In February 2020, the Dutch publisher Verbum released the book ‘Diamantkinderen‘ (English version: “The Rescue of Belsen’s Diamond Children“). It is about Jewish children in Bergen-Belsen. They were the children of the so-called Diamond Jews who were sent as family from Westerbork1 to Bergen-Belsen. The mothers of these children were the women transported from Bergen-Belsen to Beendorf early December 1944 and arrived in Hamburg April 1945 after a terrible journey.2 Beendorf3 was a satellite camp of Neuengamme concentration camp and in Hamburg these women arrived again in satellite camps of Neuengamme. These women had the luck to get from there to Sweden just before the end of the war. That is, those remaining. Of the original 108 women, 65 arrived in Sweden and three more died there. Their children who stayed behind in Bergen-Belsen fared better in terms of survival. Of the 46 children who stayed behind, a boy of 14 months died in January 1945 and a girl of 11 died shortly after the liberation. The book was published after the exhibition in Bergen-Belsen “Kindern im KZ” (Children in concentration camp) by Diana Gring. This exhibition is now on display at the Neuengamme Memorial until 26th June 2022. Apparently in its original form from 2018, without reference to the book.
Bettine Siertsema’s book describes, apart from the history of the children, the sad story of the Dutch Diamond Jews during German occupation in the Second World War. Initially the Diamond Jews evaded deportation. The Germans were to set up a diamond workshop to obtain foreign currency and industrial diamonds by use of the skills of the Diamond Jews. It did not work. As the plans of the Germans were not realized, the group became gradually smaller and victim of exploitation. Assuming that the Diamond Jews were hiding diamonds, they had to pay for every privilege. The Diamond Jews (with their wives and children) went initially to both camp Westerbork and camp Vught4.
Originally, the diamond processing was to take place in camp Vught. After deciding to have the processing in Bergen-Belsen, the remaining Diamond Jews were sent there in a period from March to September 1944. In Bergen-Belsen the Diamond Jews initially had a privileged status. They lived with their families in their own barracks and in order to not damage their hands, did not have to work awaiting the start of the diamond processing. In early December 1944, however, it was all over. The diamond project neither got off the ground in Bergen-Belsen. The men went to Sachsenhausen5, where only a few survived. The women mentioned above, assuming the children would come along, went to Beendorf. A separate transport list was drawn up for the children and they were also loaded into trucks, but after a round trip, they returned to the camp and were left in front of a women’s barracks.
The intention with the children is not clear. Beendorf could not take them. Siertsema writes that they were supposed to die, but that the drivers did not have the heart to do it. Left alone in front of the women barrack, the women eventually took the children in their barrack. This is actually the beginning of the story “Luba and the Diamond Children”. Luba Tryszynska was a young Polish Jewess who had come from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen. She became the lead in the rescue of the children and the title “Angel of Belsen”. Luba was deported to Auschwitz with her husband, child and further family members. Apparently, she was the only one to survive. On arrival at Auschwitz, her mother-in-law had snatched her child from her arms because she understood that mothers with children did not stand a chance. In Bergen-Belsen Luba was assisted by Hermina Schwarz and Ada Bimko in taking care of the children.
Bettine Siertsema used many reports and interviews of the children and met some of them. The interviews are quoted in original wording and subsequently compared and commented. Differences in the perceptions of the witnesses are apparent. Among other things, in their affection towards the three women. In general, they see Luba as the courageous and successful organiser and Hermina as the mother figure. However, Luba felt so close to the Diamond Children that her own children felt set aside. She had immigrated to the USA and married for the second time. The description of the different memories and perceptions is a fascinating part of the book. The worst experiences, of which there were plenty, are also remembered by the youngest. With the more general events, the memories vary. One of the group when contacted for a reunion even claimed never to have been in Bergen-Belsen. The 1995 reunion in Amsterdam was a big event. Luba came to Amsterdam and received a medal.6 The reunion influenced the memory.
Siertsema sees a difference between the testimonies from before and after the reunion. Children developed their own strategy in the concentration camp. It seems that family solidarity played a role for the Diamond children. Separated from their parents, they still had brothers or sisters and cousins in the camp. Touching is the care the then 13-year-old Gerrit Cohensius took of his three-year-old nephew Gerrie van Praag. A large part of the book deals with life after the camp. At the time of liberation, the children had hardly any memory of life before the camp. This created serious problems by adapting to a normal environment. The older ones had missed three years of school. Put back in lower classes, they felt awkward a head taller than the other children. Some of them soon closed the gap while others never fully made up the loss. The horror of the camp and family losses remained forever in their memory. Rooted camp habits, such as sleeping with the shoes under the pillow, are also an issue in the book. According to the book, the Diamond children managed their later life remarkably well.
The book “The Diamond Children” is about 46 children. The transport list No. 1 of 5th December 1944 contains 57 names. Of these, 46 were born after 1929, 10 after 1927 and 1 was born 1914. Of the 11 born before 1929, Greta Aandagt died 2nd May 1945 in Bergen-Belsen and Schoontje Prinz is reported missing. Of the Aandagt family only the mother Cornelia survived, her husband Isac and son Jonas died in Sachsenhausen February 1945. Cornelia Aandagt arrived in Malmö on 4th May 1945. According to Siertsema, of the 46, two died in Bergen-Belsen and two after their return. Overall, the Diamond children were lucky. The exhibition “Kinder im KZ” from the Bergen-Belsen memorial shows a gloomier picture. This exhibition shows little of the Diamond children but more of the children as a whole in Bergen-Belsen. Of the Diamond Children, only Hetty Verolme-Werkendam is ample present and there is the photograph taken by a British soldier in Bergen-Belsen of eleven-year-old Helene Rabbie, shortly before she died there. There is a list with (incomplete) names of 50 “unidentified” children who were sent from Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen 13th September 1944. From there they went to Theresienstadt November 1944 and liberated 5th May 1945. In 2001, the survivors, now spread all over the world, set up a foundation.
1 Interment camp for Jews in the Netherlands
3 Near Helmstedt on the road from Hannover to Berlin
4 Concentration camp in the south of the Netherlands
5 Concentration camp north of Berlin
6 From the hand of Deputy Mayor Edgar Peer. It was supposed to be Queen Beatrix, but she, like the mayor Patijn could not attend that day.