuits, or perhaps cookies or a bottle of Dutch gin.
We had heat in only one room that winter. Just a little fire in a can about the size of a two pound coffee tin, that was our stove. Everybody would congregate in this one room; it was tolerable. On top of the little stove, we always kept a kettle boiling with water and sugar beets. We could still get sugar beets, although there was very little sugar in them, mostly they were fiber. We ground them up in a meat grinder and then boiled them to get the sugary water. Every house in Amsterdam smelled of sugar beets. I still can't stand the smell.
I tried to study every day, and then too, I was spending time at the hospital as an intern. It was wonderful to be there, a lot better than running around to all the people in hiding. You have to be a little bit selfish and look after yourself, too, otherwise you just die inside, you burn out. There's just so much you can do for other people.
My room where I studied was cold, so to stay warm I would put on a fur coat and gloves and go under the blankets with a hot water bottle. We used empty Dutch gin bottles, made from earthernware; they made good hot water bottles.
One day I came into the living room to refill my bottle from the boiling kettle. As I was empying the old water into the sink, I noticed something smelled differently. I stood there absolutely frozen with horror. It was gin! Just then, Lion Nordheim walk ed into the room, saw what had happened, and started to laugh. He laughed and laughed, and pretty soon everybody came to look, and they all burst out laughing. As it turned out, Lion and my mother had paid sixty dollars for that gin, and had planned to get drunk to cheer themselves up. A fortune! We laughed a lot in those dark days. It's very strange.
I've been asked in recent years why my mother and I did these things. Historically, how did I grow up to be a rescuer? I never asked myself that question because it was a natural assumption for both of us that we would do this. We never questioned the premise, as if this was a tradition in the family. Well, it was. For us it was the right thing to do. We never argued with my grandmother about it. We just assumed she would do this. I never asked my mother if she thought it was all right to bring these people in the house. She once said to me, "You know, this could get us killed." I said, "Yeah, I realize that." That was the only sort of hard discussion we had on whether it was dangerous or not, or whether you should do it or not. You should do it. That it was dangerous, we really didn't want to focus on that.
Religion was not a factor. We're atheists. My mother was a very militant atheist. My grandmother was even more militant. My parents were in the socialist movement. Most of my generation went to the university, but my parents didn't. My parents knew and spoke four languages fluently, but all from night school studies and traveling.
My mother and I, we didn't talk about these things until much later. When my children were small I couldn't tolerate even thinking about it. I had to give my energy to becoming a doctor in a new country, finding a home, finding schools for the children. I couldn't deviate from those goals and I couldn't afford to dwell on those wrenching experiences. They were survival techniques. But now it's not so bad anymore. I can distance myself from it. In the beginning, when I was first interviewed about this, I couldn't sleep all night. I had recurring nightmares like I used to have, about being arrested, about Nazis persecuting and following me.
I remember May 1945, when we were waiting for the Canadian Army to come and liberate us in Holland. We knew the war was won but the Canadian Army had not reached us yet. The rumor was they would come from the east, from Germany. Day and night people were lined up, waiting at the eastern entrance of Amsterdam to pass the word. I had gone to take my exam in pharmacology, underground, at my professor's house, which was all the way in the easternmost part of town, only two blocks away from the road they were supposed to be coming on. My professor said right as I entered, "You know this could be the day. They're expected to come any time." Sure enough, right in the middle of the exam his wife shouted out, "They're coming! They're coming!" and we all ran out of the house.
Everybody ran to the road. We heard the tanks rolling in. Thousands of people were standing there, at the entrance of the city. We stood there and cried and waved, and a lot of people had flags and handkerchiefs. Some people climbed on the tanks. You've seen the pictures. You have no idea how the pent up fears and emotions suddenly fall off you. That moment. It was maybe the most wonderful moment you ever have in your life, except giving birth to a child.
My daughter and I went to Amsterdam for a visit in April 1986. As we were passing by my old house, I began telling her about this house where I was born, where my grandparents had lived, where we had hidden people. I asked her if she'd like to see it.
We saw a woman going inside, so I knocked on the window next to the door. I said, "I used to live in this house during the war. I would like to show it to my daughter," and the woman invited us in.
I told her, "I was here once before with my husband, looking for the hiding place for the Jews, but we couldn't find it. Do you know where it is?"
"Of course I know. We found it when we made the bedroom in the attic. By the way, there is a portrait sculpture of your head--a bust--here. Did you know about it? I recognized your face when you knocked just now. It's a beautiful Jugendstil sculpture."
"I knew it was there but it was too heavy for me and my husband to carry home."
Immediately, my daughter said, "I'll carry it."
"I'm sorry to say that the nose is broken. I've always wanted to fix it. I'm a sculptor and know how, but I've never gotten around to it." A wonderful woman. Personally, I never liked the thing; it was too idealized. So my daughter carried it all the way home, and now it is in my living room.
I had forgotten everything. I had forgotten all about the attic. I'm sure it was because I didn't want to remember all those things. So you just close the whole attic of your memory. Now I can remember it again.
Tina Strobos gave the preceding interview at her home in Larchmont, New York, 1985